I wake myself up with another run. It’s not so much that I want to run as get out of the house and get some fresh air. Though it’s still a bitter cold, I suit up and get ready to head out.
“You sure it’s not too cold,” says Tina as she lights a smoke near the oven hood.
One stare at that lit cigarette and I am sure that I need to get out.
“Yup, I need the exercise.” This is of course true and I don’t want to miss too many days that I would usually spend at the gym, but running outside is not ideal.
I take a good 2.5 mile jog out into University City and grab some coffee on my way back. I weave in and out of the neighborhood, checking out the
University City is nice, it’s a little college neighborhood that houses the Northern Campus of Washington University. It is wealthy while Jean lives in low-income house only half a mile away.
It looks more like the things I’m used to with the retail row dotted with specialty shops, music stores, and of course Starbucks. As I make my way back with Starbucks in my hand I am cautious and make sure that I stay on the main road as I have been warned that the area can be dangerous once you leave University City.
At the apartment I am told to get ready because we’re going to hang out in the community room. It’s the big room attached at the front for the residents to hang out in. I throw some clothes on, grab my books and make my way downstairs. We meet Norma Jean, an old friend of my Aunties at the door and head into the room.
Jean knows everyone in the room and introduces them all to us.
“Hey Jimmy, Harry, Sally, Shirley, Jesse, and on and on.” Everyone is either playing pool, playing cards, or seated watching it all happen.
We make our way to a table and set ourselves up. Norma Jean Gauldin has known the Peoples family since she was 11. The Gauldin’s and Peoples families lived right across the street from each other on Enright and became best friends almost immediately. The Peoples family had seven children while the Gauldin’s had six. Some of them would pair up to hang out if they were close in age and at other times all of them would find their way into parks or into trouble.
Norma Jean was my Aunt Shirley Jean’s best friend, probably because of the similarity in the middle name. They still are best friends. Aunt Tina married Norma’s older brother Robert after high school and became a Gauldin herself that’s how tight the two families were.
Norma Jean has a bright smile and a caring face. She is dark and pretty. At first I think she is no older than 45 or 50 but realize that she is 61 just like Jean and has babies, grandbabies, and now a new great grand baby. She reminds me that “black don’t crack” and I am grateful. She also has a sweet deep laugh that I get to hear over and over again as they tell stories.
“How are you brothers?” asks Tina.
“Oh… they’re the same, they’re above ground and still dating those tack-headed women.”
“What’s tack-headed?” I interrupt.
“Oh it’s those damn women that don’t care about themselves. They don’t care how they look or what they’re doing with their lives. They’re all about drinking, drugs, and gambling. Yup, my brothers like them because they don’t have to commit to nothin’.”
I love that these women have a name that there is a whole group of people devoted to just living day to day. Men can be tack-headed too, but it seems that they just get called no good niggas or gangsta’s by everyone around here.
They all catch up and I listen to it happen. I don’t bring up too much about my life unless Jean brings it up, especially the fact that I am a musician. She tells anyone and everyone that her niece is a musician and is going to be touring the country. In reality yes I’m a musician but my band is just going to be doing a fourteen day tour across the South soon, but that doesn’t matter to her. To her I’m already famous.
“Booby’s a musician too Nicole, maybe you two can get together and do something. He’s family and family gotta help each other out.”
“Yeah and my grandson Kev is a musician too, he had a popular one come out not long ago. Have you heard of Huey?”
I shake my head no.
“Well they’ve got a big song that hit, you should look ‘em up.”
I nod sure because I think it’s wonderful that there are more musicians, but I am doubtful that there will be a collaboration because I’m indie folk while they’re all hip-hop. I also just don’t listen to hip-hop much unless it’s playing on top 40 while I’m in the car trying to stay awake.
I try to keep quiet so the conversation will turn from me and onto something different. I know soon Aunt Jean will grow weary of talking about me and move onto herself or someone she knows. As quick as a bullet they start talking about who is or isn’t still alive.
“Well Charles dead not too long ago.”
“What about your cousin, Lou I think it is.”
“Oh he’s okay, but you know his brother got shot up there on some street near MLK not too far back.”
“I’m am grateful I made it past 60. Do you know how many people don’t live to see 45 this day and age?”
“Yeah, we’ve sure put a lot of ‘em away.”
“Yeah, we’re lucky for sure.”
I am sad for them that they’ve put so many of “them” away, while I’ve barely seen any death. My mom was the first close person I ever knew that passed and she I can be sure will always be the heaviest and the hardest on my heart. I am grateful I don’t live here where death comes so easily to the young.
It’s now that I remember that two of my Aunties brothers died pretty young. Eddie Jr. was shot in the back of the head at 17 in front of their house on Enright and their brother Buddy was stabbed by his girlfriend at 30. Two brothers gone before they’d ever even had a real chance at life.
A few hours later Aunt Linda arrives by herself in Tommy’s car and says it’s time to head to Aunt Sue’s for dinner. “She’s cooked us dinner.”
“Oh Lord, at her age!” Tina seems beside herself that a 91 year-old would get over the stove for us without any help.
We say our goodbyes to Norma and plan to meet in the morning for breakfast and head off to Aunt Sue’s.
The house smells thick with cheese, a velveeta of some kind. She has made us pork chops, lima beans smothered with cheese, cornbread, and spaghetti with meat balls. The spaghetti is really for Tina because she can’t eat pork.
This is another one of those days where I am starving both because there’s not much food at Jean’s for me to eat and because of their odd eating schedules. I shovel pork chops and the lima beans on my plate though I know I shouldn’t do it because I’m going to pay a mighty price for the cheese, but I decide it’s better than going for the spaghetti or cornbread.
I’m up for seconds while the others are only midway through their meals.
“Were you hungry baby?” Asks Uncle Jesse.
“Mmm…hmm.” I don’t know when I’ve ever been this hungry. I’ve been hungry most of the short time I’ve been here.
“If you’re ever hungry again just get up and get yourself somethin’. This is your home now too. We’re you’re family.”
It never occurred to me to get anything. Never occurred to me to impose like that on my family even if they have that title because I’d never felt like I had family until now.
“When you’re done with that I found all the pictures,” says Aunt Sue.
As soon as we’re done eating and washing up we head to the living room a small but efficient room with a black leather couch, two black leather easy chairs Aunt Sue’s brown velvet recliner, a small 70’s coffee table decorated with flower tiles, and a 21” flat screen to break the space apart. Aunt Sue and Uncle Jesse retell stories of their parents peanut farm down in Alabama, about them eating those peanuts when they were still green and raw.
We look at photos of lost family and young pictures of family still with us.
“Guess who this is?” Aunt Sue shoves a tiny old black and white of a little girl with wild braids in my face.
“Girl, that’s your Aunt Tina.” I stare at the features because they don’t look anything like her, but I believe her because it is confirmed by Tina.
“Oh yeah, that’s me. Here’s another one of me too, holding your Aunt Linda on my hip, and on the left there is your mother.”
This is the only young photo I’ve ever seen of my mom besides her high school graduation photo. She looks just like me as a child, or I look just like her. Aunt Tina looks angry.
“I was angry! That girl was always attached to my hip like I was her momma!”
This was like any other large family where the oldest always takes care of the youngest while their parents attend to other things.
I learned the names and faces of Peoples I will never know but look like.
In the background of our conversations is always the sound of a Western on TV, the only thing Uncle Jesse is found watching on a daily basis except for at 4pm when there is a break for As the World Turns.
It’s not long before the day has gotten away from us and we grow tired again. Linda needs to pick Tommy up from his family soon and get back to her hotel before too late.
“Well y’all could stay here. We’ve got a few extra rooms,” says Aunt Sue.
“We might take you up on that later this week, but not tonight. It’s too late.”
There are lots of hugs and the four of us leave again. In the car the four of us confirm tomorrow’s plans of brunch, the mall, and more food.
“Goodnight, I love you.”
Linda leaves and it’s time for bed.