An Apology to Almeda Elizabeth West Smith On Her 89th Name Day

Dear Grandma,

I write to you on your 89th birthday. You have been gone since 1998. And your absence has left me irrevocably incomplete. At this point in my life, I feel I must do what’s right and apologize to you. You told me some things, and I didn’t listen. I mean I listened, but I didn’t listen listen.

I used to sit at the edge of your bed, or sit in grandpa’s old chair, or sit in your wheelchair rolling back and forth as you went about your day— making phone calls to friends, perfecting your eyebrows, braiding your hair. Every move you made captivated me.

We’d watch Carol Burnett together and I Love Lucy and Days of Our Lives, and I fell in love with Stefano Dimera. I’d tug at my ear like Carol used to, and I’d imagine working in that chocolate factory like Lucy and Ethel.

When we laughed at that one episode of Golden Girls—the one when Rose and Arnie are in that restaurant discussing the “inconveniences” of sex, and Rose yells “Check Please!”— I knew that we had a special connection that could not be duplicated.

I had no idea what the joke was. I was seven years old. But you let out a loud, unmistakably naughty laugh. And I laughed and felt like we shared this little secret joke (even though I didn’t quite understand what was so funny.)

I fell in love with Scarlett O’Hara because of you. Katie Scarlett gave the fiercest side eye before I realized what side eye was, and I was mesmerized. And then Clark Gable. Jimmy Stewart. The Gawd Barbara Stanwyck. Charlie Chaplin. Queens Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. You and I would sit in your room and watch these films, and I loved you for loving me enough to introduce me to such magic.

In the kitchen, you were a beast. I was amazed at how effortlessly you’d make your pie crust from scratch. You let me sit there and watch as you expertly rolled the repurposed green glass bottle back and forth across the dough. You hardly got any of the flour on you, and I’d always leave completely covered in it. How does that even happen?

When you’d talk, I’d listen. You’d tell me how you used to be a writer. You’d tell me how you used to keep such a clean house that a widely distributed magazine sent a journalist to the Pruitt Igoe housing projects (before it dissolved into an uninhabitable hell-hole) to do an article on you—“How did a woman with so many kids manage in the projects?” they wanted to know.

In my younger years, when no one else could be bothered with me or you, I’d cling to your Thelma Harperesque housecoat. I’d try to figure out if you were really partially blind or if you used that disability to your advantage—because in my young mind: How you can’t see but you stay so fly? How you pick the perfect beret to go with your weekly hospital visit outfit? I swear you were the dopest old lady on the dialysis machine every week. And when you’d come home from the hospital I’d ride the wheelchair lift because what else would I do on a Saturday morning after my favorite cartoons were over?

I listened for your directions when you’d make me hold you over the sink so you could get that signature red hair of yours. Again—you were so fly. I listened for your complaining when uncle Arnold and I would walk to Nationals grocery store and buy off-brand groceries; you were not an off-brand woman.

I listened for your voice when you would yell at anybody in earshot. Your health was failing, you’d lost your husband, and in a house where you raised your family, you could no longer climb the stairs by yourself. You were angry; your body had failed you. Your husband had betrayed you for an eternity with God. You went into that hospital together in the fall of 1991 and only one of you returned. How betrayed you must’ve felt.

When you yelled for me to come help you make your bed. Every.Single.Day. I’d be so mad because I couldn’t understand why you straightened it and tucked the sheets so tight because you weren’t going anywhere.

As I got older, I saw you less and less. Typical. I morphed into everyone else who’d seemingly forgot you. I had friends. I had a boyfriend. I didn’t have the time; I couldn’t be bothered. When you found out about my first boyfriend you told me: “Never let a man get in the way of your dreams or your career.” I didn’t get it. “Okay, grandma” is all I could think to say.

Less. And less. Until one day you called me and said: “Grandma sick, baby”. Grandma was always sick I knew. But something was different. This wasn’t the same. When I got to your house you were in bed, but part of you wasn’t there. You sounded the same, but I could tell something was amiss. I didn’t want to give in to that feeling. So I pretended like everything was fine.  And I went to hang with friends.

I never saw you again. Except for when your lifeless body appeared before me in that wooden box, and you were wearing that silky floral dress with the black and white polka dots spread throughout. I chose it for you. I thought, “She has got to be classy yet still fly when she meets the Sun-Maker.” I ironed that dress for you. Carefully, methodically, I pushed the warm iron back and forth across the fabric. God would not catch you slipping.

When I peered into the casket I was pissed. It was then that I knew I loved you the most: they couldn’t be bothered to get the hair right. It wasn’t the right color red.

But here’s the apology: I’m sorry I didn’t listen listen. I shrugged it off when you told me you were sick that last time. I didn’t fully heed your words about not letting a man get in the way.  Occasionally, I buy off-brand groceries. And I don’t make my bed every single time I get out of it. Forgive me.     

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Adventures of a Teenage Kourtney (“in Love”)

I was not a wild child, but I had my fair share of fun. I also had my share of unfortunate circumstances that many teenage girls may find themselves facing today. When I think of my teenage years, a particular situation comes to mind, a funny and eye-opening event that has become a regular installment in my “young, dumb, and in love” oral anthology. I usually broach my oral storytelling with the same declaration:”let me tell you how when I was young, dumb, and in love, and got myself into…”—that phrase usually gets people listening; hopefully it’ll get you to keep reading.

So let me tell you how when I was young, dumb, and in love, and got myself into a car chase. 

To start, I’ve been a serial-monogamous-”dater” for most of my life. It’s cool now, but I often caution against being “faithful” when I speak to youngins nowadays. I tell them to “have fun!” and “don’t be tied down to these boys (or girls)!” Looking back, my decision to stick with one guy in my adolescence was a terrible mistake. To be loyal to a teenager with raging hormones is absolutely idiotic. I dated the same boy (I’m going to name him Chance) from the 7th grade until he reached his final form (after I finished my undergraduate degree). I’m not saying I didn’t experience other relationships on our “breaks”, but to Chance, I was committed. Stupidly committed.

I used to spend the summers, and every day after school, at my grandmother’s house. It was where I grew up, where I lived until my mother finally married my stepfather (the best man I know by the way). But my life was at my grandmother’s house—all of my friends lived near, my old crushes inhabited the neighborhood, and I had freedom there.

On a typical St. Louis spring day, I sat bored in my grandmother’s kitchen. Most of my friends were still at school (I’d graduated early and was taking classes at the local HBCU). But I knew Chance was home because he’d recently changed his schedule to half days. Partially listening to the television and partially listening to my grandmother yell for my uncle to come help her with something, I decided to call my boyfriend. I picked up my grandmother’s kitchen phone. It was one of those phones that hung on the wall, yellow, with a long cord. I picked up the receiver and dialed his number, twirling the cord around my fingers as I waited.

He answered.

“Hey, baby what’s up?” I said ever so sweetly.

“Hey what’s up?” he said back.

But he didn’t return the usual enthusiasm. I hesitated a bit, sensing that something was amiss. Then I heard his cousin in the background rambling on, and I immediately became annoyed. His cousin was problematic. Always around. Always talking shit. Always boasting. Always trying to get Chance to talk to this girl or that girl. He was cute and he knew it. He was deemed a hot commodity because of his fair skin, attractive gold grill, and long curly hair. I breathed heavily into the phone to let Chance know that I was irritated. But he already knew I was.

“Justin said what’s up,” he told me trying to soothe my agitation.

I ignored his attempt, and I could picture his smooth mocha skin and soft pink lips twisting in slight nervousness. Chance knew I didn’t like his cousin, and he wanted to make sure things remained cool between the two people with which he spent most of his time.

“Anyway, what you doing?” I asked.

“Chilin’, playing the game.”

“I’m about to come over. I’m bored.”

He paused for what seemed like forever but was probably just five seconds. But it was five seconds too long.

“Oh, we about to leave.”  

Bullshit. I remained quiet; he kept going.

“Um, we gotta go pick up my lil’ cousin from school and take him home,” he told me.

“Umm,” is all I managed to get out before I was met with a dial tone.

I took the receiver off of my ear and stared at it. “What the hell?” I mumbled low enough so my grandma couldn’t hear me.

She heard me.

“What did you just say Kourtney?” my grandmother, sitting in her wheelchair, asked as she rolled into the kitchen.

Her eyesight was fading, but her hearing remained exceptional.

“Nothing grandma, sorry grandma,” I timidly replied.

I dialed Chance’s number again. He had his own phone in his room which was the shit to me. To have your own line? The. Shit. Plus, I could call him as many times as I wanted to, without his mother tripping about the phone ringing. So I called his number probably 10 more times. After about the third time, his cousin answered and said that Chance was in the bathroom “doing the number two”.  And after that, neither one of them answered.

Of course, I knew some bullshit was going on—that Chance was intentionally bullshitting me. And I was pissed. I continued to twist the yellow phone cord around my finger, cutting off my circulation and thought for a moment. At this point, I had been in a relationship with the boy for about five years. I knew when he was lying, and that it was second nature to him. But I also had something else gnawing at me: during the call I made to Chance’s phone when Justin answered and shot off some nonsense about Chance’s bowel movements, I could’ve sworn I heard the faint sounds of a girl’s laughter as Justin was hanging up. Her light nasally laughter was haunting me because I couldn’t tell if I was really hearing it, or if my mind was indeed playing tricks on me.

So being my young, inspector gadget, I-got-all-the-time-today-because-I’m-bored self, I hopped in my car and headed his way.

He didn’t live far from my grandmother’s house, about 10 minutes away, and my 1985 gold Ford Tempo ( aptly named Goldie) was gonna make it to him in seven. I zoomed down Ashland Avenue. Swerved onto a pedestrian-filled Vanderventer Ave. Dodged potholes when I could. Tapped the brake momentarily, just enough to keep the city cops at bay. Teeth clenched. Palms sweaty. I made a left onto Martin Luther King Boulevard. Seeing red. My mind raced with what I was going to say to Chance once I caught him doing whatever it was he was doing. I’d be through with him finally. He could no longer play with my young emotions. All of these thoughts clouded my brain, and then, well then, I was seeing red literally—in the form of his red sports car.

There he was. His 1990 cherry red Chevrolet Camaro was fast approaching. At first, I felt relieved. I thought to myself, “okay, so he wasn’t lying; he really did have to pick up his cousin from school.” I assumed that the feminine voice that floated its way through my phone receiver was something my paranoia concocted. My anger began to subside as our cars began inching closer and closer to each other. I was expecting a smile. For him to tell me to bust a U-Turn and follow him, or at least pull over for a quick kiss or hug. But that’s not what I got at all.

When our cars were parallel to each other, it took three seconds for Chance to greet me with his beautiful smile and then throw me the deuces. It’s a horrible feeling to be disrespected at the speed of 35 miles per hour. The deuces? That wasn’t even the worst part because when he flashed his perfect teeth, I couldn’t help but notice that his cousin Justin sat in the back seat of his coupe, and some unidentified girl with a stiff weave ponytail sat in the passenger seat.

The faint nasally laughter had not been a figment of my imagination.

I didn’t have time to think. My body temperature rose immediately. My palms became even more sweaty. My underarms were instantly drenched with sweat. I checked my rearview mirror and saw that no cars were coming. I busted a “U” and followed after him.

I don’t know how fast I was going. I didn’t look out for police. My Ford Tempo was no longer a four door compact car, but a spaceship flying through the galaxy of North St. Louis.

He turned right; I turned right. He sped up; I sped up. Every little side street in that part of town, we sped down. I was intoxicated with anger and nothing could ameliorate my feelings except a punch in the face to him and being able to drag passenger-seat-side-chick out of the car.  

He turned left; I turned left. And when I turned left the final time, my mind went blank. Everything was blurred as I lost control of my spaceship and went flying into an empty city park, stopping right before hitting a small swing set. When I came back to my senses an instant later, I realized I was screaming, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” at his car as I reversed out of the park. I could see his backseat-riding-cousin turned around staring out of the back car window in shock. And him. Chance’s almond shaped eyes gazing at me through his rearview mirror as he lifted his hands high to surrender to me. He pulled over his car and mouthed, “okay, okay”.  I put Goldie in park and proceeded to exit the vehicle. This was my opportunity. I would finally be rid of him and had hardcore proof to backup my departure.

I opened my car door as hot tears streamed down my face. My legs were no longer mine; they were animate objects that were extensions of my body, but I could not control them. I nearly stumbled as my left foot hit the concrete, and the heavy car door pushed me back down in my seat. I gathered myself. Left foot met pavement. Right foot met pavement. My back was erect, and I stared holes into the back of all three of their heads as they sat in Chance’s car waiting for me.

I was ready. This was it.

He opened his car door to step out as I came closer and closer to ending a relationship that had gone on too long. To which I had been too loyal and faithful. But the chance did not come—at least not that day.

As I reached the tail end of Chance’s car, he quickly closed his driver side door, put his car in drive, and pulled off—leaving me standing in the middle of the street.

Me. My gold Ford Tempo. A City Park. And a trail of smoke left by his Camaro.

It did not end there. The relationship that is. I accepted my boyfriend’s explanation that the girl in the car was his cousin Justin’s girlfriend.

And when I asked, “well, why was she sitting in the front seat?” he responded by saying, “it’s rude to have a girl sit in the back.”

And when I asked, “well why did you throw me the deuces, make me chase you, and pull off when I approached?” he responded by saying he knew I was about to act all crazy for no reason so he wanted to avoid the situation.

How could my 18-year-old mind argue differently?

So I stayed. For years. The truth of the matter is, I knew when it was time to go, but I was too afraid to leave. At 18, I was deeply in love and thought my devotion would yield the results I wanted: complete faithfulness, honesty, and unconditional love. Or something like that. What I got was lies, empty promises, and a few good memories. I didn’t understand that Chance’s willingness to have me race his Camaro with my Tempo was a sign that he didn’t care about my well being. Or better yet, I didn’t understand how my stupid decision to literally chase after someone who’d just chucked the deuces at me was unhealthy and a sign of low self-esteem. Nevertheless, through remaining with him, I learned some lessons, and I’ve got some stories.

Maybe I’ll share a few more. Trust me, I got even more ridiculous before I wised up.   

 

Sharp Cuts Never Fade: A Teacher’s Reflection on Student Death

I’d fallen asleep on the couch that night- the television left on. It was cold in my apartment, and I struggled to make the tiny comforter fit all 5 foot 4 inches of me. I could still hear the television in the background. Bits and pieces of a Fox 2 Channel News broadcast drifted into my dream. 17 year old. Black. Alley.

I turned my head in the direction of the television and angrily searched for the remote. I quickly found it and hit mute. I awoke at 1 am. Restless. Cold. Finally, I peeled myself off of my couch, walked to the hall, turned on the heat, and headed to my actual bedroom- the couch having left a pain in the middle of my back.

Out of habit, I checked Twitter as I waited for the cool bed sheets to warm against my skin. I scrolled. And scrolled. And across a tweet from my ward’s alderman, I came. Hours earlier he tweeted: “My prayers go out to the family. No one should lose their life at 17 years old.” This caused me to pause, but I thought to myself “it’s too early for this mess.” I got off Twitter immediately and went back to sleep.

That sleep ended at 5:30 a.m when it was time to begin my morning routine. I took a shower. I washed my face. I slicked down my baby hairs to polish off my look for the day. I wanted to look and feel good because work had been draining every ounce of energy from me. This time of the year (the Autumn season) was always difficult. Kids were fully “comfortable” with teachers and the routines of the school at that point. Consequently, students tested established rules and regulations. I wanted to have at least one good day that week. But that was not meant to be.

At 6 a.m my cell phone vibrated and falling from my bathroom sink, it hit the hard tiled floor. An intense feeling of nervousness paralyzed me. Too early it was to be calling. Something had to be wrong. Standing over my iPhone, its face upright, I peered at the name that scrolled across my screen. My coworker. Then I instantly knew. My restless night had not been without reason.

He had been shot and killed, and his body had been dragged through an alley and left for dead. He was a student in my 2nd period African American Literature class. He wrote eloquently. He was passionate about life. He always smiled. He was polite and generous. He took up for people who did not have the strength to take up for themselves. And now he was dead. The pain of his murder cut me like the sharp edges of the high-top fade he was known to wear. The pain cuts me still.

Pencil, Sharpener, Notebook, Paper

No one was allowed to sit in his seat for a while. This action wasn’t a rule I’d put in place- his peers forbade the action. They felt to sit in his seat would be disrespectful; I silently concurred.

My last act as his teacher was to turn his class journal over to his parents. I selfishly wanted to keep it. It would be my own special connection to a life that had so much promise. Nevertheless, I handed over my last piece of him to the rightful owner: his mother. But I remembered something he had written in one of those one-page journals my students hated to write. On his life’s contribution he wrote: “When I die, I want people to remember me as a person who tried his best to be good.” To me, he accomplished just that.

Who’s Afraid of an Image?

I loathe having my picture taken. Other people like to take those up-close and personal, right-in-your-face, show every imperfection type pictures of me. And when that person has authority over what happens with said pictures, I become irked. I figured out a long time ago that people post pictures on social media as long as THEY look good, and don’t give a damn that other people in the photo look like crap. So to control my image, I make sure people know that to post my picture without prior authorization would be to the detriment of our friendship. (Kidding! I just beg them not to post, and they usually ignore my requests.) But back in the late 80’s, I wasn’t old enough to tell people that they had no permission to take and or display unflattering pictures of me. As a first grader, I had no control over it. But now that I  know better, I do better. Here’s how I learned my lesson.  

Walking to school- the chilly autumn air whipped across my ankles, crawled over my bony knees, and slithered up my dress. It seemed to linger there in the place “where the sun don’t shine” as my grandmother used to say. I quickly walked alongside my mother, one hand holding hers and the other holding my dress as close to my body as possible.  The feeling of excitement outweighed the cold. Picture day had arrived at Northside Catholic Elementary School, and my mother had truly gone through a lot to make sure my appearance was up to par. In fact, she extended the morning preparation for what seemed like hours.  

Not fully understanding back then that beauty is pain, I was disturbed by (1) having to bathe longer than usual (bathing was not my forte) and (2) utilizing cartoon watching time to moisturize with Johnson & Johnson baby lotion.  I hated them both- Johnson and Johnson for their evil plot to pull children away from the television set. I begged and pleaded with my mother to allow me to join Rainbow Bright and the Smurfs. But even with my puppy-dog face and quivering bottom lip, Mommy Dearest remained unmoved.

The time to slip into my clothes and to have my hair combed was upon me. My mother rightly recycled my adorable black and white polka dot Easter dress along with my coordinating ruffled socks. To put the finishing touches on my outfit, I slid into black patent leather Mary Jane’s. (These shoes were worn only on the most special of special occasions.)  I walked to the full-length mirror that sat in my mother’s room and stared.  Dorothy’s ruby red slippers could not compare to my Mary Jane’s. Ecstatic, I began to think: “there’s no place like school; there’s no place like school.” I clicked my heels three times. Mommy Dearest broke my train of thought as she commanded me to sit down so that she could comb my hair.

This would be an easy task, for the previous night the hard work had already been completed. My mother had adamantly insisted that my hair be pressed. With a stern yet sweet voice she asked: “you want to look pretty don’t you?” As if I had a choice in the matter.  Hesitancy filled the air around me, and I knew this would be a long and painful procedure when she called me into the kitchen that night. She warmed the gas stove, placed the hot comb on the stove’s eye, and pulled a chair beside it for me to sit. There she stood wearing gray jogging pants and her famous PMS t-shirt (It read “I suffer from PMS-putting up with men’s shit!”) She had her hair tied back, and her sleeves rolled up.  I walked towards the chair dreading the two hours it would take to straighten my thick, coarse hair. She handed me the jar of Blue Magic hair grease to hold throughout the process. “Hold your head down!” she demanded and proceeded to part the tightly coiled hair.

The Blue Magic felt heavy and thick on my scalp as she rubbed it between the parts. I anticipated the hot and heavy pressing comb that would soon follow and my body involuntarily tensed. On contact, I felt the intense heat on my neck and heard that familiar sizzling sound- a sound like bacon was frying somewhere nearby. I oddly became hungry and scared all at the same time. Immediately, I jumped and informed my mother that she had burned me. Her automatic response: “that’s just the grease and heat making you think you’re being burned, but you’re not.” I begged to differ.

The benefits of the “press and curl” I reaped that morning. Two ponytails sat on the left and right side of my head; curly bangs swept across my forehead. Two white ribbons hung around the pigtails, and I was in love with myself. The silkiness of my coal black hair amazed me. “This is how the white girls on TV have their hair!,” I thought. I could swing it, flip it, or twirl it; it would all fall back into place. This was how life was supposed to be.

So there I was decked out in my mother’s pearls, my face aching from practicing my smile by saying “cheese!” what seemed like a million times. Little did I know, the preparation was all in vain.

Fighting the blowing wind, we reached my school’s playground. I received compliments from the other students, and even the teachers said I looked “sharp.” I felt pretty and confident about taking a great photograph, and after waiting a few hours, the teacher escorted the class to the gym for picture taking. I waited patiently, and when it was time, my pigeon toes and polka dots walked cheerfully towards the prop chair. I smiled for the cameraman. “Cheese!!!,” I said on the count of three. And it was over.

It would be a week before the class could receive copies of the pictures.  Every day that followed, I eagerly approached my teacher to inquire as to whether the pictures had come earlier than expected. Each time she told me no, I grew increasingly aggravated and even more excited all at once. I obsessed over the pictures; my young life was consumed with the subject. And others around me grew impatient with my inconceivable excitement.  

Finally, the day I had been waiting for arrived. I expected my picture to be the most beautiful and amazing picture ever taken. I knew that practicing my smile would not go unnoticed. Moreover, I was certain that my beautiful silky ponytails (which by that time had turned back into afro-puffs), my mother’s pearls, and my polka-dot dress would show spectacularly in the photo.

Before we received our pictures, our teacher announced that she was going to display our pictures on the outside of our classroom door during recess. “Good,” I thought. But it, in fact, was not good. Viewing my picture for the first time my mouth fell open. There it was: a wallet size version of me, smiling, eyes half closed, and my tongue hanging out the left corner of my mouth. It looked as though I was in the middle of licking my lips and blinking my eyes, and the cameraman just snapped the picture! And now everyone could see, to my chagrin.  I could not understand why this had happened. My hair was silky and curly, my mother’s pearls looked attractive and elegant, and my polka-dots were cute and sassy.  But none of that mattered. The cameraman did not care.  And I continued to wonder. “How could my picture be so horrible, when I was so pretty that day?” I was mortified.

“Hey! Don’t you see how ugly I look in that picture? Take it down! I’m telling my mommy!” I told my teacher. At least I wanted to tell her those things. I was afraid to say anything to her aloud, but in my head, she became my enemy.

A few days later my enemy announced that there was going to be an opportunity to re-take our pictures. I thought to myself, “I’m doing this over!”, and thanked God for his grace. I advised my mother of the second-coming of picture day. No big preparation occurred. I knew I could not sit through another grueling two hours for a press and curl just to pretend I had “good hair” for a day. My mother knew she could not stand another two hours for that very same reason.  

The second picture day arrived, and I knew three things: (1) I hated the cameraman, and he was my new enemy (2) I was not going to smile no matter what and (3) this new picture could not be posted outside the classroom door. At last my showdown with the cameraman commenced. With my afro puffs and penny loafers, I let him take a second picture. “One…two…three…,” said enemy number two. No “cheese!” from me though- I learned my lesson the first time.