There is nothing worse than not knowing who you are. For years, I searched for my birth family so I could see myself in their faces, as well as find out where my love of writing came from.
Once I found my English-Hall family in 2001, for the first time since I gave birth to my son, Justin, I could finally see Me in the faces of others. I learned that I came from a family of writers and poets. People like my Grandmother Ellena and my Aunt Yuvonne Brazier who are both poets and writers, not to mention some of my cousins like Ellena Balkom who is also a talented writer and motivational speaker.
However, I still see Me in the hearts of my Jackson kin. Through and through, I am a Jackson. I am, and will always be, M.C. Jackson’s little girl. Daddy was the first person to say to me, “you’re going to be a writer someday.” He also taught me the value of working hard at whatever job I had whether it was flipping burgers in the food court in the dining hall at Auburn University or standing in front of a classroom at Ball State University teaching and engaging with students.
I am also a part of the men and women who helped nurture me along the way. People like my cousin, Frankie Key, who mothered me and showed me the value of standing up for myself no matter what. People like Miss Addie Haynes and Mr. Paul Reeves, who first taught me how to speak loud and proud and enunciate my words when speaking in a public forum. People like Mrs. Beatrice Miller and my Aunt Lenora Key McClendon who helped me to see that being a strong woman, yet a caring woman, are not contradictory to each other. People like Uncle Raz Casey, who lived beyond 110, and taught me growing old is not something to fear but something to celebrate. People like my Uncle Lonnie B. Jackson who taught me storytelling is a gift and if you are going to tell a story, you better “tell it straight.” And finally, people like Mrs. Eveline and Aunt Mary, who taught me there is strength in being quiet and observant.
I could name so many more people who touched my life, and taught me the value of being a strong woman, and over time, I will, but for now, here is a poem that expresses who I am and where I came from.
My Song of Me
When you look at me, you see not just an
adopted baby of unknown pedigree.
but a baby shuffled from one
Front Porch Monarch to the other,
each trying to mark me, massaging their
imprint into my skin with gnarled fingers
in an effort to make me their own.
a love child cradled by my daddy’s callused hands,
hands that were rubbed soft with Jergens Lotion and Vaseline
after long days of toiling for what seemed like at times
only a few dimes and nickels.
A country child begat by country folk who often got pecked
by the beak of Jim Crow but who occasionally
got the chance to peck him back.
A blues child who jooked just as hard as the grown folks when
J.W. Warren plucked blues harmonies
in the guise of gospel tunes in order to satisfy
both the tea drinkers and the shine sippers who
all congregated under the Saturday night altar
of stars and vast, Alabama skies.
A sometimes fearful child who was warned about
the Billy Bobs, Joe Nathans, and Cooter Lees
who whooped it up on back country roads and side streets--
screaming racial epitaphs that burned crosses into
the souls of the hearer, but in a pinch these men
would do you right – whether you were white or black.
But most of all
I am a storyteller who is tied to generations of
other proud storytellers whose
stories I carry in my belly like unborn babies, waiting
for the day when Emancipation comes, so I can
be one of the first to set our stories free.
When We Become Elders
It has been nine years since my daddy died. Nine years! I can’t believe it sometimes. There are mornings when I will wake up and reach for the phone to call him and then realize – he’s gone. Oh, I know all of the things we tell ourselves. ”He’s not really gone. He still lives in you.” I hear the words, but the bottom line is, sometimes I just want a hug from him. Sometimes I want to hear his wisdom. Sometimes I don’t want to be the one who has to have the answers. I actually remember when Daddy was my age. I was a little girl. He seemed so much older and wiser than I feel at this same age. He wasn’t without fault, but when it came to my questions, he seemed to know everything. Daddy, why is the sky blue? Daddy, what does God’s voice sound like? Daddy, how far is it to the end of the universe?
Of course, he didn’t have answers to questions like those, but he had a way of explaining things to my young childish mind that I was satisfied to not wonder anymore about things that were not easily explained – at least for a time. I fear that I do not have that same ability he had. Sometimes, my sons will turn to me for wisdom and insight and all I want to do is ask my daddy to tell me what to say to them. Sometimes I think about my future grandchildren and I wonder, what life lessons can I impart to them to help them become stronger – braver? I don’t know. And that scares me at times. I want to be their rock. I want to be their guiding hand. I pray that when that day comes, instinctively, I will know what to do and say.
A few days ago I spoke to my Aunt Lenora on the phone, and she said she was the last living member of her side of the Jackson family. I heard within her voice the fear and the loneliness of being the last elder standing in a long line of amazing people. As the matriarch of our family, we expect Aunt Lenora to always be brave and fearless. We expect her to always be knowledgeable about every question we might have. Yet, we forget. Like the rest of us, she was a little girl once who looked up to the heroes and she-roes in our family. She ran around outside and played with her siblings and cousins. She sat in front of her mother, the woman we lovingly called Big Mama, and asked her all of the questions little girls ask their mamas. She ran behind her daddy, Daddy Red, and hung on to his every word. Now, she must be the elder of our family. I know at times it must be overwhelming to be the one everyone comes to for answers. My conversation with her allowed me to have a greater understanding of what it really means to be an elder. Elders are wise, but they are also vulnerable, just like the rest of us.
We sometimes take for granted that when we reach some magical age we will be wise and ready to face anything life might send our way. But the older I get, the more I realize, we are all still just babes. Our hair might show white strands of wisdom, but when it is all said and done, no matter what our ages, we still crave someone to be just a little wiser than we are. We want those loving arms of someone older to wrap us up in an embrace that says, “Don’t worry. I’ve got you.” We want those things when we are seven and we want it when we are seventy-five.
I miss those days when my daddy was able to solve all of my problems with a reassuring look and a full-on loving hug. I pray my children and grandchildren will feel that safety I always felt in my daddy’s embrace. I hope that, in me, they will find some of the same traits I found in the the elders who helped to raise me to be the woman I have become.
It’s growing close to the anniversary of the death of my daddy’s physical body. I’ll never forget the day he transitioned to the other side -- the day my beloved daddy, M.C. Jackson, exited this world to go join the elders who had gone on before him...his mama, daddy, sister and brothers. His sister-in-laws, cousins, best friends, nieces and nephews.
I know Heaven was jumping on that day he showed up. "Hey Lonnie, is that your brother M.C.?" someone asked, probably Mr. J.W. or Mr. Sonny Boy. Uncle Lonnie squinted, I'm sure, as he tried to get a good look. "Sure walks like him. Hey Preacher, is that you?" Uncle Lonnie called out. He used to call everyone Preacher, especially Daddy. "Yeah, it's me," Daddy called back. "Is that you, Lonnie?" Neither waited for confirmation. Both brothers, no longer encumbered by aches and pains, took off running towards each other. "My brother," they both said quietly as they embraced. And before you know it, there came Uncle J.C., Comer, Tony, Aunt Georgia Mae, Big Mama, Grandma Georgia and Grandpa Lee. All celebrating. All laughing and pounding Daddy on the back saying, "Welcome home, boy. Welcome, home."
If I think about Daddy dying and the story becomes a great homecoming for him, well, how can I be sad about that? But more often than not, I think about his final day, and my final day to spend with him. Below is a poem I wrote to commemorate that day when my world stopped for a time.
Daddy went to sleep.
That was it.
No grand speeches.
No fond farewells.
No wink of the eye.
No “Hang in there, kid.”
I was expecting more.
I had prepared myself for one last
But there was only a quiet.
A final in…a final out…and then
My best friend closed his eyes
I know you haven’t left me, Daddy…not really. But sometimes, I just want to reach out and touch your hand. Feel those callused, rough hands smooth away the tears I feel on my face now as I write. Have you take those hands and rub away the worry lines on my forehead as you tell me to stop frowning or I'll get wrinkles for sure. I want to look into your eyes and see the love I know you feel for me even with this great distance that exists between us. I want to smell that scent that is uniquely you…Ivory soap, tobacco, sweat from your day’s toil, and yes, a bit of the dark liquor that we both knew you drank because your life was no storybook and oftentimes, taking a little “nip” was the only way you knew to cope. I want to feel your arms embrace me, letting me know that if every person on earth forsakes me, you will always have my back.
Daddy, I would never pray for you to come back from where you are…you suffered so much in your latter days, what type of daughter would I be to call you back, even if I could call you back. But I do wish you’d whisper to me a little louder some days. Speak my name through the wind so that I know that distant breeze is meant just for me. Fly over me in the body of an eagle, so I know that even on my worst days of missing you, you are right here with me just like you said you would be. So death, back up, you have no sting.