Watching my mother dance was like falling in love over and over again.
Watching my mother dance was like falling in love over and over again.
My momma was a dancer. She was born that way. From the moment she was named she was doomed to live a life that had already been lived. It wasn’t until years later, after I read the story of Salome and King Herod in the Bible, that I understood the correlation. It was eerie, yet different. Momma was not a temptress who used her dancing as a tool for destruction. She was simply following the natural flow of her innate spir
“Momma, what was grandma like?” I asked as we held swaying hands walking to my first day of elementary school. I was always proud to be beside her. She was so tall and so beautiful that people gave her lingering looks that I loved and hated at the same time.
“When my mother saw me twirl out of her womb, she named me Salome. That’s how your grandmother was, everything was about the bible,” she said as I watched a darkness float across her eyes as if a passing cloud had momentarily hid the sun.
“I thought your name was Sallie?” I responded, stopping in my tracks. Momma knelt down and looked me in the eye.
“Salle is my nickname. My daddy called me that. Anyway, to you, I’m momma, now and always, ” she whispered into my ear. Her lavender scent swirled up my nostrils as she hugged me before rushing us to school before the bell rang.
Momma said my grandfather died trying to turn their lives into a fairy tale, far removed from their brick row house in West Baltimore, where the 1968 riots and heroin had left the streets strewn with burnt out shells like broken cowrie beads dangling from a useless necklace. He was delivering mail when a stray bullet struck him during a botched drug exchange. At the age of four, momma was left with in and out memories of her father’s hand on her cheeks, his head back loud laughter, and his sonorous voice telling her how their fairy tale life would be one day.
Four years later, when momma was eight years old, they were moving out the of the crowded rooming house they’d had to live in after her father died. Momma said my grandmother was reciting Bible verse as they marched out of the door for the last time, but all momma could think about was leaving behind the taunts from neighborhood kids.
“Why you look so white with a momma so black?”
“Where your daddy? He must be white.”
“Why you always dancing around like you crazy?”
Momma never responded to their ridicule or their laughter, but she deeply felt it all the same, in the place where children hide their pain of not fitting in. No one could see the wind-up mechanism inside momma that spun like the dancer atop her open music box on her night stand, nor could they see my grandmother turning it to ensure a better life for her only child.
“Keep your eyes straight ahead Salome. There is nothing in these streets for you. You were brought to this world for better things.” My momma would repeat grandma’s words from time to time to keep her believing that the best was yet to come despite the trials in between the promise of a glorious outcome.
My grandmother got a job on a labor gang at Bethlehem Steel Mill in Sparrows Point in 1979, outside of the city in the southeastern part of Baltimore County. They moved near the steel mill to Turner’s Station, an enclave originating from black people working at the mill who needed housing. I would watch momma’s moist eyes when she reminisced about living near the Patapsco River and all the fun she had at the water’s edge. I would then see the whites of her eyes streak with thin wavy red lines when she spoke about her all day long holy roller Sunday’s at church. Then, they would sparkle when she talked about her dance classes, her etiquette class, and all the activities at the community center. She said her mother kept her as busy as she could to keep her out of the trouble that could find little girls when no one was paying attention.
It was in the middle of the summer, in the middle of service, in the middle of the altar when my grandmother threw her hands up in the air then dropped dead. Two weeks after my momma had been accepted into Juilliard in New York City. Grandma’s heavenly inspired heart attack left my momma alone at eighteen and turned her dreams of being a professional ballerina into an echo that reverberated on sultry nights and Saturday mornings. I lived for those moments.
“Gene, hit the music. Put on something smooth and sweet.” Before my momma could get “sweet” out, I would run for the stereo. My fingers, as if they had eyes on each tip, easily pulled out a cd I knew would suit my mother’s mercurial moods. At the first swell of music, Cyd and I would leap onto the couch in anticipation of momma’s first movement.
Watching my mother dance was like falling in love over and over again. With our eyes wide open, my sister and I were glued to the rise and fall of her lithe body moving around the room like a butterfly just free of its cocoon. We watched her as the music carried her into places we couldn’t understand then, but do now. She’d swirl and swoop inside invisible air currents. Up on her toes, down to her knees, arms extended skyward with delicate hands and fingers moving with the deftness of a magician. The serpentine curve of her back as she dipped down to grab my little sister up into a spin, left us spellbound and breathless. When her raven hair fell across her flawless translucent skin, it gave her an air of mystery. In those moments, we forgot she was our mother.
On Saturday mornings we’d wake up to the smell of bacon and momma pirouetting around us, drawing us into our weekend ritual. She’d glide across the kitchen floor, forwards and backwards, between the stove and the table, suddenly springing into the air with straight legs meeting and yell out, “Gene?” Within milliseconds, I would scream out, over the brisk loud music playing, “Chasse to allegro music”. She would laugh and say, “An extra piece of bacon for you, my sweet”. Soon Cyd would follow my lead trying to beat me to an extra treat with shouts of plie, pas and Rond de Jambe. We’d been music and ballet aficionados before we started school. Those unforgettable lessons, no doubt, later lead to my tenure as a professor of music at Emerson College in Boston and my sister’s career as a dance teacher at a public school in Baltimore.
The music stopped on my ninth birthday. Cyd was seven. My present that year was my father, Bo Johnson of Bo’s Bump n’ Grind Club, sitting at the table. It was also the day the clouds stayed permanently in the corners of momma’s eyes. Cyd and I had often asked about our dad. Momma told us he was out in the world and maybe one day we would know him.
Three things Cyd and I later learned about Bo. He hadn’t wanted to see us until his wife left with his two legitimate children, he hated to come home to an empty house and how he and momma met.
Without the money, which went to my grandmother’s funeral, burial, and outstanding debts, even with a scholarship and a church collection, momma told us she barely made it through her first semester. Upon beginning her second semester, a friend told her about a place to get a job that wouldn’t interfere with her studies. But it did. Unable to dance half the night and all day too, momma left college after her first year and became a permanent exotic dancer at Bo’s Club. A year and a half later she was bringing me into the world at Presbyterian Hospital, just a few miles from Julliard.
Although, he had the stature of a superhero with his broad shoulders, big chest and height reaching over six feet, he was not a superhero. He looked more like a villain to me and Cyd. When he shook my hand, I noticed his huge blue veined hands had gold and diamond rings on each swollen knuckle. They were as radiant as the gold teeth in his mouth. He patted the curls on top of Cyd’s head as if she were a lamb at the petting zoo. And, although my mother was the color of bone china, we never expected our father to be white. Bo was not the dad we wanted. He was nothing like our made up stories of our daddy saving the world.
“Where is daddy tonight, Gene?” asked Cyd from her twin bed across the room from mine. She had her pink blanket with sleeping white sheep pulled to her neck waiting for me to start our nightly journey.
“He’s in Africa. They’re killing big apes over there and daddy’s gonna get ’em”. I said with my scary voice while laying on top of my too kiddy for me blue bedspread with cowboy boots and spurs all over it.
“Why they killing ’em?”
“I don’t know for their fur I guess. Anyway, daddy is creeping up on ’em, He is sailing through the trees like monkey’s do until he sits right over top of them.”
“Is he gonna kill ’em?”
“No, daddy’s a good guy. Anyway, daddy jumps down right in the middle of them. He is moving so fast they can’t aim their guns. He karate chops them and spins like momma dancing and before you know it they’re all gone and the apes are safe.”
“Does Daddy wear tights like superman or batman?”
“No, Daddy doesn’t wear tights. There is nothing big enough to fit him. He wears special made clothes.
“What does daddy look like? His face I mean.”
“He looks just like us Cyd. Brown and tall and strong.”
The morning we met Daddy Bo, that’s what he wanted us to call him, his green speckled marble eyes were rolling all over momma. He looked at her breast and her backside, which he slapped repeatedly. Momma didn’t dance that morning, nor did she play our game. Instead, I saw my mother outside of herself and wondered where she had gone. It was also the morning momma told us that we were moving to Daddy Bo’s house. It was the worst birthday I’d ever had.
I don’t ever remember being mad at my mother before that day. But it was hard getting used to the closed doors. Hard to get used to being separated from Cyd in my own room. It was even harder sharing momma’s attention. Bo liked quiet. Even though the noises we heard coming from their room were anything but quiet. We had to knock on doors and wait for permission. We had to play music low, until he left. We had to watch what little color was in momma’s face drain away as she faced our quiet sadness and Bo’s demands. Mounting hatred for Bo cut through me like a pair of sheers sliding though fabric. Swift and severing.
“Gene, put on some good music so we can dance?” Momma asked for the hundredth time since we had moved to Bo’s house.
“Can’t. I have homework to do,” I gave her my usual response as Cyd nudged me.
“Just for a little while…”
“Until Daddy Bo gets home?”
“Gene, I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell him no.”
Momma walked across the polished wood floors to the tan leather sofa we were sitting on and bent down to lift my chin so that we were eye to eye.
“You’ll understand when your grown up and have children. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. We couldn’t survive if he stopped giving me money. Please, Gene. I need you to understand. I need you and Cyd to keep on loving me. You’re both are all I have in this world.”
I got up without saying a word and walked to the stereo. I put on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”. Momma and I spun around the room at a frenzied pace with tears in our eyes until we collapsed on the floor. Cyd jumped off the couch and joined us making buzzing sounds like a bee. Laughter replaced tears in that fleeting moment.
A month of mornings after we moved in, Cyd and I awoke to thumps and thuds, like the muffled sound of music with a heavy bass line. I opened my bedroom door to see momma fly across the living room then hit the wall like a bird mistaking glass for freedom. I ran to her. Cyd flew to momma and tried to cover her against another assault. Momma tried to speak, but her thin lips were swollen like ripe peaches and blood instead of words was flowing from her mouth. In a flash of a moment Bo pushed me aside and kicked momma and Cyd, sending Cyd screaming across the floor. Momma expelled one hard pushed breath, then nothing.
Bo went to grab Cyd and I ran to the kitchen. I pulled out a big knife from the forbidden knife drawer and just like the slowed movements of a superhero I leapt across and plunged the knife into the villain’s back. Bo turned, looked at me and took one step before toppling face down onto the floor inches from momma.
There was so much blood. Around Bo’s feet. Around momma’s head. Around the room. Momma regained consciousness and began to drag herself towards me. I went to her and knelt down to hear her whisper, “Get the knife Gene”. I stumbled backwards, away from Bo, away from what I had done, away.
“You have to pull it out and give it to me Gene, said momma in short breaths. I went to Bo. He was not moving, I looked for the rise and fall of his body to signify he was breathing. He remained motionless. I reached out and pulled the knife slower than I had stuck it in.
“Bring it to me, Gene,” said momma, her voice weakening, her words staggering more.”
I started towards her and my foot slide on blood. So much blood. So much blood. I started to get dizzy and faltered when I felt Bo’s hand next to my blue turned red sneakers. The jolt of touching him pushed me towards momma.
“You didn’t do anything. When they ask you what happened you tell them I did it. Promise me, Gene. Promise me.”
I looked into her eyes flecked with blood as the word promise stumbled over my lips before she collapsed into silence, again. Neither of us heard Cyd screaming, but a neighbor did and called the police.
Momma never danced again, at least not physically. The damage to her spine left her without the use of both of her legs. After the police saw how badly momma had been beaten, Bo’s death eventually went down as justifiable homicide. Miss Ann, who had watched us since we were toddler’s and was momma’s only friend, moved in with us. Most of her time was taken up caring for momma, but she was the one who rushed to Cyd and I when we woke up screaming from nightmares that remained nightmares when the lights when on, when the dawn broke, when we looked at each other with remembering eyes.
Three months later, when momma found out that Bo had opened bank accounts for both Cyd and I, we moved into a house in Queens, New York. Momma didn’t want to take the money at first, but Miss Ann stepped in and simply said , “Do it for the children”. Momma would say, “She’s a godsend”. For me and Cyd she was a life saver, especially me. Miss Ann knew the truth of what happened and brought me through it, even more than momma.
“Gene, before you know it your life is gonna be your own. Don’t base a few minutes of your childhood tainted by a crazy man or your momma’s need of him. When you feel a bad dream coming, hum something. Stop that devil in its tracks. You were a good son in a bad situation. You saved your momma, your sister and you and that is the end of it. You write your story from here on in and I know you will write a good one for yourself. You’re gonna make your momma proud.”
Without her own family to tend to, Miss Ann lost her husband in the Vietnam War and never married again or had children, she watched over momma for the rest of her life. She told me once, after I asked her why she never married again or had children, she said,”I woke up one day after all my mourning for Clifford and it was too late to try again. Plus, I knew I would never find a man like him. I’d had my once in a lifetime love.”
Cyd and I wanted to stay close to momma when we faced choosing a college, but Miss Ann and momma shooed us away into our lives. They picked the finest schools that offered us scholarships. Cyd decided on a school in Baltimore and I went to Boston. Even though I knew she was in the best of hands and that it was momma’s dreams that we were fulfilling, it was hard leaving them, even though both Cyd and I were just a car ride away.
But leave we did. Intermittent visits through the years ended when momma was diagnosed with stage four cervical cancer. The timing was summer and my daughter Jasmine and I moved in with momma along with Cyd and her two sons with our spouses visiting when they could. As the sun was at its highest point, we bathed momma in as much sunshine as we could. There was brittle laughter, copious tears, voiced regrets and unrequited longing for more time, but there was also music, dancing and love. So much love.
Miss Ann had momma’s bed moved downstairs to the dining room for ease of care during her final days. When we got there, momma asked if we could bring down my daughters dance trophies, photographs and ribbons that were in her bedroom. Momma wanted them where she could see them. Jasmine was constantly twirling around momma’s bed like the ballerina she aspired to be one day. Even the hospice nurse and Miss Ann, like the rest of us, got lost in Jasmine’s smile of abandonment, her long arms reaching for something unseen, but felt all the same. Her raven hair, like my mother’s and a laugh that rang with similarity kept us captivated, away from the reality of momma’s dying.
When I wasn’t looking at my little princess spinning around the floor, I was looking at momma. I watched her smiling as she stared out the bay window that captured the fairy tale like garden she and Miss Ann had made and tended through the years. Iridescent globes inside beds of yellow and red striped tiger lilies. Hummingbird feeders dangling over white roses. An inviting bench, painted with nymphs and elves, waited in the shade of a Sassafras tree. The garden, me and Cyd were her pride and joy. Jasmine was her dream. I saw gazelles leaping across her leaving eyes and I knew she was dancing with her granddaughter and would continue dancing through her.