Still, the Hills -- my mother's people from Edward and Mary Alice -- are closer than we let on. Though we cousins fork at the point where our parents diverge, we share experiences. Like all those forced extended-family cookouts on hot holidays.
Uncle Emory, Dollie's husband, imposed his way across the games, the grill and everything else. My father, Clarence, and all the other grown men swigged sweaty bottles of Miller High Life, their stockinged, skinny, ashy legs lined up like black batons around the peripheries of some relative's post-civil rights backyard in Dayton, Hamilton, Columbus or Middletown.
They rocked variations of the same uniform: Bermuda shorts, Penguin mock turtlenecks, canvas Bing Crosby hats and Wayfarers. Black Mike Bradys.
My Mother, Gladine, and her sisters were goddesses strapped, laced and girdled into tight polyester jumpsuits, cotton halters or bell-bottoms. Only my mother shaved her legs; the others' thick, black legs were covered with thick, black hair.
Despite full heads of pressed and relaxed hair, they sometimes wore wigs or pieces. Then Afroes freed them.
Pictures from my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary party tell the full story. Colored Power Puff Girls.
My aunts and uncles were mill workers, cops, nurses and aides, teachers, administrators and military veterans. Strivers.
When they partied, it was a spectacle. A glitter ball hung from Aunt Janice's basement ceiling. It was a Soul Train funhouse.
The O'Jays, Chi-Lites and Temptations spun on components that had built-in, velvet-covered speakers. At our house my parents went old-school sophisticate: Dionne Warwick, Dinah Washington, Jimmy Smith and Louis Jordan.
The parties were like Hatfield and McCoy cross-town shoot outs. Who had the best food and music? The flyest crib? I didn't identify this sibling rivalry until much later.
Around Grandmama's kitchen table, my aunts traded competing tales of health horror stories. The sickest won. Unable to trump certain death, others gave up.
My grandparents stirred drama when they played favorites, coddling some of their adult children and banishing others. Most of it was reheated leftovers from the hills of West Virginia, where they'd left after the mines started closing.
It was still all good.
Though the men sometimes drank and often caroused, they provided for their families, differentiating between women's and men's work that today I'm still disappointed when men aren't manly like men in my family.
Some of the women also drank and caroused, but they did the best they could with their children, sometimes substituting money and materialism for affection.
The cousins were never overt with the jealousy and competition of our parents. But there was a pecking order.
Sandra, the oldest, was brilliant but aloof. I was honored when I got to sleep beside her more than 30 years ago at a family reunion at Uncle T's house built on the side of a West Virginia mountain.
My brother Randy, Pat, Abe, Michael, Edward and Mary Catherine were in that cool set, that Sylvers/Jackson 5ive era when Right On! magazine and Saturday morning cartoons gave way to clumsy lovemaking, skating and getting temps.
I never knew Abe, Sandra's brother. He was too cool for the room. Edward smoldered beneath his Afro. A Middletown football star, his shirtless torso attracted black teen-aged girls like he was a Rock star.
A college homecoming queen, Mary Catherine was in Ebony. She sang like the lovechild of Minnie Ripperton and Deniece Williams. Her sister Karen was a brainiac. Gina, Pat, Rhonda, Tina and I were road dogs.
As a young girl, I was precious and fragile, always at my mother's skirt. Pat and Gina were hardcore scrappers who tortured, framed and ensnared one another. Grandmama kept a skinny leather strap on a nail at the top of the basement steps. She snatched it down like an overseer when Pat and Gina misbehaved.
"Mae Hill," as our grandfather called her, could be a bitch, and she relished being mean to some people.
Marc and Kenny, my other brother, were homeboys. They were bigheaded goofs who played tabletop football, bragged about trading cards and flashed Hot Wheels like niggas today bling spinners.
Then we started dying.
Uncle John's wife Dorothy died in 1989, then Grandfather Ed in 1990 and my mean Uncle Clarence in 1991 -- all from cancer. In 1994 Aunt Dollie died, again from cancer, and Grandmother Mary died from complications from Alzheimer's in 1998.
During and since, we cousins have weathered addictions, failed educations and marriages, rehab, jail, depression, illness and the death of our own children. But we keep on because our parents did and their parents before did, too.
We orbit one another, never all the same place at the same time like those cookouts and basement jams.
Sometimes I feel guilty. I think about my cousins all the time, what they're doing and how they're making it. But they're never that far.
After Vice Mayor Alicia Reece stormed CityBeat offices in April 2002, threatening to loose black firefighters on me to stifle my public criticism of her, the debacle became fodder all around town. Marc called and left a message in the thick of it.
He said he'd kick anybody's ass for messing with his cousin, and all I ever had to do was holla.
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