It is early when I wake. What looks like 7:30 is 5:30am my time and my eyes are crusty and heavy from going to bed so late that morning, but I heave myself out of bed (a blow up mattress on the living room floor) because Aunt Jean is already rustling around the kitchen getting her coffee ready.
“Good morning gurl!”
“Hey.” I can’t muster any energy to seem enthusiastic about being up this early.
“We got a good day planned, yeah a good day. Linda gonna be over and we gonna go see Aunt Sue around noon.”
All I can think is thank God we have a few hours before I have to deal with people. I want to get out of here for awhile, go on a jog to wake my body up, but the news says it’s a brisk 18 degrees and I’m not sure my body is ready for that. I grab a granny smith apple and some peanut butter and sit in front of the tv watching the local news while I stare at the weather barometer on the bottom of the screen for any sign of it getting warmer.
I decide that when it hits 20 degrees I will head out. At 19 degrees I mentally prepare and change into my workout clothes. My aunt’s presume I’m crazy and say things like, “no no no, it is too cold out there for me, my joints would be aching.”
I laugh it off, but I’m wondering if I can even do it. There is a part of me that knows I have to jog in this weather now just to prove that I can.
Fuck, I think because I seriously don’t want to do this, but eventually the temperature reaches 20 and I know it’s time to leave.
With my hot pink track jacket and hot pink gloves I find my way out the door and hope that the neighborhood is safe enough.
“Go down to Delmar baby, you’ll be fine. Take that right and you’ll find a starbucks.”
I head off with the hope of finding Starbucks not too far away.
The Killers are blasting in my head phones and one stride after another I make it closer to warmth and glorious coffee. The run is not actually bad. I stay warm and my brow never sweats because it is being wiped away by the wind. I am almost happy for the cold that is until I grab my coffee and decide to walk the same route home.
Instead of a nice soothing wind I feel like I’m being brow beaten and whipped. My fingers quickly grow numb and my toes are catching up with them. I contemplate running with the coffee but decide against it for the obvious reason that more of it would be on me than in my mouth.
When I have to stop thinking about how uncomfortable I am, I will sometimes count and in order to forget the cold I began counting steps.
One, two, three… sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy. At approximately two hundred and five I lost count in order to illegally j-run across the street, but when I made it back I felt proud because in my hand was a lukewarm cup of coffee that the old folks couldn’t believe I had run for.
I had accomplished something and possibly almost lost some tiny appendages called fingers.
Linda and Tommy came to pick us up around noon and once again we pile into the car always wedging Tina into the middle. Every time she gives an “Ow, or oooh… damn that seat belt, it keeps hurtin me!”
We laugh and tell her to watch out, but the next time it seems to happen again.
Today we are going to Aunt Sue’s house where she lives with Uncle Jesse her brother. She doesn’t know that all of us are here in St. Louis, this is the surprise we’ve been meaning to give her since her 90th birthday.
Jean knocks on the door when we arrive as we hide around the corner.
“Heyyyyy Aunt Sue, how you doin?”
“Oh, I’m good. Come on in.”
“Is it okay if I bring some of my friends in?”
Tina, Linda, Tommy, and I all emerge from around the corner and she just stares.
“I don’t know who you is. I mean… I know you’ve got my face, but I don’t remember your names! Tell me!”
We all give her big, long hugs and introduce ourselves. I knew she wouldn’t remember me, because she hasn’t seen me since I was fifteen. I wasn’t much surprised by her sliding memory at her age, but when we got in I saw that pretty much only names had slipped and not much else.
Aunt Sue is spry for 91, running around the house, making us dinner, going through closets. She has a cane that she uses when her knee gets weak, but her body seems to be doing better than the lot of sixty something’s sitting next to her. She comes from the generation where ailments don’t get spoken at the table just in the bedroom, so I might be reading it all wrong.
There is more reminiscing, talk of passed away family and far away ones too.
“They down in Alabama” or “they done gone over to Texas,” or “didn’t you hear, he passed? Yeah… about a year ago or so.”
When someone has passed everyone nods and says, “Mmm…mmm,” then moves on. The acknowledgement of death is not what I’m used to. In Seattle it’s sad and hard and something to talk on for a while, while here it’s normal, it’s just a part that happens everyday.
At 91 Aunt Sue has seen a lot of death. She is the third child out of thirteen and one of only three left. There was Evelyn, John, Susie, Wallace – also called Ham, Eddie Sr., Sam, Connie, Minnie, Adabelle, Cleo, Jesse, Hattie, and Genevieve.
She had children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren die before her too, but those lines are too long for me to relate to you now.
I love my Aunt Sue’s laugh and the way she talks real high and says, “oh look at all my babies.” She smacks her teeth, smiles a lot, and points real hard at things. She is wonderful.
I am staring at her for a mighty long time and hoping that she doesn’t notice. Part of me just likes to see the way she moves and see the Peoples line in her. She is light skinned like most of the other Peoples, descending from Cornelius Nicholas (ma-dear) and John Peoples (Popi). Aunt Jean says the line that comes from Ma-dear and Popi are all red.
I follow the line of the room and notice all the red notes in everyone’s skin including mine.
“We is all red because Ma-dear was Indian,” says Jean.
“Oh yes she was! Cherokee,” says Aunt Sue.
My smile is a hard one because I just can’t get over how lovely my Aunt is and how much I wish I could have met her brother Eddie Sr., my grandpa, before he passed.
The girls tended to favor Ma-Dear while the boys were much darker like their father John.
Eventually we talk about an extreme hunger and Uncle Jesse goes out to buy us some Popeye’s. Everyone was kind and let me order food that would work with my dietary restrictions, so we ended up with fried chicken, green beans, and red beans and rice.
My stomach is turning on it’s side because of the eating schedule I’ve been on since arriving with scattered meals and barely any food I can eat. I eat the chicken without the skin and shovel heaping spoonfuls of the saltiest green beans and red beans and rice onto my plate. This is the best meal I’ve ever eaten.
After hours of this and that my Aunt Dela and her son Michael arrive. She is a twig of a woman, dark skin and short hair curled under what looks like a Church hat. She is stylishly wearing a blue coat lined with fur, though it looks hard on her frail body. She is sliding her feet across the floor moving slowly toward the chair being both pulled and held up by Michael. He sits her down and this is where she resides the entirety of her stay.
Everyone rambles on about the state of the world, about how it’s getting worse and worse and how all of them are getting shorter.
“Ooh, with this arthritis I done lost two whole inches! I was 5’8 and now I’m 5’6!” Aunt Linda gets up to show us her shorter stature and everyone nods and chimes in about how it’s happening to them too.
The arthritis has gotten to almost all of them and they say soon I will have it too but I’m just too young to know about it. I am insistent that it won’t happen to me, maybe because I’m too young to believe them.
When eight hours have passed we decide it’s time to leave. Aunt Sue needs to sleep soon and our bodies are growing tired, but that doesn’t mean this is the end of the night.
We make our way towards Aunt Hattie’s house, one of Sue’s younger sisters. She is recovering from a recent gall bladder surgery and we decide we need to go over and give her our well wishes.
Our arrival is greeted by her son Arthur a stocky man, light as the rest of us. Aunt Sue comes down too, slow for sure, but smiling and excited. She doesn’t know me either.
“This is Carolyn’s daughter.” This is one of the things I hear at pretty much every place we visit, multiple times until everyone has been introduced to me.
Yup, I’m Carolyn’s daughter and memories of my mother flood back every time I hear her name. They also seem to catch me off guard when my Aunt Tina talks and walks because my mother was her replica only a bit darker.
Here we talk about pretty much the same things we already talked about before just with different people. How this person and that person are and everyone remarks on the in memoriam card on the table for the boy next store that was shot and stuffed in his trunk.
“Took them three weeks to find that boy and he was just out in his trunk. It’s a damn shame.”
As we talk, more people enter the house.
My cousin Maurice, then Booby awhile later. They are younger than the rest, around my age and they take the obligatory pictures with my Aunties and hide away in the kitchen.
Sharon gets there and it turns into a party. She is loud loud loud. You could not contain her voice in a room of 10 inches of thick steel. She is sweet, funny, and gorgeous. She is the dark dark dark compared to everyone else.
“You’re only getting to see the red side of your family tonight Nicole except for Sharon, there are more dark ones like her around though,” remarks Aunt Jean.
I want to tune out and sleep on the couch because exhaustion is quickly folding its arms around me, but the laughs are too big and heavy for me to sleep.
The conversation turns to a woman named Lois that I find out is Sharon’s sister.
“Ooh girl she done gone and got burned up!”
At first it sounds like it’s a humerous conversation the way people start laughing until Sharon explain that Lois was “out doing yard work with her boyfriend, drunk as a sailor he threw gas on her. She somehow forgot the gas was there, went back in the house to grab a cigarette and lit herself on fire! She tried to put herself out by rolling on the bed and her skin stuck to it.”
We are all horrified at the circumstances and about how fishy it sounds that she would have forgotten the gas was there.
“That girl’s got nine lives! She’s just like a cat! Remember when she got all shot up?”
“Oh yeah, what… and she was stabbed!”
“She sure is lucky, she better watch herself, she probably used up all her lives by now!”
They talk of her for a while and I am sad and horrified by the story. They seem to mostly be amused because it’s Lois and that’s how Lois is.
It turns to 1Opm and we decide to make our exit. It is late and I’m ready for bed.
“Well… before we head in we better drive over and visit Lois,” says Jean.
“I guess so,” says Linda even though I can hear her hesitation, and so Tommy drives us on around.
They begin to make speculations as to what really happened.
“Sounds like abuse to me, I bet he lit her on fire,” says Tommy as we’re driving there.
“Mmm… maybe.” Everyone really starts thinking about it and wondering why she’s still with him because maybe this is actually the case.
We arrive at Lois’s and she is puffing a cigarette on the front porch of her beaten down white washed house.
She is dark as the night is long, short and scrawny. She’s wearing jean overalls with a white t-shirt that barely covers the scars on her chest and her necks looks like it has almost melted off. Her mouth barely moves when she speaks and it’s hard to understand most words that leave her lips.
Lois’s hugs are hard and lasting. It’s as if she doesn’t want to let go of any person that meets them for fear they’ll never come back. I could definitely see not coming back here. Everything about the house is poor from the broken front door to the stacks of old papers on the table. It is smoky just like the other houses I’ve been to and the couches are ratty and mussed up with old stains.
It doesn’t matter though because Lois is laughing. She laughs hard with broken teeth and says she’s excited to see us. I get one out of about every five or six words, but I can’t miss that she is happy that family has come in.
“Ooh, how you doing?” says Tina.
“Well… I’m alive.”
“I know! I heard that your on your ninth life. It’s like you’re a cat!”
Lois nods, “mmm…hmm.”
“Well I was stabbed that time by that guy I lived with. Yup and he was angry because I wanted his money.”
“Oh, for crack.”
“Oh.” Everyone is shaking their heads because we already knew what she was gonna say but it’s still hard to hear.
“Well, what about that shooting we’ve heard about?
“Oh that? Well… you know I gots shot here and here and here and here and some other places too.” She is pointing to all areas of her body. I can’t really keep track of the spots, but I know that she should be dead.
“It was the crack that saved me, kept my body going. Kept my adrenaline up.”
Of course we all know, if not for the crack she wouldn’t even have been there.
“I got to the hospital and they thought they took them all out, but a month later I had to go back. Ooh, the pain in my back, ooh it hurt and they found another piece of bullet. “
“Mmm…mmm. I wouldn’t be alive if that happened to me,” says Jean. “My skin is too soft for bullets, would have taken me down!”
“You know, I kept dancing and moving while I was being shot, didn’t even really notice they was in there till the ambulance got there and I had to lay down. Nine times I was shot. Nine times!” Lois is expressive. She dances around the room like she is reliving the experience, the high that she had.
“Well, we heard you went and got yourself burned too!”
“Oh yeah, last summer. You know me and Darryl was out doing the yard and stuff and gas got on me and poof! I was lighting a cigarette and I was on fire. Ooh, it hurt. I could smell my skins burnin’ and my flesh was soft and I felt like it was melting. Ooh, wee! I was in the hospital for awhile and got out. Now I gotta take all these pills for all of the pain.”
She goes and grabs all of her pills for us to see, different pain killers and sedatives. She says she’s been on the Oxycodone for a few months now and might need it for eternity.
We stare at the pills like pills are something new.
“Have you learned anything yet?” Says Linda. “Don’t you think God is telling you something?”
“Oh yeah, well… he might be. Yeah, I might go to Church one of these days.”
“Why, haven’t you gone yet?
“Well I haven’t found the right one!”
“Have you gone to any?”
“Not yet, noooo, not yet.”
When 11:30 comes we decide to call it a night. We have listened to her stories and told her some of ours but we are beat and she looks it too. The goodbyes are long hugs and “see you soons,” though it seems there is no though of returning again on this trip.
Tommy’s old Caddy gets it’s money’s worth with us and we get back in and head back to Jean’s apartment. Home sweet home.
Another last gulp of fresh air and it’s time for bed.