It took seventy-three years for my father to die. He held on, cloaked beneath a broad quilt of memories, peering out his window onto the wide basin of winter below. Memory had creased his face with fresh gullies and markers that ran east, toward the river. When memory escaped him, he searched it out, skating his eyes along the sagging white rooftops outside until he found what he was looking for. Papa refused to wade into the drifts of his understanding, though, to get thick into it like he could have, deep enough to allow for release.
So stubborn, that old man. Just tiring.
And I am nothing but his daughter.
My papa managed to make it all the way to the outskirts of spring in 1936. February and March had been humbling throughout the city, but especially in Harlem. Gutters hardened into icy spillboxes. Streets drained of color and smell, except the heavy, spoiled odor of snow.
Months before, when it still sparkled, I’d plunged into the snow stacks with the neighborhood children, flinging it at little pecan-colored boys with wild hair and hatless heads. They’d scatter and re-form, creeping up like bright-eyed kittens, wiggling and ready to pounce. The children all wore patched sackcloth coats; some had mufflers, some had gloves, but none had both. If I’d taken off their shoes, I’d have found soles tattooed with newspaper ink and tiny, ashy toes wrinkled from adventure.
I adored those children, had birthed two or three, the ones who called me Mama May instead of Dr. May or Ma’am.
On those late afternoons, when the sun deepened and lay like sheaves of wheat or, sometimes, like thick cream over the covered roads, those babies reminded me of truth. They taught me that play created gulfs of unintended joy, then unmasked circumstance—not as an adversary, but a coconspirator in the game. I needed with all my heart to remember the wisdom born inside innocence, to see myself in their eyes and maybe find worth in that unspoiled vision.
So I squealed like a young girl when they yelled, “Git her!” and stuffed snowballs down my cotton shirtwaist. I pretended to run so they could foil my escape, sneaking more snow into the pockets of my covert-cloth coat, the first good, new brown coat I’d had in three years. It didn’t matter. I giggled anyway, licking snow off my rose-colored palms before the flakes could melt, while they were still glassy and protruding and round.
But by March, things had changed.
The streets were blackened by spitting trucks and feet and mules and human waste in areas where sewer pipes routinely ballooned with cold and then burst. Weals of mud sprouted through the ice and concrete, snaking along the roads all the way out to the river, which itself was hoary and stiff, poised with frost.
By March, the children had long since trudged home. Now the streets stayed empty unless some kind of work refused to wait. So, things being the way they were, no one came to stand watch at my father’s feet. No old-time friend whispered cures or condolences into my mother’s ear. No nieces or cousins dropped by, donating heaping pans of simmered greens and crisp fried rabbit as a love offering.
Not even his lost daughters returned to see him off. I’d written Irene the month before and she’d written back, “Can’t quite make it. Much to do here. But I’ll pass the word. Tell the old man I said good luck.”
Such carelessness offended Papa in a way that death never could have.
His intention had been to make it back home to Chinn Ridge in Virginia, where all parts of his death would be warm and dusty with road songs, and sweet. He had memories secreted away there, stashed in the swollen, ocher hills like treasure. He had people in those hills too. Most of them were years dead, but some still lingered, telling stories only he could rightly remember and pass judgment on. True or false was his alone to say. My papa yearned to be with people who allowed him his place. In the end, though, he was too weak to make the trip.
Despite his sincere efforts to wait out the last whispers of winter and escape, my papa died cold. He died shivering like the wind in his bed, while my mother, who was the sun, stood by his pil- low playing “Pennies from Heaven” over and over again on the phonograph to warm him. She used burned rum and music on his fever chills because the Depression was so unyielding that year that we hadn’t any extra blankets. Without thinking, I’d given them all away to my patients, every last one. I hadn’t been a good enough daughter to save even one warm, gray blanket on which my father could die.
My selfishness and lack of forethought embarrassed me. To make up for it, I waited on him, trying to get him things he didn’t need—an out-of-season apricot, a bit of soft, sky-blue calico, pinecones to rub against his whiskers and his round, red cheeks and then toss onto the coal in the stove. Then the house would smell of woods, like when he was a boy. He smiled and let me do these things because he loved me more than I’d thought I loved him. All I knew for sure was that I let him down. I’d been distracted by my work, by my own thoughts, hunkered down and birthing other things. I hadn’t stayed aware.
Each time my mother passed his bed, Papa mouthed her name . . . Lulu. His gaze followed her, sucking up what he could—her black eyes, her butternut skin, her silence.
His spirit lingered around just to be near her, long past his physical endurance. Papa’s flesh was bloated by then, fat and ripe with decay. But still he stayed. After a while my mother began to fear, not for the comfort of his body, but for the direction of his soul. Finally, late one evening, she sat on the edge of his bed and took his hand. Leaning in to kiss his eyelids, she whispered, “It’s all right, William. Go ’head now. Go on.”
She released him.
Just like that, after all that waiting, he went.
No more words passed between them, just a look of simple wonder that crossed my father’s face as he let go, a look of gratitude that said he hadn’t known dying could be so easy.
My mother didn’t speak again until we’d laid Papa out in the church. Hair parted, tie straightened, she smoothed him over, readied him for all the hardness of the earth. Even then, the only thing she managed to say was “When shadows fly, they cover the stones below. Remember, May.”
Then the Negro seeped out of her face, and she became a Chickahominy again, so silent that I lost track of her breath, so ancient and wide that her presence suddenly felt as inescapable, as untouchable, as the dusky, violet sky. When she was a black woman, my mother railed and sang and cut her eyes. As a Chickahominy, she was free. Lulu became a Chickahominy every time she got mad at my father. So when she stood at the foot of his coffin with her arms akimbo and got free, that’s how I knew for sure that she missed him, too.
After a while I asked, “What did you mean by that, Mama?”
It’s not so much that I needed to know, but the incredible length of her solitude was too much for me. I wanted to put it away for her, to roll it up like a bolt of cloth over my arms. I wanted to hear its dusty “clap” as it turned and turned, hitting the floor at my feet. But I couldn’t. The space that she held was too vast, too dense, much more like the rolling of river water than some dry piece of cloth.
Standing next to my mother felt like wading through the sand at the bottom of a stream. Her solitude rose, filling the ripening red of the carpet, the velvety creases in the drapes, even the gray lapels of Papa’s suit. The undercurrent of her grief ruffled the waves in his hair. She sighed so soft and, for once, I knew that her memories of my father had nothing whatsoever to do with me.
“I s’ppose,” she replied slowly, “I just meant that you can’t untie the past from its present, that’s all.” She reached behind her, stretched vigorously, and sighed again. “Well, at least his love was good, and it lasted. You can’t ask for much more.”
I disagreed, but didn’t bother to say so. Didn’t have to—she already knew what I was thinking. She always knew. She’d spent the past forty years knowing.
Just to prove the point, Mama coughed politely into the back of her hand, raised the long, woolen hem of her mourning dress and limped toward the back door. As she swung the door open, I felt a breeze shift through the funeral parlor. It roused the heavy curtains and antique lace draped over the mahogany tables in the corner, twisting through the worn pews—a breeze with enough April floating through it to catch butterflies. Despite the cold, my father had managed to produce an unseasonably beautiful afternoon for his burial. I had to smile.
“I’ma check on that carriage right quick. Be back shortly, Ladybug.”
The carriage was already out back, waiting to take us out of Harlem and up to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. We both knew that. This was just her way of giving me some privacy to do my grieving.
I stared down at my father William and touched his smooth, firm, pale skin. My heart refused to see the blotted veins congealed in whirlpools around his nose and across his cheeks. In my mind, I stared into his shining hazel eyes, and I took some time to love the way they danced.
It was his eyes. That’s what did it. When I finally stopped pretending and looked down at his eyes. The sunken lids, rutted with veins, so fragile looking, like paper, like if I pressed even slightly, my finger would go straight through. It dawned on me then that my father would never get to see me again. It was over. He was gone.
For a moment, I thought I’d died. Blackness snatched me up—no light, no sound, no breath, no skin. No heartbeat, no pain. Through the absence of everything, one thought rose up, not from within me, but from somewhere off to the side, a child’s toy floating by in the ocean: This is wonderful.
Grief erupted inside my body. It exploded in a sickening physical blow that crumpled me like I’d been kicked in the chest, harder than Papa had ever had the courage to hit. The pain left me doubled over, my nails digging into the grooves on the side of the coffin, unsteady and shaking with regret. I wanted to cry out for my mother, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. Instead, I opened myself to the sorrow. I let it come in and shower me, wash me clean.
My father had been a slave, his father a master. Which master, he never knew, but a master nonetheless. The question of it, the uncertainty, had dogged him his entire life. He’d always believed his father to be his Master Benjamin but Grammy Susan refused to tell him one way or the other when he was a child. The question of his lineage had been roundly considered to be grown-folks’ business and, therefore, none of his concern.
“Shoo, little fly, don’t bother me,” she’d sing, and sweep him away with her broom or dust him out the door with a crisp cotton rag.
“But, ma’am . . .”
“Boy, I know you ain’t tryin’ to work my nerves with this foolishness. Not today. Now get on outside and stay out grown-folks’ business.”
That was always the end of it. By the time he grew old enough to know, he’d been alone and on his own for many years, Grammy Susan long since gone. To this day, I believe that my father’s confusion over the matter was the real reason he himself never learned to master without controlling, to control without descending into tyranny, or to recognize the wisdom in releasing that which had never belonged to him in the first place.
Proud and brilliant as he was, white people often mistook William Chinn as white. Other Negroes, however, never made that mistake. His carriage and the fierceness of his dignity gave him away as one of them, even though his skin color did not. Still, no matter how he tried, he’d never been able to find any forgiveness for his old life, nor a suitable, painless place in the present. Unmet expectation had chained him to his past because the past was the only thing he had to blame.
As a child, of course, I hadn’t understood these things. I didn’t know what his feelings were or how to name them. But when I felt the sadness come down on him, thick and clinging to his feet like mud, I’d crawl behind my mother’s ancient potbellied stove and cry.
As an adult, I tried my best to ignore his moods, just as he’d sworn to ignore me for the rest of his life after learning I intended to disgrace him by going to college. When Mama told him I’d decided to continue on to medical school, he’d fled the house and hadn’t returned for more than three months. When he finally did slink on home, he’d begged my mother to stop my foolishness. If it was all right for a Colored woman to become a doctor, he reasoned, then why hadn’t they heard of anyone here in the city who’d done it before? Because it wasn’t for anyone else to do, she’d explained. The job had been waiting on me.
Papa disavowed me. Again. In spite of the fact that we lived in the same house, he refused to utter a single word to me. He would rage about me to my mother, to the neighbors across the air shaft or off into the sky, ranting that a cackling rooster and a crowing hen don’t never come to no good end! In fact, he claimed, there were two things he flat out didn’t believe in: God and doctors. Somehow, he’d managed to get hooked up with a daughter who thought she was both. Mama would continue to sew velvet or wash the kettle or dust the piano. I’d read my anatomy books in silence. Eventually, he’d skulk out the door with nothing but the price of a bottle in his pocket.
For nearly a decade, I was a ghost to my father. Then one night about eight years before, he nearly died. In the midst of that first false death, he slipped and said the word, the one word that made everything else in my life begin to make sense.
i staggered home during the time of morning so early that you can smell the sunrise long before you see it. The soft, grassy scent of dawn edged up over the river as I crossed the trolley tracks on Lenox Avenue and turned onto 138th Street. As impossible as it seemed, it was only a two-block walk to my flat from Harlem General Hospital, where I interned. My calves clenched and unclenched in spasms, like a heartbeat, and I stumbled over the curb, nearly falling into the corner lamppost.