I never wanted to meet Annette Starr Hudson. When my sister said she‘d met an old woman at a convenience store whom she thought I might find interesting — you know, as a story — I politely but firmly resisted introductions. I was busy. Nearly everybody in attention-deprived South-Central suffers from 15-minute disease; anybody with an inkling of a good idea wants to be in the newspaper. But my sister gently insisted, maintaining that Annette had been a real somebody in her youth, a pioneer of sorts. She took pains to tell me that Annette had a wall full of plaques at home and too many public commendations to count. I sighed; I had a commendation too, from a city councilperson who didn’t speak to me anymore. Everybody black over the age of 60 has been commended on a plaque for something.
But Annette did have an edge over all the others because of appeals from my older sister, Kelly. Kelly and I are close in age and get along well, but we were never much aligned in interests or inclinations — she‘s a single mother keen on friends and social events, bubbly and accommodating sometimes to a fault; I’m a compulsive brooder who would often rather read than talk. I am more like my younger sister Heather, a lawyer with whom I share some intellectual quirks and a tendency to always deconstruct, rather than demur to, things as they are. Heather is an integral part of my work; Kelly tends to stay out of it. And yet Kelly was sufficiently compelled to offer up this old woman Annette more than once. At last I said okay. Kelly asked for so little.
Annette lived in a small apartment in a well-appointed senior complex on Adams Boulevard. It had greenery and walkways and laundry rooms and everything that people in the neighborhood lacked, especially seniors, and it had been built under the aegis of a prominent local church. Annette hated it; it was one of the first things she told me. ”Honey, I got to get out of here,“ she said minutes after I said hello on a Sunday. ”God. I used to have a real big place, so many nice things. This is nothing.“ Annette was smallish and cinnamon-colored and dressed in a tasteful but dramatic print robe. She had a gamine haircut (a wiglet now, she confessed) that had been her trademark all her adult life. Her walls were indeed lined with plaques, and her living-room tables were cluttered with framed photos of herself in evening gowns posing with Judy Garland, Duke Ellington, Tom Bradley. She had known a lot of famous people.
Part activist, part Zelig (she once worked as a Lena Horne look-alike for a modeling agency), part Bay Area diva, Annette had made a bit of history by founding the first known charm school for black teens, in mid-‘50s Oakland. (Before that, she had been the first black makeup artist in the Bay Area for Merle Norman Cosmetics.) She dubbed the school Annette’s Studio of Transformation, and she took the name to heart: Her students learned the art of comportment not only for each other‘s sake, but for the sake of a society that assumed they were too crude and undiscriminating to ever truly be middle class. Annette was light-skinned and knew better than most that such sentiment grew in direct proportion to skin shade, she would often say, with the discomfiting directness of another age, that she paid particular attention to ”the black ones.“
I didn’t dispute her. It struck me as cruelly ironic that black kids were studying social graces in a quest for the most rarefied sort of equality — which fork to use for a salad, how to ask the opposite sex out on a first date — while Little Rock and Emmett Till raged. But manners were clearly a metaphor for much of what black people did not have — good standing and high regard — and if the studio could not impart that, it could at least help articulate a desire for it, with speech lessons, posture instruction and something called a ”movement choir.“ Annette‘s reputation was such that an Arkansas chapter of the NAACP had asked her to consider maybe tending to the black Little Rock students who were doubtless experiencing more than the normal share of teenage angst.
Success for her students generally meant marrying well or learning a trade, but as the ’50s abruptly gave way to the ‘60s, it expanded to include college degrees, activism and political appointments. But she took triumph in any form. She once showed me a newspaper clipping, a yellowed photo of a disabled black boy seated next to a canvas on the floor, painting with his feet — one of her students. ”Oh, honey,“ she said proudly, ”he was something else.“
Annette wanted attention, though not quite the journalistic kind — she’d had plenty of that. She had been married twice, widowed many years ago, and wanted a boyfriend. I had just gotten rid of mine, and she theorized that we could go in search of men together. I sensed she mostly wanted a new beginning in her life, to mark a new stage rather than concede to a final one — Annette was 80 — and a boyfriend would help matters. ”I just want somebody who isn‘t broke down, you know,“ she would tell me. ”Somebody nice, healthy. I ain’t dead yet.“ It would be nice, too, if he had means. She had a lifelong penchant for nice things instilled by the bourgeois expectations of the Creole class. (Once, when it was raining heavily and she claimed to have no food in the house, I came over to deliver shrimp from a nearby Beef Bowl. I thought I was heroic, but Annette let me know with a curled lip that she preferred shrimp that was bigger and more gourmet.) And she was frequently galled by the thought that the work she had been so passionate about had brought her some renown, but no riches.
When I met my future husband, we took Annette to lunch down in the Marina. I wanted her to meet him, and she had been wanting crab cakes. Afterward she said I was damn lucky to have found him. ”He has a good heart, honey,“ she said contentedly, a little knowingly, as if she‘d had a hand in our meeting. She came to our wedding and was more hopeful than ever she’d find somebody, reasonably certain that now that I had a husband with a wide circle of male friends, he could make a match. In the meantime she prevailed upon my husband, a high school teacher, to let her come to his class and ”speak to the kids“ because she said the world was as dire as she‘d ever seen it, and she wanted to minister to any bad feeling out there among the young people. My husband liked Annette and agreed, though he admittedly expected little from such a visit except the timeworn admonitions of an old woman. He told his students to be courteous. He didn’t need to.
Annette had no speeches, no coherent stories to tell or advice to dispense; she stood with her cane before the class and confessed that she had no idea what was wrong with people these days or what to think — did they? The students were startled to see an adult, an elderly one at that, not directing them but doing something quite opposite, laying bare vulnerability and an exasperation with the world that was almost adolescent. The students dropped their polite indifference and started giving their takes on the world‘s problems and their own; one girl, plain and overweight, broke into tears. ”It’s okay, honey,“ Annette cried sympathetically from her stool at the front of the room. ”Go ahead, let it out. I don‘t blame you a bit. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.“ She stayed another period, and worked similarly mundane magic. The distraught girl ended up calling her at home later.
Now Annette was terribly excited; here was the new beginning she sought. She wanted to take this act on the road, book regular gigs, launch a mobile School of Transformation for the millennium. But as her sense of destiny soared, her health took a dive. She didn‘t have a single disease, just too many conditions for one body to bear: diabetes, stroke aftermath, depression. She still longed for a male companion. She complained more vociferously about a stroke-stiffened hand and gripped my arm tighter as she walked fewer and fewer steps. Over the course of several months the cane gave way to a wheelchair, the wheelchair to bed, the bed to a curtained spot at a euphemistically named county health center that was really a hospice. For some reason I never quite understood, she lost the ability to speak; doctors said it was due to a diabetic shock. I surmised Annette didn’t have the energy, finally, to recuperate and put herself back in play. At the end she was thin, nearly bald and terrified of what was coming next — I don‘t want to be here, her eyes said, and This is not it at all. She wasn’t done. I could say nothing back except, Yes, I know. Not comforting but true, and I think Annette, for all her espousing of the good life, preferred the truth. She died last month on a brilliant day. I miss her cracked voice, her diatribes, her battered but unburied plans for the future. I suppose I never wrote her story because, as she demonstrated, there were always better things to do.