Present Tense

No one laughs at god in a hospital / no one laughs at god in a war

Regina Spektor is right, especially about the first part.

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I’ll be the first to admit that I am a detail-oriented person. Perhaps obsessively so. I like organization because I am perpetually anxious when I cannot find things. I keep a box of life’s minutiae – postcards, business cards, ticket stubs, photos, pieces of my parents from before I existed, pieces of myself.

I remember birthdays. I send hand-written thank you notes. I remember the story behind that little scar on your chin. I know whether you are a cat or a dog person and the name of your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant.

It’s easy to get lost in the details and forget to take in the forest for the trees. Details are what lay between the lines. You have to read a little more deeply to keep track of them all. They’re what make us more than human.

Dad was a detail man. His details were just different. He didn’t write lengthy personal notes, but usually signed his cards with the ever brieg “Dad” in his cramped hand. His preference for details weren’t necessarily about finding you the perfect birthday present, but a preference for the things that made you feel special in a world where few people take the time to remember how to properly spell your name.

He was really good with names. He knew the moniker of just about any person he ever met. He usually knew their kids’ names and where they went on their last vacation, too. This made everyone feel that they were more than just a fleshy face he passed in the hallway.

I worry about forgetting the details now that he’s gone. I wish I had held his hand more. Especially during those days when he had already moved on to some other place that I couldn’t reach. Dad had perfectly oval nails at the ends of long fingers. No hang nails either. His index finger was the longest and his skin was smooth, soft, and warm. They were good hands for shaking. They were good for holding, too, but I was afraid. More afraid than I’ve ever been. More afraid than watching all those women whom I’d cared for die, more afraid than bungy jumping.

It seems silly, but I don’t want to be the girl whose father died when she was 24. That realization is perhaps the most excruciating thing I have ever felt – more painful the two broken wrists, the 14 stitches, and the tonsillectomy that I’ve had. I don’t think this pain will necessarily characterize who I am from this point forward, but it is always going to be part of the story I tell to those who weren’t already part of my life.

These days, the details are all about verb tense.

In conversation, I catch myself saying “was” instead of “is”.

“My dad was…”

It’s not a conscious thing at all. My brain seems to have been reprogrammed to account for the new vacancy in my life. I always end up correcting myself because the verb tense puts that question mark in people’s eyes – “What does she mean ‘was’?” And I don’t like the answer that comes after that question mark. It’s that answer that gets me labeled “the girl whose dad died when she was 24”. I’d rather be someone else.

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T – (minus)

There is a scene in the HBO John Adams mini-series of last summer where the Continental Congress has just decided to declare independence from Great Britain. After all the huzzah’s and much applause, the representatives slowly come to fully realize what this decision means and the camera pans over faces that have fallen from joy into concerned frowns about what the future now holds.

My Nursing program begins in a matter of hours and I feel much the same way. The excitement has boiled down to “what the hell was I thinking!?” Just as you can hardly recall The Declaration of Independence, there is no taking this decision back.

Father’s Day Special

This American Life is on NPR (WHYY in Philadelphia) every Sunday at noon. Every week Ira Glass narrates the life story or stories of rather ordinary Americans – people few others would be interested in except for the complicated themes that highlight their lives in ways no one would have previously expected.

This week?

“Go Ask Your Father”, a broadcast about a man and his father and a big “what if…?” What if we could choose our parents? What is truly wonderful about This American Life is that you can palpably feel the characters’ emotions in these stories in ways that tend to make me physically uncomfortable, upset, anxious, or undeniably optimistic and hopeful. This is a lost art – storytelling. This week there is confusion and anger, sadness and suspense, capped off by a DNA test where the man opens an envelope while tape recording himself. The paper crinkles audibly on the tape, the man tentatively reads the results, and, then, there is nothing but static-y radio silence when the news hits him like an atom bomb. I can sense the outward ripples of his emotions as they come over him, one by one, in waves.

If I could have chosen my father, I would have chosen someone who wouldn’t have died when I was 24 years old. It sounds cruel, but it’s one of many truths regarding how I feel about my father. I would have chosen someone exactly like my father, but a younger version of him – someone who would still be around to give me advice, tousle my curls, and call me by secret nicknames even when I am 40.

The Library

The library is greatly misunderstood in the 21st century.

“Why don’t you just buy the book so you can keep it?”

This may sound judgmental, but I just don’t love every book I read enough to want to provide it with a permanent home. I wasn’t always this way, though. I’v bought books by the armload from plenty of national chains only to read one or two from the expensive stack at my bedside. It wasn’t until graduating from college and having to move many boxes of books that the whole thing began to seem ridiculous. In the years since, I’ve meticulously pruned my collection to include beloved classics and anything that made me feel as if I’d lost a good friend when I got to the last page.

At the library, books are important. Books are important to me. I can’t read just anything. I rarely choose titles from anyone’s bestseller list. The only book bandwagon I ever jumped on was Harry Potter’s. If I don’t feel some connection to the story or the characters or the themes I feel let down. I tend to choose books like I choose friends and I am most certainly not ever going to be friends with the Twilight series or anything by Danielle Steel.

Going to the library is an exciting event. Sometimes I go and browse the shelves and run my finger along the crinkly spines. Other times I have something on the “requests” shelf and there is nothing better than knowing something that you have been waiting for has finally arrived. I love the smell of library books, the sound of the book jacket. If it turns out I just can’t get through the pages, I simply return it with no detriment to my wallet. If I love it, I just may buy it from the independent bookstore I love so that I can keep it forever to reread.

The library is about preserving a legacy of knowledge for generations. Barnes and Noble is about trying to sell you cheap paperbacks that can’t even be qualified as anything remotely resembling literature. The library preserves the simple pleasure of reading for reading’s sake as opposed to reading because Oprah endorsed it, because it’s 20% off, or because you think it will change your life.

The best part about the library is the people. Instead of being rung up by some hipster whose actual knowledge of literature is most likely eclipsed by their preference for skinny jeans, I get excited little librarian comments like “Oh you’ll just love that!” It’s always nice to be able to take home something that’s been a good friend to someone else.

Corners of the Mind

A mind is a terrible thing to waste so they say. But that’s exactly what happens – the thing just wastes away, bit by bit. Just as you are born, you just as readily begin your inevitable, imperceptible decline. Apparently, the mind isn’t the steel fortress of filing cabinets and reel-to-reel movies that we’ve made it out to be. If you listened to WYNC’s Radio Lab you would know this.

Instead, it’s a rather delicate membrane. It is permeable in some spots, though not in others. As soon as you witness something and lock it away forever as the happiest day of your life, the mugging on 65th street, a college graduation, or summers by the sea, your memory has already gone and fractured the whole thing into an impossible kaleidoscope of nuances. Sight, sound, color, faces, places, and words are continually rearranged every time a memory is recalled. This is why trial witnesses often make or break a case – condemning or setting free individuals based on the possibility of having seen or heard something somewhere some place in time.

Memories are little more than reimagined vignettes that we replay for ourselves behind closed eyes. My own are like little films that are silent in some parts where the dialogue has faded to all but vigorously moving mouths because I’m not sure who said what several years down the road. I never remember the superlatives – the most embarrassing thing, the funniest thing, the scariest thing, the best thing. How does one choose when with a mere flick of the wrist the kaleidoscope shifts the pieces into a completely new pattern? Memory is a razor’s edge of truth with vast emptiness on either side. Overtime, the mental picture degrades and the details become vague generalizations.

My sense of smell or hearing is what brings most of my most favorite memories to the surface. Late summer nights when the cicadas are humming loudly in the dark remind me of the blackness of the South African night, lying awake in the heavy, humid heat. The smell of honeysuckle reminds me of hidden Manhattan gardens, Central Park in the spring, and Savannah, Georgia.

Memories of people are the hardest to hold on to. There are many things about humans that are ephemeral: the sound of their laugh, the smell of their skin, their handwriting…We go to great lengths to preserve moments with photographs and recordings and home movies, but nothing is as sweet as the vision you hold for yourself, even if it’s flawed by the workings of millions of tiny neurons.

Geneaology

Richmond is old. So old that it almost creaks under the weight of modernity as if catching up with the 21st century is just too much to bear after 400-some years.

The life blood of Virginia’s capitol city flowed steadily from the James River – English settlers, slaves, tobacco. The city and it’s inhabitants witnessed revolution, civil strife, deconstruction, and rebirth. Driving through Richmond provides a cheap tour of history in America – unwritten stories are featured in the massive statues of war heroes lining Monument Avenue, the nouveau-riche grandeur of Byrd Park and the West End, the remnants of Jim Crow segregation on the Southside, the long legacy of African American business and entrepreneurship in Jackson Ward, the recollection of bellowing steam engines and canal barges with their industrial cargo in Shockoe Bottom, and the possibility of new era that trails the students at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Richmond is easily one of those places where everyone knows everyone else and their business. Especially on the Southside. The Southside really started out as farmland in an area called Swansboro. My earliest ancestor, Rebecca Howlette, was a slave on the cusp of the Civil War. She was mother to 6 children and keeper of the “old place” for Mr. John Howlette – a wealthy landowner and father of Rebecca’s 6 mulatto children. We all trickled down out of her line like little tributaries from one, strong river – the Moons, the Martins, the Logans, the Howelettes, and so on.

According to Auntie Eva, Daddy came down to Decatur Street talking all proper after being born in New Jersey. They could practically smell the North on him. Auntarie – my grandmother Marie – ran a tight ship, though, and nothing pleased her more than knowing her home and her child were clean as a whistle. She had love enough for 4 or 5 children that she squeezed into her one and only. Grandma Marie stuffed him full of all the hopes and aspirations and dreams that she had had for herself but were dashed by racism and segregation. Her “angel baby” wouldn’t have everything snatched out from under him. She was a force to be reckoned with.

There used to be a grand house at 29th and Hull Steet where he lived with his parents and grandparents. It used to have a lovely porch. Grandma Marie surely thought that cleanliness was next to godliness as she mandated that daddy bathe in the deep metal tub on Saturday evenings. She used the left over water from boiling corn, strewn with husk silk and a large, scratchy bar of Octagon soap. When you were rubbed nice and raw, you were ready for starched Sunday clothes and the minister. Auntie Elaine says that Grandma Marie was a “fly chick” in her day with nary a heair out of place. She wore her thick, silky hair long, refusing anything resembling pickaninny braids. If you had any ounce of respect for yourself, you didn’t dare show your face to the public with a head full of curlers. She always longed for a daughter with whom she could share these lessons.

When Grandma Marie and I first had occasion to meet, I was a squirming infant and she, an old woman whose mind had been turned to swiss cheese by dementia. In pictures, she holds me stiffly, not seeming to understand what I am or from whence I came. Her greyed hair is cut short and leaves little trace of the glamourous woman she had always been. I arrived decades too late to be any sort of dream-come-true for her.

A squat carwash now occupies the lot where my daddy and his cousin used to mow the grass on Sundays for a quarter until they fought so much over splitting the money that Big Pa Howlette – my great grandfather – decided to give each boy 25 cents. The rest of the clan was spread out over 28th/29th Streets and Midlothian Pike – a veritable Howlette beehive. The clapboard shack on the corner of 28th Street and Midlothian Pike still stands with its lonely barber pole adorning one wall. So does one Howlette residence whose green awning bears a large, stenciled “H”.You could walk up any one of the major thoroughfares to the Five and Dime or Miller and Rhoads. On summer evenings, Big Pa would send daddy down to the corner store and pharmacy for nickel smokes.

Over in Newtown South, at Decatur and Pilkington, is the 2nd Baptist Church. Rebecca – being a fierce Christian and community advocate – pushed for the opening of a church that would be closer to her home. A stained glass window near the pulpit quietly honors her memory and contributions. Maybe if I stare through the fragile light filtering through the colored glass long enough, Rebecca just might appear, mother of our generations, like a vision of the Virgin Mary.

The memories, the stories – histories and herstories – triumphs, tragedies, and the germane goings-on of many a person are palapble here. Richmond is the wellspring from which many a black family poured out. Death seems to always be an event that leaves the living with more questions than answers. I’ve lost many years in learning these family intracacies, of knowing people who look like me, of being able to put an answer to the classic life questions: Where did I come from? Who am I?

Sometimes the answer is simple. It’s not wrapped up in all the superficial things we think distinguish us as individuals. You can’t really be defined without the “other”.  So you realize that there has been a place for you all along, among these others that exsited and continue to exist: I am a Howlette; daughter of Bernett Logan, born through a long lineage of capable women – Rebecca, Fannie, and Marie.

What You Shouldn’t Say During a Sales Pitch

“Where’s the husband!?”

We were just walking down the street, minding our own business, when one of those overly perky types of people – a woman created expressly for the purpose of coercing you into buying a timeshare in Virginia Beach or taking a dinner cruise on the Chesapeake – accosts us. Apparently, just the three of us didn’t look nuclear enough for her. Mom, check. 2 kids, check. Hmm, no Dad anywhere to be seen.

I was so shocked that someone would just shout this at me on a busy street corner that I had nary a care for being polite.

“He died,” I said in a completely matter-of-fact tone. Why sugar coat it?

The woman didn’t even flinch as she asked if we were headed to the beach. Didn’t even offer a half-hearted apology. We breezed past and crossed the intersection to the hotel.

It’s no secret that I am immensely sensitive to such a question at this moment in time, but why would ask something so obviously not your business? What if I had a single mother? What if my mother were a lesbian? What if my father were a solider stationed in Iraq?

Some people don’t even have a father to begin with.

Tomorrow she’ll probably ask an overweight woman when “the baby is due”.