Yes, I sniffed you while in line at the AMC theater. You called me on it, your brows lifted into confused flat backed D’s. The girl at the ticket counter looked down at her shoes, bite her lip, looked at her screen, then towards the bar which was closed for the night. She was saving her laugh for later.
You offered advice on the art of subtlety which I shall in future politely ignore.
I cannot remember the way my grandmother smelled, what detergent she used on the blanket I wrapped myself in while watching cartoons on the floor. I cannot remember the smell of her kitchen, the soap she kept in bathroom, or books she owned. I cannot remember what brand of cigarettes my great grandma smoked, the names of the perfumes on her vanity, or the scent of the mildewed pages of the harlequin paperbacks she owned by the dozens.
I don’t remember the smell of my momma’s old Ford, the black one with burgundy interior, but I can map for you the smear of the bug guts on the back seat.
I can remember the smell of the boy I had a crush on when I was ten, fresh cut pine and rain misting on summer asphalt, and when it rains here, I remember lip smackers lip gloss, Limited Too, butterfly clips dissipating to glitter as a basketball smashed into the top of a girl’s head, the blood bubbling on her scalp and Coach Morgan with blue surgical gloves on telling me and my classmates to take a knee.
Somewhere in your cologne, body wash, deodorant, and sweat was something I wanted to remember, a story to tell later, or a moment that lingered on the edge of memory that I wanted to relive again. Going to see Shrek with my uncle, cousin, and sister, smearing popcorn butter on my lips and puckering them with a soft smack, the scent of the hand soap at Festival 18 in Crestwood. Something in that moment made me lean over and breath deeply, audibly.
Was is weird? To you and the girl behind the ticket counter, yes.
But not to me. Sorry, not sorry.
My uncle bought me my first Harry Potter for Christmas when I was eight, and my momma read it with me, dramatizing each sentence with a flourish of her hand as though she too was flicking a wand.
I use to hide under a blanket when my momma got to the scary part of the book or when it seem that Harry was doomed to fail and evil would triumph. She would stop, tap the top of my head, slowly peel the covers back, and ask,”Do you want me to stop.”
I always shook my head, “This is the good part.”
Reading with my momma taught me that language had drama, rhythm, soul, and could percuss the imagination into dance. I learned about storytelling from watching my family – my momma’s hand gestures, my father’s prayers, my sister boiling the next door neighbors hydrangeas to make shampoo.
I didn’t know people went to school to be writers. No one in my family had done it, but I watched my dad, momma, and sister walk across a green and gold stage and knew one day it would be my turn.
The summer before starting at UAB, I sat in the car with my dad. I was afraid to be an English major, a subject that had no clear post graduation career path, but my dad, the former navy man, the engineer, told me to believe in my dreams. He looked ahead at the road twitching his under lip to dislodge a fry crumb from his mustache, “Do work that doesn’t feel like work, that’s how you will have a good life.”
I know my dreams are a privilege, and my pathway to pursue them was built by my family who labored their bodies and deferred their own dreams so that their children could have more than they did.
The legacy of my family is more: give more, do more, and for the next of us, build a future that allows for greater hopes and dreams, more powerful realities, the unimaginable.
My family has given me this, and one day, I will do the same.
I spent a lot sitting in my momma’s lap as her fingers wove strains of my hair into braids and swiped Pink moisture hair oil against my scalp.
Sometimes she would hum while she did my hair, and I could feel the music from her lungs in my spine.
My momma taught me about the patience of beauty, taking time to sit with yourself and bless every detail with love. When I sit at my own vanity with my comb and brush, I mirror my momma’s hands and love each curl as she did.
What I learned from my momma, she learned from her mother. My momma’s earliest memory is lying across her mother’s lap, her round cheek pressed into warm legs, and gentle hands in her hair. My momma remembers falling asleep and waking up in a trail of slob that had curled down her mother’s thigh, but her mother didn’t mind.
I know the love my momma has for me and my sister is generational, passed down from mother to daughter beyond what we can trace in the roots of our family tree. Love is in our blood, the way we comb our children’s hair, cook our greens, and sweep our kitchen floors.
It’s in the work we do, the men we love, and most importantly, the way we love ourselves.
Note: This was written before my grandmother passed away in 2016
In the eighth grade, I declared that if given the choice, I would have pulled the plug on Terri Schiavo. Ms. Turner, my science teacher, nodded in recognition of my lone hand in the air, her lips forced into a tight smile that told me she respected my opinion, but disagreed. My classmates were not as understanding.
“Ooh Tonesa, you going to hell for this.” Ashley, my tablemate, scooted her chair away from me, giving me a look she usually reserved Paula, the only white girl in our eighth grade class. I tried arguing my point, but was shut down by everyone in the vicinity of my seat.
“But what about the video of her smiling,” Ashley jabbed her finger at me, “her husband just wants her dead so he can get a new wife.”
I didn’t debate her point, but knew that a smile on a thirty-second clip from a news report was not evidence of life, and that if Terri Schiavo’s husband’s had come to the conclusion that it was time to remove her from life support, it was with good reason.
The year I declared that I would end Terri Schiavo’s life was the same year my maternal grandmother could walk around without an oxygen tank, after years of struggling with a broken lung damaged by a blood clot. There was a time she got close to death, spending nearly all of 1976 in the hospital with her already weak lung filled with fluid from pneumonia. My mother was eleven, standing in the dimly lit doorway of my grandmother’s hospital room at Cooper Green snapping the buttons of her green corduroy jacket while doctors told my great grandmother to prepare for a funeral. My mother did not what to touch her mom.
“I couldn’t,” my mother told me, “why would I touch someone who was going to die?”
My grandmother died in 2006, and in the days leading up to her death, I did not go see her.
How it is Starts
The deaths of my maternal grandmother and the patients I visited as a hospice volunteer started with a fall, something in their body falling apart. Broken bones. Blood darkened black from ischemia. Organs that refused to function. But for my paternal grandma, it is had been different. She has fallen several times, broken her ankle, and busted her colon, but her body has healed and thrived. But part of her is gone and has been for quite some time.
One evening when I was seven, my father took my sister and me to see her at her townhouse. She was lying in bed, not looking at me or my sister, but somewhere on the wall in front of her. Clothes cluttered the room, bunched in corners and on the dresser, some soured with sweat and food stains.
“Have you come to see me fall?” My grandmother’s eyes, always popped wide, were unfocused. She held her hands caged in front of her, fingers bent toward palms that shook with palsy.
My sister sat closer to her, trying to make eye contact. She frowned, the little scar between her brows being more prominent as her forehead wrinkled in confusion, “No grandma, we came to see you.”
I didn’t know why I was there other than I had been brought there by my father. I did not want to sit by my grandmother who would not look at me, hug her when she was incapable of hugging me back, or sit by her bed surrounded by undone laundry. I wanted to see her fall. I wanted to see how it was possible for legs as thick and sturdy as hers to collapse underneath her. I said nothing.
When Grandma Azalene was Sick
I did not believe my father when he called and told me Grandma Azalene might die soon. It was not wishful thinking that she would live, but exhaustion. I had heard this before in the previous summer five months after she had broken her ankle. She refused to move out of her bed and could no longer live by herself.
“She’s at St. Vincent’s East. You might want to go over there soon.”
“Mmhm. I know. Momma told me.” I plucked at a loose string on my blanket It was spring break and the last place I wanted to be was a hospital.
“I’m sure she would like to see you. She’s still a human being.”
I did not go, even after her colon burst and it seemed that this would be her final trip to the hospital. There were too many times she cried wolf. Too many nights my father, after a full shift at the steel mill, went to see her because something, not a bone or her heart or her lungs, was broken inside of her. She wanted her us to love her pain and that’s all she had, and when we stopped coming she gave up. Unlike my maternal grandmother, my father’s mother can walk around without struggling to breath and live, if she chose to. She could still cook for herself, bathe herself, paint her nails, and do her hair. But she has given that up, not because of aging body or a failing memory, but a mind that is telling her she is gone. I could not understand her then, propped up in bed staring at a wall surrounded by dirty laundry. I still cannot understand.
If given the choice, I would still pull the plug on Terri Schiavo. I would still raise my hand for the value of living over keeping someone alive who has disappeared. But there are no machine keeping my Grandma Azalene alive. She breathes on her own. She eats on her own. But every day I wait, ready for it all to fall apart.
When I was six, I wrapped my hair in towels or sheets or curtains, and pretended it was long, silk straight, not kinky, curly, afro-textured. I brushed fabric and pretended it came from my follicles, pretended my curls were woven polyester blend. I didn’t look in the mirror.
I remember the scabs on my scalp, and sitting in my momma’s lap while she massaged African pride hair grease on the chemical burns from the relaxer. They felt like push pins digging under my skin, sharp, quick pain that teared my eyes. I learned to cover the hurt and smile, twirl my straight black locks between my pointer finger and thumb and pretend I was born with it.
My momma cried when she cut off her hair, cried deep from her stomach. She hid her face in her hands and sat in the dark, knees draw to her chest. I sat the same way when I was eight and realized that my prayer for princess hair had gone answered.
I did not see black hair, afro kinky curly hair, until I looked in the mirror, until I cut my hair short and tossed my flat irons in a good will box. I did not see myself in beauty ads, in Cosmo hair tips, or red carpets. Black hair was an assimilation, a mask, a mysterious part of my black identity I had yet to discover.
Pain took the mask off, and slowly self-love and beauty grew.
When Shea Moisture talked about inclusion, they forgot women like me and my momma who never had a seat at the table. The dining hall of beauty was built for white women.
Black natural hair, full and powerful as a pair of well endowed hips, concedes space to no one, and neither should black owned natural hair companies.
Savasana- corpse pose
I have no patience for nothingness, but I lay down, back flat and keep my eyes closed. My heartbeat is far from resting.
After Election Day, I submitted myself to the silence of my own voice. I submitted myself to slowly turning off the world and looking inward, the safe space of introspection. Progress still lives here. Hope still lives here. I submitted to silence, and I listened.
I spread my empty hands and release the tension from my palms, counting the beats per minute from my wrist.
” You are still here,” I told myself, “That matters.”
Balasana- child’s poise
My forehead melts to the floor. I extend my arms until my finger dust the edge of my mat.
Over three months later, my voice is hoarse, under used. It’s repeating itself. It’s forgotten how to yell. The world turns back on. I have to teach myself how to yell again.
My momma told me about the sound of rocks pinging off the school bus she rode to integrate an all white Clay-Chalkville in the 70s. I hear the rocks in every voice that talks about making America great again. I turn up the volume, live in the sound. This is real. As real as rock on metal.
I steady my knees into my chest. This is day zero.
I root my hands and anchor my elbows to my ribs.
Yelling isn’t meant for conversation. It’s meant for declarations. I am not here for a conversation. I am not arguing a point; I’m asserting my humanity. It is not up for discussion. It’s is not a subject for polite discourse about political philosophy.
I raise my chest and breathe
All I saw was snow, not the sheet of ice ready to kick the tires into a spin. The car slid like an awkward cow, then tilted left. My toes gripped in my boots as if my flesh pressed into the gel inserts could exert enough force to stop a one and half ton vehicle. The wheel snatched, dragged a burn on my palm. I braced my back. The driver’s side hit the curb, the thump shaking to the trunk. I bit blood from my bottom lip. I couldn’t stop the wheel from turning, the car from turning round and round.
It took me ninety seconds to remember his voice, to remember the sound of his breathing, his resting heart beat, the deep volume of his lungs compressing, expanding. I braced my hand on my rib cage, felt my pulse against my bones, the sweat creasing my palms. I exhaled. Felt the cold gathering in my cheeks, my teeth biting the fat of my tongue. It was gone. The brain numbing infatuation, the desire. The jitter in my throat that made my voice an octave too high, unwomanly, childlike.
But I didn’t hang up.
I turned too wide into oncoming traffic or I didn’t. I veered into the other lane or I didn’t. I can only remember panic: I’m going to be late. I’m going to be late. I don’t remember how we collided, how the hunter green paint of his 1996 Honda Civic grated against the black of my bumper, the soft growl of the metal before I jerked to a halt. My brain could not process daylight, could not process the sound of cars thundering feet from the curb my heels teetered on. The man jumped out of his car, yelling something my ears couldn’t process. I’m sorry, I thought. I didn’t mean to.
He was afraid I would fall from the curb. I thought he was just angry.
Heart break is an imbedded procedural memory like using a fork or driving, but memory is prone to error. It’s doesn’t see the ice below the snow, doesn’t know what to do when I veer off course, bouncing against the walls, scratching paint off doors. All it can do is brace me for impact.