In her Name

Her name is on the last page of a notebook I carried all around Trujillo the last time I was there. Three years ago now. I was gathering names and details and memory for Garifuna stories I am writing, and along the way I learned that Don Virgilio had a daughter who was in Atlanta, Georgia. New terrain. Family far away. Fewer Garifuna ties.

We should connect.

Her name is on the last page of my notebook and I returned to Atlanta and got lost in making sense of a foreign school system,  navigating lonnnnng, sidewalk-free country roads and managing the weight of homeownership in the fallout of the busted housing bubble–I never called.

And this morning, even before Atlanta news stations could break the story, my mother was on the other line crying the news that she was shot and killed in Sandy Springs. 

My sister and I grew up with my mother as a town crier of sorts. I’ll admit, at this point we are desensitized to the exaggerated wailing and try to hone in on the details. Very rarely do we know who she is talking about. It is always a vague connection separated in degrees and ending in our asking when the viewing will be. We already know that our mother is going. This time, as names were mentioned, I squinted to call up images: her dad watching television in his den in Honduras; her mom pouring cereal for my nephews while my mother chatted away and I remembered —I was supposed to call her. Her name is in the back of my notebook.

It called to mind a recent conversation with my Tía Lizzette. The cool aunt who is closer to your generation in age, so she serves as a bridge between the generation that came from Honduras to make American homes and the generation that grew up American with some or no recollection of Honduras. She noted that they are now building homes for their return and have assumed that we know enough to carry out traditions without them.  She has been convincing them that they must be sure before they leave.

She mentioned death and illness in particular: the family protocols, the expectations. “How will you know what to do?”

And she is right.

I don’t know what to do. I am waiting for my mother to get out of church and call me.

And no, the irony is not lost on me.  I have spent years offering an obligatory, “There, there,” whenever my mother called with news of loss and now I wait for her to tell me what we do at a moment like this to show the solidarity that is the way of our people. I also wonder what time Mami’s phone rang in Queens, the speed of her network faster than our social networks and way faster than Georgia news reporters who still have no idea who she was and what happened and said so. 

The Garifuna community knows.  And we will gather in her name.

My deepest condolences to the Martinez family.

Making of a Poet

I sit here moved by words my students just spoke.

A rough day. A scolding.  Confusion. A move toward true self. 

And the inability to say the right words to get people to understand that you really are

t  r  y  i  n  g.

Remember that? Middle school is a nightmare.

And I promised myself way back when that I would remember what it felt like to navigate the thoughts, desires, curiosity and helplessness that simply IS growing up.

No one wanted to answer anything, but they wanted to tell you what to do.

No one wanted to listen to you, but they told you who you were.

You didn’t even know who you were! Who you were becoming…

I took to the page.

Created worlds to figure it all out.  Planted characters with the personalities I wanted to try on for size and turned them loose in composition notebooks. In this way I figured out where paths could lead. Penned dramatic dialogue and smart-aleck come-backs and set my ear against interior monologue to figure out what I thought about the world.

Not my parents or my friends or my teachers — but me.

What did I think?

And this was the making of a poet.

So

I turned my attention to the next generation.

First the pen and then the reminder that words create what is spoken the moment they are unleashed.

First my guiding hand helping shape the first line and then the permission to run off the page in hard, deliberate zig-zags.

First a red-ink suggestion and then the push to ignore it if it doesn’t help say what they mean.

And this morning, checking my classroom blog, I found one of my poets had stepped onto an empty stage, checked the mic for sound and belted lines in blue.

A teenaged anthem that simply began: Why do I not feel free?

And I caught my breath

Witnessing his beginning

Watching him recoil at his own voice bouncing off the walls

Feeling his resolve in delivering the next line anyway

Catching his eye as he stared down the shadows sitting center stage

Holding back tears and applause at the last line hanging hauntingly in the air

Left for the listener to figure out.

He faded with the house lights

—A poet

    Made.

Wrist Game

She wielded them like amulets...

 

It was not silly at all 

She wielded them like amulets 

Green dinosaurs 

Yellow trucks 

Pink glasses 

Orange dolphins 

Black princesses 

Patterns and hues wound around both wrists 

793 so far 

Sometimes random zigzags of color and shape 

Other times a carefully crafted color wheel 

Depending on the air 

Or which words were spat her way 

Stupid 

Pitiful 

A waste 

Sorry 

She’d rip open a new bag 

His words ringing in her ear as she sorted 

Red to smash stupid 

Orange to smack down pitiful 

Yellow to trash waste 

Purple was particularly powerful against 

Sorry 

Shape didn’t matter 

                          Though music notes were her new favorite 

It was about protection 

From this man 

Who invaded her home 

Bitter words dripping from his past failures 

She his decided target 

Her mother his decided refuge 

She tried to warn her mother that he was draining all the color 

But he talked indigo 

Exhaled mauve 

Mixed colors her mother hadn’t felt before 

She was left no choice 

She took matters into her own hands 

Five dollars at a time 

Rainbows from wrist to elbow 

Chanting like incantation 

I’m rubber you’re glue… 

I’m rubber you’re glue… 

Planting black princesses for her mother to find 

Waiting for her to remember 

That they were made of light 

Drew from every color 

Like magic 

So his muddied palette was unnecessary 

They were 

Vivid 

Stark 

Mysterious 

Elegant 

And once she reached 

1,000 

She knew her mother would remember 

Who they already were 

8/28/2010

In Memoriam

ARAUZ family Patriarch

 

  

He was the only one who would dare take five frenzied girls to Playland Amusement Park alone — and we adored him for it. 

  

Handsome in his fedora hat and arriving gracefully in his silver Caprice Classic — its massive exterior and red interior gleaming by his own hand — my grandfather commanded our full attention. 

  

We ran into his arms eager to wrap ourselves around his waist, around his legs our laughter prompting the trademark giggle that rose over our enthusiastic chatter. 

  

Papá, my mother called him. 

We called him Grandpa, which was different from maternal grandfather Papá Lencho and the scores of elders who were addressed as Aubelito as a matter of respect. 

  

He was different. 

We could speak to him in English so nothing was lost in translation.  We called his wife Mama Ruth rather than Abuelita or Doña. In their Bronx home, we stomached soft, bland vegetables instead of pork skin or chicken crackling in popping oil. He gifted us a small radio that we never thought to turn from the country music station it was tuned to.  He gave me a ten speed bike that my feet dangled from at ten years old. I watched my older cousin Junie ride it all over the park, too short for it and having no sense of balance without training wheels. 

  

We especially never tired of squeezing the remaining half of his index finger, listening to the story of how he sawed it off accidentally. This was my grandpa. 

  

We thought it strange when he turned up at our old home off the Grand Concourse looking to visit. 

We had been living in Far Rockaway, Queens for years by then, but we shrugged it off as strange, relieved that he had turned up after Mama Ruth spent most of the day trying to find him. 

  

It would be much later that we would identify this day as the beginning. The beginning of losing Papá. 

  

I was away at school so I only saw it twice. 

Once. The rage of helplessness that drove him out of my father’s hold and up the street. We chased him and forced him to the confines of our yard, securing the front gate with laundry cord.   

The second time a hospital room where he did not recognize anyone but my father. We gathered around him and watched as he called out languages chronicling moments of his life: Garifuna, English and Spanish. 

  

Alzheimer’s claimed my grandfather in 1991. 

  

The caprice classic sat in our driveway. Still. The luster long gone.   

His ashes sat in a copper box on a make-shift altar awaiting the trip back to Trujillo, Honduras. 

  

And I watched it catch afternoon sun, grief and questions swirling. 

Questions I had not thought to ask: 

What was it like living in Harlem, Grandpa? 

Did you frequent jazz clubs or take Mama Ruth dancing at the Harlem ballroom of her choice? 

Was my Tía Leda mad at you? We figured out with our cousins that they never came to your house. Never spent any time with  you. Did you simply understand that she sided with her mother and held nothing against her? 

Were you really a vegetarian or was this menu Mama Ruth‘s invention? 

Did your own reflection surprise you each day after vitiligo took you from mocha brown to soft cream? 

Did you think I looked like you? 

Did you mean to be returned to Trujillo? Was there somewhere else you would have prefered to go? 

  

The answers were erased with no regard for those of us who stood to inherit his story, our story  

  

This spring marks 20 years since his departure 

and so I commemorate his life, his grace and his story by participating in MEMORY WALK 2010. 

The Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk® is the nation’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer care, support and research. 

  

It is my first time undertaking this type of venture. It is a small, pertinent step in making certain that elders leave their families with dignity; leaving behind the gift of memory as their final legacy. 

  

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Please support my efforts! 

Visit http://memorywalk2010.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=335311&lis=1&kntae335311=A5807027544047C197D3D06AA55314DA&supId=295586670 to help me honor my grandfather’s memory and put an end to Alzheimer’s!