A DAUGHTER’S REFLECTION
By Stephane Dunn
Saturday/Sunday, July4-5, 2009.
My father (daddy) dies. He is in bed with his girlfriend and he wakes, says her name, gasps, and that’s it. He is gone. Heart attack. It’s March and three weeks after we’ve buried gramps, my mother’s daddy.
And that’s the last time I spoke to my father. The day of that funeral, we chatted a few minutes about how it was time for a little reunion, maybe a barbeque in Fort Wayne where he lived and maybe May 22, his birthday and the birthday of his granddaughter, my sister’s then two year old. I tell him that anytime I listen to James Cleveland, I think of him and Sundays; getting ready for church and leaving, all except he, who always remained at home with Albertina Walker, James, and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, cooking up some good smelling roast or stew.
He laughed a little, kind of sad, and that was it. He was dead three weeks later.
Don’t remember who called. Mama, I think, with that voice that said somebody died before the “I got some bad news” comes out. Still, I am surprised, too surprised to say much or think much. My older sister has to be told; my younger sister, daddy’s best thing, knows. She is crushed - two little kids of her own but now a little girl missing what she’d already lost and the chance that somehow that perfect arc of daddy and little girl love will return whole. My older sister is dry but full of stuff, a good deal held back and in; it comes out in funeral planning drama days later in Indiana when she ticks the girlfriend off and we have to pay for the burial instead of using money he’d supposedly put aside for that.
At the funeral, I sit in the front row - my brother, younger sister, then me and the older sister. The younger sister is beside herself, the coffin, the church, us in the front row, hits hard. Her father is really gone.
She wails one line, “I’m not ready.”
I take my place in front of the pulpit, off to one side of the coffin and stand beside the brother and older sister and pay homage. I come last or maybe next to last and talk about oatmeal. I think it is a poem, kind of, but really some words trying to say something about someone I’ve missed for years, someone I’ll keep missing. I could only eat daddy’s oatmeal. Only he made it perfectly, not too thick or thin and so pretty with just the right mix of cinnamon and butter and just a bit of sugar, so good I did not need toast or milk. I say that I haven’t eaten it, oatmeal, for years, not anybody’s even my own.
I cannot remember them all, but I know my words were all about oatmeal - the best oatmeal ever. I returned to my seat and held my wailing sister. Maybe I did not, could not wail or cry because I was there and I wasn’t. I’m in the black dress, the coffin, silver, a few feet away and my sister cries on my shoulder but I’m looking down high above the choir stand and the preachers, including my step-dad pastor and I’m looking down, noting the too empty pews and the few familiar faces dotting benches.
I see we four sitting on that front pew and my mother and some aunts ways behind us and the little singing and organ playing going on. When it’s over and a cousin has preached his subject, about what I cannot recall, we walk down the aisle to the preacher’s ‘ashes to ashes’ and I greet a boyfriend from back in the day and an old high school friend and then there is the cemetery.
The coffin goes down, down, down and too soon we’re back at the church where people eat chicken and exchange numbers. And that’s it.
A few months later on a Sunday summer morning, my off and on again poet boyfriend rises early and says come on. For some reason, I don’t ask where or why just throw on sweats, a t-shirt, and some tennis shoes and mask my fast beating heart when he pulls the four-wheel out of the drive. We don’t go far from the beige subdivision but it seems miles away, the hidden little woods behind a school where we stop.
There are trees undisturbed reaching up past the clouds and a little brook in the center of the tree clump. We sit on a fallen trunk, under another tree where the bright morning sun warms up and filters down through the leaves.
We don’t speak. I feel something that’s been too far from me, quiet, calm. I raise my t-shirt, baring a breast and raise my chest and ask the sun to warm me all the way through. The poet leans over softly and kisses the breast then rises and walks off. I cover my breast and rise too but do not follow him. I head towards a tree frozen in convulsions and lean against the bewitched body and look up.
I imagine the trees really do go on and on, as far away as daddy and gramps and grandmamma and further, maybe to where there actually is a heaven. I stretch against the bewitched one and stretch my neck trying to see that far. Without warning, there’s a wetness on my cheeks and a low sound. My Poet stays away and I cry and look up until it comes again - calm and quiet.
Minutes later, we get back on the four-wheel but this time, I hop on the front and take that wheel. I forget to worry about going too fast or getting hit in the face with a branch or flying off the thing if we hit a curve too fast. I don’t know it then, but I will learn to make oatmeal that I like.
Stephane Dunn, Ph.D, MFA, is currently an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Morehouse College. She has also taught at Ohio State University. A scholarly and creative writer, she specializes in film, popular culture, literature and African American studies. She is the author of articles and commentaries and the book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (University of Illinois Press 2008).