I was born in Mississippi in 1980—Reagan’s era, Michael Jackson’s reign, grandma’s house a few blocks away. It was the time when the trials of southern black folks were unknown to me, even though lived amidst the poorer blacks in the city. Our home sat one lot from the corner—and the corner store. It was a pale yellow square house, with a porch and two windows facing the street. The store, Hampton’s, gave us credit on everything from diapers to beer. I spent my days sampling ripe and raw vegetables from our garden and running through the creeks after my older brother and his friends, climbing trees and catching frogs. I walked barefoot to the corner store during heat waves, without shading my eyes. My southern heritage was authentic, my tomboy lifestyle was delicious. We ate watermelons on porches with the red juice dripping from our brown faces onto our clothing and the porch itself.
There were tortuous hours spent on that same porch when my mother forced the hot comb through my thick hair, as I whined about the heat. Her strong, veined hands held my head steady and her stern voice ordered me to be still as the comb sizzled through sections of my hair. She would separate my hair into neat ponytails that would become littered with twigs, leaves, grass and remnants of dirt hastily and haphazardly dusted out after some tumbling effort or dirt fight. I would spend all of five minutes trying to fix the ponytails that required me to place my head on the ground. It was not until rats began to rove our little yellow house, did I actually understand that we were poor.
My father was from south Florida–Pahokee to be exact and my mother was born and raised in Alabama. Their meeting was a set up by mom’s older sister. Being of the same religion was more than important to them and they took instruction not to be unevenly yoked very seriously. Therefore, my parent’s courtship was one that was chaperoned and carefully monitored. The idea of spending time alone was absurd, so their dates consisted of group outings, family meals and seeing each other at gatherings organized by their congregations.
My parents married about a year after my mom finished high school. She loved writing and speaking Spanish. I assume she had hopes and dreams about things she always wanted to be but I don’t recall her talking about them very much when I was a young child.
Their wedding pictures are a metaphor for their marriage. The ground is a soft brown against a pale gray sky. Two happy young people stand wearing white, their attire stark against the gloom of the day. Nothing seems out of place. My mother told me that the pictures were taken at a site that was under construction. The ground was unearthed and it had rained leaving soggy sand and utter filth where her former picture perfect moment was to be memorialized in photograph. Things weren’t as they seemed. Chaos was so close to calm. Yet no one seemed wary or concerned. Even though the Earth around them had been moved, my parents had no idea that their own worlds begin to rock the moment they had said “I do”.
They moved in with my aunt and uncle and lived there until the birth of their first child, my older brother, Christopher.
I have heard the story of my birth dozens if not, hundreds of times. Before I was born my mother did not want any more children right away. However, my older brother was barely a year old when she found out she was having another kid. My father always joked that he planned me by putting a hole in their contraceptive and wasn’t surprised like my mom was when she found out she was pregnant.
By the time I was born, my parents were living with my grandmother. And even though the surprise of pregnancy had worn off, my entrance into her life brought its own surprise. On that evening, the family sat at my grandmother’s kitchen table enjoying dinner. My mother, complaining of stomach cramps finished her food and eventually went to lay down. In the middle of the night, her water broke and I was ready to make my presence known. Since there was no time to get to the hospital, I was born in the back bedroom of my grandparent’s home. My father cut the umbilical cord and I was taken along with my mother to the hospital.
My father was a 24 and my mom was 22 when I was born. Since I have now passed that age, I see them as different than I did when I was growing up. They should’ve had it together, I used to think. Now, looking at them as young people barely able to purchase alcohol legally at lot of things start to make sense. Let me back up. My father’s mother struggled with alcoholism and left him and his siblings ultimately to be raised by his grandparents. All my life the stories of what alcohol would do to us if we tried it were told like bedtime fables. In the back of my mind wicked witches were replaced by bottles of E&J. Fitting as they spelled my father’s initials.
There is a picture of my mother that I have looked at since I can remember. She is beautiful. It is the only picture of her that made me think of her as more than a mother. She was a young woman. In the picture she stands on green grass. There doesn’t seem to be a blade that has lost its color or is darkened by shadow. She seems tall. Her brown skin is radiant and shining. Her dress– black, white and yellow, is ankle length and form fitting. Her hair is a lifted bob that frames her gentle features. She is soft in this picture. Green like that grass. I can tell she either hasn’t met my father, or she hasn’t been married to him for long if she has.
There are moments that pass behind my eyes even when I am awake. Memories intrude at the most inconvenient of times. My life was like still water—on the surface seemingly calm and deceptively shallow, but a deep rushing undercurrent of a lifetime of fury beneath.