Two years ago on the twenty-second of August, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday in a Baptist Medical Center bed confined by two cold steel bars that were locked firm on each side. My single companion was an I.V. pole that dripped slow answers to an addictive future but kept me uncomfortably tethered to a 200 pound, overweight past. I had cancer in my left kidney. Five decades of devouring chicken fried in decadent grease and collard greens soaked in smoked meats rendered me a victim of Southern eating. Multiple surgeries followed, had taken a toll and on this milestone birthday, the big five-zero, I felt spiritually betrayed by God.
For forty days I laid lateral with my head angled just high enough to peer out my ceiling- to -floor window on the Five South ward. Each day I waited for the city skyline to dance for me as the sun played Bach, or I listed to the hum of ten thousand engines zoom across the Fuller Warren Bridge as I guessed if any one of them belonged to my mother’s overrun Chrysler or my 23-year-old daughter Kelsey’s black Nissan sedan. The murky waters of the nearby St. Johns River fashioned restless ripples that left me questioning the relationship between my carnivorous life and how a robust diet of carcinogens led to the stage II carcinoma that grew inside my kidneys. How and why my body bred cancer was yet one more misunderstood relationship that no one in my family—immediate or extended—had ever considered or discussed and seemingly continued to avoid.
I had mastered the art of waiting—for anyone to come—but most welcome was the clunky sound of a nurse’s clogs. They had each become my beloved opioid fairies who delivered a syringe or three of happy juice. When I wasn’t “Lucy in the Sky” zoned out, I simply laid there and questioned the origins of disease. I killed finite hours wondering how I ended up on the post-surgical floor of a medical institution that I already owed thousands of dollars. For hundreds of hours of hindsight, I served hospital prison-time and reflected on how I became an adult who once loved the Lord, but was now a spiritual skeptic who’d rather play poker with fallen angels than pray.
The fifty-year benchmark that unwittingly slid me back to Jacksonville was the result of cancer’s secondary diagnosis: I was religious-sick and if Jesus Christ came to give life and life more abundantly, where were my riches? And where was my healing? I was tired of waiting on the God who cursed me with cancer to heal me from the after effects of the same. Jesus Christ had failed me, my body was surgically scarred, and I was pissed.
In a narrative no woman’s body should write, my belly boasted the brunt end of many a scalpel’s tale and even my right buttock read aloud from a battery-inserted script. A vertical line ran straight down my spine as though the neurosurgeon used a straight-edged ruler to implant a spinal cord stimulator, and a crooked smile hung like a half-moon on my left flank following a left nephrectomy that viciously excised a kidney. Much of my flesh has morphed to form a keloid’s grin. According to the white coats and a horde of hollow scriptures, I initially beat “the little c.” That’s funny, I didn’t feel like a conqueror. Exactly who won?
Most days the opioids won. They became controlled substance champions that confirmed that biblical defiance for a Southern Black woman was as uncool as kicking kittens but not quite as egregious as writing a bad check. There was a redeeming quality in knowing that so many of my time-tender thoughts were actually segmented dilaudid dreams that were more vivid than life itself. On any given day-part, I could court a deep sleep memory that ventured childhood memories of Jesus to nightmarish comedies about Sunday school and church. My opioid delusions were biblically intense with a whimsical sensibility easily understood by me. Soured images merged from my life’s first five years into five decades that continue to haunt my half-a-century existence. ◙
It’s 1968, and I have become a five-year-old religious cynic after being force-fed Sunday morning devotion. Attending church was cyclic like religion and twisted by a routine likened to military madness: you went, you sat, you sat longer, you sometimes stood, you always sang, you sat back down, and you remained seated until you were instructed to leave. Then, you went home.
Church seemed to be the gateway to all things good and at the age of five, I was taught to believe that if you were elderly, Black, and regularly attended Redeemed Baptist Church—especially on Easter wearing brand new, patent leather Mary Jane’s and an itchy can-can skirt beneath a pastel gathering of ruffles—you would be judged a good person. This stained-glass windowed home to Jesus was a four-hour, longwinded preaching hell led by a big Black mercurial man who frightened me as much as the choir of robed angels, the organ that cried loud and eerie chords, and the mass congregation that rocked back and forth in choreographed unison and sang unintelligible moans that I now simply recognize as archaic hymns sung by people who never knew all the words.
Church was a circus—an environment of sacrosanct indulgence that I was required to endure before finally being released to my grandmother’s pretty pink, gated house situated in the middle of East 28th street and flanked by Florida palms. It was also inconveniently located one block away from that historical, brick corner edifice named Redeemed and two blocks north of twin corner stores split by Buckman Street which has since become a legendary thoroughfare known for gun violence, gang crimes and the loitering of men who surrendered their lives to “Crack.” I see the ghosts of two cousins who were both shot dead at that intersect.
But I still remember that neighborhood fondly. It was my anticipated place of return following the Holy destination of necessary attendance. My grandmother’s pastel abode was always over-populated with good people and abundant in what grown folks called love. Dashing home after church meant everyone digging into my grandmother’s big pots of steamed cuisine like candied yams swimming in cinnamon and butter or an enormous vessel of potato salad. She used to slice hard boiled eggs into halves and create a perfect circle of garnish around the bowl, and the one sure thing my left hand kept its balance for was the reach of one of those eggs.
Her outdated stove housed huge steel domes and rickety pots with mismatched lids that whistled from the over-boil of rice and the cook-down and simmer of every part of the pig—feet, ears, stomach, tails and the intestines known as “Chitlin’s.” Those long and slimy curls of a boar were once my all-time favorite. When I was only five-years-old, I acquired the reach for a bottle of hot sauce and knew how to douse my pork servings along with that beautiful fried chicken she baptized in hot grease until it was cooked the caramel color of my skin. I gazed curiously as my uncle Willie and aunt Thomasina and others packed their plates high until every inch was covered—even if it were just a pickled hot jalapeno or two middle slices of a beefsteak tomato. Ignorant to gluttony, I grew up and did the exact same thing.
Coming and going and church and preaching and food and eating were all synonymous with southern life but how did any of the aforementioned have anything to do with this guy named Jesus. Who was he and how did he earn the right to be the single winning ticket for everybody to get into heaven. Did he have a grandmother who cooked slammin’ fried chicken too? Did he have a great big ‘ole family who worshiped at the altar of swine like my own? And why did he dwell inside of a painted mural behind the pulpit of Redeemed? The logic of it all escaped me, but even at the age of five I suspected a ridiculous correlation. ◙
- I. The Brown Girl Genesis
My grandmother was a church going woman named Lindy Cousar, but we all called her “Mother.” Translated into southern vernacular for me and a legion of younger cousins, her name was simply “Muhvah.” It was during intermittent visits to her home in Florida that my trek to being spiritually hoodwinked began. She was a happy woman from St. George, South Carolina whose full-bodied laugh was never to be mistaken for a firm posture to “take no stuff.” She bore fourteen children: seven boys and seven girls including my mother who suffered the double indemnity of being named Ethel and a middle child lost in a brood of too many. Eager to fly the crowded coop, she married a military man; a soldier in the United States Army; a Vietnam Vet named Sonny. His job of valor and brut required that our family—my mother, her husband, and three little brown girls—regularly packed furniture and forks and left neighborhoods behind.
Moving became my mother’s man-made ministry. That woman could pack-up a house like a Thessalonian thief and we moved in rapid cycles that sometimes came so quick, she barely had time to find all the wall sockets in our home before it was time to unplug the one good lamp and move on.
By the time my life reached its fifth dimension, I survived an El Paso, Texas birth, was sealed up and boxed-in along with flatware and swept away to Savannah and somehow, Washington State was wedged in the mix. But between moves, during welcome summers, or to skirt rough patches in a tumultuous marriage, my mother and her trinity offspring fled to Jacksonville, the sunshine state’s most populous and the largest city in the contiguous United States. Every Sunday while there we attended Redeemed Baptist Church and what I looked forward to most were the quick trips before service at two, corner junk food havens owned by Miss Ruth and the other by Mr. Russell. Each stocked smoked meats, collard greens with leaves as big as elephant ears and staple items lined high upon shelves like grits and fish meal or lard. Tangerines, plums, and mangoes were also abundant. They rested over-ripened and bruised in wooden crates on the floor while a massive cooler that spanned the wall’s length housed a rainbow of triple layered Nehi soda pops buried deep within an ocean of ice.
- Pickled Sacrifice
An adolescent weakness for sweets surfaced with my introduction to those proverbial corner stores. Butter and coconut cookies sold ten for a nickel turned me into a crumb snatching fiend, but what made me whole were the twenty-five cent, fat dill pickles sold and soaked in a petite brown paper sack. My mother used to purchase huge glass jars of the Mt. Olive brand and violently knocked them three times on the counter to loosen their lids. Along with my older sisters, Linda and Natalie, I salivated when we watched our mother’s mastery, but nobody ever wanted the pickle that arose first from the brine and poked its butt out the top. She’d take a fork and discriminately stabbed four-hole-wounds into the bodies of three soured ‘cukes, lay them each onto a cheap paper towel, then rolled them gently and deliberate as though she were covering them in sacred shrouds.
My mother was inexplicably methodical in many of her ways, but I always knew the most minuscule and deformed sacrifice was mine while my siblings were handed dilled perfection. There was a distinction between us that I suspected had roots beyond my being the youngest or the one without their dark skin tone. Pickles also served as my mother’s single love-offering and palette chaser following a cleansing spoonful of Milk of Magnesia. She was a caring mother who made sure her brown girls were always clean—inside and out ◙
III. Sunday School
The ritual of walking to church on Sundays began with my being given random spare change to place in the church collection place. Usually coins like five pennies and a single silver quarter. Twenty-five cents equated to a queen’s wealth and established my first sense of financial independence. My riches were eagerly redeemed at Miss Ruth’s urban bodega to soothe my mouth-watering cravings for a pickle. Licking the juice that leaked was my strategy to control the dreaded stroll to church and because I was the youngest—the baby—I owned a license to shuffle slowly. I did so without mercy for my sisters whose respective nine and ten-year-old strides easily surpassed my own. I’d fidget with my dimpled-friend and pretended to be too helpless to peel back its wet wrapping and reveled in all the willing hands that stopped to assist me. All of this drama was just to avoid the four longest hours of my young life’s worst day of the week.
Morning church service was preceded by something dumb called Sunday school that was essentially a forty-five minute holding cell for people whose only crime in life was being five.
There was always one male prisoner amongst us who never recovered from being devastatingly separated from his maternal God. For three-quarters of an hour, he’d hold court in a corner shaking with fear while spraying a rain forest of snot all over his shirt and 8-inch clip-on tie.
The rest of us were forced to love Jesus through song.
We were taught by a monster-sized woman called, Sister what’s Her Name who made us stand up straight and loudly wail:
Yes, Jesus loves me…
Yes, Jesus loves me…
Yes, Jesus loves meeeeeeeeeee,
For the BYE-BULL…told me…Sooooooooooooooooo.
She’d direct us with her plump right arm going up, up, up and even higher-UP until we held that last “O” for so long, my forty-pound body needed to make a pee-pee by the time her meaty baton finally dropped.
- Coloring Christ
Once that lyrical nonsense was over, I’d emerge from the room with a single tear sheet of a Crucifix that’ I’d dangerously scribbled in black, purple, red and strong strokes of brown. What color was Jesus on a Cross supposed to be? My crooked left hand never steadied much for anything that wasn’t edible when I was five years old, so grasping inside-the-lines artistry was a challenge never taken too seriously. I simply grabbed ahold of any available Crayola from the sixty-four-pack and went crazy like a spiritual Picasso.
I proudly presented my masterpiece to my mother who embraced it and exclaimed on cue:
Oh Baby! That’s so purrrty! Gimme sum sugah. MUAH
Church was where I heard my first good lie.
I didn’t know why my mother exaggerated such a fib, but the Lord’s house was where she lathered it up real good. We both knew my coloring sucked.
- Segregated Gospel
After Sunday school, we scaled a slippery set of steps with a motley crew of other parishioners to have what I called: Big Church. If Sunday school was likened to incarceration, Big Church was akin to being released to enjoy free time on the yard. Only Black people worshipped at Redeemed and I didn’t know why, but I emphatically knew it was a Big Black Church. In the “Army Land” we lived in away from Florida, there were people of every color who roamed freely and almost everywhere as though the earth was theirs, and mine, and ours. My pre-school class even had yellow kids with skinny eyes and our teacher was a woman whose face looked like it had been dunked in a bowl of fresh milk. The only time I ever saw Black people in isolation was at Redeemed and my grandmother’s neighborhood, which was quiet during the late sixties, but segregated nonetheless.
Everybody at Redeemed besides my own tribe of extended relatives seemed old and near death. They were wheelchair bound, feeble, and cane-dependent people who all smelled like menthol. One Sunday, I saw a man who was missing his left leg awkwardly propped up against the church basement wall. My brown eyes stretched saucer-wide as I bellowed an unforgettable scream at the hapless creature on crutches with one pant leg creased and folded into the empty hollow of his missing limb. I then ran and hid my head in the cradle of my mother’s bosom, a routine often repeated when I was in peril or to avoid the swing of her husband’s belt—especially following my Christmas morning antics that served as subconscious redemption for being the youngest brown girl who was continuously gifted the last and the least. ◙
- Holiday Redemption
For every advantage the third and last birth order offered, an equitable curse existed and the origins of my feeling like life’s least traced back to the sensationalized holiday that gave me the false expectation that I should be gifted the most. It was my seasonal custom to behead my oldest sister’s brand new Barbie dolls as an extended act of jealousy for receiving the lesser cool gift of a slinky. Lin and Nat would sprint to the Christmas tree and behold their coveted new dolls while I hung forlorn in the background with my two small hands wrestling a long ring of useless wire that some adult decided was a nice toy. As soon as Linda dropped her doll and moved on to the next present, I grabbed that Barbie and popped off its head in one fell swoop with guillotine precision.
PENNY! You brat, Linda would scream. Mommy, look at what Penny did.
Stop all that screaming in here, my mother screamed back. Gimme the doll.
Frustrated by the admonishment, Linda pitifully presented her evidence and once again, I had successfully diminished another doll to being a well-dressed and bendable plastic chick that now belonged to a sorority of headless others—Merry Christmas! Linda maintained the false expectation that something [anything] would happen to me. But nothing ever did. For years nothing ever did because running to Mommy—who always looked, screamed with authority, but did nothing—was my saving grace, and her grace was sufficient.
VII. Maternal Lord
In the hierarchy of our home, Ethel was Sonny’s wife and the mother of Lin, Nat, and Penny; Sonny was Lin and Nat’s daddy, and we three little brown girls called Ethel— Mommy.
But I was unequivocally her “special” baby, and at the age of five, she was the only thing more important to me than the satisfaction felt when I bought my own pickle. Mommy was my rock, fortress, and deliverer and her lap beckoned me foremost. If there were rules Sonny set in stone like Eat all the food off your plate [or else] she saved me from the transgression of having a full tummy. On many occasions she devoured my last bites of rice and creamed corn, and if a whooping were on the horizon for bed wetting or being a cry baby, I learned to circumvent Sonny’s wrath by running to the cradle of my Mommy’s bosom which owned the familiar scent of Johnson’s baby powder. Sometimes she even smelled like a bouquet of fresh roses bloomed in her blood. When her husband abruptly stopped me from sleeping in their bed, I began to sneak her blue silk scarf under my pillow and allowed it to rock me to sleep. Mommy was a woman saturated with invisible love and she was the only Savior I needed. Anything heard or translated in a church about running to a different God who’d take her place was absurd. Besides, five-year-old little brown girls never ran to Jesus—he looked too scary.
VIII. Come See a Man
At Redeemed, a mural of his Holiness covered the wall behind the church pulpit. It was a sprawling painting that seemed larger than life to my tender vision and Jesus was depicted as a dusty-blonde, bearded fella who held onto a big stick of sorts and was flanked by two helpless lambs. He was whiter than blackboard chalk—the only white man invited to Big Church—and his eyes seemed sad; darkened circles outlined both. While his posture was remarkable, the poor guy was miserably swallowed by a dress that poorly fit his thin frame. Jesus looked like a Holy mess who needed a nap. A huge halo shone above his crown and he kneeled—seemingly gazing cross-eyed and upwards— towards a place called heaven where his own Father lived inside a teeny tiny star. All of this confused me.
Why didn’t Jesus just get off his knees, stand up and take two giant steps right up to heaven if he missed his daddy so much? And didn’t at least one of those little lambs belong to Mary from my nursery rhyme book? Did Jesus take things that did not belong to him? Maybe Jesus was in time out? If he were in timeout and missed his daddy, he had two good reasons to be sad. He might have even been hungry. I wanted to cheer him up by giving Jesus the last bite of my pickle which was squashed but always kept securely zipped inside my lil’ white vinyl purse.
- Boogey Man Jesus
From my Pre-K vantage point, church was a social gathering in the south where grown folks sat on wooden pews that I could almost see over if I stood on my tip-toes and peered over the shoulders of old ladies who wore fussy hats with too many feathers or netted fascinators hanging just above their eyes. They carried great big ‘ole pocket books filled with nothing more than a single monogrammed handkerchief, one ten-dollar bill for tithes, their crumpled electric bill and enough wrapped peppermints to keep me quiet with the extension of just one. Apparently, you could eat candy in church but not quietly suck on a soggy pickle. These were the kind of dumb rules that made going to church for me a real hassle.
Jesus may have looked like the world was ending, but it was preached in Big Church that he was a man who knew no pain—a happy fella— who died to save the whole world from sin.
But other than being a Barbie murderer, I had no sin. Yes, it was proven that I could not color inside the lines and occasionally left a wet circle of sunshine in my twin-sized bed. Other than that—I was five-years-old and perfect. This was the second good lie I was led to believe in the House of the Lord. I was taught to believe that Jesus was my Lord, my Savior, and my Friend. His arms were always open and it was His bosom that I was supposed to run to, not Mommy’s. But Jesus scared me. If I ever saw that creepy looking guy lurking around my playground, I’d bolt.
Jesus was the Boogey Man, pickles were my religion, and Big Church was weird. ◙
- Gender Prophecy
The men in church were all commanding in size. They were imposing and in charge like my mother’s husband Sonny. I learned early—before the age of six—men were meant to be in charge and this single rule was never to be challenged. They all commanded authority, even the younger men whose beards were still deciding if they wanted to grow specks of snow. They owned voices that boomed with tenor; voices so powerful even their echoes paused and awaited approval; voices that made me tremble with a fear I imagined would haunt me for the rest of my days. And the Big Church preacher was the loudest and the mightiest. He was the Black man in charge.
A cabal of women called ushers clothed in uninterrupted white walked behind the men in a straight line like a militia of submissive angels. Just watching them made me dream of growing up and someday becoming a dark messenger who marched to the beat of her own vibrant colors. Those women made me want to defy my own gender and I felt sorry for them at an age too early to filter what pity meant. Sadly, I didn’t want to be a man either. They were big and mean.
I wanted to be a Mommy because when I played with dolls, being a methodical creature was fun. When I made flattened chocolate cakes moistened with tap water in my Suzy-Bake Oven, I modeled Mommy’s culinary genius. But I never wanted to be what I witnessed in church. Women seemed robotic and stiff and exhibited emotions that dictated they were less than men. With certainty I knew I never wanted to be the least of anything again—much less a woman who relied on programmed church instructions to breathe. ◙
At the age of five, I just wanted to be a little brown girl who was deemed obedient as demonstrated by tossing her five shiny pennies into the Big Church offering plate. I dreamed of a God who blended everyone in the world in the same salt and pepper shaker and sprinkled us all together inside one humongous church. And I longed to grasp spiritual dictums that weren’t so doggone complicated. I wanted to be good enough to earn my own ticket to heaven where I’d dwell in eternity with a bedraggled white man named Jesus and his two stolen lambs. ◙ ◙ ◙