The following is an excerpt from my 2005 memoir Fumbling Toward Divinity
On April 11, 2001, Craig and Job loaded up their black Jeep Grand Cherokee and pulled away from their house on Ridge Street in Roslindale, a hilly neighborhood in the southwestern part of Boston, Massachusetts. They began the thousand-mile journey to Milwaukee in search of the house on Sixteenth Street and where it might lead them. They decided to traverse Pennsylvania on interstate 80, intending to return to Boston through upstate New York a week or so later.
Somewhere in Pennsylvania, Craig looked at his husband and felt a surge inside, a surge he had not felt in a long, long time. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, his love began to breathe again, breathe again, so full was he with the ease of coming back to love again, so satisfied they had finally returned to Paradise. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, fulfillment lulled him into a slumber where all he could dream about was how they had gotten to Paradise in the first place.
When Craig woke up, they were already in Chicago. Craig drove the rest of the journey, while Job took his turn at sleep in the stretched-out-flat passenger seat. They arrived in Milwaukee late Saturday morning and tired as a mule, Craig drove by Sharon Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Teutonia Avenue on Milwaukee’s north side. Services had just ended and Craig wondered if any of the people, clad in white and pastel Easter raiment posing in front of the church, were his relatives.
“C’mon, honey. Let’s just get to the hotel. I need to stretch all the way out,” said Job, awakened by the slow tempo of the car as they passed the church.
“I’m so tired I could fall out, but I wanna drive by the house first. It’s only a few blocks from here. After that, I promise, we’ll go to the hotel. It’s a quick dash downtown on the highway.” Craig drove about half a mile up Teutonia Avenue, turned right onto Burleigh Street and left onto Sixteenth. Almost at the end of the block on the right side of the street sat 3232, the house with white siding and green trim.
“It looks like your parents’ house, Craig,” said Job as they pulled up. Craig stopped in the middle of the street. “It’s smaller because it’s a single-family, but it’s just like your house. Same color and everything. The only thing missing are the pine trees.”
“Surreal.” Craig looked in the rearview mirror and saw no car coming behind them. “Take a picture.”
Job retrieved the Canon from the camera bag, rolled down the window, and snapped two photographs. Craig tried to imagine the family that had lived behind the front door thirty-three years before, but nothing came into view. He sighed and pulled away as Job put the camera back in its case.
Craig drove downtown where they checked into the Hotel Wisconsin, one of the city’s oldest. It was the same hotel where Craig once met a man whose number was written neatly on the stall of a bathroom in the Grand Avenue Mall, which stretched for three blocks right across the street.
“When was the last time we all had Easter dinner together, Craig?” asked Gina.
Craig searched the annals of his memory while scanning the red walls of the kitchen alcove where his family gathered. “Nineteen eighty-six,” he finally said. “My last year of high school.
“Has it been that long?” asked Mary.
“At least that long. I never came home for Easter during college and I haven’t been home for Easter since. When did you paint these walls red?”
“Last year around this time.” Gina eyed the macaroni and cheese. “I hired this guy, a friend of Bernadine’s, to do it. You like it?”
“I love red walls. Somehow, I didn’t think Mama would go for it though.”
“Oh, so you don’t think your mother has any taste?”
“Why even go there?”
“Here’s to an Easter reunion.” Job interrupted the inevitable mother-son banter, raising his wine glass for a toast.
“Gina, get me some water, please. I forgot my glass up front.” Gina went to the living room to get Mary’s glass and freshened it with tap water before sitting back down. They all raised their drinks.
“Here ye, here ye,” announced Hazelle, Pabst Blue Ribbon in hand, “I’d like to thank The Almighty for bringing my sons—both of my sons—safely to the table and making this an extra special Easter. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
They toasted and drank from their cups.
“Craig, bless the food.” Mary reached for Craig.
They all held hands and bowed their heads.
“Dear Lord, we thank you for this food we’re about to receive. Continue to bless the hands that prepared the meal and nourish us with love. We also want to thank you for this coming together of family on the occasion of your resurrection. May we all experience our own rebirths in the here and now. Amen.”
“Wait a minute,” blurted Hazelle before they raised their heads and let go their hands. “Lord, we also want you to guide our son on his search for his birth mother. Help him find the answers to all of his questions. Now, let’s eat.”
“Amen,” rang the chorus of their voices.
“Job, why don’t you carve the ham.” Mary opened a moist towelette and wiped her hands.
While Job carved the brown-sugar-and-maple-glazed ham, Gina heaped the macaroni and cheese Craig had baked onto her plate and passed it around the table. “Save some macaroni for the rest of us Gina, you old greedy thing, you.”
Hazelle laughed. “You know she can’t get enough of her brother’s cooking, Mary.”
“It might be another fifteen years till I have some more of it,” said Gina, digging her fork deep in the pile, “so I’m taking my fill now. Yall don’t have enough, too bad. Every tub stands on its own bottom.”
Mary’s turnip greens, Hazelle’s hot-water cornbread, and Gina’s creamed pearl onions made it round the table.
After Job carved the ham and served a few slices to each of them, he sat down, pulled his chair up to the table, and said, “Eet smakelijk.”
“Ate who?” said Hazelle. Gina cackled.
“Eet smakelijk. Say it, Daddy,” encouraged Job.
“Uh uh. I can’t say that.”
“Yes you can. Craig, what’s it sound like in English?”
“Daddy, think of a smock and licking your lips.” Craig spoke deliberately. “Smock-a-lick.”
“Ate smock-a-lick,” repeated Hazelle.
“That’s it.” Job laughed and led Craig and Gina in applause.
“Well, I say,” was all Mary could say.
“What’s it mean, son?”
“It means eat with taste, Daddy. In Holland, we say it before every meal. The French say, ‘Bon appetite,’ and we say, ‘Eet smakelijk.’ Americans don’t say anything.”
“I don’t know about Americans, but we pray before we eat, honey,” said Mary. “We pray.”
There was a stretch of silence—not silence, really, but the peace-filled quiet of people eating good, good food.
“Mama, how was church this morning?”
“It was beautiful. Just beautiful. We didn’t go to sunrise service like we usually do, but I helped the ladies out first thing this morning serving Easter breakfast. Your father had to sing at the eight-o’clock and ten-thirty services. I went to the eight-o’clock service and came on home and took me a nap. Jeffrey Watkins’ kids are getting so big. I told him you were home. He hopes to see you before you go back. How long you gonna be here, anyway?”
“Are you gonna go and see Roosevelt’s grave while you’re here?”
“I don’t know.”
“You remember Mister Washington, don’t you, Craig? He used to sit in front of us every Sunday. Well, he passed, God bless his soul. Had cancer. Zachary’s mother asked about you too. Zachary got married overseas; he’s in the military now. And Dante”—Craig sat up straight; Mary continued—“I haven’t seen him in a long time. I see his brothers Marcellus and Tyreese every now and then, but since they go to Zebaoth, they don’t come to Siloah too much. But Dante came today. He looked real good too. Much better than the last time I saw him.”
Even after twenty-five years, the simple mention of Dante’s name forced blood between Craig’s legs. “Did he ask about me?”
“No, son, but I told him you were here. Oh, and Millicent, Millicent Avery from your class, son, remember when you had a crush on her? Well, Millicent had a heart attack, yes she did. She’s got two kids, one eleven and one eight, and according to Missus Avery, it was the oldest one who called the ambulance to go to his house when she didn’t pick him up from school. Can you believe that? He must’ve had a feeling. Or maybe Millicent seemed sick before he went to school. Isn’t it just beautiful that a young boy would be levelheaded enough to call the ambulance in that situation? The Lord works in mysterious ways, I say to you, yes He does. We had a prayer for her today at church. Her mother said she needs to lose a lotta weight. And we had prayer for Jerry Baker too. Wasn’t he also in your class, son?”
“He was a grade ahead of me, Mama.”
“Well, he has diabetes and HIV. I don’t know if he’s married or what. He’s been on dialysis over at St. Joseph’s Hospital, so we said a prayer for him too. But church was beautiful, son, it sure was. Pastor Westendorf gave one of his better sermons and the regular choir sounded good. Even the gos-pel choir had it together this morning, and I’m telling you, when they first started a couple years back I wished they’d never got up there and sang. They sounded like dying birds, I’m telling you.” Mary threw back her head and mimicked the sound of dying birds. She cracked herself up. “You know I can’t carry a tune and I sounded better than they did.” They all laughed. “But they’re much better now, son, you oughtta hear’m sometime.”
“Craig, guess who was in town a few weeks ago?” Gina overlapped Mary’s last out-loud thought.
“I haven’t the slightest.”
“Yeah, that Eric brings her around to see his mother sometimes,” said Mary. “She looks just like Gina.”
“Eric Benét?” asked Job, his tone hued with disbelief.
“Eric Jordan.” Mary punched the word Jordan.
“Yes, honey,” Craig replied while Mary went on:
“I know him as Eric Jordan. I don’t know where he got that highfalutin-tootin Benét from. His mother lives right over here not too far from Rufus King where his cousins, Eurieal and Persephone, went to high school with Craig.”
“You don’t remember,” Craig continued, looking at Job, “when I told you that Gina went out with him on and off for several years before he got his big break?”
“Now I do. I did like his first album, though.” Job spooned glaze over his ham.
“Me too. That is, until I read the liner notes and saw that he didn’t thank Gina for one single thing.” Craig looked at his sister. “Nearly every song on that album was about you, girl. And not only that, you practically funded his life here in Milwaukee while he was a struggling to get noticed. I remember when you played his demo tape for me. I know you helped pay for that—I wouldn’t be surprised if you bankrolled the whole thing—even though you never said so. You totally believed in him, said you knew he would make it. And he did. And what thanks do you get for supporting him? Nada. He better hope and pray I don’t run into him anytime soon.”
“That’s how your sister’s always been.” Mary was exasperated. “Generous to a fault. Puts herself on the line, does so much for so many of these Negroes and when all is said and done, she doesn’t have anything to show for it. Now she’s wasting her time on that Maurice from the Seventy-Sixers basketball team. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with my daughter. I do miss Eric’s little girl, though, that precious Asia. Reminds me of Gina when she was little. Asia’s like a granddaughter to me. I sure wish I could see her again.”
“Anyway.” Gina rolled her eyes repeatedly during Mary’s speech. “Eric wanted me to meet Halle Berry again. I think it was their first time back here since they got married. Eric first wanted me to meet her when I was modeling for Wilhelmina in New York, talking some nonsense about wanting my approval before they got married. Ha.”
“Well, did you meet her?” asked Craig.
“No, honey. Uh uh. I first turned him down in New York when I told him I couldn’t care less who he married, and I turned him down again. I told him he didn’t really want me to meet her anyhow. If I did, I’d tell her what she could expect from him. But she’ll find out soon enough. That’s probably why she married him in secret. That was the only way she could do it. She must not’ve wanted anybody discouraging her, telling her what a player he was. She had to sense it, somehow, in some way.”
“Umph, umph, umph. Well, I say,” was all Mary could say.
“That’s an understatement. Seem to me like he’s trying to prove some-thing to himself running around screwing every woman who’ll have him.”
“Craig, what are you trying to say?”
“I’m not trying to say anything, girl. I told you before what I thought about him. If there’s any truth to what I sensed about him the first time I met him standing in this very kitchen, let’s just say Eric wouldn’t be the first man, or the last, who tried to overcompensate with women for—”
“Now looky here,” Hazelle chimed in, his words splashes of cold water on their faces, “yall gone sit round the dinner table on this beautiful day gossipin bout people who ain’t even worth the breath you wastin on’m?”
“Quiet, Hazelle. Hush your mouth. Ain’t nobody talking to you. You make me wanna put down my religion.”
“Long as you pick it back up. And I don’t have to hush my mouth. I’m sitting in my kitchen at my table with my family, and I’ll say what I want.”
“Job, don’t you pay your father-in-law, don’t you pay Hazelle no mind. He’s only showing out because you’re here. Humph. Who does he think I am, sitting over here with wide eyes and more desire? Guess he thinks I’m chopped liver. Humph. His kitchen, his table, his family.”
“Ma, I learned my lesson when I came to his defense the last time I was here.” Job laughed. “I’m keeping my mouth shut.”
“Good idea, son. Good idea. That’s why I always call you the peacemaker. Be married long as we have, you make it that far, you see what I’m talkin about. Old silly thing. Always gotta open his mouth when nobody’s talking to him. It’ll be fifty-five years this June twenty-third. I was ninety-eight pounds soaking wet when I married that man all those years ago. You make it this far, you hear me, Job? Then you come and tell me I don’t know what I’m talkin about.” She caught her breath and took a drink of water. “How’s your mother doing?”
“She’s been doing much better since after she broke her hip last year. She still complains a lot, but she’s getting around much better. She’s planning to come to my graduation next month.”
“That’s beautiful, son, just beautiful. I send her a card now and then. I sure hope she gets’m. I don’t know if I put enough postage on’m or not.”
“I’m sure she gets’m. She probably forgets to tell me when we talk.” Job paused for a moment and then looked across the table. “Gina, do you have any commercials coming out or are we gonna see you in any more music videos soon?”
“Not anytime soon. Lemme be positive, Job: not yet. I’m heading down to Chicago later this week to audition for a Tampax commercial. My agency also got me an audition for an Ice Cube video. We’ll see what happens.”
“Why did you come back here from New York? Does Wilhelmina still represent you?”
“Technically, they do, but they also know I’m not there right now, so they’re not actively looking for work for me.” Gina swallowed whatever she was chewing and wiped her mouth. “You know, Job, New York is no joke. I probably had one really good year there, you know what I mean, when I had the gigs to bring in enough cash flow to make it worth my while. Let’s face it, at five foot nine, I’m not tall enough to do runway, and as big as Wilhel-mina is, they just couldn’t get me enough print work on a consistent basis to justify my staying there. Besides, the industry is starting to get to me. I came home to take a break, reflect on my life, and reassess my options. I think I might wanna get into styling, which would allow me to be creative. I might even start designing jewelry.”
“What is styling?”
“If you open up a LAND’S END catalog, for instance, you might see the models posing in a log cabin setting. The stylist creates that habitat for the photographer to work with.”
“Kind of like a movie set designer,” said Craig, “but for print advertising photo shoots.”
“Exactly. Stylists can also put together a model’s entire look, right down to the most minute accessory, for a photo shoot. Craig keeps telling me I need to do something creative, and I’m beginning to think he’s right.”
“Gina can draw. She used to draw the most amazing portraits and illustrations just sitting up at the kitchen table doodling on a piece of paper. Her work was easily as good as anything I’ve ever seen on the cover of the NEW YORKER.”
“Your father can draw a pretty good picture, too,” said Mary.
“Craig wasn’t bad either,” said Gina. “He used to paint beautiful watercolors.”
“I know,” said Job, “we have a couple of the ones he painted way back in the seventh-grade hanging in our living room.”
Craig swallowed his last bite of macaroni and cheese and looked at his father. “So, Daddy, have you planted your garden yet?”
“Not yet, son. It’s been colder this spring than it usually is, so I haven’t gotten everything I want in the ground yet. I planted some collards and some peas, but that’s about the size of it. I don’t wanna rush it. Frost’ll fall and ruin the seedlings. Then I’ll have to start all over. The soil is ready to go, though. Gervis came over with his Rototiller a few weeks ago. In due time, I’ll plant me some cucumbers, mustards, turnips, corn, radishes, some green onions, tomatoes, string beans, and watermelon. This year, I’m gonna try potatoes. Mister Fate said to just plant them whole, about a foot into the ground. He had a good little crop right across the street last fall.”
“So, Job, tell me, how was the drive?”
“Long. Your brother slept most of the way. We decided to stay at the Hotel Wisconsin downtown because we didn’t wanna be so far away at the hotel you found for us.”
“I didn’t know exactly what you guys wanted. Brookfield is a hike, but it was the best rate I could find on such short notice. I never even thought about the Hotel Wisconsin. I thought it was kind of seedy myself.”
“I’ll say. Kind of creepy, too. The room numbers don’t seem to go in any order so you get lost trying to find your room when you get of the elevator. And speaking of the elevator. That thing must be a-hundred-years-old. It has one of those grated gates that slide like a flat accordion behind the door. And it creaks and shakes as it moves so slowly, you don’t think you’re ever gonna get to your floor. I swear it’s a death trap. Even though we’re staying on the seventh floor, we take the stairs. The décor is Depression era, and the place is surely depressed. The mirrors hang crooked on the walls, and some of the room numbers dangle from the doors or have simply fallen off. It’s like a hotel in a horror movie. But it’s cheap and the sheets are clean, so, there you have it.”
“The Hotel Wisconsin. Isn’t that where Teddy Roosevelt was shot?” asked Mary.
“I think it was.” Hazelle pushed his plate away and went to the refrigerator to get another beer.
“Actually, he was shot by an anarchist at point-blank range in front of the Hotel Gilpatrick, which is now the Hyatt, right across the street,” said Craig. “The Hotel Wisconsin can claim that it happened in front of it, and I guess, technically, it did, since it happened across the street.”
“Roosevelt was holding a copy of a really thick speech he was about to give and that stopped the bullet from killing him,” said Mary.
“I didn’t know that. That must’ve been one mighty long speech. I’ll have to re-read the article about Roosevelt when we go back tonight and see if that’s in there. There’s a lot of great history about Milwaukee hanging on the walls of the lobby in framed newspaper clippings and old original photographs. Mama—Daddy, you too, I’m sure—would love some of the stuff they have. We’ve already spent a good amount of time reading it all. Seems like we spent most of last night down there. It’s all really interesting. Gina, can you pass me the mac and cheese?”
“Please.” Mary frowned.
“Please.” Craig laughed. “You didn’t give me a chance, Mama.” Gina handed the Pyrex to Mary who handed it to Craig. He scooped a small portion onto his plate.
“You had a chance. Lord have mercy, you act like you ain’t been raised right.” Mary finished her last bite and pushed her plate away from her. “Now, tell me, son, what are you gonna do while you’re here? How exactly are you gonna go about finding your birth mother?”
“Did you drive by the house yet?” asked Gina. “Soon as you called me and gave me the address, Bern and I drove right over there.”
“Looks a lot like this house,” said Job.
“Sure does and I almost went and knocked on the front door.” Gina couldn’t contain her excitement. “I don’t know what I would’ve said if somebody answered. Bern had to talk some sense into me, keep me in the car.”
“We’re gonna try and locate as much information as we can, Mama. Tomorrow we’ll go to the public library to look up newspaper archives for obituaries and wedding announcements, try to find out what Jennifer’s last name might be, since it’s probably not White anymore. We might go to vital records to see if we can get any information there but we’ll definitely go to the courthouse to the Register of Deeds to find out exactly who owned the house on Sixteenth Street in the late sixties. John, that guy, if you remember, who was renting a room from us and who moved to California the day before we left, suggested that we buy a video camera to bring with us on this trip. We’ve always wanted a video camera anyway so we took his advice. We’re gonna document whatever we can of the search while we’re here and see what happens. I have a really good feeling about it, though. A really good feeling. Best one I’ve had in the five years that I’ve been searching.”
The family was quiet for the rest of the meal. Everyone was too full for even the tiniest piece of Hazelle’s blackberry cobbler. Mary wasn’t supposed to eat any anyhow.
Mary retired to the couch up front and watched television. Gina read in her room and talked to her friend, Persephone, on the phone. Job and Craig cleaned up the kitchen and joined Hazelle in his basement barroom for a drink and some B.B. King before taking a plate of cobbler and returning to the hotel.
Morning couldn’t come soon enough. Craig knew he wasn’t going to sleep. But at least he could “rest his eyes,” as Mary was wont to say when caught napping on the couch in front of whatever religious program she was trying to watch. In a tornado of thoughts, Craig rested his eyes with Job spooned at his back, snoring in his ear.
At least one of them could sleep.