Halfway through high school, I noticed I was more in the driver’s seat of my life than I’d been before. Godde noticed too and sent me to Vernice. In other words, I got a job where Vernice worked and talked her ears off from 3:15 to 5:30pm. She welcomed me with a, “Hello Kindra,” (my name is Kendra but she said it like it had an “i” which made me feel I was suddenly a different, more loveable person.) She welcomed not just me, but my stories and dilemmas and hypotheses. She wasn’t bored or annoyed by me. She seemed to like me, which would’ve spooked me if she hadn’t done it like it was nothing – like falling off a log or eating both Reeses cups at the first go. She made it look so easy, I almost didn’t notice she saved me.
If that seems dramatic, you need to know that in the space of time I got to be with Vernice, I fumbled through school with undiagnosed ADHD, choosing a major and a life partner and facing my childhood trauma. The firecracker my life would be launched while Vernice looked on and smiled. And her smile was the sun. It warmed me and dusted me with its fine, golden powder. Sometimes I’d see my reflection and light would land on a spec, igniting like a firefly. I felt sweet surprise spread through me while the firefly signaled in Morse code. I had no idea what was being transmitted, but later I learned it was confidence. If Vernice smiled at me that way, I could believe there was goodness in me, a sparkle to catch light.
Vernice taught me to be a woman who was true. She didn’t have power to make everything just around her, but she knew when to push and when to let go. Or maybe she didn’t know, but she did what she did and walked on. I wasn’t aware this was an option. If someone misstepped, I thought it was their responsibility to burn, even if they had to light themselves on fire.
Vernice taught me to hold my head high by doing it herself. She was regal, right in front of me, and I learned you don’t have to collect awards or money or education to be magnificent. Being right up close to her showed me how magnificence comes by degrees, in small self-honoring habits like brushing her teeth after each meal, in moving her body and praying for people. During the long wait for my friend to realize he should be my boyfriend, she prayed. Every time we talked about it, she’d say, “I’ve been praying about it.” That was her answer to everything. We prayed for her son and she never lost a beat, even when the answers took years.
She taught me small isn’t less than.
I remember how her hands looked doing tasks, how she’d pat the back of her French roll, checking for loose hairs, how she’d stretch after sitting on the work stool a long time. I remember her laugh and the scars on her arm from being stabbed long ago and how she’d look at her husband while he told a story. She sat by me at my wedding shower and watched me marry the man we’d prayed would come to his senses. She was sad when I buried my first pet. She loved me well.
I was young, ignorant and judgey. I was bootstrapping so hard, you could hear my grunting for miles. I’d pointed myself in a direction and was marching, come hell or high water, held erect by the belief determination beats all. Of course it fell apart, but Vernice was there. During the foolishness and inevitable reckoning, Vernice liked me the whole time. She bathed me in grace and wrapped a towel of approval around my goosebumpy body. She esteemed me – thought well of me – even when she set me down. I’d felt small and bad my whole short life until my path met hers.
She took my hand and as we lived side by side, I learned small isn’t less than. An inexperienced white girl, with a myopic world view is still special. Vernice loved me, Godde bless her, and I love her.
Vernice Caffey ~ Magnificent from February 10, 1938 to January 7, 2022