Earl Jr., Pittsburgh, 1974
“I’ve spent so many days wondering why you keep asking all these questions about me. About us. Dammit, I—
I—don’t know what to tell you because what on God’s holy earth am I supposed to tell my son if I don’t have anything bad to tell him? You’re searching for the bad. Looking for it. For, what? Evidence?
You think I’m lying when I talk about your Grandpa and Grandma? Let me tell you something I told your mother the first time I met her.
I do not lie. I do not lie.
I know you think it. I can see it in your eyes. I can hear it in those slammed doors. Think my Daddy woulda stood for that? No, sir. You? Doesn’t matter. I don’t really care how your eyes well up. I don’t care how many of you hold things against me that I never did! It’s just the way life is. Time is cruel. One moment you’re just living your today and later, so many years later, those moments come back to you as if you got a second chance.
But I just wasted those second chances on you.
Stop it, don’t you dare get up from that seat!—looking at me like I owe you something. Like I owe you some made-up truths. You don’t like what I have to to say?
Well lemme tell you so you’ll understand, with those books you bring in, with what I gave you, holding it over me with those details, those fucking details.
So yeah, sure, Mr. Earl Sr. was what you’d call a tenant. To me, he was just my Daddy. He made it all happen—you should be so thankful. You read those books of yours and you use some fancy new words. Who cares? Whose lives does it change but ours, right now and right here?
But since you brought it up, fine have it your way—let’s call him a tenant then. He was a tenant all his damn life. Yeah, we all began somewhere, somewhere between Albany and Athens in Dougherty, in this large-ass room. You think you understand where he came from? You think you get to judge him? Try building a goddam family from nothing. Daddy called it a house, and so we called it a house and for us it was a damn house. Yes, you kids, for you it was just a big-ass room. But there was always a kettle whistling in the corner! Work always being done. Real work on five acres I guess. Five acres just filled with pecans.
That was 1925. I was around six years old, maybe seven. I loved me those pecans. Maybe it was an orchard, for you it would look like nothing, our acres, sixty acres all broken up for Mr. this and Mr. that. I don’t remember even one of them, they just mix together. Just a pack of rough-talking men and their wives gathering at the fences a few minutes here and there gossiping before mealtime.
Most days I’d just walk around letting my hands catch through all those plants, stand naked in the sun, breathe in the beautiful breeze of that sweet smell. I got caught eating those pecans so many times I don’t even know! Daddy whipped me maybe once and I could tell he was torn up that he’d even thought to do it then. Every time I see him—clear as day in my mind like it was just yesterday—looking at my small hands sticky with pecans, I remember him with his hands on his hips, in his overalls. And every damn time I remember, all I can see is Daddy smiling. He had a method. First, he’d look up at the sun. Then, down at me with a big, broad smile. He’d say: great isn’t it, Junior?
Yeah, Daddy didn’t make it financially. Maybe he had too many of us, but that piece of shit Mr. Baker hated us so Daddy picked up and soon we were hitching a ride to Tallulah, learning to pick fiber from burr and pull boll under that hot Mississippi sun. It wrenched my fingers, little needles everywhere. Who woulda thought cotton would be so hard to pick? But Daddy let me just pick till I was thirteen, then I had to learn the other stuff. How to plant with all the other families and all the other children. How to harvest. The important stuff. He was proud of what I was learning. Proud for getting better and better every day.
Never told him I missed those pecans though. Woulda broken his heart. But he knew. Mamma still makes me a pecan pie every week because I missed ‘em so I know he knew. I wanted to tell her: don’t make a whole pie, you’re wasting your time. I’m just going to pick them off the surface like I picked them off in Dougherty. I missed them most for Daddy though. He was never as crushed as the day I heard Mr. Baker telling him that he better go somewhere where his kids couldn’t eat the product.
So, yeah, Daddy learned the hard way. You don’t eat what you farm. I wish he had been lucky enough to be in Ephraim with Uncle Jim. Thank the Lord you can’t eat wool, Earl, I heard Uncle Jim laughing, with his big mean laugh as Daddy whispered to him why he got let go in the yard in Pittsburgh, finally home in 1934. Yeah, we had no money and Daddy had wasted all his years learning how to eat pecans on a pecan farm and raising six kids he wouldn’t raise a hand on. Yeah, it was hard, we were in lines, getting money here and there, never knowing if we were going to make it. Sometimes Mamma got lucky or Daddy got a raise or a friendly neighbor took pity on us and cooked us some meat that we stretched for a few days. But it didn’t last long, and it was home, there was a screen door, and eventually there was food on the table when Daddy got promoted at the warehouse. Time moved on, but I didn’t. I remembered what he had done for us.
Because in the end, with Mamma in the kitchen, Daddy boisterous and jolly—Pittsburgh turned out to be the same as the pecan farm. We were happy. Daddy loved Mamma and he loved me and all your aunts and uncles, and none of it mattered, but here you are, selfish as the day is long, asking me again.
So now you know. What have I told you before that you didn’t already know?
I know you—. Sometimes you just wanna hear me make stuff up, so you keep asking questions, trying to look innocent, just another question, just another raised eyebrow, a shrug, treating me like I’m lying.
You just all high and mighty because I gave you everything but you don’t know that happiness can be made even when you have nothing. That’s something a father gives his son.
Keith, Chicago, 2001
“You’re too young for this, I know. And I’m sorry. But I’m trying to fix something and so I need you to listen, please.
You never met your grandparents. I know that. I’m so sorry. If you’d ever met your grandfather you’d know all his life he was full of stories of breadlines and farms, pecans and the Great Depression since as long as I can remember. I know he heard most of them from his father, my Grandpa Earl, in whose image he never seemed to stop living. Somewhere in those pecans, and that dreaded cotton, was his love for his Daddy, but never his Mamma, my Grandma Rosie.
You think of breadlines and pecans and the Depression and you think all my father’s stories would have been so wretched, but no, not once. He wouldn’t say it but you could always tell he couldn’t believe his luck that his Daddy moved to Pittsburgh just in time that they missed the Dust Bowl. That somehow Grandpa Earl was the reason Dad brought up two sons and a daughter who all went to college, your Uncle Harold and Aunt Louise. Somehow Grandpa Earl had some divine knowledge that saved them all. No one else had a part to play. Just him.
Grandma Rosie lived long. I was always her favorite. She was the revisionist, rolling her eyes at the way Dad prettified the stories of his childhood, making even the humdrum and downright back-breaking child labor sound like his duty to his father.
Grandma Rosie was too ahead of her times. For one, she was uppity for a light-skinned Indian woman. Of course, we thought it was our family’s way, but when Harold and I brought home Puerto Rican and Cuban girls over spring breaks, a decade apart, 1962 and 1972, Grandma Rosie didn’t raise any eyebrows the way my own Mama did. Marching in those riots, we only took some of the heat, not much. I was never so much as booked once staying in the middle of the crowd like I did. Somehow we must’ve thought our family was better. Until it wasn’t of course.
The night I brought home your mother, Mama couldn’t stop staring at her hair. Jeez, Lola, with all her scarves and then me with my outfit too tight up top and too loose down below. We were bulging with pride with my newfound tribe of colorful hippies. Mama was narrowing her eyes as she glanced from Lola to me and back to her. Opposite Mama was Grandma Rosie who was always at the head of the table. Mama was on the other end because Dad was late as always. Grandma stared Mama down till she had to look away. The tension was unbearable, there was so much unsaid. I hated feeling like Lola’s protector so much I rustled to the restroom mid-dinner where I spent far too long worrying, pacing, knocking my head against the sloping roof before returning to the table where Grandma had finally regained control.
In the end Lola got Grandma Rosie’s stamp of approval, mostly because her views on civil rights and activism were just so. Meaning: conciliatory, non-violent, just a little SNCC but not too much, but of course completely dishonest. Of course she was a fierce fighter. For months before we met I’d been stealthily going to the protests just to see her at the front, enchanted, until I plucked up the nerve to join.
Harold’s Clarita fared less well because nobody could understand a word she was saying and she became more agitated and nervous by the minute. She was dispatched within a month and the next time Harold came back from Lincoln University, he was alone. Lola and I got engaged straight out of our senior year despite your Aunt Louise’s pleas to wait.
We all thought Grandma Rosie would hang on a bit longer. Her lungs had given out after all those cigarettes and she had severe arthritis, but she was as sharp-tongued as they come till the very end which was a month and a day before your mother and I were due to get married. The night she passed, thinking of her and the wedding, I cried, and cried and cried next to her bed. I was the only grandkid other than Louise lucky enough to be home that time of year. Mourners come by with food in the morning, and Grandma Rosie’s refrigerator kept getting more full. A slow-roasted chicken, a cherry pie, a pot of gumbo, banana pudding. I moved aside the moldy Tupperware of collard greens for all these foods that there would soon be no one present to eat, and took a long look at the wet boxes of Michelina’s Macaroni and Cheese and Marie Callender’s Chicken Pot Pies sitting on the top shelf.
There, the evidence of my Grandma’s poor diet made me weep some more, quietly behind the refrigerator, pretending to be busy, as if there was so much clutter to clear away. The frozen foods gawked back at me. I wiped my tears away as I put Mrs. Reynolds’ applesauce away, feeling a sense of loss so desperate, so full of regret. I do miss Dad’s tales sometimes, even though you got to hear the best parts: about your great-grandmother, my Grandma Rosie, someone you and Clara never met but I so wish you did.
The memory of that day is so crisp I feel like I can hold it in my hands, play it back and forth. What I can’t do is rewind to before the pain. I had lost my earliest starting point, the top of the clade, the whole warehouse of the history of us. Who else could let me know cheerfully that Dad glorified pecans to high heavens because he took his father more seriously than he took her? Who else could be expected to hold the mantle of her ferocious nature, the sheer cheek of her that nobody would record, that even I in this brand-new world hadn’t achieved.
I thought to myself: At least I heard as much as I could. At least we had some good years. Grandma Rosie knew Dad hated those damn pies. But at least I knew, even if Dad didn’t, that Grandma Rosie baked those pecan pies not because she didn’t know Dad preferred them on their own, but because she could hardly hand him a plastic bag of store-bought pecan nuts. According to her, he deserved a whole damn pie whether he wanted it or not. It was her labor of love. She knew she wasn’t the one he wanted around, but she baked them anyway. Every week, like clockwork. Looking at those caved-in, old boxes of frozen pot pies, a set of five piled on top of each other, it was hard to believe it was bought by the same woman who made the butteriest pecan pie I’d ever eaten.
Lola and I ended up delaying the ceremony because for weeks on end I couldn’t get out of bed. Dad insisted I had to move on, and I hated him for behaving like nothing had happened. He never even wanted us to get married in the first place. Neither did Mom. But eventually, coaxed by Lola, I got out of bed and agreed to go ahead with it. And that’s what led to your mother and I having the awful misfortune of getting married in Bakersfield, San Joaquin, where your other grandparents lived, on 19 December, 1977.
We got there hours before. Your mother’s parents had just begun to set up the yard outside. I spent an hour just staring up at the sky pitying myself, trying to convince myself that I shouldn’t feel such crushing pain on my wedding day that I barely noticed when the dust began to mar the sun. The sweeping, whirling dirt began to travel up my trousers. I tugged at them, shaking impatiently before noticing what was going on. The diamond-shaped sign with a symbol beyond the yard began to bend slowly with a wounded screech, encrusted in a layer of dust so thick it was hard to tell what the symbol was. Lola was still inside getting her face done or her dress or something. With a loud crack, the sign of the butcher’s store, far off in the distance, blew right off and careened down the street, screeching as it hit the asphalt. I was squinting to see. In the yard, the chairs blew off towards the bushes, broken and tangled, pink and blue ribbons swirling in the little whirlwind of dirt and dust and I watched them spiral up and crash down by the soiled fence just before I could no longer see that far. I thought of Grandma Rosie as I retreated back towards the house, checking up at the sky for the tiniest glint of sunlight. Somehow, the acute-angled sign held. I knew she would have known better then to have our wedding that day.
We stayed in Bakersfield till February taking stock, delaying till we could no more that we had to start our own lives somewhere else. And then we left. I remember thinking: what was the drive like for Dad and Mom? By the time we had you, Dad’s stories about Grandpa Earl had all dried up, as if those parched days in Bakersfield had cured him of his fancies. I think ultimately he realized just how much had lost only after Grandma Rosie’s passing. She had kept his fantasies going. And it turned out that without Grandma, I was too embarrassed of Dad and Mom. That’s why you never met them. I was too afraid they’d see their precious whiteness all diluted and I didn’t want to put you through that—.
But now I think I was just protecting myself.
Where am I, Lina? I know I’m a liability. I know it even though you and Clara never say it, but I know. I don’t know where I am, why I’m suddenly remembering all these things, but I know something is wrong, that you’re having to deal with me. God knows I never wanted it to be like this but before lights out: I need you to tell me what’s going on, Lina.
It feels like I’m in a straitjacket. I can’t feel my toes. I can feel your breath close to my ear as I speak, and you’re so quiet. Why are you so quiet?
I need you to tell me because I can’t help turning it round and round in my head. Have I spent my whole life living in someone else’s image? Has that damaged you? Are you furrowing your brow because I’m barely audible or because you’re not sure I’m telling you the truth? Am I thinking of days that never were?”
Clara, New York, 2023
“Gosh, you silly child. You’re going to be wonderful! Nat, it’s college! You’ll grow to love it. Maybe you’ll even fall in love. Definitely you’ll fall in love. And tragic as it is, the next time I see you you’ll be different, further away from me.
I remember my first day at Rutgers. Gosh, I was so homesick I couldn’t help but rummage through the boxes where I found some family photos Mom must have stuck in there. I stared bleary-eyed at those sepia photographs of Dad and Mom. Dad was so gussied up, so 70s, in his corduroys and suede . It was such a shocker to see him like that. I’d never seen him out of sweater vests. Mom never stopped looking fantastic so the photo wasn’t a shock. Her hair was always tied up in brightly-colored cloths, even now, and it wasn’t just her fashion but her music and her heritage which she refused to allow to move on, or evolve. She lived and breathed it, proud even to be so different from her children who she never bothered teaching Spanish. How had I not seen these photos before? Dad and I so pale, Mom her beautiful olive. In that moment, I was proud of us, our interracial-ness.
All that was before—before Dad came down with dementia, before Mom had to keep on going, holding everything together after he passed. But in those early days, I just remember them as so alive, so wilful. My beautiful Mom, Lola, and my bright-eyed Dad, Keith: the colorful folks who entertained, who neighbors and my friends loved, who told great stories. It was embarrassing to be the only shy one in the family. The only imperfect thing about them was that Dad never talked about their parents. I never even knew their names. We just met our Uncle Harold and Aunt Louise and they never said anything either.
There was this picture of the four of us from when we went to the Grand Canyon when I was eight and Lina was twelve that had somehow ended up with Dad above me and Mom above Lina, my sister’s arm straddling my shoulders. You couldn’t mistake it. The whites were on the left and the browns on the right. It made me remember how Lina was always so conscious of it. I never took it seriously even when Mom put us both in front of a mirror and said, ‘you look the exact same. Look at those noses and those rosebud mouths. Stop fixating on your tan Lina and look at how both of you have the same eyes, the same noses, the same foreheads, the same long dark beautiful hair. Why don’t you love that?’ Lina shrugged, and Mom sighed and sank down on the bed watching her try on her makeup, her scarves, never the right way, always wonky. I couldn’t care less, especially for makeup, and slunk away but I remember looking back: Mom frowning at Lina with such worry, so serious. I was so jealous of that attention, these two beautiful women fretting about each other even though everyone knew I was the ugly one.
Lina would always be self-conscious of her skin. Soon, she wanted to curl her hair. At sixteen, she used the word privilege for the first time at the dinner table. Across from her, I rolled my eyes and her face contorted with rage and she reached across and slapped me hard across the face.
I always thought she was being ridiculous. Lina was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen and all the boys in our lily-white school clearly thought so too. It all worked out in the end. On my twenty-fifth birthday, just two years after your grandfather died, we were sitting around in Prospect Park soaking up the sun in our fold-up chairs.
Do you remember? Do you remember your cousin Zara? No—you were just four!
Lina had specially made a trip from Chicago for my birthday and was prattling on about how things were so different for a woman of color these days. I laughed and laughed, and she let me. I thought: some things will never, ever change. Deep inside, I actually loved her for it. One day, I thought, you just wake up and the things that made you want to kill your sister suddenly made you laugh wildly, lovingly.
She was, in the end, too different. It just wouldn’t hold. Right on that birthday, your father and her new man had a fight so loud, right at our dinner table, and your father used slurs I’d never knew he was capable of. I just sat there, listening. I thought it was just one of those manly brawls. Maybe I didn’t understand, I probably still don’t. Once again, right there, Lina reached right across the table and slapped me hard, grabbed your cousin’s hands. They left that night in a hurry. I had a dream that night that Lina and I were walking together, children again, in our old house. We passed two doors in the hallway. The first led to the bathroom, the second led to Mom and Dad’s room. I needed a pee and walking ahead of me Lina held my hand tight protectively, looking back at me with sisterly affection. She opened the first door and as we peered inside there was nothing. Pure blackness, pure bottomlessness. It took just one second for that long genealogy, our pride in being an interracial family, to just…break. As we stared she twisted my arm towards her, pushed me through the door and I screamed and screamed, even when I realized I was awake. I hadn’t had that dream in a long time.
Someday, you’ll see. None of this matters when you reach a certain age. It all melts away and all that’s left is that your sister is there with you to hold your hand as you age together, the years that stretched before you endlessly seem finite but there’s still some left so what else can you do but laugh. You’ll think: you never lose anyone forever. You ache for them, but somewhere they’re holding on too and you’re both searching, dreaming. Someday you’ll find yourself dreaming together. No, you never lose anyone forever. I lost Lina and my darling niece the day of that fight. It’s been fourteen years. Mom’s gone now too, and nobody, nobody has ever mentioned Lina to me again. I keep hoping somewhere she’s dreaming of me too.
Oh gosh, darling, I’m so sorry! I don’t mean to cry. I just miss you already. Come back to me Nat, sweetie, please. I’m your mother and you’re going to grow up at college like we all did and realize so much of your parents seems wrong but please, just come back to me. I just—
I just hate this feeling of loss. I can’t lose you too. Losing Lina, my beautiful sister. God, what I would do to take that fight back.
You know, sometimes at night, those awful nights when I think that I’m going to slip away, I think of her. Always her.”
Zara, Unmapped, 2038
“It skipped a generation, but there we were eventually—dark as the night sky. Mom married a black man from Chicago, as dark as they come. He skipped out on Mom who was just pretending to be black—or so she alleges he said when they fought. Who knows, really? One thinks of family history as so immutable, etched in the anecdotes that get passed down like religious edicts. Faithfully, rigorously. Because that’s how all the great religions are still etched in people, right? Etched so indelibly, you can try to trace it back. But it’s like spidery web, it splits off in some places fractal-like and even though it seems unbroken it’s hard to really catch it.
We think of it like that but it’s nothing like that at all, is it? Children grow up, lose interest in their parents and their parents’ parents. And when their parents get old, their memories begin to fade as well so anything you gain in the interim is besmirched, filtered. You think to yourself: if only I had listened. If only I could have recorded it. If only Mom wasn’t so afraid of marrying a trope, she wouldn’t have gone ahead and done it and we wouldn’t be here with a mother so petrified of her shadow you couldn’t get a coherent thought out of her if you exorcised the dementia with every pagan ritual, enchantment, prayer, recitation or supplication you could think of. You just had to let her be.
Listen to this, now and listen to it carefully because as she sits beside you in your temporary domicile, I won’t be there to tell you. Let me tell you all I can now before I lose you completely.
My Mom’s—your Grandma’s—name is Lina, and she was beautiful. She’s the only one left in her own family except perhaps for her estranged sister Clara. I met her only once, when I was five, never really remembered anything about her except I never saw her again. She may even still be out there somewhere in the migrating hordes but for Mom she’s been dead for a long time, and that, along with my father breaking her heart, drove her to lifelong celibacy at thirty-one and eventually, madness.
Grandma may sometimes have things to tell you about herself, but you won’t have the sieve I do. The capacity to separate the wheat from the chaff: the truths from the deceits, and the feigned ignorance from pain. She knows so much more than she lets on. I hope she’ll tell you the things I wish she’d told me.
I can only say this to you so bluntly because, as it were, I’m speaking from beyond the grave. I hope in vain that you can reach my voice and understand me. Because long before the rising tides turned into crashing waves, and the levees broke and the bridges rotted, before the tunnels flooded into obsolescence, the beer coolers and boxes of Christmas ornaments and picture frames began to float in the basement, and the black mold crept up through the ceiling in to our veins, we had this blind, fanatical faith in the city’s seawalls that strains credulity when I think about it now, in the hindsight of the afterlife. There they were never repaired, but we thought they must have been. We who had trekked home through Sandy and drove through before Irene hit could not help but forget. How foolish I was to think as the landslide poured over us: How could this be? This has never happened before.
The day the Storm hit, all I could think before the engulfment took us over was that this has never happened before. I think back to our surprise with such shame. All thoughts of death seemed idle, even though we were hardly unaware of what was surely to come one day. It’s like that volcano that could erupt at any moment between now and hundreds of years from now. One falters about through life in complete knowledge and in complete ignorance.
Your father had come straight up to me just hours before, looked me straight in the eyes as we made dinner—‘spoken to the kids today, hun?’—his hands moving dexterously, not yet even measuring the danger. Just before the alarms began to blare and the lights like we had already reached the end of the proverbial tunnel came in blindingly through every crevice, I had thought about you so far away, and knew you’d be better off for it.
First we heard the windows crack, holding against the water, the cracks appearing slowly, deceptively-slowly, in all directions from a fatal, focal point right off-centre, before it gave in and the water crashed through. After that there’s precious little to remember. There was this feeling of being in a museum—as your father flew through the drywall and I away from him, floating momentarily in this aquarium of empty human life, my favorite armchair coming down on my side from above, the dresser splintering in all directions, open drawers setting loose cloth unwrapping through the tide. I never got hit. Drowning felt a little like my whole body was being stretched through the narrowest keyhole. You know there’s no space. You know it’s impossible. And there you are, stretched like a long elastic piece of liquorice till you feel your bones breaking, your lungs bursting. Until the lights go out and every part of you within becomes a part of you without in an instant and the flood has bored you out.
You would think, wouldn’t you? That the things I’d smell right here and now would be the roasted garlic and the awful brand of broth in a can we were cooking just before it began? You would think that, but you’d be dead wrong. Because, for what it’s worth, from here it’s like the inside of a grain silo. The air is thick with sawdust, my senses are overwhelmed but some things can still be seen and the faint smell of pecans appears fleetingly to remind me of what I know now. I can see now what we got wrong along the way, every generation of children never listening to their parents when they got the chance; what they could have known, maybe we could have even avoided this if we just tried to know. Sisters ripped from each other, sons from their fathers, the many more years I could have spent with you if I had just known better. So many chances for happiness for everyone if they had just listened.
I know things now, and I can see thing too. Up here, or maybe down here or wherever this is, this…place where I can see everything: I can even see you and your brother. Lonely in this blue world, lonely in your blackness, competing for insurance in illicit bunkers alongside the swarms of people displaced but not dead. I can see the piazzas and the marinas, the ramparts and dams, the ceiling cracks and the mildew, and they are all a blurry blue. The Adriatic is still. The black dust still drifts like filaments of a wispy filigree across the panhandle, unchanged.
Occasionally I can see more. The sunken islands and upturned continents that capsized like ramshackle dinghies. The lost and redlined, drowned away from the world into their graves. The setting of dusk over the layers of ocean, crust and mantle melted into each other.
Author’s statement: We know from extensive reporting and research that if a catastrophic storm were to hit New York tomorrow, the people and communities most likely to be deluged would be black and brown folks largely because of the process of redlining and the shoddy maintenance of seawalls in areas where predominantly people of color remain.
Climate change, however, is not merely a modern occurrence. It is woven into the personal histories of all human beings in some form or another and in the history of America. From the Dust Bowl to Hurricane Katrina, environmental destruction is written into the histories of agriculture, farming, and the rise of urban metropolises. But histories of such a great sweep are often tenuous: like all personal histories, over generations, wisdom can be lost or, worse, dismissed.
This is a story about five generations of one family where the effects of the environment, of race, of deep estrangements and deep relationships, is told through a series of monologues delivered from parent to child; the sort of monologues children are wont to dismiss as they grow older, often never knowing the consequences.
Author Bio: Kamil Ahsan is a dual-degree doctoral student in Developmental Biology and an MA student in History at the University of Chicago. He is also an independent journalist and writer. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Chicago Review, Jacobin, Entropy, Dissent, Salon, The American Prospect and many others. You can find his work at www.kamilahsan.com.