My Grandpa and the Land

Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation
“I shuddered to think that while we wanted that flag dragged into the mud and sullied beyond repair, we also wanted it pristine, its white stripes, summer cloud white. Watching it wave in the breeze of a distance made us nearly choke with emotion. It lifted us up with its promise and broke our hearts with its denial.”
Maya Angelou in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

I do this mental exercise now where I try and remember my paternal grandfather. I don’t remember exactly when I started doing this or why I thought of him for the first time in what felt like years when trying to make mashed potatoes from a bag of potatoes I’d bought, forgot about then found weeks later in my apartment’s cupboard. I try and remember him often now, if only for the fact that this past year’s anniversary of his death marked the first year which he’s been dead for more years of my life than alive.

I try to remember specifics about the way he looked or sounded but it’s always foggy. I first recall a few things vividly: loose skin the same brown color as mine, his eyes always watering, from the bite of the cold or the heat of the sun; his hands were rough and calloused from years of labour as a factory worker and groundskeeper, but he always touched my face gently as if it were made of flower petals. I remember more about him in the summer: the straw hat he wore outside, the handkerchief in the front-pocket of his buttoned-up shirt that he used to wipe his tears, nose and forehead when sitting and working in the sun. I don’t remember his voice too clearly but I remember him singing, in a dramatically-lilted faux-Crucian accent, Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song. Come, Mr. Tally-man, Tally me banana, daylight come and me want to go home…

I remember Papa always telling this short, silly story about the first time he went to St. Croix, his excitement ruined when within the first few hours a bee “stung him in the eye.” The story contained little else outside these two facts (embellished with each iteration), but he continued to tell it as that conclusion never failed to send my brother and I into stitches. The other night I had a dream about this story in all its simplicity. In it, my grandpa was maybe 11 or 12, dressed in overalls and no shoes running up a sandy mountainside to its plateaued peak. In his swiftness to get to the top, a bee smacks into his face, not actually stinging it, but nicking it so that he feels like it does. Papa swears, covering his injured eye with one hand, as he stumbles to the shade of palm and banana trees at the top. The other side of this island hilltop overlooks the Atlantic and he stops to look out over it, with the one good eye, and is stunned by its boundless vastness. He takes one knee, then the other, to lie down on his back in the sand, he begins to quietly hum. Both eyes now closed, the sound of the ocean waves gently crashing along the shore lull him to sleep.

My grandfather was born Daniel Oswald Joseph in Yonkers, New York to a set of parents born on the island of St. Croix, part of what is now the United States Virgin Islands. He loved the outdoors and often ventured there, but was for most of the time limited to his small garden and front-yard set across the street from project housing, in the house down the street from what later became my parents’ house.He didn’t own any livestock or horses but I’d consider him a farmer and cowboy by most other accounts. Until contracting glaucoma from diabetes in his later years, he had 20/10 eyesight and an excellent shot, my father used to say he could “hit a target 200-yards away through a hole in the fence.” One could say my grandfather was a groundskeeper by trade, and his upbringing was divorced enough from slavery that it permitted inheritance of idyllic, rather than violent, associations with tilling the land. He eventually pursued this education at the New York State School of Agriculture in Long Island, but the unfortunate circumstance of coloredness never permitted him the access to engage with it fully in the way he intended: ownership. Year-after-year, I would ask for a quarter-horse for Christmas and he would always jokingly respond that I would get nothing but “coal and a switch,” but then after, always quietly, but if we had some land…

In the summers, before the emergence of low-cost day camps, when my parents were at work, he and my grandmother (“Ma”) would watch us for the day. Their house had a backyard where about half of the yard space was dedicated to his garden. The garden was enclosed by a green chain-link fence with a single-latch gate door for entry that wielded an iron weather-vane-like ornament at its top. The gate latch was more often than not locked to keep both the two big dogs and us kids out. If my grandfather planted that season, the plot followed a routine form: the front hailed rooted vegetables like potatoes or carrots, in the middle was always tomatoes and peppers and other plants that needed to grow up the metal stakes I helped push into the ground. Behind them was a row or two of leafy ground-dwelling crops, collard greens and cabbages that frequently fell victim to caterpillars and skunks; along the broad-side of the fence that was shared with the adjacent neighbors he consistently pruned the naturally-occurring white “morning glorys,” white flowers that blossomed at sunrise and closed to sleep at night. The garden was made peninsular by a trench of about four-inches deep on three sides (the shared fence wall excluded), part of a well-intentioned, but poorly-executed attempt by my grandfather to build a second raised porch in the backyard, but ultimately the intended foundation served the purpose of preventing flooding and runoff from the garden. The few two-by-fours he’d managed to nail in the ground in the porch’s early days now jutted out wildly as their neighbor’s mighty oak tree roots’ had grown, stretched beneath the property and pushed the nails and the wood from the bottom up. The trench, in its size, depth and width, sometimes housed a small, currented stream after the garden got a good watering, and this made great conditions for make-believe for my brother and I, in which an otherwise small and unremarkable backyard transformed.

It was an oasis of idyllic rurality in the midst of our ghetto. I almost snapped my goddamn ankles leaping from the trenches to our woody shore. I zipped past the two dogs, Woody and Delman, into the garden to pick barely-ripe tomatoes I’d rarely eat. Ma would hang laundry on the clothesline run through a pulley stretching from the original raised-porch to a pole at the back of the garden. Usually she’d only hang the white articles, several times bleached and washed cold, on the line that filled with wind like sails, billowing themselves dry in the sunlight. If they caught a breeze, I’d run and weave through the gossamer linens beneath the thick, relentless sun which dried them in moments. Their yard was a world of its own, with no deference to time or space; in the thick of the bamboo stalks that grew anomalously in the back, my brother and I were running up the Island’s hill with Papa as a child, we were a teenage Ma, dressed in all white, hanging clothes sewn by our great-great grandmother in the Carolinas sun, we leapt over the stream with my Daddy and his cousins, at Papa’s brothers’ farm in Monticello, we bounded into a game of hopscotch drawn in penny-chalk in the concrete with teenaged Mommy, the sound of her Mother’s sweet voice and piano my fantasy’s score.

As he was dying, I hinged my hope on the dream that if he was to survive, by some miracle, we would get this imagined land. At the time, I hadn’t seen enough of the world, or even America, to envision it well, but in these dreams, there was a stable of quarter-horses for us to ride together, long grass that didn’t make me itchy when I sat with shorts and lots of bunnies that I could give a good chase on foot but would never overtake. There must be a stream that wound through the property in deep sinuous curves that shallowed along its bends for Papa and Daddy to fish and us to wade, on the shore a weeping willow for shade. I remember Daddy repeatedly saying to himself maybe he’ll get out, maybe he’ll get out; he, too, remembered all the land he hadn’t had and all the dreams that they had together. We all thought that maybe this wouldn’t have happened had the air about him been cleaner, had he not been cooped up in a Bronx hospital where the window of a shared room only opened a crack. Maybe then his death would have been wild and free, instead of broken and contained. I felt this strange relief even at ten years old when he left us, as if life trapped him and in death he would be free; I didn’t know it knew then, but he was never free here. I had thought Black Cowgirl was something I created for myself, but I think more accurately it was something left for me to find.

I imagined God walked right into his hospital room and picked him up on a tractor he’d long-imagined, and upon going with Him, left his decaying mortal frame for a transfigured lithe body of vivacity and health. He dropped Papa off at his Promised Land, all those that had left before him gathered excitedly to greet him there. Papa meets up with them in the front of the sprawling home and property, his yard and those around it grow bamboo, there are block parties and bacchanals to celebrate his arrival. All but one of his brothers are there. He first notices David who, not been seen since freed from the tractor under which he perished, now pilots God’s golden one. Papa’s Mama cooks desserts in the kitchen, sweet Woody and Delman, who I think died of sadness shortly after his death, are also restored and sleep at the foot of beds prepared for the guests that would eventually arrive.

I remember the ending of the funeral most vividly; an Honor Guard was present to pay their respects and place the Flag on my grandfather’s mahogany casket. Someone had handed out flowers to each mourning attendee. The pristine red-white-and-blue representing this land was the cruelest irony; honored for fighting for it, he died without it. The three active-duty men ceremoniously folded the Flag. They handed this to my grandmother, who took it but something had already left her that I haven’t seen since. The trumpeteer played that long, sad, closing note of Day is Done and right then I wanted to go home. My blurred vision cleared, into pooling little puddles on the warm dirt. When I try to remember my grandfather, all these memories are inextricably tied to American soil. How he spoke about it often; about tending it, preserving it, buying it, hunting on it, fishing from it, and I invested little thought in it other than recalling his sincere promise that he would buy a horse for me when his sickness abated and he acquired more of it. I put the flower, plucked from the Soil, atop the casket and turned away before I saw them both returned to it.

I imagine now in the home built on Papa’s heavenly pasture, when the day wanes to night and the sunset pours through the windows, they all sit around a grand couch and watch a screen that looks like a TV but projects only images of the living back on Earth. He sits in the center of the couch observing it, his forearms resting tiredly on his knees. He watches and sees me as I am now, taller but the same, wearing a black straw hat that looked like his own, traveling all about the Earth and the land, and he takes the handkerchief from his shirt’s front pocket, wipes his forehead, nose, joyous tears and quietly says, look at my flowerchild, blossoming baby girl, all grown up, cowgirl after all!

Excerpt from my journal written August 10, 2006.