In Honor of My Griots

Artist: Tarisai

Artist: Tarisai

Growing up, my dear mother would share a story that begins like most Toni Morrison tales, shocking; and continues with language full of pain, horror, beauty and truth. With pride, my mother would expose the fact that she never cried after that moment (from the story) providing a prelude.

“She will never walk again, said the doctor”, shares my mother in her pleasant, soft voice highlighted by her Panamanian accent. “Yes! Can you believe that?” She would say in a way that disclosed that she was always a non-believer. Who could believe that her active, healthy 18-month-old daughter would potentially be maimed from a simple fall; certainly, the hospital, where the child was immediately separated from her parents due to suspicion of abuse.

In the comfort of our cozy home scented by my mother’s delicious handmade pastries which intoxicated the air, she dove into the horror. “We were on our daily walk, and she started to complain. I was pregnant with my second child (full term) and didn’t pick her up. I thought that she was just whining. We walked home, and I began doing the laundry. When I took the sheets off the bed, she began jumping on the bed as she usually does. But, this time, unlike others, she began screaming. I immediately turned away from the laundry to find her lying on the bed with a broken femur (leg).” My mother calmly continues by sharing that by the time they got to the hospital, she goes into labor.

 “I go into delivery a few weeks early and my newborn ends up in intensive care. My 18-month-old was not allowed visitors due to the hospital’s suspicion of abuse. We insisted that she broke her leg while jumping on the bed.” As my mother proceeds, she subtly illustrates how the hospital highlights the rarity of such an injury on a healthy child to this Black family with African names in Southern California in 1979. “No-one would believe us and kept her away from us. So bad, so, that, my child felt abandoned and became a master with giving the silent treatment. ” shares my mother, allowing for the listener to digest the intensity of being kept from her young child. The idea of a young child refusing to speak garnished the story.

With the rhythm of her rich Latin accent, my mother continues, “Finally, someone thought of an expert from Australia, who happened to be visiting Los Angeles.” Her voice lifts slightly as she talks about this doctor. “He had done the most research at that time on this sort of thing and happened to be in town. Well, the Australian doctor came to see her and looked into her eyes. At that moment, he knew and assured the hospital staff that we were telling the truth. He diagnosed my child with something very rare (the long medical term she pronounces musically but understands that it won’t be remembered by the listener). It caused her to bruise and fracture easily, something that most healthcare providers had never seen before.”

My mother shares the news which simultaneously offered relief and despair. The doctor clarified why her daughter got injured but also gave a pain ridden prognosis. Prior to departing, the doctor shares something with my parents that will introduce a paradigm shift. “Let her live. She’s going to get hurt anyway.” As my mother would conclude the story with the Australian doctor’s words of advice to raise a free-spirited child, she would smile and look at her child with the understanding that it all made sense. “That was the last time (1979) that I ever cried.”

One could guess who was the 18-month-old and understand that the story was not only told for her benefit. My mother, a teacher, like Toni Morrison, was interested in elevating everyone around her. Their words built stories that offered a kind of beauty that was easily life changing. You’re left with something that would open your eyes in a way that you couldn’t anticipate, and a lesson is learned.

When the news broke, reporting Toni Morrison’s death, I found myself nearly in tears at my desk. I was wounded with the thought that another soul of great inspiration to me was no longer among the living. Like my own mother (who has passed away), Toni Morrison offered comfort and inspiration. She was among my teachers as I met womanhood reading her novels. Toni Morrison validated my pain and strength, which contributed to the wisdom that I owned by the age of 18 years. The question of “who would I be if I hadn’t read work like Morrison’s?” came to mind. Ultimately, I must remember her among my ancestors, like my mother. They could bake an amazing carrot cake, make you feel at home, as well as teach and fight with the use of language. I will forever be comforted and inspired by their strength, love and wisdom. It will always be my hope that I can do the same. Ashé.