Woolworth’s on the Avenue—Jamaica—serves those cheap hot meals cooked by some big southern black woman dressed in light green working the kitchen. Fried chicken. Mash potatoes heaped with gravy. Corn on the cob. String Beans. Cornbread or biscuits. All for under $2.00. And don’t forget the fresh lemonade or a coke, before you could choose—cherry, diet, caffeine-free, or diet lemon cokes.
They walk down Liberty Avenue. Coming from Keyfood. She took Grandchild #1, Alani, to her job at the Board of Education and showed her off to her friends. She is so proud of Alani’s full head of hair even if she is a little on the dark side.
Grandmother is a product of her world. Southern geichee, rice and peas cooking, fast talking, sexy and smooth raising nine kids in NYC. She is a smooth talker—would slit your throat and self-esteem with her tongue—hard love you up with words. Buss your ass too, when necessary. She doesn’t take anyone’s shit.
Grandmother has seen too much shit for years— a southern black woman raising nine kids in NYC in the latter half of twentieth century. A century ripe with segregation. Jim crowing up the community vibe with bigotry and racism. Yes, there is racism in the north, too.
She made it. A husband and ten births later—did I mention that one child died after birth? Raising hard headed tough skinned little boys who don’t take no shit either. Even from her. Raising girls with the same bad intentions that all black women received. Then. Now. You ain’t gonna be nothing—you ain’t gonna have nothing but a sorry ass man from these projects if you lucky and stay beautiful. Don’t get fat. How could you think your chances gonna be better than mine? It just ain’t true.
I suspect that Grandmother is partially right. This is the world around her. True there is integrity if you looked right, spoke right, and had the right roots—that is white or light ones, but they didn’t. The only way to really lighten up the family is to marry white and that is just not part of the code.
You could lighten just not whiten.
So Grandmother has a smart dark skinned black grandchild with hair all over the place. Yes there are a few dark ones who have long hair too. Just not as many as the lightened ones. And little dark full haired Alani talks like a proper white child. Her no good dark father taught her to read by the age of 4. She is smart. Doesn’t take no shit either not even from Grandmother. Learned to slice with her tongue just like Grandmother. Sharper than the blade of a machete.
What you know about that?
They are so close to the house that Alani is shocked that Grandmother is peeing in the street. Yes. Peeing in the street. The little girl just looks at her. She is only 10. Can’t understand why a grown woman can’t hold her pee until she makes it home.
What is wrong with the tough old lady anyway? One minute she calls you a black bitch for not listening, and chases you around the table and the next minute—she is peeing in the street.
Alani is 13 or 14. No longer understood by the family cause she is different. Book smart. Different. Sharp. Like some of her aunts and uncles, but different. Smart like her dark no good father. A philosopher. Too logical to dream or dreaming all of the time about something they can’t understand. Different.
She is hanging with the lighter cousins by marriage. Grandmother always wanted lighter, no? But she is pissed cause her grandchild is ignoring her blood family. Grandmother doesn’t understand her difference. But Alani can’t understand why. Grandmother moved on. Left the integrated projects and moved to a residential area. She’s a homeowner with her sister. Why doesn’t she see that her grandchild is on the move too? Like she had been. Like her grandmomma.
Anyway the lighter family likes her grandchild too. In fact, she calls the elder woman Auntie.
“You know she ain’t no auntie of yours. Blood is thicker. Why you calling her auntie?”
“Does it matter? If I feel that way, then that’s how it is, Grandmother.”
“They ain’t your family.”
“They are if I say so, Grandmother. Why do you take things so literal anyway?”
“Don’t sass me you little bitch.”
“One day I ain’t gonna take your crap anymore, Grandmother.”
“Well that will be the day that I buss your ass missy.”
“Then it will be that day.”
“Watch your mouth child!”
Grandmother loves this little smart mouthed sassy-assed chocolate grandchild. She doesn’t feel disrespected by Alani’s sassiness. She knows this child is a lot like her. She never says it. But she knows it. One day she thought, one day you’ll realize that you got my spirit and it’s going to save your black ass in this harsh world that hates the darker ones. And you’ll love me in spite of yourself. You’ll know that I can’t coddle you. Your ass won’t survive out there if coddled like a baby. They will beat you down. Strip your beauty away. Fuck with you. Today and everyday. Till you angry and ready to kill. Kill yourself slowly to ease the pain. Smoking. Drinking. Cooking. Hard loving. Smiling on the inside when you run across a sassy chocolate girlchild.
“ I don’t want you to forget your own. Your blood.”
“ I will hangout with whom I like Grandmother”.
“Don’t get sassy with me.”
And that’s when the granddaughter backed down. Alani thinks of her grandmother peeing on the sidewalk and feels that she can’t take it further. This strong black woman cussing all of the time. Making her feel like nothing and something. Conflicted. Respect and disrespect. Lightness and darkness. Love and anger. Conflicted, so Alani would take it no further.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
She walks into the hospital. Afraid. 17. On her way to college. Grandmother is there. In this place. The hospital where her mother and auntie both work. A vomit green corridor leading to a cold sick smelling room. Grandmother is there. Cancered. Dying. Skinny with long fingers and long white silver gray hair. Skin darker than she remembered. Skinny with long fingers. Grandmother.
Alani’s mother and aunties are in the corridor outside of grandmother’s room. Her uncles are there too. She feels proud. Accepted to a small private college upstate. Grandmother will be proud. Alani is the first to go to college and away from home. Smart. Sassy. Dark chocolate and beautiful.
She walks in the room. Grandmother looks at her funny like she doesn’t know her. “Grandmother it’s me”.
Grandmother looks at her hard, brown eyes to brown eyes. Piercing. Recognition. Alani.
“My child”, she said. Her brown eyes soften to love and become moist-like.
“Grandmother, I am going away to …”
Her eyes become different. She looks at her funny like she doesn’t know her. Grandmother. The skinny old woman looks away and asks for one of the aunties. The grandchild leaves the room. Her brown eyes are wet with tears. Fear. Disappointment. How could grandmother not know me?
Auntie says, “it’s the cancer. She doesn’t always know us either.
Alania remembered: Age 10: the old lady peeing in the street. Age 13: The old lady chasing her around the table calling her a black bitch. Age 15: The old lady advising her about the better beau while they shared cigarettes in secret. Age 17: The old lady’s piercing moist-like brown eyes. Cancer. Death. Sassing the old lady. Knowing that they are both different. Recognition. Knowing that they are both different and the same.
I ran in the house, stomach cramping, and bent over. Pulling off my coat, dropping my keys on the table, and running to the back of the house. My room. My bathroom. Wetness running out. Couldn’t get my pants down fast enough. My crotch sheltered by that feminine thing. Wetness running out. Peeing in the toilet, after wetting the shelter, my tights, and my navy blue wool pants. Damn it!
Why can’t I hold it until I get home? Sitting there. Embarrassed by my lack of self control. Smelling the effects of medicine in my piss. I thought of her. Half naked and on the toilet, and I thought of her. 23 years later, on a cold January evening. Half naked and on the toilet. I saw her on Liberty Avenue peeing in the street. So close to home and peeing in the street. So close to the toilet and peeing on myself, and I knew her again. Understood her fully. Laughed at myself, half naked and on the toilet. I heard her laugh too. 23 years later and she knew me. We are both different and the same.