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Still Dressed Up With Someplace To Go 

Ma Bessie at 114

Thursday, Jul 31 2003
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Illustration by Shino Arihara

One recent Saturday night, my friend Bernice invited me to accompany her to a birthday party for Ma Bessie, a quasi-mythic figure who lived somewhere in the Crenshaw area and, according to Bernice, had just turned 114. This was amazing enough to pique my reporter’s curiosity and to nullify the uneasiness about aging that surfaced between Bernice and me from time to time, which was not about acquiring wrinkles and losing battles with gravity — that was small stuff — but about the sheer psychological weight of realizing that one day we were going to wake up and not be here anymore. The birthday party would probably be a sedate affair, although one of the few things I knew about Ma Bessie was that at her last party she had grasped the hand of a man some 70 years her junior and didn’t let it go for a good while. That she was living on borrowed time and then some but indulging in flirtations like she had all the idle moments in the world heartened both of us; if we were lucky, we’d get old like that.

A hot day was slowly relinquishing itself to the cool of evening when we drove to the flatlands of West Adams, to a smallish frame house that had a steep ramp connecting the sidewalk to the front door. Ma Bessie was in the living room in a kind of recumbent wheelchair, covered in light blankets. Her spare white hair was neatly combed back, her eyes were milky and distant, her cheeks drawn tightly together in deep, even grooves running down either side of her face like rivers. She was clearly between this world and some other; I felt the force of her years in the room, and was pleasantly awed.

This was not the big party I envisioned, though it was encompassing in a way I didn’t expect. The guests were me and Bernice; Bernice’s friend Hyacinth, who was roughly my age; Hyacinth’s friend Carl and her teenage daughter Jasmine; several of Ma Bessie’s relatives; a neighbor; a girl of about 14 who had just graduated from middle school; and a young man of about 20 attending a nearby community college. On the coffee table was a clutch of helium balloons and a small carrot cake. It was hard to tell if Ma Bessie knew she was at her own party because she didn’t see well, didn’t hear well and only spoke when spoken to, and then briefly and somewhat unintelligibly (Bernice said with some concern that she was far more talkative last year, and in years before). We all sat around chatting but keeping an expectant eye on Ma Bessie. Someone said that perhaps she wanted to go for a walk, to which someone else firmly replied that Ma Bessie almost never left the house these days. But when the suggestion was shouted directly into her ear, and when she understood that Carl was going to take her out, Ma Bessie suddenly broke from her netherworldly languor and smiled agreement.

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Bernice and I followed Bessie and her male escort out to the lawn, sensing that whatever happened from this point in her life probably qualified as remarkable. Another guest had pulled into the driveway in a shiny van, and was getting out of it. It was a woman in her fifties, strikingly pretty with a tan face, lively eyes, lips colored red and graying hair that curled offhandedly to her shoulders. She was paraplegic; Bernice told me later she’d been in an awful car accident around 30 years ago. After all that time this woman had not yet resigned herself to the wheelchair, and likely never would. She wore a fitted black tank, black nylon pants and leather wrist straps that gave her the air of a rocker; her smile was gracious but had an edge of sly intelligence, and she constantly straightened her back as if she were on the verge of getting up. With her at this end of the block and Ma Bessie headed to the other, I was encouraged almost to the point of giddiness. Old age and bad accidents were not abstract tragedy but company, close as anything else in life and no closer to death than Bernice and I were at the moment, waiting on Saturday for Ma Bessie to come back and for the early summer night to fall completely. We were all here in some condition or another and bound by the same starry precepts of love, fulfillment and having a good time until somebody told us otherwise.

 

Bernice is in her early 60s now and generously gray, but she has the bottomless appeal and sunny moxie of the beauty queen she was and still is at heart. She played a big field, never married and is looking faithfully for a guy. I’m 20 years younger and, though I found a guy a few years ago and married him, I like to think I share Bernice’s mix of restlessness and hopefulness that was unique among black women of her generation and that is more common, but hardly standard, among mine. We have talked many times over the years about growing old, but we talk about it with more wonder than distress; Bernice is a regular churchgoer and I’m most often an atheist who nonetheless believes in spirituality and generally admires the trappings of spirituality offered by various faiths, beginning with Bernice’s. But the talks Bernice and I have had through the years over late-breakfast coffee have been mostly about romance, not death, and senior citizens who came up in conversation were all lively exceptions to the rule of decay — an elderly couple living down the street who still dated, Bernice’s mother who went bowling on her 80th birthday, Ma Bessie. These were our earthly heroes, people who hadn’t stopped checking their hair in a mirror before going out, living as though death were merely another date they didn’t have to keep, but one that would keep itself just fine. It’s a belief to which we both ascribe and always have, even in the darkest personal moments of our 15-year friendship.

Love and romance were a big part of it. Musing about men, even the lousy ones or the ones who didn’t work out, strengthened our tacit assumption that we were female forces to be reckoned with and always would be. This was true whether men were actually with us or not, onboard or broken up with. Their presence glorified but never defined us; we have been our own better natures and guiding spirits, which we have proved regularly in our coffee talks and shopping excursions and standing dates for dinner if nothing as appealing was on the table. Very often there wasn’t.

Ma Bessie came back content but more than a bit tuckered out. Carl said she’d complained of being cold; we went back indoors for the party. The birthday candles were blown out while Ma Bessie looked on in amusement, and then it was time for gifts. Hyacinth presented Ma Bessie with a pair of dangly earrings shaped like angels, and with great fanfare put them on. We clapped — they looked surprisingly elegant — and Ma Bessie smiled broadly. Bernice was next. She deliberately unwrapped some girly bath products and a brightly colored scarf printed with Christian words of encouragement and inspiration. She draped it around Ma Bessie’s shoulders, and we all clapped again. Hyacinth was so pleased with the ensemble of scarf and earrings that she sprang up and applied a bit of lipstick — red — to Ma Bessie’s lips to complete the effect, then called for pictures to be taken.

I was the last to give a gift, and suddenly felt shy. I’d gotten her some body lotion that seemed logical enough in the store — the foolproof present one woman gives another whom she doesn’t really know, but with whom she wants to express a certain intimacy. On impulse I opened my card to read it (it featured a daring photo of Josephine Baker, whom I figured to be a rough contemporary of Ma Bessie’s). I stooped down and spoke loudly into her ear like everyone else had. I pressed Ma Bessie’s hand as I spoke and felt from her a tremor of understanding, or thanks, or impatience — she was grateful but probably would have preferred Carl to me.

On the way home, Bernice sighed and said rather solemnly that she realized it was time to make a life change. “My hair,” she announced, “stuck out in the picture. Did you see? I need a new style. Time to move on.” I agreed, and we promptly began to discuss what the next phase of fabulous might look like.

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