Speaking for the Child: An Autobiography and a Challenge

Speaking for the Child: An Autobiography and a Challenge

by Rhonda Johnson

ISBN: 9781463564629

Publisher CreateSpace

Published in Biographies & Memoirs

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Sample Chapter

A mother begins a cycle
Of which she is not the beginning,
But a recipient and a vessel
Of eternities past and present.

Not until I was grown—nearly in my thirties—did I consider the possibility that my mother had a world of her own that was parallel to mine in its experience of femininity and emotion. Before that, she was only a part of my world—sentient, yet objectified; nurturing, yet unapproachable; and incapable of understanding the nebulous realities of my experience. True, I had been given a few glimpses of her experience, but the life of parents is a horror beyond consideration. A child may be fascinated by the stories in history books but these stories are experienced like fiction in a child's mind and the people in them are distant and not quite real. But the world before one is born is like the world after one is dead—oblivious and indifferent to the child's existence and fully capable of getting along without it. Yet there are those glimpses of my mother's life that are entwined with mine so that I cannot tell my story without telling some of hers.

One of the things that kept me from seeing the woman behind those glimpses of female experience was that they were always a part of some lesson I had to learn—and always about boys. I should have had tears in my eyes hearing about how she had been abused when she was pregnant with me, but there was an object lesson to be learned here—about boys—and I did not want to learn it. She escaped this abusiveness by jumping out of a cab in the middle of the street. There she was alone and strong—Bad, Bold and Beautiful Girl.

I feel myself in her body
Floating, not walking,
With rhythmic poise
My hands find the gestures that are hers.
As a child, I thought her wise, beautiful and strong,
And the vision I had then
Is the way that I feel now.

"Why are you crying?" Margaret asked my mother.

She hadn't wanted a woman boarder, and maybe this was why—or maybe there were other things men did and didn't do.

But this young woman of twenty years age came to her Victorian row house in Northwest D.C. with nowhere else to go. What could she do? Lord knows what this child has been through that she had to come here, alone and kind of sorrowful. People who haven't been through much are always in the here and now—but the object of this girl's eyes wasn't always the thing she seemed to be looking at, and the purpose of her hands wasn't always the thing she seemed to be doing. So what could she have been through?

"I miss my baby," my mother said.

"Crying over some man? Girl, don't even start. Crying over a man, humph. He ought to be crying over you."

"No, you misunderstand. I mean my baby— my little girl."

"Ohh Lord. A baby. You've got a baby? A little girl?"

Margaret rolled her eyes and thought more women in this world. More women in my house. I didn't want this.

"Well, don't sit around crying. Go get her."

That was the beginning of my stay with Margaret and DeeDee, who became my godparents. That stay was at times sweet, at times violent and always full of huge, nebulous people.

When my father came around to see me, Margaret refused to let him in the house. I don’t know why. Perhaps she felt threatened. Here was this strange Black man. In his face, she could see my eyes, my mouth. In his aura, she could see the flesh and the blood to whom I really belonged so she held me back like a purloined princess. Perhaps because my parents were not married she saw my father as the bad guy and wanted to protect me.

"Hell naw!" she yelled. "You say her mama said you could do what? I ain't heard nothing about it. I don't care who you are. You get your black ass away from my house 'fore I get my pistol."

The pistol must not have been very far because next thing she was firing at his feet.

He didn't run. Rage erases fear and he was angry now.

"I come to see my daughter and you gone shoot at me? Are you crazy? Woman, I will burn your little raggedy house down."

He was proud and angry— full of truth. That's my daughter.

"You hear what that bastard said?"

Margaret was incredulous. She spun toward the door with raised eyebrows and slitted eyes for anyone and everyone who was listening.

"He's going to burn my house down. I'd like to see you try it. And I know one thing, you burn my house, you sure as hell won't burn nothing else."

DeeDee would fecklessly call his wife to reason and passivity. "Noow, Baby Doooooll."

"Naw, this nigger wants to burn my house down. Go on. I dare you. In fact, I'll get the matches. You gone burn my house down? I will get the matches."

That's not the way a woman is supposed to react to such a horrific threat— not in 1965, but that was Margaret. She kept a loaded pistol with a white pearl handle in her pocketbook. When a mugger stuck a gun in her car window at a traffic light, she rolled the window up on his arm and drove to the police station with him doing his best to keep up with the car. But Margaret was not a loud-mouthed woman and never was she uncouth in her carriage. She was elegant and graceful but with a southern sharpness that was always ready with a come back. And she gave me glimpses of her childhood.

"Ev'rybody knows Margaret's mama married a White man," some kid would say.

"Well, at least they were married, ya bastard," she retorted.

She loved my mother and fought for her as much as she fought with her. My mother worked as a waitress at a coffee shop. One day she was sick and her boss threatened to fire her if she didn't show up. Margaret got on the phone and told him what he could do with his sorry-assed job.

Margaret just loved anybody who could sing and my mother has a beautiful voice. I still have the mental video of her beautiful face leaning down and singing to me.

There were ten in the bed and the little one said,
"Roll over, roll over."
So they all rolled over and one fell out.
There was one in the bed and the little one said,
"Good night. Sleep tight."

I would stand up in my crib and we'd play patty cake. She smiled so wonderfully that when she left I would look at the lightbulb burning on the ceiling and the lightbulb was like the embodiment of her smile. Her smile did not remind me of the light. The light reminded me of her smile. Call this a pre-lingual abstraction, if you will. Babies talk and know what they are talking about. A baby has a name for everything in its world until the huge ones supplant that world with what things are really called. Then comes confusion, self-doubt and forgetfulness. Is goo-goo universal? Do all babies call that thingamajig a ga-ga? A child's first necessary pain is the crumbling Tower of Babel—humankind's natural language.

Do I remember or do I just remember remembering—passing the memories from year to year and decade to decade like a baton in a relay race. The finish line is not marked by a ribbon but a pencil.

There are pictures of Margaret, a lovely woman with coiffed platinum blonde hair, fine bones and big sultry eyes, at the cabaret to hear my mother sing. My mother's voice fills a room and gives you the courage to delve into those parts of your heart you've always feared to go. When she sings about lost love, it is with the decisive strength of a woman who has faced her truths and survived.

Ohh we must say goodbye
'Cause you just gonna keep on making me cry — 1967

As much as my godmother loved my mother, it was hard having two strong women in the same house, and they would get into such verbally violent fights. I stood in the corner of my room, crying and screaming as Margaret stormed in and grabbed a vase or something to threaten my mother with. My young heart reeled inside me to see the two women I loved tear at each other like this. My world crumbled and lurched precariously as the two women I depended on for stability fought.

I dreamed of wolves. I dreamed dark dreams I no longer remember. But towards morning, I dreamed of water. Running water. Falling water. Trickling water. The moment I woke up, I knew that before I even had breakfast I was going to get a spanking. Whatever was the purpose of this daily ritual, it was lost on me. The memory of yesterday's whipping never invaded my dreams to rouse me to get up and go to the bathroom. I became used to the idea that things outside my control would get me in trouble. A few times, I tried to change the sheets before Margaret came in but she always found them and went straight for the backyard to get a switch while I stood in my room waiting and crying.

"Margaret, let me sleep with you. Please! I won't pee in your bed. I promise."

"I know you won't pee in my bed, 'cause you sleeping in your bed."

She kept walking down the hall and I was supposed to be walking with her but the distance between us was more from her words than the length or her legs. It wasn’t so much a distance between me and her but between me and my world— between me and the idea that I was safe, cherished and not alone in my world.

I didn't know what to do so I buried my despondency in the wonders of that old Victorian house. There were so many nooks and crannies, doorways and stairways where the imagination could nestle into mysteries and endless exploration. In a straight line from the front porch to the back porch lay the foyer and the livingroom—mysterious in its forbidden and forbidding formality. Next came the diningroom where Margaret kept pretty things on a white mantle piece above my eyes.

One had to walk around the dining table, past the white sideboard and the china closet to get to the kitchen, which was a room all itself. The kitchen was where Margaret sat at a big table and snapped fresh green beans into a huge kettle. It was where I discovered that I could eat ten Hungry Jack biscuits but not one lima bean and no one could convince me that there was not an unbridgeable gustatory chasm between hamburger and meatloaf.

Upstairs I had a room to myself at the other end of the hall from my godparents' room. Almost all the furniture in Margaret's house was made of wood and painted white with gold carefully painted into little crevices and engraved curly cues. In my room, I had a show and tell record player and a big collection of Disney albums. The player consisted of a turntable set on top of a small red box with a screen. It was small but it was almost as tall as I was. I'd put an album on the turn-table and a matching slideshow strip into a slot on top of the box, and then I'd watch Cinderella rush from the ballroom as the narrator warned that it was only minutes before the clock struck twelve. This was the late sixties, so this wasn't high tech digital—just vinyl and film. I worked the machine myself and had to read well enough to match the albums to the filmstrips and I had to have enough patience to place the arm of the player on the albums very carefully so as not to scratch them. This I did at four or five years old.

As long as I stayed out of the livingroom, I was free to roam as I pleased. While I listened to Peter and the Wolf in my room, I also listened to Ray Charles when Margaret played him downstairs. In the grey of dusk I'd lay on my bed and imagine I was a woman waiting for a man whom she knew would never come. It was a delicious projection of the blue, sweet, dusky and private— a bearable pain.

Don't you know that I wait in the darkness of a lonely room
Filled with sadness, filled with gloom.
Hoping soon
That you'll walk right through that door
And love me like you tried before
Freda Payne

I discovered endless mysteries in the basement. This was where Margaret kept her antique sewing machine and seamstress dummy. She made clothes for her neighbors.

"Go on and sing for Miss Mabel," Margaret coaxed me.

I could only stare transfixed at the stately women who came to be measured for or to pick up capes and coats with intricate embroidery and hidden pockets.

"Oh, she's shy, but her mama can really sing. Woo, that woman has a voice. Don't you want to sing for Miss Mabel? Sing that pretty song you learned from your Disney albums."

She looked at me sweetly and expectantly. Miss Mabel looked kind, important and skeptical. I did not open my mouth.

Margaret kept a television in the basement so she could watch The Edge of Night or Gun Smoke while she ironed clothes. I sat in awe watching White men in black clothes and slippery looking shoes running through the night to escape cars and bullets and women. Most of the basement was actually above ground in the back of the house. The door to the outside was always open and plenty light and air came through the windows so she sometimes combed my hair there. That was a job for Superman. I've always had thick, tightly curled hair. It curls so tightly that Pharaoh would have caught the children of Israel if Moses had been trying to part my hair. Hold still. Hold still, said the Inquisitor to the little girl on the rack. If the Emotions were singing on the radio while she combed my hair, I'd sing along with them. Show me. Show me. Show me. Show me ho-OOWW!

I liked to play in the big back yard. There were so many mysteries and wonders. Just the way the sun played through the leaves raised fascinating questions: What are shadows? If they are pictures, how can they move? I'd gaze at the black beetles I found under flat rocks and wonder why the rock did not crush them. I wondered why the dirt did not fall out of my bucket when I swung it upside down on my arm. I stood on my high back porch and surveyed my domain. The world and its mysteries were mine alone. From my porch, I could see across the alley, and I thought that if the houses weren't in the way I should be able to see on forever across the world.

I shared this domain with my dog Lobo that my godmother found in the woods. He was a jet-black half wolf with one white spot on his chest. That dog loved me and half raised me. He almost killed my uncle Bobby for standing too close to me while we were playing ball. But Lobo let Margaret's little grandson Kevin play with me. He was a cute little golden brown boy with long silky, curly black hair, and we were like cousins.

One day when I was about three, I was leaning over the wooden stretch gate that Margaret kept over the top of the back porch stairs so I wouldn't fall. I was leaning catty-corner, half over the gate and half over the iron railing of the steps. The porch must have been almost a storey high in the back because it was only a few steps from the ground to the basement door below the porch. Kevin came and opened the gate to go down into the yard and I fell right over the railing, bounced off my wooden rocking horse and onto the cement ground. All I can remember is women scurrying around saying, "Don't let her fall asleep," Don't let her fall asleep. It was for moments like this that the Creator made little kids' heads so hard.

The world below my front porch contained even more mysteries than my house or my backyard. And one strange mystery, more enigmatic than anything I had ever seen or heard: other children. I remember feeling a sense of alienation from the other children in my neighborhood as if I wasn't quite a part of their world but only observing it.

"There's the ice cream truck, Rhonda," Margaret called me

Tinks and tinkles of frosty, bright music rang from the truck like all the snow and toys of Christmas coming down the street. Margaret would take me out to get a cup of vanilla ice cream, but she was more real to me than the other children who clamored around the truck.

Being an only child, I played by myself a lot. I liked to be outside in the sultry summer evenings wondering at the stars and the music that floated unbidden through the air. All the other children were huge and seemed to know each other already. What's your name? Where you live? How old are you? Huge, nebulous questions from huge, nebulous people. Then a girl came up who was even taller than everyone else. She had deep chocolate skin with bright doll baby eyes, as sultry as the night and belonging to it— belonging to this world where I happened to find myself.

She looked at me briefly and exclaimed, "Oh, she's cute."

Then she cross-examined me with the same huge, nebulous questions, uttered some oohs and ahhs of short-lived fascination, and then she skipped off. The other kids followed her so I continued playing alone as I always had, as ready to forget them as they were to forget me.

Though I made no connection with those children and found no solace in the wall of defensiveness Margaret erected between us, I found comfort in the little children's prayer book she gave me when I was three or four years old. She would sit with me while I said my good night prayers. I remember one night I was lying in my bed very troubled about something. I asked the person my prayer books taught me about to be with me and somehow I knew that gentle spirit was there. There was no blinding flash of light, no voice booming from the clouds. But the presence was very real.

Margaret went to a Church on the corner and would take me to meetings that the women held in the evenings. This Church also had a preschool in the basement and when I was old enough I started going. I still wasn't used to other children so when they let us play outside I mostly played with the wooden blocks and other toys. I did make one friend named Barbara. We would play together and made up a funny walk with giant steps. Now I had two friends, Aaron, the little boy next door and Barbara. But the other kids weren't a part of my world and I was not a part of theirs. Twice a crowd of kids followed me home.

"Ooh, you did it. Now you gonna get it."

"But I didn't mean to wet my pants. It just happened."

Questions and verdicts, snickers and rolling, slit-eyed looks swirled around me, in front of me and behind me in a solemn march towards a waiting switch.

Inside the preschool, the people who were there to watch us were just kids themselves—barely teenagers—but they were huge grownups to me. One day Aaron pushed me down and got on top of me. The Watchers watched and laughed, urging him on but fortunately, not in. They always found something to holler at me about. I did not lay my head on the table at nap time exactly the way they wanted me to— my cheek flat on the hard wood, not cushioned by my folded arms, which they snatched out from under my head. They did not know why I was so hardheaded and I did not know why I had to obey people who did not protect me. Though we were in a Church, I did not associate that big gothic building or its people with the spirit who watched over and comforted me at night.

At some point, my father made himself "okay" with Margaret and came into my world. He was another mystery that popped out of some nook and cranny. I began to recognize him as someone who was supposed to be there but it would be four or five years before I knew that he was my father. But at four years old, I began to wonder. Other kids had fathers so why didn't I? Was I supposed to have a father? Why? Why not? What is a father? What are they supposed to be? What am I supposed to do with them? Was DeeDee my father? But none of the other fathers I'd seen was bald and grey and scraggly like DeeDee. This man looked more like what a father is supposed to look like. Supposed to? How can anything be if it is not supposed to? What is this man supposed to be? Could I ask him? He was not stately. He was not "up there." He played with me and had beautiful eyes.

"You're my father, aren't you," I asked him one day.

For the first time, something I said to him hung in the air between us and I feared I'd said something I wasn't supposed to say. It hung there then clung to his face like an epoxy he had to remove before he could speak.

"Where did you get that from?"

It was too late to smile. He knew that but he tried anyway. Kids—so easy to divert their attention. They won't remember. They won't understand. But they understand playing. Let's play.

He told my mother what I had said and she jumped on me. I had said something wrong—something bad. Was it bad for me to wonder if this man was my father? Bad for me to wonder if I had a father at all? Bad for me to have a father? Why? What? Who?

"Shut up! You don't know what you're talking about so just shut up!" she screamed.

I absorbed her rage into my little body and unleashed it on my father when he came again.

"Why you tell my mother I said you're my father? I don't want to talk to you anymore. I don't want to play with you. Just go away."

I ran into a side parlor where there was no one else. Then I crawled under the claw-footed couch and just said every cuss word I had ever heard.

Excerpted from "Speaking for the Child: An Autobiography and a Challenge" by Rhonda Johnson. Copyright © 0 by Rhonda Johnson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Rhonda Johnson

Rhonda Johnson

n 1968 a three year old girl looked out from her back porch and imagined that if the houses across the alley had not been in the way there was no reason she should not be able to see to the end of the world. Twenty six years later a doctor suggested that she get a white cane.

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