We do so many things alone in our lives, in this world, except being born. We all have a mother, and no matter what that relationship is like, someone did something, this first thing, for you. In the following section, which took place several years ago, I have just arrived home for my Aunt Phyllis’ funeral.
The dawn crept through the white lace curtains, the color of blue corn silk. I must have drifted off, but a full bladder pressed my gut. I could hear my mother already up in the kitchen, always before everyone, laying out her usual spread of solitaire. I wondered had she even slept. Or maybe she didn’t want to sleep. Possibly she’d had a visit from Aunt Phyllis’ ghost in the twilight hours. My mother was the real Ghost Whisperer. “Your Daddy said to tell you he’s okay.” All our dead came back to her, out of a closet or from behind a door, asking my mother to tell the rest of us that they were in a better place, not writhing in someone’s fire and brimstone. Me, I didn’t want to see anybody’s rattling chains, or deliver last words: there were gifts and there were gifts. I told our ghosts to keep that shit to themselves; I only wanted to dream. But that’s another story.
Momma played Solitaire fast, snapping the cards on the table angrily. Her sure hands manipulating them, sometimes finishing a game in five minutes flat. Rarely losing to herself. From my room, I heard the frustrated flip, whisk, slap, flip, whisk, slap, shuffle. “Shit,” she mumbled. “Just my luck.”
Then a soda can snapped open and the acidic liquid poured over ice. I lay there listening, tightening my thighs, holding it, not wanting to encroach upon her morning meditation with my footsteps, an intruding light and the creaky bathroom door.
Solitaire was Velma’s way of making sense of the world. Her way of making things come out balanced and in order or not at all, where she had only the cards and her strategy to adhere to, nothing and no one else. She wasn’t a Stafford from the back woods swampland of Mattawan anymore; not dirt poor and lettuce-sandwich hungry. For all Kalamazoo was worth, urbane in comparison to the small, ineffective twenty acre farm where she milked cows at five a.m. before school, and snapped chicken necks for the supper frying pan, she was a city girl, now. Good and proper. Not one of the four golden-skinned black Indian girls, fairies really, who slept under their grandparents’ dinner table at wee hours while their mother, my grandma Dorothy, desperately stalked my grandfather, Clifford Stafford, a careless husband who flaunted his exploits through the drenched streets and dark alleys of four water-logged towns.
Solitaire Velma could do. Anybody’s gambling, she could do. Play the Michigan Lotto for a hundred dollars worth of hunches and random license plates and restless dreams, she did with every paycheck. And we were a family of dreamers.
Solitaire was her reprieve. It was just a game. This morning of all mornings, she needed that. To be in control. Balance, order.
Nothing else in her life seemed to do that from the time she could walk until her high school sweetheart, John Cloud, tracked her down three years ago. The only moments of solace I remember of my mother surrounded her record collection, forty-fives stacked like black pancakes beside the record player on the weekends while we, her East Side army, cleaned the three story house; she seemed at peace in those moments, singing off key as she floated from room to room with watery eyes. After my mother and John’s courtship, there were no more pictures of my father in the house.
A kind, lonely widower, John Cloud taught my mother that not all men wanted to shuck or jive. He’d helped her buy this house on the outskirts of Kalamazoo and furnish it. He’d bought her a couple of cars. He didn’t hit her. He persuaded her to trust and love, coaxed her; all he wanted was to comfort her. He didn’t choke her. He had her going to Church. When I first found out, I gasped, “What do you do there?” My memory of religion in our house is this: “God ain’t done shit for me. What I’ma go to church for?” My sister remembers it differently; she said we ate and slept in church when I was a baby, twenty-four, twenty-four. However, when I was growing up, we cleaned house on Saturday and rested on Sunday. Like God, we did not go to church. In and out of bible camps she sent me to though, I remember asking her on and off if she would go with me. It seemed I only went to church when I was with my daddy and his nutty family, but then again, we had to go to church since he was the preacher.
After awhile, I stopped asking Momma to go with me. Something had happened in the past she kept hidden from us. Because it made her snap and snarl, I let that curtain fall shut. As an adult, when I saw how it hurt her that I questioned her attendance to church, her faith, I stopped smirking; she’d “found” God again, and that was good. For a while she and my Aunt Erma were both devout Buddhists, the chanting kind, but now, if it’s possible, they were Buddhist Christians. I didn’t judge them; my path circled backwards, back to what connected me to that Cherokee, Choctaw and Neusiok tribal blood; I was attending sweat lodges regularly in the California mountains.
We all need to believe in something.
It took Momma almost fifty-five years to get here: back to God, at that fingerprint smeared glass table in a perfectly tiled kitchen and cream latticed curtains lingering against windows that framed a large, still backyard that the cicada serenaded in loud drones. Two standing grandfather clocks and a dining room with all eight chairs around the table. A man in the bed who loved her.
The bathroom could wait.
Aunt Erma’s voice chimed a sleepy “good morning” as she joined my mother at the kitchen table. Their sounds murmured against the kitchen’s noise as the house woke, the refrigerator grumbling, floorboards creaking, the hogtied snores of my brothers in the basement where they slept.
“Is it?” Momma quipped. Flip, whisk, slap, shuffle.
Aunt Erma snorted a response. I imagined the sharp look she cut the back of my mother’s head with – The fuck you are. No, it is not goddamnit. Our sister is dead, but you can be an asshole if you want to because you’re in pain. I’ll allow that. This time.
“You want coffee?” Aunt Erma said.
“Nope. I’m fine.”
Aunt Erma knew my mother, who hadn’t spoken to their sister in a year, was living all her regret in the hours before the funeral. Velma was eating it for breakfast. Crow pie mixed with regret. I always wondered why people wait to tell it, to say, you hurt me, you fucked up my life, I love you so much, I’ll always love you. I never understood the cherishing of bitter silence, and that’s why my family was glad that I lived far, far away. LA, to them, was like Oz; I was the black Indian Dorothy who’d been tossed into the rain clouds by a tornado and we all liked it just fine.
“How ‘bout some eggs?” Aunt Erma persisted. “You should eat something, Velma.”
“Nope.” Flip, whisk, shuffle. “I’m fine.”
Aunt Erma was a thinner version of my mother, high cheekbones above the pronounced Stafford chin, pillowy skin the color of autumn’s first leaves, unrepentant curly black hair. Always able to laugh, she muffled a teenager’s giggle at something acerbic my mother said; most likely someone’s reputation shredded on the clean kitchen floor. Even at fifty-five, my aunt was the queen of giggles, polar opposite of my mother, the purveyor of frowns. Having learned her cuss words honest, right on her daddy’s knee, Aunt Erma had a mouth like a pirate; she was always quick to crack on someone who deserved it, her tongue sharpened on years of telling her alcoholic husband just what he could do with his “sorry, drunk, lying ass.”
Aunt Erma’s strong chin puckered in or out in every family photo depending on the battle she had just finished or was about to start. But a gentle teasing at the corners of her mouth held her smile steady, ready to make everyone else laugh. She was at once our family comedienne but also keeper of our memory. I distinctly remember, in a photo dated June 1962, after the birth of her first son, her eyes had grown wary. Still alluring yet aching, holding summer secrets close to her chest. She’d changed; life tasted different, her eyes said, as an adult. That day, her skin was healthy, her coltish eyes penetrating behind the cotton sorrow.
When I entered, I leaned down to kiss my mother’s head, hugging her from behind. Her neck was red; she’d just gotten a haircut. Her short black curls were wavy and soft under my lips. Ignoring me, she melded the cards like a Las Vegas dealer.
“Morning, Mommy. You not eating?” I said. No answer.
A fresh, sweet shampoo scent immersed me. I tightened my embrace, pressing hard enough for her to hear the blood in my ears rushing through my body, knowing she was full of water unshed as of that moment. Her sister’s death must have felt like the loss of a finger she never realized she needed until it was gone.
Momma half encircled me with one arm and continued dealing her game out with the other. Stoic. Terse. Eyes dry. Whereas I was crying all the time, sensitive and approaching puberty like a leaky faucet, she was the Mohave Desert. She was always the strongest of us. And I still wanted her to be the strongest woman in the world even though I hated her for that strength. Her anguish, like her love, had the silence of trapped water, and I got the hell out of Kalamazoo first chance I could because I always felt like I was drowning in that sorrow.
I left town, left the constant blare of cargo trains and their two hour breaks on the tracks, and after that everything I did was California’s fault. Getting pregnant at twenty. That damn California. Not marrying the father. That’s what them Californians do. Going back to college. Oh, you think you smart cause you in California? When I locked my “good” Indian hair: Look what that damn California did to Shonda. To them, in my crazy California Sanskrit shirt and soft writer hands, despite living in a place where earthquakes ripped up whole intersections, I would always be the baby girl, sixth child, fourth girl child. No uncles of note, no grandparents, and now, only two aunts and a mother, who at dusk used to allow us kids to play hide-go-seek and truth or dare during the hot summer nights, our screams pulling down the crushed red summer sun, the light snuffed out by our urgent night-coming-down-soon whispers. Fireflies gave up their wings for our pleasure on that ground, for our pounding feet ruining their moist beds. The waist-high grass that Momma let grow wild on Southworth clearly defined our country sensibilities. Yet, it was magical to me, a child, running through the grass like it was a jungle. Our white house, trimmed in black, sat in the middle of our yard, which was the biggest on the block. Our yard was bordered with what the Michigan Chippewa and the Ojibwa called sugar bushes, towering maple oaks that dripped sap, and some pine, birch and crabapple trees. Someone reported us to the city, though. Not long from the swamp, I’m sure the younger, hipper of our neighbors snickered. We didn’t care. Kalamazoo, Decatur, Ypsilanti, all by way of North Carolina Indian swamps. We were, as far as I knew, Sampson County Coharie and Halifax Cherokee. Black and Red.
Wetlands was in our blood.
(Next installation to come tomorrow night. Hope I don't bore anyone.)