“Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past
From the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts
And recycling it for more than it’s worth…”— Mary Schmich, Wear Sunscreen
I am flying home. A trip that I haven’t made in 11 years —although I like to say 10 because though a decade is bad it sounds better to me. Ten years… a nice round number, besides I don’t really care for odd numbers with the exception of 3, 7, 9, and 13… This isn’t a pleasure
trip, although it won’t be without it’s joys, this is a bittersweet trip, a Sankofa journey, I am going home to say goodbye, to wish the vessel of a parent, my parent, one of the mothers I was fortunate to be gifted, farewell. In doing so I am both journeying and tripping, tripping back down memory lane, over good memories and nostalgia, fear and uncertainty, over the guilt of not being there and leaving so much unsaid… I am tripping over my selfishness in the pursuit of finding myself. Tripping over the walls I put up, the barriers and obstacles I used to remain guarded and closed off to the people who have known me the longest and loved me the best. I am going home to stand beside my father as he releases a wife. My sisters and my brothers as they release a mother… I am tripping over words and thoughts on this journey, an effort to go get my life back so that I can move forward.
I am recalling now in a way that I never did before Fannie Mae Thomas (Ware), that is her name. Her name remains as much as her memory remains, in a way that is so tangible and real that I half expect her to call (because Mom’s do that, even when children do not) and kick myself for every time I didn’t and intended to and cry every time I realize that I cannot. I am checking and rechecking my memories for flaws. I am weighing what I know against what I’ve heard to see how much I’ve just made up. I’m giving myself permission to to remember more good than bad and know that it is not just me painting over the bad parts, but recognizing the profound good that I may have forsaken for a life in exile far from the grace of a mother’s love.
Aunt Fannie, with her rich, smoky, and raspy voice was my father’s wife long before I was twinkle in his eye and long after my brother and I were born (our mother was not his wife). Aunt Fannie (which I grew up calling her because it’s what all of my cousins called her and they were they same ages as my brothers and sisters and I’m sure as a child I couldn’t tell the difference, didn’t know better, and nobody bothered to correct me, so Aunt Fannie she remained)… As I was saying Aunt Fannie was just a little older than my father, a year or so his sr. I don’t know (she was older, that is a fact, how much… not sure, maybe I’ll know by the end of my journey*) and was my Father’s 2nd wife. **They married in their 20’s from my understanding (there were already children from a previous marriage/s, again a fact with fuzzy details, what I do know is that those children I would grow up with as sisters and brothers). Aunt Fannie and Daddy had a baby boy and he was the baby for a long time…
From what I’ve heard they were a good-looking couple,well- known in their social circle, movers, shakers, a real power-couple. At one point a pair of cosmetologists (no surprise who influenced my affinity for the tonsorial and aesthetic arts). At another, Psychiatric Technicians… Both, young, driven, black, beauty.full and, it is rumored, equally handy with the hardware… And while I do not know the
ins and outs of why they separated (and there are as many versions of the story as there are of the bible) the relationship never really ended, there were family get-togethers, weddings, births, graduations, children, grandchildren, and transitions of loved ones… And sometimes I imagine, husband and wife, parents, grandparents, friends… would look at each other across some space and time knowingly at the family that they built with heart, body, soul, and spirit, the energy chord having never dissolved through the years.
As time went by and things happened, some good, some bad, some unforgivable, some unforgettable (in great ways and tragic ways)… somewhere around the time my eldest sibling was 21 years-old I was born… and this is really where my story with Aunt Fannie begins.
I’m not sure what happened prior to my birth (sure I’ve heard stories… I’ve heard my mother’s version, father’s version, an iota from an aunt, a segment from a sibling) what I do know is that she, Fannie—Aunt Fannie, was there. Aunt Fannie was always there. I do not know what she said to her children, my brothers and sisters, when she found out I was on my way here. I do know that my eldest brother was excited— he told me so— and that if they weren’t happy about it I never knew, because they never told me or showed me. That’s one way that Aunt Fannie was and will always be here… Her love was unconditional and epidemic and she imparted that that to all of her children.
I feel compelled at this point in writing to evoke some story of her flawed humanness that will balance this piece so that it doesn’t seem as if I’m peddling rainbows, bichon frisee puppies, kittens with cartoonishly cute eyes, and cotton candy… I assure you I am not. It’s just that my reality and experiences of Aunt Fannie were not dark… I have no stories to tell of the worst whuppin’ I ever got or the epic showdown of womanhood as I came of age and started “smelling myself”… The only story that I have to tell that is even remotely close to casting aspersions places the besmirchment (it’s a word…I think) of character squarely on yours truly. Because in this story it was I who played fast and loose with the truth, somewhere around 8 or 9 years old, when I accused Aunt Fannie of whuppin’ me.
If there is only one story I remember in great detail, this is it. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I was on the phone with my mom (the one who gave birth to me) and I told her that Aunt Fannie whupped me. I wasn’t particularly given to lying as a child (or as an adult), I just wasn’t good at it and if discovered it carried a stiff penalty in my house. I don’t know what I was thinking, but it seems like a good idea at the time… So, I made up a place and time and told my mom and as moms do she became furious. Then, she asked to speak with my father (at which point I knew I was caught, but had already committed to the lie). My father gets on the phone, there is some back and forth and then he calls me into his office (when I was younger he almost always had a home office or something of the sort) and begins to grill me. Three or four questions in, my father has completely discredited me and I am on my way to a real whuppin’ post-haste.
I know that my mom called Aunt Fannie and confronted her. What Aunt Fannie’s response was I can only imagine was mature, motherly, loving, and straight-forward (though depending on who you’ve talked to it could’ve been sharp and possibly lacked tact… I wouldn’t know, not my experience). The punishment was swift and the incident was never spoken of again, my father barely remembered when I rehashed it for him on the drive from LAX to Rancho Cucamonga. The last statement isn’t exactly accurate, it was spoken of again as least one time for sure, when I was about 18 or 19 because that incident stayed with me. It bothered me that I lied on Aunt Fannie because, unless somebody knows something I don’t, she had never whupped me or even raised her voice at me (that I can recall). Around 18 or 19 years old, after carrying the guilt of that lie for many years and through many birthdays, family gatherings, countless hugs, smiles, and her unconditional love, I finally summoned the courage to bring it up.
I called Aunt Fannie up one day to apologize when I judged I was grown enough to have the conversation. I recalled the story for her and she listened. When I finished, without any judgment or any harshness (and what I always imagined was a bit of a smile in her voice) she said something like I was being a child and doing what children do. She told me that she never held it against me, didn’t even give it another thought and something about children doing crazy things to get their parents back together. She told me she loved me and all was forgiven. I know now in a way that I barely grasped then that she always loved me and had forgiven me long before I ever asked.
When I saw Aunt Fannie again in 1999, the family was assembled for another unfortunate convening. I came home with a fat, peanut-butter colored, little boy clutching my bosom. She wasn’t well. I wasn’t ready. I went to visit her in her hotel room, afraid to touch her because she seemed frail, but she held nothing back in her embrace. We sat on the bed together and she played with my fat little baby and smiled her smile. She asked questions that I don’t remember. I gave answers that seem unimportant now. I just remember being amazed at how much stronger she seemed than she looked as she smiled, joked,laughed and reminisced.
If I sat and thought really hard I could probably call to mind dozens of memories of Aunt Fannie. I can’t remember very many sad or angry moments just now, those are not my stories to tell. The stories that are mine are filled with sisters and brothers, love, family, togetherness, strength, resiliency, dedication, and, forgiveness. My memories are ripe with the sensory memory of her. She always smelled so good, fancy and rich. She was always dressed sharply, accented by her accessories, make-up flawless, hair laid and nails manicured to perfection (KoKo ain’t have nothing on my Aunt Fannie) and she never let any of her finery stop her from fully embracing you (possibly leaving a big red smile on your cheek).
In as much as her love is the legacy that she bequeathed to her family so is Fannie’s Smile.
*I found out on the 1st day, she was 10 months older than my father as he detailed for me some of the back story. They would be the same age for 2 months a year.
**They married when my father was 26, although they had already been together for about 3 years at that point. I will not disclose in detail the birth order of my siblings or whom came from where and how because all that ever mattered to me, all I’ve ever known, was that we are brothers and sisters.