Doves Taking Flight
by Colnese Hendon
The five children clustered around the dove cage had come to say goodbye to their daddy, Mario. His casket had been lowered into the ground, flowers thrown into the grave on top of it, and now it was time to let the doves loose, which to me symbolized his spirit taking flight.
The cage door was pulled open; the funeral director reached in, grabbed one, and tossed it into the January breeze. One by one, eleven doves rose into the air behind the leader. Together they glided and swirled in perfect formation rising upward so white and free against the vivid blue sky. The mourners looked upwards, transfixed by their beauty. God had reclaimed one of His children.
The funeral had been the night before. All of the deceased’s family was dressed in white. The young man’s mother, Pat, had been especially striking. Her white satin dress looked absolutely brilliant against coal black skin. Soft white feathers adorned the large brimmed hat framing her face. She looked like someone who had stepped out of the roaring twenties. If you looked beyond her elegant attire into her face, you saw the painfully wizened expression of someone much older than her scarcely forty years.
I scanned the crowd searching for my husband and Mario’s father, Carl. He was talking to a group of Mario’s friends way in the back of sanctuary where he couldn’t see the casket. I was worried about him. He had not yet shed any tears for his son, but every night since our arrival in Memphis, Carl had paced the floor of our hotel room long into the night muttering angrily. I was almost afraid to go to sleep, because I knew when those feelings reached the surface, he was going to strike out at the closest thing moving. So I stayed awake and watched closely as he paced.
Every day he had driven the streets of the Claiborne Homes where the shooting had taken place asking whoever he saw what had happened to Mario. The answer was always the same. Twenty-five year old Mario and a friend were firing a gun to bring in the New Year. The gun had jammed once, twice, and then inadvertently fired into Mario’s throat making him Memphis’s first fatality of the New Year. I had heard the story over and over again since we had arrived. There was even a full-page story about it in the daily paper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal. But no matter how many times it was told, it had to be told again, because Carl simply wasn’t buying it.
I had shed many tears since Carl’s mother called early New Year’s Day to tell him the bad news. I cried for Mario – in the short time I had known him, he had shown himself to be a nice young man – but even more so, I cried for Carl. I knew how much he loved his first born son. At the funeral the night before, rather than sitting down and paying attention to what the minister was saying or what the vocalist was singing, he had paced up and down the aisles of the church and back and forth in front of the pew where the family was seated. He was a handsome sight in his white suite, which matched Mario’s.
When the minister asked if anyone had any remarks, Carl had approached the podium, and took the mike. Everyone shifted in their seats expectantly. The church was packed on both levels. Memphis had come out in full force to show their respects to the family.
“Um,” he cleared his throat. “I don’t know exactly what happened to my son, but it’s not over with,” he said simply.
The church was completely silent except for a few nervous coughs and the sound of Carl’s mother humming a worried tune. Carl looked around the church as if he couldn’t quite understand where he was, how he had gotten there, or how to navigate his way back to the seat he had briefly occupied on the front pew next to his youngest son, Antonio.
After a few uncomfortable moments, Carl’s younger brother Ronnie stepped forward, took the mike from his brother’s hand, and said, “Giving honor to God, who is the head of my life, I’d like to thank everyone for coming out and showing their respects to my family.”
“Thank you, Lord,” the congregation responded.
The momentary discomfort surrounding the implied threat disappeared. The church resumed its mourning and Carl resumed his pacing. After the remarks were made, the minister began to preach the funeral. He made many references to Carl and Pat, Mario’s mother. My eyes welled up with tears as I imagined my husband and Pat as they must have been when they were teenagers, young and in love.
“Oh, Lord Jesus, what am I going to do without my son, oh Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” screamed Pat, throwing her hands up in the air. Her head rolled from side to side on the back of the pew, and her wide-brimmed hat fell off. One of her daughters wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck and pressed her body close as if trying to absorb some of her pain. Her screams sent a wave of emotion throughout the entire church. Another of Pat’s daughters jumped up and ran a short distance down the aisle before collapsing on the floor in tears. His aunt screamed Mario’s name over and over. On my right, Carl’s 78 year old mother held her hand over her heart, rocked, and moaned. I put my arms around her and tried my best to pat the overwhelming grief away. Carl stopped pacing and sat down next to me.
“I’m getting ready to go outside and smoke a cigarette,” he said, pulling a half smoked cigarette from his pocket and showing it to me. “See? I didn’t get to finish it.”
“Okay, okay. Put the cigarette away, Carl, we’re in church.” I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed, and then immediately felt foolish. What did Carl, or anybody else for that matter, care about proper church etiquette when his son was dead? I patted his hand and nodded. He got up and wandered down the aisle. I remembered his heartbreaking reaction when he had learned of Mario’s death.
“I left my son in the projects to die.”
When Carl had left Memphis 15 years before, he wanted a better future for himself than what the projects had to offer. He’d wanted to take 10-year-old Mario with him, but Mario’s grandmother did not think it was a wise decision for him to go. Mario’s mother, Pat, was on the road working, so he was in the care of his maternal grandmother. Now Mario was gone for good, and it seemed so sad.
As I stood on a hill in the cemetery watching the doves soar up and away into the crisp, blue January sky, my thoughts were in a whirlwind about how one incident could have such tragic consequences with such lasting repercussions: Mario’s children would have to grow up without their father; Carl would be forever without his son; and I could look forward to side stepping the minefields of his anguish and rage for a long time to come. When it finally erupted, I wondered how deep the shards of his rage would pierce my soul.
The doves taking flight represented Mario’s spirit leaving us behind. When they were no longer in sight, we turned and began to slowly leave the cemetery. Our backs to Mario’s grave site, we moved towards a destiny he was no longer a part of. Facing what life had in store for us was a risk we could not avoid, so we picked up the pieces of our hearts and moved on.
Alonna ran her fingers along the keloid ridges on her upper thigh representing the number of years she had been incarcerated. She counted eight raised scars. “If I serve my entire sentence, I might run out of thigh space,” she mused.
Alonna had just turned 48 the past November. In another 17 years, she would be 65 – retirement age for most people, but for Alonna, if she were God blessed enough to live to see that day, turning 65 would represent freedom. What would she do with it?
She hoped to reconnect with her son, Poncie, short for Ponce de Leon, and her daughter Alicia. Her son’s and daughter’s letters had dwindled, and their visits had almost ceased with the exception of their annual Mother’s Day pilgrimage to the prison in Illinois. Her daughter always seemed angry to find herself in the visiting room, and her son was usually sullen, but Alonna could still feel their love in the embrace they were allowed at the beginning and end of each visit.
Alonna knew that for the most part, her daughter’s anger was justified, so she overlooked the silences, the sighs, and the occasional eye-rolling on Mother’s Day. Alonna shared their conviction that her incarceration was a harsh disruption in their lives, and had harmed them all, especially Treva Rae, her baby.
Treva Rae had been only four years old when Alonna was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance after the police had kicked in her door looking for Chauncey, Treva Rae’s daddy. They didn’t find Chauncey, but they did find two kilos of crack cocaine hidden between the mattress and box spring in Treva Rae’s room.
The rest was history. Treva Rae disappeared into the foster care system. The last Alonna heard, she was living in a group home for delinquent youth because of behavior problems and a laundry list of mental health diagnoses that included ADHD, reactive attachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, depression, bi-polar and so on and so forth. They even tried to pin fetal alcohol syndrome on her, and Alonna knew for a fact that she had only had a drink on New Year’s Eve during her pregnancy. The county was big on labeling the kids in foster care and keeping them doped up on psychotropic medication. The last time her case worker had brought Treva Rae to visit her two years earlier, the child was so drugged up she could barely pay attention, let alone carry on a meaningful conversation.
Alonna’s daughter Alicia had tried to get custody of Treva Rae, but she was only 19 at the time of Alonna’s incarceration. She was deemed by the powers-that-be to be too young and unstable to be a suitable candidate for relative foster care. After Alonna was incarcerated, her children had been evicted from the double bungalow that they had called home. Alicia moved in with her best friend’s family, and Poncie had first lived with his father, and then had drifted from place to place with the roguish clique he hung with, and which he considered to be his family.
Alonna turned her attention to the television set in the activity room, which was visible from the small opening in her cell door. Her unit was on lock down, so they were confined to their cells. Barack Obama was going to speak in front of a large crowd of people. The speech had not yet begun, but the convention center was full of people waiting for him to give his victory speech. Obama stood for change, and change was what every one seemed to want, at least most of the women in the prison where she was housed, and from what she could tell, the thousands of people at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The frenzy about crack cocaine in the 1980s had resulted in federal sentencing policies under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which created a 100 to 1 quantity sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. A conviction for possession of 500 grams of cocaine carried a mandatory five-year prison sentence, but it only took five grams of crack cocaine to get the same sentence. Of course, most of those sentenced unfairly for possession of crack cocaine were African Americans.
This disparity was the reason most of the women at the prison with drug convictions were facing such lengthy sentences. Not too long after Alonna’s birthday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission had voted unanimously to allow 19,500 federal prison inmates, most of them black, to seek reductions in their crack cocaine sentences. Alonna was hopeful this would reduce her sentence, but it was still too early to know. So many inmates were filing for sentence reductions, that the system was backlogged.
She and many of the other inmates were rooting for Obama because they believed a black man would have more compassion and understanding about the issues that were near and dear to them. The change Alonna was most hoping for was for the federal parole system to be reinstated. Even with a time cut, the possibility of parole would increase her chances of being set free before she was too old to enjoy it.
Obama being elected, or even running for president on the Democratic ticket, represented hope and change for Alonna and for the other African Americans in the federal prison system, who constituted 82% of those unfairly sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws. In her entire life, she never dreamed she would live to see a black man run for president. That alone was a miracle for her to celebrate. She thought about Poncie and the opportunities it represented for him and his posse to have a better chance to succeed rather than just idling away their lives in the street until they too were incarcerated.
Alonna couldn’t hear everything the newscaster was saying, but she heard enough to know that Barack Obama had beaten Hillary Clinton, and would be the forerunner on the Democratic ticket. From her bunk she could hear the crowd at the Xcel Energy Center roar. In spite of herself, tears rolled down her cheeks. In the prison setting, she didn’t like to show weakness by crying, but she couldn’t stop the tears of joy. When Obama and his wife, Michelle, sashayed onto the stage, Alonna arose from her bunk out of sheer respect. After greeting the audience, when Michelle turned to leave the stage, she and Barack gave one another what is known in the ‘hood as a “dap” or a “pound” for victory. His wife bowed her head and looked up into her husband’s eyes with an abundance of love, affection, and pride evident on her face.
As their closed fists bumped together, Alonna joined in their joy by giving her cell door a pound. Around her she could hear the women up and down her cell block doing the same. A roar of clapping and stomping and shouts of joy surrounded her. Despite the concrete walls, razor wire, and steel bars that surrounded them, they had been set free, at least for that victorious, monumental moment in time.
Not My Memory
The labor pains were over, but for Nancy, the pain of saying goodbye to her newborn biracial baby girl had only just begun. It was nighttime, and except for a dim nightlight, the lights in the hospital ward were out. Nancy could hear the other women shifting around in their beds trying to get comfortable. She looked wistfully down the darkened hallway in the direction of the nursery. Hot tears seeped from the corners of her eyes and ran down the sides of her face into tangled tresses of auburn hair.
She knew that the brief glimpse she’d had of the baby before they whisked her away may very well be her last. Her throat tightened and she turned over and pressed her face into her pillow. She could not breathe for the tears that constricted her throat. The pressure of despair welling up inside made Nancy feel like screaming, but she knew that crying out would not help her, and would only serve to further betray her family roots. The blood of her Scandinavian ancestors that coursed through her veins demanded that she remain stoic in the face of adversity.
She tried to be strong, but the memory of her baby’s pursed lips, her wavy black hair, and her little arms thrashing about before she was swaddled made Nancy’s 17-year-old body tremble with grief and loss. Oh, how she longed for her mother’s firm embrace to help her through this night, but her mother was far, far away from St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota.
Nancy pressed her fingers into the corners of her eyes. If the tears would not stop on their own, she would use her fingers to stop their flow. Her mother was at home in Minneapolis, and Nancy had not seen her for the entire five months she had been gone.
For the first four months of her pregnancy, her mother had insisted that she not walk across the floor of their upper-level duplex during the day for fear that the downstairs neighbors would wonder why Nancy was not at school. Her dad had died the year before, and Nancy’s immigrant mother, who could barely speak English, had to take over the job of supporting them financially. Nancy did not want to make her mother’s burden, heavy with the stigma of having a teenage daughter pregnant out of wedlock by a black man, any more burdensome than it already was. So Nancy obediently sat quietly while her mother worked as a maid at a downtown hotel until the school-day was over.
Now that Nancy had given birth, she could go back home, probably as early as next week, and resume her life as it had been before pregnancy had interrupted it. After tossing and turning a while longer, Nancy finally fell into a fitful sleep.
A few days later, one of the sisters from St. Luke’s Home for Unwed Mothers came to assist her with signing the adoption papers and with being discharged from the hospital. Sister Mary Theresa walked solemnly in front of Nancy towards the chauffeur-driven car that was waiting for them at the hospital’s entrance.
“Sister Mary Theresa, please wait, I forgot something,” Nancy said suddenly.
“What is it? We mustn’t dawdle. We are expected to be back at the Home at a certain time.” Sister Mary Theresa looked back at her wearing a disapproving expression on her already stern face. However, after seeing Nancy’s look of urgency, she relented. “Run along, dear, but please hurry. Would you like me to go with you?”
“No, Sister, I shouldn’t be very long.” Breathlessly Nancy hurried up the long flight of stairs to the maternity floor. She had remembered hearing one of the women on the ward mention that the babies’ photographs would be returned to the hospital that morning from the photographer. Nancy approached the volunteer Candy Striper at the maternity ward’s front desk, and was relieved to see that the girl looked to be about the same age as Nancy.
Nancy slowed down and caught her breath as she walked toward the desk with what she hoped was dignity and restraint. “Excuse me, but I have come to collect my baby’s photographs, please,” she intoned with exaggerated maturity in her vocal inflection.
“What is your first and last name?” the Candy Striper inquired, also posturing maturity and professionalism.
“Nancy Hanson.” The Candy Striper rifled through a stack of large envelopes. “I can’t seem to find it,” she said, as her eyes scanned the desk.
Panicked, Nancy’s eyes darted back and forth across the desk, as well. “What about that envelope over there?” she suggested with relief evident in her tone.
“Oh, I didn’t see that one. I wonder why it isn’t with the rest of the photographs.”
Nancy remained mute. She had a very distinct impression of why her baby’s photograph had been kept separate from the rest, but she decided to remain quiet – stoic, if you will.
“Here it is – Baby Girl Hanson,” she confirmed, as she handed the large envelope to Nancy.
Mission thus accomplished, Nancy turned and headed for the stairwell.
“Excuse me!” the Candy Striper called out to her.
Nancy froze, and slowly turned to face her, believing that the little charade was over.
“You forgot your baby’s birth certificate,” the Candy Striper said gesturing towards the document held in her outstretched hand.
Nancy returned to the desk, hurriedly grabbed the birth certificate, rushed down the staircase, and fled the building. The car sat idling at the curb, and she quickly got in and shut the door.
Later, after she had returned to her room at St. Luke’s Home for Unwed Mothers, she opened the envelope and read the handwritten birth certificate:
St. Luke’s Hospital, Duluth, Minnesota, Certificate of Birth
This certifies that Teresa Marie Hanson was born to Nancy Hanson in this hospital at 5:57 o’clock p.m. on Thursday, the twenty-first day of November, 1957. In Witness Whereof the said Hospital has caused this certificate to be signed by its duly authorized officer, and its official seal to be hereunto affixed. Signed, Richard K. Fox, Superintendent
Nancy turned it over. Sex of child: Female. Weight at birth 7 pounds 3 ounces. Length 20 inches.She gasped when she saw her baby’s tiny footprints pressed lightly on the back of the birth certificate. She vaguely remembered the hospital attendant pressing one thumb and then another onto an ink pad shortly after the birth and then rolling them one by one from right to left on the card. Now she saw the reason why. Nancy’s very own thumbprints framed the tiny footprints.
Next she examined the photograph. To Nancy, her baby was breathtakingly beautiful. Teresa’s wavy hair was brushed upwards so that little waves and curls were clustered on top of her head. Her skin was tan, and her closed eyes appeared to be slanted. Her pursed lips were moistened with baby drool, and something about her little chin suggested strength and stubborn determination even at birth.
From the expression on her face, there was something evident about her character beyond that, Nancy realized. Was it only wishful thinking? To Nancy, she appeared to be a very stoic baby indeed. A sudden realization washed over her: “She is going to make it,” she thought. “My baby is going to survive.” Nancy’s spirit brightened somewhat at the thought, even as a tear made its way down her cheek. “Without me,” she added aloud as she angrily brushed the tear away.
Nancy packed the birth certificate and photograph into her blue suitcase with care. Tomorrow she would go back home with the precious keepsakes in tow. In her baby’s absence, the images contained on the birth certificate and on the photograph were proof positive that her life and the life of her baby had once intersected if only for a brief period of time. Throughout the pregnancy and the time it took to press their thumbprints and footprints on a sheet of card stock, Nancy and Teresa had shared a special place in one another’s lives. The indelible ink on the birth certificate recording their prints bore witness to that fact.
Nancy closed the suitcase and firmly pressed the metal latches until they clicked into place. With a determined set to her chin, she was ready to return to Minneapolis and face the future. As for the little dark-haired mulatto baby she was leaving behind, Nancy wondered what her future would be, and who would be there to help her pave the way. With no way of knowing, she shrugged her shoulders and swallowed her tears.
Just Beyond My Reach
Thinking back over the years, I often get blinded by my tears
You were always just beyond my reach,
Slipping through my fingers like sand on a beach
What lesson is your absence supposed to teach?
I drive past “Cadillac Corner” every day
Where you and me got acquainted way back in the day
A place where Cadillacs once parked back to back,
I am reminded of you, Vern, the notorious Mack
Whether moving fast or slow
You were always on the go
Stacking that dough
You seemed to be on a perpetual roll
Curls swinging, girls clinging
Gold shining, fine dining
Fur lining, autograph signing
A gentleman of leisure, laid back, reclining
It didn’t matter if you were playing ball,
Whether sitting down or standing tall
Even when your back was against the wall
You were so large, you made giants seem small
Always in and out of your car
Or leaning at the club against the bar
To me and many others, you were a star
Now you’ve gone away and seem so far
I could never keep up with your fast pace
And then one day you vanished without a trace
I still look up and expect to see you drive by
And when you don’t, life seems so dry
You’ve always been confidence in motion
The distance between us seems wider than an ocean
Which makes loving you more than a notion
But still you have my complete devotion
The walls and bars really cannot contain you
There are no shackles that really can restrain you
Because true freedom lives within your spirit
Those who don’t understand it have only come to fear it
Your body is on lock down but never your mind
You are a strong man who is one of a kind
Thinking back over the years, I often get blinded by my tears
You were always just beyond my reach,
Slipping through my fingers like sand on a beach
What lesson is your absence supposed to teach?