One Sunday, in March of 1941, a child was born to sharecroppers in Savannah, Georgia. They named her Rosemary, and the whole of creation shouted, “praise the lord!” for she was a godsend, like all children.
She was a dutiful child, toiling beside her parents in the cotton fields, learning the ethics of hard work and reward, or lack there of, that would define her entire life.
Sunday mornings found her in Sunday school, afternoons she sat listening to scripture in the church and Sunday evenings might include a ride to town to see Uncle Rooster and Aunt Mary. Rooster would always have some catfish he’d caught and Mary would have fresh peppers from her garden. It was a good life. A quiet, humble, predictable life.
That is, until her father deserted the family for the greener pastures of another woman leaving her mother bitter and lonely. She began to drink and when she did she also took to bingeing, gallivanting for days at a time leaving Rosemary to her own devices. And when she returned she’d become violent, for Rosemary reminded her so of the man who left her behind. By her teens Rosemary had grown tired of the abuse, and rambunctious in her desire to be free of her mother’s tyranny and the yoke that constrained her to the bucolic life in a rural southern countryside.
Rosemary, beautiful and self-sufficient as the flower she is named for, longed to have her blossoming womanhood acknowledged. And at 16 she did just that when, in a visit up north with family, she took a man and found herself with child.
She returned to Savannah in this delicate condition, as they say, but decided that Savannah was not the place for her child to grow up; not with her father up north and a bitter grandmother who spent to much time with spirits. So she packed her belongings, kissed her mother goodbye and sadly left Savannah and its lovely Sundays behind.
She travelled to New York where she stayed with family, her brother Big Man and his wife, Julia in Brooklyn.
But Joy’s father, George, she would learn, was not the settling down type. He had goals which required him to be freer than fatherhood would allow.
So, Rosemary, like her mother before her, found herself on her own with a child. And she, too, took to hanging out in the big city of dreams hoping to attract a man of substance.
Around this time she met her Ella, who would become her closest friend, her touchstone and counselor for years to come. Ella was streetwise and savvy, and showed young Rosemary the ropes, for she was adept at navigating her way around. Brooklyn was both dangerous and extremely exciting for this country girl straight off the turnip truck from below the Mason Dixon.
Pretty soon, she hooked up with a singer of some renown, by the name of Charles, and he wooed her like she’d never been wooed before; gave her a taste of a lifestyle she never knew existed.
Charlie, as he was called, liked Rosemary quite a bit as well, so he stuck around a lot longer than George had; long enough for her to have two sons by him. Then he too moved on like a rolling stone. With his band, he hit the road to pursue his dreams and all the women scattered upon it.
Eric and Michael were his son’s names and, with Joy, that now made three hungry bellies to fill…once again on her own.
So Rosemary decided it was time to take her growing nest and fend for self.
She and Ella remained very close and supported each other through these tough times. Ella helped her get settled into a little apartment on Prospect Place near where she lived with her man and her two sons, Omar and Randy.
Rosemary met Ronald one night at a party, and he was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. She fell madly in love with him, and he with her. Though he was clealry a smooth operator and a playboy he was also an intelligent, hardworking and responsible man. Despite the three children she had from previous lovers, his love for Rosemary and the responsibility he felt once she’d gotten pregnant prompted his proposing to her.
They were married soon after.
That’s about when I met Rosemary for the first time, face to face.
It was in late June of 1966 when, with the help of the medical staff at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, I was yanked from her inner world into this outer world. She cried and held me to her bosom to ease my cries for the outer world was no match for the inner. She was the best thing about it.
We were very close, Rosemary and I, as were Ronald and I.
I remember his laughter, and his joy that I was a boy. He’d had a son previously with another woman in the south but from what I’d learn years later, his son was not born with all his faculties intact. I became proof that he was capable of making a man intact.
We moved to a lovely brownstone on Decatur street in Bed-Stuy and there we lived for years.
I remember picnics in prospect park, frisbee throwing and fried chicken and potato salad munching. I remember bunk beds and enmeshed togetherness, laughter and music! Ronald was a guitarist with dreams of giving up trucking and going professional. He taught Joy how to play the guitar and had Eric and Michael taking karate lessons.
Yes, we were a happy family!
Soon another child was born, Nicole.
And now with 5 children and a wife to boot, Ronald began to feel more poignantly the burden he’d taken on. His smile began to vanish along with his increasingly insufficient paychecks, replaced by bouts of anger and violence. A happy family began to deteriorate. Before long he transformed from a permanent fixture in our home to a mercurial one.
Then one day he, too, was unceremoniously gone.
I was almost too young to miss him.
But, I had Rosemary. We all did. And she alone made sure we had everything we needed.
It was around this time that Rosemary’s friend, Ella, a pretty radical sister, introduced her to the Pan-African movement. Ella had enrolled her two kids in a school that promised to make sure the kids were prepared for a world dead set on making negative statistics of them.
She encouraged Rosemary to do the same.
At 6, Rosemary brought me to this school and, for perhaps the first time in my life, left me in the care of complete strangers. I cried and pissed my pants. But, just as I was about to die of despair, there were Ella’s kids, Omar and Randy, who I called my cousins. I was so happy to see them. I cried some more before I settled in.
Soon all of my brothers and sisters were also enrolled in this experiment in community and family schooling.
It was about this time that everything changed. I now had a new family, with more mothers and fathers than I could count, strong black men and women on the frontlines of the Black Power / Pan-African movement.
And my immediate family, we all adopted new names.
Joy became Faraha, Eric became Changa, Michael became Sekou, Nicole became Iisha, and I chose the name Baye. Ella became Kiunga…
She became Waridi, gave up her perm for some dreadlocks (way before they were in fashion), gave up her skirts for clothing only a woman from West Africa could look as natural and comfortable in, and, most disturbing of these changes, removed Christmas from our lives and replaced it with Kwanzaa.
I asked Waridi why we had to change our names to these African names.
“Because we’re Africans,” she explained patiently. “And African people need African names. Those other names? Those were slave names! And we’re not slaves now, are we?”
“No…” I replied, pensively. “But everybody else has slave names…and they wear regular clothes, and…”
“If everybody jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge would you jump, too?”
She always got me with that one. I always wanted to sass her and say, “it depends…”
A few years later, from another boyfriend who Rosemary would send packing when he proved to be a jerk, there came another addition to our clan, another boy named Babu Juba. He would be the last.
We bounced around Brooklyn and Queens for a while before settling in an apartment meant for rich white folk but once whites had abandoned Brooklyn, it became ours and we would live in it…and live nicely!
Here was the first place Waridi kept us long enough to call home. It was on Eastern Parkway. The place where Waridi would come into her own.
She kept our little abandoned palace glowing like it was intended to glow. She had a great eye for interior design and decorating as well as one for finding a bargain and diamonds in the rough. She began making collages that would stun the viewer and even built a thriving hair braiding business that drew people from all walks of life to her home salon. There these customers would sit before her in a hydraulic salon chair and look out on a beatific view of the Brooklyn Museum and the lush green trees along the promenade of Eastern Parkway, as Waridi, with her skilled fingers and creative mind, made them look 10 times better than they had when they arrived.
These enterprises of hers subsidized the government assistance that sustained us.
Soon, Joy would disembark for the west coast, in pursuit of her own dreams, reducing our number to five.
Changa and Sekou would be sucked into the street life and fall into the hands of the criminal justice system from time to time. Waridi fought fiercely to keep her children out of the penal system, or to gain their release once apprehended, but the streets and courts were an even fiercer opponent. She lost these battles as often as she won. Going before judges begging them for leniency for her boys took a toll on her.
Boyfriends came and went, but no one stayed around long enough for her to claim as her own. But she fought on, poorly educated, poorly skilled, but rich in love, ingenuity and an sage understanding of humanity. I watched her through all of this and sometimes would climb into bed with her and hold her. My hugs became hey joy and I would give them gladly, rocking her when I knew the world was rocking her, threatening to shake her loose.
She trusted me and, like her mother had done her, often left me to my own devices. So I did all within my power not to betray her trust and break her heart by forcing her to stand before a judge ever again and beg for the life of her children. I stayed on the straight and narrow for her as much as for myself. The streets called me, as well, and I answered, but always cautiously, with her fragile heart informing all those crucial decisions I had to make.
This kept me from dropping out of high school, though very little education was going on in there, and eventually prompted my taking on the challenge of higher education.
It was all worth it to see her face on my graduation day.
Waridi looked at me that day and said, with tears of pride, “thank you, Baye.”
I said, “no, thank you…I couldn’t have done it without you.”
She didn’t believe me. She believes I’m a self-starter, that I would be anything I want to be with or without her prompting. She can’t grasp how a woman of modest education, none of which was higher, could bring into the world and raise children who would value education. She doesn’t get that it was her choices in life that made my life possible. That she was the one who chose Kiunga as a friend, and who let her friend guide her towards choosing an institution that would instill within us the things she (and our fathers) could not. She doesn’t take the credit for that; the credit that is due her. She thinks she did the best she could. She doesn’t know she is the best! That she is the same godsend she was that Sunday in Savannah 73 years ago.
I tell her these things but I struggle to show her these things til this day. My heart is overflowing with gratitude but I feel inadequate to express it. Maybe because I was buried in the middle of 6 children, some of whom were inordinately taxing, so I had to rely on and fend for self much more than I would have liked back then, and perhaps it has made me a selfish person. Maybe the scars I’ve accrued from troubled times affected me much more than I’m consciously aware of. I’m far from perfect. But, I know, in my soul, that I owe everything to Waridi’s sacrifices, for her giving of herself so that I could have what I needed to build up the wherewithal to live out loud as I do now.
And, after all the years of giving, with very little recompense to speak of, the Creator sent her the love of her life, Jason.
A man who would not run and leave her behind. But would stay by her side through thick and thin and give her the kind of love she always wanted and needed, as Etta James sang A Sunday kind of love.
Who would allow her to drag him to her country home in Georgia to walk hand in hand along those dusty roads lined with mossy trees and memories…
One Sunday in Savannah a living legend was born, the strongest woman I know, who still tries to teach me, by example, how to love; a lesson I struggle with but know is possible thanks to her!
…while the congregation says “Amen!”