At a time when crazy making caused my mother to start coming out of my mouth just as she had been previously sprouting out of my widening hips, superfluous thighs and rounded tummy, I thought of the words of my mother, “I’m grown get your own damn kids if you want to tell somebody what to do.” Then she’d say “shiiiit” with an elongated I and I still don’t know how it takes a monosyllabic word five or six seconds before it finished getting said. Well, I chose to adhere to the woman who had taught me crazy and finally get my own damn kids.
I was all like, “I am grown woman. I am wise. I am thirty. Gather ‘round younglings and listen for what nugget I may have for you to digest today. Many a year I have traveled through my own personal wilderness and now I have arrived at my own personal promised land. Please come and sit by me. I have something to share. I have heard what it is to be grown from Mother God Herself.
The Battle Hymn Republic served as white noise to my marching about the place. My ventures often do begin with blessed assurance, and my fears are usually dealt with in the same manner, I write them out of existence.
For years I’ve been writing things down to get them out done and over with in order to put things to rest the way you do with the dead or things that are no longer useful. For the most part, the end result is peace, or sometimes complacency in the guise of peace. Whatever it is, at that point I am done with it. The dirt of my youth has been excavated and re-laid to look like the prairie-lands. My youth did not kill me like I thought it might. I was never pushed off the rooftop of our fourteen-story building. I didn’t get it in a drive-by. The boy that I slept with is just a memory and did not leave me with any ailment or child. I came out of the whole daughter of an impoverished single mother status smelling rather like Ivory Soap. Instead of dying, I turned thirty.
To commemorate this, I decided that the focal point of my existence will no longer be the child that I once was, but the mother I wanted to become. It is like the aphorism from 1970’s black empowerment movement. Perceive it, believe it, achieve it. It is number one on my list of Top Ten Ways to Avoid Becoming a Victim of One’s Life. Alas, I recognized the maternal gene has been revealed because I have some guilt behind not being able say to my child, “The good Christian woman you call mother, waited for your father before doing the deed.”
But as a relatively stable woman, the shame that I once felt has turned into something else, something dead or no longer useful and so I am done with it. I know that shame is the shortest distance between a point and the psychiatric unit. I am about forward motion carrying what I can and leaving behind whatever is just too damn heavy. So there I left it, back in Brooklyn with the rest of the crooks. I step out now in the land of prairies and lakes, a woman, a wife, a student, a counselor, a friend. I am your every day black middle class, educated woman who is suddenly seeking motherhood and I am basking in the glow of my new demographic.
It is like that scene in Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. It is at the very end of the movie and Malcolm has been shot. I’m sitting’ in the theater with Gene, who was then my boyfriend. I must have been twenty or twenty-one. I’m just crying and crying unable to move, I got no tissue, and I’m just sniffling and carrying on. Anyway, Nelson Mandela is in a classroom of South African Children and one by one these children would each stand up and say in their South African dialect. “I AM Malcolm X.” It was something of a battle cry. Just like Spartacus. My new battle cry has become “I Am Mother.” It goes back to perceive, believe, achieve. I will achieve motherhood for I have come on the other side of youth for some purpose and this must be the purpose.
Yet, all it takes is a faint whiff or a muted sound of something smelled or heard before and there I am there again walking slowly into my home of origin, amazed at how little has changed, feeling again its narrowness that closed in on me as I grew. I’m sitting on the same couch and watching the same black and white television with the wire hanger sticking out of it. I’m walking along the same linoleum floor, torn and taped in some spots and the edges curling away from the walls. Mice travel in between the chipping plaster and the bend in the linoleum. They scratch about with speed and certainty of their environment. It was my first home of little frill.
The reverberations outside of my mother’s first floor apartment are all so identifiable, only a great deal more pronounced than they once appeared. I hear the three o’clock bustlings of active children just let out of school. The lobby carries their noise like an amplifying tunnel. I hear Jay from 111 who sold the Daily News each Sunday morning, floor by floor until he reached fourteen. He’d sing Neeeews Paaaaper! The echo reached my mother’s door and she’d scurry for change and a tip. “What a nice boy,” she’d say pulling out the coupon pages as I dug through for the TV guide. Mrs. Dockery would come knocking eventually to give us a pan of her apple stuffing. Jehovah’s Witnesses would come knocking with the latest issue of Watchtower.
Outside, traffic moves west toward the Brooklyn Queens expressway or east toward the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Bridges and highways, vast government subsidized buildings, city parks with graffiti adorned handball courts, it is the landscape of infrastructure and the uninterrupted presence of people, pushing or pedaling, sitting on benches in contemplation or conversation. Sands Street craves its inhabitants just the way mountains and prairies crave theirs’, whatever theirs’ may be bears or butterflies.
Some faces may have changed but mostly they are the same. But, what is this thing that is strangely unfamiliar? I think that I’ve become unfamiliar. I am not who I thought I would be and to some degree I find myself in sad reflection of a misplaced dream. Of course, I have an affinity for black women with dreadlocks, big jewelry and something acutely honest to say. But what I am begrudged to admit is that I never became what I revered. I never locked my hair and for years I have not been unequivocally honest. What I have become is tempered. Tempered by the Midwest, tempered by marriage, by age, by middle-classdom, by religiosity and my new longings for small houses and station wagons.
I am not even sure if can call this newer place that I live home. I have grown with cement not wildness. Now I live with formless raspberry bushes of which I do not pick and of which I cannot destroy no matter how determined I get, and I live with rhubarb transplanted from someone’s country garden. I know nothing of these matters. I planted day lilies in the shade instead of in full sun. I dropped grass seed on a patch of dirt without watering and wondered why the grass did not grow. I cannot distinguish marigolds from carnations. I am afraid of bunnies. In good weather I go out for duty sake, not love. Attempt to make things pretty. Fail. My husband threatens to pave the back yard.
I’ve had the audacity to ask southern ancestors who worked the earth without pay to help me find my agricultural roots. That has helped me as much as asking my dead Cuban grandfather to help me earn an A in intermediate Spanish. I begin to wonder why we didn’t we buy that townhouse instead, and then I remember. We bought this house for outdoor birthday parties, for carrying pitchers of punch to a picnic table after Little League, for playing tag around the big oak tree that hinders the afternoon sun. We bought this house for the same reason that we bought our blue station wagon. Why else would anyone buy a station wagon, blue or otherwise? Pulling out of the driveway I look back for safety sake, sometimes noticing the emptiness of the vehicle, and what feels like a spasm pulls at my chest, and I remember that I have once again become a person in longing. Dreams have gotten me this far, far away from my home of origin. Why not dream some more however it may twinge. Pain has its reasons for being.
I once dreamt of cobblestone blocks lined with old trees and three story brownstones with black iron railings and arched an ornate doors, with one button to push with my name next to it and an intercom for me to holler, “come on up!” I dreamt of living close enough to my home of origin to conduct Saturday morning arts and craft at the Farragut Housing Projects Community Center. My daydreams have escaped Sands Street, though my night dreams still hover there. Dreams of my deceased brother Victor always take place there. I have one reoccurring dream that I knock on my mother’s door. He answers opening the door wide and saying, “Where have you been?” I just stand there and wonder if I’d been mistaken about the everything, the wheel chair, the hospitalizations, the morphine, the weight lost, the height lost, the life lost, the cremation, the ashes sitting in my father’s apartment? My brother who played high school and college football, MVP… jock who was also smart as hell, and somewhat cocky, who had my father’s gift for debate, the only Williams kid who didn’t take shit from anybody, happened to be the one who would die too young when cancer began to break his bones one by one, determined to show this force of a man who was in charge. And my brother fought against the menacing disease for eight more years after the doctor had given him three months to live. But, when I dream of him… he is whole again, broad shouldered, bowl-legged and still somewhat cocky.
Other dreams occur there, dreams of me holding babies happen there. I had my first baby dream when I was sixteen. I gave birth to a baby that looked more like a velvety red hair-bow. Now, I dream of real screaming babies flaring tonsils at me demanding to be fed. Not long ago, I dreamt of my earliest love. He and I were too young to know when the affair ended. It ended with summer like many good things do. It ended with the fall chill that creeps in quietly in late August. I stood two inches taller than he, though he was two years my senior and already in second grade. I once thought he was as permanent as the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Later, I would return home for winter break from college and find him still standing or sitting on Sands Street always with a forty ounce bottle of malt liquor wrapped in a brown paper bag. We would always be sincerely kind to one another. How are you Derrick? I’d ask and he’d say, “Well you know, livin’ livin’.” I would notice how I never stopped growing long enough for him to catch up to my height and how I still loved him. I loved him like summer.
He was my brother’s best friend, and together they were Eric and Derrick, small, but dominant point guards on the courts on High Street, with mutual affection like Magic and Isaiah who kissed each other’s cheek before games. But Eric never kissed Derrick, I did. It happened the day that I told him that he was my boyfriend and he said okay. I was five, but the memory survives and is stored where first memories are kept, in the illusory bones and muscle tissue of the soul.
I dreamt that Eric, Derrick and I were together again. We were sitting in my mother’s living room, furnished with the same navy couches, now covered with navy slipcovers. Outside of my mother’s window were beautiful gardens with orange, yellow and purple, brushing against the billows.
“Great job on the Garden.” Derrick said to me. I was unaware at first, but soon realized that the garden was my doing.
“It still needs work,” I responded with false modesty. Inside I was lit like a firefly. We drifted in the color and I imagined myself a lilac bush swaying rhythmically at the will of the forgiving breeze. All that botanical life astounded us and it was right there in the center of our projects just outside my mother’s first floor apartment, amidst the rumble of the B37 bus thumping over steel planks that covered the potholes on Sands Street. I could have not been more satisfied. Eric gave us peanuts and we ate with joy and laughed just like we did during hot months undisturbed by things to do. The night dream merged my worlds, and in this new creation I new how to garden. I awoke from my dream and cried for the first time after learning that Derrick had died. Eric said it was his liver.
In my wake I have learned that I only wished that my arms had carried more of Brooklyn to the midland. I thought that I would be like the visitors I knew as a child. They would return to their home of origin with mustached husbands and fat babies. They’d be dressed in trench coats and pumps looking like somebody’s black girl-Friday. “Where you been?” One of the elder women would ask. “Oh, I moved to Queens or Virginia, or I’m stationed in Germany.” They’d have grand white smiles, enhanced by true red lips. I would gaze at them as they passed by and greet me by my older sister’s name. I’d correct them and they say, “girl you got big, how old are you now?” I’d say seven or such and they’d say, “ Boy, how time flies.”
I never became one of the women who came back. People don’t come back anymore. They don’t pat the children on the head saying “My have you grown.” They’re afraid of the children. They don’t mess the coat of puppies and old tired dogs too stubborn to pass on. The pups and the old dogs now have jaws that lock and are perfectly capable of removing one’s hand from one’s body. What we do, however, is sneak in inconspicuously to visit aging mothers and dart out towards planes, trains or automobiles to flee the disaster our home has become.
I wonder how I have come to a sense of homelessness and of wondering where to land full flesh to the ground. As I watch my husband rake last fall’s remaining leaves, I am struck by the lack of people I see in the street. The few that I see are busy with the upkeep of their own personal patches of green; trimming, mowing, planting in diligent attempt to have the land submit to human wills. They don’t know that I’m watching, or don’t care. I survey our own patch of green and notice last year’s day lilies are trying to grow again in a location not meant for them. When I get the inclination, I will move them out of the shade and replant them in full sun where they belong.
Sherrie Lynn Maze relocated from Brooklyn, N.Y. to Minneapolis, MN in 1994. She has taught Creative Writing at Bethel College. Along with writing, her two children, dreaming grand dreams, and sharing the healing properties of writing with others are among her many passions. This is her first appearance in the pages of R-KV-R-Y.