I miss being around the older Black women in my family. I miss hearing their stories and eavesdropping on their telephone conversations. I miss their gossip and their complaints. Miss hearing about the who and the what that got on their nerves and when and where and how. I miss all their details and being in the presence of their shellacked floors, their spotless bathrooms, their dust-free furniture. I miss their “honey please,” their “in’t that somethin’,” their “I’m tellin’ you!” I wish I could hear Aunt Joyce call me “Little One.” I miss the way they made up words and phrases. If someone had bad breath Aunt Gail would say they had the “honka.” I miss her silly ways and the way she made up not-so-funny pranks on April Fool’s Day. Once, she staged her own murder and had one of her kids call my grandmother to break the news. It was funny, but not really.
My grandmother has passed and so has my mother and my Aunt Joyce and my Aunt Gail. It feels like everyone in my family is gone—even some of the people who are still alive. And I don’t mean gone as in “crazy.” I mean gone as in distant. As in, not around. After so many Black women die in a family—the favorite auntie, the fun cousin, the loving grandmother—that family loses its closeness. The relationships and bonds weaken. The glue fades. Holidays are never the same. Everybody does their own thing. And birthdays don’t get celebrated the way they used to. We’re that family. So today, I feel incredibly lucky to be standing outside of my Aunt Rosa’s house waiting for her to answer the door.
Out of my seven aunts, Aunt Rosa is the oldest at seventy-five years old. I can’t even be mad that she’s not answering. I’ve been outside for at least five minutes. It’s Cleveland and it’s December, which means it’s cold—even though the sun is out. I’m torn between walking back to my car and waiting in it until Aunt Rosa answers the door, but I have a feeling that she will come to the door as soon as I walk back to my car—which is parked on the street because I didn’t want to chance leaking any kind of fluid onto her spotless concrete driveway. I press the doorbell twice. Nothing. I hope she has her hearing aid in. I am trying to be patient but damn it’s cold!
When my Aunt Rosa finally answers the door, I don’t say a word about how long it took her to answer. If this was a friend, it would’ve been: “Hunty! What took you so long?”—before anything else was said. I enter through her attached garage. I’m wearing Ugg slippers because they are easy to slip on and off. I know her rule: no shoes on in the house. I start sliding my right foot out of my Ugg and my aunt says, “Oh no, baby. Here. Take your shoes off in here and put them right there on that towel.”
Aunt Rosa’s house is spotless. Every house she has ever lived in has been this way—her townhouse in Willo, her house on “one-nine-five” and now her house in Highland. Nothing is ever out of place—ever. Not a pillow. Not a piece of mail or a single dish. The same is true for the outside of her home. Her grass is always a thick, deep green. Always cut and edged to perfection. Her windows are squeaky clean, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wiped her mailbox down with Windex or Pledge—because even it shines. A woman wearing a sky-blue hoodie is sitting at the kitchen table. Her hair is blonde and cut short—old skool Halle Berry style. “Hello,” I say to her. She smiles and says hello.
“Baby, this is Jean. Leamon’s people. She’s been staying with me,” my Aunt Rosa says. I’m happy to see Jean sitting at my aunt’s kitchen table. Aunt Rosa’s husband died over twenty years ago and sometimes I worry that loneliness might creep up on her in a way that could be damaging or dangerous. Whenever I think like this, I ease my mind by thinking about Aunt Rosa’s faith. If I shared my concern about her loneliness, she’d quickly credit the Lord for her lack of it. Probably say, “God is always with me.”
I sit down at the kitchen table directly across from Jean. I learn that she is my aunt’s sister-in-law from her first marriage. Jean tells me I look like my mother. “Pull down your mask so I can see all your face,” she says. “Oh yeah, lookin’ just like Zelma.” Jean tells me she knew my mother before I was even born. I’m all ears now and I want to spend “time-time” with her. She’ll have stories about my mother that even I don’t know about.
She starts by telling me how my mother would always come down to visit her in Huntsville, Alabama. “One time I took your mother to church and the people started praisin’ and shoutin’ and carryin’ on, and your mother leaned in and asked me— ‘What did they do that was so bad?’” Jean and my aunt laugh and laugh while I process the moment. I can just see my mother now—sitting there watching the churchgoers praising the Lord and wondering about their sins.
I decline when they offer me breakfast that consists of everything I don’t eat—bacon, sausage, runny grits. “You want some water?” Jean asks. “No, thank you,” I say. “What about some coffee?” my aunt asks. I decline. The only thing I want to do is sit and listen to them talk and reminisce and share their wisdom with me. Everything else feels like a distraction. I’m sitting with two historians. Two legends. Two women with answers, with stories I don’t know. Stories about how I smiled as a little girl. How I cried. How I laughed at six years old. They are jeweled witnesses. I don’t want to concentrate on anything except them.
They tell me they’ve been sitting around like queens. “I have my little quarter and Jean has hers,” my Aunt Rosa says. “Jean lost her husband back in February,” my aunt says. “I had to get away,” Jean tells me. It all starts to make sense. I remember when my aunt’s husband died she left for Huntsville to visit the Leamon’s. She was gone for months. “You know, I did the same thing when Vernon died,” my aunt Rosa says. “I was just thinking that. I remember that,” I say. I wonder if this is what all Black women do when their husbands die—leave their hometowns and set out to visit longtime friends. Who would I visit? Nicole? Joni?
My phone dings. My calendar is reminding me about a three o’clock meeting. It’s only 11:45 a.m. My wallpaper is an old photograph of my mother from her modeling days. “Auntie, when was this picture taken?” I ask, holding my phone up to her. In the picture, my mother’s hair is styled in a perfectly tapered afro and she’s wearing a herringbone-like patterned coat. The coat has a thick faux fur collar. Her eyes steal the photograph. They are wide and bright. She’s looking far off to her right, nailing the classic model pose. I know it was taken for the cover of a magazine, but I don’t know the year. Jean asks to see the picture. “Oh yeah, I remember that picture,” Jean says. “That had to be around ’68,” Aunt Rosa says. “Yeah, ’68 because that was right before I left for Huntsville.” When my aunt lived in Huntsville, she and her husband owned a record shop.
“Stylish!” my aunt shouts, referring to the picture of my mother. “I used to dress all my sisters. I’d tell them unt-un, that doesn’t go. Put this with that.” Aunt Rosa continues. “We’d be in our mini-skirts lookin’ good girl! You couldn’t tell us nothin’,” I picture my aunties in their prime. They were probably the prettiest girls in Cleveland. They all could’ve been models. They had the height and the looks.
The picture of my mother unlocks something in Jean. “Let me show you my daughter,” she says to me. “Pass me that phone behind you,” she says to my aunt. Aunt Rosa reaches for Jean’s phone and I can’t help but to notice that it’s an iPhone. Jean hands me her phone and tells me to scroll through the photos. The first picture shows Jean and her family wearing matching black T-shirts. Jean’s shirt says seventy-five in large white numbers. She tells me that the woman standing next to her is her daughter. Her daughter is wearing a shirt that says fifty-five in the same large white numbers. “And that’s Mr. Leamon,” Jean says. Mr. Leamon is Jean’s father. His shirt says ninety-five. “Oh wow,” I say. “Y’all all look good!” Jean smiles. “I can’t believe he’s ninety-five! He looks good!” I say. In the next picture, Mr. Leamon’s back is to the camera and his shirt reads “Partying like a rock star!” My aunt tells me that whenever you call Mr. Leamon on the phone and ask him what he’s doing, he says, “Partying like a rock star!” I smile. “He’s been saying that for years,” Aunt Rosa says.
Sitting here with my aunt and Jean, I feel good about aging; they make it look glorious. Their wisdom excites me. Jean’s photos tell a story of family, of good times and of love. The two of them tell me stories about Jean’s daughters and her grandchildren. I learn about the physical genetics of the Leamon’s—lots of height and beautiful smiles. My aunt and Jean laugh and reminiscence about the days when Aunt Rosa would visit Huntsville. I listen deeply. As I listen, I think about all the stories she’s told me about living down South. I love the ones when she’s talking about racing cars. “I can drive me a car now!” she’d tell me.
When I am finally thirsty and ask for water, Jean and my aunt leap up. I think about their excitement to serve me. It has something to do with the south and hospitality, but it’s also linked to motherhood and to love. I am still a child to them. Aunt Rosa leaves the kitchen and heads to the garage. She comes back with a Dasani water bottle. I twist it open and drink and drink.
Photo by Donald Black Jr., courtesy of the author.