One Easter, my grandmother gathered us to her for a family meal. Let’s call that meal “Cuz.” My mother called my grandmother on the phone and asked, what time the dinner was to be served, and what she should bring Cuz. We were hungry. My grandmother answered, “Tell everyone to come at seven and to bring appetites.” She then disappeared in a plume of all purpose flour and went back into the kitchen to prepare the gizzard gravy.
When the time had come, when the meats had rested and the vegetables had been properly buttered, we sat at the folding card tables and waited. Before we began eating, my grandmother took the unevenly baked cornbread from the cast iron skillet—blessed, broke— and gave it to us, her children and grandchildren and stragglers and strangers, with eyes bigger than our stomachs, saying. She said, “Take, eat, this is Our body. Which this world has tried to crumble.”
Then She took the pot of simmering Collard Greens, gave thanks, and ladled some to each of us over our burnt cornbread, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is Our pot liquor. Our Africa. Our West Indies. Our Louisiana. Our Oakland. Our leavings. Our fixings. Our big toe and titties all up in it. Our sugar low and our love high. She then said, “Remember what I taught you, make sure anybody come by hungry not only eats but gets fed.” And when we ate, and when were not only full but satisfied, we sang and danced to some B.B. King, before eating Aunt Lavada’s peach cobbler.
“I just heard about your son. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m a mother too. I know. That thread? Let me fix it before you unravel. I know everybody always talking about him to you and you never get a chance to just sit with your grief, so can I sit with you? You look pretty in that color God. You take your time getting back into creation okay? I’m going to open these curtains, crack the window a bit and let some fresh air in. I think it would be nice if you sat under your own sun for a while. Teacakes? Ham? Spiral? Bone in? Dishes? Done. Your bridge club sent devilled eggs. Where do you keep your Tupperware? My son is cutting your lawn, I hope you don’t mind. Yes, that picture in the obituary look just like him.”
This is how the women in my family still respond to death. Any death. They respond with life-affirming gestures. After the details are done and the dust settles, the house empties, and the phone calls trickle down, the very real work of making sure the grieving is being held begins.
That’s when the mothers in my family are activated. They become mothers in other ways. I marvel at their ability to become women who mother other mothers. They seem to become more of themselves in these times. No one’s grief is too big for these women to hold. Their ministry of presence shows itself to be about a radical and particular kind of caring. Mothering isn’t the role to which they are relegated. By their own volition they clean, cook and keep watch. They field questions and run baths. They witness and they sit. While the news says “Another young African-American man has been killed at the hands of…” the mothers in my family call the names of the mothers.
“Gloria Darden, Lesley McSpadden, Gwenn Carr, my boys played with your boys. I knew Freddie, Michael, Eric, George and Elijah, like I know my own.” They sit with them. Commiserate. Pass the time that never seems to pass. This is not a ministry of futzing. Mothering, as practiced by the women in the family is an intentional act of restoring another mother to balance in the face of a dizzying loss like that of a child. Mothering is the suspension of time constraints and social status in service of the needs of the grieving. Mothering is not coddling. It relieves guilt, “This could happen to any of us. It is not your fault. Yes, your child knew you loved them. How do I know? Because a mother’s love once it is spoken slicks and coats the lives of our children.” Mothering knows and attends.
“Yes, I can see him lining up all the neighborhood kids and playing temple with them. Those carnations from the Bleeding Heart wreath show gon’ look nice in that vase. You want me to answer that? Fouche Hudson’s Funeral Home right. In lieu of? Rolling Hills Cemetery? Who would have ever thought we would be the two holding each other like this? Me from Shreveport and you from nowhere. I got stamps in my purse; I will mail those bills for you. Don’t you worry. Yes God, only a mother knows this pain.”
What to do with this cross now that it is half off? Now that I have lived on it. Died on it. Climbed up it. And then climbed down it. Was hung on it. And then taken down off of it. Made it memento to my oppression then a reflecting pool for my liberation. Maybe it’s not a cross anymore. Maybe what’s left is nothin’ but two sticks tied together. Maybe the claw of the hammer is to remove the rope and nails from the cross. Maybe it is time to reclaim the blocks of wood, take the pieces from the bottom of its pile and place them newly atop one another. Maybe we must play at rebuilding a world by destabilizing the cross, unknotting its symbolism and releasing from it the energy that it has taken to hold it together for all of these years. Do you know how much a cross weighs? Maybe it is time to pull the cross out from under itself, each of us taking a turn, each of kinder and kindler, each of us poplar and each of us ash, each of us architect and demolition expert, each of us creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure as the game progresses.
Maybe it is in the instability, the potential toppling over, where the new church is. Where love shows itself. Where our futures are worth the risks of questioning the authority of everything. Maybe no child says, “I wanna make crosses for a living when I grow up.” or maybe it has always been about the cross maker. Maybe it is about the crossing out. We must make the wood we use today. We need water towers today. We need splints today. We need houses today. We don’t need wall plaques and knickknacks, curios and figurines. We need tables to break bread on. We need kindling for the fire that we are called to start. We need a new desk where we write the cross word that puzzles. Maybe the second to last line of Christ’s poem, the penultimate one is the death sentence, written in god pencil potential. Written with the whittle and written in the uncrossing: we need to know ours is a Jenga God.