I ended this reading before the end of the chapter for some reason. Here I've included the whole chapter, with a ** where I stopped in the actual reading. I wish I could quote here the deep discussion we had between these two chapters, and after. Somehow it now feels like the book is expanded to take in that group's insights. I guess it's me who's expanded...
whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral,
dressed in his shroud
—from Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
Tahija worked very hard. Though I had never had a child myself, I’d seen what the first months are like for a new mother. It’s wonder upon wonder, and overwhelming. There can be a terrifying sense of losing oneself to the demands of the newborn. Depression is common and often unaddressed, with more than a quarter of teen mothers suffering from it. Imagine three babies! Tahija was determined not to let them “run over top of her.” And indeed they must have felt sometimes like a stampeding herd, or a tidal wave. Added to these pressures was the omnitheater of watching adults, any one of whom might with a phone call set the bureaucratic ball rolling to take the boys away. There was the home nurse; the DHS home aides mandated by DHS (the indomitable Mrs. Abstinence not, as it turned out, among them).
Then there was Kaki and me. It must have been like having two live-in mother-in-laws from another culture. It’s a wonder poor Tahija didn’t fall apart or snap out. She did go off once on big Lamarr, but it was only a butter knife from the kitchen drawer, and he had taken little Lamarr to the house of the very aunt she had expressly forbidden him to take any of her babies to.
She was under a lot of stress. Containment made sense to her and control worked. But when the stretch-limo stroller arrived, I thought sure Mear, Mahd and Marr were going to make the acquaintance of the park at last.
They were six months old when the Lutheran services agency that had given Tahija pro-life counseling when she was pregnant gave her a triplet stroller. Inside the huge box it came in were six wheels, dozens of pieces, scores of nuts, bolts and screws, and twelve pages of instructions. In French. Tahija threw the instructions aside and in one of her manic bursts put it together with two screwdrivers and a wrench.
When I came back from shopping, there it was, as long as the sofa — a twelve-point buck of an assembly job.
“You must be some kind of mechanical genius.”
“It was easy.”
The seats went front to back, with hoods above and sturdy wire baskets beneath. The cloth was a heavy-duty navy blue patterned in small white dots. I suggested we give it a test drive, with riders.
It was a sunny afternoon, the park alive with people: two half-court basketball games going, lovers under the grape arbor, parents and seniors on the circular knee wall around the playground, and children working every inch of the equipment. The infant swings beckoned. I couldn’t remember the last time Tahija had gone outside for anything other than a doctor’s appointment or a quick trip to the grocery store around the corner.
She came to the door I’d opened and peered out, left and right, focusing not on the green oasis of the park but on the strangers in the crosswalk, the car speeding past, the disheveled man weaving up the sidewalk. Just released from prison, he was a little unstable, unpredictable. But Elva’s husband Raphael, our block captain, was out. Raphael knew him, kept him calm.
Tahija drew back.
“It’s too cold.”
“It’s almost June!”
She parked the stroller in the shamrock room, and there it stayed.
“Those boys won’t leave this house until they’re four years old,” Lamarr declared. I didn’t believe him. It was so in his own childhood, he said, and would be so in theirs. But they needed to grow, to explore, to be stimulated by new sights and sounds, I argued. No, they needed to be kept safe, away from dirt and germs, freaky people, and gun fire.
The stretch-limo stroller was in danger of becoming a conversation piece. But I kept asking, and then one warm day as she was leaving for school Tahija said yes.
“Just to the park and back.”
“And coats on, zipped up, and hats.”
“You can dress them in the blue onesies, second drawer, left side.”
“Second drawer left.”
Tahija dressing her boys was fast and efficient — a gift-wrapper in December. I was not. Getting the third fully dressed before the first got overheated took athletic focus. And then getting them outside! I developed two techniques: Babies in the stroller and then out, or stroller out and then babies in.
In-then-out went like this. After I had them dressed, I’d bring two down, one to a hip, and put them in their place in the stroller. (I felt compelled to place them in the order Tahija always did: Damear, Mahad, Lamarr.) Then I’d run up for the third, who was most likely crying by then. I’d bring him down and put him in his seat. Then I’d buckle everyone in and wheel the stroller into the short, narrow hallway.
The heavy security door wouldn’t stay open on its own, so I used the footrest of the first seat, while holding the inner door with my free hand. Then I’d push the stroller forward until the two front wheels projected out from the stoop, with poor Damear (who was quite brave) in mid-air. Then — boing (really excellent suspension) — I’d bounce the middle wheels, beneath Mahad, down onto the upper step, then tip back, with Damear pointing skyward now, and bounce the rear wheels onto the step. Then I’d slowly lower Damear, taking it on faith that the sidewalk was down there somewhere.
Once I had us horizontal and facing park-ward, I’d go down the line checking everybody. Only little Lamarr, who had a fear of heights, seemed to question, with contracted brow, my nannying abilities.
Out-and-then-in was easier, but only worked if a trusted neighbor was outside to help. What I’d do is bounce the stroller down the steps empty and get it facing park-ward then run back in for one of them, strap him in, and run back for the other two. Usually by then Rosa and her Chihuahua were watching from the window of her third floor apartment, a grandmotherly smile making her eye patch look downright cheerful.
“Tres bonito bambinos,” she’d call.
When we finally reached the park that first day we walked the full length of all four of its walkways, then strolled the shady perimeter, stopped often by folks from the nearby senior center. The boys were so good. Mahad fell asleep and woke up. Lamarr began to cry but shifted to laughter at the sight of squirrels scampering over the roots of a great oak tree.
We stopped beneath the tree and were soon surrounded by second graders on recess, Porsha, the youngest King sister, among them. She deigned to act as spokesperson for us, informing the other children that she knew me, I lived on her block, and no, I was not their mother, obviously, I only watched them while their mother, Tahija, was in school. And sometimes she, Porsha, helped me.
The second graders absorbed this important information, stared a moment longer, then whirled away like leaves in a gust to decorate the playground with their happy cries.
When I took the boys out after lunch we’d sit on the low wall that encircled the park and watch for Tahija to come up the block from school. Sometimes she’d sit with us and if she was in the mood field the questions that inevitably came. She granted any polite asker up to three, so long as the first question wasn’t too ignorant. “How ever do you take care of all three?” would be your first and only question.
Some questions brought down her scorn and the questioners were memorialized forever after, as in, “Remember Lamarr’s cousin, at that party? Going to ask, ‘Do they think alike?’ How am I supposed to know do they think alike? Do I look like a mind reader? Or that lady at the seaquarium — ‘Are they twins?’ Come on now.”
One day a girl poling by on a single old-style skate stopped and bent over to see Damear, in the stroller, up close. Then she looked at the other two, in my lap and Tahija’s.
“Which one is the baby?”
“Him,” Tahija kissed Mahad’s forehead. They were eight months, and still very small.
“Which one’s oldest?”
“He is,” Tahija pointed to Damear.
“By about two minutes,” I added.
As if she knew she had been granted just the three questions, the girl paused and considered, skating her foot back and forth. She looked from me to Tahija and back at me.
“Do all ya’ll live in the same house?”
“We do.” I pointed across the intersection. “Third door in.”
She looked that way, then back at us. “That’s all right.”
It was the lone question of the woman in Rite-Aid that stuck with me. Like a tick it stuck, like a sliver of glass.
We were out on the Avenue in the stretch limo. Things were going well. Mahad had fallen asleep, as he often did in moving vehicles, and the other two were so busy staring up at the rattling tracks of the El they didn’t think of complaining. Tahija had one of her headaches, but she was in a good mood, even answered a few questions when we were mobbed in front of the grocery store. She enjoyed the attention, to a point, as long as people got it that they were triplets and not the results of three separate pregnancies. She was only sixteen, and sensitive to the stigma attached to teenage pregnancy.
We stopped in Rite-Aid. Tahija liked Rite-Aid. Her mother had worked in one once and she bought most of her many skin and hair care products there. We were having a good outing, until that woman said what she did. She was white, around sixty, and already walking away from us when the words hit — five words, one for each of us,
“Well I hope she’s done.”
I heard Tahija take in a deep breath, steady herself, and set her mind (or did I just imagine/fear it?) to never bring the boys outside the house again.
The woman was gone before I could respond. That undelivered response swelled within me, to come out months later as a letter, and the start of this book.
“These boys are a blessing,” I wrote her. “I don’t believe you’d shake your head in disgust at the sight of three matched white faces. I believe you value the lives of black boys but little and believe that no good can come through them into your world. Your prejudice is a curtain drawn before your eyes, and your fear and clinging to privilege would draw that curtain over their future. Through the curtain you don’t see the bright lights of their eyes — black, brown, green; you don’t see the sacredness of the number three: moon, earth and sun; heaven, earth and humanity; angles in a triangle; the holy trinity. What could the universe have meant by such abundance if not a blessing, and a challenge, and a promise: that if we meet the challenge we shall have the blessing.”
“Already for me it has been so. What challenge have you not accepted, stranger, woman with skin and hair like mine, about the age of my mother, born in the depression, knowing the hardship these boys’ parents know, though the 90’s are not depression years? Perhaps your challenge today was to smile, and say to the mother what most women of color say, God bless you.”
“Oh I wish you had stopped and spoken kindly. I wish we had enjoyed the talk so much that Tahija took down your address and promised to drop you a line now and then and let you know how the boys were. Then you would see, the curtain would fall away and you would see not potential criminals, not threats, but children with all the light of childhood in them: perhaps one someday to lead a town or city, or even a nation; perhaps one to create a song or a painting that opens the eyes of your grandchild, walking alone and depressed one day, to the beauty of life; perhaps one to live in great pain and to succumb, to understand the addictions of his grandparents and forgive — them, his parents, himself, and perhaps in there somewhere in his thirties or forties you, the stranger who did not bless him, whose blessing might have meant something. Who can say what it might have meant?”
After awhile, with bookshelves and a desk, a chair in the sunny nook, the nursery began to feel like just any other room. Sometimes my eye would fall on a powder-blue windowsill and I’d think, that’s the windowsill Damear could reach. Or I’d forget and try to pull down the blind Lamarr had torn, and which we’d never replaced. Or I’d cut on the light and remember holding Mahddy up to the switch so he could work it — up down, on off, up down. . . .
Would they remember the Beatle songs I’d sung them? And the drinking songs from my Irish grandmother’s old 78, “I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler, I’m a long way from home,” and the dirges, “When you look in the heart of a shamrock, sure you’re dreaming of I-er-land, and home.” And that one from my Scottish grandmother, the words I couldn’t recall replaced by made-up ones,
Hush little baby don’t say a word
Auntie’s gonna buy you a mocking bird
and if that mocking bird don’t sing
Auntie’s gonna buy you a diamond ring
and if that diamond ring don’t shine
Auntie’s gonna give you this heart of mine
and if this heart don’t tick long enough. . . .
I’d make up things I’d buy and ways they might not work and other things I’d buy instead. If I could rhyme it I could buy it. My grandmother had sung it “Momma’s gonna buy” not “Auntie”; I’d felt the need to change it though, felt guilty using “Momma.” Which should have told me something, been a warning.
Ach, I thought, indulging a bit of the melancholy I come by honest, as Tahija would say — from the Irish as well as the Scottish side — if you’re always looking for warnings surely you’ll find them at every turn. It was by God’s grace that our paths crossed, and it would be by God’s grace should we meet again.
To be sure though, my heart was broken, and no comfort for it.
Was I a racist? Had my racism caused Tahija to feel she had to move out? Were there different kinds of racism? How did you know when you were done, free, clear, clean? What were my deepest motives? What were Kaki’s? Were hers different from mine? Had we done too much, or too little? Exercised too much authority, too little, or the wrong sort? Had I damaged the boys? Would Tahija always be harder on Damear? Would I ever see them again?
Would they remember me?
In the days that followed, these and other questions weighed upon me. I didn’t like walking in Fishtown anymore. I felt angry at the way some there might treat the triplets. I remembered the Rite-Aid lady and her, “Well I hope she’s done.” But I didn’t like walking in our neighborhood either. Too many mean or suspicious looks, from strangers mainly, but there were many strangers. One day two men I thought might be from the Donminican Republic abruptly stopped talking when I neared. Then one of them spit on the sidewalk inches from my shoes.
Is that what the white race had earned for me and mine? I felt ashamed to be white. I had felt ashamed, I realized, since I was a child first witnessing racism. Had that shame motivated me to move hear, to give of my time and labor? Only to find now, in the quiet house, yellow walls gleaming like a sun whenever I passed the still-empty nursury, that the shame stung as much; more, in fact. Or perhaps it was just nearer the surface.
I could not love myself, or forgive myself, and of course, in many small ways, the world collaborated in confirming that I was unlovable and unforgivable and perfectly correct in assuming the worst about myself. For example, one day while driving I nosed out into a busy street, trying to turn left with the light. When the light changed and I tried to back out of the crosswalk, I couldn’t because a car pulled up. An older black man trying to cross was forced to walk around the front of my car, dangerously close to traffic. He glared at me with such hatred that I rolled down the window and said,
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t back up there’s a — ”
He cut me off. “Think they own the whole street!”
And the whole world, his scorn implied. You and your kind. As he stepped up onto the curb and strode on — his day ruined, I feared — I began to cry. I wanted to run after him, tell him about the triplets . . . all the diapers I’d changed, the prayers I’d prayed, the inner changes I’d tried to make. I wished I had the boys in the car, or the King sisters — black faces to show him, to testify to him, to prove . . . what? That I was not a racist. But I could never prove it finally, totally, to anyone but myself, and my maker. There would always be hurt and bitter people who would see only my white face; and cynical others who would see and try to make use of my guilt. That was on them. But what was on me, my responsibility, was not to use people in some confused subconscious drive to redeem myself. Wasn’t that just another form of racism?
The light changed and I pulled out, driving past the man’s rigid back, past other folks, women, mostly, standing on corners waiting for busses, looking at me in my car as centuries of serfs had looked up at landowners on horses, their looks seeming to say, Yes, however you care to intellectualize it, you are just another racist.
It was better then, wasn’t it, that they had moved out? Better that I should never see them again.
“You know what one of my favorite movies is?”
“What?” asked Kaki.
We were up on the third floor, on the couch in the front room, looking out over the telephone wire where the white leather sneakers still hung, no more worn out, it seemed, than on the night when I’d changed my mind about Tahija and the babies living with us. The trees in the park look pale and dry. The grass needed mowing.
“Never saw it,” she said.
“It’s about Jesuits in South America, when Spain and Portugal were carving up the land. There’s this mercenary and slave trader, Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert DeNiro. He walks in his brother in bed with a woman he loves, and kills him. In jail he’s tormented by remorse. A Jesuit priest visits and converts him. Mendoza not only converts but decides to become a priest himself.”
“Now why is this your favorite movie?”
“Well, Robert DeNiro for one. But mainly it’s the waterfall scene. The head Jesuit is going above the falls, where the Guaraní went to escape slavery, and he takes the converted mercenary along. They have to climb up this cliff face, under, around, through the waterfalls, for like a mile.”
Purrsilla padded up the stairs, appraised the possibilities, and jumped into Kaki’s lap.
“Here’s the amazing thing. Mendoza’s hauling behind him, up this cliff, a full suit of body armor, his old body armor, see — helmet, shoulder pads, boots, all that — dragging it about thirty feet behind him by a rope tied around his chest.”
“Yeah. So they get to the top of the cliff, the Jesuit first, Mendoza trailing, with his armor dangling over the cliff, swinging in the air, pulling him backward, so you think it might just yank him back over the edge. A Guaraní man, maybe the chief, embraces the Jesuit, but when he sees the former slave trader he starts yelling, because not only did this Spaniard terrorize the tribe for years, he captured and enslaved the man’s own mother. We find that out later.”
“Good plot. So what does the man do?”
I scratched behind Purrsilla’s ears.
“Well, he takes this machete-type knife and heads for DeNiro, with the Jesuit explaining something in the native language. Or maybe he explains it first and then the man gets out the knife. I forget.”
“So what happens?”
“The man walks past DeNiro and looks over the cliff. He says something — the Jesuit translating — about Christ and forgiveness, then he cuts the rope. He cuts through it and the armor crashes down all the long long way they’ve just climbed, and sinks into the river.”
“He forgives him.”
“So why are you crying?”
“I don’t know.” I picked Purrsilla up and squeezed her and put her back down. “Tahija will be seventeen next month.”
“On the 8th. If we had her address we could mail her a card.”
“They don’t have addresses on Palethorpe!”
“Of course they do.”
Twilight had come as we spoke. The white sneakers were shadows now. “We said we’d be her legal guardians until she turned eighteen.”
“It was her choice to move out,” Kaki said. “Is this the suit of body armor you’re dragging up the cliff?”
I went for some tissue and came back blowing my nose. “Oh what do you Lutherans know about guilt.”
But she did know some things. I could tell that by her next question.
“Do you believe a white person living today is to blame for the crimes of the past? For things like slavery that happened before they were born?”
“Collective karma? No, I don’t think so. But I think you can choose to carry the responsibility, to sort of take on the debt.”
“Doesn’t that thinking lead you down the road to some kind of sick, egotistical martyrdom?”
“Or maybe to some kind of healthy, spiritual martyrdom?”
“And how would you know the difference?”
“Good question. I think if you’re miserable, it’s probably the first kind.”
“And if it’s the second kind?” she asked.
“Um, you radiate peace and joy.”
“So, how do you feel?”
I blew my nose again, leaning into her. “Point taken. But I know one thing. All this talk about forgiveness, and self-forgiveness, self-acceptance . . . I know they’re steppingstones on the way to emotional health. But I think there’s also humility, and patience, and self-awareness. I think you can’t just turn around and cut the rope your own self. That’s not forgiveness; it’s evasion, escape. No, someone has to come and cut the rope for you. Someone who wants to cut it, who can’t stand the idea of that weight, that burden, on you, on anyone.”
“Well,” I stood up and went to the window. The lamps in the park had come on. “When I look back on all the mistakes I made, all the anger when love was called for, all the failures to open to another’s humanity — and not just here with Tahija and Lamarr, there’s other failures, things I haven’t told you about, from way back in middle school — when I look on those and past those into American history, it seems like it can’t be just one person cutting one rope.”
“It has to be millions and millions of opening hearts boldly, bravely forgiving, when nobody would blame them for doing otherwise. I mean, who would have blamed the chief for killing the man who kidnapped his mother? Except oh, what power, what peace when he strides past hatred and bitterness and vengeance and slashes that rope with one stroke.”
**“And what relief for DeNiro.”
“To be sure.” I sat back down with her.
“But if it’s not one person forgiving another, how will you know, how will you feel it, when the armor’s been cut away?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “You just do, the universe just shifts.”
“And how do you know it hasn’t already shifted? That the armor isn’t laying rusting on the bottom of the river? I mean, we’ve had the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Junior preaching brotherly love, peace, non-violence. I come back to my worry about unhealthy guilt.”
“But how can there be forgiveness,” I asked, “before there’s been the apology, or even an admission of wrongdoing?”
“You mean, the chief can’t cut the rope if DeNiro doesn’t climb the cliff?”
“You’re getting pretty good at extending those metaphors.”
“Thank you,” she said.
We sat thinking about our extended metaphor as night came on and the empty quiet in the house grew emptier.
copyright 2009 E.K. Gordon