My Uncle Henry used to say that the joy in life was found in the struggle. The process was what brought surprising fulfillment. Things wouldn’t always turn out quite the way you expected or wished. One had to adjust, adapt, deal with the results of the process and fight on until victory. At which point, everything falls apart.
Behind the apartment do the dogs still bark? Do chickens scratch around looking for bugs? Sometimes they used to bring in a truckload of hogs and slaughter them, the whole family working together. Or was that hogs rooted around and truckloads of chickens were slaughtered? Once or twice the ground shook. I stood in the doorway and waited for it to stop, afraid I’d be in the way trying to get down the stairs and out of the house with my bad leg, even though the landlord added a railing. I hope the restaurant down the street still serves a full breakfast of rice and beans with eggs at a price I can afford. Three months ago I left on a short vacation. Now I’m home. We all wear masks and disinfect our hands and feet coming and going. Tomorrow I will see about the food situation. For now, it’s good to be home.
If I lost my body parts, I would not be joyous in the loss. Already they are trying to sneak off. My feet ache. My knees sore and stuff, slowing me down. Words blur without glasses. My lips are unable to sustain a good whistle. If I could, I would be at the edge of the sea watching my shadow in the moonlight. But the sea is far away. Rain clouds hide the shadows. One night I will catch it in my drive, between the trees, before the too powerful streetlights blot it out.
In the evening heat, we sit on the porch watching fireflies light up here and there and here again down in the yard. We pass the bottle back and forth as we settle into the lethargy that overtakes us now at dusk. Years ago, when our children were small, they would run around chasing fireflies, putting them in bottles. Strange to think about those times, before masks, before social distancing. When family gatherings were not on Zoom and we were together in the yard, sitting at tables laughing and playing cards. Passing the babies from lap to lap. As real dark sets in,the fireflies disappear high into the trees. I go inside and set the porridge for breakfast.
My dress and tights were blue. My shoes were black and flat. My hair had been straightened. We stood on the stage in the auditorium. The curtain behind us was red. I was through with elementary school. We only had to stay until graduation was over. Afterwards, I went home with my best friend. The boy who lived around the corner from her was there too. He was a nice boy, rather short in 6th grade. I don’t remember his name or ever seeing him after that. Probably because I was double promoted right past all of my classmates and friends and into the confusion of kids who’d been in Junior high six months already. And then we moved to another district. But that day after graduation, was perfect. Detroit winter cold, snow piled on both sides of the shoveled sidewalks and smooth all over Deidre’s unshoveled backyard. We threw snow balls and laughed all afternoon. One hit me in the face, the boy I can’t remember wiped it gently off.
In the beginning, we thought we needed supplies for two weeks. Family accounted for and hunkered down. Toilet paper and baking yeast bought before it disappeared from the stores. Should have bought flour, but who knew? Tulani came through with ten pounds of whole wheat. Ayanna brought vegetables and fruits from farmers, meat from the butcher and bread from the baker. Initial driveway gatherings were emotional. We stood far apart talking. Putting supplies on tables between. Eating outside separately once or twice. Celebrations continued. A birthday in the driveway. Another birthday and two graduations via zoom. Father’s day with masked visits. Ayanna's Cookies, Tulani's cupcakes, Ife's cheesecake and Cabral's doubles delivered door to door. We began gathering for game nights on zoom. Seeing some of the far flung family more often than before. Three months later, fireflies appeared. Evenings we sit, watching them flicker in the wild yard, thankful we are all still here. Waiting for the cicadas to begin their summer songs.
She was tall and stylish even on her 90th birthday. A surprise party, family, old friends, church friends. All of us had a story we could have told about a thoughtful word, a gift at just the right time. Maybe younger family members would not be as kind in their thoughts. She could be brusk, speaking her thoughts without softening them. She grew up tall and awkward. Old photographs she scrunches down as her height takes her past older brother Hugh. A dressmaker friend convinced her she was beautiful. Helped her find a style. She piled her hair up on top of her head, draped her clothes so that they softened her. Thinking all the time, but not bookish or academic, she left college after a year to work as receptionist for her doctor father and brother. Lived at home with parents and a house full of siblings. She eloped at the the last minute, before being sucked into a disastrous marriage. The gifts and guests waiting, she was in Toledo marrying a dashing lieutenant. A different kind of disaster. Back home with her newborn son, she never went back. Working for her brothers in doctors office and print shop and the church. In the church clothing factory she helped design clothing made from African fabric. Movied easily into managing the Cultural Center, first one and then three. Made trips to Africa to buy sculptures and see the motherland. She became advisor and helper to a generation of women, giving them confidence to fly. What I remember is the time she told my father to take me to Dr. Louis so he could do something for my awful acne. She tried to get me a summer job working at a grocery store in South West Detroit so I could use my high school Spanish. My mother nixed that one. The maternity clothes she brought up to the Black Conscience Library when I’d left home and was a revolutionary librarian, pregnant with my first child. The way she looked out for my uncle Henry, sending him new sheets and asking us to clean up for him because he was too nice a person not to. And he was. Once we were both in Detroit staying at the Training Center, housing for church members. My oldest daughter had a new baby. My father was lived on the 7th floor. Barbara had just come and was in her apartment. My father told me to call her and when I did, she said, in a thoughtful voice, he want’s us to get to know each other. Or be friends. The years blur. The last time I saw her, she wasn’t as sharp, was starting to fade. It was a family gathering at her son’s house. We talked for a little. She said all the boys were dead. She mentioned talking to her mother, who had been gone for years and years. And told me I had always been nice.
They are still shooting us in the streets. Not just this year. Or even last. All of my 73 years and my father’s years and his father’s years. My grandfather's father, my great grandfather, was born into slavery. You know how that went. Both of my grandfather’s moved north. Looking to breathe that fresh air of freedom. That was before the red summer of 1919, when white folks killed black folks north, south, east and west. And it never stopped. Let up a bit from time to time. Went unreported even more often. These days passing people catch it on their cellphones. We’ve moved north. We’ve moved south. We bought land. We voted.We got educated. We marched and protested. We sang,rioted and rebelled. And even while we are marching, they are still shooting us down in the streets. Talking about new days,tearing down statues, retiring Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, feeding exploited workers fried chicken and waffles. Back in the day, I would have ended this poem with a call for REVOLUTION! Now I just wait to see if they will again diffuse this anger with drugs. Or if it will explode.
Trees over my head, their green canopy hides the gray sky.
She points to the stairs,he won’t budge. He stands in the pouring rain, ignoring her signal to exit up. Families mill about, confused. Should they go up or wait for further direction? The children sob, rain dripping from their chins. A large woman in purple wants to help … The rain blows in through open windows. He gives the thumbs up, standing in a widening puddle of water. Giving him the side eye, she pours a glass of water, unaware of the boil water warning in effect. Three beats. The rain continues to pour. A cool wind blows. The trees bend. Two beats. Too stubborn to obey, he remains right there, dripping, while she drinks the dirty water. A tree crashes beside him.