I have always been fascinating by tragic childhoods. As soon as I was old enough to know that my own home was not “normal,” I watched anyone closely who found happiness after early tragedy.
Ethel Waters’s 1896 birth was the outcome of a child’s rape. Her grandmother tried to provide for the destitute household in Whore’s Alley. “And me always hungry,” says Ethel.
The hunger, and the emotional hunger, were devastating.
“Ethel I born you,” her mother responds when Ethel seeks a sliver of caring. “Ain’t that enough?” Her grandmother can barely stand on her feet at the end of each hardscrabble workday, and has no affection or support to express. I love the way McQueen makes us feel these characters, even though they never appear onstage.
Neglect, to a child, leaves a deep aching loneliness. It is a feeling that can haunt you the rest of your life, even when you’re surrounded by love. It surfaces at the strangest times: walking city streets in the sunshine, rounding an aisle in an antique store, holding out hands to receive a dozen roses. It refuses to be pushed away.
And so I understand when Ethel is brought to a Catholic school and left with the nuns, and her heart cries, “Alone.”
When Ethel gets into trouble, one of the nuns makes an astonishing invitation: “Eat lunch with me.”
Whenever one being offers presence to another, the chance for something miraculous happens. We learn that, despite what that old nagging feeling tells us, we are not alone. A door opens, and we become aware of other presence, Divine presence, an uncanny expression of our own being.
This presence unfolds us creatively, helps us discover all that which lies in the moment, including creativity, art, and music.
Every time Ethel sings, it is clear she has something incredible and rare.
And yet that loneliness resurfaces, time and again. By the time Ethel leaves the nuns, she has grown to love her school. “Only now me all alone,” she says.
All of this is made a thousand times harder and more complicated because of racial mistreatment. When Ethel gets in a horrible accident, she is sent to the state poorhouse because “there are no hospitals for coloreds.”
Once again, a kind soul appears, someone giving the gift of attention. “Keep that light inside you honey, and find the way out of here,” the helper says.
Ethel’s persistence, her singing, her talent, her sense of humor, and her ability to seize every chance – they vault her from injury, injustice, pain, and poverty.
Yet loneliness dogs her steps. “Do I even know how to love?” she asks, well into adulthood and struggling in her marriage.
Oh man, if that question isn't familiar to me!
And then she sings, and learns, and relearns to sing:
Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home, When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
She is singing herself back to the awareness of that Presence, back to the open door of love, despite all the locks and fears and bars that convince the mind of its utter aloneness.
Seeing, with those sad and soulful eyes, that she is always seen.
It is the work of every lonely human.