Sampson, Virginia 1995
This is the first thing I don’t remember. The night before she, my mother, Judith, had come into my and Nana’s room. I was ten. Judith sat in the chair by the bed, careful not to wake Nana.
“Norah, I’ma go away. You wanna come with me?”
“Yeah.” But it was dark, and it seemed like a dream. Nana stirred in the bed beside me, and Judith backed away and out the room.
“Be ready,” she whispered. And she left. I remember being awake for some time afterward, thinking. Judith was going away, and if I wanted I could go with her. In the morning, I thought it was a dream that would end as in all the other times she had come in, saying she was going, always ending in the morning over breakfast and Nana’s frown. This morning Judith cooked eggs, smiling. Nana went to work. We went into action.
“Norah, be quick. We got to get to the corner to catch our ride. Okay, Norah?”
“Okay.” But I dawdled over what to carry and what to leave: a Pooh Bear that was really too big to carry and an extra pair of pajamas because they were both my favorites. I waited too long. I was only ten. We both heard the door click at the same time.
I don’t remember Judith’s face falling down. I don’t remember her eyes snapping shut while open. I don’t remember her dying again. Judith began pulling clothes down like rain from the closet, jerking them down and not all of them hers or mine, stuffing them. She was stuffing them into Uncle Cleveland’s gray-green duffle bag. Nana burst into the room, with her tote bag still on her shoulders, smoking and the cigarette dangling down. Judith had the duffle bag in front of her and me behind her, edging us both along the wall, closer to Nana, who stood in the doorway.
“I’ma go, Mama.” But Judith didn’t look at her.
“You ain’t going a goddamn place, girl!” Nana grabbed the bag, but Judith held on, knuckles and fingers gripping the cord that ran through the bag. “Why ain’t you at work, Judith?” Nana pulled harder on the bag; clothes started coming to the top of the bag.
“I’ma go, Mama. I’ma go now.” Judith was pushing me behind her with one hand, and I was crying. I remember I was crying. I was just ten.
“You ain’t lost another job, is you? Judith, you done lost another…” Nana jerked the bag, and a bra, pajamas, pictures of me as a baby, Nana smiling with a fellow of hers, Uncle Cleveland in his military uniform all come out. The dark-paneled walls seemed to be shaking.
“…I’ma go now.” Judith let go of the bag and took my hand, keeping me behind her.
“Where you think you going, gal? Gal, what you think you doing? The hell…”
“Norah! We going. Now! Come on.” I looked back at Nana, whose face was a storm coming now when she realized what Judith intended.
“Oh, hell, no, that child ain’t going nowhere with you. You done lost your damn mind if you think she is….” We were out of the bedroom doorway now. Nana’s mouth spouted fire and fists swung. And those fists, some hit Judith, some hit the wall. Judith didn’t make a sound.
“…Come on! Norah! Move.” But it was too late. Nana had my arm. We saw the door to outside but couldn’t get through it. We saw the church across the street, and we saw the telephone wires in front of the apartment, higher than we were. Nana held me and wouldn’t let go.
“Judith!” I screamed.
Judith tried to push Nana aside; both had an arm of me.
“Judith!” I screamed ’cause it hurt and Judith let go. Nana followed behind her.
“Bitch, out of my house! You not taking Norah. You mess! Get out; mind me or stay! As long as you in my house…”
“She my baby, not yours!” Judith had two hands in front of her like she wringing wash.
“Judith!” I screamed.
“She mine. She mine!”
But Nana had me now, holding me behind her.
“You in my house.” Nana didn’t budge.
“You bitch…fucking hate you. Norah, come on, Norah!” But she was calling the air. I couldn’t get past Nana and she knew it. Judith started to tremble. She had on a brown jacket, jeans with designs she drew on them, and a white T-shirt. She was holding out her arms to me.
“Dirty, you so dirty. How could you be a child of mine? I tell you now, I’ll kill her before I let you take her out of this house so she can be a dyke like you. Hell, no! One is too many!”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Judith was picking up the clothes from the floor. Uncle Cleveland, back from wherever he went to go tell on Judith, helped her pick up the clothes. She jerked them out of his hand, her face pulled tight. Uncle Cleveland then went back to his room.
“Judith! Mama!” I saw the clothes going into the bag, and I didn’t know how I was going to get to go. I saw then I wasn’t going to go.
“Now, go if you going, but this child is staying here.” Judith had all the clothes by then; the pictures she left.
“Judith! Judith!” ’Cause the door had opened.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” And she was gone. Judith was gone.
For three weeks, she was gone. Then one day, like pain in an achy knee, she came back, the screen door separating her and Nana.
“Bitch, let me in,” Judith said. She had one side of her hair braided in six cornrows down the side of her head, the other half crinkle, flyaway. Her gold-brown face burning embarrassment and her shirt and shoes dirty.
“Sure,” Nana said, stepping aside like she had company. The door opened, so I got up and went to her. Nana stepped in between my hug. Judith went to the kitchen then. She sat with her head in her hand.
“Judith?” I walked to her. She didn’t look at me, caramel eyes shining, then tears falling. Judith kept her arms hanging at her side. Instead, she looked at Nana, who had her arms folded in the doorway, crossed. Slowly, Judith raised her arm.
“Norah,” Judith said, her hand on top of my hair, until Nana coughed. So she lifted it. She didn’t hug me.
What I never thought to ask was who was our ride. Who did Judith know that would help her and why? Didn’t nobody know Judith, who swept floors at the cleaners where my uncle Cleveland worked. What I didn’t ask is why she wanted me. What Judith never did was try to take me again.
Me and Judith are like two branches of a different tree. We ain’t going to shade the same people. I’m twenty now, and I got to accept that Judith and me just never have too much to say to each other. So, when Nana say to Uncle Cleveland to take me to the bus stop, I’m surprised when Judith say she’ll go. Uncle Cleveland drunk anyway, she say. Nana don’t nod or nothing, just hands her the keys to the car. We get in and go. I look out the window to the neighborhood that I am again glad to leave to go back to college. When we round the corner of Sycamore Street and get to the station, Judith takes my suitcase from the backseat and hands it to me. Then she goes to the trunk and gets a white one out. I look at her, kinda expecting her to leave and trying to figure out how to say good-bye. But, instead, Judith goes inside the Greyhound station, talks to the clerk, and sits down. I look at the clock. My bus comes at 5:15 p.m. and it is 4:30 p.m. now. Will she stay the entire time?
“Norah, what you think of Philadelphia?” The silence isn’t sweet. I see Judith over there as she takes off her jacket. She’s dressed up, or as dressed up as Judith gets. She’s wearing a white blouse and black slacks, but she got work shoes on. I look away.
I say to myself that this Greyhound station is a gyp. Sampson, Virginia, didn’t even have those little black-and-white televisions that you can put a quarter in to watch.
“…I said, ‘Norah. What you think of Philadelphia?’” Judith got rubber bands on all the braids down her head and a white silk blouse. She looks twenty-five today, instead of thirty-six. She looks happy somehow.
“It’s okay. You want a pop? Pepsi?”
“Okay. They ain’t got nothing but Coke.”
“…Sprite then, Norah?” The seats in this Greyhound station are yellow, burnt yellow, cigarette-stained yellow. There is a ticket counter woman up front who don’t smile much. I will tell you one thing; this will be the last time I put a five-dollar bill in the soda machine.
“They got Country Time lemonade.”
“I’m going there.”
Okay, this stupid machine better give me my change. I ain’t playing.
“Where, Judith? This machine took my change.” I am talking now to the ticket counter lady; her brown ponytail is not bouncing. She’s watching a miniature black-and-white television. She doesn’t look like she’s going to move to help me.
My change. I hate it when people don’t get concerned about machines that they put in their buildings that took my…
“Philadelphia? When?” College breaks at home without Judith there will be different.
“You mean now? Right now?” Judith going?
“Naw, left now,” Judith tries to joke. Judith going to leave?
“When you coming back?”
“I ain’t, Norah, I ain’t coming back.”
This is the second thing I don’t remember. I was seven. It was Nana’s idea to call Judith “Judith.” Nana said to go tell Judith that she needed to get up and go to work. It was late and Nana said she won’t be supporting her. Nana knew how to get that pinched-look-hate-smell that comes with defeating someone. So I went into Judith’s room, which wasn’t mine. I wasn’t ever allowed to sleep there, beside Judith. The walls were green, quiet green like leaves. There was a bed, a dresser, a window with no curtains. Judith was sleeping. She looked out the doorway to see if Nana was there before she hugged me.
“Nana says to get up, Judith.”
“What you call me?” She sat up, rubbed her eyes.
I put my hands on my hips. “Nana says for you to get up, ’cause she ain’t ’porting you.”
“Girl, you had better move ’fore I smack your sass mouth.”
I moved, hurt. Quick, backed up to the dresser.
Judith said, “Come with me.”
Into the kitchen we went. Nana had her back to us, cooking. Uncle Cleveland sat at the table, sipping coffee.
“You tell her to call me Judith?” Judith was mad.
“I did.” Nana didn’t move in the kitchen.
“Why you tell her to do something like that?” Judith took a breath and said it: “I’m her mother.” And the kitchen seemed too small and shrinking still. I moved to the wall, beige. There was a back door. Nana sprang like she was waiting.
“What kind of mother is you? She might as well call you that. Don’t shame the girl in public by claiming her.”
Judith was walking toward her. “Why you make me keep her if you ain’t goin’ to let me raise her.” Judith was whispering now, moving forward.
“Why I make you keep her? She your child.” Nana had turned now and was waving a spatula in Judith’s face.
“Not so, you let me know.” Nana put the spatula into Judith’s face, closer and closer. “Get that out of my face.” But Nana kept waving it, still closer.
“I raised you, you’ll raise her. And you’ll raise her right.”
Judith slapped the spatula down. “…like you raised me?”
“…Not coming in after half the night with those nasty womens like you… What wrong how I raised you?”
Some door opened on Judith’s life. “You couldn’t raise a dog.”
“Better than a butch ho who stay out all the night.”
“That what this about? Why you care?”
“You ain’t goin’ to darken my name.”
“All them babies you spit out with no husband ain’t going to do that?…Talk, Mama, I may be a butch ho, but I didn’t let no one trick me out of my child.”
“Watch it, girl.”
“Watch what? Where Roger? His daddy and his daddy wife got him. You just got me and Cleveland. Pete died to get from you.”
Nana threw a plate at Judith, hunched over, hating. “Shut up,” and Nana slapped Judith now. Judith slapped her back. Nana punched now and they started grappling.
“Mama.” I came from the corner and tried to get to her. Nana got me. Judith broke away, hair flying around her head and Nana with a handful.
“What you going to do? You ain’t got nothing. Nothing. This world hard for your kind. You go; leave her.” Nana went to put her hand to Judith, but Judith jumped back, expecting the blow. Nana dropped her hand. She stepped back to the stove. Nana turned to me. “Her name Judith,” she said. And Judith knew it was going to stick then, like the eggs burning in the pan. And that every time Judith tried to fight it, Nana would just come back with more.
“Why? Why? Why? You a dog, Mama.”
Nana went back to the stove. I remember sitting down on the floor shaking, just shaking.
“But, when I come home for breaks, you ain’t going to be there.” Judith called my name like she picked and cherished it. But I know that Nana named me in the hospital room, with Judith’s head turned to the side. At least that’s what Uncle Cleveland told me. He said Nana named me, named me after herself. I believe him.
“Philadelphia ain’t that far from you at school. You could…”
“Philadelphia, New York…boarding.” People who were sitting in cars, next to the car of Nana’s that Judith would leave for Nana to come get, were now coming into the station.
“That’s my bus,” Judith said.
“Judith?” And I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to move, so I picked up her suitcase and walked with her. I handed the white suitcase to the porter.
“Judith?” My arms down by my side and I got no motion or practice to say nothing to Judith. Judith pressed some paper into my hand and gripped my fingers.
“Bye, Norah.” She moved toward the bus.
I don’t remember her holding me either. I don’t remember Saturdays. I don’t remember her when I was four when Nana was at work on Saturday; Judith would hold me. I don’t remember that janitors for school systems don’t work on Saturdays and Sundays. I don’t know Uncle Cleveland slept on the couch, drunk, when he should have been watching me. How I knew without being told that Nana wanted him watching me and Judith so she couldn’t do nothing. And I never understood what Judith was supposed to do to me. Those times that I don’t remember, Judith used to hold and rock me.
“Shhhhhhhhh,” she would say, softly, her ten braids rounding her head skimming mine. And I don’t remember how she would set me aside, off her lap, away, when Nana came through the door.
But it is because Judith’s bus came before mine that I end up set aside again. That I end up like the Walton reruns, chasing the bus, yelling out to her, shaking, holding up that paper. I say that I got it. I say I got the address. I’ll come to Philadelphia…Mama.