She came when I was one and a half. She was supposed to stay for a year to give my mother some respite in caring for me. She had been Aunt Helen’s, Mother’s twin sister’s, maid. She must have been around 40 when she arrived at our house in Great Neck, Long Island. According to the family story—I don’t remember the actual event—I greeted her at the door with a big “Hel-lo, Florine!” That was it. She stayed with us until I was 16...
Florine was an African American woman from a Black community outside Chestertown, Maryland, in tidewater Kent County. Aunt Helen had no kids, while I was Mother’s second. My older sister, Natalie, was nine or ten when Florine came. I’m guessing my parents argued to Aunt Helen and Uncle Sol that they needed her more, and besides, she had fallen in love with me, her “Man,” as she called me, and didn’t want to return to the Singers in Philadelphia. Pearl Harbor was about to happen, and during the War my parents were out of the house a lot. I came to consider Florine a kind of second mother. She was an outstanding cook and housekeeper, but of course, according to the term of the day, she was our “colored maid.” Most of the other families in our neighborhood had one, and soon Florine became a member of their group and church.
Our family was secular Jewish. But when I sat in Florine’s kitchen—and it was hers—she would tell me stories about Jesus amidst the good smells from the oven. Or if I was playing outside in the backyard, she would shout out the backdoor, “Man, come on in. The Boys are fixing to sing.” “The Boys” was Florine’s term for both the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers, popular Black male quartets of the time. She would also hum songs in her dark mahogany voice, songs I later learned were hymns. And when it came to ethics, she was like a compass pointing to true north. Once I had upset my father, who had gotten his belt and was going to teach me a lesson. I ran into the kitchen and hid behind Florine. “Now don’t you touch that boy,” she told him in a determined voice. “Don’t you touch my man.” Red-faced he walked out. Then she said to me, “Now man, you mustn’t vex your daddy that way. I want you to go to him and say, ‘Daddy, I’m sorry. I won’t do that again.’” And I did. Florine was right. She was always right. Years later she retired to her home community and died at 86. At her request when she was with us, my dad had invested most of her salary in blue-chip stocks. She had become wealthy and put all her nieces and nephews through college. Hundreds of people attended her funeral. I was the only white person there and was asked to ride in the family car. After all, everyone there considered me Miss Florine’s son. Primarily because of her I became a Christian in graduate school and at 81 am an active member of Boulder’s St. John’s Episcopal Church. She was perhaps the best human being I ever knew, and, more important, she was and remains my other, my real, mom.