The Way it Was
A memoir written by Tawanna C. Brown
Some people focus on the hard times.
Me, I think about how in the world I got to where I am right now. Right at this moment, typing on this keyboard in this hot ass apartment. Right now.
Maybe it was all those bright stripped shirts, and all the fumes from sucking on vinegary pickles wrapped in cellophane as a child that led me here. Or maybe it was the endless hours or red light green light 123, playing Skelee in the street, endless games of kickball praying the streetlights wouldn’t come on for at least another hour, because we were just starting to win. It could have been those long walks home after school, singing the latest Soul II Soul song, or arguing why Bobby Brown was the hottest thing since Pop Tarts.
Who knows? Nevertheless, I think about those things. I think about my summers as a child and how some of those things must have had an influence on what I am today. Which is what? Some might say successful. Being able to come out of the crack riddled 80’s unscaved is a hard task to accomplish. I know many bodies that weren’t so lucky. And in many more ways I still haven’t accomplished all the things I think I should have by now. I didn’t realize it until now, but I think I am some kind of prophet. Someone who was sent through the struggle. Someone who was able to survive the abuse, the abandonment. The feeling that hope and disppare were apart of the daily struggle in life. One might think that I was fortunate enough not to be a welfare case; not only graduate from High School, but actually hold a masters degree. Success is different to different people. It took me a long time to feel successful about who I am, where I came from, and find comfort in what I still want to become. For me success is the strength in knowing that I am alive. Today I breathe. Today I walked, I loved, I was myself. I have emotions and my life lead me to them.
Because, this life isn’t over quite yet. I have just started to tell my story.
Who knows where to begin? So many different elements make up a person and help to shape them. So many riveted faucets sketch out a beautiful soul that is constently under analysis. The sounds that I hear tell me that this fight, this struggle that I lead will be over soon. Soon people will be able to open their eyes. We all like to stick to the overly dramatic parts. Never taking the time to realize the overly dramatic parts are part of a common fabric of pain that can be dispelled if we look into the common good of one another. The dramatic parts where people feel sorry for us are usually most interesting to read. So that is what I am going to tell you. The most dramatic parts. The parts of myself I struggle to hide. The parts I don’t let anyone in to see the deep sea and dark disparity of failure, not of oneself but mankind. I don’t feel sorry for myself anymore. I acknowledge the pain that I have been through. This is my testimony. A writ of passage about the struggle that lead me here.
And where is here?
Here is the middle of the mind that knows there are others out there that have experienced physical, emotional damage that is beyond repence. But yet, they fight on.
I have been through my share of heartache and pain, but there is resilience to this story that doesn’t beg for sympathy. Instead it’s an understanding. That what I’ve been through could have been you. However, it wasn’t. It was someone else. It gives you the reader a chance to look into a window of someone else’s life and say, “Fuck, I came off pretty easy didn’t I” or “Next time, I’ll think twice about jumping to conclusions about people.” Who knows, perhaps this little ditty will show you that life isn’t always the peaches and cream that you’ve grown up in, with a nice little 2 car garage, but rather a concrete jungle filled with urban drama, that one manages not to notice.
REGO PARK HERE I COME
I could not remember how I got there, or why. All I remember seeing were these red and green trailer walls. Hot muggy air waylaid in my bedroom. I sat on the small twin bed, with a little toy chest on the foot. That box had some of my favorite toys. Cabbage patch dolls, transformers, a Monchichi, no one had a Monchichi but me! I had toys I never played with. But that hot muggy day, I sat on the bed inside that trailer waiting for hell to come. And boy was she coming. My uncle told me that she was going to come home early that day, and I was going to get it. I really do not remember how it happened, but it was there written on the living room walls. Watermelon, splashes of watermelon all over the walls. The rinds were smashed to bits having been scattered around the living room floor.
I have no clue how it got that way. So normally when I would have been on the floor, playing with my Cabbage patch dolls, reading a Dr. Seuss book, or trying to find air to breathe—because it was always hot, I was sitting there, with my braids in my hair and my little red dress on. Sitting, waiting for my mother to come home from her job at Shoney’s.
So was the buildup, the agony. The wait, knowing that at any moment hell would come. There was no one to save me; there was no one to look to. This is how this feeling would start. It would play itself out over time, several times throughout a year, for several years to come. I may or may not remember what got me to those points, but I could clearly envision the agony. The wait, knowing that any moment---
Somehow I left South Carolina. It wasn’t the place where I was born, but it’s the place of most of my early memories. I could never remember how I got to that little red trailer. But I remember that ass-cutting like it happened just yesterday. But I was home now. Big city, bright lights. Even at the age of 4 I knew there was no place like New York.
We were staying at my cousin Betty Jean’s in South Jamaica. I would later find out that Betty Jean was a singer for some R&B group, whose name escapes me, but I always find that useless information interesting. I can’t remember much about my mother at this time, simply that she was young, and pretty with the world’s largest eyes. But what I do remember is the music. Oh PYT…
“I want to love you, PYT, Pretty Young Thang!”
Oh the music. I could hear Michael Jackson and sing every note, every word, every ‘he he’ there was. There was something about the music then that would take me to a place in my head and make me forget all about the things going on around me. No matter how sad I was, I could sing a song and I would be happy again. I wanted to be a Jackson. My cousin Noni and I would dance around her living room and sing the words to every song. I couldn’t dance, but I sure could sing. Everyone in my family told me I could from the time I was 4.
“Go head Wanni sing that song girl”
“You hear that Joyce, you need to put that girl on Star Search”
Man I would dream. And the music would take me there. I would take a broom stick and prance around my cousin Betty Jeans living room and I would sing. When I was singing no one could tell me anything. I knew I was someone special. I could feel it. Noni and I would go to sleep at night in her doll filled room, and I would lay on the pallet on the floor, thinking “if I could just get on star search! My life would be perfect.” At a young age, although I didn’t know it, I knew that life was not perfect. This was not the way life was supposed to be. I wasn’t supposed to be sleeping on my cousin’s floor. I wasn’t supposed to be wearing her hand me down clothes. Oh and did she have clothes. Noni had so many brightly colored outfits that she could put Rainbow Bright to shame. I would wish that I could be Noni. She was so fair skinned and slim, not short and dark and pudgy like me. I didn’t have curly hair. But she did. I didn’t have lots of toys while I was staying with her. But I had one thing she didn’t, and I had IT.
When you have IT you have it and no one can tell you otherwise.
My Aunt Betty would take me to her catering job in Great Neck with all the white people and say “Sing Wanni, go ahead Sing” and boy I would belt out a song. Whitney Houston was my favorite to imitate. No one could sing Whitney like me. I mean, sure she was the spokes person for AT&T for having a clear voice, but I was 5 and singing like a grown woman! I would sing to those white people and they would say, “Liz (Aunty Betty’s real name is Liz) when you gonna bring that girl back?” That’s all I needed to let me know that I had IT. I was just hoping that IT would get me something. There had to be a way I could use IT to make my life better. One day, it would be clear to be that I’ve been doing IT all along, just never put words to the picture.
Eventually we moved from my cousin Betty Jeans apartment. It wasn’t the lap of luxury. Trust me roaches and mice are not a part of five star living. But I was blind. I thought it was the best, because I didn’t know anything but country muggy hot air. I felt on ease. I was leaving someplace that was just starting to feel like home. But the upside was that I was going to have my own room. Take that Noni!
Rego Park was certainly not South Jamaica. This was evident simply from walking around the neighborhood. I realized that I was black when I moved there. I don’t remember there being many other people like me in my neighborhood. They were brown, some of them. But not brown like me. Their hair was straight, not curly like some of my fair skinned cousins. Definitely wasn’t thick and semi nappy like mine. They talked funny. Some of them wore funny clothes. I would walk with my hell down Main Street and see lots men in colorful shirt like dresses with pants. Some of the women wore silk scarves on their heads. Their faces were painted with red dots in the center. This was certainly different from South Jamaica. Gone were the track suits and the Adidas. No Kangol’s in sight. Even our building was different. It had a name that sounded rich—The Chaetae. I had moved on up. I didn’t make it to Star Search yet, but maybe my life was getting better.
By the time we reached Rego Park it was time for me to go to school. I never had been in school before, and I was happy to get the opportunity to get away from my hell and be around other kids my age. Being an only child usually has its perks. All the toys you could ever need to play with, not having to share, never being told on by some bratty younger or older sibling. But it was lonely. The agony was ever present. Derrick, my mother’s boyfriend was there, and should have been that savior. But he wasn’t. He would never say the things I dreamt about:
“Joyce, you’re going too far”
“Joyce, you’re gonna kill that girl”
I would never hear the words of a savior. I would just smell the clouds of weed smoke and feel the ambivalence about my existence. The only person who ever stood up for me, wasn’t a person at all, but my cat—Mr. Beez.
Beez would do all the things I never had the guts to do like taunt my mother. He would piss in her plants underneath the window of our 6th floor apartment. Frequently he ran from the living room to the kitchen leaping over any object that was careless enough to be in his way, thoroughly pissing off my mother. He would hop from countertop to the refrigerator in the kitchen knocking over the Pepperidge Farm cookies. I would get pure delight in watching him scratch them open. I loved when he did that. His paws on the top of the bag, hind legs tucked behind him. His tail in the air. You could see those paws working back and forth scratching and purring trying to get at those sweet nutty cookies. I wasn’t allowed to have the Pepperidge Farm cookies. So when he ate them, he was eating them for me. I would get delight when she walked through the door, looking to her left into the small kitchenette down to the floor and screaming “I’m gonna kill this fucking cat!” Her pocket book would fall out her hand as she turned into the kitchen. Beez would be in the middle of the black and white eight by five floor eating away at the sweet macadamia nut cookies, looking up just in time to run. And oh how she would chase him. Running from the front of the apartment, passed the small bar, he would hop on a stool and leap on to the couch. “Derrick, get that fucking cat! You just let him eat my fucking cookies? What the fuck have you been doing all day?” She would never get an answer, but she would be doing the same thing he had been doing all day once she’d forgotten about the cat.
I loved when Beez drove her crazy. It was payback for all the things she did or would do. It was like someone saying “Hey pick on someone else for a change” and not getting smacked around in the process.
I was getting ready for Kindergarten. My mother went through pains the night before to get me presentable for going to PS 50, my new school. I hated when I had to go somewhere when there would be other people around. This meant that I would need to get my hair done. One of the guaranteed ass-cuttings I got revolved around getting my hair done. The agony. The pain. Knowing that I would have sit for hours not moving a muscle or else— the or else’s would happen.
My mother came home from her waitressing job at the Marriott Marquis in Mid Town Manhattan late that evening. Since it was past my bed time I was already in the bed. Those days were not like today where kids could stay up as late as they wanted. I had to be in the bed by 7:30. There was no T.G.I.F for me. No Steve Urchle and wondering if he really did do that. I was relegated to just hearing the programs from inside the sole bedroom of the apartment which belonged to me. I spent many hours in that room all alone to myself. I never minded. I had my books and my dolls…not Barbie. I hated Barbie and thought she was a stupid doll. Only stupid girls play with stupid dolls that look real but really can’t do diddly squat. I was a cabbage patch kind of girl. I had every type of cabbage patch doll that was made. Corn silk, newborn, preemie, real hair, the black version, play dough hair cabbage patch doll….I also had a life-sized stuffed horse, but we’ll get into that later.
My mother came into the dark room, to find my back to the door pretending to be asleep. I have no clue if she really thought I was, but I was trying to avoid an ass-cutting, and certainly not being asleep by 8’oclock warranted one. “Wanni” She called. Like a good little pretender I waited until she came to touch me to pretend to stir in my sleep. “I need to get you ready for tomorrow; get up.” I sat up in my full size bed (which seems like a queen or king when you’re a small little kid) and rubbed my eyes. I gave a few customary bats and swabs of fist to eye hand motions and followed her into the light of the hallway out of my dark, but fun filled room. The smell of their favorite action was in full effect and the evidence was all over the table. Packets of Bamboo paper, small little ruminates of brown twigs, a lighter, and browned out mini cigarettes in the ash tray were all I needed to see to know that’s where the smell was coming from. As we left the hallway and I was standing in full view of the light, my mother looked down on me:
“I told you to wash your hair.”
I touched my hair and clearly remember putting the soap into it, what happened after that I had clearly forgotten. She moved my hand away from my hair, “I did mommy, when I got into the bath tub. I used the shampoo and I washed it.” Her hand on my wrist; I was being pulled into the bathroom. Already I felt the tightening of my chest. It was that same feeling I had sitting on the edge of the bed waiting for hell to come home to that red and green trailer. She stood behind me in front of the mirror. “Where does this look like it was washed,” looking directly at my dried matted mess.
“But I did! I used the green Shampoo” I pointed to the pert plus that was on the edge of the tub next to the wash basin. With one knee in my back pinning me to the sink, she roughly pulled her hands through my hair. You could feel her nails getting caught on the scraggles of my hair. “This hair isn’t washed! It still has soap in it! Are you trying to go fucking bald?” I have heard time and time again, that if you don’t wash out the soap from your hair, you will go bald. In my eyes, if I didn’t have hair she wouldn’t be able to comb it. Five points for me!
Her already bulging eyes could give Popeye’s arms a run for his money. She leaned over to turn on the faucet to the bath tub. My little heart couldn’t beat any faster. I knew what was about to come. She was going to wash my hair.
Normally, people actually like having their hair washed. Normal people except for me. Having almost drowned twice by this tender age of life, thanks to my mother’s brothers on two separate occasions not watching me properly when going to public pools, I had a loath for water going in my face.
She pushed my head underneath the cold running water and I couldn’t breathe. Water rushing into every open crevasse on my face, I felt the same sensation accused terrorist felt when being water boarded. It’s that feeling like you’re about to drown. You can feel your lungs full and you struggle and fight for air. I struggled. But I wasn’t an accused terrorist. This wasn’t post 9/11 it was the early eighties and I was being vice gripped under a thunderous rush of cold water by my barely twenty year old mother.
Then I could feel it, and the struggle would turn real. She would pin my body in between her legs. Legs and arms restrained, a strong hand around my neck the water boarding sensation would continue. Scampering and pleading for it to end, the suds of the Pert Plus would roll from jet black hair to my eyes into the tub. I would try to calm down, and submit but my body wouldn’t let me. I just knew that we, my body and my mind were going do die. Once all signs of suds disappeared the blows would commence. I learned early that it didn’t matter how loud I yelled no one was going to help me. It didn’t matter if help was as close as the living room, or even standing in the doorway, there was no use of screaming while my body was smacked around the small bathroom.
Then she would stop.
“All you fucking had to do was wash your hair. Was that hard to do?” Looking at me for a response, I could never find the words to say. Instinctively I knew I should answer no, that it wasn’t hard at all. But how can you be forced to lie, knowing that you just felt a sensation of walking into a great white light. Feeling that you were about to die? She would walk into the hallway that connected the bathroom with my bedroom and grab a towel out of the closet. “Now dry your hair.” Sitting on the toilet alone, I would take the towel to my head. Left alone, I remember many times saubbing into the softness of the towel wondering why in the world was I here. At an early age I wondered about the purpose of not only life, but my life in general. I would rub my head and cry into the towel. My comfort was Mr. Beez. He would saunter into the bathroom and plop himself at my feet, waiting to consol me. My black and white cat was a very good friend.
Although my mother was in the living room, with the smell of weed permeating through the apartment and the sounds of Fraggle Rock glaring, I knew the ordeal was not over just yet. I still had to get my hair pressed with the hot iron comb, and later braided. Many times I remember getting burned by that comb. Leaving burnt marks on my forehead, kneck and or ears. More beatings followed because I was not able to sit still due to the heat of the comb on my tender young scalp. More beatings because I couldn’t take the pressure of her hands braiding my hair. All the while, no one was there to say:
“Joyce, that’s enough.” Or
“Joyce, give the girl a break.”
There wasn’t a savior. There seldom would be. However I never realized that I was an abused child. How could you think that something was wrong with this picture when there was never anyone to say that it was? Eventually that night would come to an end and I would be sent back to my room to cry myself to sleep. Beez would come and lay on my bed. To me, it was his way of saying everything was going to alright. Little did I know it wouldn’t be.
I never did start school that year. That following morning, dressed in a pretty dress, hair braided with hundreds of beads dripping from the ends held together with tin foil, my hell and I walked to PS 50. Along the way we saw other children and their parents walking to school that morning. I was excited. I had forgotten about the night before. I was going to be with other children and I was going to be free.
When we got to the school, my mother was told that I needed to take a placement test to see which class I would be put in. I was excited. I knew whatever test I was going to be given that I would pass it. Having endured many countless hours in the corner with a New York Times, before the day I was to enter kindergarten I already knew how to read. I not only could read, but I could also explain what I had read. Along with other countless skills forced on me, I was more than prepared.
“Ms. Brown, your daughter is exceptionally bright” said the Principal of the school to my mother. She smiled, and nodded her head and slight thank you’s profuse from her lips. “We would like her to start in the first grade. This would be the best place for her. She already knows many of the skills that our second graders are learning, but that would be too far ahead to skip her.” When I heard this I was jumping up and down inside my body. I couldn’t show over excitement, because this would be “acting up” in public, and a guaranteed ass-cutting would follow me home. And why wouldn’t I be excited about not only going to school but possibly being skipped? This is the same child that cried, begged and pleaded with her mother to be taken to the local library. Many a times I had been tricked into taking a nap with the promise of going to the library off the Horace Harding Expressway. However, having endured an ass-cutting the night before, I was in no shape to get another. Unfortunately this was not the same response my mother was having. My mother would tell the principal that she would just keep me home until next year since Kindergarten wasn’t mandatory. That night I would be in my room under my gray life-size horse with a blanket thrown over us. I would go into many of my pretend worlds. Singing Whitney Houston’s version of The Greatest Love of All I would once again dream of Star Search and going to another world where things would be perfect for me. I would be able to be around other people and not have to second guess everything I thought or said.
Since I wasn’t in school, occasionally while we were living in Rego Park my mother gave me out to babysitters while she was at work. Usually on some random day during the week, I would be woken early, bathe, fed, with a little knapsack on my back, taken to the other side of the building to one of two families. One was the Blanding’s. I really liked going to their house. The Blanding’s had three girls and all their names started with the letter K. The mother’s name was Karen. I can’t really remember the rest of the names of the family, but I remember that the three girls were all close in age, and one was relatively close to my age, although she was a bit older. The Blanding’s, like my mother and myself, were Jehovah’s witnesses and the perfect people for me to play with. They followed the word and held bible study in their house. I really don’t have any bad memories about them. I just wished I was able to stay in contact with them through the years, since they were such good people. I often wonder if they are still witnesses. Sometimes the pressure from the outside world causes people to fall away from their faith, as it did me.
The other family that I would go to during the mornings when my hell had to work, and Derrick was not available to watch me was some type of Indian family. I don’t remember their names, but I do remember that I ate a lot of weird things at their house. Although my mother packed my knapsack with food, these people feed me from the weird things they were eating. I think this early exposure to other cultures made me more acceptant of foods and music to this day. I don’t know many black people who come from the ‘hood’ who will willingly eat sushi. These Indian people introduced me to fish roe and roti. I also learned about Buddha, although if my mother knew that she would have had a fit. Since were witnesses that would have been sacrilegious for me to be involved with a known idol worshiping religion.
The Indian family was just a man and his wife. The man was rarely there. The wife was my primary care taker. I remember that she was very sweet. I thought her husband was sweet until I grew up and began to really examine this experience. One morning when Derrick took me to the other side of the Chaetae up to the sixth floor where the Indian people lived, the husband was there to greet us at the door. It was not strange for him to meet us at the door, since most of the times his wife was still sleeping. Usually if she was still sleeping I would be sat on the living room floor on a pallet and encouraged to try and go back to sleep, usually that never happened since I was always very overactive in the mornings (which explains why I can never sleep past seven am as an adult). This particular morning a few minutes after I was laid down on the floor, the man came back to the living room.
“You want to go wash your face?”
I didn’t see anything wrong with this proposition so I followed him into the back bedroom where his wife was sleeping. I found this quite strange since I was walking passed the bathroom that I always used off the hallway. When we were in the bathroom he instructed me to have a seat on the toilet. I sat and the husband turned on the water. I sat. I sat and looked around. Knapsack still on my back, I looked at the running water coming out of the faucet. The man took up a white washcloth and quickly passed his fist with the enclosed washcloth inside underneath the tepid water. He rung it out and handed me the washcloth. Everything seemed find and normal. I took the washcloth and placed it to my face. I could hear my mother in the background:
“When you wash your face make sure that you get inside the corners of your eyes, otherwise you’re not washing your just wiping and that’s not clean at all.”
So I followed my invisible mother’s advice and got inside the corners of my eyes. I rubbed my face hard. I wanted to make sure that my face was actually clean. I didn’t want anyone to think I didn’t have any home training, and have my mother find out. Another guaranteed ass-cutting.
I was unaware that while I had my eyes closed getting inside every knock and cranny on my face, the husband had unzipped and pulled down his pants. When I opened my eyes to find this long brown thing with hair on the underneath part in my face I was very surprised. “Don’t you want to touch it?” He held the thing in his hands only a few inches away from my thoroughly rubbed face. I just sat there. I sat and I looked at it. I was quite unsure what to do. I didn’t know if I would get in trouble if I touched it, or if I would get in trouble if I didn’t touch it. I lifted my hand and placed it at the end of the long brown slightly hairy thing. In my mind I knew that the situation just wasn’t right, but I was completely unsure of what to do. The husband placed his hand over mine and closed his eyes. So I closed mine. He moved my hand on the brown thing until a slimy ooze came out of it onto my hand. I opened my eyes and mouth to say “Eww!” but the same hand quickly came over my mouth. The washcloth went back under the water and my hands and face were washed off. He stood me up and told me not to say anything. The husband leaned over to turn off the running water and turn out the light. I was lead back to the living room and my pallet on the floor.
This incident never repeated itself. I really do not remember continuing to go to that babysitter much longer. I am not sure if I ever told my mother. Probably not for the fear that I had somehow did something wrong. Later on in life as a teacher, I would take a class on how to identify child abuse. I wish I would have known the signs as a child. It would have prevented a lot of unknown heartache and pain.
After my babysitters in the Chaetae, my next memorable moments were in the halls of LeFrack. I always thought of LeFrack as the projects, but to my surprise years later I would find out that they were actually cooperatives. One of my music-filled memories came from LeFrack. Here while with a black family, I was exposed to Hip Hop. My mother monitored everything I did, saw, and heard. Therefore, in her presence there were not any questionable lyrics to be heard. But at this families house, I heard not only the Sugar Hill Gang, but also Kool Moe D, Dougie Fresh, LL Cool Jay, and of course Run DMC. It was at this families house that I learned to be a ham. My days were chock full of singing and excitement. I enjoyed being with this family. This is probably why I wasn’t there long.
I next had a family that lived in another section of LeFrack. This family had a little boy that was slightly younger than I was. I remember playing with him a lot. I would read comics to him. I remember making up stories that the comics didn’t always contain. My favorite comic to “read” was Archie. Archie had a girl and a boy. I remember telling this little boy stories of the birds and the bees, where Archie and the girl would touch each other and play house. Later as a teacher, I would recognize this behavior as a red flag that would be an immediate call to the Administration for Children’s Services. Children who display early knowledge of sexuality and act those things out are clearly being sexually abused, but this is something I didn’t know in the moment. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but somehow did it anyway. Needless to say, my time spent at this family was short.
I am sure that I had countless other babysitters, including family members. My Aunt Betty watched me from time to time, and took me on numerous trips down south with her husband at the time, Governor, or Uncle Junior as he was called. I loved those long road trips calling out the countless McDonalds, and the many stops for McDonald French fries. I sometimes spent weekends at my Aunty Peggy’s. My Aunty Peggy is my Fathers aunt. She has three daughters, two of them twins. I enjoyed spending time at her house, because she also had a cat, and her daughters had their ear to the street when it came down to music. I loved to go to their house although I distinctly remember it smelling like cat. My aunt would cook all my favorite Jamaican dishes. It would be like Jamaican Christmas every time I visited. Of course my twin cousins always spent so much time with me. We would have singing contests, and I would always be the front runner. They put the idea firmly in my head that I could be a singer. That was something I longed for as it would help me escape the tragic world where I was implanted. One of feigned wealth, visible poverty, and abuse.
Rego Park should have been a welcoming place for me. It should have been my black girls oasis. But instead it was a waste land. Devoid of caring emotion. Sadly enough, the only place where I could breathe easy was in school. After the first day of school debacle, I finally did start school in my right grade, after staying home for a miserable year with my mother. I was glad to be leaving the New York Times and the corner of my living room behind me, and getting the chance to figure out what this school business was all about. I remember walking to school each morning, having a pocket of quarters that I picked up off the floor in my house. My mother waitressed at the Marriot Marquis in Manhattan. The change that she collected in her tips weren’t valued as much as the bills, so to the floor they went. It was family knowledge that anything on the floor was considered garbage, and finders keepers ruled in my house. Each morning I would stop at the store and get an assortment of candy for my friends. I didn’t eat too much candy, but the people that I hanged with in school did. My teacher Ms. Bushimie didn’t like this very much. It made us very hyper and talkative. I would learn later as a teacher to have a disdain for parents who allowed their children to eat candy in the morning as it totally destroyed my classroom decorum. I was a very talkative child. Being an only child, some would paint us to be lonely. I was lonely, but not in the way that others would think. There was just me living in captivity with my abuser. I was a trapped caged animal. Always waiting the moment when my life could end. Hoping that my life would end. Because in the end, the pain would cease. This made me talkative. It wasn’t the kind of talking that was sensical. I developed a defense mechanism over the years that would make me feel secure, and that would be the sound of my own voice. People are usually captivated by the things that I have to say, and in this way I spent a lot of time in my 2nd grade class writing standards: I will not talk in class. I wish my teacher would have once asked me why I talked so much.
My mothers fiancé Derrick worked for the Xerox company in New Jersey. He would some times drive us out there for various things with his job. He also had a son that lived with his mother somewhere in New Jersey. At times he would go and visit his son, and the boy would come to spend time in our apartment. Derrick was never personable with me. He never felt like a father, or treated me like Bill Cosby treated his daughters, with love and adoration. I always had a feeling that he didn’t like me, or resented my presence. There weren’t any comments about my rearing, or lack of compassion towards me from my mother. Simply an avoidance of the situation. Once when were at his mothers house getting ready for an event, I found my self in the upstairs part of the house. There were three bedrooms and a bath, and a small hallway. I loved to be in their bathroom. It was very spacious, nice open room. An old time tub sat at the entry way of the bathroom with fitted with brace fixtures. I was lifting my head out of the toilet, and went to the sink to wipe off my mouth. From downstairs I could hear Whitney Houston’s, “saving all my love”. My insides started to vibrate. Not because I just forced myself to throw up, but because there were aspects of that song that always resonated with me. The fact that someone would tell another that one day they’d runaway together and be happy, and it all being a lie. That seemed to be my life. Thinking that one day I’d be happy but that day never coming. I held on to the banister and tried to glid myself done with every note. “love gives you a right to be free” as I was building up to the crishendo, my mother belted out at me:
What he fuck do you think your doing? You don’t fucking have time to be sauntering around the house pretending to be Whitney Fucking Houston. Your just like your fucking father, useless. Clean up those fucking dishes and then get in here and iron your fucking clothes so we can leave.
Always afraid of the outcome of not doing what was asked of me, I walked over to the
sink and started to work on the dishes. The tension in the room was unbearable. Although Whitney was gone, I could now feel the sudden pain in my face. Between the yells and defensively throughing my hands in my face to defend myself, so went the radio. Playing onward. As we tangoed from the kitchen back to the dining room, the throws and dashes away became more complex and intricate. Finally stopping at the ironing board where I begged to be allowed to complete the task “Mommy I am doing it, see I am ironing the pants.” My mother picked up the hot iron and placed it to my leg. That was a pain that I had never felt before. Watching my skin change so rapidly before my eyes brought shear terror to my brain. I went into survival mode. What is it I need to say in order to end this ordeal? I find out that you cannot stop abusers. I would not be able to stop mine. Lucky for me, I would be sent away.
From that I could remember, my life has a cycle: feigned care, abuse, near death experience, abandonment. How I got to live in South Carolina was always at the end of the cycle. My mother would do something that would threaten my existence, feel guilty about doing it, and then send me away to live with some person in my family. I have lived in South Carolina with my Great Grandmother, and separately my two great aunts. I have lived with all on multiple occasions, and for the most part enjoyed my time there.
Jackson, South Carolina, home to all the Brown’s. Living with my great grandmother was the best thing in the world to have happened to me. At the time, she might have been in her late 60’s early seventies. However, she was a fiery old woman. My grandmother never learned to read or write, however she was a smart woman. I never heard her speak of the world out side herself, but she instilled within me a sense of self. Living with my great grandmother was one of the truly good times in my life.
It was some time during the mid 80’s. My grandma as I called her and I were sitting on the porch of her trailer. The red clay dirt that made up most of the front yard and road was too hot to touch even with shoes on your feet. Lazily rocking back and forth on the old iron swing with the quilt stitch homespun pillows that she made, we looked out passed the huge front yard eating watermelon and just gazed into nothingness. The front yard was filled with many colorful flowers that I never knew how they got there. I never remember my grandmother planting them, I knew she weeded them. We swayed back and forth on the iron swing, and just ate our watermelon.
Grandma what’ll happen if I swallow dees seeds?
She sat with kerchief on her head, her checkered house dress, with a floral colored apron over it with tons of paper towels stuffed into her pockets. Chewing on the few bottom teeth that she still had in her mouth, “Gal dat’s how you gits a baby in-a yo stomach.” I quickly turned my head away from my grandmother and spit all the seeds out of my mouth. Grandma I don’t want no baby. We both continued to rock back and forth on the swing. My great-grandmother was possibly the sweetest person in the world to me. She made quilts for me, brushed my hair, cooked homemade meals for me, and let me know how cruel the world was for black people in the rural south.
One of the many characters in my family that always came to my great-grandmother’s house was my uncle Willy Tate. Tate was a big bear of a man. At the time possibly in his 50’s, he was the antitheist of a descendent of a slave. He lived off the land, gambled, spoke in a broken English, didn’t have any formal schooling, and seemed uncaring. On one particular day, he drove up to the house in his red broken down Cadillac, which must have been given to him, or rather stolen from a junk yard.
“Bee” he yelled as he squeezed himself out of his car. Stooping over to the side of the car, he dragged many small dead animals out be hind him. My great-grandmother sat on the porch in her favorite swing underneath the hazy South Carolina sun. We both watched him saunter up to the front of the house and I was amazed at the amounts of little lifeless animals hanging from a string in his hand. My grandmother got up and went inside the kitchen. I followed my grandma into the trailer and sat on the floor in the middle of the small living room. She stood at the counter doctoring on the small animals. Tate turned on the television to one of the four channels that got reception. Gun smoke glaring in the background, I looked at the coffee table in the middle of the floor and searched through the numerous piles of photos hidden in the cubbies. That’s when I heard the snoring. After finding a small faded picture of my mother and her mother, I crawled passed the small swivel chair with the quilted throw. It didn’t take me long to get there since the trailer was small. But I reached the huge box with tons of picture frames draped in front of it. As I reached up to turn the knob, “Boy…touch dat TV and I’ll shoot you.” It wasn’t the first time that phrase from my uncle. It didn’t matter if you were really a girl, to him everyone was a boy.
South Carolina with my grandmother was full of what life is meant to be. Filled with homemade biscutts made from sifted flour, preserved canned in mason jars, watermelons grown in the backyard, eggs that are actually brown with little feathers on them because you’ve just pulled them from underneath a chickens butt. Life was quiet. It was country. The most violent thing that you’d see on television was cowboys killing Indians, or outlaws. Days were hot and sunny, the house was filled with flower smell, sweet green and well water. You bathe in metal tubs so not to waste water. My grandmother made my toys, and clothes.
South Carolina was good to me. Unfortunately it wouldn’t last, and I’d end up back in New York.
This was the seasaw that was my life. Just as I started to get adjusted somewhere, I was shipped back home for one reason or another. I knew in the back of my mind, that she was feeling guilty, or perhaps someone was asking her to send money to care for me. Instead of sending the money she would just send for me.
Sometimes I would be allowed to go to my granny’s. I don’t actually remember how I ended up living with my grandmother for a short period of time, but I was there. She lived in South Jamaica, Queens. I didn’t know it growing up, but it was a rough drug riddled place that mostly African Americans lived. We lived on 97th avenue. Not far from South Road. I always had in my mind that the baddest of bad people lived on south road. The church that I frequented when I was with my granny was on South Road. Whenever I walked to church by myself, which was just about every Sunday, I always wondered if I was going to get rapped or forced into being a prostitute. I didn’t have a firm definition on hwat those things where, but I knew that they weren’t good.
My grandmother lived on the ground floor of two family house that was split into apartments. It was like a train car. The apartment had two entrances, but we only used the front one that opened to a small room. That small room lead to the middle room, that my grandmother used as a bedroom, followed by another small room that was used as a living room, the kitchen was directly in front of that room. To the side of that was the bathroom and the backdoor entrance. For the most part the front room was my bedroom. My grandmother whom I call granny, had purchased a day-bed that I used. She painted the room pink for me, even though I always hated the color pink. It reminded me that I was a girl. I never really felt like a girl. Girls are pretty, and I felt far from pretty. I was always a fat kid, and I wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world. Growing up no one ever told me that I was pretty, just that I was smart, so I figured it wasn’t by accident.
At one point in time my grandmother’s youngest son came to live with us. It was his job to take me to school and make sure that I was fed and cloth. My grandmother worked at the local hospital and was frequently working doubles or going out on cruises and things. I might as well have been told to fend for myself. At the time I was in the second grade. My uncle’s idea of fixing me breakfast was taking an individual box of cereal down from atop of the refrigerator and showing me how to split it down the middle so that the plastic was intact. I was to pour the milk into the box and eat the cereal from the self-made bowl. His idea of fixing me dinner was boiling eggs and a packet of oodles and noodles mixed with processed cheese. He was too busy spending his time outside with his friends. My grandmother always made it clear that she didn’t want anyone inside the house. In the beginning, he was compliant. However, things would change.
My uncle was in high school, and working on a computer course. He would leave the books around and feigned studying when my grandmother was around. I frequently would pick up the books and read them, when out of the assorted Rhold Dhal books that filled my shelf. I would sometimes help him with his homework. No one ever thought that it was phatetic that a second grader was helping a sixteen year old with his homework. It was just acknowledged that I was smart.
My grandmother was rarely home during this period that I stayed with her. She was frequently taking cruises, or going to Atlantic City with her friends from work. I always thought my grandmother was rich when I was younger. I would later acknowledge it for what it really was, hood rich. My grandmother loved to play the slot machines. She would bring back tons of silver dollars from her trips to AC. She would stack them up on her dresser. She had loads of things on her dresser, money, loads of gold jewelry, necklaces, rings, earrings… it was like being in a gold shop. On occasion, on my way to school, I would peruse the dresser top for a few silver dollars to take to the corner store on my route to school. I really thought nothing of the act. I normally would take a few of the loose change on the dresser, and exchange it with dollar bills from my piggy bank. I always had tones of dollar bills in my bank. I received 20 dollars a week from my mother. My grandfather would give me whatever spare bills he had when he visited. I also would get black mail money from my uncle. I would charge him various denominational amounts for bringing people into the house without my grandmother consent, or failing to take me to school as he was told.
That day had went like any other. I got up, ate my cereal out of the little box, got dressed, took my change and headed out the door. I would meet up with various people from my school or class, and make my way to the store. I was one of those kids who felt they needed to buy their friends. I wasn’t cute, and I was dark skinned, so I wasn’t automatically popular. I had to gain and attain friends through other means. This usually meant buying a junk load of candy and piecemealing it out throughout the day. Class, recess, yelling, working, being bored, and arguing over music. This is what I did all day long at P.S. 14 in South Jamaica, Queens. At the end of the day, I walked home with my same crew. However, unlike most days when my Uncle wasn’t around when I first came home, when I opened the door, and told Karen from upstairs I’d be outside in ten minutes, there sitting on my day-bed was Jamal.
Seeing his big self sitting on my bed, with the balloons from a past birthday plastered above his head on the wall just didn’t seem right. My room although pink, was pretty plain. It didn’t have nearly as many things as my room in Rego Park. No stuffed horse, or television. I did have a slender chest that was filled with clothes, but the prized possessions were not at this house. Him sitting there on my bed, in my room, where there was a family understanding, since I didn’t have a real room, with a real door, no one was allowed to congregate in my room. He was definitely, knowingly invading my privacy.
I’m gonna have to tell mommy what you did today.
He said this with a plain face. I looked through the door that lead to my grandmothers room and the rest of the house. Planning a way out without turning around and walking out the door, he seemed to sense my fear. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I honestly didn’t. He stood up and took my hand into his. You’ve been taking money from mommy’s dresser. I looked at him dumb founded. How could he know? “I put the money back. I was about to when I came home.” He was leading me into the living room that also served as his bedroom. The whole time I did not know what was the big deal about the money. It was just 3 dollars at the most, money my grandmother would have given me, and never would have cared if I had taken it, but that logic was beyond his feeble mind at the time. He swinged his large rotund self around my small space and said We’re gonna have to find a way to fix this problem. You need to go and take a shower first.
I really didn’t know what to expect. I’ve take showers before in my house so this wasn’t out of the ordinary, but it was out of the ordinary. When I walked in to the bathroom, initially I thought I would start my usual shower routine. I had already went into my room and gathered my change of clothes including underclothes. This was something that I learned I had to do, once my uncle came home from jail. Normally, I would just walk from the bathroom to my room with my towel wrapped around me, but my grandmother told me that I had to be modest now that there was a man living in the house. Now I see, modesty would get me nowhere.
I sat on the toilet and waited for the pee to trickle out. I liked and still like to relieve myself before going on to get fresh and clean. As I was sitting on the toilet, there was a knock on the door. “What the hell does he want now” I thought to myself. He didn’t even wait for a response. The door slinked open with a quick jerk and inside popped his head. I thought I told you to go and take a shower? I just looked at him dumbfounded. He turned his body to the side and squeezed into the small space in front of toilet blocking my view of the mirror. Hey…I am/was very vain and like to sit on the toilet and look at myself in the mirror. You should have at least started to run the shower by now, what are you waiting for? I looked at him with a puzzled expression. “I am sitting on the commode” I said in a very annoyed tone of voice.
He pulled me off the toilet. Holding my hands into his own, he slowly lifted my hands in the air. I looked around the small space of the bathroom, trying very hard not to look up into his eyes. I felt in the bottom of my stomach that whatever his intentions, they were not altruistic and would somehow cause me pain.
My uncle held my arms up in the air, and tugged my shirt over my head. He pushed me back closer to the toilet and reached into the tub to turn the shower on. As he drew the shower curtain back to prevent the water from splashing all over the place, he looked at me again. Why do you still have your clothes on? I was wondering to myself why the hell was he still in the bathroom. I started to tap my foot, and finally got the courage from somewhere deep in my stomach to ask the very question I was thinking, ”I am still wondering why you are in the bathroom.” He looked at me as to say how dare me for questioning him. With a look that could instantly melt ice icicles, take off your pants and stop wasting time. I moved as slow as possible, telling myself the longer this took, perhaps he would lose interest and leave the bathroom. The slower I went the more he seemed eager to help me undress. It was such a sickening feeling. Almost like my stomach was churning from a night of drinking. I could feel my stomach swirl and he still just continued to stand there and take up all the available space of the bathroom.
I stuck my hand under the water and tried to gage if it was too hot for me, which it was. I was pushed in anyway. My skin could have melted off, that is how hot the water was pouring over me. Suddenly I felt a hand at the back of my throat, “I don’t know what the fuck you thought you were doing today, taking that money, but I got something for you.” I did not bother to respond. I tried to take my time and wash as much as I could. I was hoping the longer I stayed in the bathroom, maybe BK from next door would come and call my Uncle away. I would not be that lucky.
Not all my time on 97th avenue was brutal. It was actually a time of bliss. Before my uncle came to live with us, and decide to continually rape me, life was sweet. Being the only child, away from my mother, living with my grandmother who spoiled the hell out of me was about the best thing I ever felt in my life. Every day I went outside with my friends, went to school where I was always the smartest, had everything I could ever ask for. However, I still felt inadequate. My entire youth, my family reminded me how fat I was. I was always a bit chunkier than the other kids I encountered. I always seemed to get into some kind of fight with a boy for calling me fat. At age 7, I was getting into several fights a day usually with a boy and more likely than not about my weight.
The same year I was rapped was the same year I became bulimic. I would eat my meals, and linger pretending to clean the kitchen. While everyone was away off to his or her own devices, I would go in the bathroom. Standing in front of the sink, I would take a bit of water in my mouth, proceed to swallow and bring it and everything I ate back up. I was not satisfied unless it ended with a dry heave. Until I was empty. Empty of the ill that made me less than everyone else did. Food and I never had a healthy relationship. I would be well into my twenties before I stopped forcing food out of my system, only to gorge it back. This was the sort of habit that when it started, I genuinely thought it was harmless. I figured most people just threw up their food when they had gotten too fat.
One afternoon at my babysitters next door, I was seated at the table getting ready for my meal eating ritual. I’d sit at the table salivating the arrival of warm pinto beans, made with a buttery caramel flavor, Sugary crisp on the top. Aided by the most buttery soft cornbread I’ve ever had. More so than my great grandmother’s, who’s was made entirely from scratch. I’d sit at that round table in a spacious kitchen, with checked floors and eat sometimes three plates of pinto beans. It was never looked down at that house that I ate so much. It was more championed. Ms. D as she was called, loved to cook for me, and show me how to cook. As I was a life learner, I enjoyed learning a new skill. I realize that most of my happy moments in life revolve around the act or art of cooking. The tender moments where someone took the time to show me how to create something that could bring others joy. This particular day, as I sat waiting for Ms. D to leave the kitchen, she lifted up her head and said “Don’t go throwing up your food today. That’s no good for you. If you big, you gonna be big. But don’t go throwing up your food.”
I sat there in awe. I never knew it was something that I should hide, but I felt compelled to keep on throwing up. And so I did. After she went and sat in the chair, I cleaned off my place at the table. Putting the bowls in the sink, washing off the pots, and calmly walking to the bathroom. This time instead of putting my finger down my throat, I took some water into my hands. I felt the cold water rush over my finger tips, looking at myself in the mirror. Hating the look that came back at me. Wishing I was someone else. Wishing that I didn’t exist. It would take me years before I was able to look into the mirror and say I love you to myself, and actually mean the words that came out my mouth. I would close my eyes and swallow the water from my hand, taking care to let the water settle in the back of my throat. I would slowly swallow the water and reflex the water back up to create a gag reaction. A few consecutive times of this and all the bowls that I ate would be no longer. And so was much of my childhood. Secretly running in bathrooms, and watching the nourishment swirl down the drain. It’s synonymous with my life. All the loving swirled down the drain.
I lived on 97th avenue during the height of the 80’s. It was a colorful time. The music was bohemian, the flavor was bright and spicy. It was just a wonderful time to be a kid.
I had a lot of cousins that I frequently spent time with during my stay with my granny. One of my favorite cousins to hang out with was my cousin Crystal. I was older than her by just a few months. She and I were always together. She had five brothers and sisters, and I was an only child. I guess for her, I was another person her age, that wasn’t younger that she could directly relate too. When we would hang out at my apt in Rego Park, it was a bit more sedated. It would usually just be the two of us, and we have dedicated time for whatever we wanted to do. At the tender age of 5, I had already learned how to be a show off. Because it was just me, I had more than most of my cousins, video games I never played with, books, dolls, frilly dresses. One particular Christmas, our mutual families got together at Crystal’s grandmothers apartment. My dear cousin was able to boast and brag about her new Eaze Bake Oven that she got that morning. She was waiting for me to come over so that we could both play with it together.
While Crystal’s brothers and sisters ran around the apartment, my grandmother and her siblings played bid whist in the living room, I hatched a beautifully bright idea. It almost felt like that was my job to come up with plans for what everyone was supposed to do during family get together time. Crystal’s grandmother, my granny’s older sister was in the kitchen cooking up some good old fashion peach cobbler. My aunt Mattie makes the best peach cobbler I’d ever eaten in my life. Eventhough I couldn’t have been more than six at the time, I knew that was some yummy stuff. Usually when I get a bright idea, it’s almost like a light bulb going off in my head, and hearing a sharp ding sound right after. My internal light shined bright and after a few minutes of encouragement, my cousin and I sauntered into the kitchen. “Wha chall doin in here?” My aunt sad as she sat at the small table cutting peaches into nice little orange sliver slices. I sallied up to her and explained that we had come to help make the peach cobbler. I had learned early on from my great-grandma that help was always welcomed in the kitchen, and those that got to help always got to sample the goods before anyone else.
Sampling the goods. That would be an important phrase for me. Food became a comfort. Something that I could rely on. Something that wouldn’t touch me unless I wanted to be touched. It wouldn’t say bad words to me, or hurt my feelings. It wouldn’t do anything to me. Except it would be too much of a comfort. People started to notice how much delight I took to food. Actually, people always noticed the delight I found in food. “Joyce, that girl is really robust.” That was my favorite fat word ‘robust’ During my time at 97th aveume, although I had many friends, I got into many fights with boys at school. I never felt comfortable in my own skin.
LEARNING MY OWN STRENGTH
Eventually, I would move to Southern California with my mother’s Aunt Rosailie. My Aunt Rose was the sweetest human being to me. Knowing the hardships that I had with my mother, she made sure that I had a loving home, grew up in Christ and experienced a ‘normal’ childhood-whatever that maybe. My Aunt at the time was in her thiries. She was a divorce who lived in her own home in suburban Long Beach California. This was a big change from the urban environment I grew up in. Even uppity Rego Park lacked the green grass and yard and close proximity to the beach of Long Beach.
Our Street was filled with Palm Tree’s. My Aunt had a Mother Daughter house, which in California real estate terms equates a Large ranch style house in the front and a smaller separate ranch style house in the back. She rented o
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