The Women on the Wall

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Grandmother (far left), Aunt B (middle left), Aunt M (middle right), Aunt D (far right)

I walk by this picture every morning.

This morning—out of bed before my 5:50 AM alarm due to a three-hour bout of insomnia—I stop and stare at the photo of my grandmother and her three sisters. My grandmother  passed in 2010, but I lost her to a massive stroke in 2000. Cancer claimed her baby sister, Aunt D, in 2012. Aunt B and Aunt M live in Birmingham, Alabama 79 miles north of my family’s hometown, Selma. Aunt B is still standing and living independently. Aunt M is addled with dementia and lost her legs to diabetes sometime in the mid-2000s.

Stumbling to the shower with red, puffy eyes and a dull thumping above my left temple, I remember these women as they were. My grandmother, the rock. Oldest of nine children. The first to leave 1940s Selma for the Brave New World in Cleveland, Ohio. Who never let me end a sentence with a preposition, lectured me on the dangers of “mannish ass boys,” and made me watch every Democratic National Convention from 1992 until 2000. Aunt B, the soft-spoken soul who raised her grand babies while their mother wrestled with addiction. Aunt M, the firecracker who showed up at our house every Sunday after church with a veiled hat on her head and a Crown Royal bag in her hand. Aunt D, the belle, who hosted family gatherings at her sprawling Birmingham home and peppered her sentences with the phrase “I do declare…”

Resigned to start my day after a sleepless night of racing thoughts and pointed accusations, I think of what these women survived. Church bombs and neighborhood riots. Failed marriages and troubled children. Carving lives out of the scraps allowed women–black women, to boot; summoning and tempering their spirited natures in a world that didn’t want them to stand upright. What words would they have for their prissy, precocious baby; all grown up, learning the hard lessons of love and womanhood?

Steaming water hits my back and shoulders. I lean into the spray. Hot water massages my scalp. I hear their voices. That’s right, baby. Get everything you’re worth.

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