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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures

CHAPTER VII, Installment 2, "A GOOD STRANGER"

V. MY DINNER WITH THE REBBETZIN


I asked my friend Lakme if she would come for dinner and if we could talk about how it had been for her to convert to Judaism. I'd waited a long time to ask, afraid she might be offended, afraid of what it could mean in my life. She was delighted, and I was nervous.


I'd met Lakme and Gershon, her rabbi husband whose profession made her the rebbetzin, in rural New Mexico, where they were starting a retreat center. Living in a collection of villages and rural stretches with a population of 3,000 at the outside, I had laughed when the postmistress first mentioned "our rabbi." I thought she was joking. Not too long afterwards I met them at a New Year's Eve dinner.


That spring Lakme and Gershon invited my daughter and me to Seder in their old adobe house, nestled in a rinconcito of pink, gray and yellow walls that led to rocky mesa tops. It seemed an unlikely spot to be celebrating Passover, and in the home of a rabbi, no less. It was the place where the tiny mud-and-stone El Oratorio de Jesus Nazareno had lately been home to cross-bearing, self-flagellating Catholic Penitentes. Close by, Native American Church members planted their tipis and awaited sacred visions.

       
During the Seder Gershon departed from the Haggadah to offer additional teachings. One of them struck home. "The Hebrew name for Egypt is Mitzrayim, the Land of Narrows," he said, "When the children of Israel left The Land of Narrows, they entered The Wilderness. The Wilderness belongs to no one; hence, it is a place for everyone. This is to show us that spiritual teachings do not belong to anyone. No one group can lay claim to them."


I savored those words. More shared Seders and other Jewish family rituals passed before I invited Lakme to dinner. Only later did I realize that my invitation contrasted with what Gershon had said about spiritual teachings belonging to no one. I had asked Lakme because I wanted to lay claim to something, to be part of a faith community, to belong.
 
VI. THE TIE THAT BINDS


There is a place in New Mexico where the red rocks flow like great splendorous waves, a red sea on the high desert. The waves move in and out, in and out, different shades in varied light—red-gold at sundown with a tinge of melancholy at the edges, wine red after rain, soft pink at dawn.


Just before my senior year of high school the alumni of the Reformed Bible Institute gathered with their spouses and children for a picnic beneath those massive waves, salmon in color on that particular day. We ate food that people eat in Michigan—Jell-O salad, baked beans, potato salad. And we ate foods that most folk in the Midwest had never seen or tasted—Navajo fry bread, mutton ribs and mutton stew. Some of the Institute's alumni were Diné. The rest were Dutch American and Dutch Canadian.


As always, Ella Descheenee whispered my secret Diné name in my ear and giggled and hugged me. Ella had known me since I was a baby because her husband Ed was my father's mentor at the Bible Institute. In Diné bizaad, you are not supposed to say your secret name to anyone else, but I can say the English meaning, "Girl Who Reaches After Things." Growing up I thought it was about being a grabby toddler, but maybe it is also about curiosity, desire and will. What I know for sure is that Ella loved me.


At the end of our picnic, we stood together in a small knot at the edge of an arroyo that cut into the earth between the waves. The leftover food had been packed into pickup truck beds and station wagons. We sang, and our voices echoed off the rocks:
           
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
 
There are ways in which, like it or not, I will always be bound by that tie.
 
VII. ENOUGH CHUTZPAH


After my dinner with Lakme, she told me her conversion story. It began with a dream that, like mine, took place in a church basement. Unlike mine, hers was a vision of knowing without a doubt who she is and always has been—a Jew. Certain in that knowledge, she began the formal conversion process.


When Lakme had finished, I took a deep breath and told her that I had been thinking for years of converting. I tried to convey my motivation, starting with the similarities between my upbringing and my perception of Orthodox Judaism. I talked about the stories from the Old Testament that had nourished me in childhood. We had identified with the Israelites of those stories; they were God's Chosen People, and so were we. I was taught that the Jews who were maligned in the New Testament were not the everyday people, but the politicians, who had acted as politicians ever have. I talked about how Jewish teachings from Lakme and Gershon had opened my heart and returned the Book to me in a way that I loved. I told her about living with Sylvia and Abe, about my first Seder and how important ritual is to my soul. I also told her about a deep-seated fear that I could never truly belong.


Lakme agreed that it took chutzpah to convert. Laughing, she told me that a potential convert to Judaism must be asked three times why they are converting. "It's just supposed to be three times total," she said. "But it seemed like every Jew I knew had to ask me three times." My heart sank; I didn't know if I could muster the requisite chutzpah.


Lakme is a maggid, a teacher of the sacred. Over dessert and tea, she offered to spend Tuesday evenings with me, exploring the five areas of study required for conversion. I accepted.


Lakme and I met over dinner every other week for five months, and those meals seem now to have coalesced into one long, soul-satisfying dinner with the rebbetzin. Our second meeting stands out because Lakme arrived that night with an armload of books, mostly about Jewish history, and a box of Shabbat candles. History is one of the five areas a person studies in preparation for conversion, and I had asked to start there.


The candles were a pure gift, an invitation, a welcome. Maybe I romanticize Shabbat, remembering the lovely golden glow during candle lighting in the film version of Fiddler. But it seems fitting to end the workweek in a spirit of gratitude, of intentional community, in communion over a meal.
 
VIII. WHO AM I?


When I was small, living in the Navajo Nation in the tiny village of Shiprock, I played in the blazing summer sun with Rudy and Bobby Yellowhair. Every day we made miniature Diné sheep camps in the dirt. Every day we began anew, brushing our palms over the camps we had made the day before. I always started with a little rounded hogan, poking a stub of elm twig into the top for a stovepipe and embedding four short twigs on the east side to make a door. Then I broke a bunch of twigs into short, even lengths to make a sheep corral, pushing them into the softened earth we'd stolen from the edges of my father's squash hills.


I imagined tiny people coming in and out of the hogan to chop wood and cook fry bread. I talked for them, speaking the creole that linguists call Dummitawry English, the language Bobby and Rudy and I used with each other. When Bobby and Rudy switched to Diné bizaad, I recited the Apostles Creed in Diné bizaad. It was the longest piece of spoken Navajo I could manage, and I spoke softly, embarrassed to have Rudy and Bobby hear what I was really saying, but it had to be Diné. I felt poverty-stricken in the language that I needed in order to belong.

 

© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.

 

To be continued on Friday, 4/5/24.

If you are just joining, you can find your way to the beginning of the series using the Table of Contents.

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CHAPTER VII, Installment 1, A GOOD STRANGER

I. SUMMER LULLABY


On summer evenings I lay in bed and looked out at the massive heap of boulders across from the mission. My eyes touched certain rocks each night, always coming to rest on the huge flat block that had tumbled down eons before, like Lucifer from heaven, separated from the gigantic guardians at the top of the mound. It lay on its side, glowing the color of a ripe apricot in the last light, then turning a dark purple-brown. I held that rock in my vision until my eyes grew heavy. Drowsing, I listened to the opening strains of the lullaby on the hilltop.


The song began with drums booming a deep solemn cadence, followed by chanting, slow and low in the beginning, becoming high-pitched, wild and insistent. I drifted off. When I woke in the middle of the night, the ululations still beat the air, and I wondered if I had slept at all. I felt a fierce surge in my chest, accompanied by guilt, because my parents wanted this summer song, this Diné ceremony, to end. The people my parents hoped to convert were the ones who offered me the first inkling that there could be more than one pathway to the Infinite.
 
II. SABBATH


Strict Calvinists, Dutch Reformed missionaries in the Navajo Nation, raised me. In many ways, as I would later try to explain, it was like growing up Orthodox Jewish with Christ thrown in. Being Dutch was part of being Christian, just as ethnicity is part of being Jewish. Of my seven brothers, the third generation born in this country, only one has married a woman who isn't Dutch American. Of course, the part about Christ being thrown in isn't quite right, because Christ was not a minor figure. Also, we were missionaries, and Judaism is not a proselytizing religion.


In our own way, we kept the Sabbath as Orthodox Jews do. My mother peeled potatoes for Sunday dinner on Saturday nights to avoid working on the Sabbath. On Sundays we weren't allowed to ride bikes. Recently I learned of a public figure whose Orthodox rabbi father destroyed her brother's bicycle because he rode it on the Sabbath. We couldn't play with the neighbor kids, read comics, or play baseball on the Sabbath. We did not buy things, because it would be wrong to cause anyone else to work. We went to church at least twice, sometimes three times, on Sundays and once during the week.


We breathed the Bible, memorized verses and chapters, often by default just because we heard them so often. While we ate, we parsed and analyzed scripture to ensure that we obeyed every commandment exactly as God intended. Then after every meal we read scripture, too.

 

Childhood dinner conversations with my father remind me today of Chaim Potok's characters dissecting Torah and Talmud over a meal. Like us, they tried to determine how the law must be observed.


My paternal grandfather belonged to the Nederduitsers, an even stricter, more cheerless Calvinist sect than ours. I recall a meal where my father and I discussed one of Grandpa's arcane beliefs.


"We got a letter from Grandpa today. He's saying it's a sin for us to have a cross hanging in the chapel. Why would he say that?" my father asked.


Without missing a beat, I answered, "Because to him it's a graven image. The First Commandment says, 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.'"


"Do you think he's right?"


"Well, Moses made the brass serpent so the Israelites who were bitten by snakes could look at it and be healed. The serpent was a graven image, and God was the one who told Moses to make it. I think the point of the commandment is that we shouldn't put any images above God in our hearts. So if the cross isn't more important to us than God, it's okay."


My father approved.
 
III. A CLOAK OF SUBSTANCE


I run naked in the early dawn light. The cool air rushes past my body, and I feel good, until I start to worry that people will see. Then I notice that an orange towel is wrapped around my hips, making me feel safer.


I come to a church whose floors glow a deep blood red. The orange towel now covers my breasts, too. I find myself in the church basement, where people are singing the old hymn, "Out of My Bondage," and I join in, my voice rich and sonorous.


Later, a young man gives us stacks of gospel pamphlets. He announces, "A neighborhood near the church is in trouble. We're going to distribute these to help them out."


Now I want to leave. My body has changed clothing again. I wear a navy skirt and white blouse. I'm hefting a Bible. I pretend I'm about to throw up by covering my mouth and retching, and I race up the stairs and out of the building. Once outside, I can barely move my legs, and I long for the joyous, powerful running from the beginning of my dream. I feel anxious, afraid the young man will follow me and see that I'm not really sick. I can hardly move at all.


***


A few weeks before this dream, I had decided to devote my summer writing to defining my religious identity. After leaving our church, I had spent twenty-seven years trying to avoid believing in anything. On the first page of my new journal I wrote, "I feel that I know less than I have ever known, that I am an untethered astronaut, adrift in the cosmos. I want to know, not an objective Truth, because I don't think one exists. But I want to know my own mind, my own experience. I want to leave behind the nebulous clouds in which I've clothed myself. I will instead take on a cloak of substance, one that I can feel and others can see."
 
IV. FIRST SEDER


My sophomore year of college, I lived with a Jewish family, and that spring I took part in my first Passover Seder with Sylvia and Abe. I knew the Passover story as told in the book of Exodus. I could name the ten plagues in order without hesitation. I had been taught that the moral of the story was twofold: failure to obey God's commands could result in severe, even fatal, consequences; and the Jews were God's special people.


While brisket bubbled in the oven, Sylvia chopped apples and walnuts to make haroset. I made a salad, and she arranged a shank bone, a hard-boiled egg, a dish of horseradish, saltwater, parsley, and the haroset on a platter. I placed matzah, the unleavened bread that I'd learned about in Exodus, into a basket lined with a napkin. Matzah ball soup simmered on the stove.


At the table I learned that haroset stood for the mortar the people of Israel had used as slaves in Egypt. Saltwater symbolized their tears, parsley the new life of spring. Abe and Sylvia's youngest niece read the four questions from the Haggadah. We drank sweet, dark Manischewitz and sang "Dayenu," the explosion of gratitude that says, "It would have been enough." Fifteen stanzas sing the joy of liberation—"If he had brought us out of Egypt, it would have been enough….If he had split the Red Sea, it would have been enough." When the meal and the questions and the wine and the singing were done, the children searched for the hidden afikoman, the matzah that had been broken in half to be found and eaten after dessert.


Ritual touches the imagination and the emotions, leading to a depth of spiritual experience that the intellect cannot provide. Throughout the meal and long afterwards I reflected on the significance of the food, the words, the music, and the people with whom I had joined. In church I had sung a hymn that went, "When I see the blood, I will pass, I will pass over you." I had been taught that this was the Christian extension of Passover—Jesus' blood causing the Angel of Death to pass over us believers. After my first Seder, Passover meant something deeper and older than that. It was as if the food and the wine, no longer mere symbols, had in some ineffable way become part of me.

 

© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.

 

To be continued on Monday, 4/1/24

"A Good Stranger" was first published in slightly different form in Isthmus.

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CHAPTER VI, Installment 3, NATURALIZATION

Upstairs in my office, I couldn't help thinking about what Neale had missed out on by not having Black teachers. I speculated about the difference it could make for Tineesha and my other African American students to have a Black professor, someone who might be able to provide a better context for holding them accountable, someone who might more ably inspire them.


It was my practice to hold conferences with my students prior to the final revisions of their essays. Before our conference on the personal essay in progress, I'd read Tineesha's draft with pleasure. Her topic, a night of cruising the streets of Detroit, contained some vivid descriptions, but it seemed to need more action. I did my best to convey to her how strong I thought it already was. I made a few suggestions about where she might be able to give it more punch. When I got the final draft, I was disappointed to see that Tineesha had cleaned up some grammar and punctuation, but that she hadn't used any of the suggestions. I accepted that it was her story; I also knew that her previous experience with writing instruction, as with many college students, might have emphasized editing for conventions with little attention to making larger changes. Nevertheless, I felt I'd somehow failed her.


As we neared the end of the semester, it was clear that a few students could possibly fail the course. Not surprisingly, one of them was Tineesha. That spring, our entire town had embarked on its annual Reading Together Project. The selection was The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride. In March, a month before the end of the semester, there would be discussion groups on campus and events in the community, including a free jazz saxophone concert by the author. I had read the book and been deeply moved by it. I decided to offer anyone who wanted to improve their grade extra credit for reading the book, attending one of the events and writing their impressions of both. I made sure that students who were in danger of failing were aware of their status and encouraged them to take advantage of the opportunity. No one did.
I think I'd hoped that the fact that James McBride is African American would make him accessible to a student like Tineesha. When I read the book a second time years later, I realized that it might be of more interest to someone struggling with identity issues related to mixed heritage, which didn't appear to fit Tineesha's situation. Nevertheless, it could have been enriching, part of what education is about.


In the end, all of my students but Tineesha managed to pull their grades up to passing. It pained me to give her the only failing grade in my class. And in the end, I was left with questions, not so much about whether I'd done all I could, whether I'd failed this student, and whether my Whiteness had contributed to my failure. I was really more interested in myself and why I felt so strongly that I wanted this student to succeed and not only to succeed but to shine before the others in the class.


***


You think when you walk together through the everyday hardships and through tragedy, and you come out on the other side, that being family, belonging to each other, will never end. Neale's and my relationship did end after seven years. It ended for a lot of reasons, but we both agreed that it did not end because of anything that had to do with race. Every intimate encounter transforms, some more than others. When the encounter is over, the changes that have taken place remain. Over time their edges become rounded, and they are, perhaps, less visible, but they are there.


Neale expanded my world in so many ways through literature, music, and intimate acquaintance with people I might otherwise never have met. She expanded it, too, by giving me the feeling of belonging, so that in my classroom, I felt as if somehow my Black students and I were knit together by bonds that no one but me knew existed. Although I am no longer in an interracial relationship, feelings of belonging did not simply end when the relationship did. The feelings of having been "established as if native" in a group other than my birth group are still with me. They show up at times, but only inside me now, most of the time unbeknownst to the people around me, Black, White or Brown.


Something clutched up inside me when I gave Tineesha that failing grade. I experienced the zig of being the teacher, the one in authority, the one obligated to hold all my students accountable. On top of that, I was acutely aware that my skin says, "White."


I also experienced the zag of my naturalized self. I'm not suggesting that, by a process of naturalization, I have somehow become the opposite of an Oreo. What would that be, anyway? It turns out that Nabisco now makes a White Fudge Covered Oreo—white on the outside, two layers of black, and a core of white. But I wouldn't for a minute claim that any part of me is Black on the inside. Rather, I've had to admit to myself that I want for my Black students, more than any of the others, that they do themselves proud, do us all proud, be on time, not do anything that would give anyone around them the slightest excuse for believing in stereotypes. I know that when I express this desire, I expose myself as someone asking near perfection of them. I know that doing so is a completely unfair expectation, even a form of discrimination.


Most of the African American students I've taught, like Tineesha, have been female. Despite my admission, what remains of my naturalization makes me long to say to them with gentleness and fierceness what Black poet Lucille Clifton wrote to her daughters:

i command you to be
good runners to go with grace
go well in the dark and
make for high ground
my dearest girls
my girls my more than me…
 
I want for my Black female students, "my dearest girls," what I want for my own daughter, who is not Black: that they be "my girls my more than me," that they settle for nothing less. And I am silenced, because my naturalized self lies so far beneath the surface that it cannot be seen or heard. Yet I am quite sure that these are the words, or something very like them, that Neale would say if she could take my place for a moment

 

© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.

 

This is the final installment of "Naturalization," which was first published in Clockhourse and was notable in Best American Essays 2014.

On Friday, 3/29/24 the first enstallment of "A Good Stranger" will post..

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CHAPTER VI, Installment 2, NATURALIZATION

Neale had opened to me a treasure of African-American literature—Countee Cullen, Lucille Clifton, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. We read aloud to each other, nights and Saturday mornings, propped against our twin reading pillows, and also on road trips. I remember exactly when and where we read Alice Walker's Meridian. We were driving to San Antonio, Texas, to visit friends for Thanksgiving. Somewhere between Artesia and Carlsbad, under a fine autumn rain, my voice broke, and I couldn't read more for grief. I don't remember now specifically what I was grieving. It could have been the troubled relationship between Meridian and her mother, the relationship that made Meridian feel she needed to ask forgiveness because she existed—not unlike my relationship with my mother. It could have been for the way we humans in our deepest intimacies are capable of such hurtfulness. It could have been for shame and hopelessness over the way race has become an excuse for not extending ourselves in love. Whatever it was, Neale pulled our sky-blue Beetle onto the desert shoulder and held me while I sobbed.


In New Mexico Blacks represented less than two percent of the population in the seventies. "Just because we're only two percent of the population doesn't mean we're not here," Neale complained. "They need to stop calling New Mexico the tri-cultural state. Native American and Hispanic, yes. But there's no such thing as a White culture. There are Dutch and Italian, German and Polish cultures, but not White culture. And just because the black presence is small, doesn't mean we haven't been here contributing. We've been in New Mexico since before the Civil War as cowboys and during and after the war as soldiers."


The size of the Black population meant we spent hours searching for Black hair products, and we were jubilant when we finally located a store on South Broadway in Albuquerque that stocked them. We searched until we found a Black barber in the same neighborhood to trim Neale's Afro after a Gallup beautician and I had both made her look less than presentable. I asked the barber if he knew how to cut "White" hair. "Of course," he said. "That's all I learned in barber school. I had to teach myself how to cut Black hair."


I found out that's how a lot of things are, how Black people, raised in the dominant culture, know so much more about White people than Whites do about Blacks. I saw that it wasn't very different from growing up lesbian in a straight world. Raised to be straight, I knew more about what it meant to be heterosexual than about who I might be in a gay world I knew nothing about for the longest time.


I experienced the odd effect of living in photonegative when we visited Neale's family in Brooklyn. At home in New Mexico, I sometimes felt that I lived in Neale's shadow. People who forgot my name always remembered hers. They remembered things she'd said; next to her I often felt small and, well, colorless. Intellectually sharp, a voracious reader, charming and outspoken, she was a presence to be reckoned with in any setting. It wasn't until we visited Brooklyn for the second time that I realized context had something to do with how memorable each of us was to the people who met us.


We were upstairs in Neale's sisters' bedroom, dressing to go out. "You know what?" I said, amazement in my voice. "Those people who came to the party this afternoon, they all remembered my name from when we were here last Christmas. They remembered things about me from our last visit. I couldn't believe it. Usually it's you that people remember."


"That's because in New Mexico, I'm the one who's different. Here you're the one who's different. That's all. It's not that I'm more memorable. I keep telling you that."


Our early educations also showed up in silver and black. In the public schools of urban New York with their high Black enrollments, Neale had never once had an African American teacher. My first teachers, on the other hand, were all Black. Growing up in Teec Nos Pos, deep in the heart of Dinétah, my first school, which ran from kindergarten through second grade, was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). In the early fifties the federal government was one of few equal opportunity employers, so most teachers in the BIA schools were Black and came from places like Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia to pass on the soft, round English of the Black South to Native American children who were just learning the language.


My first crush was on my younger brother's caramel-colored teacher who wore lipstick and smelled like perfume. I was looking for the mothering that my own mother seemed too busy with her five other children to give, and Miss Huff patiently listened to me chatter every afternoon after school, even letting me visit her tiny round-ended trailer while she cooked supper. Before I fell asleep at night I imagined burying my face in the nubbly roughness of her knitted, ribbed beige dress and breathing in her smell while she cupped the back of my head in her hands.


I can only imagine that in the evening, when they spent time together, the teachers used words like the ones Neale would teach me—among them, nappy and high yellow. But in public, which consisted of the school, our family, and the traders' families, they lived the assimilated lives of professionals. They called themselves colored and were more refined by middle class, White standards than my mother was.


Of the two of us, Neale would undoubtedly have benefited more from having African American teachers, from seeing women whose careers might tell her, "I did it, and you can too." Although they taught me nothing of African American culture and never spoke in front of me about the racism they'd experienced, though they appeared to be part of whatever I knew of mainstream culture, they might well have related differently with Neale and other Black children. Nevertheless, I benefited from these teachers in some different ways than Neale would have.


One day when I was in second grade, we were called out of the classroom, one by one, to a room that looked like a little clinic. I had never been in there before, so I looked around with interest at the examining table, the scale, the jars of cotton balls, tongue depressors, applicators and medicines. A chart with rows of the capital letter E hung on one wall. The Es were placed upside down, backwards and sideways, and as they moved down the page, the letters got smaller and smaller.


Miss Huff was already in the room, sitting at a desk with a clipboard and pen. She told me to cover one eye with my hand and use the other hand to show the positions of the letter E. I moved my hand up and down and sideways with ease, sure that I was doing a fine job. The teacher-principal, Miss Holbrook, also Black, came in before I'd finished and stood beside Miss Huff. By this time I had covered my other eye and was confidently showing the positions of the Es with my other hand. Miss Holbrook whispered loudly to Miss Huff, "Look at those hands, so white and skinny, compared to the brown chubby ones."


As soon as she said it, my stomach knotted up, and my fingers turned cold. I wanted to hide my face, and in a way I did, by not showing that I had heard. I finished all the rows, but my feeling of accomplishment had vanished. Back in the classroom, I held my fingers below the top of my desk and stared at them. I knew there was something wrong with them, something wrong with me, and it was about the color of my skin.


I was one of three White children attending the school, and all the personnel were either Diné or African American. Ever since we'd moved to Navajo Country for my parents to take up missionary work when I was three, although I was racially part of the American majority, I almost always found myself in the minority. It was something I was accustomed to, and now I would say that being in the minority from day to day enriched my life. Even Miss Holbrook's words, while painful to hear, enriched me, helping me later to empathize more deeply than I otherwise might have with anyone who suffered discrimination. Those early experiences were like an alcohol swab, preparing my skin for that first needle prick on Old 66.


True naturalization takes place over time, through the mundane, through the breaking of bread, through experiences that enter one's consciousness slowly, often in such small increments that the events are scarcely noticed or recognized as bringing about deep transformation. Neale and I brought our family recipes to our kitchen, but it was when I ate with her family that I noticed some of the differences in how our families cooked. Her West Indian grandmother made turkey for Christmas dinner, but the gravy had a tomato base, and golden rings of onions floated in it, instead of the giblets in brown sauce that my mother made. Neale's stepfather, in a very big production, made peas and rice with pigtails, and I was amazed to see how long a pig's tail really is—more than a foot. Back at home I learned to cook collard greens in pot likker until the tastes of ham and brown sugar and greens had married into an irresistible mix of flavors and textures. I replicated Grandma's gravy when I roasted a chicken. I did not think that I was drawing sustenance from another culture and becoming part of it at its edges; some habits changed without Neale or me or anyone else taking notice.


I knew I had truly arrived in my adopted homeland when Neale said laughingly, sounding surprised at herself, "I almost called you niggah just now. You know, in the way only we can call each other that." A couple of days later, it happened; in a moment of hilarity she called me the word I always referred to as the N-word. Maybe she couldn't do it without first preparing me. So I would know it was a good thing, a sign of belonging.


Often the things that knit us most tightly together are less the joys and more the difficulties we survive together. It makes some sense then, that I mark the beginning of my naturalization process at that motel on Old 66, with Neale's and my shared humiliation and anger. Much later, when Neale was trying to get into medical school, she paid a visit to the dean at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Afterwards, my hopes for her took a slide when she came home with a grim face. I poured tea and held her hand at the kitchen table  "The woman barely even let me say anything. She took one look at me and said, 'We already have one of you. Why don't you try the law school?'"


Perhaps the greatest agent of naturalization comes from deep bonding experiences brought on by shared tragedy. One morning when we were getting ready for work, the phone rang. It was Neale's mother, calling from Brooklyn. She told Neale that her stepfather had died the night before of a heart attack. We decided we couldn't afford two plane tickets, so we made flight arrangements, and I drove Neale to the airport. When I got home that evening, she called. She sounded almost as if she were choking as she told me that Harold hadn't had a heart attack. A family member had stabbed him. "How long did my mother think it would take me to find out what really happened? It's crazy here." Neale's voice broke.


"I'm coming there," I said.


Neale protested for about a second, then sounded relieved.


I arrived in Newark at noon the next day. Neale was right. It was pretty crazy, and I dove into the craziness, trying to help, to be a support. The party where everyone remembered me was really Harold's wake. Some of the guests continued to go along with the pretense that he had died of a heart attack. That was crazy in itself because Harold was a retired police officer, and of course his police brothers knew all the details.


I helped to serve the food people brought—hams, turkeys, casseroles, sweet potato and bean pies. I visited with the people who remembered me. I sat with the family at the High Episcopal funeral service and watched the police honor guard bear the casket out to the hearse. Afterwards we drove for miles and miles through glorious red, yellow, and rust foliage to the cemetery in Long Island. And for days we ate leftover black-eyed peas and collard greens and turkey.


***

©Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.

 

To Be Continued on Monday, 3/25/24

If you are just joining this serialization, you can use the Table of Contents to find your way to the beginning and follow sequentially.

 

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