For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet. Mine could have been a more tragic story. My father could have given in to the bottle or the needle or a woman and left my brother and me to care for ourselves — or worse, in the care of New York City Children’s Services, where, my father said, there was seldom a happy ending. But this didn’t happen. I know now that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It is the memory.
If we had had jazz, would we have survived differently? If we had known our story was a blues with a refrain running through it, would we have lifted our heads, said to each other, This is memory again and again until the living made sense? Where would we be now if we had known there was a melody to our madness? Because even though Sylvia, Angela, Gigi, and I came together like a jazz improv — half notes tentatively moving toward one another until the ensemble found its footing and the music felt like it had always been playing — we didn’t have jazz to know this was who we were. We had the Top 40 music of the 1970s trying to tell our story. It never quite figured us out.
The summer I turned fifteen, my father sent me to a woman he had found through his fellow Nation of Islam brothers. An educated sister, he said, who I could talk to. By then, I was barely speaking. Where words had once flowed easily, I was suddenly silent, breath snatched from me, replaced by a melancholy my family couldn’t understand.
Sister Sonja was a thin woman, her brown face all angles beneath a black hijab. So this is who the therapist became to me — the woman with the hijab, fingers tapered, dark eyes questioning. By then, maybe it was too late.
Who hasn’t walked through a life of small tragedies? Sister Sonja often asked me, as though to understand the depth and breadth of human suffering would be enough to pull me outside of my own.
Somehow, my brother and I grew up motherless yet halfway whole. My brother had the faith my father brought him to, and for a long time, I had Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.
Twenty years have passed since my childhood. This morning, we buried my father. My brother and I stood shoulder to shoulder at the gravesite, willows weeping down around us, nearly bare-branched against the snow. The brothers and sisters from mosque surrounding us. In the silver light of the morning, my brother reached for and found my gloved hand.
Afterward, at a diner in Linden, New Jersey, my brother pulled off his black coat. Beneath it, he wore a black turtleneck and black wool pants. The black kufi his wife had knitted for him stopped just above his brow.
The diner smelled of coffee and bread and bleach. A neon sign flickered EAT HERE now in bright green, dusty silver tinsel draping below it. I had spent Christmas Day at the hospital, my father moaning for pain medication, the nurses too slow in responding.
A waitress brought my brother more hot water for his mint tea. I picked at my eggs and lukewarm home fries, having eaten the bacon slowly to tease my brother.
You hanging in, Big Sis? he asked, his deep voice breaking up a bit.
Still eating pork and all the other Devil’s food, I see.
Everything but the grunt.
We laughed, the joke an old one from the afternoons I had snuck off with my girls to the bodega around the corner for the foods I was forbidden to eat at home and the bits of bacon still on my plate.
You still could come stay with me and Alafia you know. Bedrest isn’t contagious.
I’m good at the apartment, I said. Lots to be done there. All his stuff to go through . . . Alafia doing okay?
She’ll be all right. Doctors talk like if she stands up, the baby’s gonna just drop right out of her. It’s all good. Baby’ll be fine.
I started my way into the world two days before July ended but didn’t arrive until August. When my mother, crazed from her long labor, asked what day it was, my father said, It’s August. It’s August now.
Shhh, Honey Baby, he whispered. August is here.
You scared? I asked my brother, reaching across the table to touch his hand, remembering suddenly a photo we had back in SweetGrove, him a new baby on my lap, me a small girl, smiling proudly into the camera.
A little. But I know with Allah all things are possible.
We were quiet. Old white couples surrounded us, sipping coffee and staring off. In the back somewhere, I could hear men speaking Spanish and laughing.
I’m too young to be someone’s auntie.
You’re gonna be too old to be somebody’s mama if you don’t get busy. My brother grinned. No judgment.
No judgment is a lie.
Just saying it’s time to stop studying the dead and hook up with a living brother. I know a guy.
I tried not to think about the return to my father’s apartment alone, the deep relief and fear that came with death. There were clothes to be donated, old food to throw out, pictures to pack away. For what? For whom?
In India, the Hindu people burn the dead and spread the ashes on the Ganges. The Caviteño people near Bali bury their dead in tree trunks. Our father had asked to be buried. Beside his lowered casket, a hill of dark and light brown dirt waited. We had not stayed to watch it get shoveled on top of him. It was hard not to think of him suddenly waking against the soft, invisible satin like the hundreds of people who had been buried in deep comas only to wake beneath the earth in terror.
You gonna stay in the States for a minute?
A minute, I said. I’ll be back for the baby though. You know I wouldn’t miss that.
As a child, I had not known the word anthropology or that there was a thing called Ivy League. I had not known that you could spend your days on planes, moving through the world, studying death, your whole life before this life an unanswered question . . . finally answered. I had seen death in Indonesia and Korea. Death in Mauritania and Mongolia. I had watched the people of Madagascar exhume the muslin-wrapped bones of their ancestors, spray them with perfume, and ask those who had already passed to the next place for their stories, prayers, blessings. I had been home a month watching my father die. Death didn’t frighten me. Not now. Not anymore. But Brooklyn felt like a stone in my throat.
You should come out to Astoria for a meal soon, a clean meal. Alafia can sit at the table, just not allowed to stand at the stove and cook. But I got us. It’s all good.
A minute passed. I miss him, he said. I miss you.
In my father’s long, bitter last days of liver cancer, we had taken turns at his bedside, my brother coming into the hospital room so I could leave, then me waking him so he could go home for a quick shower and prayer before work.
Now my brother looked as though he was seven again, not thirty-one, his thick brow dipping down, his skin too clear and smooth for a man.
I wanted to comfort him. It’s good that he . . . but the words wouldn’t come.
Allah is good, my brother said. All praise to Allah for calling him home.
All praise to Allah, I said.
My brother drove me to the subway, kissed my forehead, and hugged me hard. When had he become a man? For so long, he had been my little brother, sweet and solemn, his eyes open wide to the world. Now, behind small wire-rimmed glasses, he looked like a figure out of history. Malcolm maybe. Or Stokely.
I’ll be by day after tomorrow to help you out, cool?
What — you got a man over there you don’t want me to meet?
Still doing the Devil, I bet.
I slapped at him and got out of the car. Love you.
Love you, too, August.
On the subway heading back to the old apartment, I looked up, startled to see Sylvia sitting across the aisle reading the New York Times. She had aged beautifully in the twenty years since I’d last seen her. Her reddish brown hair was cut short now, curly and streaked with gray. Her skin, still eerily bronze against those light eyes, was now etched through with fine wrinkles. Maybe she felt me watching her because she glanced up suddenly, recognized me, and smiled. For several slow seconds, the years fell away and she was Sylvia again, nearly fifteen in her St. Thomas Aquinas school uniform—green and blue plaid skirt, white blouse, and plaid cross bow tie, her belly just beginning to round. As my body seized up with silence again, I remembered Sister Sonja, her hijabbed head bent over her notebook, her fingers going still the first time I cried in her office.
Oh my God! August! she said. When did you get back to Brooklyn?
The child would be a young woman now. I remember hearing she had Sylvia’s reddish hair, and that as a newborn, her eyes had been gray.
Somehow I knew the train was pulling into Atlantic Avenue. But the station and everything around me felt far away. Somehow, I rose from my seat. Voice gone again. Body turning to ash.
Maybe Sylvia thought I was coming toward her, ready to hug away the years and forget. Maybe she had already forgotten, the way years allow us to.
You look good, girl, she said.
The train doors opened. It wasn’t yet my stop.
But I got off anyway.
Years erase us. Sylvia sinking back into the dust of the world before I knew her, her baby gone, then her belly, then breasts, and finally only the deep gap in my life where she had once been.
Angela fading next, across the years, just a faint voice on the answering machine when I was home on college break. I only just heard about Gigi. So awful. Were you there? Promises to reconnect when both of us were next in New York. Promises she’d find me again. So much air around the lies distance allowed us to tell as she sank back into the world she had become a part of, a world of dancers and actors—redrawn into royalty without a past.
Each week, Sister Sonja said, Start at the beginning, her dark fingers bending around a small black notebook, pen poised. Many moments passed before I opened my mouth to speak. Each week, I began with the words I was waiting for my mother . . .
The office was small, ivy cascading down from a tiny pot on an otherwise stark windowsill. Maybe it was the ivy that kept me coming back. Every week, I spent forty minutes, my eyes moving from the ivy to Sister Sonja’s hijab to her fingers closed around the notebook and pen. Maybe I spoke only because each week I was allowed to look into the brown, angled face of a woman and believe again that my mother was coming soon.
I know when I get there, my brother and I used to sing. The first thing I’ll see is the sun shining golden. Shining right down on me . . .
How did I get there, to that moment of being asked to start at the beginning? Who had I become?
She’s coming, I’d say. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
What about your friends? Sister Sonja asked. Where are they now?
We’re waiting for Gigi, I’d say. Everyone’s waiting for Gigi.
Sylvia, Angela, Gigi, August. We were four girls together, amazingly beautiful and terrifyingly alone.
This is memory.
In eastern Indonesia, families keep their dead in special rooms in their homes. Their dead not truly dead until the family has saved enough money to pay for the funeral. Until then, the dead remain with them, dressed and cared for each morning, taken on trips with the family, hugged daily, loved deeply. ●
From Another Brooklyn. Copyright © 2016 by Jacqueline Woodson. Reprinted with permission from Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.
Jacqueline Woodson is the author of the 2014 National Book Award winning memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, which was also a recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor, the NAACP Image Award and a Sibert Honor. Her adult book, Another Brooklyn, was a National Book Award finalist. She is the author of more than 30 award-winning books for adults, young adults, middle graders and children. Among her many accolades, she is a four-time Newbery Honor winner, a four-time National Book Award finalist, and a two-time Coretta Scott King Award winner. Her books include The Other Side, Each Kindness, Caldecott Honor book Coming On Home Soon; Newbery Honor winners Feathers, Show Way, and After Tupac and D Foster; and Miracle's Boys, which received the LA Times Book Prize and the Coretta Scott King Award. Her forthcoming novel for adults – Red At The Bone – will be published by Riverhead in 2019. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.
Another Brooklyn is one of five selected books for this year's One Book, One New York program. Find more information here.