That Which We Refuse To Bury
I needed to tell my mother "no," but the words were buried between my ears as I listened to the details of what were shaping into funeral plans for my grandfather. My brother and I sat on the line with my mother trying to figure out who needed to be responsible for what and who would accompany her to Charleston, South Carolina to bury her father, Magic.
I couldn't, but I hadn't made that clear to my mother yet. I skirted around telling her, flatly, that because I now lived all the way in California, it would be much simpler for everyone if one or several of my siblings went with her. But things are never simple when you are the oldest child. My two sisters are pregnant and every superstitious and pragmatic belief we adhere to forbids them from going anywhere near a dead body, grandfather or not. Baby sister is in college and can't take academic time, my brothers work and can't take the time off, which left me, the childless, unemployed working artist who could, in the opinion of everyone, drop it all, meet my mother in Charleston, say eternal goodbyes to my grandfather on behalf of all my siblings and make it back to Los Angeles to recommence book writing.
I listened, wordlessly, as my mother and brother figured it all out for me.
Los Angeles in winter is like nothing I could have dreamt a winter to be, the kind of cold where dew remains wet instead of frosting over in the wee hours, the type of cool that tricks the body into craving a dill pickle, the routine whine of an ice cream truck and the safety of a friend-filled stoop. Until this year, I had spent every winter of my life braving the bleary snow falls of New York, trudging to school in layers of clothing intended to keep me warm but also made me sweat so that by the time I reached homeroom, I was wet and coughing as if I had climbed my way out of a desert cavern. Sometimes it snowed so generously we would climb out of the windows, onto the porch and excavate the doorway. My brothers were sent outside with shovels and a bucket of salt to clear a pathway for the family while my sisters and I huddled at the window, pointing fingers, making faces, pleased to be indoors still in the pajamas we hadn’t yet exchanged for daywear. At bedtime my mother turned the heat up, no utility bill too high to cause her children fitful sleep. The oldest child and closest to her in duty, rather than affection, I was chosen for the tasks reserved for firstborns: cooking, babysitting, tutoring, helping to style my sisters’ hair for school. I learned to understand that love is meted out through fulfillments of responsibility. I was loved because I could do, and I did. My mother picked me for tasks I could be trusted to carry out, and that was our relationship. Less her daughter, I was her right hand man. Before a snowstorm my mother and I would travel out, lists in hand, for a perfect day of hoarding. My mother and I would rush to the supermarkets, buy as much junk to go along with our savory staples as possible and head home to watch movies, predicting, sleepily, if school would be cancelled or not.
Los Angeles is not that way. Los Angeles is a natal fire; New York is a heat we must create for ourselves. Even with its most frigid winds the most I need here is an oversized scarf and decent jacket. I walk around Los Angeles without the fear of snow, without the fear of rain, without the pressing, often frantic demands from my family knowing that I am well beyond their grasp. No matter how well-intentioned I am, how much I want to help or not, Los Angeles blankets me from the drizzle of the everyday familial emergency; I’m just too far away now. LA awards what the desert promises: rebirth if you can suffer through to its edges. If you can leave a love, break the bonds of employment and friendship, if you can get to the desert possessing the ideas of rebirth and vivification, you will be anew. Choosing to write my book here, of all places, has introduced me to the deepest burrows of memory and allowed me to create the grandest fictions: nothing here, even faintly, reminds me of home. To go home, I have to make use of the inner workings of my imagination, or, at least, get a plane ticket.
My book writing isn’t ready for me to go home, not even to bury my grandfather. I interrupt my mother and brother to tell them leaving Los Angeles is not an option for me. I tell them I have to stay to finish working on my manuscript. I have deadlines and commitments that cannot be suspended for a funeral. My mother and brother don't speak for a while; they remain silent trying to figure out if they've heard me correctly.
When I started writing The Anatomy of Forgiveness I didn't realize it was shaping into a collection. I was writing poems, bringing them to work, making revisions on my downtime. Soon it became clear that the poems had a history not separate from mine and that I owed it to them, and to myself, to not only finish writing them but assemble them cohesively. I decided to write a historicity informed by my infertility diagnosis, a fabled and fictional history and future where my body wasn’t directed by the limitations of my biology. Another year of writing would pass before I made the most deliberate of decisions: I cut out all of the men from the narrative. In making that choice I decided my book would be a family history that privileged the stories marriage and paternity did not. This would not be a book about the men and how the men shaped us or ruined us, how their absence or presence decided the trajectory of women’s lives. I was not writing a book about daddies who left and how harsh the world was because of it. Mine would be a living history, a fictionalized document, of a woman, the women she loved, the women she bedded, the women who came before and after her. Loose mentions, names of men, would appear; nothing consequential.
The irony was not lost on me or my mother: what kind of conceit does one need to write a fictional family history while real history, blood history, genetic history died? Who did I think I was, or better, what did I think I was doing? My grandfather was dead and in a day or so my mother would travel from New York to Charleston to bury her only and estranged father. Here I was fooling around with character sketches while my grandfather steadily decomposed.
Magic Heyward, my maternal grandfather, was one of seventeen children born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. Magic drove trucks up and down the East Coast for most of his life and made good money doing it. He owned several Cadillacs and developed an interest in homeownership as a young man. Somewhere around 1962 he met my Nana and they had my mother in 1964. A very sweet story if Magic had not already developed eyes for another and my Nana not been shipped to Harlem to live with her older brother, John, as soon as she started showing. Magic would move on with his life and family in Charleston; Nana moved on with hers in New York. My mother never got to have a father and so I knew my grandfather in passing, mostly, by name. I wouldn't meet Magic until I was nine years old. He pulled up in a Cadillac, stepping out with a brown shined shoe, wrist watch and a bulging wallet he flashed before stuffing it into his back pocket. I looked undeniably like him. He smiled, pinched my arm and said, "Yep. You're mine." This would be our relationship: infrequent visits, cash in hand, a few phone calls and then none at all. He was always pleasant, always laughing and inquisitive, but the inquisition was more a fact of standard Southern hospitality. The "You alright?" "Everything okay?” was courtesy. He was no more curious in finding out the answers than I was in telling him. Magic had an actual wife, actual children and actual grandchildren who knew him as such. People I did not know, people I scarcely cared to meet.
This is why we weren’t going to send our mother to Charleston alone. Not by herself. Not to face his wife. Not to face his children and grandchildren. People who were family because blood, not relations, determined it. She needed a front, she needed support, and she needed her family there. She needed them to see that she did just fine in spite of the popular narrative. Look at her grown children, look at the way they've left their homes and their lives to see about their mother, to bury their grandfather, look at these self-subsisting people. No one was going to make my mother feel unloved, unnecessary, unwanted, unwelcome. Magic, dead in his grave, and his children would know that despite his scanty visits, Jackie knew happiness. She has children in the world. There is nothing she will face alone. The last thing any of us wanted was for our mother to go back home and be reminded of the childhood she didn't have. We weren't even sure if she fantasized about having a different sort of upbringing, but we were resolved to protect her from it nonetheless.
But my mother insisted on going alone. She was fine, after all. She would take the train down from Penn Station with her half-sister, Yolanda, and call me every step of the way. She didn't want to disrupt anything going on in our lives. She didn't want to make trouble for her kids. I listened to her and my brother as the three of us went back and forth making up our minds only to change them and come to different conclusions. A decision was made. I would send money. My brother would send money. She would go with Yolanda. We would stay on stand-by, and the minute anything looked worrisome, one or both of us would head South. "Besides,” my mother added, "Magic never dropped anything for my kids."
So I turned half-heartedly to my manuscript and wrote poems around a grandfather. I wrote about the great migration and Nana landing in Harlem, I wrote about her as a troubled preacher's daughter, I wrote about her as an answering service operator and an operator for Bell South. I wrote about my mother, I wrote about fictionalized relatives. I made up friends for Nana and Harlem as she would have discovered it in the 60’s with a newborn in tow. I refused to write about Magic. Death would not change the purpose of my art making. This book, my first book, is for the women and their lost histories and the things we give up, by force and choice, when husbands are had, when babies are born, when men stay or go. God bless the dead but I forged on with a single purpose in mind, a purpose that excluded my grandfather.
My mother called to check-in with updates. Yes, she got the money I sent. Everything was fine. She was having a good time getting to know her sisters. Did I want anything of Magic's? A token to remember him by?
I asked for an obituary, a picture of Magic and a picture of his mother. I could build a world from a photograph. I could build a world out of a woman I never knew.
The next morning, Facebook notified me of new friend requests. People, who looked like my mother so much I couldn't question the lineage, forget the addition of the familiar last name. I called my brother, screaming into his ear as soon as he picked up. I could not believe the nerve of these people, sending me a friend request. What did we have to be friends about? How did they find me? What the hell did they want? My brother was much more even about the situation as he has received and accepted the same requests earlier that morning. "They probably just want to get to know us, you know, like family." I could have spit. "We have a family, we are our family," I insisted, "What the hell do we need with aunts and uncles now? Who the fuck do these people think they are?" My brother, disinterested in fighting, changed the subject.
I let the friend requests sit in my inbox unanswered.
I returned to my manuscript writing, to my research, to incessantly updating my writing partner out of fear that an underdeveloped sadness would suddenly swoop down and swallow me, or worse, I would stop writing. My mother called the day of the funeral to let me know my grandfather made his homegoing in style. It was a nice service. The church was packed with all of his children and theirs. She was glad I did not come, and she told them as much. "Girl, I told them my daughter is busy writing a book and cannot come home for every little thing that happens. They could not believe you live all the way in LA. You have an aunt out there, too. Magic's sister. She told me to tell you that you have somebody out there, that you have people in the world. She gave me her address and phone number. Don't let me forget to give it to you before we hang up."
My mother was fine without her children chaperoning. Her sisters and brothers had accepted her,
included her in both their grieving and merriment. They went out for seafood and beer and danced together. They were showing off pictures of their kids and one upping each other on the accomplishments of their progeny. She and her sister Debbie had gone shoe shopping. She had family secrets to share with me for my book. She was tickled to learn of the betrayals and cover ups. She was even more tickled that her daughter was writing them all down.
It was good to hear my mother laugh with such cheer. I could imagine her face, such a resemblance to her father's, as she sat in his living room, among his children and felt, finally, maybe, like one of them. The dinners she missed there, the scolding, the TV time and getting ready for school. A few winter afternoons could not make it up, but she wasn’t in it for regret or apology. She simply wanted to give her father more than what he gave her—address—formal, explicit, amatory address. She wanted to stand in the front pew, black-clad, and be counted amongst what he left for the Earth. She continued to fill me in on the rumors, her departure times and the names of background people bidding me hello. I could hear an unfamiliar man calling, "C'mon Jackie, let's go!" And before I could stop myself I asked, swear word and all, “Well who the hell was that?"
"Oh girl,” my mother laughed, "That's your Uncle Halley. My baby brother. We've been playing spades and wrestling all night. Girl, he's so happy to have a sister he can drink tequila with, he doesn't know what to do with himself. He's so happy to have a sister who's a little rough, a sister who knows how to throw down."
"Hold on a sec," and I listened to the mumbles of conversation happening between my mother and Halley before she came back to the telephone line. "I'll fill you in later, daughter dear; I'm going out with my brothers." With her brothers, I thought. Those temperate men in our lives who could accept a younger sister’s full belly, a sister’s morning expletives, or a sister’s immodest birth without the shame and incredulity fathers used to turncoat.
"Okay but call me later," I managed before she hung up. And I could feel my mother skipping away, a single hair knot at the back of her head, a pair of slacks and worn-at-the-big-toe sneakers, probably a sweatshirt, her rough and tumble tomboy self out the back door with her brothers, spilling into the yard, fixing themselves up for the world, seeking out impressive sorts of trouble.