Editor's note: This is the seventh installment of Jerry Sternberg's continuing "Life in Seely's Castle" saga. The earlier pieces are available on the Xpress website or at www.gospeljerry.com (which also contains additional photos of the castle and its furnishings).
The castle’s high priestess was one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever known. She came to us as a domestic when we were living in a small house in Lake View Park.
Her name was Beulah Young, but in her squalid neighborhood, where central heat and indoor plumbing were rarities, she was known as "Miss Beulah.”
Her warm, toothy smile and deep laugh were immediately engaging; we soon learned, though, that Miss Beulah was not only a dedicated worker but, despite her relative youth, a respected neighborhood ombudsman and activist. She was a one-woman Pisgah Legal Services and DSS combined.
Quickly figuring out that I knew a lot of people in the community, Beulah had me calling businessmen, politicians, judges and social workers on behalf of some poor soul, admonishing, "You know, Mistah Jerry, that ain’t right and that ain’t fair, and you got to help this person!”
I once asked her how so many of these people came to find themselves in such difficult circumstances. I’ve never forgotten her obvious but profound answer: “Po’ folks just do po’ ways," making me understand that it was my duty to help.
Miss Beulah was right of out of central casting for Driving Miss Daisy or The Help. She and her community were victims of a separate and unequal education: Without a doubt, she would have made an outstanding doctor, lawyer, educator or politician. Besides taking care of the cleaning and child rearing, she was our most trusted family mentor, rock-solid during many a crisis.
Although we always maintained our traditional roles as employer and (shamefully underpaid) domestic servant, I paid her whatever she thought was fair, and despite those societal constraints, we developed an unbelievable mutual caring and respect.
More than once, Miss Beulah sat me down and lectured me about how I’d handled some family matter, and she instilled as many positive qualities and life skills in my children as my wife and I did.
A classic sense of humor, probably a defense mechanism developed during a difficult upbringing, served her well in getting her point across.
Once when my son was 3 or 4 years old, she and my wife said he was outgrowing his clothes. With my trademark frugality, I said he could wear hand-me-downs. I came home from work that night to find him wearing his older sister's dress, a bow in his hair. The shopping trip commenced immediately.
Somehow we began pulling April Fools’ jokes on each other, and Miss Beulah outsmarted me every time. Once I enlisted the sheriff to help me put one over on her, but she caught on right away. And when she spotted him later at one of our parties, Miss Beulah walked up to that tall, imposing man, shook her fist and declared, "If you ever pull that on me again, I will punch you right in the nose!" He gave her a big hug and laughed till he cried.
When I bought the castle, I was concerned about the extra work it would entail for Beulah. When I asked her what she thought about moving, however, she proclaimed, "Mr. Jerry, you worked hard to get that place, and we are going to move there." Like Mammy in Gone with the Wind, when Miss Beulah said we was “gwine,” we was gwine. She never complained about the work, and as high priestess, she took great pride in the castle and loved all the visitors.
Regulars would immediately say, "Where’s Beulah?" before going off in search of her big hug and hearty greeting. When we had large parties, Miss Beulah was the matron of honor: hair done, makeup on, sporting a new dress as she warmly greeted all the guests.
Her tenure in the castle made life there so happy, and my children adored her.
By the time Miss Beulah retired, both my daughters were living in Israel, so we sent her on a trip to the Holy Land to visit them. With her regal bearing, Beulah was viewed as a Nubian queen, charming people everywhere she went despite the language barrier.
Although she’s long passed, we won’t forget this very special person who did so much for our family and for all those whose lives she touched. We can only say, "Bless you, Miss Beulah, wherever you are.”
— Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.