Yesterday I’m leafing through my father’s diaries (god rest his soul), and here’s what I come across: entries (paraphrased, of course; you wouldn’t believe how pedantic he was even in his diaries) from the time, shortly after arriving in this country, when he stayed at Great-Granny’s house in Brooklyn.
Saturday, 18 October 1986
Gran hides her money in caches around the house. He’s seen jars filled with coins stashed behind cans of foodstuff in her kitchen cabinet, a wad of bills tied with string and tucked under a sofa cushion, another taped to the back of a picture frame, a small can of silver coins nestled at the back of the drawer of her china cabinet.
He’s curious, but doesn’t quite know how to broach the topic. In fact, there’s a lot he wants to ask her.
From boyhood he’d hear about this grandmother of his who cussed the manager of the store where she worked, strode out into the tropical midday sun on Broad Street and never set foot back in that store again—back then you couldn’t talk to whitepeople, the teller of the story would add, much less cuss them. A few mornings later, so the legend goes, she wakes bright and early, bathes, dresses, doesn’t say where she’s going, and returns in the afternoon with a one-way ticket to America. Couple weeks after that, she, her mother, and her two pickneys board the back of the lorry loaded with hawkers, headed for the port in town.
She walks up the gangplank of the ocean liner, suitcase in hand, back straight, black cadet beret scotched on hair plaited in schoolgirl braids despite her mother’s objections (Girl, you know how foolish you look? Why you don’t fix your hair good?) while daughters and mother stand on the pier knowing from the set of her spine that they probably wouldn’t see daughter and mother again.
And as the ship cast off from the pier and passengers stand on the deck waving their goodbyes, she is not among them. Last I saw was her back, his mother would say.
Never returned in the fifty years since she left either.
So, needless to say, it surprises him when out of nowhere he hears her say, I hear y’all independent, now. Hear blackpeople running the show.
She’s at the sink running water into the kettle; he’s at the kitchen table sipping his cocoa.
His first inclination is to answer with a monosyllabic yes, because most likely she’s just making conversation, which is unusual for her before she’s had her four cups of morning coffee. But she’s nothing if not unpredictable.
Suddenly he remembers: it’s election time. Back Home must be buzzing with the nightly political meetings, rumshop arguments, politicians coming around to the villages handing out money, food (mostly corned beef and biscuits), rum, and promises.
He misses the excitement of it all, especially the political debates that must be raging every day in Ramsey’s rumshop: him tossing provocative statements like raw meat into a pool of sharks then savouring the arguments that would end sometimes with grown men “going outside” to decide their disagreements with fisticuffs.
Yes, he says, blackpeople running the show. But that’s all it is: a show.
Really? she says. How so?
Two-party system. Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Same as here, I suppose, she says.
She’s smiling. This encourages him, so he continues, answering her question about independence, telling her about the promises of change, the misplaced hopes, aphorisms about new brooms sweeping out the old dust, a chicken in every pot. But they were young, he tells her, idealistic, entranced by visions of a bright future, seduced by the promises of politicians who came from among them, fellas they grew up with. But politicians, you soon discover, are a venal, unprincipled lot snuffling at the public trough and wallowing in the cesspool of compromise they call politics.
She fixes him with an appraising gaze. You ain’t bad, she says. You talk like you have a stick up your ass. But you all right. Guess Mildred did something right.
He begins to point out to her that his mother isn’t the least bit responsible for his views, and as for his manner of speaking, well. . .
But she brushes him aside with an imperious flick of her hand, takes a seat at the kitchen table, and proceeds to share her views of politicians. Goddamn crooks, she says. Every last one ovum. But whatchu expect? Most ovum’re lawyers. And lawyers ain’t nothin but a buncha slimy goddamn liars and shifty bastards—can’t trustum farther’n you can spit.
It’s the same Back Home, he interjects. Most of the politicians are either lawyers or doctors, with a few economists sprinkled in lately.
Doctors?! she says. Doctors?! Don’t even get her started on those greedy goddamn bloodsucking bastards. Don’t know zip and think they special. She never goes to um. Hell, most times she does a better job healing herself.
And what happens when you can’t? he asks her.
But his words sink beneath her tirade on politicians, lawyers, doctors, bankers, all of whom are the same as far as she’s concerned. Back in the Depression they were killing themselves left and right: jumping outta buildings; blowing their brains out; things like that. Or else stashing away folks’ money and telling um the bank was broke. Now tell me: how can a goddamn bank be broke, huh? Tell me that. How stupid did they think folks were? Pretty goddamn stupid, looks like. Lotsa folks lost their life savings with those banks. Not her. Never trusted um. Still don’t trust um.
That evening he discovers another stash: folded bills wrapped in plastic and taped to the underside of the very kitchen table at which they sat that morning.
Thursday, 23 October 1986
On the mantle he’s seen a photo, grown sepia with age, of a man resplendent in a white zoot suit (knee-length jacket and baggy pants), broad-rimmed hat, two-toned shoes, walking stick. A dandy from head to toe.
He points at the photo and asks, Who is this? My grandfather?
Who is it then?
Nunna your goddamn business.
Monday, 27 October 1986
Gran has amassed a collection of black figurines and dolls (nigglets, she calls them), all frozen in a multiplicity of poses atop the mantelpiece, coffee table, side table, on the arms of the couch, the kitchen counter, kitchen table, in her bedroom, her bathroom. Made of every malleable material available to the manufacturers of such things—cloth, metal, plastic, wood—sitting, standing, crouching, reclining in every room on every available horizontal surface.
And those are only the small ones. In addition she has a collection of about a dozen one-foot-tall female angels all dressed differently, with wings made of wire, feathers, cloth, one even dressed in a red robe lined in white. . . her Christmas angel.
Tonight my father sits on the couch in the living room staring at the images on the television screen, but his mind is elsewhere.
Two cloth dolls (identical twins) sit atop the TV with their legs dangling, staring back at him, their heads the size of a newborn babe’s, bodies no thicker than a slim man’s forearm, and their eyes the size of human eyes. Once he asked Gran if they were human eyes; she smiled without answering. He asked her how is it they don’t topple over, as top-heavy as they are. Again that enigmatic smile.
Some nights when he’s alone in the living room and their stares discomfit him, he clicks the TV off and retreats to his basement apartment.
But tonight he hardly notices them, so deep in despair is he over his ended relationship with Isamina. Biggest mistake he ever made: accompanying that woman to this country, believing her promises of a new life together.
Gran meanwhile stands by the fireplace gazing at the photo of the dapper man on the mantle.
Goddamn man, she begins in a voice so low my father barely hears her. Think he didn’t need nobody. Everybody need somebody.
She leans closer to the photograph and shouts, You sure don’t need nobody now. Do yuh! Goddamn sunuvabitch, she murmurs.
My father thinks he hears a catch in her voice. And for the first time in the weeks of living under her roof, she feels like his grandmother. He wishes he’d gotten to know her sooner.
A few days ago they’re sitting in the kitchen when suddenly she begins to reminisce about her early years in this country; how she made it by her own sweat and hard labor, how things were rough back then. Like you wouldn’t believe, she said. You young people? Y’all don’t know. No man to help me. Made it with these two hands and the brain god gave me.
Don’t you feel lonely? he asked her.
She stares at him. Loneliness clouds her eyes; she looks down at the tablecloth. This is the first time he has seen her less than self-assured. She glances around at her collection of “nigglets.”
I have my dolls, she says.
Tuesday, 28 October 1986
He’s walking down a block where there’s a building under construction. He stops, cups his hands to his mouth and yells up at a man working on a scaffold, Hey! You hiring here?
The man stares down at him.
He yells again, Are there any vacancies here!
The man points in the direction of a wiry whiteman wearing a white hard hat. Talk to him! he yells. He’s the boss!
He walks over to the hard-hatted whiteman and asks him if he’s hiring.
Done any heavy liften?
Heavy lifting? my father says. You’re asking me about heavy lifting? In my country I’m the king of heavy lifting.
The man stares at my father as though he thinks my father is crazy.
First time I read this I barked a laugh, not only at the scene my father describes (I never knew my staid schoolteacher father had such a flair for the ridiculous), but at the thought of him doing lifting of any sort. The man never lifted anything heavier than a pen. Well, perhaps a book. But that’s it.
The man looks my father up and down. Staht tamawrah, he says. At least that’s how it sounded to my father’s ears.
For the first time in his life my father will, as he writes that night in his diary, earn his livelihood in the manly pursuit of manual labor.
My father, as you can tell, was totally full of shit.
Monday, 3 November 1986
The masons, carpenters, bricklayers, and the foreman speak in a language my father doesn’t understand.
He overhears Shawn (the sole black American on the crew) in a conversation with Pedro, a slim Puerto Rican, refer to the white workers as “muthafuckin guineas fresh off the goddamn boat.”
After Pedro walks away, my father asks Shawn, What’s a guinea?
Shawn regards my father with an expression that suggests my father’s question possibly is the stupidest he’s ever heard. Guineas is Eyetalians, he says.
Why are they called guineas? My father asks.
Shawn’s frown deepens. Who the fuck care bout shit like that?
I’m curious, my father says. Aren’t you?
Shawn stares at my father. You a strange muthafucka, you know that? he says. Where you from?
My father tells him.
Where the fuck that at? Shawn asks.
The Caribbean, my father says.
Oh. So you one ah them muthafuckas, is Shawn’s response.
My father thinks it best not to seek clarification from Shawn at this time.
My father, Shawn, and about a half dozen short, brown-skinned, black-haired Spanish-speaking men (They’s Mexicans, Shawn informs him) do what the foreman calls the “heavy liften.”
Pedro is the sole “non-Guinea” mason. Muthafucka half-white anyway, Shawn grumbles. Think he white too, rice-and-beans-eating muthafucka.
Wednesday, 5 November 1986
The foreman bullies the Mexicans.
Today he’s shouting at them as usual and Shawn mutters, He do that shit cause they illegal. Muthafucka try that shit with me, I kick his ass.
Less than an hour later the foreman barks, Shawn!
My father grins; Shawn glares back and snaps, Fuck you!
My father chuckles.
My father, by his own account, does what he’s told and at the end of the week receives his wages which, as he confesses to Shawn, compares favorably (his diction, not mine) with the teacher’s salary he earned Back Home.
Shawn stares at him. Where you from again?
My father tells him.
They all talk like you over there?
My father shrugs.
No wonder you muhfuckas come here, Shawn continues. Me, I ain had no choice. They brought us here in muthafuckin chains.
Shawn glares at him. You fucking wit me?
My father shakes his head, no.
Cause if you are, I kick your ass.
But my father knows Shawn is harmless.
I know these muthafuckas ripping us off, he says one day.
Course I do. If it wasn’t for my baby-mama, think I’d be doing this shit? Bitch say I ain’t fit to be a father, b’lee that shit? Ain’t fit to be a gaht-dame father.
Then he changes topics suddenly, as he is wont to do.
See them muthafuckas?
He’s pointing in the general direction of the “guineas,” as he refers to them. Caint speak a gaht-dame word of English, but they union. You b’lee that? Muhfuckas pulling union wages. Hummuch they paying you?
My father tells him.
I get a little more’n that.
He doesn’t say how much more he’s paid and my father doesn’t inquire. But he doubts it’s much more. In fact, he doubts Shawn really earns more than he does. Shawn isn’t exactly the most credible of individuals.
Shawn launches again into his favorite topic: his child’s mother who only allows him the visiting privileges the court prescribed.
Bitch clocks my muthafucking time, he says. Worse’n the gaht-dame job. Say she be here at five for that muhfuckin child payment, better believe she be here at five. On the muhfuckin dot. Bitch took me to court, Jack. B’lee that shit? Whatchu think?
My father ponders: Well, he knows Shawn gets paid on Fridays and is broke on Mondays. Not what my father would call an upstanding citizen. But his child-mother must have known this, yet she spread her legs for him anyway. Like Isamina spread hers for that supervisor of hers. Let’s go to America, she says. Begin a new life. They arrive. And only weeks later she kicks him out of her life for this Grandison fellow. They deserve each other. They all deserve each other. That’s what he thinks.
He realizes he has just melded two separate and unrelated issues. He’s been doing that quite a lot lately. Everything seems to come back to him and Isamina. He can’t get her out of his mind. As for Shawn, it’s none of his business. He shrugs in response to Shawn’s question.
Shawn gazes at him. You a laconic muthafucka, he says.
Every now and then Shawn uses words my father never would have thought would be in his vocabulary. Like laconic. An interesting man, is Shawn.
But you cool, Shawn adds. You a cool muthafucka.
Cool is not a word my father would attribute to Shawn. He does find him intriguing, though.
Wednesday, 3 December 1986
At night before he scurries under the comforter and blanket, and on mornings when he ventures from their cocoon warmth, his basement apartment is freezer frigid. Every morning he stands by the kitchen sink shivering and peering through the TV-sized, eye-level window watching the branches of the apple tree in the yard sway in the wind.
This morning he enters the kitchen upstairs and sees Gran standing at the kitchen window staring at the tree. That tree is as barren as me, she says. But I don’t have the heart to chop it down.
Her friend Gerald says it’s only taking up space in the yard. Men. Have shit for brains, most uvum. Don’t know shit from shinola.
When he asks her who is Gerald, she stares at him and tells him, Nunna your goddamn business.
She’s so contrary, this grandmother of his. Perhaps that’s why he’s growing so increasingly fond of her.
One morning last week, they’re sitting together in the kitchen and he’s shivering and cupping a mug of hot cocoa in both hands for warmth.
A few days later, Saturday morning, she tells him, Come. We’re going shopping.
They take a bus downtown and she buys him a jacket made of artificial leather, two sets of thermal underwear, three flannel shirts, a hooded sweatshirt, and two pairs of woolen socks.
He’s trudging toward the construction site, shoulders hunched, work-gloved hands shoved deep in his pockets, leaning into blustery wind that causes him to shiver even under the winter clothes Gran bought, and which Shawn later ridicules (I ain’t never seen nobody wear no leather jacket on a goddamn construction site. You West Indians some strange muhfuckuhs). He’s about to remind Shawn (he’s told him before) that he’s no West Indian, nobody’s Indian, for that matter, when a gust whips through the construction site, they hear a cry overhead and look up to see one of the Mexican workers teetering on a three-storey-high scaffold, arms flailing, seeking balance, then plunging and thudding onto the concrete floor where he twitches then becomes still, limbs askew, mouth agape, and everything around my father recedes as his eyes fix onto the Mexican’s rag-doll form, blood oozing from his ears, nose, mouth, and staring eyes until my father becomes aware of the fallen man’s fellow countrymen scuttering down from scaffolds, running from disparate areas of the site and gathering around the body, one kneeling beside his compatriot and repeating, Manuel? Manuel? But Manuel lies unresponsive even as the Italians return to their tasks after casting cursory glances at the crumpled man (See them heartless muhfuckus? Shawn says. It’s the first time after the Mexican’s first cry that my father becomes aware of Shawn still standing beside him) and the foreman shouts, Okay! Okay! Call 911! And blood flows red and slow as lava from under the Mexican’s torso.
The ambulance arrives, siren whining.
And as the siren fades, taking the Mexican away, the foreman speaks in Italian to one of the masons who returns with a water hose and, minutes later, a water-soaked concrete floor is the only evidence of a man’s sudden plunge to death on this windy December day.
His friends huddle, muttering.
The foreman approaches and says in a voice uncharacteristically gentle, Okay guys. C’mon. Back to work. We have a schedule. I’m sorry about Pedro there. . .
His name is Manuel, one young man says quietly.
Manuel. Yes. I’m sorry, guys. But we can’t do nothing for him now. C’mon guys. Back to work.
For the remainder of the day, Shawn remains silent and contemplative.
A week later. Wednesday, 10 December 1986
My father awakens to an apartment so cold the window overlooking the kitchen sink is opaque with frost.
Yesterday he learned from one of the Mexican workers that they returned Manuel’s body to his homeland two days ago. This is a Christmas present Manuel’s family did not anticipate.
The pervasive, numbing winter cold, the memory of the Mexican plunging to his death, the nagging memory of Isamina, his diminished circumstances in this country, and a score of other niggling anxieties that he can’t quite articulate all combine to make this a what’s-the-point-of-getting-out-of-bed-today day.
He pulls the blanket over his head.
Thursday, 11 December
He enters the kitchen upstairs and sees Gran watering the fern that hangs at the kitchen window. She looks over her shoulder. Feeling better?
He says, yes, much better. He doesn’t tell her that were it not for the aroma of frying bacon wafting down into his basement apartment and gnawing a hole in his gut he would still have been burrowed in the warmth of his blanket and comforter.
She glances over her shoulder, notices him still wearing his pyjamas, slippers, and robe and says, You sure?
He says, yes, he probably just needed some rest.
This isn’t exactly true, but he doesn’t want to talk about the cloud of melancholy that visits him occasionally, often making it difficult for him to drag himself out of bed. He has never discussed it with anyone, this ineffable feeling of despair that (from the onset of puberty) often would darken the sunniest of days Back Home, then as inexplicably as it appeared it would dissipate like rain clouds after a sudden tropical storm. Now, along with Isamina kicking him out of her emotions just weeks after their arrival, comes this Arctic cold that yesterday was simply too dreary to face, not to mention the recurring image of Manuel plunging onto the concrete before his eyes. He doesn’t even know the man, but it could’ve been him plunging off that scaffold. And who would’ve cared? Who would’ve missed him?
You not going to work?
No, not today. What else can he say? She wouldn’t understand.
Thought you was feeling better, Gran says.
He closes the fridge door and shrugs.
As he prepares his breakfast he hears her dusting and muttering to herself in the living room.
He’s seated at the kitchen table, scrambled eggs and toast before him, steaming cup of cocoa raised for his first sip when Gran enters the kitchen, places her arms akimbo and begins.
When she came to this country in nineteen hundred and twenty five with one suitcase and twenty dollars to her name, no family, no friends, not a single blooming soul in this god-forsaken city to turn to for help, by the grace of god she made it. With sweat and hard work. That’s the only way to make it in this man’s country. But look at him: sitting there happy as a clam talking bout (and here she wags her head for emphasis) I ain’t working today. Who is he? Lord Byron? People out there hustling, doing whatever they can to survive. One thing she learned long time ago. Ain’t nothing in this man’s country for free. Ain’t no one gon give you nothing. Sit on your ass all day, ain’t nothing you gon get but hemorrhoids.
My father chuckles at her turn of phrase.
Oh, she says. So you think is funny?
No, he says. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He knows there are people out there working harder than anyone should have to work. One of them returned home in a coffin two days ago.
She pauses. Her voice softens. What happened?
He tells her.
Well, she says. Sorry to hear that. But that’s life. Can’t let these things bring you down. Has he seen those men lollygagging in front of the corner store drinking from containers hidden in brown paper bags? Does he want to end up like them? Or like the young drug dealers standing on the corner alert and predatory as hawks? Because if that is what you have in mind, she says, You ain’t no spring chicken.
This hits him like the stab of a dagger.
Look, he hears himself saying. I know I’m not as young as I used to be. No need to remind me of that. But I must have some time to sort myself out. And, he adds, if she’s worried about him becoming a burden, don’t. He has some savings.
She huffs out of the kitchen. He regrets his outburst, but he does need some time to sort himself out.
She doesn’t speak to him for the remainder of the day.
Friday, 12 December 1986. Payday.
The foreman extends my father’s pay envelope and says, You’re fired.
My father takes the envelope and turns to walk away.
I try to help you people but. . .
My father stops, turns and says, For your information, you didn’t fire me. I quit. Three days ago. Or didn’t you notice?
The foreman stares, shrugs and extends a pay envelope to the man next in line—Shawn.
My father and Shawn leave the site together as has been their custom almost from the day my father began working on the site.
You a cool muthafucka, Shawn says. I’ma miss you. You kinda fucked up, and you talk funny, but you cool.
They stop at the neighbourhood Irish bar. It’s happy hour. My father orders two beers. Shawn buys the next round. Hours later they stagger from the dimness of the bar and stand on the sidewalk in silence, two figures illuminated by the bar’s neon-lit sign, shoulders hunched against the cold, both knowing they probably won’t see each other again.
Take care yourself, Shawn says.
My father has never been one for goodbyes. You too, he says, and pulls his collar up around his neck.
They stagger off in opposite directions.
Behind him he hears Shawn shout, You all right!. . . I’ma miss you man! This latter uttered in a tone uncharacteristically soft.
Without turning his head my father raises a hand in acknowledgement and plods on.
Funny. While they worked together, even after he and Shawn became drinking companions, he barely tolerated Shawn. Thought him full of bluster and braggadocio. Interesting, but not someone he’d consider a friend.
Now as he walks, head down and hunched-shouldered against the wintry wind, he thinks he will miss Shawn; he’s not a bad fellow, really. To borrow Shawn’s parlance, Shawn is cool. A bit of a windbag, but cool.
Thursday, 18 December 1986
Tomorrow will be a week since he came home and handed most of what was left of his final paycheck to Gran.
Every morning they sit at the kitchen table sipping hot cocoa, listening to the news on the radio and taking turns reading the newspaper.
Every morning she peers at him over her glasses as he reads the daily paper. It’s unnerving. He knows it’s only a matter of time before she upbraids him in her inimitably blunt fashion. So as she’s washing dishes at the sink, he circles an advertisement that says: Warehouse Laborers Wanted. Must be able to lift at least 75 pounds. More heavy lifting. Him, a respectable schoolteacher Back Home. Who would’ve thought?
Tuesday, 20 January 1987
A grey January morning. Outside his ground-level window snow covers the yard and the lone apple tree stands skeletal, its limbs x-rayed against clouds that roll heavy as cane-fire smoke. He turns from the window and climbs the stairs toward the warmth of Gran’s kitchen and the aroma of morning coffee.
He’s in high spirits as he says good morning to Gran sitting at the kitchen table cupping her mug of coffee in both hands.
No work today? she asks.
He gestures toward the kitchen window. Snow, he says.
She stares at him open-mouthed. Boy. . . you. You crazy?
He figures perhaps she hasn’t heard him correctly. It’s snowing, he says. Don’t worry. I will call in.
Call. . . Again she’s speechless. Are you. . . nuts?!
He stares at her, puzzled.
Listen to me, she says. This is America. Hear me? America. This ain’t back on that little rock where if it looks like it gon rain y’all stay home. I heard bout y’all. Better get your butt down to the man’s job and hope you still have a job.
He doesn’t understand why she’s so upset. Who works in bad weather?
Moments ago he entered the kitchen anticipating a day off from work. Of course he still can take the day off. But with her carping and grumbling all day, which she’d be sure to do, he’d be better off at work
Later, when he’s opening the front door to step out into the winter storm, she shouts from the kitchen, Tellum the buses running slow!
And just as he’s about to close the door behind him he hears her mutter under her breath, They might give your stupid ass a break.
An hour later he enters the warehouse and stands in the doorway, stunned to see the warehouse as busy as usual.
You’re late, the supervisor says.
My father apologizes. Says he thought the warehouse would be closed.
Because of the snow, my father says.
The supervisor stares at him. You’ve got to be kidding, he says.
My father does not respond.
You’re not kidding.
My father remains silent.
Okay, the supervisor says, but next time you figure you’re gonna be late, do yourself a favor: don’t bother. Now get to work. We have a lotta merchandise to ship out today.
And they do. This is a distribution warehouse for a home improvement company. So my father spends his entire shift loading merchandise (mainly snow-removal items—shovels, snowblowers, bags of rock salt) onto company trucks that leave the loading dock in a flow as unremitting as the snow that continues to fall throughout the day.
Sunday, 11 October 1987
Gran’s house is immaculate, from the varnished interior moldings and polished wooden floor, the off-white interior walls and lace window curtains, to the sandblasted red brick exterior, spinach green window shutters, black front door and polished brass lion’s-head door knocker and handle.
Every morning she sweeps the sidewalk immediately in front of her house (not a foot beyond the boundaries of her property clearly marked by sunken iron stakes).
Except for two or three similarly well-kept properties the block is a showcase of decay. Even the garbage truck that rents the early-morning silence on Mondays with its diesel-engine rumble and trash-can clatter is impotent against the general appearance of decrepitude and dissolution in this neighborhood of urine-stenched alleyways aglitter with shattered bottles—buildings, some boarded up, others with tattered window curtains, broken shades and blinds, paint-peeling windows, doorless front entrances to dingy hallways and sagging stairs, and front steps where tenants while away jobless days.
And in the city streets of summer, children shriek and frolic in water gushing from open fire hydrants while adults sit on stoops or fire escapes, and all around, the old, young, male, female, homeless, ragged, dirty, desolate mass of miserable humanity seek survival in this city where desolation and despair cohabit with abundant wealth and privilege.
One day they’re standing together, my father and Gran, on her stoop surveying this summer tableau. He turns to her. Why didn’t you ever go Back Home? he asks.
She’s stares ahead, her eyes vacant, and he imagines her time traveling through years spent in this country to images of Back Home playing in her memory as on a movie screen.
This is my home, she says.
What? This country?
Yes. For better or worse, this is where I belong. There’s sadness in her voice.
Her response takes him by surprise, and he wants to ask her if she doesn’t feel the slightest need to see her family Back Home before she dies, especially since she’s never returned since leaving as a young woman. But her words bear such finality that despite their familial bond he feels as though this question would be an intrusion into a space so private not even he, her grandson, can enter.
And, for some reason, he remembers Miss Wiltshire who, after umpteen years in the States, returned with her fresh-water Yankee vernacular and Yankee ways and lived in comfortable retirement in her new built-with-American-money bungalow just outside the village.
God bless America, she’d say, prefacing her complaints about everything local with In America this and In America that, until one day Sidney the local handyman, a little tipsy from the rums he’d just fired down at the rumshop, pauses in the midst of repairing her fence and says, But you en in America no more, Miss Wiltshire.
For a moment she’s speechless, then she shouts, Get out of my yard! Don’t let me see your face around here again!
Sidney gathers his tools and leaves.
Next morning he returns, bright and early as usual.
Good morning, Miss Wiltshire.
Good morning, Sidney.
Handymen are hard to find.
God bless Uncle Sam, Miss Wiltshire always said, who migrated to America sometime in the 1920s (Soon’s I could knock two pennies together to pay the boat fare) and lived in a brownstone bought with money saved from years of servanting to a white family, the smallest member of which, a boy of seven, since her first day on the job, called her Ada, until the day of her retirement 20 years later.
And in this house she purchased in Brooklyn after years of frugal living six days a week in her employers’ “servants quarters” (I know some people say I cheap, but I call it thrifty. You got to watch your pennies), she occupied one downstairs room and rented the remainder (even the attic) to tenants she spied upon and pounced on at the end of each week for fear of being cheated of her rent.
God bless Uncle Sam said Miss Wiltshire who sold her brownstone to a white male couple, the thinner and daintier of the two (according to Miss Wilshire’s account) thought the house just fabulous; my god, just look at the workmanship; the details.
God bless Uncle Sam, said Miss Wiltshire who lived handsomely on her monthly social security checks but died lonely and unloved, ridiculed even in death for having brought her miserliness and miserable disposition back with her to the place where her navel string was buried.
Oh, she would sigh when reminiscing about her former Brooklyn neighborhood, as though this neighborhood where she lived, and which my father now knew first hand, was heaven itself and not a congestion of brick and stone, concrete sidewalks and paved streets, buildings each as hulking and ugly as the other and so closely packed that they seem to be in a constant struggle for each polluted breath in this city of no space, no grass, no fresh air.
Gran is Miss Wiltshire, except she’s alive.
Gran is Miss Wiltshire, except she never returned home.
Gran is Miss Wiltshire, except she says, Boy, there’s nothing there for me on that little rock.
But that’s not true. She has family there: a granddaughter; great-grandchildren. And though mother and daughter had long since ceased communicating with one another, couldn’t there have been a rapprochement before her daughter (his Mamuh) passed away?
Once he asked his mother why did his grandmother migrate leaving two young daughters behind. Why did she never send for them and why when speaking of Gran did she never refer to her mother as anything but “your grandmother” or “that woman.”
Why? she said. You asking me why I don’t have nothing to do with a woman that left me donkey years ago and never once looked back? Mother? Miss Ramsey is my mother. Is she who raise me after that woman left. My great-aunt. She is my mother, not some woman that take the first boat she could find sailing away from here because a young girlchild was too much trouble for her to raise. Mother? She carry me for nine months. It take more than that to be a mother. I hope she burn in hell.
He never raised those questions again.
But they haunt him, so he asks Gran the same questions he posed to his mother, hoping her answers would assure him that more existed between mother and daughter than bitterness on one side and rejection on the other.
I don’t want to talk about it, Gran says. You young folk. Always asking why this and why that, poking your nose into old people’s business.
But she’s not old people. She’s his grandmother. And secrets are the acids that corrode a family’s bonds.
A few weeks later, after returning from the funeral of a friend who’d migrated around the same time as she did, she tells him, Back then it wasn’t like now. You get a chance, you take it. What else to do? Stay there, scramble for the rest of your life and die poor and hungry? People talk but they don’t understand.
Yes, he thinks, but it also is true that people don’t understand because others don’t talk.
Interesting observation from someone whose diaries contain scant glimpses into the emotions he felt about the family he left behind when he and his paramour migrated to this country leaving me, his legitimate son, rudderless and adrift.