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As a child, you live your life, full of runs and suns, not really knowing what is important, what will end up in the pockets of memory. It is once-upon-a-time after once-upon-a-time, where memory sometimes folds up neat as a flamingo’s leg, incredible, tucked away precious as a new dollar bill in the centre of your right hand. And your right hand is nestled inside bright red mittens. Everything in a sweet place. Memory layers. Many, many, many moons later, you go through pockets of time and start pulling stuff out, start unfolding. Suddenly a door opens in the sky and you go above and beyond all that you have known.
Before I know it, I’m sailing my favourite cup across the room toward his big head. Damn! He ducks just in time. The cup shatters into pieces of rim, handle, and pink rose. Part of me is glad I missed. If I’d hit him, he’d either be injured or dead, which means the police would put me where they put all black people, under the jail. Especially a black girl hitting a white boy. Now, if he’d sailed that cup at me, with that pitch perfect arm of his, I’d either be dead or in a coma and the cops would buy him a cheeseburger. If I’d hit him, maybe the collision with that big head of his would’ve saved my cup. I loved that cup. But I missed. Cup shatters. Sweetie dives under the bed. I’m screaming, “Get out! Get out!” He’s already putting on his coat, walking out the door. This is it. It is so over. I follow him into the hall, ready to hurl a barrage of expletives tracing his family tree ad infinitum, when the door at the other end of the hall opens. My friend Mary steps out with her little girl Jeanne. She kind of freezes, seeing my boyfriend, now ex-boyfriend, waiting for the elevator while I’m at the other end looking like a pressure cooker.
“Are you okay?” Mary calls. I have to give it to her. She is that one person with excellent emotional radar. She can tell in a second just what’s going on. This is a gift. This is a curse. Before I can yell back, my boyfriend looks at her like collateral enemy. Well, she is. After all, she’s my friend, not his. And then, he man-smirks her. Which of course she can see because he’s wearing his mask around his neck. “Did he just man-smirk me?” she calls out to me, her voice sounding like she’s just been smacked by a leprechaun.
Jeanne, in that wise way that kids have of picking up on something even when they can’t understand all of it, knows something is wrong and that man waiting at the elevator is a bad man. “Don’t you man-smirk my mommy!” she cries out from behind her unicorn mask. Then she looks up at her mom and asks, “What’s a man-smirk, Mommy?”
Mary smiles. I smile in spite of myself. Thank God the elevator comes. “I’ll call you later. You sure you’re okay?” Mary asks as she and Jeanne head to the elevator after man-smirk takes it down.
“I’m okay, Mary. We’ll talk later on. Bye, Jeanne.”
“What’s a man-smirk, Mommy?” Jeanne asks again.
“I’ll tell you at lunch. Lunch in about 10 years.” Mary smiles and mutters to herself, “ I never liked him anyway.”
I go back into my apartment. I feel like I’m in a war zone. I find the broom, start sweeping. With each arc of the broom, I gather jagged pieces, even the ones that ricocheted, hid in corners. I begin to harvest calm from chaos. My body moves in a slow dance around debris. I bend, sweep, pendulum my way back to order. Finally I dump all shards of what was into the trash. The broken thing falls away in a jangled litany, leaving silence begging to be chased away. I call Sweetie, put her favourite tuna and chicken pate out. I call her again, letting her know everything’s okay. At least where she’s concerned.
I, on the other hand, am a mess. Who breaks up in a pandemic? I mean, human contact is already limited and now is the time I catapult a cup?! My favourite cup. Already I’m yearning for yesterdays because inside I’m empty as a jack-o-lantern. And I can’t tell if this emptiness is because I see the end of something or because I can’t see the end of something. Thank God, my cat comes out, rubs up against my legs. She still loves me.
I can’t stay inside anymore. Just as I get my coat, I slip into a memory. Now I have a destination. And a purpose. Flowers. I need flowers. I put on my mask, ear loops securely in place. We are all bandits now, in this pandemic. I don’t wear my pretty red lipstick anymore. Who can see it? I ask my cat. She meows in agreement and looks at me as if to say, “Where are you going after all this?” I rub her head, telling her I’ll just be gone for a little while. I hope she believes me. I hope I believe me.
The sun today is more than I know what to do with, like a surprise inheritance from a rich uncle you didn’t know you had. Everything is awash in light so bright it hurts my eyes. I quickly put on my shades, make my way to the grocery store. Blue skies are just painful right now.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have food. I work from home. The virus cleaved the land in half. White collar privileged with Wi-Fi, laptops, desk jobs, still getting a paycheck, still safe, working from home. And all the rest, formerly invisible, now suddenly essential, all the ones making deliveries, bringing food, mail, even people. Bus drivers, the new Charons, ferry workers across the great divide of poverty and privilege. We avoid being close, as if we ever were.
It saddens me: I have no answers for any of this. Then again, it seems as though answers have been extinct for quite some time. I keep going, like a hamster on a wheel. I’ve learned that when the thunder of my own heart scares me, it’s better to move. At least today I have a mission, nothing to do with the geography of answers or questions, but something that I, in my small skin, can navigate. Three blocks. I’m here. The store where I don’t need to go. I walk past pasta, little elves with my favourite cookie, greeting cards that weave words around every emotion imaginable. And then, I’m here.
There are flowers everywhere. Bouquets begging for romance, candles, and wine. Bouquets begging for old times. Bouquets praying that disease would leave us, that distance would no longer cleave us. Little petals bursting with violet, reds. Proud chrysanthemums heavy with citrine. But I want a particular flower. Not roses. Not snap dragons. Not tulips. And then I see them. Azaleas. Potted securely, all abuzz with pink buds and blossoms nestled in green. As though I’m searching for the Hope Diamond, I take my time, examining one plant after another. I find the right one. The perfect one. I pick it up like a baby and smile my hidden smile beneath my mask. This is the one. I start toward the register but then turn on a dime, turn on a whim, pick another pink azalea for myself. The twins and I head out the door.
Still going in the same direction. Four more blocks. I am here. I take the plant out of the bag and place it at the front door. I take my magic wand out of my purse, unfold it. The blue lights come on, promising to kill yuck and stuff and I carefully wave it all over the pot, careful not to touch the flowers. I ring the doorbell and step back, waiting.
My mom peeks through the window, sees me, and comes to the door. “It’s so good to see you! I miss you.” Her smile is brilliant, could easily travel light years, so the six feet between us is nothing.
“Brought you some azaleas, Mom. You like ’em?” I watch my mom look down and find her flowers, lift them like a grandchild, turning the plant around and around, as if it’s the Holy Grail. I see her eyes fill with tears and think how important it is to give flowers to people while they’re alive, while they can dance in the fragrance and feel baby soft petals glide beneath their hands. “Aw, Mom, don’t cry. You need anything?”
“I have everything I need right here. You never forget. You were so little, but you never forget. Can’t you come in for a cup of coffee?”
“Not safe, Mom. When this is over. You go back inside. Be safe. I love you.” I start to leave but linger a second. “Mom, you know that cup you gave me?”
“That pretty cup with the rose on it. Your favourite cup.”
Yeah, that one. I…I dropped it. You wouldn’t have an extra would you?”
“You know I have. Wait right there.” My mom slips inside then comes back with a small box. “I put your cup in here for a little extra TLC.” She puts the box down and retrieves her azaleas.
“Thanks, Mom…Guess I might as well tell you: I broke up with Jim. This time for good. I’ll call you later. Love you.”
“You know you can call me anytime. Love my flowers! Go right back home. Call me when you get there. I love you more.” My mom smiles, muttering to herself, “I never liked him anyway.”
I wait until she goes inside, then go get my cup. Waving one last time to her at the window, I start back. Seven blocks back. Somehow, I feel lighter now. I walk through leaves like a kid. They answer my steps with a holy rustling, as though I matter. Even after the cup missile. I think of the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, of using gold to put pottery pieces back together. Of not hiding brokenness but owning it. There is a truth in scars that should not be denied. As I make my way, I remember, years ago, how my mother poured gold into her broken heart and life. June 19th. I was little, Mom was right, but I remember that evening clear as a billboard you drive by every day, or like we used to drive by every day before contamination became an anthem.
There was nothing special about that day. No birthdays, no deaths, no excellent report cards. Just an ordinary day. Mom had left for work as usual early in the morning. But when she came home that night, she had so many packages, we all rushed to help her. We couldn’t believe it. There was steak, STEAK, and white rice and sweet dinner rolls and Hawaiian Punch and chocolate layer cake, and we kept asking her, “Mom, what happened, what are we celebrating? What?” And I remember her saying, “We’re all here. We’re all together. Isn’t that enough to celebrate? Now, who’s gonna help me get dinner?” And just like that, we all pitched in, set the table like we were having company and Mom cooked her heart out, singing and smiling.
I noticed there was one bag none of the others had picked up. Beautiful pink flowers burst out the top of that bag. “Mom, what are these?”
“Those are azaleas, baby girl. Aren’t they pretty? Almost as pretty as you. Put them on the table for me.”
And I carried those flowers like I was carrying my doll, put them on our table and, man, even in the middle of that feast, those azaleas held their own. We kids ate and ate, but I noticed my mom never fixed a plate for herself. She said she’d had a real nice lunch at work and couldn’t eat another bite. She got herself a cup of coffee and smiled at us and at her flowers.
Finally it was time for bed. I fell asleep like I was full of manna. And in a way, I was.
Late that night I got thirsty, got up for a glass of water, and found Mom still sitting at the kitchen table, her cup empty. She was still looking at her flowers. “Mom, why aren’t you in bed?” I asked her.
“Get your water and come sit with me while you drink it.”
I climbed on her lap, sipped my water, hoping to make it last and last: I didn’t often get my mom to myself and I was determined to stretch this special time out. But I heard something I’d never heard before. “Mom, your stomach’s growling. You better eat.” I sipped my water, looking up at her. And I never forgot what she told me, even though it would be years before I’d understand it.
“Baby girl, I’m eating right now, and I’m as full as I can be. Look who I’ve got sitting on my lap. Look at these azaleas. Stuck in dirt and just as pretty as they can be.” And while I painstakingly sipped my glass of water, my mom and I talked about those flowers, this bud, that bloom. She turned the plant slowly so we’d get a different view. Finally, she sent me to bed. “Always remember the azaleas,” she said, with a kiss to my forehead.
Years later, when I was grown, with a job of my own, my own apartment, I asked my mom what had really happened that day. And she told me.
My mom had worked for that white lady for seven years, cleaning, cooking, washing. She was her favourite. The white lady told her so. After a while, they hired another maid, a wicked, low-down, Uncle Tom of a woman. One who laughed too long and too loud at the weakest joke the white lady told. One who knew how to front whenever the white lady was around. My mom knew she was jealous of her being the favourite, but she never dreamed just how far that woman would go to get rid of her. That hateful maid stole the white lady’s pearl necklace and put it in my mom’s pocketbook. Then she told the lady a lie, that she’d seen my mom stealing. When the white lady found the pearls in mom’s purse, she fired her on the spot. The Uncle Tom maid smiled from ear to ear as she opened the door for my mom. But my mom looked her in the eye and said four little words that wiped that smile off her face. “Seed planted. Seed returns.”
My mom went on to explain that Uncle Toms were a wicked, pathetic lot. They lived for validation by whites. They lived to breathe the same air as whites. They always set themselves apart from the rest of black folks. They could never go to a Baptist church. Too much whooping and hollering. They preferred the quieter religions, quieter churches where white people went. That is, if the white people would let them in. They could never vote Democrat because all black people voted Democrat. So they set themselves apart, voted Republican, and made sure everybody knew it. They raised their children full of skin hierarchy: White skin is best, then high-yellow and so on. Even when it was against their own interest, Uncle Toms stood by and stood for whites. The slaveowner’s greatest gifts to himself and his generations was the cultivation of those who could not, would not, think for themselves, without his approval. His three wishes from the genie were the electoral college, the slave Bible, and Uncle Toms. Therefore, being an Uncle Tom meant a constant output of snitching, backstabbing, delighting in another’s downfall, stealing another black maid’s job. And Uncle Toms were aware of their dirt. Which is why they were a pretty paranoid little clique. So when my mom said, “Seed planted. Seed returns,” the Uncle Tom maid knew that one day the universe would repay her. One day an Uncle Tom would come for the Uncle Tom.
My mom left with her head high, never looked back. At least she had the satisfaction of knowing that she’d put something on that witch’s mind. Sooner or later people who dug holes for others had to worry about how many holes were being dug for them. My mom prided herself that she never let them see her break, even though on the bus ride home she had to tilt her head back to keep the tears from rolling down her face. She stopped off at the landlord’s and paid another week on the rent. Then she went to the store and bought all that food for us kids. She didn’t have enough for herself. But she made sure we had plenty.
I asked her why she didn’t take any of the food for herself. And she said it was more important for her kids to be full. She said her heart was full that night as she watched us and looked at those beautiful azaleas. She didn’t know how, but she knew that fullness would keep her going.
And it did. Later on my mom found another job. She ate dinner with us again. We didn’t get thrown out on the street. Our lives continued in that sweet carousel of dodge ball, homework, and sweet dreams. We were never rich. But, then again, we were.
I’m back at my apartment. I have another cup. Sweetie comes to greet me, meows hello in that tiny voice of hers. I think I had to come to this place of not knowing where I was going before I could move forward. Yes, I’m adrift right now. And when the heart is a raft, the shore is an island. Nothing’s stable in my world. I go to the window and look out. Everything looks the same. Nothing is the same. I fix myself a cup of coffee in my new favourite cup and stare at the testimony of azaleas. I remember my mom, my divorced mom, her kids’ only lifeline, feeding us that night and going without dinner herself, still sitting at that empty table with her beautiful azaleas pouring gold into the pieces of her heart, while we kids slept without a care in the world. I remember how she poured the gold of forgiveness into her broken spirit. I remember how she raised us, not to be better than anyone else, but to be just as good as everyone else. She raised us to value our own validation, to never give that power away. My mom owned her scars. Her scars never owned her.
And that is how I learned to own my scars, to not let them own me. That is how I learned to pour gold into my emptiness, into the broken pottery of my spirit. It is painstaking redemption. Painstaking. New vessels take time.