I met — no I experienced her at the end of a long first day at my new high school. I was a teen mom with a passion for music. My counselor and all the friendly teachers in the school assured me that the show choir teacher would have no problem letting me bring my 16-month-old daughter to the afterschool practice sessions. The other girls in the choir cooed over my baby and helped me make a play space for her on the floor in front of the risers we were to practice on.

We were starting our warm-up, “Mee, May, Mah, Mo, Mooos” when blonde-headed white lady came smiling her way into the room, swooped up my kid, and left.

Well, she may have said a few words about errands and promised me that the baby would be fine, but the shock of the situation at the time made her action stick in my head. She walked in smiling, confident, knowing exactly what or who she had come for, as if it had been planned. She wasn’t a judging person or one of those “helping out of pity types”. She wasn’t trying to swoop in and “save” the black baby. She walked into the room and picked up my kid like a great aunt coming to babysit her niece.

With my baby gone, I stopped the warmups to follow. No one else seemed concerned about the kidnapping that just took place! In fact, it was the other way around. The music teacher was suddenly telling me it was okay. That now I could practice without worrying about the baby. The other girls assured me that “Kaye,” the lady who stole my baby, was the best and would bring my baby back unharmed when practice ended. One of the other singers was Kaye’s daughter who assured me that her mom meant only the best and was probably doing this to give me a break.

I eventually conceded. I didn’t know what else to do. Throughout our practice, I imagined the worst tales that my stepfamily could conjure at a cookout about white people they never met and one of those people with my black child. I even contemplated how I would get away from the group at the end of practice and call the cops because everyone there must be in on the kidnapping!

That practice time slid by, but sure enough, as we ended our last number, there stood Kaye with my Chloe in her arms. She was asleep and clinging to Kaye as if the lady were her favorite purple dinosaur. She had the most tranquil sleep smile on her baby face. I was still a nervous wreck. I thanked Kaye and may have even accepted a ride home from her. But, I remember holding my baby close that night and maybe crying.

At the next practice, it happened again. This time, Kaye told me that she was just running errands and hanging out with the baby. “Don’t worry about us, mama. You just get up there and sang,” she drawled. Nervously, I did. I really wasn’t sure what else to do. Later that day, my boyfriend told me who this woman was. It was his “Aunt Kaye,” and I had met her before.

I didn’t realize that I had met the entire Lawson clan that prior summer. All the way to the home of the family matriarch, my future in-laws were trying to give me an idea of what to expect from the family. Everything they said scared the hell out of me. They sounded like crazy white people, who relished the word “redneck” — a word my family did not use in the best of conversations. Meanwhile, we were riding deeper and deeper into Arkansas hill country. I had seen Deliverance. It was very hard not to imagine hearing the banjos dueling in a distance.

The moment we got there, I heard a woman’s throaty, smoke-laced laughter coming from inside the trailer that was nestled in the hickory and cedar trees. My husband introduced me to everyone, but Kaye was the one who really dragged me inside and gave me the lowdown on who was who. She grabbed me by the hand and pulled me through the crowd of country white people and into the best smelling kitchen since my mothers on the holidays. She took the baby. Her mother had a high chair set up close to the food where I swear Chloe sat and stuffed herself the entire time we were there. Meanwhile, I was given food and placed where I could mingle with everyone.

Chloe and I were the darkest things there, besides my future father in law’s farmer tan, but I never felt like I belonged with a people more. We ate, talked, laughed, and ate some more. My baby was passed from this one’s hip to that one’s. Someone put her to sleep. I found her in a quiet room with another sleep smile on her food-caked face.

So, when Kaye heard I was starting at the high school, she must have come to see what she could do to help me out. She must have known how scared I would feel starting school in this predominantly white town, without knowing a soul at the school I was attending. Someone must have told her about me being incredibly shy as well, because she swooped in so fast that I had no time to react.

By the sheer number of people who knew baby Chloe every time I went out around town, I found out that, during my choir practice, Kaye had been making my introduction in her own way. She was like the neighborhood’s heavy, walking the streets with the new guy just to show everyone that the “newb” was family and was not to be messed with. So many people knew me and were ready to welcome me because of Kaye. And to think, she had to kidnap my baby to make it happen.

This wouldn’t be the last time she kidnapped my babies.

A few years later, we came to Thanksgiving dinner with the entire Lawson clan. Kaye met us at the door smiling and laughing. She snatched my baby and somehow got the toddler Chloe to follow into the community center they had rented to accommodate the big family. I was led to an open seat at a table, given a plate and then surrounded by people who wanted to know what we were up to. I later broke away and follow Kaye’s laugh to a table where she was shoveling mashed potatoes into my eager baby’s face. She was laughing with other family members, talking with the toddler, and cooing at the baby. My toddler, also covered in food, was contently jabbering away at Kaye, happy to have part of her attention.

When she noticed me watching, Kaye laughed an ordered me to get some more food and join them.

Over the years, I have lost and found connections with Aunt Kaye. Facebook was our lifeline lately. Even with all the controversial stuff about race that I wrote or shared, we could always find common ground — usually fiction. We shared a love of good books. Without her friendship and her personal way of making things happen, I don’t think I would have adapted so well to the community I lived in. The talks I had with her afterschool gave me the confidence — no, the strength to move past the fright I felt being one of the very few POCs in the place. She taught me to live life, to love it, and to never to take things — including myself — too seriously.

Anyone who has been the only black face in the crowd knows the terror in trying to figure out how you will adapt, make friends, and settle into such an environment. Without Aunt Kaye and her loving kidnappings, I would be left on the sidelines of life still wondering where I fit in.

Rest in peace, Aunt Kaye. You will be missed, but never forgotten.

Written by

Jonita Davis is a writer, film critic, and professor. She’s a member of NABJ, AAFCA, a Rotten Tomatoes critic, and an adjunct professor.

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