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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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Aunt Tina

By James Baldwin

The Magpie, Winter 1942, v. 26, n. 1, p. 22.

I do not remember that any of us ever called her anything but "Tina"—a variation of the Spanish word for Aunt which my father, who is of Spanish extraction, introduced to the family. Her real name was Rosa, and though she was generally considered to be older than my father, no one ever discovered her real age. If asked, she would smile archly, and say, "Sweet sixteen," or merely close her eyes, and give a cryptic nod.

When I was much younger, she and my grandmother lived with us, and Tina worked in a hotel—The White Hotel, in lower New York. Every day, she would bring home some sweet or some toy for each of us—there were only four children then—and she would sit by in delight while we pranced about her to show our appreciation. Her step upon the stairs was the signal for riotous rejoicing among the small fry, and often she could not get in the door, because of the eager, dancing bodies.

"Here," my mother would say, making a vain attempt to be dictatorial "you children, let your aunt get in! You'll frighten her to death!"—an obvious departure from the truth, for Tina was built on strong martial lines, and it was not possible for her to be intimidated by anything.

"That's all right," she would say, sitting down with a loud sigh, and beaming on us. "You been good children, today?"

And, of course, we would say, "Yes," and she would give us peanuts, or Jellybeans, or crackers, and settle in the rockingchair, and tell us wonderful fairy tales of princesses, thieves, goblins, and sleeping beauties until long past bed-time.

Tina had been unhappily married somewhere in the vague, unreal past, and she and my father often quarreled over the husband of her youth. His name appeared to have been Terry. and Tina hated him. My father and mother, devout Christians, attempted to show her the error of hatred, but to no avail.

"I ain't no haloed saint," she would say, her eyes looking dimly off into space. "I hate him. He ruined my life." During one of my father's frequent disagreements, Aunt Tina became violently offended, and returned to her room in tears and fury. She locked herself in, and refused all communication with the outside world. Late that evening, she went out. The next morning a moving-van was spied from the window. A moving-van was to us an unusual and arresting thing, in a class with fire-engines, patrol-wagons, and ambulances.

"Wonder who it's for?" we said.

We did not wonder long. Aunt Tina came from her room, dressed for the street, and loaded down with parcels.

"Good-bye," she said.

We stared at her, aghast. One of the men from the moving-van banged on the door. Her few things were quickly removed as we children stood there too amazed to speak or move. My father spoke

"You're actin' like a fool, Tina."

"Thank you," she said. She walked stiffly out of the door, down the steps. Halfway down, she turned. Ignoring my father and mother, she waved at us children. "Good-bye," she said. Then she continued slowly down the steps. The downstairs door banged. She was gone.

It seemed to be a fixation with her, that almost everyone she knew was out to "do her in." I have heard her express the most violently derogatory opinions of some erstwhile friend, without having any factual basis at all. After she left us, and went "rooming," she was continually moving from one place to another.

"So-and-so ain't got de right sperrit," she would say, eyes flashing. "I'm gonna move tomorrow.

In vain did my mother plead with, and my father rebuke her. Her decisions, once made, were unshakable. Always, a month or so later, the process repeated itself.

Her longest sojourn with anyone was with a dusty, Dickensian widow by the name of Griffiths. They had met at a church social, related their biographies over the punch bowl, and promptly became fast friends. Tina moved in with her, and, for weeks on end, all we heard were praises of Mrs. Griffiths. Mrs. Griffiths was so kind. Mrs. Griffiths was a real Christian. Mrs. Griffiths was the President of this church society, and Treasurer of that one. Mrs. Griffiths had had a husband who drank, a daughter who died, and a faithless brother, from whom she never heard. In a word, Mrs. Griffiths was all that could be desired.

At our house, there was wild rejoicing, naively unmixed with any misgivings. Tina had found anchor at last! And then, slowly, the communiques began to change. Mrs. Griffins had quarreled with Tina for no more important reason than the latter's extravagance and use of Mrs. Griffiths' sugar for wine-making purposes ("You'd a thought I was a thief!" exclaimed Tina.) She had spread evil gossip about her at church—or so at least Tina concluded on walking in one morning and observing that the pastor failed to shake hands with her after service was over.

Within a week, they parted, Tina going to live with one of my father's friends downtown.

About a month later, Mrs. Griffiths was discovered by the janitor, sitting in her chair, with a Bible in her lap, staring blankly at the wall. She was quite dead.

Tina did not attend the funeral. She made one comment. "I knew the Lord was gonna punish her, for the way she treated me." And as an afterthought; "I hope Hell is hotter, because she's there."

My aunt is, at present, living more or less happily with my father's friends. Occasionally, she comes up to our house in tearful anger over some trivial incident and threatens to move, but the threat lacks its former conviction because we sense that Tina has only one more journey to make. Her shoulders sag now, and her eyes are dull. She no longer brings us sweetmeats, and is no longer greeted with rejoicing at our gates. She visits now with my mother and father, eats, quarrels, and weeps with them, and disappears. However, she sometimes takes the smaller children to a Saturday movie This Saturday they're going to see a revival, Bette Davis in "All This and Heaven Too."

"It's the story of a sweet, beautiful, young girl, who is misunderstood by everyone, and has many trials and tribulations," she explains. "It reminds me so much of my own life."




The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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