“Mama! I’m so glad you called me back!” I returned to my corner in the lobby next to the ficus tree. The nurse at the front desk watched me out the corner of her eye. That noisy woman spent more time eavesdropping on my conversations than she spent doing her own job. Then again, working the front lobby of a nursing home was probably an eventless endeavor. How many residents had regular visitors? Grandma had been there three years, and I could only remember a handful of guests who came as often as I did—most of them volunteers. I was the highlight of her day.
“What did your grandmother tell you?” Mama’s voice sounded dejected.
“Am I interrupting something?” I asked.
“I’ve been up since five in the morning,” she said.
“I won’t take long.” I blew air through my cheeks. Now that I had her on the phone, I didn’t know where to start. Uncle Richard had already answered the questions I would’ve asked her. What more could Mama tell me about Lindell, anyway? She’d never met him, and she was too young to remember her first five stepfathers after him.
I’d spent most of my afternoon seeking proof of Grandma’s unbelievable stories. Now that I had someone to finally settle my befuddled mind, my only inquiry was why had it taken so long for my family to say anything about our history? Why was I the last to learn the truth? Why did Grandma have to be in a nursing home before she told me?
“When did Grandma tell you about your real father?” It wasn’t the question I wanted to ask, but depending on how she answered, maybe it would bring me closer to understanding why I was left in the dark for so long.
Mama’s breathing picked up, and a steady whistle of wind blew into the phone. She was outside, probably walking to her car after another long shift. “I don’t think she ever really told me,” she said exasperated. The door closed, and I could hear the jangling of her keys as she turned the ignition and cranked the engine. “I found out by accident.”
“How? Did you find it on your birth certificate?” Most people never saw their own birth certificates, but there were few times when it was needed to prove one’s identity. I could only remember twice asking Mama for my birth certificate. The first, when I signed up for driver’s ed. at school, and the second time was when I registered for my first passport.
“No. And my birth certificate has Milton Gregory listed as my father.”
Milton, the man who married Grandma after Lindell died so she wouldn’t face the shame of having a baby out of wedlock.
“I found out about Lindell when I was about ten. It was right after Reynolds died.”
“He was Ma’s husband after the preacher.”
“Oh,” I said silently. I chuckled at how neatly everyone’s chapter fit so perfectly together—Grandma, Uncle Richard, Mama, even the nurses who’d only gotten bits and pieces. Many different narrators, but still the same story.
“He was a black rights activist. He actually tried to start a Black Panther chapter in our neighborhood. It scared Ma to death. She kicked him out when she found his stash of guns. I know it was only for self defense, but the people in power don’t see it that way. They don’t like it when their status quo is disrupted. That’s why organizations like the KKK and the Neo Nazis still exist, and the Panthers are dust.”
I knew before Mama even said it; Reynolds would suffer the same death as Lindell, rooted in hate and racism.
“He was protesting with the textile workers in front of Morningside Homes when they got him.”
“He was one of the people killed in the massacre?” It was an event that would mar our city for years to come. Morningside Homes, an apartment still leasing today, but who could visit it without being reminded of how demonstrators were killed like wild game in broad daylight—in front of television cameras, broadcasted on the local news—while the police did nothing. I wasn’t there, but I’d seen the videos, listened to the chants of “Death to the Klan!” as cars with Confederate flags on the bumpers circled the block. I watched the Klan members pull up to the curb, take rifles from their trunks, and gun down anyone in their paths. Despite there being video chronicling the whole massacre, every single Klansman indicted was acquitted of all charges.
“Ma beat herself up about it. She kept saying she sent him to his death. I just wanted to cheer her up. I’d gotten into her makeup, and I was gonna doll myself up to make her smile. That’s when I found the picture of her and Lindell.”
“And she told you everything?” I asked.
There was silence on the other end. I suspected Mama was nodding. She was notorious for making gestures over the phone knowing I couldn’t see her. If she would finally upgrade her barely functional flip phone, maybe we could FaceTime. I didn’t see her enough. I missed my mom. New Orleans was too far away, and the flights I worked on went either North or West, never down South, never into the bayou.
“I think I always knew my real father was dead, though. She’d been married so many times, and none of them stayed around long enough for me to start calling them daddy.”
“Except . . .” I could hear a deep sigh. I knew a speech was coming. “Listen, honey. As far as you’re concerned, Daddy will always be your Pawpaw, ok? Don’t let all this new information confuse you about who your family is. Daddy loved you and me like we were his own blood, and he was crazy about Ma.”
I laughed a little in my throat. “Thanks, Mama,” I said. She always told me exactly what I needed to hear.
© 2016 Nortina Simmons
A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths
Read next: “S” is for Schizophrenic Skeet.
By the way, I’ve been trying to put a little history in my chapters, and the massacre at Morningside Homes was definitely a true event. If you’re curious to learn more, click here.