The Delta Queens: Shells of a Different Shade

DELTA SHORTS:

 

The Delta Queens: Shells of a Different Shade

By WILLIAM PRENTISS

Photo by The Delta Bohemian

Photo by The Delta Bohemian

Vestura had never been to the ocean; in fact, she had never left the Delta. In contemporary parlance, she was a domestic–a maid in days gone by. A complete lack of formal education was overshadowed by her intrinsic common sense.

Though dealt a hand few white folks would covet, she was content to play it. She understood what the privileged often don’t find out until their twilight, that life isn’t fair. I never heard her complain and never saw her angry. She could find “the good” in anything.

She treated me like I was king. She treated my sister well, but not like a queen. Men were the breadwinners in the strangely matriarchal culture. It didn’t matter whether black or white, men were favored. Period!

When my social and religious conscious was awakened several years after “leaving the home,” I started worrying about the injustices I presumed she had suffered. She didn’t see it the same way.

Vestura finally got her first bathtub/shower when she was 82 years old. She was always clean and always had bathed in a number-3 washtub. In my infinite lack of wisdom, I told her how awful it was that the landlord had not provided her indoor plumbing for the thirty years she had been renting the dilapidated in-town row house. She chastised me, gently; she could have been harsher.

She said, “Baby, I loves my new tub and I am thankful for my house. God has always taken care of me. He got me that tub; I know He did. So, don’t be worrying about what you think my lack is, ‘cause I am blessed.”

I grew up with too many folks who thought and said that poor black folks are fine just the way they are. That was and still remains bullshit. Why should they be thrilled to live in poverty? Why should they be thrilled to live without simple amenities taken for granted in the most prosperous country in the world?

Sadly, too often through selfishness–a sin of omission on my part, I didn’t see “need” around me, nor did I endeavor to alleviate it. I always “felt bad” when I came in contact with a person who didn’t have much, but rarely did I do anything about it, even if I felt sad for hours or days afterwards.

Vestura taught me a lot of lessons as she raised me, but she taught me the biggest one when I was grown–to be thankful!

Let me tell ya a little tale about the different shades of perception in the Mississippi Delta. Momma, everybody called her Gracious, was a fine old Southern dame, with gentle public manners and the will and strength to break steel if crossed. She was the de facto ruler of most social and religious activity in our corner of the world.

Gracious and Vestura had a relationship that most Yankees–anybody living north of Tunica, Mississippi, except the Deltans who had moved to Memphis so they could socialize at the Memphis Country Club, reportedly harder to get into than the exclusive San Francisco area Bohemian Club–would never understand.

It was special, and within the home Daddy and all us kids knew who was in charge and it was not my Momma. Gracious was gracious in public, but she brooked no disagreement in private, from anyone, except Vestura. The boundaries were clear and Vestura “kinda liked” running the show and near about a whole town through proxy. She figured she had it pretty good, tub or no tub.

Vestura might have been the most humble person I have ever known and she was thankful for everything she figured the Lord and Mister Bubba had provided, but her commonsensical whit also allowed her to enjoy irony–a word she had never heard of. Momma taught Vestura to read when she taught me to read.

Back in the mid-sixties, the Prentiss family, there were seven of us including Vestura, piled into the blue-paneled family Pontiac station wagon with the red interior, and headed for Southern Florida to stay with some friends who wintered there.

I remember Vestura not being able to eat in a restaurant because she was black, so Daddy went inside some hamburger joint and bought us all food to go. I didn’t understand all the ramifications of black and white travel back then. I do now.

Nowadays, folks would think it awful to take a maid along to a beautiful vacation spot and have her work during the weeklong holiday. Vestura told me later that she would have never seen the beach had Mister Bubba not taken her. She said she got more mileage in her neighborhood from that trip than anything else she ever did, other than her sweet cornbread.

She had promised her neighbors and her own children, names I sadly barely remember, that she would bring them some seashells, including the kind you could hear the ocean in. She told Miss Gracious one morning that she wanted to get some shells for her family and friends, but her back was “stove up” a bit. She asked Momma if she would help her find some. Momma, always the doer, was thrilled to be of assistance.

Miss Gracious and Vestura sauntered their very similar looking large black and white asses down to the beach. Vestura was carrying Momma’s sterling-silver bucket and was wearing her white uniform with her white work shoes with holes cut out for her corns to breathe. Momma had on some white linen pants and a floppy floral sun hat.

It was not unusual for white Southern families with means to bring their maids to the beach, and it was not an anomaly to see them picking up shells for their white Southern mistresses.

Miss Gracious always prided herself on her knowledge of just about everything. She always knew which were the best cantaloupes, which dress would work the best for next Sunday’s Lenten service, and which recipe for tomato aspic would “win the party.”

So, she secretly relished being the beach Swami, knowing which shells were the best and where to find them. Arising early on Sunday morning, Vestura’s day off, Miss Gracious led Vestura to the water’s edge. Vestura couldn’t swim and was afraid of the ocean, but the need to bless folks with treasure shells overruled her fears.

Since it was early, most of the good shells were still to be had. There were almost too many to count, so selection could be a lengthy and mind-taxing process. Momma took the bucket and began walking on the tide line. Vestura would point with dignity at shells she found spectacular, while Miss Gracious bent over and retrieved them, placing them in the silver shell bucket. Though neither mistress or maid every acknowledged it, they both heard another Southern lady walking by say just a bit too loudly, “Well, I never…!”

Vestura knew what she was doing, her back was just fine, but she silently reveled in the day Miss Gracious bend her tough-as-nails fine Southern white ass over on a crowded beach and picked up shells for the new Delta Queen. Even Momma, never lacking intuiton, thought it was a hoot!

 

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

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  1. Hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!—I am sorry W.P.H.—I disagree on this one. There is no failure, that I can see, other than to treat your”Special” Employees more like family. The same thing goes on today!I see absolutely nothing “Wrong ” going on. This is how one is awarded in the Career of Sales.

    As I see it W.P.H. These were some of the “Most” saught after jobs by Women after WWII !!!

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