When a Breakfast Sandwich is about Much More than Breakfast

Oddly, I stood in the cafeteria unsure about what I sure  be more surprised at; that the moment hit exactly the same way. Again. Or that I had the very same reaction to it, that I wanted to write it down. That I wanted to remember. That I needed to remember.

So, there I was again. Or, more to the point, there we were again.  Me and two little boys, Richard and Sam. (Not their real names) in the cafeteria at school. That’s when the universe hit me upside the head for a second time. But in this moment I reflected on the thumping reality of truth, and life. And wrote it down.

Anyway, back to the boys.

I had rushed into the south cafeteria at school, after dropping off Julia, furiously searching for some mental space to rest my mind before heading into work. My stomach growled. My head exploded. Then I heard the musical sound of a distinct speech pattern, the Queen English.  I froze. It was not only musical, it hit a note from way back. I turned. I search the sea of small, brunette, black and blond haired children. Until I found them, until I found Richard and Sam. It wasn’t such a surprise to see foreign-born children at  this school. It was a surprise to see these children at this school.

The last I saw of the boys, was a year ago last Christmas, my hands looped firmly around their mom’s shoulders. Christmas 2018 didn’t feel so Christmas-y. Roughly two years prior, when I asked their mom, while sipping a cup of morning coffee, how she was doing amazingly, shockingly stupefying, she told me the truth.

“Okay now , but later I’m having chemo.”

Admittedly, I was surprised at her candor but quickly fell into line. This wasn’t my first chemo convo.  One of my best and oldest friends from home had stared cancer down, and made it blink, twice, before the age of 50. I knew how to stand with a friend through this moment. I knew how to listen attentively when she gave the details of her care. I knew how to step back when she, or he, needed extra space during a cancer trial.  What I did not know was how to have that talk with another mom of small children.

“I’m glad you told me,” I said…”that way I can check on you.”

“That would be nice,” she said. We’d become fast friends. I dubbed her the Mom Warrior. A year later I learned just how much my game face would fail as things progressed.

“We’re moving back to England,” Mom W. said as we sat at the tiny tables in the caf. “I can’t get the medical treatment I need in America.”

I sat envying her duo citizen status, her fluidity, for a moment. Then an understanding bloomed. “You’re sure you can’t get the care here?”

She bellowed and said, “I’m sure. I’m a doctor.”

Another dumb mom moment. I’d never asked what Mom.W. did she did for a living. She always seemed so relaxed at school, so I assumed she was stay-at-home mom. I never assumed the cancer had kept her home bound.

“My family is there, and so is my husband’s. They can help us with the kids.”

“Well, that makes sense.” I knew on the days I didn’t see her sweeping through the halls at school, and a nanny led the boys to class, a round of chemo had taken my friend down.

She looked into the distance,  then back at me, and leveled her eyes into mine and said. “I’m probably going to die in London.”

I live in New York City where folks say and yell all kinds of shocking, deeply private, and plain old non-sense, at times, at the top of their lungs, any moment of the day and night. I’d never experienced such directness regarding one’s personal death. Her honesty was like a punch in the chest. So, while sitting in the too small kid chair, I began to cry like a baby.

“I’m sorry. I guess I’m just use to saying this. It’s okay. I’ve made my peace with it. And as a family we do therapy,” Mom Warrior said.

I smeared the dampness from my eyes. “No, it’s not okay. None of this shit is okay.”I always felt bad when I cursed at school. But today wasn’t one of those days.

She peered into my eyes. They produced more puddles.

“Don’t worry, it’s not happening for a few months. And its still the holidays.”

As the weeks wound down to the Christmas break, I saw the Mom Warrior more and more at school. She told me of the wonderful support she’d found through Gilda’s Club, a non-profit started after the death of the comedian Gilda Radner, by her then husband Gene Wilder. I once worked near the Soho office, and walked past its red door often. But I never, ever went inside. She told me about making memory books for the kids and writing letters for when the boys were older.  I suggested that she go to places she loved and making videos, so the boys could see and hear her thoughts about vital landmarks.’ “That’s a great idea, I could do that in New York and London,” she said.

And when the day came to say “see you soon,”rather than good-bye, I hugged my friend tight about her shoulder, her brown hair cascade down over my forearms. I waved good-bye to the boys and spared them the embarrassing, public display of affection. As they moved down the hall, I found myself trailing the three of them, like an asteroid held by their orbit. I couldn’t believe God was letting this happen, letting them go.

Christmas came. I traveled to Michigan with Julia. This was the season my mother hasdstarted, what turned out to be, her final decline. And the more my mom slipped away, the more I texted my friend across the pond.

Days would pass before I received a response;  funny pics of Richard and Sam in their new home; pics of the Mom Warrior sitting in the cushy chemo chairs, wearing a big smile.

“Who smiles while having chemo?” I texted back.

“Did you notice that my shirt matches the chemo chair?!” she asked.

In February, I did a text check-in. And after a long stretch of silence Mom Warrior texted to say she’d just completed a three-week term in the hospital. “I nearly died,” she wrote.

Now she was back home.

So, I went back to work, and upped my prayers.  I believed. I believed with all my heart. Even as my mom died and left this earth. I refused to believe it would happen to my friend across the pond. The very unfairness of the thing was simply too much to consider. How could a mother of two boys under the age of ten leave this earth? I couldn’t hold it in my mind.

February came. We buried my mom.  Then I was buried in grief.

By the time May arrived, and the sun’s rays began to lengthen through the days, and the air began to warm, I raised myself from a flat position and moved off the sofa. My far-away-friend crossed my mind.  So, I sent a text.

I waited.

Nothing.

Then I received a text.

From her cell.

“It’s Jenine, it’s….”

It was the Mom Warrior’s husband, texting from her phone. As I read his words, I had to put the phone down unable to see his words.

She was gone.

An announcement had been made at school, but with Julia and her boys in the different classes in different grades, I never received word.

I’m a big believer in positive thinking.  So, when outcomes aren’t right. Or at least not the one I wanted, the acceptance of that reality is one big, jagged pill.

And that leads me back to that school cafeteria in early September, on that frantic morning when the gears of my mind were stuck on I can’t, and I won’t and hardness of a life that I’d worked so very hard to create; the bump and endless grind of single mom reality. And as I gathered my coffee and headed to the hot tables for food, I heard the sound. The sound of accented Queens’ English with a child’s lilt.

I searched around.

“Well, hello!” I said, eyes wide.

“Halloo, are you going to have our special sandwich?”

For two years, I made a big deal of enjoying the same, bagel, cream cheese and bacon, breakfast sandwich creation, dubbed the Sam Sandwich, with the boys.  But that day, I was on my third day of dodging carbs. But miraculously I’d seen seen Sam, the brown-eyed, beautiful boy.

“Absolutely, I’m having a Sam Sandwich!”

The Richard Breakfast Sandwich
The Famous Sam Sandwich

To hell with dodging carbs.

I gathered my items, sat down, and said to the two older women seated at the table beside them, “I used to have this sandwich with the boys and their mom.”

And the lady with the strawberry blonde bob, and ruby red eye glasses gave me a weak smile.

I only mentioned the Mom Warrior once, but I felt it was important. She was here too. I could feel her heart.

“The boys’ father thought it important to bring them back to this school,” the strawberry blond said with an equally potent English accent.

I could see the enormous gift of it all.  To uproot your family once to let your gravely ill wife be close to her family. Then pry those roots away again, to bring your kids back to a different kind of home. But a home, nonetheless. A gift for the boys. But it was me that sat down  in clover. Sat down with the knowledge that God puts us where we should be, to do the good we can.  Looking at the boys’ bright shining faces, I could see their mom, their dad, and my path toward a deeper gratitude. For community. For connection. Richard and Sam’s dad hadn’t made the choice to return to school with me in mind. But I received the gift anyway. Presents, or breakfast sandwiches are like that. You never know when a good one will  pop up.

“Tomorrow, we’ll have the Richard Sandwich,” the older boy said.

“What’s in that?”

“The same as the Sam Sandwich, just with sausages.”

I smiled. “You bet; I’ll be here.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down to Zero

In the weeks that have past, my mind has kept up a proper intake of words from Toni Morrison and Tara Westover, the words of other writers, but none that wanted to come out of me.

I’m relearning, yet again that the path is never straight. And at the start of the week of June 3rd, last, four days before the end of school, a text came in to remind me. I picked up the vibrating phone from the coffee table around 10:30 p.m. and I read the words through sleep crushed eyes.

Then I reread them.

My brain rebooted.

I blinked. Hard.

However, the copy read the same; a mom friend of mine, my very first new Mom friend at Julia’s school had lost her husband to a sudden heart attack.

He was 55.

After a series texts, followed up by a midnight phone call, I finished up by sending a text stating that she should “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” By that afternoon, around 1 p.m., Jackie identified something I could help her with:

“I’m sending you Noah’s obit, if you have time, please review it and get it back to me by 5 p.m.”

My girlfriend isn’t Jewish. Her husband was, which means, the funeral would be held, by tradition, the following day; forty-eight hours after Noah took his last breath.

I stared at the word doc icon attached to the email, as a deep rumbling fear, built and bounded up into my stomach.  I feared clicking the doc open, afraid I’d make a difficult time for someone I cared for, even more laborious.

I texted a friend to ask what to do. “I’m sure Jackie would understand why you couldn’t do it,” she replied. So ,the real challenge was, could I forgive myself.  Rising to this writing needed to be an act I could do for my friend during a supremely difficult time.

Screen Shot 2019-06-19 at 3.32.44 PM
A fair representation of creative writing for me in  2019

I clicked on, the word doc, I peered at the first paragraph, on my computer screen.

SCHEINFELD-Dr. Noah Simeon, 55, of New York City, passed away unexpectedly in his sleep on June 3rd, 2019. Beloved husband of Jacqueline Marie Didier. Devoted father to Maximilian and Thomas. Son of the late Ellen (Rothstein) and David Scheinfeld, brother to Joshua (Lizzie) and Moses (Rivka), as well as uncle to eleven nieces and nephews.

Then it hit me. The last real writing I’d done was for my mother’s obituary. Moreover, I would now reenter Obit Land. This work wasn’t just creative writing; this was service. Perhaps it could even be a little cathartic for me.

As the only writer in the group of five asked to review the details of a life, the value of making a  narrative smooth, I sought a specific truth. As I read through Noah’s achievements, Harvard Medical, Yale Law school, Columbia U. undergrad, I could feel the pull of the words on the page, not the labor of them. I felt a strong need to put thought, ideas, details, in the proper place, in the appropriate order, at least what I considered proper to be.

One of my mom’s favorite quotes is, “Nothing beats a try.” So, for my friend, I tried my very best to make her husband’s obit sing off the page before they lowered his remains into the ground. As a deleted, transposed and crafted new words, I felt like an epaulette shark, a creature that is a not only a capable swimmer it can use its fins, during low tides, like legs. My writing legs hurt from the long stretch to reach the good.

Nothing in death is wasted, so says science; fallen trees become nourishment for new growth in the forest; mushrooms spring from invisible microbe; roadkill becomes a feast for neighboring birds of prey. It seems death is providing a compost foundation to get me back to the thing I so love, writing. Maybe it’s the call to help a friend that also calls me back to life, in a way.

“Get busy living or get busy dying,” Red, Morgan Freedman’s character in Shawshank Redemption, announces once he decided to find his way out in the real world, instead of ending his own life.

Maybe those are the words the dead whispering to me. And they’ve sent hints. A few weeks back, while watching Jane Pauley, the host of CBS This Morning,  serve up a broadcast from Florence, I froze my tracks. Once I knew Florence intimately, every street, every café on both sides of the Arno River. Seeing my old friend, embraced by another, from the Pizza de Michelangelo, I wept small tears into my morning cappuccino.

“Mommy, what’s wrong, what’s wrong?” Julia asked, her little face full of concern.

I miss my friend.

“What friend, Mommy?

“Italy.”

Little Girl Blue

 

A few weeks ago, on a Tuesday, under an evening sky of aquamarine set with a pearly China chip of moon set high, I headed to Barnes and Noble in Greenwich Village, in search of inspiration. Since late January, unless I was paid to do so, I haven’t written a word creatively.

The reason why? The passing of my mother.

Of course, I knew the experience would be difficult. What I didn’t count on was that shelved along with every other element of my existance would be my personal creative writing life, a connection that has held strong for more than a decade.

The craving to write takes place inside my head, in a certain part of my brain. I’ve come to realize that all memories of my mother lives in a section of my brain, too. To descend there and think about my words, to organizing them, to shape them into something wonderful, can’t happen because a sour sadness is housed there, too

“Plumbers don’t get plumbers block, I don’t believe in writers’ block,” Susan Shapiro, a mentor and former professor of mine famously tells her newbie students.

And as far as advertising writing is concerned, Sue’s edit holds true. I write every day using with my advertising head. Creative writing? Nope, nada, nothing.

To shrink-a-fy myself, I’m having an emotional block to the work that draws the greater emotion. People who write creative nonfiction love to dig down deep, unearthing nuggets of truth about their world and where they fit into that reality. When we return to the surface, we share those valued insights for all, but especially for ourselves. I just don’t have it in me to grab a shove and start digging. Ironically, last year was my best year yet for published work, I birthed three pieces into the world. This year, I might be barren.

So, on that Wednesday, I entered the Barnes and Noble, as if it were a temple, seeking  a path of enlightenment, connection. I boarded the escalator and road its silvery steps up to the fourth floor to peruse some literary journals and poetry books. I’d hoped just by touching the printed materials, by reading some fine writing, I would reconnect and warmth to the idea of work. I  rushed over to the bid of journals, selected an issue of Tin House, and held my breath. The pages flipped by, lines of copy, black rivers of ink, and I felt nothing but the weight of the magazine.

Next, I grabbed The Paris Review another fine literary journal, and thumbed through the pages, Typically, seeing the published works of others, the bylines of friends, acquaintances or even just writers that I admired, produces inspiration, at times envy, and most certainly a thrill. But that day, only more numbness set into my mind.

Next, I wandered down the aisles set with neat stacks of books and settled on a book of poetry. My eyes landed on a page, on the curve of a line. I found a  five-dollar word where a two-dollar selection would’ve served better. My saliva soured. I grimaced. I tried to shake the offense loose. I could not.

I closed the book and headed back downstairs towards the exit. One floor after another passed, miles and miles of books, the published works, the efforts of others, culminated into a sea of colorful hardback and soft covers, books of mystery, strange works that were culminated by strangers, created by the strange of writing.

I strode out of the door into the cool of the evening under that crescent moon. I looked over the Manhattan scape, a view millions of people around the world would offer up a limb to experience, and could think of one thought: in five days my first Mother’s Day without my mother would detonate. The bad would become worse. And with that, the tears began to flow.

When I got home I wrote to one of my mentor’s, the essayist and  poet Molly Peacock and asked her what I should do. Molly’s response came quick.

“I laid down on the sofa after my mother’s death for days and couldn’t move. It seems that it’s a normal response to the loss of a parent. You’ve returned to non-verbal kind of a pre-baby state.”

I love Molly.

She can make anything sound cool and interesting. Even a chronic yet functional depression. So, I continue on my nonverbal track reading a lot, walking a lot, trying to out run the fact that I miss my mom and can’t escape that thought, and don’t want to think of much else.  And I don’t want to look into my soul and remember just how much I miss her. I don’t want to face the feeling of being an orphan, even at this age.

I descend into the subway and saw a small figure, slim and brown skin, holding a sign that read, “Hungry.” I kept walking, sliding my MetroCard into the slot, pushing my thighs against the turnstile, heading home. But something nags at me. The small nagging grows into a big nagging.  I stop. And turned around to look at the figure again. Man? Woman? I can’t say.

But what I did know was this, I couldn’t move past this human being. Something held me there to do what I could do. I fished into my purse and pulled out a few singles

“Excuse me, excuse me,” I say, working for attention.

Under the roar of the trains, the stumping of thousands of shoes, the figure doesn’t hear m.e

I studied the form dressed in a jogging suit, and a knit cap pulled down over the ears, fifteen feet away. “Hey! Excuse me,” I say waving my arms, with the cash in hand.

The figure turns, looks at me with wide eyes, then head towards me. She’s tinier than I thought. Like a child from a war-torn country. Or someone who came across the border under the cover of an inky black sky.

“Here,” I say, and pressed the bills into her palm.

“Thank you,” she says soft, her voice accented

“You’re welcome,” is what I said. But what I thought is this: “You are lost. And so, I’m I.  I’ve found a sister in the world. But we are still orphans.”

So, I wrote this post as a Mother’s Day remembrance. Then, after the passing pop a few weeks, it slipped into a difference sort of Memorial Day piece, in my mind, Now, after a long weekend and I still didn’t get the damn this posted, I’m just pushing publish. This mourning has me so weighted down, it’s serious reserve just to point and click.  To send something out in the world.

On the Power of Art and Eight-Year-Olds

Admittedly, I tried to talk Julia out of her mission. Day and night. For three weeks. But as any parent can tell you, talking an eight-year-old out of what they consider to be their mission is a hard lift.

“But mommy, I really want to sell my artwork outside of our building!”

“I’m not sure that’s possible,” I said and kept saying. “I’m sure I’ll have to get permission.”

(New York City condos and co-ops are funny that way.)

But the greater truth was this: I didn’t want to go out in the world and sale anything.

To be clear, it wasn’t that I thought my daughter’s artwork was lousy.  I just didn’t want to sit in front of my building beside a child with a hungry look in her eyes, pimping paintings. Granted Julia’s plan could yield her vital confidence building skills.  Still.

But then came a bright beautiful Sunday. We head to church, for the first time since June when Sunday school classes went on summer hiatus. I heard a nice, motivational talk. We had a nice brunch with Aunt Carmen, and another church friend, at Regional, our favorite eatery. Mommy had a mimosa or three. The golden sunlight was lovely against the cobalt blue day, perhaps last warm Sunday of September if my memory holds. So, after Julia said our goodbyes and we headed home. As a warm breeze whirled around us, and Julia’s braids bounced in the wind, I turned to her and said,  “Let’s go to the park and sell your art work…”

“Yippee!” Julia yodeled and ran into down the block and into our building.

“Where is she going so fast?” the doorman said.

“To get her artwork.”

Carlos’ brows arched.

While Julia retrieved her portfolio, I headed to the sideboard and pulled out a colorful tablecloth to use as a backdrop for her work, my second halfway decent idea. Then I grabbed my tote bag, a glass jar, bottles of water and my courage.

“How about we set up at the entrance of Central Park? Where there’s lots of foot traffic…”

I fluttered the bold patterned tablecloth over an emerald-green bench. Julia placed her work in two neat rows. IMG_0536.JPGI sat down and said a prayer in hope things would land on the plus side: “Please God please let her sale at least one drawing and keep people from being mean to my kid.”

Within a minute or two an older man behind a sturdy walker came to a stop in front of the display and asked, “What are you raising money for?

“Myself,” Julia announced.

IMG_0541.JPG
Julia’s first buyer, of sorts

Oh shit. 

“The homeless… we’re giving part of our proceeds to the homeless.”

“Well, I don’t want a drawing but I’ll make a donation,” he said.

And with that he flipped open his wallet, pealed out two-dollar bills and placed them into her tiny hands.

Julia’s eyes widen. A stranger had just handed her cold hard cash, “Thank you!” Julia said then stuffed the bills into a glass mason jar that we’d brought for the occasion.

Well, maybe this won’t be so bad.

As soon as I released that thought, like a ball player who acknowledges a hitting streak, we fell into a dry spell. A long parade of dog walkers hustling their four-foot-footed chargers, and stroller’ moms who cast down disparaging looks that read thusly, “Why would I buy the same crap from your kid that’s on my fridge!”

Julia was crestfallen. “Mommy, nobody’s stopping,” she moaned.
“But I told you not everybody is into art, some people walk with headphones on, and some people are in a hurry.”

“Mama, let’s get up and walk around with the park with the pictures…”

“Nooooooo.” I said and started yodeling, “Artwork for sale!”

Julia joined in, “Get some art work!”
A pale guy, with neat-cropped hair, slowed his roll down the path, and pointed to a flower drawing. “How much is this one?”

“The sunflower?  IMG_0516.JPG
“Yes…”
“A dollar…” Julia said.
“A bargain!” he said, his hand dove into his pocket, pulled out a buck, and placed it into Julia’s palm.
“My fiancé loves sunflowers.  And she’s on tour right now…this’ll be a nice welcome home present.”
Julia beamed.

IMG_0517.JPGAn older woman came out of nowhere, picked up a blue painting and said, “I’ll take this one …and I’ll make you my princess of water. I love what you’re doing.”

Julia was back in business.  About this time, I noticed the extended sound of water coming from a nearby fountain. There stood a woman, slim and brown- skinned, holding an object that she ran an under the low, arched stream. She rinsed and swished the water over the cloth. Then she twisted the water out, and tucked the cloth into her pocket.
Maybe she got ice cream or something on her clothes, I thought.

IMG_0521-2.JPG

But she welded an urgency in her movements, focused and tight.  I didn’t think much about the piece of cloth, until she pulled another item out of her pocket, until she started running it under the water.

 

I read once that objects under a microscope when observed moved differently. A testament to the energy of observation. Once she noticed me noticing her, the energy around us shifted. Like her moves, the air became tight. She turned her head towards me but kept her hands moving and scrubbing and twisting, and said flatly and clearly, “I’m sorry I have to do this here.”

Do this? Do what? 

Then all the details like a paint by number canvass filled in.

She’s washing her clothes in the water fountain

A blinked at the sight, almost unbearable to take it in. Like a super nova, it hurt my eyes.
Maybe I should pack up and move… I don’t want Julia to see. 

Then a new thought dawned, as bright and opulent as the day, and just as undeniable.
Well, we said we were going to give money to the homeless.  And there’s a homeless person. Our giving just became easier. 

“Let me see that jar, Julia.IMG_0542.JPG

It held, maybe eight dollars. I pulled out four.

“Go give this to that lady, Julia.”

She tepidly walked over to her…and announced “Here….”

The woman extended a wet, soggy hand,
took the cash and tucked it under her shirt, into what I could assumed was her bra. “Thank you,” she whispered.

I watched the scene, the girl giver, the receiver lady, in a matter-of-fact-stunned silence. This day was going its own way.

“You’re lucky that your mom and supports your art,” I heard a male voice say. I turned and saw a tall, lanky dreaded guy with warm brown eyes standing over the assortment. “My mom didn’t support me and I’m still an artist.”

IMG_0532.JPGHe was a man but I could still see the little boy hurt in his eyes. The cute girl beside him angled her head up towards him and smiled. I hadn’t seen a woman look at a man with such love in her eyes in a long while.

Until that moment I didn’t realize how much trying to give your child their hopes and dreams, really served as an on ramp to solving the mysteries of your childhood. I thought of how my mom managed my regular excursions to the Detroit Institute of Arts from our Westside home, once I fell in love with the mural by Diego Rivera in the 3rd grade. In my freshman year of art college school, when I invited her to go to the museum to see a show did I learn something new about my mom. “No, thanks,” she said. “I hate the museum”

“Then why did we go so often?” I asked shocked at her omission.

“Because you wanted to go.”

*

“You’ve got a great mom,” the girl with the loving eyes said, cradling a drawing.

I have a great mom, too. I thought. She exposed me to the act of art that freed me art but as a child selling goods had crushed me. As a kid, I was petrified of selling Girl Scout cookies. Annually, my troop called upon every girl during the cold hard months of February to meet a specific dollar amount by selling sweets. That way every girl could attend camp regardless of her family’s economic status. My stomach started knotting up in January.

After selling cookies to my neighbors, and my immediate family, my proceeds of 30 or so dollars still fell far short of the goal. Still, no matter how much my parents hounded me, I refused to pimp anymore cookies.  Just couldn’t do it. The humiliation. The hawking. Aggh. In the end, every year around March, my father wrote a check and gave it to the Troop leader. My family and I ate from the cases that lined the walls of the dining room for until it became shorts weather again.
So, as Julia plotted to sell her work, my childhood traumas blazed back. Fear that people would be mean to my kid. Or even worse, fear that they would dismiss her efforts. Dismiss her. I hadn’t known it until I sat on the faded green bench just how much I feared having Julia out in the world, feared her laying it all out there.

As a creative person, I do it all the time. But frequently a cocktail comes at the end of a particuluar bad mission. In grad school, during one tough season, if I received notes back on my writing in the morning, I’d hold off my review until the end of the day. So, I could crack open a Cabernet, and read with a glass of comfort.

As Julia expanded the territory of her sense of self through her creative efforts and shared them with the world, I had to sit there and bear witness to it, a sort of reverse art therapy that left me in a stunned-silence. In that moment, the realization hit of all the beauty I would’ve missed by refusing to let go of the past.

“I’ll take that colorful one,” a man with crown of curly hair said, “You’re quite the artist. It matches my tattoo.” IMG_0528.JPG

“Look how much money I have Mommy!”

The mason jar was fully a vibrant green.

“That’s great Julia, let’s go give some more money to that homeless lady.”

We looked towards the fountain. And then down the path that led deeper into the park. She’d vanished.

“I see her down the street!” Julia said.

We gathered the remaining drawings, the tablecloth, glass jar and ran out of the park then down the street.

We thundered up to her. She jumped back on the bench, a little startled.

“Hey, I bought lunch meat and cupcakes with the money you gave me…” she said, almost as if she felt she had to report to us what was purchased with the cash we’d given her.

“That’s great, here’s some more,” I said, pressing dollars into her hands.

She smiled at us, her thin face seemed to fill in a bit, maybe it was the light of being seen, fully seen by another human being, not stepped over, ignored. Then she pointed that gleam at Julia.  “Would you like a cupcake?” she said.

Julia’s eyes met mine.

“Don’t you dare,”  ny glare read.

“Well, can I have a treat at home?”

“You bet.”

*

The writer Paolo Bacigalupi once said, “I’m particularly interested in black swan events: unprecedented surprises that destroy the conventional wisdom about how the world works.”

Through Julia I’d experienced my first black swan in a long while. All the beauty and kindness of the day, I nearly missed, delivered by the bravery of an eight-year-old. And as Julia put her hand in mine, and we headed home, I felt the burn of salt across my eyes, a wash that threatened to appear, but I kept at bay, at least until we reached home.

 

 

 

 

 

On Losing Aretha and Finding Myself

For me, music has always resonated deeper than just a collection of notes and tones. As the daughter of a Detroit record shop owner during the age of Motown, it would seem destiny. What I couldn’t count on was the rite of passage that would mark the alteration of that relationship.

Aretha Franklin was the Frida Kahlo of music. ARTHEA_headshotLike the great Mexican painter, she put her blood into her work.  In a 1998
PBS American Masters documentary, a studio musician that worked with Ms. Franklin revealed that, as she recorded tracks, sometimes, Aretha wept. But as a brown-skin girl, growing up in my Westside Detroit home, Aretha Franklin was just a lady I, on occasion, saw in church, in the first pew, a fairly common sight.

In fact, “I’m the lady next door,” is how Ms. Franklin described herself to Gwen Ifill during a 2015 PBS interview. Ifill scoffed and smiled. I chuckled and nodded. During my growing up years, she was Clarence and Edward’s mom, the two suited-up boys my brothers and I sat beside in Sunday School at New Bethel Baptist church. By the early 1970s Aretha Franklin’s musical star had super nova-ed. Still, I remained a clueless kid and she remained the enviable Preacher’s daughter. Her father, Rev. C. L Franklin was the bigger draw. He pastored with a booming voice that welded so much bass, my family and I could hear his sermons from our West Philadelphia home, across the street. In fact, my dad typically slipped out of donning a Sunday suit and joining us by informing my mom, “Annie, I can hear the talk from the sofa.”

I don’t recall of Ms. Franklin ever joined the choir. I do recall liking the choir. One Sunday morning, parked in the pew beside my mom, my crinolines scratched against my thighs I deflected the itch my bouncing my leg to the beat.

“This isn’t music to dance by,” she chided and pressed my leg still with the flat of her palm.

I finally understood what my mom meant, in 1972. Throngs of fans gathered at outside the brick walled church to soak in the secular songs Aretha practiced before recording her gospel album, Amazing Grace. Screen Shot 2018-09-07 at 3.09.45 PMMy mom, dad and two brothers perched of the gray concrete steps of our home, held to the hymns. As the organ music and her alto voice throbbed in my chest, the thought dawned that Ms. Franklin was more than Clarence and Edward’s mom, she belonged to something greater, she was something greater.

When I reached my teens, I had begun to hold up in my bedroom, studying life at the altar of Prince, Earth Wind and Fire, of course, Aretha. My mom made sure her music was on steady rotation in our home. But as I managed the stress of attending Cass Tech, a competitive college preparatory school, the world of dating and terminal acne, I heard the song Think, and its powerful refrain R-E-S-P-E-C-T, anew.

During college I moved to New York City to study art from Kahlo to Kandinsky, at Parsons School of Design. I took Aretha with me, first on cassette tape, and later on CDs. I held church, far from home, with a recording of Amazing Grace, the very music I first experienced from my parent’s porch.

By the age of 25, I figured out what Aretha meant when she sang, You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman. Later, her track Ain’t No waycounseled me in how to handle the break-up. The energy behind vowels and consonants seemed to slip around me and explain the mysteries and limits of relationships.

Around that time, I flew back to Detroit for a family event. Before I returned to Manhattan I headed to church. By some miracle, in the first pew, once more sat Ms. Franklin. Halfway through the sermon, the call to the altar came. “Would those in need of an additional blessing please step forward.”

I stood up, slipped out of the pew, and headed down the red carpet. As I closed in on the end of the cue, as the parishioners headed to the left, up the steps to the altar, I tucked in close to the edge of the first pew. There was The Queen, clad in a beaded dress, classic church hat and cleavage.

“Excuse me, Ms. Franklin just want to thank you for all your work. My mom played your music to me as a child. But, as a woman, I finally understand what you’re singing about.”

She smiled and nodded her head, once.

I floated back to my place in the pew.

Young girls need role models. And as the mother of a young girl that goal is mine every day. But Aretha Franklin was much more. She was therapist. Confessor. Healer. My parents guided me down the road of adulthood. But Aretha Franklin translated all the bumps, pot holes and dead ends. Aretha told me what my mother couldn’t. That sometimes men fall short. Sometimes they take the women they love with them. Sometimes it was up to you to find your way back on to the road, wheels straight and drive on.

Aretha Franklin showed women how to be brave. I, for one, sweated it out when the announcement came that she would fill in for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti singing the classical aria, Nessun Dorma, at the 1998 Grammy telecast. I feared Black Girl Magic wouldn’t stretch quite that far. Two bars in, I decided that was the last time I’d doubted the magic. Or Aretha.

“I’ve been crying like a baby,” the text from my friend Julie read, “Got the news about Aretha.” It was the first of many from my black female friends. As the world mourned the Queen of Soul, women and in particular African-American women, mourned the loss of something greater. Aretha helped us as much as the poetry of Maya Angelou, the afro of Angela Davis, and the sight of Michelle Obama’s image in the National Portrait Gallery. She taught us how to stand proud in our own skin when no one else seemed to care. Because we knew, no matter where Aretha was, she was with us on what mattered. Now she’s gone. And I still have to figure out how to do it for Julia.

More than a week ago, on August 31st, I mourned and celebrated the life of Aretha Franklin with the world. It’s a rite of passage to bury your elders. But even as a mother who manages a mortgage, I don’t feel ready for this adulthood. But I know it’s come. I suppose that’s when you know the baton has been passed to you. When you’re no longer afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers. When you stop looking to songs for those answers. I still enjoy the richness of music. But I look more now to the lives of women rather than just the songs they sang to guide me. Remembering that Aretha was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and that sometimes the wheels move slow, but our accolades, in time, come. That with her amazing career she still managed to have a family. That Aretha Franklin left the world with 80 million dollars banked, without the IRS on her heels like many, many artists, are great fact to start telling Julia now.

#Aretha Franklin

# The Queen of Soul