My journey to becoming a writer was inspired by my father who was a storyteller and a closet poet (because Mother saw no point in any effort that netted no money). He gave me a lifelong love of a narrative wrapped in evocative language; insisted on a life spent “looking” and capturing those observations in crisp and elegant English, despite his immigrant status.
……Daddy could bring the heat—although
he never would have said bring the heat
because his home rule kind of schooling
favored the King’s English over the colloquial.
Fretwork, “Emigré”, p.32 (All references hereafter are to Fretwork unless otherwise indicated.)
Anyway, when he told me he had only months of life left after years of unfiltered Camel cigarettes, as he dragged a contraption filled with oxygen behind him, the ribbony plastic of it piercing his nose, his breathing labored, his future behind him, Daddy asked me to drive him back through the old neighborhoods. More specifically, my father asked me to take him to see the four houses we had lived in together and I knew—although only vaguely—he was asking me to remember—to tell—his stories after he was gone.
His invitation was a big deal. He didn’t ask any of the four sons who will always be the children who came along before me. He didn’t ask his wife. Perhaps he knew she would make reminiscing difficult. He asked me who will always be the daughter not of his body but of his heart.
[my] new parents, having consented in court
and signed all the papers (blah and more legal
blah) hereby & henceforth would, in all cases,
respect and treat the minor as their child…”
Perhaps he knew I would write of our journey one day. As he could no longer drive without the danger of killing himself and others, perhaps it was just a matter of convenience and proximity. Truth is, I no longer recall—if I ever knew—his reason, and because I am a writer, perhaps I’ve made this all up.
Truth is, neither he nor I could recall the home he first lived in when he arrived in Los Angeles in the 1930s. He’d come to Chicago via New York via Barbados, traveling alone, not knowing what lay ahead for him. I imagine he might have thought:
“I left that floating hotel, the Van Dyck, to arrive—via
Barbados—on the Isle of Tears, June 1923, and I didn’t
care what. We’d heard the news back home about a black
man, Sam Hose, lynched for killing his Georgia white
employer. Hose was burned alive, knuckles put up or sale
and that’ll teach `em at the local grocer’s, but I came anyway…”
Perplexed by the conundrum that he found to be America, and after he contracted pneumonia, he drove from Chicago to Los Angeles before the publication of The Negro Traveler’s Green Book—the guide only briefly mentioned in the eponymous award-winning movie—that was meant to ensure a degree of safety for mid-20th-century Negro travelers. When I wanted to reimagine what his journey must have entailed, I could only think of how dangerous it must have been, of how courageous my father was.
For a bite to eat in Amarillo, he would
have been given a tip: “try Tom’s Place,
New Harlem, or Blue Bonnet” and so on
across the country. He had no guide; had
only the risk of rope in Oklahoma City or
Santa Fe, N.M…..
“In 1930, Daddy Drove to California Without Benefit of The Negro Traveler’s Green Book”, p.23
Daddy couldn’t remember his first LA residence—although family legend had it that he worked as a chauffeur for a German movie director and perhaps he lived in the director’s home—I was wishing it was Ernst Lubitsch; you know, “Ninotchka” but I could never prove it—so we started our journey, 1974, with the first house I ever shared with him. It sits—still—on Virgil Avenue where it shares a corner with Middlebury. The way I remember it—
[t]he house that was my first was a house
that Daddy brought to Virgil atop a flat-
bed truck. He made his boys fix it to the
foundation, then do whatever else was
needed to create a kind of permanence.
“Virgil Avenue & Other Geographies,” p.25
He didn’t say much as we drove by but he also looked like a man returning to a place he could never return to. In my eyes, the old home was so much smaller than I recalled it. I’m told that’s because children’s eyes are a variation on rear view mirrors: objects in the mirror may be smaller than you remember. So to me, the house not only looked small; it looked like a disaster. The side yard I remembered my brothers so diligently tending was crammed with what our mother would have called junk. And the house itself sat so perilously close to the street as to deny any two people who may have wanted to from walking side by side.
Still, this recreated permanence didn’t prevent Daddy from maintaining a connection to his homeland in the West Indies. Every Sunday, we drove
down Vine Street, past Forest
Lawn Cemetery, to Griffith
Park, where Daddy, nutmeg-
colored and clad head-to-toe
in his all-whites, came to play
It didn’t take us long to drive from Virgil Avenue to Victoria Avenue to view our second home, the one we moved to before I was old enough to attend school. My father finally got what he’d long wanted: a house set back from the street, a house wearing a beautiful green “lawn skirt”, and he drew extra gulps of air from his oxygen tank when he saw it again. In the backyard, which we could spy when we turned my car around in the driveway, was the ever-bountiful avocado tree and the backyard where my father and brothers constructed a swing-set for me. It was all very post-World War II America—or at least that’s the story the family promoted. We were living a million miles away from the homes my father and mother had left in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It was a million miles away Money, Mississippi and Emmett Till, from Montgomery, Alabama and Rosa Parks. It was a home my parents could afford—thanks to any-Negro-during-the-war-is-eligible Harry Truman who “allowed” black folks to work in the defense industry which led to my father working as an engineer at Lockheed Aircraft and my brother attending a school he could never have attended but for Brown vs. Board of Education.
I didn’t know if our family was rich or poor but it didn’t matter because in Los Angeles, the familiar is always being knocked down and one day, an unfamiliar man came to see my father. They were having one of those “stay in your room” types of conversations. I did not stay in my room. Instead, I spied on the man and my father from the staircase and although I didn’t completely understand what they were saying, it was going to come clear soon enough:
“Yessir”, City Hall said, “L.A.s going
to build the I-10 freeway right through
the molding of your living room, but
we’ll make you and yours a fine offer
to move along… I mean, to relocate.”
“Domain: Los Angeles, 1959”, p.55
So the house he loved, like so many other houses that were thought to be expendable, was going to be subject to a wrecking ball though I was, then, too innocent to know how to describe our disappointment in words. What I knew was that Victoria Avenue was going to be sacrificed so that President Eisenhower could build the interstate highway he envisioned although he didn’t envision it going through the moneyed neighborhoods of Hancock Park, Beverly or Cheviot Hills. Ike (or his minions) envisioned the interstate dividing neighborhoods: north and south, haves/have-nots, color and no-color. Ike succeeded but when daddy and I finally made our drive, the house on Victoria was still standing—“highway be damned”. Nevertheless,
The brothers say [we] were better off than
many. [We] were the ones with a drum.
“Hammer & Pick”, p.28
I turned the wheel south to the home my father purchased, after.
The City’s eminent domain money was, I assume, substantial—substantial enough for my father to purchase a home in a once-all-white neighborhood known as View Park. An unincorporated suburb of Los Angeles, View Park’s architecture rivaled the architecture of other “whites-only” homes one could find in Los Angeles and that satisfaction glistened on my mother’s cheeks—she of the mixed race, the “other white meat”. Years later, I learned that when my parents first inquired about the home on Aureola Boulevard, they were told by the broker that a sale to them was prohibited by a restrictive covenant although one of the brothers told me that much more veiled language was used. It was the homeowner—enlightened or anxious?—who called the broker to say that he would welcome my parents as potential purchasers of the home. And purchase they did. When we moved in, I got a new Schwinn bicycle so what did I care there were no other Negro families living on the street? I was eager—weren’t the neighbors equally as eager?— to meet the girls I saw looking out of their windows in the house that faced ours.
The woman in the window is a dead ringer for
Donna Reed. Minutes ago, she sent her reasons
for living safely off: her husband with his flask
of milk, his Dragnet special; their daughters with
Heidi-hefty curls of gold; their sons perched atop
their Schwinns and armed with news about some
preacher named King; her man’s don’t take chances
drumming in her ears—avoid the windows and lock
“White Flight: Los Angeles, 1961, p.57
Father couldn’t have been surprised but he feigned no memory of any of it as we drove by the old Aureola home, then painted a garish orange and much less attractive than when we had lived behind its green-and-white façade.
When I reminded him of one of the brother’s stories about his boss from Lockheed Aircraft Company showing up, unannounced, on the pretext of asking my father to fix an old radio while actually evaluating his living conditions, Daddy just smiled and said how happy mother had been to move to a wide tree-lined “boo-lee-vard” (per mother’s Carib-inflicted pronunciation); said it was his favorite home among all the homes that he had ever lived in. He reminded me of the ups-and-downs of it: that we’d stocked canned goods because of the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba, that we’d learned about a country called Vietnam half-way around the world without really learning what was happening there, that two of his sons—my brothers—married in that house and not long before the Reverend Dr. King had a dream; that President Kennedy had been killed and a dream called Camelot died when we lived in that house. While my father engaged in this reverie, I recalled that it was this house where I began to question who I would be as a woman, began to question what my parents wanted me to be.
You might expect as centerpiece
West Indian Village With Figures
Dancing. Instead, my immigrant
parents buy a European imitation,
hang Bal du Moulin de la Galette
in our vestibule. All I can ask is
are these the women you both pray
I will be?
“My Body Leaning Into,” p.63
When his last two sons began their married lives, the house on Aureola was too big for him, my mother, and me, so our now-reduced family moved again, minutes away to house number four: a quaint English-style bungalow on Escalon Avenue in Windsor Hills. It was in this house that my father came to terms with the contraction and expansion of his family, with the departure of his children, the arrival of his grandchildren. Happily, he said he was grateful for the garage where he could store his nuts and bolts and screwdrivers so he was ready to fix whatever needed fixing (although after he died, I could only find innocuous vestiges of his pleasures among his belongings.)
Daddy left us a box
made for tie tacks
no tie tacks
contained one yellow
a government badge…
a light bulb
to light anything
“Memento Mori”, p.85
He reminded me how fond he was of the avocado tree that was also a favorite of our dog, Sky, our constant family companion since I’d been a girl. That avocado tree yielded fruit that turned Sky’s coat to silk.
Forepaw arched, eyes eager, I set upon the day’s
sparrow as a swallowtail lands upon a limb
of box elder, hovers, unnoticed, until—
It is late summer when avocados ripen to bursting
and run and laugh are everything.
“In My Summer as a Weimaraner”, [uncollected].
Daddy remembers that he retired when we came to live in the Escalon house. He remembers that Tante Ida—the matriarch of our family in America—also retired. came to live with us in that house and that Tante had had a stroke in the den while watching a sitcom: Bewitched (which she must have been because she made America possible for all of us.)
He say: remember ya auntie
The last queen before the queen
that was your mother? The last proper,
her legs crossed just above her ankles?
She bought you throne. Bought it
with her strong black thighs.
Not long after the move to Escalon, I left Los Angeles to attend College. My father and mother were—at long last—alone. I don’t know what they said to each other, what it was no longer important to say. I imagine it must have been strange because before I could collect a degree, my mother telephoned to say that the Escalon home was sold and she and my father were moving to an apartment in Culver City, a suburb of Los Angeles. There would be a room for me, she said, if I needed one—and I did.
Their unmarried daughter, who’s asked to
come home, again, understands less than less.
Comes the dawn and the wife attends
to rote duties: her husband’s breathing
apparatus in need of its regular click;
the dog scratching to be let outdoors.
I moved into the apartment in Culver City after College graduation; the last home my father would share with us. When my father wasn’t in the hospital, he sat on the apartment’s balcony, eating bowls of ice cream that he waited to melt into a kind of milkshake. He liked to play Scrabble because language, he said, was the thing that made a difference to one’s ability to get ahead in this world. For the first time, I saw my mother smoke a cigarette.
My father never complained about any of it. Eventually, I moved to my own apartment a few blocks away and my father implored me to never let my membership in the Automobile Club of Southern California lapse. He insisted that he would never die surrounded by nurses (even though they brought him the Nestle chocolate bars his doctors denied him). He was right. In the apartment with his wife, in a place he never thought of as home, he died but he’s still at home with me now. I began to write this memoir on Easter Sunday, 2018, and I remember him, improbably, focusing a small camera, saying remember this, remember it all, taking his shot:
with me, on the end—all candy-stripped ribbons,
scarred knees, little hope; our virtues trapped by a
Brownie. Does anyone know what that means
anymore? Do we rise?
”Photograph: Aureola Boulevard, Easter, 1963”, p.60
Lynne Thompson’s Fretwork was selected by Jane Hirshfield for the 2018 Marsh Hawk Poetry Prize. Thompson is also the author of Start with A Small Guitar (What Books Press, 2015) and Beg No Pardon (Perugia Press, 2007) winner the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award. A recipient of an Artist Fellowship from the City of Los Angeles as well as a Tucson Literary Award and Honorable/Special Mention for the Cave Canem Chapbook Prize., her recent work appears or is forthcoming in Poetry, Ploughshares, Pleiades, Nelle, Colorado Review, New England Review, and Black Renaissance Noire.