My mama had big plans for my family. She believed that moving to America would give us all a better life. I didn’t really understand it when I was little. I liked our life in the Caribbean just fine, but she insisted it’d be a better life. We wouldn’t struggle for money so much and no more devastating storms. None of my other family would listen. They just called her crazy.
When I was about ten years old though, my mom took my dad and I onto a boat and traveled to New York in 1872. On the ride there, she explained to me how they had a war over there just to make sure everyone was free and equal. Of course, no ten year-old would really fully understand that. I don’t think Mama really did too.
I’d be lying if I said that the boat trip didn’t get me excited to be somewhere new though. Yeah, going to a new place was scary, but it was also so cool when you’re a kid. Mama described America as this place where all our worries would melt away. She and Papa would get jobs without problem and there’d be plenty of money to go around. Mama might’ve believed a bit too hard in the American Dream.
The first thing that discouraged us was the death of Papa. I don’t know what sickness took him, but I know it sure didn’t slow down Mama. She was affected by his death, but I think it was just to work harder to give me that better life she wanted us all to have. But as we approached the New York harbor, I realized that I had no clue what was next now.
* * * * *
“Maxine, get your things together,” Mama scolded. “What happened to leaving early?”
“Sorry, Mama,” I said, scurrying to grab my things. “I lost track of time.”
“Lose track of time when we have some to spare,” she sassed, waving her feather duster in my face and making me sneeze.
I gathered some art supplies and grabbed my teddy bear before meeting Mama at the door. When we arrived in New York we couldn’t get a very great place to live, and work was hard to find. Luckily, Mama was always really lucky and got a job as a maid for a really rich family. Even then, there wasn’t a lot of money to go around. My own overalls and shirt were tattered and worn down, and I didn’t have any formal clothes. The fanciest thing in the house was Mama’s maid uniform.
I could tell Mama didn’t like her job either. The man of the house was usually gone all day, so usually his wife, Mrs. Preston, told Mama what to do all day. And she treated Mama so horribly I don’t know how she took it. I would’ve slapped her and walked away a while ago if I was in her place. They had these two kids my age, who were so fun to play with when Mrs. Preston didn’t break us up.
“Maxie, Maxie, you can’t be late all the time,” Mama continued scolding as we walked out the door and down the street. “Men over here don’t like girls who don’t do what they’re told in a rush.”
“I don’t want a man like that,” I huffed. “There were boys back home who didn’t expect that from me.”
“Well, you’re going to marry a man, not a boy,” she corrected. “And stop talking like that. This is home.”
“Doesn’t feel like it,” I said with disdain as I glared at a couple women looking at me and Mama weirdly. I hated the way they did that. Like they were better than us. I couldn’t take it, but every time it happened, Mama just told me to look the other way.
“They’re not worth it, Maxine,” she said, looking forward.
“I hate it, Mama.”
“Just keep your head high and look forward.”
Eventually we arrived at the Preston’s house, knocking on the door and waiting. Soon enough, Mrs. Preston answered the door. She was another one of the people I hated. The woman had long blonde hair and wore the fanciest dresses that nobody ever cared about. At least I didn’t care. She looked down on us so much, especially with the way she looked at me like I was single handedly what was wrong with the world.
“Phoebe, you’re late,” she sneered.
“I’m sorry ma’am, I had a problem getting out the door today.”
“Clearly.” She looked over at me. “I would too if I had to tote that thing out in public.” I clutched onto Mama’s skirt. Mrs. Preston knew Mama took me to work with her because she wouldn’t leave me home alone. She barely tolerated me sitting in her house all day.
“Quiet, Maxine!” Mama hushed before I could get anything out.
“Finally teaching it manners I see. It’s about time, Phoebe. Well don’t just stand there. Come in already.”
As soon as we came in, Mama was tackled by two kids my age. Mrs. Preston's children, Katie and Jacob. Both looked like miniature versions of her, to a scary degree. But they were super nice.
“Settle down, settle down,” Mama laughed.
“Off the maid, you two,” Mrs. Preston sneered. “You’ve got no business being at her heels. She’s got too much work, right?”
“Yes ma’am,” Mama nodded, going with the woman as she led her into the kitchen. The children followed, probably looking to get some alone time with Mama. I would ask why they loved her so much, but anyone who met her would want more, with her overwhelming positivity in the face of… well, anything.
While they all went away, I took my usual spot in the hidden corner of the living room. I sat on the ground and set down my art supplies and stuffed bear. For the last couple years, I had taken a real interest in making art. Mama had gotten me some paper and pencils, occasionally some colored clay for color. We definitely didn’t have enough to get me paints and canvas, and even if we did I didn’t think my art was good enough to put up like that. Not yet anyway. I knew that they mostly wanted women cooking, making kids, looking after them, and taking care of the house, but luckily people didn’t bat an eye as much if they went after artsy pursuits like painting or music.
Usually I spent most of the day drawing and sketching on every inch of the paper that Mama managed to save up for me. What else was I supposed to do when I have to sit around a rich person’s house but can’t touch anything? I just drew it all. Of course, there were still other great things than the house furniture to draw.
“Give me a good pose, Tuffie,” I smiled, adjusting the set down teddy bear to draw it in another position. “Show those muscles.”
“Pst, pst, Max!” Right as I was about to start drawing, Katie started calling me from across the living room. “Max, come! Let’s play together!”
“Won’t your mama get angry?” I asked, looking around nervously like the woman would appear out of thin air.
“Mother won’t get angry if she doesn’t find out,” the girl said with a mischievous smile. “Come on! I’m tired of having to play with only Jacob!”
“Oi, rude,” the boy pouted, coming from the room over.
“Is the coast clear?”
“Mother is too busy talking to Ms. Hopewell to bother with us,” he nodded. “We’ve got some time, I think.”
“Are you in, Max?”
I sat there for a minute, thinking about what to do. Mrs. Preston wouldn’t like me playing with them. Neither would Mama. I would get an earful if they caught us, but…
“Yeah,” I smirked. Katie slapped Jacob on the shoulder and ran away, grabbing my hand and pulling me down the hall with her.
“You’re it!” she laughed at him.
“Not for long!” he shot back, dashing down the hall. Katie was slightly faster than me, so it wasn’t a surprise when Jacob tapped my arm first and ran the other direction. “Now you’re it, Max!” he laughed.
“I’ve got you!” I giggled, tagging Katie on the back. Immediately, she whipped around and got me square in the chest.
“No, I got you!” I got her in the shoulder.
“What is going on here?!”
We were both so occupied in our game that we didn’t even realize how much noise we were making. The shouting and laughter must’ve been echoing throughout the whole house. The two of us looked up at Mrs. Preston with shock and horror.
“Mama, we were just playing,” Katie explained. “And Max was just joining us-”
“Enough,” she interrupted. “I don’t want to hear it. I’m just disappointed that you let this… thing play with you again.”
“I don’t see why Max can’t play with-”
“You’ll get what I mean when you’re older and have a better grasp of the world, my little Katie, dear. Please, just stick to playing with Jacob. This one’s no good for playing with kids like you and him.”
“What does that mean?” she frowned.
“It means that you don’t let her join your games,” the woman frowned back. “I thought you would’ve learned by now that when they ask, you don’t let their kind join.”
“I invited her to play with us!” Katie defended.
“You’re not supposed to play with her kind!” Mrs. Preston shouted, stomping her foot. “She is below you! You’re better than her in every way! You have no business stooping down to their level! Her level!”
“Then why do you need one of them to do the work that father says you never got right?”
In a bur of movement, I heard a loud crack as Mrs. Preston swiped at her daughter. Katie fell to the ground, a giant red mark on her face as tears welled up in her eyes. Her mother didn’t look phased at all though. She was calm to an unsettling degree.
“Go to your room,” her mother said coldly. “Think about what you did.”
“C-Can I h-have water first…?” the girl asked, holding her cheek and trying not to try. I could tell she was doing her best to look at her mother firmly.
“No,” Mrs. Preston said cruelly. “Let it serve as a reminder that when you stoop to their level, you’ll be treated like one.”
“The only reminder this will serve as,” she girl defiantly said. “Is how much of a witch my mother is.”
“ROOM! NOW!” she bellowed. Katie shamefully walked down the hall. I could see Jacob slowly retreat, trying to quietly escape. Although, I had no doubt he would get a similar talk later too. She turned her attention to me. “You!”
“Me?” I asked, stepping back. With every step I took backwards, the woman took one forward.
“Obviously,” she snarled. “I don’t want you around my children ever! It’s bad enough I have to withstand you in my house! I don’t want you tainting my children with your ways any more than you already have! Do we understand?!”
I was about to give this woman everything I had, but then I looked just past her. I saw Mama there, shaking her head. Her eyes were almost begging me from afar to not say whatever it was that I was going to. Mrs. Preston realized I was looking past her and turned to see Mama.
“What’re you looking at?” the woman hissed. “You’re a maid, not a sentry. Clean, dammit!”
“Yes ma’am,” she bowed, turning away and polishing a glass vase.
Mrs. Preston turned back around to me.
“So are we understood?!” she asked again, close to cornering me. I took a deep breath and bit my tongue.
“Good girl,” she spat, turning away. “Maybe you can be trained.”
I felt something well up in me as she turned away. I didn’t know what it was at the time, being such a foreign emotion to my ten year-old self. Later in life, I would very well what I was feeling. It was my pride crumbling apart. I hated it. It was a thousand times worse than the stares people gave, and the things Mrs. Preston said. I never wanted to feel as weak and powerless as I did in that moment ever again.