The Yellow Curse
By Constance Johnson
I felt her before I saw her. Aunt Etta perched on the edge of my bed, devouring a slice of lemon meringue pie. I closed my eyes several times, hoping she’d go away. Sometimes she would if you ignored her, but not on this night. She refused to move from the edge of my bed, intensely focused on that slice of pie.
She grabbed a dab of meringue and mixed it with the crumbs from the graham cracker crust and commanded, “Wake up, wake up. I got something to tell you.”
Groggy and sleep-deprived, I responded. “Aunt Etta, I am awake. Now would you please go away? Pleeeasssee, just go away.”
“Girl, you ain’t that sleepy," she said. “Get up. I got something to tell you, now,” Aunt Etta said.
But first she had a question.
“Who prepared this pie? It had to be your mother. Lord, I thought I missed her sweet potato pie, but she put her foot in this. Um. So good. It’s so good.”
Aunt Etta scraped the plate clean and started licking her fork. I buried my head under the covers, hoping to block the light from the sun.
“Wake up, girl. Did your mother make lasagna, too?” she asked.“
“Yes, but we ate it all last night.”
Aunt Etta had been dead for two years, and while others of her kind craved human flesh, she only desired mama’s food.
After scraping the fork across the plate one final time, she placed it on the nightstand and announced: “Something bad is coming.”
“What’s coming? What are you talking about?” I asked.
“You’ll see. Tell your mother things will soon be okay, and I'll be waiting for her when it’s time.”
I decided against telling my family about Aunt Etta’s visit. It would have just made them upset. I knew Aunt Etta was right. Something bad was coming. My mother had never in her entire life prepared lemon meringue pie. It was usually forbidden inside our home.
Just a few days before Aunt Etta’s visit, I had a strange dream about the sun coming to visit. The sun shared the same news as my Aunt Etta: something bad was coming.
Yellow is a bright, airy, pretty color. It looks good on my dark skin, but I will never buy any clothing that is yellow. I will never paint my walls yellow. I don’t even like yellow number two pencils. We do not consume yellow foods, either. Yellow has cursed my family. That’s how I knew Aunt Etta eating the lemon meringue pie and the sun dream were bad signs.
Mama once had a canary-yellow Ford Galaxy. It was the prettiest car my parents ever owned. Three weeks after buying it, mama was driving across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on her way to work. She stopped because the bridge was opening, but the driver behind her kept moving, plowing his car into mama’s.
The car was wrecked and mama was hospitalized for three weeks with everything from phlebitis to broken ribs.
Once, while living in Florida, I foolishly bought a mustard-yellow dress from Macy’s. My boyfriend dumped me the first day I wore that dress, my car broke down, and later I discovered it needed a new engine. By the time I got to work that day at the County Sentinel, the bureau chief called me into his office to inform me that I had two weeks to improve my performance or be fired.
I looked at that yellow dress and knew what I had to do. I quit that job on the spot and moved back to Washington, D.C.
Florida was a bad move. It’s the Sunshine State, and what is sunshine but a bright, blinding, and burning yellow? It took us a while to figure it out – that yellow scars and hurts and always causes irreparable damage – but once we did, we never took yellow lightly again.
And so, in the summer of 1998, mama’s illness began with the ultimate symbol of trouble for my family: yellow. First, there was the mistaken belief that mama had a bad case of indigestion. She continuously threw up a thick yellowy substance. We were so naive. No one has a bad case of indigestion for three weeks, but that’s what mama wanted to believe. And so, that’s what we believed. Even the doctor confirmed mama’s self-diagnosis. It was a severe case of indigestion, and so she drank plenty of Maalox, swallowed Tums, and avoided spicy foods.
One day, she was riding in the car with my father. It was the first time in weeks that she felt well enough to venture out of the house and my father had seen her in natural light. He looked at her and she said in kind of a funny, you-know-you-don’t-want-to-start-a-fight-with-me tone, “What are you staring at?”
He said, “Baby, you’re yellow.”
She was yellow and that meant bad news for her, and us.
But don’t feel sorry for us, which you’re probably starting to. There were other bold colors to brighten our days.
Colors that represent the best of times, and it’s not like we’re color-phobic. We just avoided anything yellow. Mama wore a green jersey knit two-piece outfit to a funeral once, which pretty much shocked everyone. Her family talked about it for years. They tended to wear blacks, grays, and soft off-white hues.
But mama didn’t give a damn. After months of talking behind her back, word finally reached mama of her family’s displeasure. She just said nobody’s going to tell me what color I can wear to a funeral. “Next time, I just might wear something purple to a funeral, and there will be a next time, cause you know my relatives are always dropping like flies.”
And I wondered if God decided then to give mama the cancer, because she was always threatening or trying to disrupt the order of things. She never was that way about the yellow, though. Even she didn’t defy the yellow curse. I think she wore green to the funeral and threatened to wear purple because her sisters were so nasty about the yellow thing. Mama’s sisters were jealous of her. I think it was because she was so pretty. Her father was half-Cherokee Indian, and mama looked just like her grandmother, with glass-cutting cheekbones, cocoa-brown skin that never needed foundation, and long, luscious lashes that were never introduced to mascara.
My grandfather’s relatives ignored most of his offspring, but they adored mama, which meant they favored her kids, as well. My great-grandmother left mama a nice hunk of change after she died, but she didn’t leave the other grandkids anything. Also, mama was built like a brick house. After a night on the town, daddy always serenaded her with the Commodores tune “Brick House.”
And that’s the other thing; mama had been married to the same man for years, while her sisters weren’t so lucky. They were always getting divorced and remarried. They resented mama. So, they were always wearing yellow dresses, skirts, and blouses around mama because they knew about the yellow curse. Her youngest sister even tried to get mama to make her a yellow sundress. She stopped speaking to mama for a few years because mama refused to make the dress, but like I said, even mama didn’t defy the yellow curse, so yellow anything, even yellow fabrics, were forbidden in our house.
Also, mama preferred making wedding dresses, but she had a rule. Only one wedding dress per bride.
She didn’t do second and third marriages.
All her sisters had divorced and remarried at least twice. So, she was done making wedding dresses for them. That seemed to annoy her youngest sister the most. She was on her fifth husband, but mama had only made the first wedding dress for her.
She liked the first husband and thought Aunt Brenda was pretty silly for divorcing him. He worked a lot and drank too much on the weekends. Mama reasoned that you don’t dump a man who works hard, and if he works hard, he has earned the right to drink too much on the weekends.
But I’m making our lives sound sad and desperate, and that’s not the way things were at all. We had a colorful life.
One day after chemo treatment, mama was tired and had been throwing up most of the day; she looked at me kind of funny. I thought that she was going to tell me I was getting too fat. I was. Ever since her diagnosis, I could not stop eating, which was pretty weird because poor mama couldn’t eat anything. I started the day with donuts and bacon and just kept inhaling food all day. She didn’t want to tell me I was fat, well she probably did, but she didn’t say it then.
No. She told me she was going to make me a wedding dress, which was hilarious.
I hadn’t had a date in two years. I was having an affair with my boss, who was married, but then they hired a much younger receptionist at my job and he ended our affair and moved onto the receptionist. I guess it was a good thing my boss dumped me, but I did really miss him. He was the best kisser and a soft and gentle lover. He was generous, too. He loved to take me shopping and let me buy anything I wanted. Afterwards, we had lunches that lasted two or three hours, and sometimes we ate strawberries and drank expensive champagne.
I reminded mama I was flying solo, but she just waved her bony finger at me and said I was being silly. She said some other stuff too, but I just couldn’t get over how bony her finger was. Mama used to have such big, thick fingers, and I realized how much of her we had already lost to the cancer.
I fell into her lap crying. She said, “Lord, you are so weird, now go and get me my sewing basket. Go on now.”
I loved her sewing basket. It was full of scraps of materials – the whitest whites and off whites, creams and egg shells, nudes and beiges, soft pinks, creamsicle orange, blues and lavenders. She started pulling out pieces of material and laying them against my skin. She didn’t ask me what color I wanted. I knew she didn’t care.
Mama was a bit of a dictator when it came to her wedding dresses, and the funny thing was people never argued with her. You would think a bride might want to have a say in the style and color of her wedding dress, but mama never gave them any, and they never complained.
I was about to tell her how I wanted a cream-colored wedding dress, but she shot me a look and I knew to keep my mouth shut.
“Go get my sketchbook. Something is coming to me," she ordered, and I obeyed.
This wasn’t my first wedding dress. Mama had made me another wedding dress. It was plain white satin. Mama didn’t like the guy I was marrying, so she took it out on the dress. She was right about the guy. Two days before the wedding, he came over to the house and said he had fallen in love with someone else. We weren’t right for each other. You’d think if he felt that way he wouldn’t have bothered to ask me to marry him in the first place. He was right, as I never listened to him. He was boring. He was an IT guy, and not that I’m big on stereotypes, but he was a big old computer nerd and a lousy lover. One night, I fell asleep while we were making love. All of a sudden, I just started snoring. I think that really hurt his feelings, but I couldn’t help it. I was exhausted, and he made love like he was tapping on a computer keyboard. Oh, and he was obsessed with fantasy books and movies, and he got really upset if you confused fantasy with science-fiction, as if anyone really cares, but it was a big deal to him and his friends.
He didn’t like mama very much, either. He said she thought too highly of herself, which was probably true, but what’s wrong with having a high opinion of yourself? The only reason I agreed to marry him was that no one had asked me before, and I just wanted to know what it felt like to be engaged and have people make a fuss over me like I was the Queen of England or something.
The wedding dress didn’t go to waste. Two years later, mama used it for a first cousin who was getting married. Mama, without a sketchpad, ripped apart the neckline and back, then added organza fabric over the white satin. She then added hundreds of white pearls over the dress. Revising the dress took months, but with the aid of others, it was finished. She only let them glue on the pearls, as mama was funny about people trying to take credit for her work. I cried when I saw my cousin Rachel in that dress. I know most people assumed I was crying over the fiancé who dumped me. I wasn’t. I was crying from the sheer beauty of that dress and how mama had transformed something so plain into a work of art.
One day, mama turned everything upside down and announced that she was going to make me a yellow wedding dress.
At first, I thought she was just loopy and delirious from the morphine, but she insisted that my wedding dress was going to be yellow.
I didn’t know what else to do and then I asked her about the yellow curse, and then mama laughed. It was a scary laugh, one of those laughs that you hear in campy horror movies that they replay over and over on cable channels.
“I’m dying. Don’t you see the worst thing has already happened to me? I will never live to see you get married or meet any of my grandchildren.’
“But what about me, mama? What about me?” I muttered.
Mama just shrugged her bony shoulders and said, “When I die, I’m taking the yellow curse with me. I’m taking it with me. Goddamn, the yellow curse. Goddamn.”
So, mama started making a yellow wedding dress.
She worked for hours on the dress. She even worked on the dress while people came to visit. They wanted to say their final goodbyes, but she was having none of that. Folks cried and tried to hug her, but mama focused on the wedding dress. Sometimes I wondered how she found the strength to make it to her sewing machine, but she did. Sometimes she napped between sewing sessions. On the days she didn’t have the strength to sit at the sewing machine, she stitched the dress by hand in bed, trying to yell orders, but her voice was weak.
“Get me a glass of water.”
“Run to the store and pick up some stick pins and a couple of spools of canary-yellow thread.”
I tried to act excited about that dress, which was beautiful. It was sleeveless, with yellow lace at the top, and lemon-drop colored diaphanous tiers at the bottom. Mama added jeweled appliqués, which were from her wedding dress, to the lace top. Somehow, mama had managed to give me something new and something old with that dress. It was probably going to be the prettiest wedding dress mama ever made, but I knew no matter how beautiful that dress was, I was never going to walk down the aisle in it.
One day, she ordered me to go to the store to buy two-yards of yellow satin fabric. She wanted to add another layer to the train, which was ridiculous since I could barely walk in the dress as it was, but I was not about to argue with mama, so I headed to the fabric store.
When I returned home, mama was clutching the dress, but she had stopped breathing. I sat down next to mama and just stared at her.
Aunt Etta was standing in the corner watching my every move. I had never seen a dead body up close before. I wasn’t ready to tell anyone. I just wanted to be next to mama, and as I looked at her face and closed her eyes, I started to laugh. Aunt Etta started laughing, too.
Mama died with a smile on her face, and a needle and thread in her hand laughing at the yellow curse. Maybe she was right. Maybe she took that yellow curse with her. I’ll never know because I have no intention of finding out for sure, but a few days after we put mama in the ground, I buried that yellow wedding dress in our backyard. No matter what mama said, it would never be worn or seen, but I kind of wanted to keep it close, just in case mama ever came back and wanted to make some alterations.