By Mark Anthony Neal | NewBlackMan
Friday, December 23, 2011.
In my mind home had always been that place where my parents resided. This is not to say that I don’t have a home that I share with a wife and two daughters, but that the very idea of going home—to some mythical, long past moment—was always concretely related to the place where my parents resided. I can’t say that my home as a child was particularly warm; more functional than anything, and that is not to say that I didn’t know that I was loved, since I was indeed Arthur and Elsie’s baby-boy and only child. My father’s matter-of-fact way of going to work, six days a week, without comment or complaint (and in the shadow of my mother’s out-sized personality) continues to color my workman-like approach to everything from writing, to cooking Sunday morning breakfast (as he did), parenting and marriage.
The sensibility that my father bequeathed to me, his son, may have been his greatest gift in the months immediately after his death. He died in his sleep one February night, with his 73rd birthday a few months on the horizon, as matter-of-factly as he lived, with little fuss. In the spirit of my mother and father’s ying and yang, meant that I was left with ying, unhinged by the death of her mother and husband a month apart that winter. And unhinged is how I might have described my own state in those months following my father’s death, my untreated hypertension out-of-control, closing out what had been nearly three-years of sleeplessness, in which I slept no more than four hours of sleep a night.
The closeted demons in my head that I kept at bay, by staying awake as often as physically possible—and by always punching the keys—were loosed sometime in the spring after my father’s death, when the reality hit, that my mother could not take care of herself anymore; the demons have not returned to their closets. Even when I slept, I cried, lamenting my inability to care for my own mother, putting her in a nursing home, with the faint voices of elders suggesting that Black folk don’t do that. It was all that I could do to keep my sanity.
My penance would be having to destroy my home—the Bronx apartment that my parents shared for the final thirty-two years of their marriage and that my mother barely survived five months in without her husband. That home had become the site of a few bad memories, baby-boy spreading his wings in a career and life, that nobody in that little project apartment could have imagined when the three of us moved there in the spring of 1976, from our tenement building in the South Bronx that happened to also house a yet unknown Hip-Hop feminist. I suspect that my mother expected that I would always have a presence in that apartment, she wanted to keep me as close to her, with the same force, that she fled her own mother’s home, at age sixteen, leaving Baltimore and settling in New York City, returning occasionally for short family trips, almost always without my father who was, of course, working.
When I chose to fly or flee, my mother laid the blame initially at the feet of the woman who would marry her son and finally at the feet of that son and his ambition, an ambition that she indeed cultivated, not quite knowing it would reproduce in me (and later her grand-daughters) the very independence that kept her and her own mother at arms length until that last phone-call, literally on the eve of my grand-mother’s passing. I have also come to understand that the dementia that would ravage my mother’s mind like wildfires in August, might have already been at play; I was too ambitious to notice.
And so in the spring of 2009, thirty-three years after I first walked into that Bronx apartment, it became my punishment to throw away the life that my parents had built for a son (and perhaps his family), who had little interest in coming home. It was a sad joke to hear the unknowing and the never knowing, ask if I was gonna hold an estate sale, not quite understanding that my parents stuff—piles and piles of shit really—were the kinds things that no one wanted, even their son. Even the stacks of vinyl records that were once the greatest bond between a father and a son, had given way to new technologies. My father was never gonna listen to those Mighty Clouds of Joy albums that I had digitized two years earlier. Piece by piece, over several months, and with a little help from my wife and a best-friend, whose friendship was even older than the time my parents spent in that apartment, I gutted that apartment; gutted my home.
I periodically dream that I am back in that apartment, aged 16, my wings about to take flight, windows wide open and both my parents are there with me, and Isaac Hayes’s Black Moses in playing in the background. There are also dreams of some breezy future that will never happen, where we are all wearing white, their grand-daughters bringing them scones and real cream for their coffee, sitting in a house that looks quite like the one I live in now.
Truth is, when my mother finally went home in the summer of 2009, I matter-of-factly marked the occasion, as my father might have, had he been as ambitious as me. My blood pressure dropped twenty points the day after. I had been mourning the woman that had been my mother since my father’s death; the last time she remotely resembled that woman. Fittingly, my mother died and was buried in Baltimore, the very place she fled from as a teen-ager exactly fifty-years earlier, only to be buried next to the woman she had fled from in the first place, along with my father’s remains. I had stopped calling New York—The Bronx—my home, I had no home, and no parents to return to, something the younger, more ambitious version of myself could have never fathomed.
On a recent October morning, I returned to that cemetery for the first time since my mother was lowered into the earth. Though my trip to Baltimore had been planned months in advance and I had already made arrangements to spend some time with one of my aunts, the thought of visiting my parents’ gravesite never once crossed my mind. Yet as I drove into the city from the airport, I could hear my parents calling to me; they wanted me to visit. As if choreographed in advance, I spent several minutes trudging in the wet grass, searching for their stone markers. It was only as I complained out-loud that it was typical of them to put me through such changes—I was checking my watch for a presentation that I would never make—that I stumbled over their marker.
It was a matter-of-fact reunion—reinforced by the auntie, who later in the car asked me more than a few times if I was okay—as I told them how proud they would be of their grand-daughters, both of whom possess their grandmother’s spirit, to my daily dismay. I thanked them, for imagining a future for their baby-boy, that none of us could have ever expected, but that they had indeed planned for, not with money, but rather matter-of-factly. I cleared their stones of cut grass and that of my grandmother, and was back in the car minutes later; back to my ambition.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press) and Professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is founder and managing editor of NewBlackMan and host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.