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My Mother, My Story: Gratitude to Mrs. Bessie L. James (1918-2011)

Poetry Confessions: Tea Time with Flint’s Poet Laureate
Three consecutive years of Raspberry Interrogations provided
me with a life lesson to pass into perpetuity.
“Come here; come out here.  I want to show you something about these raspberries.”
I moved hesitantly, lifting one leg then plotting down the other.
Mother was out the door and in the patch in the backyard by the
time I approached the porch. I wasn’t really resistant; my mind
moved in slow automation, one laborious step after the other. I
was in a state of intense ponder. There was something about
these raspberries that I should know, but could not determine
speci”cally. This was the second year of berry questions, visiting
the bushes with my mother’s “rm instruction.
“Now, which is the raspberry stem and which is the sucker?
Look closely. Which one of these is the sucker?” My memory was
tripped by her intensity. Here I was again, trying to decipher
between two gangly stems that looked identical. I stared into the
swaying green mother’s hand had just brushed. “Look, can’t you
see the di*erence?”
Mom sounded more sympathetic. Maybe she thought I needed
an appointment with Dr. Butler, our family ophthalmologist.
“Which is the stem and which is the sucker? Why do they call the
sucker the sucker? Do you remember?” She was leaning toward
me peering up from under her bifocals.
I rolled the question around and around in my head until it
became a ball, a tight knot of nothing. “I don’t know,” I replied
shifting from one leg to the other. “Stand up, stand straight, it’s
good to be tall. You’re not built down to the ground like me. Lift
your head, focus, look closely and determine the di*erence.” But
how could I lift my head and look down at the raspberries at the
same time? Though that smart-alecky thought was steeped in
logic, it was only for my internal amusement. By now the sun was
bright, but not hot. There was a glare and I was squinting.
“Where are your glasses? Go get your glasses so you can see!
Let’s move it.”
I skipped up the back porch steps into the house, took a 2ight to
my room, gleeful to escape the raspberry inquisition, snatched
my spectacles from the top of my dresser, and returned to the
outdoor classroom. Mother had been pulling weeds. There was a
pile of surrendered foliage just to the side of the raspberries.
“Now, which is the sucker and which is the raspberry stem?” I
selected, pinching a stem between my index and thumb, a stem
that to me looked identical to the others. “This is a sucker.”
“No.” It was “nite. I am sure the answer was followed by
explanation.
Years prior, while driving down the street with mom at the
wheel, we had stopped at a red light. Mother instructed me to
look over and down to my right. Propped up against the wall of
the food market were three homeless men, who might have been
mistaken for a heap of grey sacks, or bags of trash. I would
never have seen them there, still as old debris, their heads
appeared disembodied, melting into the slate-colored snow of
March. “Do you see those men?” “Yes,” I replied. I was 6 years
old and wondering about the how and why of this ghastly
sadness. I knew something was very wrong. I felt a foreboding in
my soul. Mother said, “Those men are fallen stars, fallen stars.”
Her voice was soft, yet shrill: “Never laugh at them. They are
fallen stars. Something got into them that made them that way; it
could be alcohol or drugs or the war, we don’t know, sometimes
the mind goes bad. We pray for them and do what we can to
help. Do you understand?” “Yes Ma’am,” I whispered through
the contracting hole in my throat. “We are no better than they
are. You must pay attention to your surroundings, be aware of
where you are; this is your life.” The light turned green.
Mom was acutely aware, her social sensibilities were heightened,
and she made me antenna-like as well. Together we
deconstructed all the television programs of the era: Tarzan,
Little Rascals, Shirley Temple. No programming was exempt
from our parsing and scrutinizing, even cartoons — especially
Disney — were examined for negative cultural messages,
symbolism that informed the identity and ideas of my generation.
I loved to play our three-step game: 1-Why this isn’t true? 2- What
it says about you? (and) 3- What is true? We traveled back in time
contextualizing minstrel shows, stopping to listen to the proud
alternative, the original Paul Robeson recordings that played on
vinyl speed 78. It was through that exploration that I began to
grasp the concept of cultural humiliation.
The word humiliation became one of the countless vocabulary
words I received every Monday from the age of “ve to 13 before
mom ventured out to what was sometimes two jobs.
Mother gave me the gift of loving myself through calculated
lessons. At 4 years old, I sat on the 2oor poised to play. She
displayed images of the blackest people I have seen to date. She
explained they were my ancestors, “rst humans, with grand
civilizations in Africa. These beautiful people were from the
Sudan and they were black because of the sun and climate and
their closeness to the equator, their rich pigment. She brought
out a large block-colored map; we found Sudan and the equator.
She almost cooed as her hands lightly passed over the treasured
images. Mother was not the cooing type so I knew these people
were really special, and by association so was I —Black and
Beautiful. The words ancestor and equator were placed on next
week’s word list.
Mother James was de”ned by precision and exactness. She was a
meticulous, disciplined creature, from the High Order of
Meticulanians. As adults, my sister Lynn and I would tease her:
“Oh, Queen Meticulous, we are your dusty subjects. May we
enter beyond the Threshold of Cleanliness; we have not been
sanitized, My Lady.” We would bow to the Queen of Cleanliness
at the door of her bedroom. Mother would wave us along telling
us to get out of here with such nonsense. I believe she was
secretly proud that everything was immaculate and in order.
Teachers, mother’s friends, Girl Scout Leaders, my friends’
parents, and adults in general made it a point to remark about
my height. They would say: “You sure are tall for your age.” If
mother was present she would defend with a retort: “She’s going
to be tall like her father.” Several went as far as to tell
me over and over again that I was going to be as tall as the trees,
which to me suggested that I might never stop growing. As you
might imagine, I was regularly teased as the tallest girl in my
elementary and middle school class — before tall and lanky was a
fashion statement. Maybe that’s how I acquired my a*inity with
trees. After all, the trees stood alone and so did I.
My backyard library was above it all, up in the tree, where I read
books and hung out with branches. Among the leaves, I
consumed: Things Fall Apart, Go Tell it on the Mountain,
Wretched of the Earth, and more from mother’s extensive
literary collection. Every night Mother dutifully read with me or
my sister Lynn. One day after my decent from an exceptionally
tall climb, Mother asked, “Did you see the holes in the bark? Did
you notice the leaves curling?” I was about nine years old. I
hadn’t noticed those tiny specs on the tree’s skin that looked like
newly inverted pimples. She informed, “That tree is dying. We
will work to save it.” The tree was in full blossom, with clusters
of beautiful pink and red 2owers forming a canopy of glory. How
could it be dying? I was beginning to learn things are not always
as they appear. “We will work to save it,” she said with
conviction. We were always working to save someone or
something.
It was post 1967 Detroit Rebellion, before the election of
Coleman A. Young for Mayor of Detroit. It was a complex time for
a young Black girl to comprehend.
This year was the year of the “nal raspberry lesson. I was
12, junior high school bound. Mom and I were in the garden.
I dug a hole for the new rose bush that bore the name, “The
Doctor.” That would be my special rose bush, a gift from
Mother. Everything Mother did was aspirational, purposeful.
“Which is the raspberry vine and which is the sucker?” “This is
the sucker;” I palmed the stem assuredly. I continued as if I were
teaching a class, “It is slightly thicker than the actual raspberry
stem, and the cluster of leaves are not budding leaves. These
sucker leaf clusters will not blossom into 2owers, and then
raspberries. Also the buds on the suckers are spaced a wider
distance apart.”
“Yes!” Mother was ebullient. Her “st pumped the air. She
added: “In life, there will be suckers and there will be vines; one
is real and the other pretends to be real. It is your job to
distinguish between them. You must be able to identify real
people from false people. Situations that may look like they are
in your best interest with further examination, may not be. You
must to be able to tell the raspberry vine from the sucker, for the
sucker looks real but steals all the strength from the vine that
actually bears the fruit. Always remember, the sucker bears no
fruit; its sole purpose is to take away nutrients from that which is
real, weakening the vine. Never let anyone or anything weaken
you or misuse you. You will encounter people who will be
suckers, users. Know who they are and pull them out of your life
just as we are going to uproot these suckers this afternoon. After
we get rid of these imposters, we will have a good yield of
raspberries: raspberry jam on toast or toppings on vanilla ice
cream.” Mom was twisting and pretending to lick her lips, and
pat her tummy, acting silly.
I laughed a proud smile, and exclaimed, “I like to eat them plain,
fresh picked.” Mother’s eyes smiled back as she handed me a
sharp tool, and we began the process of uprooting those suckers.

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