By David E. Kirkland
“. . . I was quite happy then”1
Grandma would fry hot-water bread
And cook collard greens over a cast-iron stove.
The memory of grandma’s kitchen brings with it the sweet scent of yesterday
Rushing suddenly in my nostalgic nostrils,
Bringing forth a hunger for memories . . .
Like the time when granddaddy hugged me.
I had never seen granddaddies hug their grandsons before then.
But lost in my grandfather’s arms, I was the luckiest child in the neighborhood.
I was the richest kid on earth.
I am luckier now, rich with the fascination of memories
That breathe relief into the resemblance of poetry and the burning of leaves.
My momma gave me the uncut jewels of her quiet efforts
When her pressured tears were planted firmly in her soiled lap for me,
Cultivated religiously in a ceremony of her bended knees.
I find wealth in the tattered door, which flung wide-open onto the well-used porch
And hung defiantly from the beaten up frame of her bending, still-standing home.
It swung open, falling from the staircase,
Flung open to invite me back into a wealth of buried secrets,
Of memories mined in silence for me,
Silent memories . . .
Meaningful stories of when “my Addidas walked through concrete doors”
And trod black on the tire-beaten streets of tiring, not beaten Detroit.
Now I have my mother’s jewels to carry with me—
Tears that are still searching yet shining like the poetic prowess of diamonds
That twinkle, frozen, in the elusive starlight of my mother’s burning brown eyes.
I am rich like my grandmother’s crispy fried chicken, peach cobbler, and baked macaroni.
I have hidden treasures like my grandfather’s stolen hugs, planted deeply within the loam of life.
Though life has robbed me of lots of things, sometimes even my liberty,
I hold firmly to these assets lent to me that no one can ever steal.
* * *
Detroit in the early 1990s simmered hot like the edge of a crack pipe, fumed with the smog of junkies strung together by a band of battered bodies that littered the city with the frosty heat of the living dead. You didn’t have to dig too far beneath the City to find hell. In the clutches of this Detroit, my mother spent more time with some new friends she met.
About four years prior, she had given birth to my younger sister. My older sister moved in with an aunt because she had gotten tired of coming home and being jumped on by mother whenever my mother was high or drunk. It was my mother’s new friends who brought this influence upon her.
It seemed as if she did not care for us the same way she had before. All she cared for now was being with her new friends, drinking and doing drugs.
It seemed like my mother gave up on life after the tragic deaths of her mother and sister.
The coarse city life was taking its toll on her. Like so many in 1990’s Detroit, my mother started using crack cocaine, which had become a popular commodity on Detroit’s drug-infested streets. She no longer bought us clothes or anything new. She had a habit to nurse, and this habit took precedence to kids.
As a result, I often hustled at pool halls to earn money to buy my younger sister and me food to eat. To this day, I reason that it was not my mother’s fault for her negligence towards us. All odds had been set against her early in her life. She has little help raising us, and with the recent deaths of her sister and mother, she simply went over the edge.
The City pushed many unsuspecting victims, especially single mothers, to this point. It pushed people like my mother into desperate situations where their backs would be so pressed against the proverbial wall that, given the weight of the situation and the heaviness of the burdens it carries, the wall would collapse. And anyone pressed against it would be left to stumble and fall with little help. This was, at least, true for my mother.
One evening, I would try to reason with my mother. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I would ask if she loved us.
“Yeah,” she said, not suspecting what I would ask next.
“Why do you choose your friends over me and my sisters, momma? Why don’t you cook no mo? Or by us stuff like you use to?”
She said, “Boy, you know it’s hard. I don’t have a job, and I am trying to make the best of our situation. It ain’t easy out here, but momma love y’all. Y’all all I got.”
I responded, “So momma, when your friends come over, y’all ain’t gonna go into that room and close the door again. Y’all ain’t gonna do that stuff no mo, momma; are you? Please momma, say no. Please.”
There was a slight pause. Silence. Interruption. Bump, bump, bump, bump. Someone was knocking on her door. It was her new friends, who immediately caught her attention.
“Hey girl, how you doin’?”
“I ain’t hittin on too much. Did y’all bring the stuff?”
My mother led them to her the room and shut the door. I went to her door and tried to plead with her to stop what she was about to do. She don’t think she heard me, or maybe she just ignored me for those heathens she called friends.
I became furious. The flame of my anger singed my feeling for my mother. I packed my little sister’s things and grabbed that infant by the waist. I positioned her in an awkward angle so that I could carry both her and her belongings to a safe place. I took her to my grandmother who lived very close by, and I begged my grandmother to keep my younger sister.
As much as I wanted to stay, there was no place for me at my grandmother’s house at the time. She didn’t like me much, complained that I looked too much like my mother, whom she loathed. Still, my grandmother loved my younger sister and agreed to keep her. I left my sister there and went my separate way.
First, I went back to my mother’s house. I did not want to give up on her so easily. When I returned home, there was a gloomy silence that stilled the fog of smoke that filled the air. After cutting through the fog of smoke, I saw my mother standing by her bedroom door petrified. Her friends were gone. I could not tell if she missed them or anyone for that matter. I knew that she didn’t miss her children because she hadn’t even realized that my sister and I had left. To break the quiet and upset the smoke, I told my mother where I had taken my sister, and then I ran away from that miserable place.
That day, the streets of Detroit were my home. Here, I was again running. I could not take the bondage of pain any longer. Despite my running from home, pain’s throb still followed me. I had no destination. There was no place for me to go. I made my bed that night on a cheap bench by the side of a bus stop. I slept the whole of five minutes. It was the longest night of my growing experience. Time didn’t pass as fast. On this night, it lingered. Thus, I lived in the paranoia of being alone in the darkness of night. I had to deal with the fear of someone doing me harm, perhaps killing me, or even worse, letting me survive. More importantly, I had to deal with the fear of what was happening to my mother.
The next morning, while lying in the grass at a community park, my grandmother pulled up to me with my grandfather in their 1981 Buick station wagon. Since she was a very big woman at the time, about three hundred pounds, my grandmother lifted me up and threw me in the bed of the station wagon.
I will never forget how drained I felt. I, too—like my mother—felt like giving up on life. But this big, Black woman took me from that barren park to her home, hoisted me past her front door, and began to free me of my odor-soaked clothes. I knew I smelled bad, but I didn’t have the mind to care. She put me in a bed of massagingly warm water and began to wash my back. I could not respond to her love, for my weary little body was in shock. Still the tenderness of her old, time-woven hands comforted me.
That night, I slept knowing that both of my sisters and I were safe. Having some consolation in this, I was a somewhat relieved. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother. Before I had left her, I had seen in her eyes a new, emptier person. She had become someone else, something less than alive. It was as if a dark presence had stolen my mother’s body and invaded her soul. Suddenly I began to miss her as if she was no longer with me. I had never dealt with death so personally until then. My heart was stomped, my head pounding in the agony of contemplation delivered an awful blow.
That night, I cried an awful tear from the pain of this loss. It inspired within me a moan that echoed with a caustic roar. My cry was like that of the roll of thunder riding the gorging belly of hell. I wanted my mother because in times like this I ran to her. She would provide me with the mildest shades of security. When she would soothe me, I knew that things would be all right. I wanted my mother but didn’t know where to find her.
1. This quotation is taken from the last line of Nikki Giovanni’s Poem “Nikki Rosa.”
2. This excerpt is from a chapter in my unpublished autobiography Echoes of a Song.