Between Women and Ghosts  {EXCERPT}

All the women have nightmares.  

We never discuss these nightmares. 

We just meet in the kitchen in the middle of the night.  

We drink cold water from clear glasses and pretend that the heat alone has awakened us.  

We smile and raise our glasses for nothing can frighten us.

Warrior women we are.   

But there is a question rotting inside of us all.       

What about when the boogie man has your face? Your smile? Your skin? 

What if instead of running, you want him to get you? 

*

My grandmother doesn’t speak much.  She barely looks up over her glasses and then over the top of her word search to acknowledge your presence.  But this doesn’t stop us from piling into her small blue home with insides coated in a thick film of filth and fleas.  It’s not the affection that draws us near, for that is not present. It’s not the food, because we must fight the roaches for our share.  What is it? I don’t think any of us have a firm grasp on who she really is.  

Betty never mentioned why she migrated to Texas from Louisiana, but I always assumed that it was in response to a man who thought he could possess her.  She had given birth three times before she relocated, and she believes the only man that ever truly loved her was the father of the first child. He was already married when the child was born and asked her to run away with him to Mississippi and elope.  She refused because at 17, she was too young to be tied down.  

She would eventually marry after she had birthed all eleven children.  She would eventually marry a man who was the father of none of them. She would marry a man with no children. And they would never create children together.  They got a dog together called Wendy. This was the only way that she could ever enter such a union, without feeling oppressed.  He was ten years younger and she was his supervisor at work.  They were both custodians at the Houston Police department downtown. They would work nights together cleaning up after the lawless. 

In the beginning of their marriage, she was abusive. 

I remember visiting her home one evening and she forced him sit on the floor when he returned home from work as to not soil her sofa.

I remember her snatching the Sunday paper from him after she reminded him that he couldn't even read, as if he had forgotten. 

I remember her children disrespecting him just as she had.  But he stayed. Why?  The same mysterious reasons we all do.  

I remember while my family prefers to forget.  They usually respond with something like, “Ohlord, here she go remembering again.”

 

Betty is never concerned with the opinion of others. The thoughts of others are never taken into considerations when she is making a decision. The implications of others are never taken into consideration when she is making a decision.  I’m sure Betty, because she is understanding, would say that she already knew that I hated her. And then she would laugh. That dark laugh that erupts like convulsions causing the body to move upwards in a wave. 

She would say, “You ain’t the first one to hate me, baby,” in that drawl that extends the ends of each word.  

She would probably say, first my daddy hated me for being born. Den my mama’s sister hated me for having babies and she couldn’t.  So I gone’n give her one of my chirren. Den I gave her one mo’.  She still hated me. Den I had bout ten mo’ kids. I lost count of all da hate.  

 

I have a wall of polaroids in my Brooklyn apartment.  Most of the photos are from the last five years.  Everything prior to that I have erased.  

I have a photo of my grandmother resting on my nightstand.  I see her every night before I turn out the lights and I am forced to greet her every morning before I begin my day.  She often tells me that I look just like her when she was my age. I don’t agree. Perhaps the skin color. Maybe in the eyes.  And maybe even the cheek bones.  But nothing more.  In her essay, In our Glory: Photography and Black Life, bell hooks refers to past photos as, “a meditation between the living and the dead,” however for me this has become a meditation between the living and the misunderstood.  Somehow, I believe that I must understand her, then I can begin the riddle which is me.  I have only succeeded in piecing together fragments of this woman.  

In the photo she is beautiful. Beautiful in a seductive way.  In the way that makes you wonder what she hides behind her half smile that seems almost forced.  Her mouth connected to a string of straining lines.  It wasn’t a smile that she wore, it was more of a struggle. A struggle to keep all of her secrets. Her eyes show a resilient intention. She will never tell her secrets, she will simply bury them in the chests of her lovers.  In the portrait her legs are stretched towards the foot of the bed where the person stands who captured the shot.  Her frail frame is delicately placed upon the wrinkled sheets, her golden brown skin seems to glow despite the dim lighting.  Her legs are crossed and her torso is relaxed as her arms lay off to the side indifferent.  Always indifferent.  As if nothing could move her, despite how weightless she appears.  There is a man sitting on the bed too.  Not too far away yet at a reasonable distance.  So much so that half his face is cut off and blurred. No one seems to know who this man is. But then again, he could be any man.  It makes no difference who he is, because who he is says nothing of her.                       

 

Betty never referred to herself as Black.  Not that she didn’t think she was black.  Not that she didn’t know she was black.  But just that Black was a given. Everything around her was Black therefore there was no oppression associated with her Blackness, as far as she was concerned.  She did however affirm that she was Woman. When the word “Nigger” rang out in her presence, she didn't flinch, for they were talking about the men, but when “Bitch” was screamed, she took offense.  

 

Perhaps as a girl she always dreamed of having a child.  Perhaps she dreamed of becoming a woman by birthing a woman.  Maybe she believes that without birth you are not a realized woman.  Otherwise, what separates you from girlhood?  Maybe it’s like when Sojourner Truth gave her speech in Ohio in 1852 and she said, “Ain’t I a woman” while white protestors shouted to her “If you’re a woman, why your feet so big?  If you’re a woman, why your skin so black?  Why? Why? Why?” 

Truth then exposes her breasts and yells back, “Ain’t I Woman?” 

Maybe Betty is shouting “Ain’t I A Woman!” every time she gives birth.  

 

Growing up, my mother and her only older sister could always tell when Betty was pregnant.  They would place bets, and which ever one lost, would have to do the laundry at the washateria for a month straight.  

They could always tell when Betty was pregnant because she would come home with pints of Blue Bell ice cream.

And they could tell when she was pregnant because she would prop her feet up on the couch that sunk down in the middle, leaving no space for them to sit but the floor.

They could tell because they would abruptly move to another shady apartment with the same feel, same mice, same smell of poverty.  

Because that man, who’s name they couldn’t remember, who would come over after they were all sent to sleep in that one room, in that one bed, he was gone. 

But Betty never said a word.  She would just come home with another mouth to feed.

 

My mother got hit in the mouth once, when she saw Betty come in with the ice cream, and she looked her mother dead in the face and said that she wasn’t finna change nan ‘nother diaper. 

 

I got hit in the mouth once when I asked my mother if Betty was a hoe?  

I didn’t even know what a hoe was. I remember being in third grade on the playground for recess.  I was hanging upside down on the monkey bars, the back of my knees wrapped tightly around the hot metal rail.  David said that his grandma had six new kittens at her house.  Cortney countered that her grandma had a hundred wigs and we all laughed. With everyone successively attempting to one-up the one prior, I said my grandma had eleven kids with nine different men.  But there was a silence and then Cortney said that my grandma was a hoe, and everyone laughed, even me nervously. Everyone moved on but I stayed there dangling. This is when I began critically questioning what my family dismissed as ordinary. Cortney and I were the only two black girls in our entire grade, and perhaps she knew something that I didn’t.  Perhaps she had already began her questioning and was now challenging me to do the same. And I haven’t stopped questioning since, and I haven’t gotten an answer yet. I can only imagine…

I imagine that instead of looking for love from the very ones that she felt attempted to oppress her, she would build her own village around her. She would birth the universe around her that she needed to sustain her the rest of her days with her as the nucleus. The validation from those bright eyes that peered up at her lined with limited expectations but filled with generosity.  With them, she could create her own terms, and defiance of these terms would result in a slap, beating or even worse an absence of acknowledgment at all. 

 I’ve never seen my mother and her siblings come together and criticize the woman they all harbor resentment for.  That would be considered disrespectful.  Never shall you gather in her name and critique the one who breathed life into you.  The one that put beans on the table some nights and sometimes government cheese, but on pay day you get to go to Cream Burger and get a burger and fries.  The one who brought you into this cruel world and often threatened to take you out of it.  But is it fair to give her credit for the pain she gave you? 

 

It wasn’t until I left for college that I realized black women too are able to express pain.  My roommate in college would often come into our dorm, sit on my bed, and talk about her pain.  My initial judgement was that she was weak. My family refers to these women as tired.  “Too tired to swat the flies out of her face.”  But my roommate was black. And I was taught that this pitiful existence dwelled exclusively in white women, as if this were a gene passed down through generations, from slaves who were raped and never wept. The ancestors who gave birth on the floor and used their two front teeth to tear the umbilical-cord while tucking whimpers beneath their tongues.

 

My mother boasts to me that while she was in labor with me, her uterus ruptured and she lost so much blood that the doctor didn’t think she would survive.  Nurses traveled throughout the hospital to come see the woman who lie in bed like stone while her insides exploded.  She says the doctor was frantic and she told him to pull himself together and get that baby out of her.  These are the stories shared during holidays and gatherings. Stories of strength and triumph in the face of suffering. The glory is not merely that you’ve survived it, but also how you conduct oneself throughout the chaos.  “We’re women,” my mother says to me, “all we do is bleed. But I have a praying grandmother, and so do you. Ain’t no use crying.”  She’s always said that we are the products of our grandmother’s prayers, but something inside me cannot depend on that. I’ve never even seen my grandmother on her knees. But maybe she prays standing up, to be closer to God.  

 

In college, away from home, I tried the pain thing on for size. At first it was uncomfortable and it made me itch a bit. I readjusted myself and tried to slide it on a different way. Then I watched how my roommate put it on. I listened to her rhythm and the way she elevated in certain places.  I waited for the right time to jump in like double-dutch. Oh, and when I got in it felt so good.  Redistributing my weight from this side to that side and letting go of everything that I had clenched so tightly for so long.  

Since college, I haven’t stopped talking about my pain.  I now use pain as my standard for communication with friends, “Hey, I’m bleeding, are you?”

My family believes that this is not a luxury that we are afforded when we were born black.  

But this feels like the place where redemption is bred....