Friday, June 20, 2008

Mary Juanita

I am the mother of sorrows,
I am the ender of grief.

—Paul Laurence Dunbar

How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…

—Luke 12:34

“I don’t know what Hazelle is talking about. You’d be better off listening to a fool. Pay him no never mind, you hear what I say to you? He’s always talking and don’t know what he’s even talkin bout. I did not ask him to dance. I did no such thing, I say to you. No such thing. I was sitting with my girlfriends on this long wooden bench, and your father came over and said something to me, but I wasn’t studying him one bit.

“But he wouldn’t leave me alone. Yeah, he was handsome and all, dressed up nice and sharp—think he was wearing a navy-blue suit—but I wasn’t really trying to be bothered. I only went because my girlfriend, Mattie, asked me to go with her. You know, she didn’t want to be alone.

“But he persisted and persisted, I say to you, and he just wouldn’t give up. Finally, we danced.

“Yeah, he’s a good dancer. Real good. He danced me right into marrying him.”

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And it came to pass in those days, that the decade roared and roared. Flappers decked out in beaded chiffon spaghetti-strapped tubes and cloche hats cut up the dance floors to the music of Duke Ellington’s big band. Bessie Smith, empress of the blues, stunned her crowds with great singing and something more. George Gershwin and Al Jolson became legends in their own time using colored people’s music. Langston Hughes published his first book of poetry and the Harlem Renaissance was born in salons around Manhattan. Al Capone and other back-alley, speakeasy gangsters raked in the cash from moonshine and violence. Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti suffered electrocution at the hands of the state. Henry Ford gave the driving kind its beloved jalopies. Those with a spirit of adven-ture—and money—took to the skies in the Wright brothers’ invention. Radio was all the rage and Herbert Hoover made a catastrophe of the economy.

The second daughter in a family of three children, Mary Juanita was born just before the Great Depression in Wish, a little township in eastern Ohio. When she was seven, Wish was wiped away by a flood. After raining nonstop for several days, the Ohio River spilled out of its basin.

And kept on spilling.

“From our front stoop, you could actually see stoves and tables, even a few bodies, floating in the river down what was left of the street,” she used to tell her children while she dropped dumplings in pot liquor and built heaven. “It was crazy, I say to you, some kind of crazy rain. It didn’t stop for twenty days and nights. I ain’t seen nothing like it since, and hope to Christ I never do. We were lucky, though. As the good Lord would have it, we only lost the outhouse in the woods out back. It was a miracle, I say to you, a miracle.

“Imagine working as hard as you could most of your natural life for your family and then have it all washed away in the blink of an eye. The trials of Job, I say to you, the trials of Job. And there wasn’t no such thing as flood relief back then like they got now. I don’t think that came along till Roosevelt. He did so much for the poor and downtrodden, you know.

“I don’t know what we would’ve done if we’d lost everything. Like Mister and Missus Warren did. And they had seven sons, God bless’m. Seven sons. Can you imagine? I wonder what ever came of them. I think your grandmother told us that Mister Warren had some family up near this way himself so I think they all ended up here in Milwaukee. Or maybe it was Chicago. Or was it St. Louis? Detroit? The devil if I know. Wherever they are, I sure hope they was able to get back on their feet.

“Seven sons. Have mercy.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways, I say to you, mysterious ways, yes He does. We were some of the lucky ones. We didn’t lose much ourselves. No, we didn’t. That outhouse out back and a lot of your Grandma Magnolia’s antiques and sentimental things that she kept down in the basement from her time in Arkansas and Alabama before the Great War. Ours was about the only house that hadn’t been rocked right out of its foundation from the force of the rushing river. After the basement drained and we cleaned it out, we might’ve been able to stay put. But since the rest of the town was gone, we had to get up and go too. Just as well. If it wasn’t for the flood, I might’ve been stuck in Wish right today and never met your father.

“I think back on those days sometimes, missing my home. Sitting on your front stoop in a town no bigger than a bird’s nest and knowing everybody from the slaughterhouse butcher to the sheriff by their first names. There’s nothing like it, I say to you, nothing like it.

“Citified folk. That’s the way of the world now. Everybody aching for these citified ways. I can’t let myself dwell on Wish and the past for too long. Just have to fold up that memory like a quilt and put it away. Ain’t no going back now even if I wanted to. My hometown is gone. Wish’s washed away. It ain’t even on the map no more. Imagine that.”

To hear her tell it, it was hard sometimes to determine if she was happy to have left Wish or full of regret. But she moved on, just like the Warrens had to.

Her father Timothy, who’d been a railway porter most of his working life, had some relatives nearby. So he took his wife Magnolia, Mary Juanita, her younger brother, Timothy Junior, and older sister, Juniper Belle, just across the Pennsylvania border to the township of Washington.

For the next four years, Mary and her siblings watched the Depression ruin their parents’ marriage; they divorced when she was eleven. Magnolia stayed in Pennsylvania, remarried and had seven more children: Perceval, Celestial, Mitzi, Wellington, Priest, Minneola, and Sela. Their father, James Marshall, who was of African and Shawnee Nation descent, had the surname of a small fruit, so Magnolia Price, née Coleman, became Magnolia Littleberry, a name belonging to no other.

And so it was that Timothy moved his children to Milwaukee where he searched for a new life. He’d heard about all the factories and breweries there and he hoped the Depression increased a man’s thirst for beer. But the breweries were brewing with a short list of employees, and most of them were immigrants from western Europe. Still, Timothy was never one to let circumstances get the best of him. He always had a little something up his sleeve—coveted, efficient, unpredicted. He connected with the right players in the right places and put food on the table running the numbers. After a few months, he settled into his job as a chauffeur and drove the likes of Joe Louis, Louis Armstrong, and Jack Johnson when they had business or pleasure in the Brew City.

Timothy also found a new wife in Alma Leigh, a young woman with a flair for fantasy. And she was quite young—barely older than Juniper Belle, his oldest child, who was thirteen.

Now Alma Leigh wanted to be a jazz singer. Only problem was: she couldn’t carry a note in a handbag. But that minor detail didn’t do a damn thing to keep her from wishing on big bands and a bigger sea of faces, all blues and mystery. Despite being laughed out of the church choir behind her back, thank you very much, Alma Leigh prayed that someday Count Basie himself would discover her in some no-name smoky jazz club.

“Alma would get all dolled up, stand in front of this full-length mirror we had in the front hallway. Hair pressed and set just so with some Madame C.J. Walker, lips red as Scarlett O’Hara’s, she would put an Ella Fitzgerald or Lena Horne seventy-eight on the victrola and begin her mirror act, mouthing the words to ’Stormy Weather’ or ’A Tisket, A Tasket’.”

Craig loved his mother’s monologues, many of which she’d relate without even being asked anything. They came out of nowhere, verbal reflexes to a stimuli only she could feel.

“I’m telling you she would slink and shimmy all sultry-like in her hip-hugging red dress and swing her mink stole round her neck for dramatic effect whenever a song changed keys. She musta thought she was one fine jazz singer, the cat’s meow, singing to the big old audience of herself. Only thing is, I could never understand why she always wore that same red dress every time she served up her show.”

Mary Juanita was a little wary of Alma at first, but at least she tolerated her enough to talk to her. Juniper Belle thought Alma was surely touched, and not by an angel. But Alma Leigh never gave up on her wish to be a jazz singer. It just had to mean something to birth, nurture, and hold on to a wish, no matter how thin the prospects for fulfillment. Especially since she couldn’t birth any real babies.

That’s right: Alma Leigh was barren. This mattered none to Timothy—he already had his mouths to feed.

Alma Leigh loved her husband for his Hollywood good looks and tender ways. But she adored Timothy precisely because he wanted no more children. Now she had the chance to help raise his kids as if they were her own, fulfilling her desire to be a mother.

But what young woman could wrap her whole heart around the belief that she could raise children only five years her junior, especially if she didn’t have to? If anything, Alma Leigh was more like a big sister than a mother, and the trio of mouths made it clear they didn’t want one of those. Alma Leigh never talked about any of this, but she wore the conflict on her face like makeup she could never remove.

Juniper resented her stepmother simply for being there. For occupying space in a place where absence had been easier to take. Throughout their remaining lives, Juniper said nary a word to Alma Leigh, but that’s a whole other story, full of rolled eyes and padlocked lips and no one is searching for the key. Not even Mary Juanita, who was able to unveil mysteries.

For Mary Juanita, concerns of the supernatural were no mystery at all.

At some point in her life, Mary was a devout Methodist. No. Actually, she was a Baptist churchgoing woman. Almost everyone she called a friend came from some church.

“This here is Clyde and Laverne from Mount Zion, and this is Kozelle and Shirlene from Garden of Gethsemane, and, oh, now here—here go Buford and Mary Alice from St. Phillip and the Redeemer,” she’d tell her son, pointing over his shoulder as they looked through her photo albums. “Hickman, you remember me playing Bid Whist with them on Tuesday nights when we lived over on Thirteenth Street?”

Nobody loves the Lord more than she does, but that love has been tested time and time again. Mary Juanita wanted to give Hazelle several children from her womb and raise them up in the ways of her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But her Lord had other plans. She would conceive several times, but never bear fruit.

She pondered these things in her heart. And so she prayed. Not being able to bear fruit became the genesis of her sorrow. Like a disease with no cure, her sorrow would remain the rest of her life, defying her effort to fold it away.

And so she prayed.

She would begin to see that the Lord meant for her to raise children, not bear them. This was her purpose and she knew it with the conviction of saints, for concerns of the supernatural where no mystery to Mary at all.

But Mary Juanita kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

Hazelle thought it was his fault. And so he drank. Perhaps this was the Lord’s way of teaching him a lesson regarding all the Filipino women he’d loved during his time on the islands during the war. Who did he think he was anyway, Lot’s wife, his seed turned to salt for having looked with favor upon so many women? Mary would’ve told him how ludicrous that was had he ever confided in her. But he hadn’t. Never could.

And so he drank.

Had he ever confided in her, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

Mary knew her purpose, and it had nothing to do with her husband’s made-up earthly punishment.

And so she would encourage her children to find the women who gave birth to them when they were ready to find them. For what woman in her right mind and true heart could carry a child for nine months, move this child out of her womb in excruciating pain, hear its first cry, maybe even see its face, name it, give it away, and never desire to see it again?

Mary could not fathom there was a single woman dead, alive, or yet to be born who would never desire to see her child again. See how she smiles, or whose nose he has. Does he walk like his father, talk like me? Will she have the temperament of her grandfather, the creativity of her second cousin? Suffer these little babies to come unto me, Mary prayed. She would prepare a way for them to go to the mothers whom they chose to come through.

Ten years after they married, Mary Juanita’s prayers were answered and she and Hazelle helped raise three foster children, Freddie, Reggie, and Arnold, the sons of a woman having a difficult time in life.

Ten years after that, her prayers were answered again and they adopted their first child, a beautiful ten-month-old girl, and named her Gina Louise. Daddy had his little girl, and there wasn’t anything you could say to him in those early days to wipe that ever-present smile off his face. His high cheekbones, inherited from Blackfoot Indian ancestors, rose even higher.

Gina Louise, who, at age three, won her first kiddy contest at Alma Leigh’s church, was the pride and joy of the family that lived on the second floor of the brown house with yellow trim on Thirteenth Street, near the corner of Finn Place. The Hickmans rented from the Davidsons, a black couple that lived downstairs. The Davidsons had adopted their two daughters, Debbie Rae and Donna Mae, and offered encouragement and support for the Hickmans in their quest to extend their family.

The Davidsons also introduced the Hickmans to their camping group. Once Gina came along, Hazelle and Mary wanted to expose their dearest daughter to more than the inner-city neighborhoods. No way would they deny their offspring a life with varied scenes and experiences, even if they couldn’t afford to travel very far.

But the Hickmans were brilliantly blessed in every way. They purchased a tan and white Volkswagen van and took their first camping trip with the Davidsons and their camping group in the summer of nineteen hundred and sixty seven, the summer Jennifer was pregnant—and under house arrest.

A brief record of the genealogy of Joseph Craig the son of James, the son of Timothy:

James was the father of James,
James was the father of Jennifer Minnie, whose mother was England
Jennifer Minnie, of whom was born Joseph, who is called Craig

Timothy was the father of Timothy
Timothy was the father of Mary Juanita, whose mother was Magnolia
Mary Juanita, who adopted Joseph, whom she named Craig

And it came to pass in those days, that the Supreme Court had yet to issue its decree, and abortion was illegal throughout the land. So Jennifer Minnie White went up from the city of Milwaukee, in Milwaukee County, in the state of Wisconsin, to Madison, in Dane County, in the state of Wisconsin, because she was with child, unwed, and in college. Her mother England was caught up in a terror-filled spinning. England did not want to bring public disgrace and shame on herself, on the good White name, and so she secretly sent her daughter away.

And so it was, that, while she was there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And so she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in her arms, and named him Joseph, and gave him up for adoption because there was no room for him in the White house.

And there was in the same neighborhood where she lived in Milwaukee, a family awaiting the birth of their second child, a son.

And in April of the nineteen hundred and sixty-ninth year, the family went to Children’s Services Society of Wisconsin and the social worker said unto them: “I have good news for your entire family. We have found your son in a white foster home in DeForest, Wisconsin. You will meet him next Saturday, and take him home with you the Sunday after that.”

And so it was that on Sunday, the twenty-seventh of April, Craig went permanently to the home of Hazelle and Mary Juanita Hickman on Thirteenth Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, right around the corner from the White house.

excerpted from Fumbling Toward Divinity: The Adoption Scriptures, all rights reserved.


muriel may campbell said...

I got up on Friday morning to post some comments on FTD in reference to the

first Book in Fumbling, having just finished reading it, for the second

time. I found I was so emotionally drained, I went to the back of the book

to change the pace. I nourished my soul with poetry, lost in the rich verse

of Baldwin and Hickman!
I do not know what happened, but my attention was needed elsewhere. When I

returned,My lap top was on standby, the comments I typed, with page

references and all, were erased.
I tend to see things as signs, sometimes when they are not.

I think Fumbling Toward Divinity is one of the most honest books I've read.

The poetry is outstanding. For anyone who has gone through trauma,

disease or adoption, this is a great book to treat yourself with.
After coming through a severe spinal cord injury that nearly cost me my

life, I am finding FTD very healing and a way for me to step out of my own

pain and celebrate your courage, your love, and your poetry.

I will collect my thoughts again and pass them on later. :-)

Ms.Martin said...

Craig Hickman

What a beautifully written story. I hope you have peace.

I know of the right around the corner story of many - it's heavy, but I hope the love of two people who wanted you made the difference in your life.

Craig Hickman said...

Thank you, em


Thank you, ms.martin.

I have peace and many blessings.