People from the South know how to make you feel good even if only in the name of hospitality. There’s something in the hello, the observation of what you looked like that day, the positivity in the comment on it. It wasn’t until I moved to New York after graduation that I understood what made Mrs. Blackwell’s version of it so special.
She meant it, deeply and always.
In DeSoto it made sense. This began when I was asked by the local chapter of the NAACP to coach her daughter for the national ACT-SO competition since I'd won years before (Courtney has been my little sister ever since). To walk into Mrs. Blackwell's home was to accept a quick descent into the unfair throes of overwhelming comfort, you know, “I may not leave your house ever” comfort. At her alto “Hi, how are you?” your breathing slowed because you were cared for and asked to sit down somewhere. By “How is your Mom?” along with other qualifiers that she bothered to remember from your last visit, you were holding a beverage of the sort that directly contrasted the weather outside.
If you stayed long enough for her to ask about school/career/work, you were handling a full plate of some delicious animal whose well-seasoned, tasty remains would not seem right without the collard green or yam she put next to it.
During the afterglow of the meal, you were at her mercy. Rita Blackwell had an internal GPS for personal inner-workings of the people she liked, and she could give Katie, Diane and Barbara a run for their money when it came to interview skills.
By the second plate__“Do you want some more, there’s plenty of food?”/“No, ma’am, I’m fine really”/“Are you sure?”/“Maybe a small plate…”__you had given Rita an exclusive on your current relationship, sprinkled with bits on your last. I say Rita because by now she had segued from Mrs. Blackwell, esteemed mother of Courtney and wife of OC to therapeutic ear capable of parlaying your issues with warmth where judgment could have been. Emotional sobriety was only necessary should she catch you off guard with a Courtney question you had no business answering, in which case the scramble to present whatever truth would get you out unscathed became key. (Over the years, I’ve watched a few people go down in flames behind upsetting a Blackwell woman, or any of her kin.)
In any case, you were never an iota uncomfortable.
I understood how she accomplished this in DeSoto, at her house. So does Dana, whose parents returned the favor to Courtney during the ladies' college years in the spirit of family village support. And so do the numerous black kids from the SMU Division of Dance who couldn't make it to their homes for holidays and instead hopped in my Geo Prism to the Blackwell residence.
But Rita managed to do it over the phone too, make me feel good, host me even in my house.
This occurred on several occasions when I got ambitious in my kitchen and needed help. I knew the home number by heart and would call urgently: Does extra flour thicken a lemon and wine based gravy as well or am I reaching? What other strategic places do onions need to sit on the turkey other than between its legs? And what’s another recipe for stuffing if I don’t find the ingredients my great aunt—whom I also called for kitchen counsel—gets from Kroger, which we don’t have in New York? Does Aunt Cynth do this same thing with the slow cooked pork roast?
I learned much about my kitchen from Mrs. Blackwell.
My sister Courtney has the lion share of Rita Blackwell lessons of course, not the least of which is how to present a long leg and shapely torso in a dress (see photo). But I got a huge gem from her through example: God only put on the Earth a small number of kind people. Some of us are good, with nice moments and chipper dispositions, and others of us acquiesce to the spirit of generosity on occasion. But few of us are born with kindness that needs no warranty and costs absolutely nothing to those fortunate enough to wander in its wake.
Rita Blackwell was kind through and through. Hopefully, we all learned her lessons; God saw to it that the aneurysm she came in with remained dormant for the whole 64 years she was here. She was classy (again, see photo) and it’s a blessing her daughter was so stunning in her wedding dress because Rita and I were giving her a run for her money.
I will miss her tremendously.
And I’m sure I won’t cook a turkey dinner without her in my kitchen.