by Tim Gilmore, 4/17/2014
Excerpted from a draft of Tim Gilmore’s In Search of Eartha White, to be published in the fall of 2014.
1974. January winter.
Eartha White had fallen. She had fallen down the stairs. She had always refused to use that elevator for anything other than feeding the animals, though others could use it so long as they didn’t knock over the food and water bowls.
Grayce Bateman, her personal secretary for 27 years, came to work one Monday morning, even earlier than usual. The sun hadn’t begun to light the sky.
She turned her key in the door and it squeaked on its ancient hinges. The building had known so much life. It was far older than its years. It compounded atmospheres on atmospheres. It was an experienced building.
Grayce came up the wooden steps. The first thing she did when she came into the Mission every morning was visit Eartha’s second-floor bedroom. She communed with Eartha there, in the still of the early morning, the only time it was usually quiet on West Ashley Street. She met with Eartha before dawn as only two old friends, long dedicated to their cause, could do.
But this particular Monday morning, Eartha could barely rise up in her bed. Getting out of bed would have been impossible.
Eartha said her shoulder hurt. She said her leg felt dead.
Grayce knew she’d broken bones. Maybe a rib. Eartha couldn’t stand for Grayce to touch her.
Grayce stood there at the side of Eartha’s bed, looking down into her ancient face, and Eartha grabbed her hand, squeezed it weakly, and pulled it to her side.
Both of them knew.
Grayce asked her if she had fallen during the night.
Eartha didn’t answer. She didn’t need to.
I stand in Eartha’s bedroom on the second floor of the Mission. Night falls.
It was here that Grayce held Eartha’s hand after Eartha fell down the stairs.
It was here that Grayce held Eartha’s hand just days before she died.
It was here that Eartha had gone to bed, night after night, decade after decade, and it was here that she rose before dawn every day.
It was here she sometimes put a stranger to bed in her stead, someone starving or bleeding or ready to kill himself, someone who needed anything she could offer, after which she would place herself anywhere else in the Mission.
I stand in the Mission and feel the whole building as Eartha. The Mission is to this building as Eartha was to her body. But longer lived. Eartha’s body lasted only 97 years, unless Eartha’s body is this old building, once the Globe Theater back in LaVilla’s days as a musical and cultural center.
People claim to see Eartha’s ghost here because she made this Mission her life. She never left to go home. This was home. She never separated herself from the people she sought to help.
I look out the window from which she looked thousands of times from this bedroom, though the LaVilla I see so differs from Eartha’s LaVilla, though the LaVilla Eartha saw in 1970 so differed from the LaVilla she saw in 1940.
I’m not talking anything paranormal. I’m just talking Eartha. And I’m just talking the Mission.
The bedroom is quiet. The bedroom is empty. But this emptiness is not empty. This emptiness is full. As Eartha’s life was full. As Eartha obtains in the fullness and the emptiness of these halls and these rooms.