we started planning for this day, some years ago, when you were close to 90 years old and we felt secure that you'd make it to your 100th birthday. Probably the only time we considered that you might not survive was when your children agreed, after a 'discussion', to let the doctors insert a pacemaker. You had nixed the idea when you were in your 70's, still driving, eating bacon and eggs every morning and too fly to "be setting off alarms and worrying about the microwave electrocuting me" which was the idea that you somehow had in your head about the gadget. "When it's time for me to go, I will. I'm not eating no special diets or letting them put any electronics in me." You always did what you wanted and that was that.
Years later, the doctors questioned why you'd never had one inserted and lamented that you probably wouldn't live through the surgery because you were just too old, but Big Michael, your next-to-the-baby son, said "then there is nothing to lose" and was adamant that trying to keep you alive was a better choice than just waiting for your overworked heart to give out. We waited for you to come through the surgery but prepared ourselves before you went under that this might be goodbye. Most of us were there at alternate times, five generations of your offspring, friends and church members hoping that love would be stronger than a weak heart.
"If she wakes up it will be a miracle," the doctor warned,impressed with all the love and hope surounding a little old lady but trying to keep everyone realistic. He didn't know that you always did what you wanted to do.
Hours later, you woke up ordering people, including the doctor, around, and removing tubes, more talkative and stronger than you'd been all year. Even the doctor said it was a miracle that he hadn't really expected.
Party plans for your centennial went into full effect. It never occurred to us that you wouldn't make it to 100. June 1, 2005 you slipped away during the night. No warning, no ambulances, attempts at resuscitation or illness signaling the end. You went quietly, just like you'd always wanted. Right after the holiday and before your grandson's birthday so those days wouldn't be 'marked' by your death.
Today, the occasion of your 100th birthday, a part of me still wishes that we'd had a party celebrating your life but it's painful, though unspoken, the emptiness that Mama's like you leave, even when they have lived 96 years and go peacefully in their sleep. We are supposed to feel grattitude that you are in a better place and we had you as long as we did. Still, I miss you.
I have been re-reading Sula because it always makes me think of you. Do you remember when I found her? In elementary school I was reading faster than everyone and my teacher would let me go and roam the library while she taught the other kids so that I wouldn't get bored. 'Sula' was waiting, sitting on the shelf like she knew that I was looking for her, knew that I was searching for something more than Nancy Drew and other childhood staples. Ebony Jr. had beautiful pictures but I wanted a book with those shades of brown images drawn in words. I read the first paragraph and I knew that it was a story about Black people but there was no picture of the author and Toni Morrison was a racially ambiguous name. I followed my instinct and checked it out and had read nearly half of it by the time I ran in the house after school, thrilled because one of the characters lived in our city, Flint, Michigan and Eva spoke the greeting I loved to hear coming from your mouth. "What you know good?"
I was out of breath because I ran all the way to tell you about this book I'd found and I risked your wrath because I interrupted your one guilty pleasure, General Hospital. But Luke and Laura could wait. This was important and I was curiously disturbed and wanted you to answer my question.
"What kind of Mama chops off her own leg and sets her son on fire?"
"Say what?" You turned to me with a worried expression, the dishtowel, ever present, across the shoulder of your daily uniform of plaid dresses.
I handed the book to you like we were in court and it was exhibit A. I had dog-eared the section where Eva pours kerosene on Plum and lights the fire. You answered my next question before I could even ask.
"Colored woman wrote this book," you stated using language from a time gone by that we teased you about.
"There's no picture and I'm not sure," I said. "You ask the teacher?" you asked me. I hadn't even asked my beloved teacher because she had explained to someone the week before that Malcolm X was a bad man who hated white people and that's why we didn't talk about him. I knew better and I loved my teacher and it was mutual on her part so I decided to leave race issues out of our conversations because I couldn't afford to find out that she disliked another Black person that I admired.
"Don't matter. I know a colored woman wrote this," you said matter of factly and you kept reading and never looked at the tv again that afternoon. I heard you shouting, "yes, yes" like you did when the pastor said something that you agreed with on Sunday mornings, while you were reading. I didn't even ask for the book back that night. The next morning you instructed me to "see what else she has in the library". I brought home The Bluest Eye but I hadn't read any of it afraid of what the Mama's in this book could do to their children. You gave Sula back to me and told me to finish it. I heard you having your daily morning coffee with the neighbor explaining to her what the story was about and you both agreeing that children never understand what Mama's have to do to take care of them. You even lamented how you felt for Eva having to end Plum's suffering because he was an addict.
"I don't blame her. I don't know how folks get dressed on Sunday mornings, go pray and sing songs, shout and carry on and then come home to chicken dinner and your child is who knows where. After drugs get them, they never right again anyway," I over heard you say. But I disagreed with you then. How could a mother do something like that? You read many books along with us over the years but the one's by Black author's, especially women, were your favorites. Still, you would revisit your beloved Sula from time to time.
The story paralleled your life. The young woman, teenager in your case who had prayed for the death of a marriage to a mean, unfaithful, shotgun husband and had her prayer answered with his unfortunate illness and death. The house full of border's and children you took in and cared for. The necessity to steel yourself against judgment and sometimes chip off little pieces of your soul and do things to feed your children who kept coming even though you refused to marry again, and didn't want to leave them alone while you cleaned house for another woman. The adult children, well really your two daughters, my mother and aunt, who wondered, like Hannah, if you 'loved' them. You would only answer them with a question, "what do you think?" followed by indignant silence. It would be years later after the birth of my own daughter that you would admit you could have been gentler because affection hadn't been your way. But your mother had died when you were five and your grandmother, born a slave, refused affection because in her mind that would draw attention and you could be sold even though you were never enslaved. "I may not have given them hugs and kisses but I said I love you every time I fed them and they had a place to sleep at night. And wasn't no man here mistreating or beating us. Action speak more than words." You did your best. Still, you told me to do both with my daughter and I do. But I understand why you were that way.
Funny, all these years I always thought it was Eva you related to the most but maybe it was Sula who was a year older than you. You were older than she was when you read the book but maybe it took you to when you were her age and you too chose freedom as a woman. It was unheard of in your day but men always treated you with respect and you seemed to value that beyond anything.
I remember you asking me when my daughter was a baby if I now understood why Eva had taken Plum's life? I was still adamant. "No loving mother would do such a thing." You smiled.
"Okay, we'll see in fifteen years." It's fifteen years and on a trip home one summer, I saw a high school classmate walking down the middle of the street with just one shoe, mismatched dirty clothing and wild hair. She banged on the car window begging for money, talking gibberish with eyes vacant as a zombie's. She probably didn't even know what day it was, so I didn't expect her to recognize me from back in the day. It shook me and scared my daughter. "She's just on drugs," I explained. "More harm to herself than us." But I kept thinking about her weeks later. In high school she was a beautiful, lively girl with wild Chaka Khan-like hair and dreams of being an accountant. She carried a briefcase and dressed like a business professional. I kept imagining my daughter in her place and the words slipped from my mouth easily, "I'd rather see you dead than let you roam around like that." Is that love or control or lack of faith? I wish you were here to discuss it but I'll keep reading and figure it out.
I understand why you related to the book 'Sula' so much. General Motors bought the St. John area, populated by Black people, to build a highway and a vibrant community was displaced like the folks in the Bottom. Your life was not the norm and consequently you had to deal with living outside the constraints placed on folks to fit into society's definition of what is right. In some ways, we were like the Peace family, non-conventional(translation, not man-headed) with a strong matriarch who kept a 'friend' in her purse to 'help' people who thought they didn't have to listen to a little old Black woman, who enjoyed the respect of men but wanted to run her own life and household. You gave birth to twelve children and eight survived and you raised them on your own, with little money and they all thrived and respected you and others. You sacrificed much and endured barriers that I'll never know but you made it. Now they make statistics of families like yours and pronounce them doomed. I know better. I knew you.
Happy Birthday Inez Copeland. Rest easy, Mama.
We miss you, but we're fine.