Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Today I find myself thinking about Eula Lee. For fifty years or more she was a friend of the family, baby-sitter, helper-outer. Born in Mississippi, she moved to Portland Oregon for reasons I never knew; but she had kids and eventually grand kids back there and sent every dollar she could spare home to help them. One by one several of her grand kids came to stay with her in Portland while they attended high school, or college at Portland State, or both. Some stayed around, some went back when they graduated. Never making much money, Eula Lee always found the means to feed and clothe them, and send them to school. She was an amazing woman.
She spoke in rhythms and phrases that were unfamiliar and exotic to me when I was a kid of six or so. "And er uh" punctuated her sentences, she hummed to herself, sang church music, waddled around in her body that was six sizes too big. Even as she aged, her skin remained smooth and glowing and the most beautiful shade of chocolate, dark and rich. I don't know how far she went in school herself, maybe she had none at all; she could neither read nor write until my mom -- actually a few years her junior -- taught her both. We got postcards from her after, in her seventies I'd say, she moved back to Jackson. In one she mentioned a grandson who'd gotten sick and had to have his "pennies out."
My grandpa, for whom English was a second and beloved language, and who made neologisms at hat drop, called her "Ukulele," which she loved. She laughed a lot.
I was home from college for the summer when Robert Kennedy was killed, not long after Martin Luther King. I wasn't there for that, but when RFK died Eula Lee and I got the news together, and cried together. When will this ever end, she sobbed.
My entry into medical school was a source of pride to Eula Lee; she started calling me "my doctor" as soon as I started, was thrilled when I graduated. She met and pre-approved my wife before I married her. When we started practice in Salem, Eula Lee was still in Portland and we saw her once in a while. The birth of our son filled her with joy, for me, for Judy, for herself. He now has a house in the same neighborhood where she lived, in Portland; when she was there it was a Black ghetto. It's now thrivingly mixed up in all races.
We never saw her after she went back home to Mississippi. We talked several times on the phone, and she'd always begin by asking "How's my doctor?" I remember being surprised when the person who answered the phone would holler for her, "It's for Eula..." Didn't they know her name was Eula Lee? Among the many regrets in my life is that Judy and I never went to visit. We'd planned to, on one of our trips to Jazzfest in New Orleans. But we didn't.
In her last months she was in an assisted living facility near her family. She died a few months ago, which I found after trying unsuccessfully to reach her for a month or two. I wanted to talk to her about Barack Obama.