May 2, 2016

Bus Stories From the Sidelines and the Stage


Nearly twenty years ago, I climbed aboard the city bus I always took to get home. I said hello to the driver and smiled at a lady sitting across the aisle. As the ride continued, I could feel her eyes on me. Staring.

You’re The Babygirl, aren’t you? You’re Geneva’s Babygirl.

Here I was on the brink of 30 years-old, but someone knew that I was The Babygirl from long ago. She was a long-time church member who I didn’t recognize or know.

She began to tell me about my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my only cousin and an aunt and an uncle – all of whom passed long before I was born. The bus rattled on, and I sat open-mouthed as she then told the story of my siblings and me being born.

…and that oldest boy, Geneva nearly missed the Christmas program having him. She went on about my sister’s birth, then my other brother and finally me. …we didn’t even know Geneva was pregnant, and one day she came to church with a baby. That was you.

Past generations told stories face-to-face or experienced them from the sidelines like my bus friend. Nothing about anything I had done hopping on the bus that day earned her endearment; her smile and genuine warmth toward me was purely because she knew my story.

I thought of this as I remembered walking in an auditorium yesterday as a fresh-faced young man held open door. I loved him right away and wanted to hug him because I knew his story.

He’s my friend’s son, and I had never met him before, but I knew him through my friend’s stories and from social media pics (albeit few) of him, as well as his sister. Which is why I had to hold myself back from instinctively hugging him. That would’ve just been creepy.

I felt like what I imagine my bus friend from twenty years ago must have felt when I politely smiled at her from across the aisle.

The irony of it all is that this happened yesterday at Milwaukee’s Listen To Your Mother Show, a nationwide series of shows that give a microphone, a spotlight and a stage to moms and non-moms who tell stories of their motherhood journey.

Photo credit: K. Miller
We told stories – some of them painful, others redemptive and introspective, and still others, funny. The audience connected to our stories, and took away whatever resonated with them personally.

We felt the freedom that goes with telling our personal story and having it be heard, and the opportunity to be known – not defined by -- our occupation, or to whom we're married or if we're married at all.

But I’d like to think yesterday’s storytelling even went beyond that. It fell on ears of people who will know our children through us and love them because of the stories we shared.

Who knows? Maybe one day twenty years from now, our unsuspecting kids will have a bus friend of their own to remind them of the stories that make them who they are.


Preshow Shenanigans

April 21, 2016

Prince Brought Out The Florida Evans In Me

We didn't watch a lot of Good Times in the 1970's because my mom didn't approve of the way it portrayed black families as poor, uneducated and living in substandard housing.


But for whatever reason, we did watch the episode when James Evans, the family patriarch, died.

His wife Florida, true to the strong black woman trope, unflinchingly carried on with life. No tears, only work and shouldering the burden of children in mourning over the loss of their father.

Until...until she broke. She broke not in tears, but in anger.

I was too young to understand the many layers of Florida's anger bursting through the screen that night, but I could feel it; and I can still feel it even now, some forty-odd years later.

Today, I felt Florida's anger when I heard that Prince died. It came to me as an overheard byline while I was about to scoop up the salad I brought for lunch.

Internally, I broke down like Florida:

damn!!!
"Damn, Damn, Damn!!"

But I swallowed it back, and for the rest of the day, I was irritated and stumbling for a reasonable explanation why I was angry over a stranger's death, untimely and unexpected as it was.

The reason hit me in waves as I listened to streamed coverage of his death, his music and celebs interviewed for reaction: his music served as ties that bound me to a different place in my life's arc -- whether or not I realized it then -- that are slowly, but surely being erased.

I saw Purple Rain at Capitol Court Theater. Back then the Capitol Court complex was the place to be. Now, it's just a shadow that hovers in one of the ZIP codes with a high poverty rate. Now, if you're a certain age, you don't even remember Capitol Court because it's been renamed.
It's gone.


Then there was the song Purple Rain. I never understood what it was talking about, and it was always kind of a sleepy song in my head. Yet, when I hear it now, I remember my mom loving it. Outside of Bohemian Rhapsody (because chorale, and she loved chorale) and the video for Atomic Dog (I don't understand it either), there were no pop songs she liked.
But mom's gone too.

And then there's Let's Go Crazy. If I close my eyes, I can still see myself in stocking feet, lashes caked in electric blue mascara under dimmed lights and dancing like a maniac to it with Jenny and John at one of the junior year sock-hops. I didn't have a clue that life's downs (and ups) would knock on my door in as little as eighteen months later.
That invincible feeling: gone like Capitol Court and gone like my mom.

The feelings that whispered security and invincibility to me are slowly fading one by one; but I guess there's something in remembering what they felt like and that they were even there to begin with.

But still: Damn, Damn Damn!!

March 24, 2016

The Least of These


"Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
Matthew 25:40

The breeze whispers through open windows on a clear summer day. It carries with it the aroma of freshly cut grass and the lawn mower’s steady drone as my husband paces back and forth, following our backyard’s perimeter.

The drone abruptly stops. In minutes he appears at the back door.

Get out here NOW, he shout-whispers. I race outside following where he leads, praying we’re not looking for detached toe in the grass.

There were no toes, just bunnies.

We coo and fight back every urge to pick up the baby bunnies because we know their mumma will return for them. And she did. Thirty minutes later, they were gone.

*********************

The skies are purplish gray. Scattered spots of orange promise sunshine’s return after the afternoon’s violent windstorm. Sidewalks are littered with snapped branches too weak to cling to their mother trees; and my husband goes out to rake them curbside, each scrape of concrete breaking the eerie silence of the storm’s afterglow.

The scraping abruptly stops. In minutes, he shout-whispers in the front door. Get out here NOW.

This time, I don’t worry about detached toes. He leads, I follow, and he points to the small and hairless baby squirrel siblings, probably blown out of their nest during the storm.

We place them in a makeshift NICU made of Tupperware so they can warm each other.
We station it at the home tree’s base where their mumma can get them. And she did. She scampered down, grabbed a baby, then scampered up, then back down, grabbed another and so on until the NICU was empty.


*********************

That’s a person. Why is she there?
It's past midnight on a subzero night when we see an elderly woman standing motionless behind a parked car. She's wearing a spring coat, is gloveless and her head is protected only by a kerchief.

We stop our car and I get out to talk to her. She isn’t an English speaker, but we know she’s disoriented.

We know her mumma isn’t coming for her.

We bring her in our house and out of the cold, call the police and they help her get back home.

*********************

HELP! HELP!
First it was a scream in my dream, but soon it cuts through my sleep and startles me awake. It’s 4:30 in the morning and I sprint to the living room and blink back the sleep crud to see my husband at the front door.

He’s startled, speaking – questioning loudly to the person – a woman about my age -- who screamed for help.

She says she's having a seizure. Call 911.

I call and he interrupts my conversation with the dispatcher: She’s unconscious.

EMT’s are dispatched. I wait for help with her as she lays unconscious on our threshold. I hear her take short breaths. I know her mumma isn’t coming.

*********************
With so much going on in the world -- in my own community -- so often I wonder What can I do? How can my voice matter? Should I be protesting? Should I be volunteering?

How should I be giving more than I take out of this life?

Then I remember the bunnies on that sunny day, the squirrel siblings after the storm, the immigrant elderly lady in the polar vortex’s grip and the woman – my peer -- who literally showed up on my doorstep.

Of all the backyards, front yards and porches on our block, it was ours they all found and we helped in whatever small way we could.

Maybe part of the answers to my wondering can be found in all of them -- brothers, sisters -- even animals -- in the least of these.

March 8, 2016

What My Mom Taught Me About International Women's Day


...and I was so short, they’d always give me a crate to stand on so everyone in church could see me do my Easter speech.

I don’t remember when I learned that story about my mom. It’s like I’ve always known it.

I was the youngest kid in our family, and by the time I came along, she wasn’t doing speeches in church anymore. The last time I remembered her speaking was at the annual Women’s Day Celebration.

Standing on things, circa 1930
I knew she was preparing a speech for that day and I’d hear her reciting it from time to time, but teenagers don’t think long and hard about anything outside of themselves and their favorite rock group.

I honestly didn’t think much of it. After all, she’d direct the choir or sing solos on occasion, so it wasn’t a completely foreign concept to see her up in front of everyone.

For Women’s Day Sunday, all women in the congregation would be decked out in white, some wearing what I call Baptist Hats. The big extravagant kind, some tastefully bedecked with flowers, bows and other tchotchkes.

Because she always said her head was too big for hats, my mom didn't own a Baptist Hat, and didn't bother getting one -- even for this special occasion.

Then the time came to deliver her speech. She was sitting with the Women’s Day choir in the choir stand which was elevated, sprawling and set behind the wide pulpit. She exited the back row and made her way down the choir stand’s middle aisle to the microphone.

I thought how beautiful she looked in that simple white dress and noticed how pretty the color was because it contrasted with her tan skin. And her hair was perfect that day. I remember that.

Then she began speaking and I heard a strange nervousness in her voice. It was like a determined nervousness. Like she was bound and determined to reclaim her confidence from those many years ago when she stood on a crate telling the church her Easter story.

Which she did.

Her words connected to the congregation who responded with Aaaaa-MAN, Sister Dukes throughout her speech and when she finished.

Every now and again, I find myself in spaces and places where I’m storytelling in front of people. When my nerves threaten to overtake me, I remember my mom speaking that day with nervousness, determination and then confidence.

And I end up finding whatever it is that she found within herself to tell my story and be heard.

I guess that’s part of what International Women’s Day is about: remembering our narratives, telling our stories despite nervousness or even backlash, and being heard…and inspiring the generations that come after us to do the same.

Which is exactly what my mom did. Pretty cool, huh?