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It Takes a Village
I am not sure of the exact beginnings-when and where I became enthralled with fragrance and flowers. Maybe I smelled the bouquets my mother received when I was born. Perhaps it was her lotion or the shampoo she used in her hair. But the earliest memory I have of flowers making a dramatic impression on my spirit is when I was five years old and participating in my aunt Judith's wedding. That's when I fell in love with the rose-one of the most beautiful flowers God ever created. My memories of that day are a little sketchy; however, my father claims to remember everything. To hear him tell the story, my love of that wonderful flower nearly caused me to upstage Aunt Judith at her own wedding.
As Judith's favorite-and only-niece, I was chosen to be her flower girl. I didn't understand what that entailed; I had never been in a wedding before. But anything that involved flowers sounded like fun to me. On the morning of the ceremony, Grandma's house was the busiest I had ever seen it. There were people everywhere. I can't tell you how excited I was to see everybody dressed up in their finest clothing. I walked around the house wide-eyed, trying to take everything in, wearing a special dress my great-aunt Ismay had sewn for me. It was yellow and white and made of a fluffy fabric called chiffon. Every time I tried to look down at my white shoes, the dress seemed to float over and hide them. I loved my new dress but also felt awkward, because of its length-my other dresses hit me at my knees-and also because I could hear my grandmother's words: "Be careful not to get anything on your dress!"
Aunt Judith was my father's younger sister. Even on a normal day she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, but on this day she had been transformed. Wearing the wedding dress Aunt Ismay had made her, I thought she looked like a princess. Aunt Ismay pulled at and patted her, trying to get every last detail in place. I couldn't imagine what else needed to be done. Aunt Judith looked perfect. Nothing could be more beautiful, I thought-that is, until I was handed a white wicker basket full of flowers that made time stop and my heart stand still.
After the basket was placed in my hands, I could barely hear the florist's instructions: "As you walk down the aisle, toss the petals onto the floor." All I could do was admire the brilliant shades of red and hot pink. They didn't come from carnations and mums, which Daddy often bought me. These petals belonged to roses! I was already very familiar with roses. Even at that age I was attracted to their incredibly sweet scent. Nana, my maternal grandmother, grew them in her yard. I was always sticking my nose into their bright peach blooms. Adults were constantly warning me to watch out for bumblebees-although for some reason they seemed not to get uptight when I smelled the blossoms Nana set in a vase on the kitchen table. But even though I loved the roses at Nana's house, I had never envisioned them as individual petals before. They were so delicate and divine. I cradled them like a secret treasure. I wanted to do a good job and make Judith proud. But I started to feel a conflict. I can't throw all of these on the floor, I thought. Something this precious shouldn't be wasted. I have to do something to save them.
As the music started playing and people motioned me to begin walking, I fashioned my own solution to the confusion I was feeling. I walked down the aisle taking slow and deliberate steps, just as I had been instructed to do. But rather than sprinkling handfuls of blooms across the white runner, I dropped a single petal with every step I took. When I arrived at the altar, there was a narrow line of brilliant color extending the length of the center aisle. It looked like Hansel and Gretel had deposited a trail of bright red bread crumbs. The entire church was in stitches. After my performance, says Daddy, Aunt Judith had a hard act to follow-even with the benefit of a wedding gown.
I recall feeling proud of myself. I had dropped the flowers just like they told me to, yet there were enough petals left over for me to keep. I sniffed them all day, and later had the good fortune to have one used as a tissue against my face. It was softer than I could ever have imagined. After the wedding I brought the blooms back home and saved them in a special place until Mommy made me throw them away. By then they were brown and moldy.
Aunt Judith was the sole daughter of my paternal grandparents, Hilda Ursula Hairston and Robert Powell Hairston, Sr., whom I called Grandma Hilda and Grandpa. Grandpa was the only one of my grandparents who was born in the United States. Grandma Hilda was born in Trinidad. Together, they had two children, both born in America. My daddy was the oldest.
My mother's parents, Marguerite Georgina King and Francis Michael Warwell, whom I knew as Nana and Gramps, were also native Trinidadi-ans. They grew up and were married there. After they moved to the United States, Nana gave birth to seven children; my mother, Carol, was the youngest.
Both sets of grandparents and most of my aunts, uncles and cousins were scattered about New York-Daddy's people in Queens and Manhat-tan, and most of Mommy's in Brooklyn. All told, I had over twenty cousins, most of them about my age and almost all on Mommy's side of the family. The majority of us lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood for at least part of our lives, a part of town where the streets are lined with three- and four-story brownstones. Back then, Bed-Stuy, as it is now commonly called, had turned predominately black but was still sprinkled with older Italians, Jews and Irish, like Mrs. Tierney, who lived next door to Nana and Gramps on Van Buren Street. She would invite me to sit on her stoop with her and eat peach ice cream from a porcelain teacup.
Nana and Gramps lived with Mommy's older sister, Ruby, and her husband, Stan. Aunt Ruby is also my godmother. Their home was the hub of activity for our entire extended family. That included my aunts, Sylvia and Joan, and uncles, Ronnie, Sonny and Hugh, and all their children and their children's children. We all moved in and out of that house. It was our daycare center, our playground, the place we ate many meals, but this wasn't considered an imposition. In an effort to protect their children from the hostility immigrants sometimes encountered, Nana and Gramps raised their children to count on each other. As a result, my aunts and uncles didn't socialize outside family and church circles. They repeated the pattern in my generation. My cousins and I played with and looked after each other. We felt like brothers and sisters. We just didn't live in the same house. It wasn't until I was an adult that it occurred to me that things could be another way.
In addition to believing in the importance of family, the adults in my world had a strong work ethic. Daddy was employed by an organization that found jobs for youths. Sometimes he would pick up an additional gig at night. Mommy and her sisters all worked for the phone company. They toiled away, saved their money and set about raising their families. But no matter what long hours or odd shifts my parents worked, my brother Philip and I were always cared for. Mommy kept our home neat, our clothes clean and a hot meal on the table. She coordinated childcare with her mother and sisters so well that to this day I can't tell you what shift my mother worked. The handoffs between my relatives were seamless.
Now that I am a mother myself, what's even more amazing to me is the way that my elders cared for me after Mommy gave birth to Philip. I was three at the time. Family lore has it that, shortly after giving birth, Mommy fell while stepping onto a bus. She was holding baby Phillip when it happened. This was the first of many times during my lifetime that Mommy's legs would fail her. What followed were innumerable doctor visits, hospital stays, and mysterious stumbles, until she was diagnosed with an illness called polymyositis. Polymyositis is a collagen vascular disease that, in my mother's case, affected her muscles. They became inflamed and, over time, very weak. There is no cure and the only known treatment were immunosuppressive medications, which came with their own "wonderful" side effects. Despite her illness and hospital stays, I have no real recollection of her absence. My memories of childhood with Mommy are only positive ones.
However, I do remember that I lived with my Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Robbie on and off between the ages of three and five. They loved me as though I were their own child. Through my eyes, my visits were special occasions. At that particular age I was stuck on birthday parties and wanted to have one every single night. Like an angel, Aunt Syl indulged me. Every dinnertime, she would put candles in Jell-O, or some other food that wasn't cake. Then she would dim the lights and we'd sing "Happy Birthday" to me. I felt so loved by everyone that I don't remember missing Mommy, or even wondering where she was. This kind of cooperation was typical of my mother's people. If somebody got sick or had to work late, there was this incredible communication about and coordination of whatever needed to happen. They cared for each other's children. They made and shared food. We stayed over at each other's homes. The care we received in my extended family amazes me to this day.
In addition to looking out for each other, my family believed in the value of education. From the time I was young the importance of being well-spoken and studying hard was stressed. My elders equated doing well at school with one's ability to move ahead in life, and my parents started educating me as early as I can remember. Mommy would line apples on top of the table to show me how to count. Later, she'd use them to teach me addition and subtraction.
When I was four, my family enrolled me in kindergarten at St. Cyprian's, an Episcopalian church on Bushwick Avenue that had established a school in the basement. Actually, it was a large, open space that had been partitioned into classrooms with blackboards and lockers. The space was very cold and dark-not like the bright and colorful places you'd send a four-year-old to today. All of the teachers were rigid, and all we did was work. They filled you with as much information as you could hold and then they pumped in some more. Recess was short. You couldn't laugh or yell or run too much. And God forbid you fell down and skinned your hands and knees. When I think of St. Cyprian's, I only remember sad faces. Today I call it Nazi kindergarten, because the educational process was so hostile and uninspired.
Of course, my family was thrilled with the education they thought I was receiving when I came home from class with dictation books filled with information I had transcribed. What they didn't know was that the teaching was so advanced that no four-year-old could possibly comprehend it. But when my family saw how well my handwriting developed, and heard me recite what I had written, they assumed I was comprehending it and was advanced for my age. I was ahead of my years, all right-but I wasn't learning what they thought I was. My experience at St. Cyprian's taught me to hate school, to work too hard and that it wasn't okay to work and have fun. In retrospect, I'm certain that my
experiences at that school laid the foundation for my people-pleasing behavior. No matter how much effort I made, I could never do anything right in my teachers' eyes.
"Class, I want you to open your desks and take out a pencil, please."
My teacher, Mrs. Jones, a short and wide black woman with half glasses, stood in front of the class preparing to recite the day's lesson. I reached behind me and rooted through the book bag that was in the compartment on the back of my seat.
"George Washington was the father of our country," she read. "He was born on February 22, 1732, on a farm in Virginia and became our nation's first president. When George Washington was a little boy, he . . ."
Mrs. Jones droned on in the background, but I still couldn't find my pencil, so I turned around completely to dig more deeply in the book bag. Perhaps it was hidden in the crease at the bottom. Suddenly I felt something stinging my arm. "Ow!" I shouted, turning around, bolting up straight and grabbing my upper arm all at once. A welt rose up on my arm as quickly as tears welled in my eyes. Mrs. Jones peered at me over the top of her glasses with an angry look on her face and a piece of elastic swinging menacingly from her hand. She had just popped me with the "spaghetti," her euphemistic term for zapping me with an elastic cord that was a half inch thick and one foot long. It was the color of rusted metal.
"What is taking you so long?" she demanded.
"I, um, can't, um, find my pencil. It's at the, um, bottom of my bag," I pleaded, never removing my eye from the piece of elastic.
"Didn't I tell you to use a pencil case?"
"Yes, but . . ."
"If you had the pencil case, this wouldn't have happened. Now turn around and pay attention. Will someone please lend Lisa a pencil?"
A hand on the other side of the room shot up. Another student was trying to get on Mrs. Jones' good side, no doubt.
"Please pass the pencil to Lisa. Thank you. Now, as I was saying . . ." She continued with her lecture. After she finished talking about Washington we transcribed the contents of the chalkboard into our books. Then we moved on to Abraham Lincoln.
At some point that evening Daddy came into my room to give me a hug, as he always did. I said "Ow" when he hugged me, then remembered that I was trying to hide the welt on my arm because I thought I'd get into more trouble. Of course Daddy noticed. "What happened to you?"
"Mrs. Jones hit me with the spaghetti," I mumbled, tears pooling in my eyes.
"Spaghetti? Baby, what are you talking about?"
"I couldn't, um, find my pencil, so she, um, hit me with the spaghetti." -- Mark Righter Assistant Production Manager North Market Street Graphics Lancaster, PA