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    Robert Baldwin's Memories of Emma Hedding Wallace

    When I was seven or eight, my mother dressed me up in my very best outfit and bought me a one-way ticket from Philadelphia, Pa. to New Orleans, where I went to stay with my grandmother in the St. Thomas Housing Project.

    A kitchen, a small living room, one bedroom, and a bath. In this small apartment were five of us: My grandmother Emma; Sidney, my schizophrenic uncle; my mother's sister Selma; and her husband, Eddie Senyetter.

    Quite a crowd.

    I know that Emma was born in 1898 in rural New York, lost her parents early on, and was shipped off to some finishing school in Mississippi. And not much more.

    How her husband Joseph Wakeley Wallace entered her life is a mystery... and so is the reason that Joseph changed his name from Wakeley to Wallace. Last names in my family have always been a confusion.

    Some things never change. Emma's life certainly never did in the years I knew her.

    She had very little, and that little was voluntarily shared with needy family members like me... or it was stolen from her by Selma. Emma's life was like that.

    My grandmother may have lived in government housing, but her mind was still in upstate New York where there were table linens, full table service, and a piano, a grand piano.

    Her living conditions and her mental landscape never really jived. And that may have been her salvation.

    Sidney was "poor Sidney", Selma was "poor Selma", but she never saw herself as "poor Emma".

    The Emma who faithfully visited Sidney during his many stays at the mental hospital in Jackson, La...

    The Emma who had her Social Security checks regularly stolen by Selma...

    The Emma who took me in when my mother just couldn't deal with an abusive, dead-beat, common-law husband, her job, and me...

    Emma was finished with finishing school a long time ago when I met her.

    She was as neat as a pin... all 58 chubby inches of her. Always with a starched house dress, always with stockings, and never without a hat in public.

    My grandmother was quiet in a family where loud, creative profanity was common. And they mocked her quietness, her reserve.

    I can remember her cleaning the kitchen, quietly singing to herself... if she felt really rushed, she'd whistle some manic little tune. And I learned not to get in her way when she whistled.

    I loved my grandmother, dearly. She would talk to me, telling me the same stories over and over again like they were fresh and new.

    She took pride in her knowledge of German, French, and Latin... bragged that one of her relatives had been the first Methodist bishop in the United States... that she had come from an "important" family.

    And Emma read her Bible. Daily. She liked the devotionals in The Upper Room.

    It was Emma who saw to it that I went to church and Sunday School every Sunday.

    She was a rock, a steadiness when everything else in my life seemed to be sliding.

    Emma never really fit into the vibe, the rhythm, the motion that I came to know as New Orleans. She was just there to feel the heartache as New Orleans and its funk tore apart her family and its fiber.

    I must add that Emma spent an entire Social Security check to buy me a suit when I graduated from high school. None of her children or her grandchildren had ever done that before.

    Date20 Feb 2009
    Linked toEmma Blanche Hedding; Robert Barton [Wakeley] Baldwin

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