A child of the 1980s, I was very blessed to be born into a good family with love and care all around me. I had the best that the world could offer me. I was in the city, surrounded by culture and life and I had mentors around me who cultivated my thirst for knowledge and my curiosity about the world. My world was based at our house at 1236 73rd Place and right a cross the street were Aunt Bertie, Aunt Johnnie, and Freda. Every morning we would get ready for the day and cross the street where we would pack into Aunt Johnnie’s car and make our way to work and school for the day. In 1984, I was in Head Start and Aunt Johnnie was my teacher. Aunt Bertie had just retired from pink, white, and green school that I remember she taught at and was now at home, battling ovarian cancer. My Aunt Bertie was my favorite Aunt. Her pleasantly round, brown face hidden behind her white framed glasses that were always attached to an eyeglass chain was pure joy to me and she doted on me always.
That year, as Aunt Bertie retired and began staying at home, I remember my mother used to ask me some mornings, after we had made our way across the street and gotten ready to go to school, if I wanted to stay at home with Aunt Bertie instead of going to school. I never fathomed the reason why, but it always made me feel special and I was always giddy deep down inside at being asked. So, when my mother would ask, I would most times gleefully reply yes and set my things down in the front room and settle onto the couch. I remember one of my favorite things to do with Aunt Bertie was to read. I would always get her to read to me, and every time it was the same book, The Three Little Pigs. When she would get tired of reading it for the umpteenth time in a row, she would start the story and as soon as she had me hooked, she would skip to the end. I would always howl and then we would laugh about it. Those mornings when I would stay with her, I would take my seat on the couch then Aunt Johnnie and Mama would leave, and Nikki if she was with them, and I would watch television while Aunt Bertie got herself ready for the day. Sometimes I would go stand in the doorway to her room as I watched her carefully remove her glasses and then her wig, changing wigs and making up her face, and I found it the most captivating process, ending as she put her glasses back on, wrapping the string back around her face. After she finished with that, she would come out into the living room and we would set our agenda for the day. She would pull down her measuring bowls, her wooden spoon, and her mixer and we would go to town. We made gingerbread men and gingerbread houses, cookies, cake, pies, and cooked dinner. She would always consult me on just how to make the gingerbread men and gingerbread houses, what to use for the eyes and the mouth, and just how to decorate it. Those were the best times I ever had.
Aunt Bertie had always been my favorite. Even though Aunt Johnnie was my schoolteacher, I clung close to Aunt Bertie. I was jealous of my sister because Aunt Bertie was her godmother and Aunt Johnnie was mine: although I loved my Aunt Johnnie, my sister could have her all day long and I would keep Aunt Bertie to myself. I didn’t understand that my aunt was sick; I just knew that I was loved and I was surrounded by the most wonderful people. When my aunt was about to die, she took me aside and told me that she was going to die and that she wouldn’t be around anymore. When my mother and Freda approached me to tell me that Aunt Bertie was dead, they were very gentle and tried to soften the blow. They were taken aback when I told them that I already knew. When they asked me how I knew, I let them know it was because she had told me. I didn’t cry at that moment and I didn’t cry at all during that whole period. Instead, I was curious and concerned, wondering if my Aunt would get enough to eat in heaven and if she would be happy and comfortable. My mother answered all of my questions and appeased my fears and we made our way on through those dark days as we prepared to bury Aunt Bertie.
The tradition in our family is that there are two funerals, especially if you are coming from Chicago. There was the funeral at the family church, usually Coppin Chapel, the church we belonged to and that I was born into in Chicago and then the body would be flown to Alabama and there would be a service there after which the deceased would be interred in our family cemetery amongst the generations of Goodsons, Smiths, and DeRamuses that had gone before. Coppin Chapel was a pretty limestone building with a deep red interior where my cousins and I used to play and run around before Sunday service. It was big, with a chapel that included a main floor and a balcony. Our church home in Alabama, Mt. Zion A.M.E, a church built by the hands of my great-great grandfather and his brothers, was a small, country church with wooden floors and a decent-sized chapel that was usually packed. The heat during those funeral services was offset only by the twirling of several tiny ceiling fans and dispersed Martin Luther King and Philips & Riley funeral home hand-held fans. Those funeral services were grand occasions, and I especially remembering my Aunt Bertie’s and Uncle Archie’s funerals being somber and hallowed affairs. The churches were full in both Chicago and Alabama and I remember the atmosphere being full of reverence and the importance of the occasion. At that time, during the mid 80s, cancer and funerals were a constant. Of my grandmother’s siblings, Aunt Sadie died in 1982, Aunt Bertie in 1984, both from cancer. In 1987, Uncle Archie, my grandmother’s youngest sibling, died from a heart condition at 51.
That year, in 1984, at three years old, I learned about death. The last thing my aunt taught me, although I would not come to recognize it until later, was not to fear death. By preparing me for her death, my Aunt gave to me something that I still haven’t figure out what it is today. Handing me that knowledge at three years old and giving me that calm and reassurance that comes with accepting death, my Aunt delivered to me a gift. A gift that is invaluable and which I still cannot decipher to this day. Whatever it is, or whatever it was, it has allowed me to walk through the world seeing things with a different light, it has made me older than my years, and has given me a calm and reserve that is really a gift that belongs to the old and the wise, a gift that I am blessed to have received.
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