|My Miss Emma
by JoAnn Erickson
|Miss Emma was a woman of color with a loving heart and gracious soul.
One night several years ago, I was looking at childhood pictures and thought of Miss
Emma. All of a sudden I was overwhelmed with rushing thoughts of my childhood. I
typed as fast as the thoughts were flowing. Every sentence is fragmented but that's
how my mind was racing that night. So, if you want to enjoy some wonderful
memories, be my guest. There are some old pictures at the bottom of the page.
Unfortunately, I don't have any of Miss Emma.
|Butch and I had been playing
and were hot and sweaty.
My Mother was the thirteenth child born to Miss Lula Carlisle Singleton-Harris. She had twelve children from her
previous marriage to Mr. Singleton, became a widow and then married Mr. Harris. They had his only child, my Mother
who was born on September 19, 1924 in Griffin, North Carolina. Mr. Harris was 7"4" weighted 400 # and had red
hair. He was a tobacco farmer. A well to do tobacco farmer.
When Mother was five years old, her Father lay dying of blood poisoning. He had stepped on a rusty nail back in
1929 and it killed this giant of a man. Surrounded by family, he called out to an old black man who lived on the farm
named Charlie. Grandfather, on the last day of his life, asked Charlie, who had lived on the farm all his life,
"promise me you will take care of Lillian". The old man nodded his head and made the promise.
They had to cut out the window and make it larger so they could get the casket in the house. Momma said
everybody from miles around came to see my Granddaddy. She remembered friends and neighbors coming up in
cars and colored folks coming up in their wagons being pulled by mules.
Momma would tell me of the wonderful songs Charlie would sing to her while bouncing her on his knee. Songs
that were not understandable, words unknown to her. The fact is, we believe these were songs sung to children of
the slaves that once lived on the farm. Sung with love, embraces of love, warmth of the body and soothing to the
soul. Momma always said colored people were a part of the rainbow, just like us. "Everybody has a different
color and they're all beautiful", she would say.
My Grandmother sent most of her children away when my Grandfather died. My Mother spent time with some
relatives at an Amish farm and the other children were sent to different orphanages. I only heard one story about
the time Momma was sent away. The family had eaten some oranges and threw away the peel. Momma got the
peel from the garbage and ate it. My Grandmother then married a Mr. Garris and all the children came back home.
Vernon Lee Edwards, Sr., my Father was also raised in the South. His family was also into tobacco. Growers,
auctioneers and tobacco barns were a part of his life. He was a track star in high school and then joined the Marine
Corp.. After he got out of the Marines, he worked in a drug store to learn about business management.
At the age of thirty-two he met my mother, who was sixteen. She rode up to the drugstore on her white horse,
dressed in her riding pants and boots. She was with her sister, Esther who had red hair and was wild in her ways.
They tied their horses and went in to get a soda. Momma told me she had been wearing riding pants and red lipstick. I
guess he liked how they looked. The rest is history. I think back then, they would call it a shotgun wedding, robbing
the cradle or something.
Mother became pregnant with my Brother, Vernon, Jr. Our family never called him Vernon. His nickname was
Butch. He was born in my Grandmother's house on April 21, 1942 in Farmville, North Carolina and later on we
moved to Virginia.
I was born on November 11, 1943 during a blackout in Newport News, Virginia. There was a German submarine
caught in the nets in Chesapeake Bay (I think it was called.). The Norfolk Naval Air Station was just across the
bay. My Mother also swore they switched babies during the blackout. She would only say that when I had done
something I shouldn't have. She would assure me she was kidding, but I often wondered if it was true. Sometimes
I wasn't sure if I was a part of this family. The hospital bill from Riverside Hospital was $48.00 and they got
more than they bargained for.
My Mother and Dad seemed happy to my brother, Butch and I. A life filled with daily ordinary things that families
do. Breakfast, off to school, my Daddy went to work, my Mother occasionally worked outside the home making
Polly Flinder dresses. She only did it to learn how to make them for me. My brother and I were happy, well
dressed kids who felt loved.
Momma, named Lillian Louise was simply called Lil. Sometimes my Daddy would call her LillyBelle. She was tall,
5'8" tall, had long black hair, and dark brown piercing eyes. She was of Cherokee, Spanish, Irish and English
descent. An earth mother, a woman of strength, solid character, and romantic in nature. My Mother and Father
enjoyed life together I guess, I really don't remember. I can't recall ever seeing them kiss. They would dance,
laugh together, hold hands, and sit together. Maybe as kids, we weren't supposed to see them in an intimate
exchange of tenderness.
My Daddy was slender, with black hair and was always dressed up. He enjoyed playing the piano and entertained
us with his funny faces. He would light his imitation gold candelabra, have a cigarette hanging in his mouth and
play for hours. Sometimes Miss Emma would start wiggling her body and grab my hands to dance with her.
The kids in the neighborhood thought Daddy was funny. Lifting his hands high in the air with each strike of the
keys and his foot on the piano pedal going ninety to nothing, he kind of got caught up in what he was doing. Butch
and I loved it when he would put newspapers behind the pounding keys and out would come a sound we didn't
know, but one we enjoyed. It sounded like music you would hear in an old saloon. Butch and I called it rinky-dink
Sometimes people called Miss Emma "the housekeeper", like she didn't have a name. But I called her My Miss
Emma. We were very involved in the Riverside Baptist Church in Newport News, VA., and we were always in
Church.. Sunday, Wednesday and various other days were filled with music, Amens, hell fire and damnation. I
did not enjoy going. Scared me half to death, I would dream of burning in hell. Miss Emmas Bible was bigger than
Momma's was. Miss Emmas had pictures of hell. I would look at that bible and promise God, I would not sin.
Would not make up lies about Butch and would say my prayers every night.
We would take wonderful vacations to Nags Head, North Caroling and Williamsburg, Virginia. I vividly remember
the musty odor of Williamsburg. Homes rich with history, front parlors filled with furnishings I found to be
intriguing. Rich woods, delicate lace and an odor of smoke sodden fireplaces. I always wondered what wonderful
conversations took place in this room. Thought of the problems and issues that were discussed and resolved in
those homes that at one time were filled with life, laughter, tears and the aroma of good food.
We had lots of laughter in our house. Lots of friends, parties that included all the kids and friends of my parents.
The comfort of a friend or many friends was so important to my parents. I remember the canasta parties. The
square card tables set up for the Friday night card games, along with making sure each table had an ashtray and
I can't recall what they would drink, but I never saw my parents drink an alcoholic beverage. I remember the
aroma of coffee and cigarette smoke. Daddy was in a magazine of the day, advertising Prince Albert Tobacco.
They were heavy smokers. I guess that's why I remember the ashtrays on the tables. After all, they were raised
around the wonderful, fragrance of tobacco growing and I remember the smell of the tobacco barns to this day.
My mother was a wonderful cook. She would think of a theme for each card party. Her favorite was Italian night.
She collected Chianti Bottles and as was the tradition of the late 40's, she would buy these lovely multi-colored
candles that would drip vibrant colors. She would put these candles in the wine bottles even when we did not have
company, just to get the thick coating of wax on the bottles. These were a treasure of hers. Adding warmth by
candlelight was important to her. I remember the electric fans that would sometimes blow out the candles and she
would just aim the fan in a different direction.
She also filled empty bottles with water and added food coloring. These were put on windowsills and would catch
the sunshine. They looked like bottled rainbows during the day. We also had pieces of black coal in glass
containers. I think Momma put Iodine or something on it and it would change color or something. We also had a
cut potato that was placed in water and it would grow vines that would climb up the windowsill.
Miss Emma was short, fat and her heart was the size of the universe. I remember her ironing and singing
although I can only remember one song in particular, "Irene Goodnight". Good night Irene, Good night Irene, I'll
see you in my dreams. How sweet her voice sounded to me, how special I felt in her arms. I remember her
beautiful skin. It felt like whipped cream on a chocolate pie and when I would kiss her on the cheeks, she tasted
She smelled like whatever she was cooking and I loved everything about her. She had big breasts that she would
rest my head on. I would get button impressions on my cheek from being held so tightly and would call them my
dimples. I would tell her I wanted a dimple and she would press me even tighter to those buttons.
It was not socially acceptable in those days to mingle with colored people, or so some people said. But Miss Emma
was my friend and I let everybody know it! Momma often told Butch and me that we were all God's children.
We were all equals and no one was better than the next. Momma taught us that we shouldn't worry what
everybody thinks about us. After all, my Mother was raised by the elderly colored man from the age of five until
he died and he taught her that being prejudice was not God's plan. My Mother loved Charlie like I loved Miss
Wearing her crisp, freshly starched full-length apron, Miss Emma reminded me of a nurse. I thought of her as a
nurse. She took care of me when I had the measles and mumps. She would make potato soup for me and gingerly
spoon-feed me as if I was an invalid. Well, I was sick, but I always got a little more sympathy by looking deep
into her eyes and saying, Miss Emma you are the only one who loves me. You make me feel better than Momma
ever did!. The warmth of her body next to mine was comforting, kind. She did not live with us but she was
always there, caring for my brother and me.
At times I didn't think she liked me at all. She would fix my long black hair into braids that would cause
headaches. I was only five, but I remember the awful headaches. My eyes were wider apart when she finished
with me. The freshly cut ribbons adorned my head like a crown. My hair was so tightly wound; you could have
used these braids as sling shots. I hated ribbons in my hair unless it was for church
I loved puppies and marbles. A tomboy at heart, I was dressed in these silly little dresses with puckered ticking on
the bodice. White socks and lady like, little girlie shoes. I wanted to go barefoot, jump in the mud, and kiss the
dog. Miss Emma taught me how to pick clover blossoms and make bracelets and necklaces. That's about all I
wanted to do with little girl things. Give me a bag of pretty blue marbles and a Roy Rogers gun like my Brother. I
do remember one girlie gift that I loved. It was a Cinderella Watch which came wrapped in a clear glass slipper.
Miss Emma loved my brother. He was beautiful. Black hair, unblemished skin (no freckles), perfect... He was not
average. Butch was all a Mother and Daddy would dream of (the perfect son). I was not perfect. I also had black
hair, green eyes, covered with freckles, rough skin, a Scorpio personality, a hyper child and I demanded
attention!. Butch naturally received attention because he was the first born, the exquisitely beautiful little man. He
was what you would call purdy! I would get jealous because Miss Emma would tell him how "purdy" he was.
I think life was a lot simpler in the 1940's. The husbands brought home the bacon (salt pork also knowsn as , streak of
lean).. We lived at 838 - E Street in Newport News, Virginia. It was called "fried meat street" because of the aromas
from dinner cooking. I remember my Daddy coming home and after being welcomed by all of us, he would have a tall
glass of sweet tea, check to see what was cooking and head for the piano.
One lovely afternoon, mother invited her friends for cards and lunch. It just happened to be April Fool's Day and
she had planned a special afternoon lunch. The table was set with her best stuff for a ladies luncheon. Her
treasured old lace tablecloth, linen napkins and her special teacups. She and Miss Emma worked all morning to
instill southern charm in our house. Shrimp filled sandwiches and sweet iced tea with mint leaves, (that she grew
herself) on the kitchen window ledge, Mother's special apple pie and hot tea or coffee.
Well, this was an afternoon I wish I had missed... With my usual flair for trying to get some attention, this effort
was not worth the outcome. Miss Emma was out of the kitchen Hooray... Making my way to the kitchen, I
wondered where Momma was. Not really caring but filled with a sense of being caught and the consequences, I
picked up the delicate china sugar dish and emptied the sugar out. I had a wonderful plan.
I had to get the weapon of my choice from the cupboards. The cupboards were high and I had to use the step
stool, which every lady kept in her kitchen to get to the high rise cupboards of staples. Necessary items for every
home were found in the kitchen cupboards. I cautiously climbed to the top step, feeling dizzy with the height and
the delight of my planned escapade. I was standing on the threshold of an incredible feat. A surprise for
I searched behind the box of grits, oatmeal, honey, cornmeal and moved Daddy's iron pills. He had iron poor
blood whatever that was. I moved them out of the way along with the can of spray starch and raisins. Hooray, I
found the Salt box. !
I closed the door and almost lost my balance, so I stood on the black and white counter tiles. They were cold and
hard. My feet felt chilled, but I was hot and sweaty. I climbed down, still dizzy from the height and excited that I
was about to become the center of attention that afternoon.
Filling the sugar dish with salt, I was waiting for the laughter that would soon fill the room. Mommas' best
friends, her best linens and lace, her sense of refinement; her ideal life was too structured. Her magnificent
luncheon was about to be enhanced by my presence.
All Mommas' guests arrived. Mrs. Dorothy Brooks, was the most beautiful of all Mommas friends. She had long
dark hair, dimples, beautiful teeth and all the men especially liked her. She wore shorts or bathing suits a lot. Mrs.
Christine Norton, who was incredibly ugly and old, Miss Frances, with the hairy arms, who wore glasses but
Miss Sally Robbens with her flaming red hair, freckles, big breasts and fat stomach. As a matter of fact, her
breasts almost rested on her stomach. I could never see what kind of belt she was wearing. It got lost somewhere
under those big breasts.. The rest of the ladies, I don't remember. But these women were Mommas' favorites.
Her neighbors, the people she exchanged a cup of sugar or eggs with. The ladies that shared a common goal. One
of being a good wife, a great Mother and the bearer of life's everyday problems.
Momma was a vision of femininity. Her hair done to perfection, if those hairstyles of the 40's could be called
perfect. She wore thick glasses that were trimmed in silver and rhinestones. She had long red fingernails and
always smelled good. The record player dropped another 33 1/3 down with a click. Frank Sinatra was crooning
to these ladies. Women who spoke with a southern drawl, thought life was perfect and enjoyed being thought of
Southern ladies of style and grace filled our home that day. They had their special shrimp sandwiches, sweet iced tea
with mint and then played their card game wearing their costume rings, large jeweled earrings and starched, polished
There I was, in my sky blue Polly Flinders dress, shinny black hair pulled back in braids by Miss Emma of course,
with my white socks and black patent shoes. I was not happy wearing a dress and black shiny shoes. The
ribbons in my hair were as brilliant in color as I was in creativeness. On this day, I didn't mind the ribbons.
Time for dessert! Miss Emma announced! She brought in the tray with the delicate tea set, creamer, sugar dish
and Mommas' special apple pie. It had been resting on the windowsill, cooling off until the appropriate time for
I got up from my chair by Momma and went to Miss Frances. I loved the way she smelled. She wore some
perfume that was in a brilliant blue little glass bottle. She called it Evening in Paris. I overheard her say onetime that
she bought it at the 5 and 10 cent store. Standing to her left, I noticed her black hairy arms as she reached for the
sugar dish. She had a watch on that wrist. I remember the hair looked as if were being pulled and twisted by the
I stood and waited ????. Miss Frances was the first to use the "sugar" but Miss Christine was the first to taste
and project from her mouth, tea with salt. My God, Lil, what's wrong with the damn tea.?? It tastes salty!! This
was a southern lady of charm speaking.
April. FOOLS I announced!. ...Momma looked at me with those dark brown eyes surrounded by the silver framed
up sweeping glasses with the rhinestones. JOANN... did you do this? I took off running, almost lost my footing
with those damn patent leather shoes on the waxed to a glassy finish hardwood floors. My pigtails flying behind
me. Momma caught up with me in the kitchen, grabbing me by the sash on my blue dress. The sash untied.....
Free for a moment, I ran into my brother's bedroom, climbed on the top bunk bed and pressed my sweating little
body to the wall, out of reach 1 said, Momma; didn't you think it was funny? She had an ugly look on her face
and I waited for her to yell at me.
Miss Emma came into the room and told momma she "would take care of me". Oh...God....I was going to get a
whipping!. "Miss Lil, go back to your guests" she said, Momma left. Miss Emma left the room and came back
with the Witch's Hazel switch. These damn things grew in a bush just off from our wrap around front porch. The
porch with the wood swing, Miss Emma would often put me in her lap and swing with me. Enough space for
four people, it was our special place. Just Miss Emma and me. Well, back to the switch which grew by this
peaceful, serene wrap around porch.
Miss Emma had complete control of me, not that Momma never whipped me. Miss Emma had a job to do. Make a
little lady of me; take care of Butch and me during the day. Reprimand me if necessary. She would take my left
hand in her left hand, the switch in her right hand and whip me in circles. I would dance around her like a
lightening bug. Fluttering here and there I thought I could outrun her in these circles of frenzy. Never did. She
won every time. This time was different. The bunk bed in my brother's room would save me somehow.
This switch was the size of Dallas, Texas, long in length with about four leaves left on the end. These four leaves
made the switch a better one so I was told. Miss Emma being short couldn't reach me on that top bunk bed, but
that switch could. She swung that thing like Babe Ruth swung a baseball bat. She made a home run that day.
Catching my legs with those leaves about six times, she finally quit in exhaustion. She was huffing and puffing.
She left me in that room, saying, "you better think bout what you did".
That night while Miss Emma was bathing me before she left for home, she tenderly touched my bare legs with the
wash cloth. Tears started streaming down her wrinkled cheeks. She asked me why I kept doing things that would
get me in trouble, told me how she would rather be whipped herself than to whip me. Told me how her mother
would whip her. Told me how she whipped her own children for their own good. Told me to stand up so she
could dry me off.
Taking me into my room, she closed the door and told me to sit on the stool by the rocking chair. She brushed my
long black hair, promising me she would not do anything to hurt me... ever! She lied. Damn if she didn't braid up
my hair even tighter that night. Jerking my head around like it was a top and she was holding the string. She
whipped my head around so much; I felt my neck make this cracking noise. She broke my neck, I know she did!
It was a ritual to put Vaseline on my freckled, dry skin. Sore from the slashing, spanking, whipping episode that
afternoon, she merely said. "Sweet JoAnn", wonder why your Mommas side of the family gave you this awful dry
scaly skin?. I said, Miss Emma, it wasn't Mommas' side; it was you that made it worse today. She just
continued with the Vaseline, singing Jean-Jon-Jinken, Chewed Up, Chewed Up...Well, that's what the words
sound like. She tucked me in bed, gave me a kiss and I whispered in her ear "Miss Emma, you didn't really hurt
me today". She looked at me and said , I know, but you did a good job of pretending, didn't you? Yes Mam, I
did.!! She laughed, gave me a kiss and said goodnight.
My fondest memories of Miss Emma were the evenings I spent with her. She would tell me to get on her lap after
my bath. I was fresh, clean and my hyperactivity had worn off by the end of the day. I was ready to be held
tightly by the woman I loved most. She told me she would cook something special for me the next day. I think
she wanted me to have happy things to think about before I went to sleep.
My favorite was her liver and onions with bacon. Mashed potatoes smothered in gravy and onions with some
carrots made me a happy girl. Her sweet potato biscuits melted in my mouth and I would tell her they were the
best she ever made (every time she made them, I would tell her). She would say "JoAnn, I made them just for
you". I would look at Butch and make a scrunched up face, singing, "she made them for me, she made them for
me"! Momma would tell me to be quiet and eat my dinner. Daddy would just laugh (so did Miss Emma).
Butch would just stick his tongue out at me.
Momma would never be jealous of this love I felt for another woman. This was a relationship built from a
foundation of trust, a friendship and understanding of my needs to feel pretty even if I wasn't. Miss Emma would
stroke my hair; rub my dry skin with her hand that felt like velvet. She would sing my favorite song to me. "Irene
Good Night". I'll see you in my dreams. Good night Irene, Good night Irene, I'll see you in my dreams. How sweet
her voice sounded to me and I always felt special in her arms.
One day she took Butch and I to the playground down the street. I was playing in the sandbox with two boys
who were older than me. Miss Emma was sitting with some other ladies, just talking. There were lots of trees
and bushes and Miss Emma didn't want me in the sun too much.
The sandbox was in the shade. One of the boys put his hand under my dress and pulled down my pants. I started
hitting him and yelling for Miss Emma. She came and got me and ran the boys off. Later that night, when Daddy
got home, Momma told Daddy what happened. Miss Emma told him it was the brothers from down the street.
The Plaster family. Daddy left the house and came back later. He never said anything but just hugged my
Momma. Never knew what happened, but I didn't see much of the Plaster brothers anymore!
We had a neighbor across the street that did not approve of socializing with colored people. He would sometimes
yell at my Daddy obscene things when Miss Emma's family came over. My Daddy, the former Marine, would yell
back. I admired him for protecting Miss Emma. We didn't care what the neighbor thought. Miss Emma was
family; she was a part of me. She was my second Momma.
Miss Emma brought her family to our home as guests on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We would shop for gifts
for her family. She had a son and daughter, wish I could remember their names. There was not a male influence in
the family. I don't know if she ever had a husband, but she raised two well-behaved children by herself. Momma
wanted me to be more like her little girl. Momma would make dresses for her little girl, just like mine.
The last thing I remember about Miss Emma was the day she cleaned Mommas' waxed candle bottles. Working all
day, she used a knife to remove the wax. When Momma got home, she said, "what happened to the candles"?
and looked directly at me. I cut my eyes to Miss Emma!.
Miss Emma told Momma, "it was bout time to start fresh on the candles". The wax had been sculptured to a fine
wonderful finish. A rainbow of colors to match the colored bottles on the windowsill. Treasured by my Momma,
these were now sleek, shiny new bottles. No harm was done. Momma hugged Miss Emma and told her she was
absolutely right. It was time to make fresh ones.
Deep down, Momma missed those bottles. But, her love and respect for Miss Emma was deeper and more
important than bottles covered with wax. I don't remember anything else about Miss Emma. She had some sort
of problems at home. An illness in the family I think. She eventually left us and our lives changed
I lost the love of my life, "Miss Emma"
|My Daddy, the Marine
Daddy in a magazine of the day
for Prince Albert Tobacco
|1950 - I think I was 8 years old -
|Butch 1960 - 18 years old
|Butch and I. Have you ever seen kids so
dressed up on vacation ??
|Momma on the beach 1952
16 years old
|Daddy is sitting in the 1st barber chair, left hand side 1930?
Vernon L Edwards Sr and Jr.
|Momma, Christine Norton and me
8 years old with my hair cut
|1950 - Butch, me and Daddy
on vacation. Momma took the picture
|1959 - 16 years old
|1992 - Butch and I
at his daughter's wedding
|1947 3 1/2 years old.
Grandma's 3rd Husband, Mr. Garris and me
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