26 February 2011

After the hurricane

(Honestly, I'm not all grim all the time. Not even like 10% of the time. But sad things have happened, and I am driven to write about them...to gain understanding, mastery; to give shape.) So:

It's a famous case. There's a popular movie with an Oscar-winning actor, and a Bob Dylan song beloved and believed by people all over the world. I found out today there's a new autobiography by the man who claims he was falsely accused and framed. Nelson Mandela wrote the foreword.

 45 years later, and I still yearn for a woman I can't remember, my grandmother, whose life was tangled up in a dark, evil night, and there destroyed. The details of her wounding and death were horrific; given the subsequent literal hurricane of accusations, court papers, slippery evidence, conflicting testimonies, and raging controversy, Hazel's murder will never be solved. I accept that I will never know who did this to her, and I embrace the peace of that. But today, cnn.com commenters are debating all over again the innocence or guilt of the convicted man. And someone actually posted: "... after all this time, not sure it matters anymore."

What matters, then: Hazel was beautiful, truly. She had a lilting singing voice, coupled with a mischievous smile and a winning personality. She parented lovingly and fiercely, after a childhood of abandonment and poverty. She was mine, and I'll never have her. Needing my grandmother is one of the reasons I embarked on my genealogical journey in 2000. Piece by piece, and never with ease, I've reassembled and claimed her fragmented life story. Dates, names, places, from France to Qu├ębec, New England to New Jersey. Found the love, and the sadnesses too. Made my family whole.

 The poem I wrote about her a few years ago came out of me like water wrung from a cloth. It needed to happen, but it wrenched. I'm posting it now because this wound keeps getting seared open, and the poem is as close as I can come to wailing: STOP. Let her rest. Let her be Hazel. Give her back to us.


Grandmother, Lost

Fingering the corner of a faded photo,
I find myself in Hazel:
eyes that light and scrinch with grins,
appled cheeks, shy teeth,
chin, softly doubling,
dark wavy hair.

I've been told she feared aging
yet laughed uproariously and kidded often—
sardonic bend of her Jersey voice teasing,
sway of ample hips knowing as she walked away
carrying a loaded tray of food and drinks,
serving at a country club.

Dad kicked us out when I was four months old.
A family in shards, swept up,
discarded; then I was
shielded from everyone sharing my surname,
that lingering verb: Burns.

So Hazel dwelled in handlebars, silver as a mirror,
on the gleaming blue tricycle she'd given me
(only, living in the city, I maybe got to ride it once)—
cool sheen of the handlebars' curve
under my baby-plump palm, a tricycle
hopelessly parked indoors, new black tires
ready to move.

Today I move a smooth mouse, pointing
on the Internet, finding
an image when I search on her name:
the window of the Lafayette Bar and Grill, 1966,
"Rheingold" spelled in neon script
with a bullethole in the upper corner,
glass cracked like a twinkled star.

That's Hazel's bullet, one of five
that pierced her and left her for dead,
blasting from shotguns wielded by strangers.
And I am one of ten grandchildren:
a club that never met.

12 February 2011


An imagining from last night.

In an alternate universe, in Queens, NY, there was a Father-Daughter Dance. Let's say, February of 1978. Valentine's Day week, festooned with red and pink paper silhouettes of cupids, hearts, and arrows. A crowded gym, a deejay playing shiny records he stored upright in milk crates. A veritable swirl of girls' skirts and heeled feet...every color imaginable, all heights, toddler to preteen. Dads in suits, some of which looked like office clothing repurposed for the event...others who were stiff in more fancywear than their blue-collar jobs would ever merit. And then the fathers, boisterous, in brightly floral polyester shirts, chains glinting inside the wide collars, and flare-leg slacks with platform shoes: the dads who "got" disco.

Not my date. My father wore a simple suit, almost '60s throwback. He didn't draw attention to himself, but he looked right for the occasion--even though I knew his tie was too narrow and his collars too subtle. My dress came from Lerner's, a clothing mecca right up the street from my house. I wandered Lerner's for hours to find it, circling through and around the spinning silver racks, a dizzying obstacle course of preteen fashion. Touching every single fabric as I passed them, musing, mulling. I decided on this one because of its pink and beige color combination--soft and different. I liked it on my Irish-pale skin. Long sleeves, because it was winter, but they were puffy floral cotton with elastic at the cuffs. The bodice was shirred and puckered all over, with a rectangular lacy neckline, and the skirt was full. No ruffle at the bottom: felt like a ladies' dress. Mom finally let me wear the wedge-heeled sandals from her closet that I always tried on, because now they fit me for real. With nylons, sheer ones. I had to wear snow boots over to the gym, though; they joined a marching battalion of fur-cuffed footwear near the doorway. My stockinged feet were still icy from the trudge over.

Dad and I were not the types of people to fully buy into the concept of a Father-Daughter Dance. A little too ironically distant, we, and both of us burned by our mutual, unpopular reality: we were eggheads. Never quite in the mainstream. Always suspecting mockery from gaggles of our peers. But we agreed to do this because some of my friends from class got their dads to go--and, as submerged as I kept it, I really did want to feel popular, somehow.

Dad was a jazz drummer, but surprisingly able to dance nonetheless. This was another trait we shared. Early on in the evening, the deejay picked up on the overwhelming craze for all things Bee Gees, and spun "Night Fever". The room, predictably, erupted. Dad never indicated any particular affection for this music as it thumped from my homework-strewn bedroom, but he definitely allowed himself to dance to it, and I found myself grinning--which I did not expect, not at all. In fact, the gym was pervaded by a temporary dismantling of preteen embarrassment about our parents and their uncoolness. I stole glances around as Dad and I, yeah, boogied, and everyone else seemed equally unaware that if the overhead lights were on, we'd be fleeing from this dance floor faster than you could say "get down tonight".

After "Night Fever," the deejay pulled out "Love Is (Thicker Than Water)," which kind of called for a closer dancing posture (and had an uncertain beat, besides). I asked Dad if he wanted punch, and he nodded, so we made for the paper-covered table, loaded up on red sugar fluid and pink cookies, and found steely folding chairs to sit in. The gym was so cavernous that we could converse and hear each other, just.

"I can't believe I'll be graduating in this room, like, 5 months from now."

"I can't believe it either, sweetheart," Dad said. He sipped the punch and grimaced, making a sound something like "grack". "Even in my boozing days I wouldn't have choked back something like this," he said wryly, setting the cup far away.

I was always relieved when he made a comment that placed alcohol in his rear-view mirror, so I smiled happily, even though I agreed the punch was putrid.

"So is this," he paused, "disco the kind of music they'll be playing all night?"

"I don't know," I replied, honestly. "I hope they play a little rock, at least."

He nodded assent and bit a heart-cookie. I looked over as the song ended and the deejay flipped on the next turntable. "Native New Yorker". Shook my head at Dad. Although I did love this song, I just didn't want to dance to it. He didn't seem interested either.

"Do you feel ready for your high-school entrance exams?" he asked. Just the thought of them made my stomach cramp.

"Sure," I lied, hoping my lack of words might kill the topic.

"How many do you have to take, again?" (No such luck.)

"Four," I squeaked. "The overall exam, and then three schools have their own."

"I know you'll do fine," he said with a hand-squeeze. I gulped, cookie crumbs chafing my throat. Then I smiled again to cover it.

People had been making requests; I could see shadowy goings-on at the deejay table. The next song kicked on and I was initially stunned--Led Zeppelin...?

"'Misty Mountain Hop'!" Dad crowed. "Let's go!"

We were still holding hands, so we made our way in tandem into the dance throng. Dad's enthusiasm over Led Zeppelin had me astonished (and he knew the name of the song! I never did, with Zeppelin), but here we were, rocking out, almost choosing the same moves. Robert Plant's vocals pealed and shrieked over the crowd, and the deejay must have had a subwoofer, because the drums and bass were shaking the floor. Dad did not shout "woooooo!" the way some of the wilder fathers were doing, nor did I jump up and down as some of the frilly girls were doing, but we were into it nonetheless.

And then there was a slow song, throwing the mood sideways. Bee Gees again (was that a sigh I heard around the gym?) "How Deep is Your Love". Which I swooned over nightly--not thinking about my father, of course, but wishing for a boyfriend like some of my classmates had. Still, Dad went into his 1950s arms-bent, dancing-with-a-lady posture, and that was fine. Before we started moving, he leaned over and whispered in my ear: "John Bonham on the drums, that last song. Killer." I had to laugh a little, because he was such a music nerd. (And he was right about Bonham, but I didn't grasp that fully until later.) We let the Bee Gees' harmonized warbles wash around us and we swayed with it, twinkling lights along the walls seeming to flow with the melody.

It seems so trivial in the writing: this alternate universe, this father-daughter spot carved into a cold February night, this gym that would revert to a sweaty game space with Sunday sunlight, all guided by the music that mattered to me (and ever evokes my eighth-grade year). Whereas, in the universe I actually lived in, I honestly did not know that I yearned for such moments--because I wouldn't have known to imagine them. I never, ever saw my father, until I was an adult myself.

Now, every year, as a mom and wife, and even moreso as a deejay, I experience a local Father-Daughter Dance and I see in countless other couples what could have been; what was right to expect; what pure happiness and fun looks like; what touches the heart and bonds the daughter to the daddy, and vice versa. Placing 1978 Nessa and Dad in that scenario...absent the many, many reasons that I did not know him at that time in my life, stripping away what was negative, while keeping our essences...this is a healing, rightful vision.

Because, I can attest, it is painfully possible to miss what you never had.