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Moving beyond the loss of both his father and brother, E.Ethelbert Miller tells the story of how love survived in his family. When Miller was about ten years old, his father told him how he considered leaving his mother. Years later, now a writer and a father, Miller looks back on the simple remark and how it shaped him. In Fathering Words, Miller explores his development as an African American writer, the responsibility of his chosen career, and his ambitions to raise the ...
Moving beyond the loss of both his father and brother, E.Ethelbert Miller tells the story of how love survived in his family. When Miller was about ten years old, his father told him how he considered leaving his mother. Years later, now a writer and a father, Miller looks back on the simple remark and how it shaped him. In Fathering Words, Miller explores his development as an African American writer, the responsibility of his chosen career, and his ambitions to raise the consciousness of Black people.
Miller's poetry often relies on the voices of women. Here in Fathering Words, he has chosen to write his memoir in two voices. He places his sister's voice on the page next to his own. The result is a wonderful duet that tells two stories woven into one. Fathering Words is Miller's moving tribute and a powerful memoir.
The day after my brother died, Carmen, one of his neighbors, said she saw him walking his dog. My brother Richard, who had changed his name to Francis, loved animals and so he took the name of the saint he loved.
Growing up in the South Bronx it was important to believe in something, and so my brother made the decision to believe in God. I met God one afternoon on Longwood Avenue in the Bronx. It must have been around 1958 and I was attending P.S.39, which was located near streets like Beck, Kelly, and Fox. Longwood Avenue was the "big street" and I was not permitted to cross it alone. I was in one of those grades in school where you took naps and the teachers gave you cookies when you were good. On the day I met God I had been standing on the corner for almost an hour afraid to cross Longwood Avenue. All my school friends were gone and I was alone with cars passing by and the dark evening creeping in like one of my sister's boyhood lovers. I was afraid to cross the street without holding someone's hand, and so I did something my brother was good at doing. I started praying to God. I asked God to come for me, to help me cross the big street. If he did, I promised I would be good for the rest of my life. I would never steal or lie. I closed my eyes and only opened them when I heard my father running across the street, cursing and trying to fix his clothes at the same time. When I was little I thought my father was God.
Sitting in the back of a black limousine, parked on a hill in a cemetery near Yonkers, on a cold day inDecember 1985, I saw my father cry for the first time in my life. It was one of those moments when the world slows down and you notice the color of air. You stare at your hands and wonder how long you will live or which member of the family you will bury next. My father, Egberto Miller, dressed in black, his shoes polished in a way he could never teach my brother or me, sat in the limousine waiting to return home from Richard's funeral. I watched him raise his hands and heard him mumble one word, "gone." Maybe this is how God will end the world. He will say one word and end everything. No fire or rain. I listened to my father, repeating one word and knew he would never be comforted again. Little did I know that another black limousine would come for me in two years. It would take me to my father's funeral. On that day I would begin to search for my own words in order to make sense out of my loss. All the men in my family were suddenly—gone.
In the past whenever I was troubled I could sit down and write a few poems. But what I am recovering from now is a different type of heart surgery. Sorrow and grief can be found in that place within the blues where words end and moans begin. The singer is speechless because the hurt is so bad. The only thing one can do is ride the song.
A few years ago, I remember reading the second chapter of Doctorow's Billy Bathgate in which Billy explains how it was juggling that got him to where he was. This is how it feels to be a writer. I need to write about my father and brother. The story, however, is too deep and heavy for poems. I need to father more words and explain the beginning. Maybe it starts with a young boy coming to this country from Panama, a place where the oceans kiss. Or maybe the threads of this story begin with a man on his knees in a monastery, praying to his mother instead of God. I would like to believe this story can be told while I am juggling.
Several members of my family described me as a "blue baby" when I was born. Richard was born with six fingers. So both of us were the subject of early family stories. One of my cousins claimed I was supposed to be given to her mother to be raised. Only Richard's crying prevented this. When I returned from the hospital I became the baby of the family. My sister was happy with this new development.
There were many things that took place before my birth. My family owned pets such as roosters. My father had not yet found employment in the post office. He was a coffee-colored man with two children to feed and clothe. He met my mother dancing at the Savoy. The war was going on in Europe and the dreams of black people could be seen hanging from fire escapes. Neighborhoods were changing. Folks were leaving Harlem for the Bronx. It was like moving to the suburbs. Egberto Miller would find the 1940s a challenge as he listened to the new sounds of bebop coming from the jazz clubs.
Egberto, who was called Eddie by his friends, became a young man with only a few coins in his pocket. He had been a baby in the arms of a woman too young and too fast to slow down. In the old country, a canal had been built. West Indians came from every island to find work. A frontier of water separated them from "paper gold." Malaria, accidents, broken promises were enough for some to lose hope and others to believe in their own destiny. America was like heaven, far off to the north. It was the place where a great uncle would plant and harvest the first seeds of success. Investing in real estate, he would later send for other members of his family. His mother would bring his sisters and brothers to America. One child already had a child, she was my grandmother Marie. It was her mother who decided we would all be Millers, and so the ties to Panama were cut. Egberto's father became a ghost. His own family geography disappeared because of a woman's desire and need to forget. Many years later a writer would be born into the family searching for stories to tell. There would be a decision made to take him back to the hospital or perhaps even give him away.
When they brought the baby home I was so excited. I pushed Richard out of the way. I remember holding Eugene for the first time. He was smaller then some of my dolls. I thought he would break. My mother thought I was silly. My name is Marie. I was named after my grandmother. I was the bald-headed child. My father often refused to take me out in the stroller if my head was not covered. He could not believe a girl could be born without any hair. I must have been five or six before my mother could hold something in her hands and make a braid. The reason I had no hair is because I was yet to be trusted with the family stories. I was not wise enough to understand why people acted the way they did, especially men. My mother would have to teach me these things...
Excerpted from FATHERING WORDS by E. Ethelbert Miller. Copyright © 2000 by E. Ethelbert Miller. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted June 9, 2001
I'm not a fan of modern poetry or memoirs but Ethelbert Miller is the real deal. His poetry is remarkable and so is this memoir. I read it in one night. Miller's description of his Howard University years made me laugh and the descriptions of his family brought tears to my eyes. Even if you have no interest in poetry or the black arts movement this book will entertain and move you.
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