Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I ordered the Wind Song

Sometimes you learn things about your family long years after the events, and suddenly things start to make more sense. Not secrets, not major events, but little things that make some of the rest fall into place.

Last year I hijacked the notes my sister LaVerne had been writing for fifty years, published them on as "The Gordons of Tallahassee." LaVerne's story stopped in Charles Town, West Virginia just after my sister Toni was born, four years before I was born. I had to call on my brothers to complete the story to Petersburg where I was born.

One of the things they told me was after Toni was born, Mother tried to get a job teaching, but there were no jobs in Charles Town. When she learned of jobs in Washington, DC, she went there to work at the Navy Annex during the week, and came home to Charles Town on the weekends. I asked, who took care of Toni while Mother was gone. LaVerne had enrolled in St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, and there was no other woman in the house, just Daddy and my four brothers. George told me they took care of Toni.

That created for me a new image of my family. I know it is common in large families for the older ones to take care of the younger ones, as surrogate parents. I had never pictured it that way when I came along. By the time I was a toddler, my brothers were in high school and college, and it was only Toni and me at home with Daddy during the day while Mother worked. We lived next door to the Episcopal Church where Daddy was rector.

Mother started her battle with cancer when I was eight years old, in an era when children weren't told very much about grown folks' issues. Through my years of puberty while Mother was dying, I thought I was raising myself. I remember Mother's insistence that we never settle for second-class even in the Jim-Crow south. We walked rather than ride in the back of the bus; held our thirst until we got home rather than drink from the "For Colored" water fountain. But the personal side of my mother is missing from my memory. I depend on family saga, in which Mother becomes larger than life. I remember her softness, but I can't hear her voice. My brother Michael says I sound like her, sing like her. Sometimes if I get deep within myself I can hear her say, "Poll tax." She made a do-it-yourself record of her speech about the Poll Tax one summer when she studied in New York. We played it after she died in 1958. The pre-vinyl breakable record didn't survive all the moves in the last 50 years.

Michael remembered this week that Mother wore Prince Matchabelli as her signature scent. I know how smells can evoke all kinds of memories, so I ordered a bottle on the internet. Somewhere in the back of my fading memory, she's still there, waiting to tell me something.

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