I hear my sister calling my name.
“Beeeetty…” Juanita’s whisper floats across the room. She shares a bed with Jimmie, I share a bed with Shirley. When we were little, I didn’t mind sharing a room with my three younger sisters. Our small bodies didn’t take up much space.
But now, I am eleven.
And most nights Shirley’s knees end up in my ribs. Her arms stretch across my neck. The covers mostly just cover her. And it’s not sharing a bed that’s so bad. It’s how Juanita wakes up in the middle of the night—every night—needing to use the bathroom but too afraid to go into the hallway by herself. Even though we have a nightlight in our room and one in the hallway.
“Betty, will you go with me?” Juanita is whining now, and her voice is getting louder.
I don’t want her to go alone or to wake up Shirley and Jimmie, so I slide out of bed. “Come on,” I whisper, holding out my hand in the dark. Juanita takes it and we tiptoe to the bathroom. I wait for her outside the door, leaning my sleepy body against the wall.
There’s a family photo next to me that I can barely see in the darkness, but I know it by heart because it’s been hanging there since I moved here four years ago. I am not in it. It’s the first thing I noticed when Ollie Mae brought me home from the train station and took me to my bedroom. Which is when I found out Ollie Mae was not just my mother but also the mother of three other girls—Shirley, Jimmie, and little Juanita. And she was not just a mother, she was also a wife to Arthur Burke, who had two sons of his own. One was named Henry and the other Arthur, who everybody called Sonny. So in one day, I went from having one aunt, one grandma, and a bunch of baby dolls to having a mother, a father, three baby sisters, and two younger brothers.
Every time I see this photo, I think I really don’t belong here. That my mother’s house doesn’t feel like home. And here’s why: because Shirley, Jimmie, and little Juanita call our mother Momma and I call her Ollie Mae. Because Shirley, Jimmie, and little Juanita look like me but not fully like my sisters, since I am the one with a different daddy. I spent the first day staring at all of them when they weren’t looking—especially Ollie Mae—trying to find myself in the arch of her eyebrows, the shape of her nose. I studied the thickness of her hair, her thin frame.
And her eyes. They looked sad all the time, even when she was smiling. Her eyes were always apologizing, like she was telling me she loved me but in a different kind of way. Like how you love a mistake that ends up not being so bad after all. Like how you love the rain because even though it can make a mess of things, it still makes rainbows rise and flowers grow.
Juanita comes out of the bathroom yawning a thank-you, and it only takes her a few seconds to fall back asleep once she’s in her bed.
I’m wide awake now, lying on my back, looking at the ceiling. This is when all of the memories come flooding in. During the day, I’m too busy with schoolwork or housework or going to church or fussing at Sonny and Henry for the way they tease Shirley and hide Jimmie’s dollies, or how they jump out from behind the sofa and scare little Juanita. But at night, after I take Juanita to the bathroom and we return to our bedroom, she falls fast asleep and I am the one tossing and turning, tossing and turning. I am trying to hold on to the sound of my Aunt Fannie Mae’s laughter and the taste of the fruit cobbler and butter pecan ice cream we’d make from scratch, how I’d sit on the floor between my Aunt Fannie Mae’s knees getting my scalp oiled, my hair braided in two long plaits with pretty ribbons on each side.
I close my eyes and replay these memories over and over every night. But not only the good memories have stayed. Sometimes, when I’m not even trying to remember, I see those magnolia trees, the blooming white flowers, and the thick brown branches with Negro bodies hanging.
A tree can never be just a tree after seeing that.
I lie on my back, then my stomach, then my side. I kick my leg out from under the covers, pull them back over me, take them off again.
I fall asleep talking to God:
Is my Aunt Fannie Mae there with you, Lord, looking down on me, watching everything that’s going on?
Does my Aunt Fannie Mae know how much I miss her? How much I love her?
Will Ollie Mae ever look at me the way she looks at my sisters?
I toss and turn, turn and toss, and think about that photograph in the hallway, then back to my Aunt Fannie Mae, then I think of those haunted trees again. I think that maybe all of these memories are another reason I still feel like a stranger here. Even though I am far away from Pinehurst, I’ve brought the South with me.
* * *
Sunday’s sunlight fills our room the next morning. I feel like I just closed my eyes, and already it is time to wake up and get ready for church. Every single Sunday we go to Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. First, everyone goes to Sunday school. We split up by age—the adult class, the high school class, the middle school class, and then there’s a class for the younger kids, and a nursery for the babies. We learn stories from the Bible and lessons on how to be better people. Besides the time when the choir sings, Sunday school is my favorite part about church. I look forward to it every Sunday.
Ollie Mae is standing at the bedroom door. She doesn’t know I’m awake, doesn’t know that I know she does this every single morning—that she opens the door and just stands there and stares at me before she wakes us. Maybe her mind is like my mind. Maybe it jumps from one memory to the next, bouncing like a rubber ball. I wonder what memories she keeps of Pinehurst.
Sometimes I ask Ollie Mae about her memories, but she usually just changes the subject or gives me one-word answers like she doesn’t remember anything.
Ollie Mae stands there for a minute more, sighs, and says, “Okay, girls. Rise and shine. You, too, Betty Dean.”
I fake a yawn, stretch my arms, and slide out of bed.
Jimmie never eases into a morning. She takes charge in everything she does. Jimmie leaps out of bed, singing, “Good morning, Momma.”
But Ollie Mae is already out of sight.
We move about, making our beds the way Ollie Mae likes them, and take turns going in and out of the bathroom, bumping into and stepping over one another. I help little Juanita get dressed because even though she can do it herself, she takes too long. “Lift your arms,” I tell her. She lifts them and wiggles into her blue-and-white polka-dot dress.
Shirley slips her feet into her black Mary Janes and buckles each shoe. Then she looks in the mirror and turns right to left, smiling at herself. Knowing Shirley, she might change before we leave. She is always checking and rechecking herself in the mirror, making sure she looks just right. Shirley turns to me and says, “Betty, I had a dream last night, but I can’t remember what happened.”
“If you can’t remember it, then how do you know you had a dream?” Jimmie asks. She sees me brushing my hair, so she brushes hers, too.
“I just know. And it was funny.” Shirley can tell she’s not making any sense.
I laugh and then Jimmie laughs, even though I’m not sure she understands what’s funny. Jimmie is just a few years younger than Shirley. Whatever I do, Jimmie does. She’s my little chocolate drop.
Ollie Mae calls to us from the kitchen. “There’s a lot of giggling and talking going on up there,” she says. “Better be some getting ready up there, too. Breakfast is on the table.”
Sonny and Henry speed down the stairs, and we are right behind them.
Shirley keeps talking her silly talk. “But doesn’t that happen to you, Betty?” she asks me. “Don’t you sometimes wake up feeling like you had a dream about something but the details are gone?”
“Sometimes,” I tell her, just to make her feel like she’s not the only one. Shirley, Jimmie, and little Juanita trail behind me like ducklings, watching my every move and listening to my every word. “But sometimes? Sometimes, you remember every detail. Sometimes they are so real that if you were laughing in your dream, you wake up laughing. And if you were crying, you wake up crying.”
“Oh. That’s never, ever happened to me,” Shirley says.
“Me, neither,” Jimmie echoes. She sits down in her chair, barely able to keep still. She reaches for the biscuits in the middle of the table, then pulls her hand back quick when Ollie Mae says, “We haven’t prayed yet.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jimmie says.
Arthur clears his throat. “Let’s bless the food. We can’t be late for Sunday school.” Arthur prays—too long for someone who just said he was worried about being late.
We can barely get our amens out before Shirley says, “Momma, I had a funny dream last night, but I can’t remember it. Does that ever happen to you?”
Shirley’s talking so much she’s barely eating, and I’m thinking how cold her eggs, bacon, and cheesy grits are going to be. I’m thinking how different we are that she can’t keep her thoughts in her head, while mine won’t go away.
Ollie Mae tells her to finish her breakfast and focus on one thing at a time. Shirley finally stops talking about her dream and says, “I’ve got to practice my Sunday school verse.” She sits up straight, closes her eyes, and starts reciting Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” She takes a breath and then tells us, “If I say it right at Sunday school, I get a gold star on the chart, and everyone who gets ten gold stars by spring can go to Belle Isle Park!”
“Really? I want to go!” Jimmie says. “And it’s an island, not a park.” She chomps on her bacon.
Shirley drinks her milk, and in between sips she’s still talking. “You have to memorize ten Bible verses plus the books of the Old and New Testaments. And it’s a park.”
Jimmie’s shoulders shrink.
Arthur looks at Shirley. “Watch your manners. And be nice to your sister,” he says.
“It’s both,” I tell them. “An island that’s a park.” I eat the last of my eggs.
“Who cares?” Sonny shouts. And for that he gets a stern look from Arthur, so he mumbles, “Sorry.”
Shirley just keeps on talking. “We’re going to swim, paddle canoes, and go to the aquarium to see all the beautifully colored fish. And then we’ll have a picnic lunch.”
“I want to go!” Jimmie pouts and looks at Ollie Mae.
Arthur says, “Well, you better get to studying the scriptures. That’s the only way you can join them.” Then Arthur and Ollie Mae get up from the table. “All right, it’s time to go,” Arthur says.
Jimmie brings her plate to me. I wash it and put it to the side of the sink with the others so I can dry them and place them back in the cupboard before we leave.
“Get your coats and your gloves, too,” Ollie Mae tells us. “This November air is brisk.”
I put the last plate away in the cupboard, put my coins in my pocketbook for the offering, grab my coat and my Bible, and close the door behind us.
Jimmie grabs my hand as we walk to church. Ollie Mae trails behind to walk beside me. She says real low, “Betty Dean, I want you to behave yourself today in church, you hear me? Don’t think I didn’t see you and your friends passing notes during service last week.” Ollie Mae looks at me.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
Text copyright © 2018 by Ilyasah Shabazz