Read an Excerpt
To My Young Husband
Memoir of a Marriage
A few days ago I went to see the little house on R. Street where we were so happy. Before traveling back to Mississippi I had not thought much about it. It seemed so far away, almost in another dimension. Whenever I did remember the house it was vibrant, filled with warmth and light, even though, as you know, a lot of my time there was served in rage, in anger, in hopelessness and despair. Days when the white white walls, cool against the brutal summer heat, were more bars than walls.
You do not talk to me now, a fate I could not have imagined twenty years ago. It is true we say the usual greetings, when we have to, over the phone: How are you? Have you heard from Our Child? But beyond that, really nothing. Nothing of the secrets, memories, good and bad, that we shared. Nothing of the laughter that used to creep up on us as we ate together late at night at the kitchen table—perhaps after one of your poker games—and then wash over us in a cackling wave. You were always helpless before anything that struck you as funny, and I reveled in the ease with which, urging each other on, sometimes in our own voices, more often in a welter of black and white Southern and Brooklyn and Yiddish accents—which always felt as if our grandparents were joking with each other—we’d crumple over our plates laughing, as tears came to our eyes. After tallying up your winnings—you usually did win—and taking a shower—as I chatted with you through the glass—you’d crawl wearily into bed. We’d roll toward each other’s outstretched arms, still chuckling, and sleep the sleep of the deeply amused.
I went back with the woman I love now. She had never been South, never been to Mississippi, though her grandparents are buried in one of the towns you used to sue racists in. We took the Natchez Trace from Memphis, stopping several times at points of interest along the way. Halfway to Jackson we stopped at what appeared to be a large vacant house, with a dogtrot that intrigued us from the road. But when we walked inside two women were quietly quilting. One of them was bent over a large wooden frame that covered most of the floor, like the one my mother used to have; the other sat in a rocking chair stitching together one of the most beautiful crazy quilts I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of the quilt I made while we were married, the one made of scraps from my African dresses. The huge dresses, kaftans really, that I sewed myself and wore when I was pregnant with Our Child.
The house on R. Street looked so small I did not recognize it at first. It was nearly dark by the time we found it, and sitting in a curve as it does it always seemed to be seeking anonymity. The tree we planted when Our Child was born and which I expected to tower over me, as Our Child now does, is not there; one reason I did not recognize the house. When I couldn’t decide whether the house I was staring at was the one we used to laugh so much in, I went next door and asked for the Belts. Mrs. Belt (Did I ever know her name and call her by it? Was it perhaps Mildred?) opened the door. She recognized me immediately. I told her I was looking for our house. She said: That’s it. She was surrounded by grandchildren. The little girl we knew, riding her tricycle about the yard, has made her a grandmother many times over. Her hair is pressed and waved, and is completely gray. She has aged. Though I know I have also, this shocks me. Mr. Belt soon comes to the door. He is graying as well, and has shaved his head. He is stocky and assertive. Self-satisfied. He insists on hugging me, which, because we’ve never hugged before, feels strange. He offers to walk me next door, and does.
Its gate is the only thing left of the wooden fence we put up. The sweet gum tree that dominated the backyard and turned to red and gold in autumn is dying. It is little more than a trunk. The yard itself, which I’ve thought of all these years as big, is tiny. I remember our dogs: Myshkin, the fickle beloved, stolen, leaving us to search and search and weep and weep; and Andrew, the German shepherd with the soulful eyes and tender heart, whose big teeth frightened me after Our Child was born.
The carport is miniscule. I wonder if you remember the steaks we used to grill there in summer, because the house was too hot for cooking, and the chilled Lambrusco we bought by the case to drink each night with dinner.
The woman who lives there now, whose first act on buying the house was to rip out my writing desk, either isn’t home or refuses to open the door. Not the same door we had, with its three panes at the top covered with plastic “stained glass.” No, an even tackier, more flimsy door, with the number 1443 affixed to its bottom in black vinyl and gold adhesive.
I am disappointed because I do want to see inside, and I want my lover to see it too. I want to show her the living room, where our red couches sat. The moon lamp. The low table made from a wooden door on which I kept flowers, leaves, Georgia field straw, in a gray crockery vase. The walls on which hung our Levy’s bread poster: The little black boy and “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy’s.” The white-and-black SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) poster of the large woman holding the small child, and the red-and-white one with the old man holding the hand of a small girl that helped me write about the bond between grandfather and granddaughter that is at the heart of my first novel. There by the kitchen door was the very funny Ernst lithograph, a somber Charles White drawing across from it.
In Tupelo where I lectured I saw an old friend who remembered the house better than I did. She remembered the smallness of the kitchen (which I’d never thought of as small) and how the round “captain’s table” we bought was wedged in a corner. She recalled the polished brown wood. Even the daisy-dotted placemats. The big yellow, brown-eyed daisy stuck to the brown refrigerator door.
I wanted to see the nondescript bathroom. If I looked into the mirror would I see the serious face I had then? The deeply sun-browned skin? The bushy hair? The grief that steadily undermined the gains in levity, after each of the assassinations of little known and unsung heroes; after the assassination of Dr. King?
I wanted to see Our Child’s room. From the porch I could see her yellow shutters, unchanged since we left. Yellow, to let her know right away that life can be cheerful and bright. I wanted to see our room. Its giant bed occupying most of the floor, in frank admission that bed was important to us and that whenever possible, especially after air-conditioning, that is where we stayed. Not making love only, but making a universe. Sleeping, eating, reading and writing books, listening to music, cuddling, talking on the phone, watching Mary Tyler Moore, playing with Our Child. Our rifle a silent sentry in the corner.
The old friend whom I saw in Tupelo still lives in Jackson. When we met two decades ago she had just come home from a college in the North where she taught literature. She’d decided to come back to Jackson, now that opportunities were opening up, thanks to you and so many others who gave some of their lives and sometimes all of their life, for this to happen. She hoped to marry her childhood sweetheart, raise a family, study law. Now she tells me she hates law. That it stifles her creativity and cuts her off from community and the life of the young. I tell her what I have recently heard of you. That, according to Our Child, you are now writing plays, and that this makes you happy. That you left civil rights law, at which you were brilliant, and are now quite successful in the corporate world. Though the writing of the plays makes me wonder if perhaps you too have found something missing in your chosen profession?
She remembers us, she says, as two of the happiest, most in love people she’d ever seen. It didn’t seem possible that we would ever part.
It is only days later, when I am back in California, that I realize she herself played a role in our drifting apart. This summer she has promised to come visit me, up in the country in Mendocino—where everyone my age has a secret, sorrowful past of loving and suffering during the Sixties time of war—and I will tell her what it was.
Maybe you remember her? Her name is F. It was she who placed a certain novel by a forgotten black woman novelist into my hands. I fell in love with both the novel and the novelist, who had died in obscurity while I was still reading the long-dead white writers, mostly male, pushed on everyone entering junior high. F.’s gift changed my life. I became obsessed, crazed with devotion. Passionate. All of this, especially the passion and devotion, I wanted to share with you.
You and I had always shared literature. Do you remember how, on our very first night alone together, in a motel room in Greenwood, Mississippi, we read the Bible to each other? And how we felt a special affinity with the poet who wrote “The Song of Solomon?” We’d barely met, and shared the room more out of fear than desire. It was a motel and an area that had not been “cleared.” Desegregated. We’d been spotted by hostile whites earlier in the day in the dining room. The next day, after our sleepless night, they would attempt to chase us out of town, perhaps run us off the road, but local black men courageously intervened.
Over the years we shared Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Tol- stoy. Orwell. Langston Hughes. Sean O’Faolain. Ellison. But you would not read the thin paperback novel by this black woman I loved. It was as if you drew a line, in this curious territory. I will love you completely, you seemed to say, except for this. But sharing this book with you seemed everything.
I wonder if you’ve read it, even now.
Our Child was conceived. Grew up. Went to a large Eastern university. Read the book. She found it there on the required reading list, where I and others labored for a decade to make sure it would be. She tells me now she read it before she even left home, when she was in her early teens. She says I presented it to her with a quiet intensity, and with a special look in my eyes. She says we used to read passages from it while we cooked dinner for each other, and that she used to join me as I laughed and sometimes cried.
What can one say at this late date, my young husband? Except what was surely surmised at the beginning of time. Life is a mystery. Also, love does not accept barriers of any kind. Not even that of Time itself. So that in the small house that seemed so large during the years of happiness we gave each other, I remain