I was nineteen and in Europe when the tenement apartment I’d grown up in burned down. In a matter of hours, my old dolls and diaries became the charred debris of a now alien Washington Heights landscape.
I imagined that warm summer day was like the ones I remembered, colored with beautiful black women in bright dresses, fire engine red lipstick, gold hoop earrings from Woolworth, and bracelets from the West Indies. Sitting on their folding chairs, neighbors called out to those passing.
“How you doing today, Mr. Perry?”
“Oh, I’m coming along fine, and yourself, Mother Lee?”
“Oh I can’t complain, thank you. It’s hot but I can take the heat.”
Then, men like my father strode down the street in shiny shoes, the taps on their heels announcing them.
Aldous Huxley said he felt clean for the first time in his life when a fire in his home left him with nothing. I didn’t feel that. I only felt loss. And I knew that something, memories mostly, had been taken from me. But I didn’t realize then that they wouldn’t be given back. My father didn’t say he felt clean, but he didn’t seem to lament the loss of anything. Things were used, got old, and wore out. All things changed and all things were possible. He never said any of this, but he did say, “We never know what will come.” He said it all the time. As if that cleared things up.
No one knew how or why the fire started and it didn’t seem to matter. We had nothing that could be called valuable. My father only said, “It was an old building.” There was no insurance to be collected and no compensation, although the city helped him find an apartment in a Harlem housing project. The place where he’d be murdered eight years later.
My father’s room in our apartment was piled high with newspapers. On the floor, the table, the dresser, the foot of the bed. Turning from white to beige to yellow to brown and flaking at the edges, they disintegrated in their stacks. At the bottom of the closet in that room was an old shoebox full of photographs. The rare times I was curious about a past, I’d ask my father to take out the box so I could look at the browned black-and-white snapshots of his eight, mostly dead, brothers and sisters. “This is my father,” my father would say, his voice strangely formal. In a small photograph, no bigger than a postage stamp, a black man looked at me from under his brimmed hat. His expression was meek, his eyes unassuming, and those eyes told me he had never left the state of Mississippi. There’s a good chance he never left the Delta region where he was born.
There was a photograph of me in that box, too, the only one I remember of myself as a child. Taken in a photo booth, it showed me in a coat with a leopard faux fur collar and cuffs. I loved that coat, and loved that photo showing my dark eyes bright against glowing dark skin. And there were several small copies of my parents’ wedding photograph. A large tinted print of that portrait, the only framed picture in our apartment, hung on the wall in our living room during those years my days were filled with jumping rope and playing jacks. I don’t remember when that picture was taken down, but one day it wasn’t there anymore, and the wall went on as if it had always been bare. My father was fifty when he married our mother, who was eighteen. How did that come about? I wonder about it, but now there is no one I can ask that question.
I guessed that the creamy satin wedding gown was also destroyed in the fire. That dress had been kept in the bottom drawer of a dresser full of clothes and undergarments belonging to a woman unknown to me, my mother, who was institutionalized. I found her things, musty with the smell of dusting powder, unpleasant.
One day during my last year in high school, my father pulled out the drawer as if to check if the gown was still there. “Sister, this wedding gown is here for the day you need it.” “Sister” was what he, my older brother Johnny, and younger sister Mollie called me.
“Daddy, who wants to wear that old thing? Let Mollie wear it. If I ever get married, which I probably won’t, I wouldn’t wear that.”
“Well, if you ever get married, which you probably will not, you are going to have to do something about that hair first,” he said, laughing for himself.
“I think it looks good,” I said, lying. I’d seen a photograph of Abbey Lincoln and Miriam Makeba and, astonished by their beauty and their short natural hair, decided on the spot I would never straighten my hair again. But after washing my hair and just leaving it, I didn’t look like the magnificent Makeba or the jazz-cool Lincoln.
“You know you can’t leave your hair like that.”
“Why not? This is how Miriam Makeba wears it.”
“She has it trimmed,” my father said with authority, though I knew he’d only seen her on the cover of the album I had propped up on the dresser in my room. I’d already asked at the beauty parlor and they wouldn’t do it. It was 1961 and beauty parlors straightened hair with a hot comb and curled it with hot curlers.
“Girl, you better straighten that nappy head! You look like hell, and on ‘em skinny legs, too,” the girls on the bus taunted me until I took to walking the thirty blocks to school.
“You go up to the barber shop and tell Taylor I said to trim it for you,” my father said.
I didn’t say anything, but I wondered why I didn’t think to ask Mr. Taylor. As Daddy walked out of the room that had the mahogany dresser, he added, as he often did, “What will become of you, I do not know.”
That was just something he said. I knew he wasn’t worried.
My father had gone to The Hampton Institute and was skilled as a tailor, but in 1950s New York City, it seemed it was never easy for him to get a job. Relief, joy, and gratitude were the feelings that filled our small kitchen when he’d return home and tell us, “Well children, I found a job today.” Often he worked as a presser at a local dry cleaner. We’d run up Amsterdam Avenue, or down Broadway to wave at him through a tiny back room window, or go in the back of the shop knowing that no matter how busy he was, he’d be glad to see us. The sweat poured off him as he stood enveloped in steam over the large presser. The sleeveless white undershirts he always worked in exposed the dark patches where his arms had been burned by the steam and presser. We invariably asked, “Can we have a nickel for a cream soda?” We were never denied. Handing over a coin to each of us in turn, with his large smile, he’d say, “Now you children run along now.”
At that time, three motherless children could run around city streets freely. The clearest memory I have of running into any trouble was the time I ate some crab with Gloria Wright, who lived across the hall, and I mistakenly ate the “dead man’s meat,” the gills. She said it would kill me. I not only believed her, I knew it was true because we’d been warned and knew never to eat that part. I was afraid to sleep that night, knowing death would claim me as soon as I closed my eyes. But then I figured out that if I slept with Daddy, I couldn’t possibly die. I went in the newspaper-filled room, crept into his bed, and fell asleep with my head nestled on his chest and the soft hair of his underarm. Surely death would not snatch me from the safety of my father, and it didn’t.
My father had been urged to put us in foster homes or an orphanage. People said a man, especially of his age, couldn’t possibly raise three young children. Our mother, diagnosed as an amnesiac, was in a mental institution our entire childhood. I knew the word amnesia very early, and just that knowledge made me different from my friends, who didn’t know words like that. If anyone asked me where my mother was, I could answer without hesitation, “She’s in a hospital. She has amnesia.” That’s all I’d say. I could have told them more, could’ve said that her amnesia had something to do with the fact that she’d been so young when her children were born too close together and it was too much for her. I’d overheard my father saying this on the telephone. But I didn’t let talking about my mother become a conversation. I would say what I had to and look away.
The first word I knew how to spell was Mississippi, forward, backward, and fast. Gathering not only us but the neighbors’ kids, too, my father set up a blackboard in our living room and taught us our “sums,” spelling, and penmanship. He knew American history well, especially the period called Reconstruction, but since we weren’t taught about it in school, I thought it might be something he made up, like his tales and scary ghost stories. I don’t know where along his journey he’d learned to appreciate the music of Handel, which he loved. Anything he liked he described as “fine,” and once when he opened the Sunday magazine of the Journal-American and showed me Michelangelo’s Pietà, he said, “Sister, look. This is the finest sculpture in the world.” Years later, when he was long dead, I saw it in the Vatican and was overwhelmed by its beauty.
My father owned the only typewriter in the neighborhood, a heavy, black Royal. He thought nothing of carrying down our five flights of stairs and up someone else’s five flights to write a letter that needed to be official. His set of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias was probably the only one in the neighborhood, too. He was seen as a resource, always called on to draw up a petition, write a eulogy, or lead a rent strike. His personal letters were a perfect combination of wit, wisdom, and penmanship, and I loved the sound of his handwriting scratching across heavy bond paper, the pauses audible as he dipped the nib of the long fountain pen into a pot of blue-black ink. Angry about some injustice, he thought it was his right and responsibility to write to newspaper editors, and the papers he read daily, the New York Journal-American and Amsterdam News, must have tired of hearing from John Henry Hill, Sr. “I’m going to write to my congressman!” would precede yet another fiery letter to the mythically handsome, wavy-haired, powerful politician and pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Daddy could get pretty fiery when he felt he’d been wronged. Like the time he bought a bag of onions and returned home to find one was rotten. He went back to the greengrocer, and, I suppose after an argument, turned over the entire stand of onions. Word of the incident traveled up and down our block, reaching me as Lonnie Wright and I were concocting yet another noxious mixture with the chemistry set Daddy had given me that year on my thirteenth birthday. My mortification over the onion incident is as clear to me as Lonnie, whose own father was in prison at the time, pronouncing Daddy a “badass legend!”
Highly superstitious, my father would have a fit if a broom touched his feet. “Don’t sweep my feet!” he’d yell, as he snatched the broom away and spit on it. Only Johnny was bold enough to tell him that he seemed to make a point of being just in the place we’d be sweeping as we did our Saturday morning chores. He had, according to him, a “foolproof system” to find out if one of us told a lie or did something we weren’t allowed to, like go to a friend’s home when there was no adult present. He’d fill the deep porcelain sink in the kitchen with soapy water and we each had to, in turn, put our hands in, palms down. The one who came up with suds resting on the back of their hands was the clear culprit. I was terrified of the “soap test” but I also thought, This is crazy.
I loved to brag to my friends that my father could “put the pots on.” With just the bare essentials, he made stews and soups, cornbread, spoonbread, gingerbread, and biscuits — no cookbooks, no recipes, no measuring cups or spoons. I’m sure it’s precisely because we never ate canned or frozen anything that Johnny, Mollie, and I looked with longing at what was presented as typically American meals, three-things-on-a-plate (something brown, something white, something green). We couldn’t imagine anything more tantalizing than a TV dinner. Sometimes our cupboard was truly bare, and mayonnaise sandwiches had to do to stave off hunger. In those days, I assumed everyone was hungry some of the time, and that they were as happy as we were the times our father came home and placed A&P shopping bags bulging with all the foods we loved on our kitchen table.
Daddy was old-fashioned about everything. There was no instant or automatic anything in our home. He mended our clothes by hand, made rag mops from rags. We didn’t have a washing machine; no one in our neighborhood did. Every Saturday morning he’d be bent over the clawfoot bathtub, scrubbing on a tin washboard with a large bar of brown laundry soap. I’d trail after him as he carried an enamel basin filled with well-wrung-out clothes and a paper bag of thick wooden clothespins up to the clotheslines on the roof, the “tar beach” where we slept on hot summer nights.
Saturday nights, my father ironed our cotton dresses and pinafores with wide sashes, and the ladies at church would declare, “Oh, he ties those girls’ sashes as well as any woman.” In tones just above a hush, I’d often overhear neighbors say, “He does everything a woman would do for those kids.” And women admired how well he straightened and braided our hair. “Sister, I want you and Mollie to look just as nice as the other girls,” Daddy would tell me. I knew he meant the girls who had mothers.
Nothing was easy about not having a mother. Mrs. Wright gave me Kotex, but I was a ball of twelve-year-old awkwardness when I had to tell my father that I’d begun to menstruate. And although I’d already scoped out Woolworth on Broadway, I didn’t think I’d get the words out of my mouth to ask for money to buy my first bra. It used to hurt like hell when some well-meaning person would say, “Your father is a wonderful and exceptional man to do all the things he does for you children,” because it underscored the fact that we didn’t have a mother.
And I didn’t like to be told that I, much more than my sister and brother, looked like my father. But I’m alright with that now, and so happy that I, and my children, have inherited his generous smile.
Karen Hill Anton wrote the popular column “Crossing Cultures” for The Japan Times, Japan’s oldest and largest English-language newspaper, for fifteen years. Her work appears in The Meaning of Michelle and The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan. Originally from New York City, she has achieved second-degree mastery in Japanese calligraphy, and has lived with her husband, William Anton, in rural Shizuoka province in Japan since 1975. This excerpt is from her award-winning memoir: The View From Breast Pocket Mountain