My mother would have turned 68 today. I sat in the oncology room this morning a Harvard Vanguard Medical getting my infusion of Remicade, surrounded by patients getting chemotherapy, and I thought of her last days, the nausea, the fear, the grasping for life. I wanted to write something special for her birthday, something that she taught me by simply inhabiting her body but my body is tired after absorbing the potion of chemicals that keep my symptoms at bay. Following her first day of chemo I laid in bed with her, after setting up her daily prescriptions in one of those plastic containers with compartments labeled with the days of the week. We got under the blankets in the apartment she rented above the pizza shop and pretended the world didn't exist. We watched two movies that day, Frida and the Rabbit-Proof Fence. Rabbit Proof Fence was the first one we watched. It was the type of movie that she would like and she did. She was drawn to stories about race, and true stories especially. After Frida ended, I got of bed and began to pack up and ready myself for my ride back to Boston. "Can we watch the Rabbit Proof Fence again?" she said. "You wanna watch it again, right now?" "Yes." In that moment I realized it was not the movie that she wanted but my company, she did not want to be alone. "Of course," I said and put the DVD back in the player. As we were re-introduced to Molly and the mixed-race aboriginal girls that the Australian government had separated from their parents, I saw my mother drift off to sleep. I haven't watched the film since but for her birthday i'll watch it tonight.
Here's a memory of my mother from my childhood, something i'm working on for the memoir:
After lunch she placed a sleeping Jeffery in his carriage and bundled him in blankets. We headed off to Nina's house. Because she didn't drive, we walked everywhere. My mother pushed and the carriage bounced along the quiet and shaded sidewalks of our neighborhood. She strode, lost in thought, beneath a long row of old oaks and weeping willows, while I followed behind, frequently stopping to retie my laces.
“Ma, wait up,” I cried after her. “I have to tie my sneaker.”
My mother stopped and waited by a neighbor’s fence. She adjusted my brother’s blankets and then began to pinch off the tips of stems from a soft-needled hedge. The smell of cut grass had a bewitching effect on her and she would often place the nubs of Yews up to her nose, curl her upper lip to make the branch a piney mustache, inhale deeply. Afterwards she’d break up the spiky leaf between her fingernails, the pieces rained down on the concrete, her fingertips, a green stain.
“You just tied your shoe,” she said.
“I know,” I said fumbling the laces. “It keeps coming undone.”
My mother kneeled down and pulled my laces toward her yanking my body forward. I leaned back against the freshly painted fence to keep my balance. It held me like a long wooden hand. My mother’s smudged fingers tugged at the shoestrings, crossed the loops and then crossed them again. Above us, sparrows and blue jays flew to their nests and the sunrays that fell between the leaves created a golden prism of light.
“Do double knots, like this,” she said. “They won’t come undone.”
With my shoes wrapped tightly around my feet, I brushed off the dirt that had gathered around the knee of my jeans and I skipped along side my mother, grabbing the tips of hedges after she did.
“Ooh, look Andrea there’s a penny.”
I bent to pick up the coin shining brightly on the curb beyond the shelter of trees.
“No, wait,” she said. Her command froze me like a statue. “You have to make a wish first. Penny, Penny give me luck, cuz I’m the fuck who picked you up.”
“Ma!” I said, as she laughed at herself.
She reached down, grabbed the copper coin, Lincoln’s face covered with dirt. She wiped it clean on her jeans and handed it to me.
“Here,” she said.
I put the good luck in my pocket and we continued down a small hill, looked at the same houses we saw every time we visited Nina. We pet the same dogs that always ran to greet us as we passed, and we gave voice to the thoughts in our heads. It was in these times, when everything was calm, that I got to know my mother. Our walks were the beginning of our friendship, when I knew, without really understanding the feeling, that Arlene was the person I would always love most.
My mother was a natural beauty. At twenty-three she wore very little make-up, just eye shadow and mascara to play up her hazel colored eyes, and only on special occasions. She would spend hours getting ready for an evening out, start with a hot bath mixed with baby oil. Shampoo and set her hair in mesh wire rollers. While her hair dried she’d paint her nails with pearl white polish. Her understated style made her more striking somehow in a world where her white skin shone brighter. My brother and I would crowd into the bathroom with her, Jeffery lying on the floor with his blue security blanket and me sitting with my chin on the edge of the tub. Her hands enthralled me, they way they seemed to float across her body rubbing soap on each of her legs, shaving the suds clean to reveal soft smooth skin. Our bathroom, a room that was as sacred as church, as healing as any hospital, was always warm, steamy and filled with the strong scent of Jean Nate body powder. When it was my turn in the tub, I pretended to be her, rubbed soap on my face and around my eyes, shaved my bony and hairless legs with empty matchbook covers that I sneaked into the bathroom.
Her family thought her rebellious for crossing racial barriers. Outside our home people yelled “nigger lover” at her like it was her name. Her rebellion, her ability to stand up for what she believed in, was something that I admired.
On regular days, like the day we visited Aaron, my mother would loosely plait the bottom of her hair making two braids that sat gently over her shoulders and brush on black mascara, cursing the family gene that gave her short lashes. She dressed as a twenty-three old would in 1973, tight knit tops and bell-bottom jeans, suede shoes with chunky heels and laces.
“Ma, do you think Aaron will be okay?” I asked, my arms outstretched like airplane wings as I walked and wobbled on the curb. I liked to pretend that I was walking a tightrope. “Yes, Andrea,” she said looking straight ahead. I leaned to the right, almost fell into the street, my feet meeting heel to toe.
“Be careful,” my mother shouted.
“I got it.” I said, straightening myself up. “Ma,” I said, looking back. “You shoulda saw Aaron’s face.”
“I saw him,” she said.
“And he was screaming, so loud, he looked like he was about to die.”
My mother got quiet. The kind of quiet that told me that something serious was on her mind. The kind of quiet that makes air feel heavy and sets the stage for bad news.
“Your grandmother’s house has past,” she said. “There’s something bad waiting to happen there.”
“Bad, like what?” I asked, now walking beside her.
“I don’t know but years ago, one of your father’s relatives killed his wife in that house. In the attic.”
“Who was it?” I asked. “How did he killed her?”
I was drawn to dark scary characters, so much so that my mother let me stay up late on weekends to watch horror movies with my father. I read mystery novels, devoured stories about ghosts and I was lit up with the idea of finding the identity of my family’s notorious ancestor.
“I don’t know,” my mother said. “They said he was a small man. Small, like your father. And they said that he liked to dress nice. Look pretty. Her married this woman. She was a lot younger than him.”
Arlene stopped, took a cigarette out of the soft red package and lit it with a match. “The story is,” she said and inhaled. “That he killed her and left her body in the attic.”
I listened to my mother’s voice, soft and serious. While neighbors milled in their yards and traffic zoomed by, we slowed our pace and conjured a past of unknown people somehow related to us.
“That story makes me think about your father,” she continued, exhaling smoke at me.
“Because I think someday he’s going to kill me.”
Her statement didn’t startle me, not then. I don’t think I really thought about what the words meant at first. I was too interested in the mysterious couple that marked my family for a future death. But as she talked on, I began to think about her being gone.
“History repeats itself, Andrea. And killing runs in this family.”
I pushed my hand through a chain link fence, let a grey-haired dog lick my palm, wiped my hand on my jeans.
“I’m telling you,” she said, her head lowered, “that house is filled with pain and death.”
At seven years old I was also more interested in the man who had killed than I was his victim. In these situations, it’s the person who acts that we see, not the one acted upon. And no matter how disturbing their actions, they are the ones that intrigue us. Because there is language in behavior, because violence is frantic, explosive, it speaks and warns us about ourselves. And we want to understand, ourselves, and the frantic, explosive people in our lives, so that we can fix what needs fixing. Don’t we?
I never found out who the man was who killed his wife in the attic. He remained an angry shadow in my imagination, an idea on a page. I don’t know if he was really a relative. I don’t even know if the story that was passed around my family, like a bad cold, was true.
My family makes its own truth.
My mother believed it. I could hear it in her voice, a soft surrender that said she accepted an inevitable fate. And she said it with such conviction and so often that I would come to believe. The thought of her dying became the thing that crawled inside of me, tightened my insides until I couldn’t breathe. It was my first real fear, her death and by effect, mine.
During the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Adolf Hitler, made many appearances as the archetype of the leader we would get with a President Donald Trump. It’s not the first time this comparison has been made with a politician. We saw various Obama-Hitler media, posters and signs with the 44th American president’s head photoshopped on to a Nazi solidier’s body in Heil Salute. Shepard Fairey’s red and blue Hope stencil was altered, adding Hitler's signature mustache and straight hair, parted and com to the pensive Obama image. Comparative memes with rallying cries telling us that Hitler also was a great orator are all over the internet.
The Third Reich image is meant to taunt but also to promote terror. The great fear of the Holocaust, one of the darkest times in modern history, is that it could easily happen again given the right circumstances. Americans love to pull Hitler out of their propaganda arsenal, unaware or unconcerned with the United State’s involvement with Nazi Germany, because they believe that it provides enough distance to extend their finger pointing digits far away from our own comparative atrocities. It helps to maintain the illusion of American exceptionalism.
As does the belief that the first Black presidency, with its ensuing racial tensions, murders, and blatant disrespect for the highest office--whether those conflicts were covert operations similar to COINTEL to create racial division and fear, as some believe, or a more primal reaction of white people really afraid of losing power-- is a sign of some apocalyptic threat to the current empire. The fabricated threat is used to justify all behaviors and attitudes with the veil of patriotism.
The idea that one group of people could once again dehumanize, enslave and exterminate another group, while others quietly capitulate to save themselves is more, than just possible, it has been demonstrated to be a human default behavior throughout history. But it usually is the population who claims to be afraid of the powerless who perpetrates these acts of aggression.
Being a student of human behavior, I was naturally curious about all the actions, point of views, and messages that were being aired before and after the election. The persuasive power that our speech and conduct have on others is fascinating, if not frustrating, to watch. Something kicked off my hunger to learn more about Hitler and the Holocaust, probably a documentary of some kind that played on Netflix while I cleaned house. Details about ranking officers and life in the concentration camps made me think about the inner life of the perpetrators, prime examples of Dunning-Kruger, and the victims, who once had a privileged place in society, probably at the delight of the captors, had become people who had to steal shoes off corpses before throwing the rank and gnarled bodies into swelling ditches of death.
This curiosity led me to read Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search For Meaning (I’m on page 85) as the first in many recommended and discovered, literature. I bought the book sometime ago but had yet to have time to read anything that didn’t pertain in some way to my writing project. Usually I read everything but memoir, so I’ve felt a bit removed from myself.
Frankl’s non-fiction, a mix psychiatry and philosophy, was the right kind of thought provoking writing that I love. The kind that makes you stop and think about your own life and the world that surrounds you.
What struck me most, something that also is related to the writing of my family memoir, has to do with suffering. I think my first happenstance with suffering as a spiritual component written in a book was probably sixteen years ago when I first became interested in Buddhism. I’m sure I read about suffering from a philosophical stance in my intro to Philosophy as an undergrad but Buddhism really brought it home, perhaps because at first, it was difficult for me to consider the middle way or doing nothing in the face of some perceived injustice. I ended up putting the book on the shelf and picking it up again maybe seven years later when I was sick, grief-stricken, and in the profound situation where I was left alone to be swallowed by the darkness that surrounded me. The book validated all my choices, and what I believed my life’s journey was about. I didn’t agree with everything that Buddhism buttressed, but those parts that spoke to me helped me to see and do the type of emotional, spiritual, and physical work I needed to heal from what ulcerative colitis and the prescribed medication had done to my body and what years of being around disordered people had done to my soul.
It was an arduous trek of self confrontation, boundary building, truth seeking, acceptance and letting go. The transformation, a shedding of old skin, old lives, old teachings, old acquaintances, for something more enlightened, more connected to the truth of who I am.
Frankl quotes Dostoevski, "There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings." That made me think of the Buddhist teaching that says that life is suffering. It also made me think of the times when I suffered for some unknown lesson that I knew was hidden in the difficulty of my circumstances.
My involvement with Thomas Sayers Ellis is an example of a purposeful sacrifice, of comfort and peace, for some greater understanding. I knew that there was something to learn in that space about myself and about extremely damaged people, people that I had trouble seeing clearly because they were the ones who had raised me, loved me, fed the parts of me that were wounded but not ready to heal. Something deep inside nagged at me constantly. It felt like a spiritual haunting and the only way to free myself from this dark energy was to let it guide to me to the other side. The proximity I kept to Thomas allowed the universe to reveal his truth, quite slowly, as is typical of this kind of instruction, while I was forced to study both of our complexities and by relation those of my parents (he reminded me of each in many ways). For me it was a lesson, a path back into the light. For him, it is a life.
Such recollections were fresh in my mind when I read the Dostoevski quote, My thought after was an assured declaration: Yes, I am worthy of my suffering.
And I felt and sense of pride in every tear I had shed over a frightening but also special childhood, over every undeserving lover I that gave my heart to too easily, every tragedy that seemed unfair, because I understood what suffering was, I understood because I watched my parents, mostly my mother, suffer greatly and for many years. And she, who would hit great depths of despair, homelessness, alcoholism, poverty, abuse, always pulled herself into the light pulling my brother and me along with her. It’s an important phenomena to witness.
Her words to me when I was 18 are still with me today. “I stopped drinking for you Andrea. I remember that day in Curwin Circle, I remember your face,” she said. “The pain that was in it. I remember you yelling about me and crying, saying that you were going to leave and never come back and I realize what I was doing to you. She said it again, “I stopped drinking for you.”
It was a heavy admission, years later and while I don’t remember what precipitated it, it was most likely part of a deep conversation or some important event we were in the midst of as a family.
There were many moments like that with my mother, moments when she would give that part of herself that helped me to understand what it meant to be a human being.
She suffered more than anyone that I have ever known and she still had the heart to love, to give, to laugh. My father is similar but my mother was my teacher until I found another classroom, in the world, at university, in myself.
Those first teachings never leave you though and it was with my mother, my childhood, and the experiences of becoming a woman, that I became a student in Vicktor Frankl’s schoolroom. In the pages of his pocket-sized book he explains the why abnormal circumstances produce abnormal reactions and why those reactions are normal. He tell us, with some obvious regret, why the Darwinesque nature of survival turns the “best of us” into ancestors and the most ruthless into leaders. His testimony that very few people are capable of reaching moral heights and grow spiritually beyond himself in difficult external circumstances is one that my life lends support. And I’d add that I don’t think that ascension of morality and growth is equally paced, nor should it be.
Studying the history of the Holocaust and the United States, over the years, studying the people around me, studying, learning, expanding my mind is who I am, it’s what I love, and it keeps me equally optimistic and concerned about the direction of the world. Perhaps we are witnessing the molting of modern civilization, the shedding of skin, the beginning of a new dawn.
For me, I’ll continue on my path, head towards my denouement with gathered fruits of peace and freedom.. I’ll keeping walking through flames of darkness to find the imminent light.
I remember Mrs. Kimber when I was young. I don’t think I ever called her Mrs. Kimber. I don’t think I’ve ever said her name. I was still a shy teenager when our families joined, still afraid to be that intimate with anyone who was older and that full of life, anyone who had a place in the world, as a mother, a wife, a woman, with the type of magic, I’ve come to learn only black women can possess. I remember her sitting in a chair at the kitchen table surrounded by people at some family party, the way her body moved when she talked and how poised she looked as she drew herself up to meet the others who were standing. There was a crowd of people in that room, all signifying and strutting around to make their point, but she is the only one that I remember.
There are some people who, even with the slightest encounter, will imprint part of themselves on you, leave an impression that lingers like the smell of citrus in summer.
Mrs. Kimber was that kind of person.
Because I did not know her well, I am left with only my impressions to create the image of a person. One who touched my Uncle in a way that humbled him, made him seem vulnerable, human.
In my imagination she is the music that lives in the space between notes. If you close your eyes you’ll hear her laughter in the cymbal crashes of a swelling symphony. You’ll see her legs stretch across a rolling crescendo and watch them fade into forever.
Those hips that tempo’d her stride will always conjure the dancing spirits of her ancestors.
If she were jazz, she could only be avant-garde. A muse to Coleman, Mingus and Monk.
She was a percussive instrument, the kind that banged up against life maybe with the intent to understand its rhythm so that she could be the writer of her own song.
I imagine that her humanness had as much depth as her eyes and that her smile projected both her pain and her joy. I imagine that she was a woman with all the love, mystery and complexity that the word, woman, implies.
I thought of her at Christmas not too long ago, I heard that she was unwell. Moved by the memory that I carried all these years, I wanted to comfort her somehow. I decided to get her a candle, something I thought would soothe her body and feed her senses. It was a risky endeavor because everyone is drawn to their own kind of sweetness. I told Bobby that I stood in the store for an hour smelling different fragrances, picking up cups of colored wax and putting them back down, repeating this inane ritual until I was light headed and sick. But it was important to me that she have the simple pleasure I thought the warm flame and candied air would provide.
When I was told that her last days included laughter, I thought about the day I saw her sitting at that table, when we were both much younger, when I didn’t have the words to say her name but I recognized, even then, a beauty and a spirit that belonged solely to her.
May she rest well.
Andrea Roach is a writer of memoir, essays, and creative non-fiction. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University.