Tatiana M.R. Johnson
Editors' Pick

The Uprooting

By the McDonald’s there’s a prison. When we walk the 15 minutes or so from our section-8 brownstone to the golden arches, I look at the prison windows. Glossy, yet dark. Enchanting because I can’t see inside. I wonder how many people are staring back at me. I am craning my neck up while my siblings scatter besides me. My youngest brother, Brandon, is holding my mother’s hand. He is a permanent fixture against my mother’s side, like we all used to be when we were newer in the world. He is four and gentle, soft and brown. His hair curls tightly across his head, a big one, we always tease. He has that subtle widow’s peak we all have, the one our father gave us. He is all smiles and mischief. Like the time he cackled so loud when he threw his birthday cake off the table, right before we were to celebrate him at his preschool. He knew what he did, but couldn’t help but laugh. My mother simply exclaimed: “Why did you do that?” The shock on her face, anger replaced by radical softness as she hugged him. I carried all the anger for her. I wouldn’t get cake that day and whipped cream frosting is hard to come by.

We walk across the drive-through lanes, dodging cars. My mother admonishes us to hold hands in the parking lot. My youngest brother clings to my mother’s hand. My other brother and sister, three years younger, are twins. So they naturally grab onto one another. I pretend not to hear her, because I am too old to have to hold hands with anyone. The thought of holding my mother’s hand feels embarrassing. My family walks ahead of me and I walk alone, defiant. My mother doesn’t notice.

The Harvest

the no rhythm having children       black    still  our mother’s seeds          bringing forth
nothing in this earth         except all the rot of what it means         to be grown black     kids  we have never been soft     like that    will never be gentle       petals    our hair coarse soil not meant for breaking      those children paired with deep sighs    don’t listen    come from a single tree    knuckles bloody    rock throwing    don’t act right   never will    don’t sit still      children with bodies housing all the loud of their home        all the rage of an ancestor they will never know about     these barefoot kids pounding pavement in ratted shoes     an embarrassment     how their mother must not care      clothes filled with smoke     house filled with roaches      those kids won’t just sit down     won’t just eat at that shelter      won’t just get picked up from school     on     time      won’t just be    good kids     won’t just learn right    won’t just up and become something better  than where they come from     who don’t make nice triumphant stories of climbing     a colossal ditch made for drowning        children who      grow    into    somber songs     most   have    learned not      to listen to

Sometimes on our trip to McDonald’s my mother mentions how my father lives (or has lived) at the prison next door. We never go inside and I am glad because I’m afraid of jail, or police in general. When I’ve seen them at home, in the middle of the night, or in the dark of the early morning. I know my mother has called them crying, hoping they will take my father away. He is drunk and unable to be tamed. He is brought away by the men, but I don’t try to stop them, although I might want to. He comes back another day, I know sooner or later I’ll see the police again.

When my father calls an automated voice says “An inmate is calling from the Suffolk County House of Correction.” The static voice is robotic and then I hear my father’s voice, in the gap meant for naming. When I hand my mother the phone, she rarely takes the calls. I am used to my father being away so I do not usually miss him. I won’t learn for many years that my father would spend most of my childhood years in rehab facilities, yet as a child, I cherished the quiet when my father was away.

On the days my father was home, he’d cook for us. I specifically remember his penchant for fried hot dogs, burned almost black on the stove. The crackling oil met the meat in a pain and he’d sauté them over high heat. Then he’d plate these for us and I’d scrunch my nose at the charred hot dog between the paleness of a Wonderbread bun. No amount of ketchup could quench the dry black flakes my father forced us to eat. We don’t waste in this house. And of course, he was unrelenting. Watching our plates while we messed over the bread and peeled the charred pieces off the hot dog, revealing the edible hot dog on the inside. One day my brother, sick of sitting at the table and with an uneaten hot dog decided he was finished. He got up from the table and threw his paper plate, with the remnants of the hot dog in the trash. He left the table to play or watch TV. It didn’t take long for my father to discover the half eaten food in the trash, which he gathered onto a plate and called my brother back to the table. You’re eating the rest of this and you’re not getting up until you’re done.

The cruelty of this isn’t lost on me now, even then I knew this response to be entirely true of who I knew my father to be. He was physically a big man, with a beer belly that often would poke beyond his shirts. Although my father was big, he was short in stature. His laugh was immense and captivating. It echoed whenever we heard it. My father was someone whose presence was impossible to escape and for that reason the space left in his leaving was vast with possibility.

 

On My Father’s Anger

it wells real swollen and one day it pops
years later you will wonder if it happened
if your skin was once stripped

it falters in– like he did sometimes
crooked figure in a door frame
panting like mad-
you left him?
how could you be some clumsy?
how could you have gotten so lost in that supermarket?
why didn’t you scream for him?  

when your feet carried you home
to your mother’s glass arms- you hoped he would not return
he did that time- gasping because you were lost you know? 

a child in a store, who walked away from their father
a child who made their own way home
weren’t you then? that type of kid
it doesn’t matter

the wire hanger crashed through your skin
dancing to the rhythm of your father’s voice:

don’t ever do that again 

your mother a statue– does no rescuing
your brothers remember the feeling
the time he put a cigarette out on their brown bodies

your father is a metal bottle cap scraping the table
all carving and wrecking, you are wooden masterpiece
a mass full of splinters

it is hard to remember just how it happens
each time it has ever happened
if the montage is correct, it plays again…

how long does it take for fear to leave the body?
will it ever stop feeling so loud?                                                                              

 

My mother was not as passionate about cooking as my father. Most often it felt as though she cooked out of obligation or sometimes she didn’t cook at all. She wouldn’t fry the hot dogs, she’d boil them. She didn’t experiment, she relied on the Hamburger Helper and Kraft recipes from the boxed foods we bought, or got from a local shelter. My mother was home all day and it didn’t strike me as different that she never went to work. As I got older, I learned the little money that she had came from her welfare benefits. This consisted of about $1000 a month, for myself and my three siblings. How misunderstanding I’d turn out to have been when I learned how little $1000 is. At the time, I’d beg my mother to take us to McDonald’s or Burger King. Having fast food was an absolutely luxury and we had only ever been a few times.

I remember hunger as an ever-present force in our home. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to wake up one Saturday morning and open the refrigerator and stare at the empty space. It was in these moments that my siblings and I got creative. One of the most crucial parts of our childhood menu: ketchup sandwiches. Or really any condiment that was in the fridge, spread over stale bread and consumed ardently. Another staple, endless ramen noodles. We’d slurp the noodles, rich in sodium, splashing the broth as the noodles reached our lips. We’d curl the long, crinkled strands of spaghetti at least three or four times over the fork. We’d devour the delicacy of what was available. When we couldn’t, we’d skip meals and wait until our mother woke up from her afternoon naps to find something to feed us.

During the week this hunger felt different. We were at school and everyone ate the same free lunch. Each day was different. Some days pizza or stuffed shells with cheese. Or a meatball sub or a tiny tin of beef stew with mashed potatoes. To put it simply, there were many reasons I loved being at school, the lunches were one of them. Sometimes a lunch lady would let my siblings and me take an extra lunch or two home. We’d bring it to our mostly empty fridge and save it for the weekend. In the summers, we felt the humid static of emptiness. The refrigerator humming its mechanical song, all the power to keep the insides cold. Nothing much lived on the insides of the refrigerator, of the cabinets, of the kitchen itself. During the week, a local middle school hosted free lunch and breakfast for those in the community. It was strange to sit in a school cafeteria with my mother and my younger siblings. A school was a place away from home and rarely did the two mix, yet on any given Wednesday in the summer I’d sit across my mother on a bench eating a ham sandwich given out by some lunch lady with a wide grin. I thought about how odd it was to see my mother’s adult body at a table made for grade school kids. I wonder if she thought about that too.

I don’t remember all the faces of the people who fed us over the years. In school cafeterias, the corner store, or soup kitchens. Yet, they were always kind. There is a kindness at the core of people who offer to feed others, especially when they do not have to. At a soup kitchen once, we stood in line for food and the women serving joked with us as they ladled our portions. Was it because we were children? Or were there spaces like this that reminded us that it was okay to be a human in need. Maybe they wondered about us. Four children and a single mother, showing up to be fed.

 

The Nest

after Rosie’s Place

White bread smashed
to the end of a plastic bag
splattered with balloons
sits on the kitchen counter
that is not in our home.

Us four
weary ducklings
match the waddle
of our mother
guiding us through
buildings abandoned
lots empty
to a black woman
with a hair net.

She smiles at us
her wealth of teeth
take us to a joy beyond
where we are
which is only seven blocks
from home.

Another black woman
taller and louder
her glorious squawking
guiding the line to order
with bowls and plates.

Her sonic laugh
a swans call over bland soup
lukewarm, yet food
for the evening.

We all gather here,
following the hens
who are our mothers,
flying impossibly
to a north or a shelter
for other women,
protecting their children,
bruised yet feathered,
full after the feeding.

A broth simmers us full
we leave with bread
some loaves etched
with dates for their dying
in just two days—
you will find us, kids
coats open to the cold
fabric fluttering the wind
our legs lift us to park benches
nestling slices into crumbs.

Emptying the bags to the ground
greeting a hungry flock—
pigeons and sparrows eager
for expired yeast—us just as earnest
for something to feed.

There were only a couple of instances where a trip to McDonald’s could happen. 1. An influx of money given by a family member or maybe a check that happened to come early. 2. A doctor’s appointment at the hospital nearby. It was most likely the second instance. We all went to Boston Medical Center, and because there were four of us, we would all get examined during the same appointment. Our doctor would exclaim: Here comes the Johnson Family! whenever we’d arrive for our appointment. I wonder what our doctor must have seen in us when we arrived. Did he notice our often ripped clothing, reeking of cigarette smoke? Did he notice the dark circles under my mother’s eyes? The active and explosive nature of one of my brothers, running loops around the hospital floor? Yes, we were a family, and yes, he always met us with his usual fanfare, but being a part of this family did not often feel exciting. I found myself yearning for a time where I’d be old enough to move far away.

 

Because We Were Poor and Unpretty

After Gwendolyn Brooks

Our home haunted our clothes
smoke dwelled in the thread
Made us cases in folders
In the office for the principal
For the social worker, for the
Teacher to understand, to sigh
To wish, to hope us somewhere
Different than how we arrived
Every morning, ravaging
Cartons of chocolate milk,
For its rare sweetness, in our
Brown bellies bloated with
Soup and bread slightly stale
Edible, on the weekends from
The nice woman who smiles at us
With our empty bowls, winter jackets
Heavy on our backs at the shelter, my mother
Goes to alone, some days while we are
Learning and forgetting
The house, our mother,
her hands sifting
Cigarette after cigarette
Her lips breathing fog
In the evenings
The clouds dense,
Her anxious lullabies
crooning us to
melancholy rest

 

The closest McDonald’s is about a five minute walk from Boston Medical Center. To get there you cross the street at a crosswalk, right before it turns into a highway. On the street there are often people with signs asking for change. Some sell flowers or clean the windows of cars. I watch them in the street, running to the sidewalk just as the light turns green. I feel scared that one of them will get hurt, yet no one does. They are seasoned in their own lives. Just beyond this street is the prison, so close yet closed off by brick, by brick ascended as a wall. The barbed wire settled at the top of the wall. Just beyond the wire, there are towers of cells. Sometimes, I think I can see the shadows of people who live there. I always think of my father, even if it’s unclear if he is in prison or not.

You can get two things from the dollar menu my mother tells us. I am old enough to know that none of us are getting happy meals, because they cost too much.  I try to decide between chicken nuggets and fries or a cheeseburger and fries. I get the later, and am immediately jealous when I watch my youngest brother dip his nuggets into a pool of sweet and sour sauce. I learn to understand regret as intense disappointment. I feel it after something exciting happens, like a day without hot dogs and instead a trip to McDonalds or perhaps it can happen in reverse, like the day my mother leaves and I try a Big Mac.

I am old enough to get whatever I want at McDonalds, my aunt tells me. We are in her car, my siblings and I squished in the backseat. She is in the front seat. Her face is different today. Her eyes are almost swallowed by the swelling of skin surrounding them. She has been crying and her eyes have not yet recovered. She turns to the four of us in the backseat and asks what we want. My younger siblings clamour in disbelief, what an exciting time it is to try a happy meal. I decide that I want what I’ve seen the kids at school bring in, when they’ve come to school late from a doctor’s appointment: A Big Mac. When I get the sandwich in my hands, I inspect it for the first time closely. It’s messy and contains two burger patties. There’s even a third piece of bread! It’s been at least twelve hours since we’ve eaten, so I devour as much of that Big Mac as can fit into my 12-year-old body. When I am finished I think of my mother and remember her in the last moments I saw her. Her face outside the window, saying goodbye, her back turning as she walks away.

 

                 Mothership

when your mother tells you // swallow decades of knowing // deep // into your feet // remind yourself what stability looks like // force your legs to take root // in any place // but the trembling // of the woman // who loves you like a vortex // she’s made you captain // of a sinking ship // while she lays paralyzed by dark // you // sailor // choke your tears // carry your breath // with urgency // remind yourself to stare // at the horizon // hold in the sick // from the ship // rocking intensely // without you // call yourself anchor // shape your arms into lighthouses // remember that sometimes // mothers need saving // by little girls brave enough // to stare deep // into wallowing oceans // you // sailor // floating against echoes // of voices speaking to her // you can never hear // let splashes of stigma // catch you off guard // landing on your skin // watch her become invisible // ghost ship // drifting // among the living // no one pays attention // to the ones talking // to themselves // when she holds your hand // forget its weight // remember the cold  // of her condition // hold your breath // drown // this secret // of yourself rising // from the woman // who made you // you have loved her // in crisis // for as long // as you remember // held hands with Poseidon // felt her mind quake // loving a steel moving thing // hard empty vessel // a life vest type of // tenderness // leaving you alone // at sea // when your mother confesses // her diagnosis to you // tells you she’s angry // about her cognitive wrestling // resist steering into isolation // get enough courage // to yell at god // as most men do // when they are shipwrecked // when told that the thing they love // is destined for the bottom of the ocean // ask for miracles // hear your heart // beckoning // her // hold your mother to your chest // steer this ship // survive // carry her // home

 

It isn’t until I am much older that I think of my mother’s hunger. When she calls me our conversations mostly consist of us asking each other what we ate today. She often responds: A bowl of cereal. I worry about what she eats because each time I visit her group home she looks like another person. At just 4’11”, she is already small, but her body has slowly begun to burrow in on itself. She is almost swallowed by her large Champion sweatshirt. When she hugs me, I feel the smallness of her body collide with mine. She feels strange yet familiar. I wonder if she feels this way about me.

We stopped living together when I was 12-years-old. It is 18 years later and I am asking her if she needs groceries. I am constantly worried about her ability to care for herself. Perhaps from the ways she had trouble taking care of my siblings and me so long ago. I don’t know what it means to live with schizophrenia, yet I’ve watched it be difficult. I’m standing in the hallway of my mother’s group home hoping to make sure she is fed. I am here on Saturday or on Thanksgiving or on Christmas with a collection of things meant to sustain her. It is in these moments that I feel the difficulty of having to take care of someone else. Aside from the act of being present, wondering about the state of another human life is nothing short of painful. Anticipating someone’s needs or learning how to sustain someone’s livelihood feels beyond what I know how to do. I try to remember this when I think of seeing my mother, as my mother, for the last time. I remind myself of this whenever I pass our old neighborhood, or the McDonald’s that greets me every time you merge onto the highway. A continuous flow of memories remind me of the challenging nature of providing.

 

Group Home

Andrew Station Dorchester, MA

 they all have to move
like the college kids
in September

except the city isn’t
made for ghosts

they do not know
where they are going

caught

between worlds,
these who’ve lived
minds misunderstood
rehabbed, baggy clothed

today

they are floating
in the basement
or smoking
on the stoop

looking as those
walking by
look away

they aren’t real
are they?

this home was
never theirs
but a city’s,  i mean

do we ever own where
we live?

so it should be normal
this uprooting
this redesign,
this building painted

more palatable, for the buyer
against anxious knees bouncing

the residents calming
their nerves
meds just distributed

the case worker
watching football
a different diagnosis
veiled beneath

each face

disparate from the next,
with visitors who may be
family or a daughter
wondering, how to talk
about the invisible
a home forgotten

until now

how unaware
they are, that there is
life here

clusters of humans,
with voices
haunting them
awake, bodies
with minds, alive

or sometimes

sifting through trash,
or bins of clothes
donated, from those
soon to move in right
through them

 

I arrive at my mother’s group home with a bag of groceries from Whole Foods. Whenever I talk to my mother our conversations sit on the surface. What are you doing? What did you do today? Did you eat? What did you eat? Did you already take your meds? When are you coming back to visit? I don’t offer any specific answers to the last question. She doesn’t offer any specific answers to the former ones. We know less and less about each other as time goes on. When my mother does share something it worries me. Like, the answer that she has only had a bowl of cereal all day when I am talking to her in the evening. I become an expert at looking at the gaps in our communication and insert immense worry instead. Worry is a foundation I am familiar with from the very start of my relationship with my mother. It has only intensified over my 30 years of existing. My remedy is to learn to provide.

I wonder if people learn how to provide outside of being thrust into it. It seems as though the skill develops after being placed under circumstances where you must do something to care for something else. Of course, there must be a choice. A choice of taking care or neglecting and this one choice is really made up of multiple choices. Each instance asking whether you will show up or fade away. Yet it really isn’t this simple, because rarely is anything this black and white, especially when it comes to human relationship. It is only in reflecting that I think about the nuance and potential for choice. When I am met with the circumstance, or in this case my mother, I rarely ask myself about choice. I act and reap the feelings later.

 

My Mother Teaches Me How Butterflies Kiss

They catch the snow today
a knob to the door of the iris
watching life, outside the mind
a protector, curl bound
to the sky, stretched in
praise, isn’t it glorious
to see our faces as
something magical?
Gardens, yielding upright
palms, collecting dust
fluttering the edge
of the lid, centimeters from
the eye blinking, awake, a
feathered fence, keeping
the dirt at bay, she tells me
to get close, to examine
the portal of everything
soft, fragile, malleable,
tender bellies of her lashes
blanket the swelling
of her eyes, how proud
they must be to stand
guard, i am so close
to her I can’t help
but notice her aged map
face, each milestone beauty
mark reaching from
the peaks of her
cheekbones as if
to touch me, this lesson
of closeness just as
important as when
our lashes leave
one another, when
her lashes lift
the air stiffens
distance, her face
a phantom, her smile
floats absent, she glides
away, i close my eyes
just to blink, in that time
she is already gone, the soft
grazes on my skin almost
forgotten, the loss sends me
back to my body crystalizing
inside of hers, her voice a murmur
i learned to flock to, a balm of tobacco
and perfume wading, conjuring
a moment where she
becomes a soft landing
on my skin, all
my senses buzzing after
the departure of spring

 

I attempt to care for someone else as someone who is deeply flawed and often incapable. I bring a bag of groceries from Whole Foods in an attempt to be present. In an attempt to tell my mother, I worry about her and perhaps this will help. It is one attempt in a long line of attempts. There is no failure or success, it is just concerted effort over extensive periods of time. It is watching things unfold partly due to effort, partly due to conditions outside of your control. I wonder if this is what it means to be a mother. I wonder if this is what it means to be a daughter.

 

 

 

Join the conversation