There is no life here. No scent of jasmine nor the smell of God’s breath right after a rainstorm. No flashes of light capturing moments nor laughter that crescendos out into hallways. There is only a stranger lying between starched white sheets. Her eyes searching upward toward Savannah light she will never see again.
I have stood over her bed a million times. I know her face. Each feature a snapshot in my mind. The way her lips part when she finally surrenders to deep slumber. The way her eyelids slightly rustle like soft wind as the first rays of dawn yawn across her face. She was my mother and every nuance of her face belonged to me. Grandma Ojo always joked that my daddy spit my older sister, Yara, right out of him. When I was little I thought that saying was nasty ’cause can’t no beauty brew inside the phlegm of a grown man’s spit. But as my sister got older, what my grandma said was true. Grandma Ojo told us stories of the younger version of Daddy courting Momma, how when Momma opened the door, Daddy stood with lanky legs in the frame, looking like a tall glass of water. His ripples made Momma’s friends swoon, but his name was written all over her. Yara inherited his etched cheekbones, silky dark hair, and legs dipped in molasses. When she walked into a room with her brazen curves, the boys who used to chase us round corners till their armpits left an odor of sour onions swooned. Grandma Ojo warned Yara not to fool around with those ripe-for-the-pickin’ boys but her name was written all over them.
I wasn’t tall or a rippling glass of water, my face belonged to Momma. I prayed I would grow up into her rare eclectic beauty. In family photographs she never sat in the center ’cause she always sat quietly in the background until your eyes noticed hers. And when they did she was breathtaking. Her pecan tan skin was the canvas for her freckles, which scattered across her face just right.
Folks say the life of the house is in the kitchen, but in ours it was in Momma’s bedroom. On cool summer days I’d sit on the floor by the edge of her bed with crossed legs and the shea butter jar between my thighs. While she greased my roots I pulled out old family photo albums. I appointed myself the griot in the family, listening as I turned the pages and Momma shared each detail of the branches that made up our family tree. Daddy got his height from Great-Granddaddy Cyrus, a solider who fought in World War II. Great-Grandma Lucinda, Grandma Ojo’s momma, was a midwife and herbal doctor. Back then Black folks couldn’t get their foot into medical school so she healed her own people in the comfort of their homes. Expectant mothers drank boiled green Spanish moss tea for an easier childbirth. Elders suffering from swellings and joint pain got relief from a rubbing of cayenne pepper and aloe juice.
Daddy knew the first time he had fallen in love with Momma was when the sunlight danced across her face under a cherry tree. When they married he built our house from the ground, brick by brick, so that he knew it would have a solid foundation. Although they shared the bedroom, he built it just for her, he painted the ceiling blue and added a skylight so that each time she woke he could see morning light dance across her face. Every day the sun shone it would remind him of why he had fallen in love with her in the first place. He never told me that, but since I was the family griot, that is the way I’m gonna tell it.
Before she got sick, Momma’s room was filled with shelves of homemade potions that Yara and me dabbed on our necks and collarbones. The sweet scents lingered until the next morning.
The walls were filled with black-and-white moments in time in silver and gold frames. Most of them were of me and Yara, Momma’s favorite works of art. My favorite was of all of us lying in her bed. Momma in the middle with Daddy on one side of her and Yara on the other. I was five, resting on top of Momma’s chest, looking straight into the camera, the sunlight illuminating all of our faces. Momma never gave a title to that picture or any others she took, for that matter. She said that black-and-white photos made your eyes see beyond the picture, and once they did, you would have to name what you saw for yourself. Daddy named our picture The Mother Tree. Mother trees are the glue that hold all the trees in a forest together. Me, Yara, and Daddy were Momma’s leaves.
The walls of Momma’s room were sacred, they held artifacts between their cement and mortar. Every crack and crevice held our laughter, which crescendoed through the house.
When it was just me and Momma, I’d sprawl across her lilac-scented bedsheets and rest my
head against the bend of her arm. Together we listened to the rhythm of summer rain playing
against the skylight. When the storm was over, we’d open every window and lie back in the bed
with our eyes closed, breathing the outside air deep into our lungs. If someone had taken a
picture of us in that moment, the title would have been The Smell of God’s Breath after a
Momma always said the best moments in our lives are never captured by a lens of a camera but in the memories of our minds. Like when we stared at ourselves in a handheld mirror, admiring the arch of our eyebrows, the slight imperfection of our left eyes, just a pinch smaller than the other. We ran our fingers across the arches of our noses down to the fullness of our lips that overstepped into our smile. I was her and she was me. But there was something in Momma’s eyes. I’d get lost in swirls of cotton candy. But if I propped myself across her chest and looked straight into them long and hard enough, I saw the depths of her soul, deep, flowing like the Egyptian river. Sometimes, when her pupils turned the slightest shade of indigo, hidden in the edges of her eyelids I found the watery footprints of secrets she buried inside. I never asked what they were; I just blinked them into my eyes and kept them there.
But this banshee of a woman lying in front of me has barren eyes. No river of life runs through them. This woman is my double-walker, only a shadow of myself.
“Nora Rose,” she calls me by my name but it doesn’t pulsate the life, the memories I shared with my momma. The stranger in the bed reaches to wrap me in her arms. I flinch and step away.
Grandma Ojo yells at me. “In all my years of livin’ I ain’t never seen no daughter be so indifferent to her own momma!” It doesn’t matter how many times Grandma Ojo banishes me to the rose garden to fetch a switch for the back of my thighs, it won’t change the fact that she ain’t my momma. Not even Daddy, who for twenty-five years had his name written all over her, believes me.
Tonight, as Yara sleeps peacefully at the foot of her bed, I’ll lie awake with lit sage, guarding her from what lurks in the darkness.
She ain’t my momma.
She is murk and gloom
and benighted black dust born—
from wicked blues.