Taking from My Father

Daddy

This is my father. I knew him a lot less well than I’d have liked. It’s hard to realize that he passed more than half my life ago, a few days after my 26th birthday. There are so many things I wish I could ask him, talk to him about, tell him, so many ways we never figured out how to be related to one another.

Were he still alive, today would be his 88th birthday. He and I were the end of summer/start of fall babies: my birthday opened the month, and his ended it. For a long time – most of my life, really – I thought our birthday month might be the only clear thing we had in common. That’s not true, but we struggled our whole lives to see one another, to figure one another out. We just seemed so randomly assembled that it made sense that September would be all we had as a connection.

 

My father was a great talker. When I was in high school, he had a radio talk show. And his show was extremely popular, complete with regular callers and a solid fan base. My father didn’t finish high school, but he read voraciously and knew so much about so many things that many of his listeners thought he was a professor. His facility with talking must have been something he always had. He ran for state office when I was a little girl, and his ability to talk to anyone about anything surely served him well then.

I should have seen this connection a mile away. I don’t have a talk show, but I sure can talk. I am the longest of the long-winded! I’m one of those people who has an anecdote for every possible situation … and, if you’re not careful, I will tell it to you – garnished with at least five others that are halfway-related. I’m only realizing now that my chatty-Cathy-ness comes from my father.

He loved sports, took me to meet Bill Russell when I was 9 (seeding my love of basketball), took my brother to see Jesse Owens (I am jealous to this day). He announced our high school basketball games, our football games, our track meets. He took a valiant pass at designing HBCU-style marching band routines for our really-not-in-any-way-up-to-that-standard marching band. (I have a strong memory of some winds almost being taken out by an errant bass drum when a critical pivot went awry!)

He was an avid gamer: Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, Careers … games I still love today. I wonder what video games he’d have taken to. Sim City would likely have captivated him. And maybe games like World of Warcraft and Civilization. He loved jigsaw puzzles, would spread them out carefully, piece by piece on my mom’s sewing table. We were all allowed to help, but he was, without question, chief puzzler.

He had a deep, deep, resonant voice, and though I didn’t inherit that from him, I did inherit my height. And my face and hands are copies of his mother’s.

We had a long period of estrangement, a period marked by occasional epistolary flashes of temper from me and silence from him. When we finally started writing letters that didn’t involve me yelling at him, he would sign his letters, “Your dad, Doug,” which annoyed and confused me, and also kind of amused me. We had begun to touch the edge of talking honestly to each other about each other when his cancer was diagnosed. And then all the slow, painstaking moves toward one another were both hurried up and pushed aside. And then his progressing illness silenced me. There was no room for asking him questions about how we had and hadn’t had a real relationship when he was actively engaged in dying.

 

Our birth month is not all we have in common, of course, and it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve inherited more than height from him. And more than my talk-your-head-off talents, too. He was an avid reader. I am lucky in that I get that from both parents. We are a seriously bookish family to this day. My love of tennis comes from him, too. He and my mother played in a league when I was a kid. They were serious enough for tennis puns to work their way into birthday cards and stories (dad jokes didn’t just become a thing last year, after all). I share some of his musical tastes, and I think he would have liked some of mine. Esperanza Spaulding’s 77-hour live compose-and-record session last September would have fascinated him, and I think her music would have pleased him.

He had a big temper. Everyone in my immediate family has a big temper. I was always the one who didn’t, the one who was calm and quiet while other people vented or raged. I thought this was something that made me different from them, but instead, I was just swallowing my feelings. I don’t think my anger is terribly much like my father’s, to be honest, but I’m definitely not swallowing it the way I used to.

He had the bad habit I share of not going to the doctor when he needed to. Before his cancer was diagnosed, it was clear there was something seriously wrong. It was visible in his face, in the changed sound of his voice, the changed shape of his head. I totally understand his not doing anything about it, however. Like him, I wait and wait and wait far too long before making medical appointments. I don’t want bad news, so I avoid. (I’m actively in avoidance as I write this. Yeah. I need to stop this nonsense and make an appointment.)

And we share the same politics. I read his campaign literature a couple of years ago, and I was struck both by how current it sounded (and how sad it was that the same issues are current almost half a century later!), and how like the laundry list of issues that set my hair on fire. I wouldn’t wish him the pain of experiencing our current political climate … but at the same time, it would be so interesting to hear what he would have to say about everything. He would have been all over the Movement for Black Lives, would have used his radio show to amplify so many people and ideas, would have come out for Colin Kaepernick within seconds of the start of Kaep’s protest. I wouldn’t wish this time on him, but oh, he would have been so alive for all of this. Maybe we would have worked together – him guesting on this blog, me recording podcasts with him.

 

Whoa. I had to stop writing. That actually made me tear up. That was not in any way the relationship I had with my father. It really wasn’t. But it still feels right. If he hadn’t gotten sick, we might have been able to get there. We were starting to get real with each other. We had potential. I’ve never before thought about what our lives would be today if he had lived. Writing that last paragraph threw me. Is still throwing me. (I am, maybe for the first time, truly “shewk.”)

His 88th birthday. I can’t imagine him as an old man. I see him the way he appeared in the last dream I had of him: in his 40s, paunchy, but he could still get out there, hit some balls over the net, he has his scratchy beard and his sunglasses, a pack of cigarettes in the pocket of his polo shirt. This is my father, ambitious, but so often plagued by being his own worst enemy, something I see in my battles against La Impostora. He is my father, 88 today. I wish I’d found a way to see him more clearly when I had the chance, wish he had been able to do the same for me.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Wild Animals, Redux

I often write about the sleepy little upstate New York town where I grew up and my experiences with racial prejudice when I lived there. I focus particularly on two incidents, moments when I used violence in response to the hate that was spit in my face. I’ve been thinking a lot about those incidents lately, thinking about my choice to use violence, about the fact that – as satisfying and effective as my violence was in both cases – I have not become a person who regularly reaches for violence.

I’m not shocked that I haven’t grown up to be a violent person. I’ve never been particularly physical, and I’ve most definitely never been a fighter. More like the opposite of a fighter. I have always been the first to flee, shut down, or capitulate in the face of confrontation. I was mouse-quiet, mouse-meek. I was go-along-to-get-along obedient, kind even to people who weren’t kind to me. That was the “right” way to act, the way I was “supposed to” be.

Except for those two, seemingly aberrant moments. Those two acts of physical violence when I was 12 nudged aside the scrim, gave me brief glimpses at another version of myself. Both came in response to race-based verbal abuse. Clearly racial prejudice was the line silent, docile me wasn’t willing to let others cross with impunity.

The first person to trigger my violence was John. He was older than me by a year or two, and for months he had waited for me outside the door of my history class. Every day, he cycled through a banal but still unacceptable set of insults: ugly black bitch, stupid black bitch, lazy black bitch, nasty black bitch …

At first, I behaved as he must have expected me to: ignored him, reasoned with him, pleaded with him. He found my efforts amusing, and I succeeded only in encouraging him to continue.

Then I changed the script. I approached history class, John’s mouth opened for his daily spew … and I slammed my textbook into his face. It made a deeply satisfying flesh-to-hardcover “SPLAT!!” and John never spoke to me or came near me again. He would, in fact, move to the other side of the hallway when he saw me coming, which was also deeply satisfying and made that smack in the face a gift that kept on giving.

The second recipient of my physical wrath was Michael, a boy in my grade. In science class, I accidentally caught his finger between a desk and chair as we rearranged our seating one day. The surprise of that pain turned Michael into the first person to ever call me a nigger. He spit it at me so fast, had the word handy, so close to the surface, I have no doubt that was how he thought about me all the time.

I had never been called a nigger before, and the surprise of that pain made me grab Michael by the throat and squeeze tight, made me get in his face and invite him to say it again. And I kept inviting him to say it again as my fingers were pried from his bleeding neck.

Choking Michael was almost as satisfying as the book-slap I’d dealt John. And it had the same effect, in that Michael never spoke to me again. (I spoke to him once after that, five years later. I was walking past him and a group of his friends who were hanging out on the Vischer Avenue steps – where my high school’s version of the cool kids hung out – and one of the other boys had something snarky to say about me that made everyone laugh. I paused, then walked up to Michael and ran my finger over the scars I’d dug into his neck. “I see they’re still there,” I said, then turned and kept on walking.)

These were isolated moments – split-second reveals of the me who wasn’t interested in going along to get along, the me who was more than happy to take fools down and keep moving. My actions were so far outside anything that could be considered “normal” for me as to be horrifying … but I wasn’t horrified. Other people were horrified, particularly in the case of my choking Michael, but both moments felt entirely comfortable, necessary, correct. Nothing could have been more natural than introducing John’s face to my history book, than the feel of Michael’s neck in my fist. I have never regretted either action. I don’t regret them today.

As I write this, however, I realize I’m lying. Those two instances of violence weren’t the first. They were the first of that specific, retaliatory type of violence, but not the first signs of my willingness to use physical force. The year before, sixth grade, I tried out a different kind of aggression. In sixth grade, we still had recess, almost entirely unsupervised time on the playground. And there was a brief period during that year when a group of boys faced off against a group of us girls. There was a boy named Guy who was the largest boy – not overly tall, but heavy. I was always lined up to face him because I was the largest girl – tallest and biggest. We’d form opposing lines, armed linked, and we’d advance on each other, chanting: “We don’t stop for noooo-body!” And then we’d smash into each other as hard as we could, trying to break the enemy line.

Why did we do this? Who knows. I can’t imagine why we would have started, what we got out of it, how we chose to stop. Was this the only way we could think of to release the tensions that built up between us?

Those violent clashes – how did none of us get seriously hurt? – were different from what happened the following year, but maybe it was the experience of not stopping for “noooo-body” that made me know I had the strength to lash out when faced with John, with Michael. I may have chosen to slip behind the scrim of meek docility, but maybe that retreat was a tactical choice because slamming into Guy over and over again had given me an idea of what I could take, what I could dish out. Maybe I understood that part of the power of my violence was in doling it out sparingly.

My violent outbursts produced zero consequences for me. In the case of me planting my textbook in John’s face, no teacher or other school authority figure saw me do that, and John, apparently, never reported me. Perhaps he didn’t want to risk me explaining why I bashed him with my book. I was in class for the second incident, however. It was my teacher who pried my hand from Michael’s throat. There should have been some effort at a formal response, some kind of reckoning. But … no. The dramatic fact of my choking Michael blew over almost immediately. I appreciate that this surely wouldn’t be true for a seventh-grade girl today – and specifically not for a Black girl. And I appreciate that it really shouldn’t have been true back then. I physically attacked another student, broke skin and drew blood. As much as I don’t regret my actions, more should have been done than sending me to the nurse’s office.

No one spoke to Michael, no one suggested that he might want or need to apologize to me, or at least remember not to call Black folks niggers (although, I suppose my actions might have gotten that point across). The school nurse, Mrs. Workman, did talk to me, but only so far as to wonder what was wrong with me and if I thought I was a wild animal. She never thought to talk to me about better ways to deal with my anger, and it certainly didn’t occur to her to wonder how I was feeling.

The incidents receded. Other students might have talked about them, but I released them and moved on. None of my friends said a word. No one came to John or Michael’s defense. I’d like to think I put the fear of God in them, that they didn’t want to upset me further, didn’t want to risk getting these hands! I love the idea of that, but I doubt this was the case. The less pleasant truth was likely more along the lines that all of us lived with violence on a regular enough basis that it was just the norm to let flare-ups fade away.

I focus on the incidents with John and Michael because of the racism at the heart of each. And because it’s so interesting to me that it was race-based abuse that drove me to a volatility no one would have dreamed possible from me. But I was a kid raised on “Negro American History” comics, flashcards of famous Black folks, the Afro-American History Calendar, The Negro Almanac. I had strong and clear feelings and opinions about race and prejudice. Had either John or Michael mocked or attacked me because of my gender, my body, my looks, I don’t imagine I would have stood up for myself, and I would definitely not have turned violent. But attack me because I’m Black? Not today, Satan. I knew exactly how I felt about that and exactly what crap I was not going to take. Come at me with racist bullshit, and it’s on.

In the many years since seventh grade, I’ve chosen non-physical ways to fight back, which is 100 percent more my style. Unsurprisingly, the weapon I’ve wielded most often has been my voice. Who could be shocked to know this? Words were the tool I used in my earliest responses to bullies. When faced with racist nonsense in kindergarten, I wrote my way out. When faced with a bully in the fourth grade, I talked my way out. My words, my voice, have always been my friend, have always come to my aid.

I say that the incidents with John and Michel pulled back the scrim, gave me a glimpse of another version of myself. And that’s true. That stand-and-fight version of me disappeared after I attacked Michael. It resurfaced briefly years later in Europe when a man tried to rape me. I fought him briefly, but then immediately began to use my words – once again, I talked my way out. It surfaced again on the 4 train one morning when I delivered a vicious kick to the shin of a man who had followed me through a crowded train car, defiantly positioning himself behind me and putting his hand between my legs. Clearly, what was true in high school – that I wouldn’t have defended myself if John or Michael had attacked my body – has stopped being true. That sounds like progress.

I think about how completely I put myself behind that scrim of docility after choking Michael. As much as I didn’t regret my actions, perhaps my violence seemed extreme to me, felt out of control or unmanageable. I didn’t know that part of myself, didn’t know what to do with a me who was a fighter.

Did I frighten myself? Perhaps just a little? Did I make myself wonder what else was hiding beneath my surface, what else I was capable of? Could that be where I learned to fear my anger, to swallow it rather than express it? Maybe. If this is the case, I’m sad to know it, sad to think that seeing myself express my anger so purely and effectively might be the thing that cut me off from my anger for so many years.

But perhaps, then, it makes perfect, full-circle sense that it was race-based violence – the murders of unarmed Black people by police and vigilantes and white domestic terrorists – that has drawn my anger to the surface once and for all? Racism remains the sure-fire trigger, the line I cannot allow others to cross.


I wrote about John and Michael early in the life of this blog. The title of that post was, “Only wild animals act like that.” And I chose to echo that title for this post.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Deaths and Entrances

Yesterday, I went to the funeral of a friend’s dad. One of the things that struck me was how “at home” at felt, as if I was surrounded by my own family. I need to mention that I don’t know my friend’s family. I’ve met his mother, I know his partner, but that’s all. And, too, I have an unconscionably small family, so what I was feeling wasn’t in any way related to how I’ve ever felt when surrounded by my actual family because I’ve never been around that many people who are related to me. Usually, when I attend services like this one and I only know one or two people in the room, I start off feeling awkward and uncomfortable, but there was none of that at this morning’s funeral.

What I felt was about being surrounded by Black folks, specifically Black folks who are close to my age. My friend’s dad was nine years older than I am, so the cousins and friends in the room were all within 10 or 15 years of my age –both older and younger. All those beautiful Black faces, all the nods of acknowledgement, all the warmly grasped hands. Family.

Faces of Black folks always feel familiar. And they can make me feel comforted.* I’ve written in the past about how seeing African American faces made me long for home when I was in France. My response to seeing Black people gathered, seeing all the different and lovely features that make up their faces, has only increased since that moment of recognition in France. There was a moment after the service, when we were all outside waiting for the family to depart for the interment, when a crowd of men – cousins and nephews, a brother, maybe a friend or two – all came together for a photo. They were the most beautiful thing. I wanted to hug every one of them, my heart was so full.

Funerals are such strange things. They can be beautiful, sad, celebratory, painful, life-affirming, cold. All these things at once, even. And even if we plan them ourselves — as my dad scripted the run of show for his funeral — we can’t truly orchestrate them, won’t have control over what they will be.

Today, September 30th, would have been my father’s 88th birthday. The fact of it being 30 years since his death is shocking and unfathomable to me. I have to do the math, see it plainly on paper, on a calculator screen, have to make myself see the number in order to believe so many years have passed.

My father planned his funeral. Once he stopped talking about surviving his cancer, when he had accepted that survival wasn’t going to be a thing for him, he moved immediately into writing out his wishes for his homegoing. At first, I thought it was strange, morbid. Then I saw how it made so much sense. True, he wouldn’t exactly be there to enjoy it, but a) he would surely be watching and would want to see things that pleased him, and b) what better way to guarantee the inclusion of people he wanted in the proceedings? (People like me. If plans had been left only with the people who were responsible for arranging his funeral, it’s pretty likely that I would not have been asked to speak. My father clearly understood that and made a point of assigning me a specific reading.)

Planning the ceremony pleased him, so how could it be wrong? The way he got into it reminded me of the intensity with which he had once planned elaborate halftime routines for my high school marching band. He was careful, thinking through options, order, all the possible configurations. And he thought about music, what songs he wanted sung, what lyrics he wanted read out.

As I walked into the funeral parlor yesterday, Earth Wind and Fire was playing. I was instantly lifted. “That’s the Way of the World” is one of my favorite songs, and to have that playing as I stepped inside from Amsterdam Avenue was so right. I’d walked up from the subway thinking about when I used to live in that neighborhood, thinking about how long ago I’d been priced out of that neighborhood, thinking about how not like home some things I’d seen on my walk felt. And then to walk in and be welcomed by those familiar voices and those excellent lyrics. It was perfect.

In 2003 when I was convinced I wouldn’t survive the fibroid surgery I was about to have, I took my father’s example and began to write out what I wanted for my service. I started with the music, with the very simple desire to have “Oh, Freedom,” played or performed. I sat with that idea for a while and then built from there.

When I’ve thought about that final playlist in the years since, other songs have risen up as obvious additions. First is “City Called Heaven,” particularly the way it is sung by Jubilant Sykes in his glorious voice (and once I get started with Sykes, I have to add “Fix Me, Jesus” and “Blessed Assurance” because … well … of course). But my set list isn’t all church-approved. Jimi’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” has to be there. And Amos Lee and Willie Nelson singing Lee’s “El Camino.” These songs will always make the list. And so will Earth Wind and Fire. The first musical selection during the funeral service yesterday was “Fantasy,” and that made me so happy. It’s my all-time favorite EWF song, and it’s on my funeral program, too. Hearing it in the funeral parlor was beautiful. Seeing people sing along was that much more beautiful. Adding my voice with theirs made me smile and cry at the same time.

As much as my heart breaks for my friend, I was so glad he had the chance to honor his dad the way he did. I saw and felt so much love in that room, so much beautiful Blackness. May we all be so embraced, today and as we are ushered home.

__________
* I’ve also written about times when seeing the faces of other Black folks have made me feel sad, feel vulnerable and threatened – not by the people I’m seeing but by the truth of living in a world where the simple fact of our Blackness can put us in danger.


(My title is borrowed from Dylan Thomas. I’ve always loved that title … and the “incendiary eves” that occur and reoccur in this poem.)


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Think of the Children

Last night, I had the great good fortune to read at Big Words, one of my favorite reading series. I really love the two young women who created the series and host the readings. Stacey and Jess are smart, funny, kind, caring, and beautifully supportive of writers. Big Words is always a great experience.

The theme for last night’s reading was “Side Effects.” As always, I struggled to find something to read or to write something new that related to the topic. In the end, I wrote something during my work day yesterday, typed it up fast, and headed to 61 Local, the bar Big Words calls home. Here’s what I read:

Think of the Children

My mother was told to reconsider marrying my father because, with him as a husband, she risked having dark, ugly children. (The fact that I know this points to a lot of issues in my upbringing, to be sure. Why tell me that my father was considered ugly? Why tell me that the prospect of being dark-skinned was undesirable? Why tell me any of this as if it constituted a funny story? So many issues.)

Despite the well-meaning advice thrown her way, my mother went ahead and married my father. She rolled the dice and wound up with three dark-skinned children, none of whom look like her, none of whom look like my dad, all of whom – yes, I’m going to say it – are pretty in the face.

Whew! Thank God for that, right? Imagine if we’d all been hideous and she’d found herself saddled with raising a passel of homely, dark-skinned pickaninnies. Clearly dodged a bullet there. I do understand thinking about what your baby will look like. Who doesn’t want a cute baby? But the toxic run-off that is Internalized Racial Inferiority shouldn’t dictate what you consider “cute.”

*

Yesterday was my birthday, so of course I’m thinking about my storyline – how I came to be here, what about me is anything like my mother, my father, all the family before me on both sides. I’ve just hit 56 years, which means I’ve lived plenty long enough to have been influenced by where and how I’ve lived and can’t honestly attribute all the truths about myself to nature over nurture, but it’s also true that I’ve inherited plenty from my family, from that risky mixing of my mother’s and father’s gene pools.

One result of my mother’s gamble is that I get to be tall. My brother, sister, and I, we’re none of us as tall as my father’s side, but having that height in our blood pulled us up from the tininess of my mother’s people. My mother (who I will generously describe as not-quite five-seven) is a giant in her family, while my father’s family had true giants like his Uncle Ambrose who was nearly seven feet tall.

Here I’ll digress and say that I have lived my life obsessed with being tall. I coveted the regal height of my father’s cousin Pam, who was six-two. Both my sister and I dreamed of reaching her stature. I still dream about it, I won’t lie. I mean, can you imagine if I were six-two? I would, quite simply, have achieved godhood, would already have taken over the world, legions of minions and cabana boys behind me. (You know this is true, but let’s get back on track.)

*

I am the daughter of southern parents who met after choosing to make their lives in the north. Is that why I grew up a northern snob, wanting to turn my back on the worlds they’d chosen to leave behind … but also the reason I crave southern dishes when I need the reassurance of comfort food?

I used to look for connections most particularly with my mother’s family. As if my father’s didn’t exist somehow, as if everything I was I took from only one branch of the tree. This is foolish because … biology … but also because I just have to look at myself to see my father’s family. My large, long-fingered hands are entirely my grandmother’s hands. My face is entirely her face. This funny little bridgeless nose that no one in my immediate family has is from my grandmother’s mother’s side of the family.

When my mother was warned about the dangers of marrying my father, the folks issuing the warning were caught up on surface things – what would the children look like? And maybe the fact that so much of my physical appearance comes from my father shows they were right to be worried. But did they give any thought to the beneath-the-surface bits?

What you get when you mix two families together is a crap shoot, of course. Some things, like my Pipkin nose, are visible from the start. Others, like my facility for learning languages, reveal themselves over time. Many of these beneath-the-surface bits that are true about me seem common in both of my families, while some very clearly come from one side or the other. There is lots of good that’s come down to me: the language learning thing, my ability to be charming and diplomatic, my voice, my creativity, my silver-instead-of-grey hair.

But it’s not all cute noses and French vocabulary. There’s the list of good, but an equally long list of less-pleasing things, too: crushing self-doubt, heart disease, a history of cancer. And there’s the list that waits in the wings, always ready to take the stage and become part of who I am – alcoholism, mental illness, vengeful grudge-holding. These are things to hope I haven’t inherited, but which I know could be lying dormant, landmines buried at conception.

*

I got a birthday text from my niece, who is my god-daughter, my role model, and one of my favorite people in the world. She thanked me for being a guiding presence in her life, for inspiring her to stay true and be proud of who she is (and yes, I promptly melted). My father’s detractors would have been pleased with my niece. She is a beautiful young woman who would ace their paper bag test. I am more impressed by the smart, strong, thoughtful woman she is growing up to be. And I am thrilled that some of that is because of what makes me me, because of what my brother passed down from our parents, our grandparents, from everyone who came before, because my mother threw caution to the wind and married my tall, dark-skinned, ambitious, intellectually curious, deeply flawed father.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Washing and Folding

My grandmother, for the whole of my childhood, worked as a laundress. She picked up, washed, ironed, and delivered laundry for wealthy residents of the towns around where she lived: Larchmont, Scarsdale, Pound Ridge, Bronxville. I have so many memories of her sitting at her low ironing board turning basket after basket of heaped sheets into crisply pressed and folded linens. She may have washed clothes for her clients, too, but it’s the sheets that have stayed with me, that are ever present in my memory.

Before she and my grandfather and their sons left the south, she had been a teacher. They had both been teachers. But they didn’t work as teachers in New York – because they couldn’t find work as teachers? Because Black teachers didn’t get paid well and New York was more expense than Fayetteville so they had to find other work? I have no idea. I do know they lived in Harlem, in the projects, and that they opened a small grocery store. (That was how my dad wound up going to the old Music and Art high school with Reri Grist.) After Harlem, they moved to Westchester. And that was where my grandmother’s laundry work began.

I recently saw Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs’ documentary short, The Washing Society. It focuses on the women and men who work at wash-and-fold laundries, the places where you drop off your clothes and staff wash them for you. It focuses on the present, but also on the original Washing Society, the union of Black laundresses in Georgia who went on strike for better pay and work conditions. The documentary shook me a little. I was interested in seeing it because I’m always interested in documentaries and always interested in hearing ordinary, everyday people talk about their lives and work. I went into that theater without any idea that the movie had anything to do with me.

My first indication that I would have a connection to the film came right away: the memory of my life when I first moved to New York from my mother’s house. I didn’t do my laundry, I brought it to a tiny wash-and-fold storefront two blocks from my apartment. It wasn’t a laundromat. I couldn’t have washed my clothes there even if I’d been so inclined. It was only for dropping off.

I wasn’t inclined to do my own washing, however. Watching The Washing Society, I thought about that. What was my story? I certainly wasn’t imagining myself somehow above washing my own clothes. Hardly. My family never had much money, so I wasn’t accustomed to sending the laundry out. The sad truth of me, I’ll admit, is that I didn’t really know how to do my laundry. I know I must have washed more than a load or two in my mother’s house, but I just followed my mother’s instructions, never absorbed the knowledge of the process, the steps.

(Add this to a long list of things I left home having no idea how to do: boil eggs (!!), make tuna salad, balance my checkbook, make and keep a budget, plan meals and shop for food … How did I survive those first years on my own?!)

Never once in that year of dropping off my clothes down the street did I make a connection with my grandmother. Not then and at no point since then … until seeing The Washing Society. I hope I was a good customer. I’ve never been a full-on jackass, so I want to believe I was respectful to the women who worked at that shop, as I am to staff anywhere.

But then I thought about my grandmother, my strong, calm, giving, tough, no-nonsense Eva Nora. I didn’t know about her career as a teacher in North Carolina until I was an adult. And I didn’t learn about it from her. It wasn’t something she talked about. Same with the store.

I wish I could ask her about those transitions, from teacher to shop owner to laundress to caregiver for a world of foster children and then to two large group homes of adults who needed supportive housing. I witnessed a few of those transitions, and I don’t remember being fazed, or thinking how hard it must have been, or thinking it was at all unusual for her to make such sweeping changes in her work, in her household.

And I thought about the laundry. My grandmother grew up in the Carolinas. She was born in the early 1900s (1902 or 1904, depending on which documentation you believe). She lived through the hideousness of the Black Codes and the birth and entrenchment of Jim Crow. Still, she and William were able to become teachers, were able to find a way to help young people access learning, something that was withheld from them by white society. They came north and found that things weren’t exactly better, that things may, in fact, have been worse because they could no longer work in their chosen field.

But that roadblock didn’t stop them. They made a way and made it work. I don’t know that I could have done what they did. I think about the powerful roles vanity and shame play in my life. Would I have been able to accept what I would absolutely have seen as a serious demotion from school teacher to laundress? Not that Eva and William had much choice. They had two sons to raise. They had a mortgage to pay. Money needed to be coming in, period. There is no room for vanity or shame in that equation.

And I think about all that laundry. There was so much of it. And my grandmother was already my grandmother in the period I’m thinking about, of course. She was in her 70s when I was a little kid hanging out in the TV room watching Creature Feature while she was ironing and folding sheet after sheet after sheet. So much work. And such heavy and hot work. How did she have the energy for all of that?

Did she think about her past? Did she miss teaching? Is that why she never spoke about it? When I became a teacher, did it make her wistful or nostalgic? How did she still not say anything to me about her own life as a teacher?

The women of the original Washing Society – which began as a couple dozen Black laundresses in 1881 Atlanta – were a force. They were in what should have been an incredibly precarious position – Black women, not quite 20 years into emancipation, Black Codes being enacted right and left, living on the lowest level of anyone’s hierarchy. They were the most disrespected, the least protected. But the Washing Society women knew their worth. They knew the strength their numbers gave them. And they used it.

The fact of their strike is impressive to me. Then as now, we don’t offer much in the way of respect to laundry workers. A second ago I admitted that I saw the move from teaching to laundry as a demotion. And the women in the film talk about having to deal with rude, crappy treatment. Which all serves to make the story of the Washing Society women more powerful. Those women refused to accept their treatment, insisted on better. And there were so many of them. What started as a group of 20 swelled to three thousand. Three thousand.

The Washing Society amassed real power. These women were supposed to be nobodies, were supposed to count for nothing. And yet they saw their clients clearly, saw just how distasteful their customers would find doing their own washing. That awareness gave them power, and that power forced positive changes in their work lives. They faced down a government that tried to intimidate them. Eva had that kind of clear-minded certainty and strength.

I’ve known for so long that I inherited my face, my hands, my outward calm, my slow-rising temper from Eva. I would love to think that I inherited her strength, her ability to adapt so dramatically, to take the sour, rotting apples she was so often handed and still make do, still create. Still build a life even after William passed and she had to make her world alone.

I don’t have her strength. And no, that’s not La Impostora talking, that’s acknowledgment of my privilege, of how soft I’ve been allowed to be, of how taken care I’ve been, shielded from the harshest things my life could have been. I have been strong at times, strong for myself alone – fighting back against doctors who have wanted to treat me badly, for example. That’s strength of a different kind, but maybe from Eva, born of her understanding that no cavalry was coming, that she would have to rescue herself.

A year after moving out of my mother’s house I moved to my second apartment, from Chinatown, which had an abundance of wash-and-fold laundries, to Washington Heights, which didn’t seem to have any … whether that was the reason I finally began to do my own washing, or whether I had finally come to my senses and realized I couldn’t afford that luxury, I don’t recall. Either way, I started washing my own clothes with that move and have never turned back. The idea of giving my clothes to someone else to wash feels strange to me now, almost unfathomable.

If I ever take my clothes to a wash-and-fold place again, all of this will echo back to the surface. Even as I do my own laundry, these reverberations are there. History flies in, enveloping everything. This remembering Eva differently, calling back another piece of her, is an unexpected gift.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

 

Close to Home: La Impostora Edition

Part I – In which she tries it.

Last week I gave a workshop for young women in a close-to-home program. The assignment I was given for preparing the workshop was to spend some time talking about myself – what I do, what kinds of people and decisions shaped me, that kind of thing. And then I was supposed to lead the girls through an activity of my choosing. Easy? Ha!

First there is the trauma of having to spend time talking about myself to a bunch of young people who don’t know me and didn’t ask to know me. What on earth was I supposed to say to them? What was going to be interesting to them about some random old lady they’d never expressed an interest in? As I said: trauma.

Next, the is the question of the activity of my choosing. Gaaah! Just as troubling as talking about myself, and for the same reasons. Yes, I was a teacher for many years. Yes, I’ve facilitated many workshops. But … Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense, but it does, too. Because (OF COURSE) La Impostora was on the scene, looking the side of my head, making sure I was aware of just how good a mistake I’d made when I’d agreed to do this workshop. Sigh.

But then a thing happened: La Impostora’s noise helped me! I thought, why not have my workshop be about Impostor Syndrome?! I know it affects so many of us, and surely the young women I’d be meeting could benefit from hearing about it, from realizing that they aren’t alone, that lots of people have that inner mean voice that works triple-time to beat them down and hold them back.

This seemed like a stroke of genius, some much-needed divine intervention. I could still hear La Impostora, but I kept going, tuning her out as best I could.

In the end, I drafted a workshop plan with two themes: pushing back against La Impostora and practicing gratitude. They do and don’t go together, but I thought it would work, so I got my materials together – including ordering a 2-lb lb. bag of tumbled stones so the girls could reach choose a rock to help with their gratitude practice.

Part II – In which she demonstrates that she really knows all the buttons to press.

Workshop day came, and I was ready: stones, markers, multi-colored index cards … all the business. The workshop was scheduled for 6pm, so when I left for work that morning, I had a whole day ahead of me before I’d head to the group residence.

That was more than enough time for La Impostora to get in gear and back into my head. I should have known she wasn’t finished with me.

About midway through my morning, I realized my workshop was going to flop. And miserably. How had I imagined that I could teach anyone anything about Impostor Syndrome when I didn’t know how to deal with it myself? Those young women were going to expect me to know something, and I was going to stand there with not one bit of helpful anything to share with them. I was most definitely going to fail and fail spectacularly.

At one point in the midst of this steady repetition of oh-how-much-you’re-going-to-suck, I even said to myself, “This isn’t Impostor Syndrome. This is just what’s true.” Yes. Said that to myself. And was totally serious. That stopped me, made me pause and think maybe what was actually true was that I was caught up in some Impostora spin right at that exact moment.

I let her rattle me some more, and by the time I left for the group home, I was well and truly convinced that I would be splendiforously bad. How could it be otherwise?

Realizing what was happening didn’t make it stop. And that surprised me. Usually, calling out what was happening did the trick and set me on a different course. On my way to the house I tried to puzzle out why that tactic hadn’t worked. And I had an interesting thought: maybe I should have done exactly what I was about to suggest to the girls:

  1. Hear La Impostora’s mean comment.
  2. Shut her down and stop that thought.
  3. Apologize to myself for saying such mean things.
  4. Replace the mean thoughts with positive ones.

Oh, look: an actual process for redirecting my brain! Imagine that.

I didn’t make this up. I stole it from a book I read years ago. I’d forgotten about it. And then, as I was planning the workshop, there it was, bubbling up from the back of my brain.

So I got to the house and did my workshop, and it was fine. Was it the best workshop I ever gave? Hardly. We were all too thrown off by having our evening begin with some unplanned police activity at the house. So our start was rocky, and we took some time to work back to normal from there. But – La Impostora and law enforcement interruptions notwithstanding – the workshop went well!

Highlight of the evening? Letting the girls choose gratitude rocks. What’s this, you ask? Another thing stolen from … I don’t even remember where. You keep a stone in your pocket (I keep one in a pocket of my purse and another on my nightstand), and every time you reach into your pocket and touch it, it’s a reminder to think of something you’re grateful for. It’s a silly mnemonic, but I like it.

I used to carry a beautiful piece of aventurine in my pants pocket, but then I almost lost it, and that was too upsetting, since my Aunt Mildred had given me that stone. That’s the one I keep on my nightstand now. The stone in my purse is a beautiful piece of labradorite. I’d be sad if I lost it,  it it has no sentimental significance, so I’d get over it. I’m extra, with my semi-precious stones, but there’s no need for all that. Any smooth pebble will do. And it doesn’t have to be a gratitude stone. Someone gave me a river stone once with the suggestion that I use it as a reminder to say something nice to myself.

The girls loved the stones and took a long time talking through how they were making their choices: what colors they loved (quartz and rose quartz were big faves), what memories or thoughts the stones triggered, what aspects of their personalities the stones represented. It was fascinating and fabulous. And I was thrilled by how into it they were. I walked out of the house smiling – which is, of course, the equivalent of thumbing my nose at La Impostora.

Stone2
My lovely bit of labradorite
Stones2
The leftover stones after the girls made their selections.

Does this mean I’ve won this forever-war? I’m sure not. But I do think it means I’m closing in on that victory, on whatever victory would look like. Maybe I’ll always run up against her, but maybe I’ll get to a place where I’m always the victor, where she never accomplishes more than giving me a nanosecond of pause. Victory indeed.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Close to Home

Last week I gave a workshop for young women in a close-to-home program. I thought I understood every part of what I just wrote, but it turned out that my understanding was way off the mark.

Because of the work I do, I’ve gotten used to the definition of “young adult” being 16 – 24 years old. That’s the age range used for the kinds of programs that are funded to support “out-of-school youth” and “disconnected youth” and “opportunity youth” … and whatever other names we choose to give young people whose circumstances have made the transition to adulthood more difficult. These are the young people I taught in my basic education and high school equivalency classes years ago. All of the students I wrote about in those days fell into this 16-24 category. The range is fairly well cemented in my head.

“Close to Home” is the name of a juvenile justice initiative that focuses on keeping young people close to their families and communities rather than sending them to detention facilities that are too far away for their families to visit them easily. I don’t know if these programs exist in other states – though I hope they do – but we’ve had them in New York since 2012. Before leaving my last job, I attended an info session/focus group discussion about close to home programs. One of the community organizations we worked with was about to open a residence in the neighborhood and wanted other providers to know about the residence, understand what the program would look like, and offer possibilities for partnership in providing services to the young people who would live in that home.

As it happens, the definition of “youth” in the Close to Home model is very different from the one in my head and at my office. In New York City, Close to Home has enabled the City to completely eliminate prison for kids under 16 by placing them in group residences near their home neighborhoods.

Right. Young people isn’t the same as young adults. Not by a long shot. I wasn’t at all prepared for such young girls. The girls in my group were 14 and 15, and that was definitely not who I was expecting to meet. The workshop I prepared was, luckily, adaptable enough, but adjusting my brain wasn’t so . You just don’t talk to 14 year olds the way you do to 24 years olds.

The bigger misconception for me was what it meant for these young people to be living at this Close to Home group residence. I kept being surprised by my surroundings. Surprised by the level of security, surprised by how monitored the young women’s time was. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but clearly it wasn’t the same as what I was seeing.

I kept bumping up against how regulated the girls’ actions were. I’m sure this sounds silly because the definition of the program is that this program offers an alternative detention placement, doesn’t eliminate detention all together. The young people in these programs have greater or lesser degrees of freedom depending on the type of program they’ve been assigned to, but they are still serving out the time they’ve been given, they are still detained.

As I thought more about the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing, I realized that I’d been thinking of the group home as a halfway house, a middle step between incarceration and re-entry. In some ways, I suppose that is a function of the Close to Home group residence – the girls aren’t going to have to transition from a prison or from being cut off from their families – bu t there are constant reminders of the fact that the girls lives aren’t their own.

Realizing my halfway-house confusion highlighted that I have a lot to learn about this program. For example, what is the relationship between local police and these residences? When I arrived to give my workshop, there were police on-site, called because there was some disturbance with one of the young people. In the end, they took that young person away with them, which was incredibly disconcerting to me … and even more disconcerting once I fully understood the reality of the homes as a form of detention. If you are already detained, what does it mean to have the police called to further police you?

Certainly I think it’s better to have young people – and ones who are so young – detained near their families. The girls in my group all talked at one point or another about family visits that had happened since they’d been placed in the group home. That is better than their families having to miss work days to travel upstate or not be able to take that off time and wind up not visiting as a result. And the group home is better than local incarceration, too. The memory of my one visit to a prison tells me that. The horrifying vibe I got from the male guards at that facility makes me happy the too-young people I met – those children – clearly don’t belong in a prison environment.

So yes, better than regular incarceration … but still distressing. Doesn’t there always have to be a better option for children than jail? And yes, I’m asking that seriously, even as I watch this country imprison thousands of children, watch this country force infants and toddlers to represent themselves in court. And yes, I know all the reasons that its it’s easy to consign these children – these brown and Black children specifically – to prisons and detainment facilities. I know. I still have to ask the question. Have to.

Two hours. That was the entirety of my experience with that residence and those girls. It was enough to leave me with all this to puzzle over. I stay having so very much to learn. Sigh.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.