Driving Louella — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Thanks to the editors at the Jerusalem Report for permitting me to post this before the current issue reaches subscribers, so that you can read this story before Pesach.

This is the story I tell my family every Seder night.

When I was about two years old, soon after my little brother Saul was born, my mother fell ill and was hospitalized for a time. My father, then covering City Hall for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, couldn’t handle a toddler and a baby on his own.

illustration by Avi Katz
My memories of that time are fuzzy around the edges, pervaded by a soft light like an ambient dawn. But they are real impressions of a time when I was journeying into consciousness, not long after I learned to talk, to turn feelings into words. In them my gaze is always directed upward, for nearly everything is bigger than me. Our modest suburban ranch house thus remains huge in my minds eye, centered on an endless corridor that had to be crossed to get from my bedroom to Mommy’s and Daddy’s, and to be run down to escape into the light of our living room with its wall-sized picture window. A troop of monsters, led by a sour-smelling pig, lived in a cavity in the corridor’s wall. At night they threatened to devour me.

Daddy needed a live-in nanny for us. In the late 1950s, in Cleveland, this meant a black woman from downtown. A series of matrons in long skirts and aprons made an appearance and then vanished. Sally said we were too noisy, Emma that we lived too far out. Cynthia simply stopped coming, without prior notice. In a dream from that time a dozen of them enter and leave the house in a line, like models on a fashion show runway.

Then Louella came and stayed. Dark, broad, taciturn, and creased, she was stern when that was required but smiled easily. She was very old, older than my grandmothers. She had sons and daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sometimes she’d bring one of them, a Joe or a Lloyd, to unplug a pipe or fix a fixture. She told us that her parents had been slaves in the south. She slept in the house’s third bedroom, which served during the day as a playroom for my brother and me.

Read moreDriving Louella — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report