I often think of Fannie’s Place, a place of warmth, love, and laughter, a place of great food and lots of hugs. For a short period of time in my life, my entire world revolved around Fannie and this place we called home. My first memories of Fannie start when I was five. Fannie was a short round colored woman with soft, black, curly hair. When she threw her head back to laugh, you knew it started from the pit of her stomach and rolled out as a high pitch squeal. Fannie was not my maternal mother, but I called her Momma, and I loved her dearly. The apartment that Momma and I lived in was a small one-bedroom apartment, located on a quiet insignificant street in the northeast corner of Washington, D.C., just off of Minnesota Avenue. This small space was filled with so much love that any description of it can’t begin to convey the joy I felt living there.
The apartment building was a two-story brown brick building that ran the length of the block and sat on top of a low grassy hill. The building was divided into several units, each with its own address. Each unit’s entrance had two large dark green doors, each with six glass panels that opened into a small foyer. I remember that the units were made up of four apartments and Momma and I lived at 221 35th ST. on the first floor, apartment No. 1, the door on the left. There were two apartments downstairs and two upstairs. I remember looking up the long narrow stairwell and thinking how dark it was up there. I didn’t really know the people upstairs, they always stayed to themselves and mostly out of sight. Upstairs seemed to be shrouded in mystery and I was more than happy to leave it that way. There was a very pretty, young, fair skinned lady who wore her long black hair in a ponytail. She had a small toddler and the two of them lived in Apt. #3. An elderly woman lived in Apt. #4. Ms. Blevins, her husband, and two sons lived across the hall in apt. #2 and were the family I spent the most time with. All of the neighbors were cordial toward one another while keeping a polite distance. I don’t think any of them ever became real friends.
The pretty lady in apt. #3 always stayed in during the day and would leave at night. On rare occasions when I would still be awake, I could hear her gently tipping down the steps to get in a car waiting outside. She and momma seem to have some type of agreement with each other that I wasn’t privileged to. Momma would listen out for the little boy left sleeping upstairs when his momma would leave. When the child would wake up momma would go upstairs and comfort him and rock him back to sleep. Once I crept up the stairs after momma went to the child to see what was going on. I didn’t go into the apartment but I sat at the top of the stairs and listened. Momma spoke to the boy softly, gave him something to drink, and sat with him until he drifted off to sleep again. I asked about the mysterious woman years later. Momma would only say that the woman probably didn’t want anyone to know what type of work she did. She didn’t know herself and she respected the woman’s privacy. She guessed that maybe the woman eventually moved away with the same white man that would come for her late at night. She speculated that maybe this was the boy’s father as well. Silly me, I was thinking something totally different.
Mrs. Blevins lived in Apt. #2 for years after we moved away, and her oldest son, Jr., moved into our apartment after we left. The youngest son, Baby Brother (Lemuel), moved to the west coast after giving a kidney to his brother. I was told that her husband left or was thrown out when Jr. got fed up with the way he was treating his mom. I spoke with Mrs. Blevins one last time before she died while I was working at a local hospital lab. It seems she had been suffering from a bad heart for some time. She died shortly afterward. I will always remember Mrs. Blevins for her quiet, gentle demeanor. She taught me how to crochet when I was a teenager and we would sit together for several hours every week working on our individual projects. This is when she asked me why I stop staying overnight when I was a little girl. I was surprised that she didn’t know. I didn’t understand then why Momma had not told Mrs. Blevins about her husband.
I never did get to know the person that stayed in Apt. #4. To tell the truth I question if anyone lived in it at all. When I think back to that time, I can’t remember what the person even looked like.
When you opened the front door of our apartment you stepped into the living room, and no, there wasn’t a hallway. The living room was just wide enough for a sofa on the wall facing the door, and just deep enough to place a coffee table in front of it. To a little girl, momma’s furniture seemed huge and heavy. The sofa was big and chunky and the heavy steel frame sleeper bed inside told its age. Although it had beautiful green bullion fringe running along the bottom, the heavy homemade slipcover hid its worn hunter green, satin brocade fabric, and the old sheets stuffed under the sunken seat cushions lent much needed support. Like every best dressed living room of its time, there were lamp tables flanking the sofa on either side topped with stiffly starched and fluted doilies encircling pink island girl lamps.
The left wall had two paneled windows dressed in the appropriate curtains for the season and just enough space in between them for a low entertainment cabinet. Momma always cherished her brown, wooden, entertainment system. She had to have gotten it in the fifties or earlier because the turntable still had a 78-speed option. It had a small black and white TV in the left cabinet and the turntable was in the right cabinet that flipped up to close. I thought that was so cool. The bottom of the cabinet had two panels covered with a sparkling brown textured cloth and metal decorative strips crisscrossing over it to conceal and protect the speaker behind each of them. I loved sitting on the floor to watch “I Love Lucy”, or cartoons while rubbing my feet on the fabric. Momma would always snap at me, “Child get your feet off the furniture.” This space was my bedroom until I was seventeen.
To the right of the entrance door, a few feet in, two low built-in bookcases with glass paneled doors flanked the entrance to the dining room on each side. For some reason, I loved those bookcases. In one bookcase Momma had every kind of figurine you could imagine. Most of her figurines were figures from the Nativity scene, the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus, the three wise men, and a bunch of sheep along with other animals. On the lamp tables and on the walls, there was an abundance of plastic flowers. I hate artificial flowers and figurines till this day because I had to clean these dust collectors regularly. I just couldn’t see the purpose for them because I certainly didn’t find them attractive. The other cabinet had books which I found curious since I can’t ever remember seeing Momma actually reading any book other than the Bible. Although, she did enjoy flipping through an occasional cookbook.
The dining room was just large enough for a chrome dining table that seated six, 4 matching vinyl chairs, a small matching lime green vinyl bar, and momma’s Black Singer sewing machine and table. I will never forget that dining set, with it’s lime green enamel top sprinkled with brown stars, and brown crescent moons. I remember it now as the most hideous furniture I have ever seen. But then, from a five-year old’s point of view, it was enchanting and always dressed with the most satisfying food. On the far wall, there were two doors standing side by side. One door led to the bedroom and the other door led to the kitchen. Unfortunately, our one bathroom resided in the dining room as well.
The kitchen was just slightly wider than a hallway, or maybe not. On the left wall was a small cabinet that reminded me of a small china cabinet with its double glass doors at the top, a painted shelf underneath and a double door cabinet on the bottom. This cabinet had been painted so many times you barely could close the doors and in the summer the surface felt gummy. Next to the cabinet was momma’s washing machine that never seemed to work. On the right wall was a tiny reach in pantry closet, a refrigerator next to the pantry, then the white enameled double sinks, and a narrow stove on the end. How Fannie managed to cook the gourmet meals she turned out day after day in that small space is nothing short of miraculous. I seem to remember Momma in this kitchen most of the time. I know she had to sleep but my most vivid memories of Momma were of her in this kitchen.
You had to pass through the kitchen to get to the back porch. It seemed as if someone decided to add it as an afterthought. Actually, I’m pretty sure of it because the bedroom beside the kitchen had windows on the wall joining the porch. The porch had windows as well which was unusual for these buildings. Momma said that a former border she had, got them from the junkyard and installed them himself. This handyman’s self-styled porch was my favorite place in our home. Since it was completely enclosed with a secure door, I would spend my summers out there during my teenage years. I would sleep out on the porch and do those important things teenage girls do. I would spend endless hours talking on my blue princess phone while watching TV, or listening to WHUR’s “Quiet Storm” on the radio.
Momma was from North Carolina and she was definitely in charge of the kitchen. Some of the best southern cooking took place in that cramped space and I was Fannie’s sous chef. I was never required to actually cook but I was expected to help with all of the side chores. I shucked peas and cleaned corn. I sifted through dried beans, snapped green beans, stemmed greens, and when I was old enough, I peeled potatoes. Momma would always caution me about peeling the potatoes too deep and wasting the good part. By the time I moved out on my own I could tell you how to prep the food, I just couldn’t cook anything. The kitchen was the place Momma spent most of her time, second only to work.
I remember the smell of something good cooking, always. When I was a little girl Momma would wake me up in the morning with a big bear hug. I could smell the food cooking, hear the grease sizzling, as I snuggled into her arms. It was a delight to try and figure out what was on the menu for the day. Would it be eggs, bacon, grits, and toast with a glass of milk on the side or maybe biscuits, ham and molasses with a glass of juice? There was never any doubt that I would love whatever Momma had to offer.
If it was summer, I knew what the day’s routine would be. I would get up, brush my teeth, put on my perfectly ironed outfit and then sit down to breakfast at the green table. After breakfast, my hair would be combed, parted, and braided to perfection with matching barrettes or ribbons. Then off I would go, out the back door to play. Armed with a hot breakfast and a cute outfit, I knew I was ready for the world. I would burst through the screen porch door letting it slam behind me and sit on the steps waiting for the other kids to come out.
By lunch time Momma would call me in to eat and take a nap. I always protested the nap, but I was ready for lunch. I would lie down after lunch and wish that time would pass faster. Once my hour of rest was up, I could dress, and go back outside to play. Often, I would have to change clothes because I would have split my pants jumping the backyard fence. Momma was always mending my ripped pants. During that time nothing got thrown away, clothes and linen were mended, and appliances repaired.
All the kids played in the alley in back of the apartment building in those days. The alley was clean, wide, and traffic free. There was a low grass covered hill that ran the entire length of the backyard, just inside the chain link fence. One by one other kids would come out to play. We would play dodge ball, Simon says, Hide-N-Go Seek, jump rope– single or Double Dutch, ride our bikes or skate until dinner time. Then it would be yet another rest period. I just couldn’t grasp the concept of all this rest our parents thought we needed. Now I know the rest periods were really for their benefit. But if God was willing, and the sun could still be seen, we would be able to go back outside for one more hour of play.
At sunset, one by one, parents would start to call their children in, that was our queue that our day had come to an end. We all knew that we had to always stay within earshot (hearing distance) so we could hear our names when called. If your mother had to come looking for you there would be a price to pay. Toys would be put away and baths were taken, another hug and a kiss from mom while I tried to explain that I really wasn’t tired and “Can I please stay up a little longer to watch TV.” I don’t remember if I ever won that battle. I would pass out and wake up to another day. Life was good and my world was perfect, for a while.