Black Heritage is my heritage–embodied in the history of my family.
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I could never love anyone as I love my sisters!
Jo March, Little Women 1994
My relationship with my sisters has been as individual as we are. Often complicated, sometimes overly dramatic, but no less enriching and essential to my life. The glue of faith, prayer, and family honor has held us together, when at times I felt we were irreparably parted.
These excepts are from different chapters of Fried Chicken and Sympathy.
Chapter 7: Sister Interrupted.
During my young adult years, my contact with Barbara waxed and waned throughout the years as I sought to find myself and my life. But I will never forget her constant love and worship of God, her childlike trusting faith, and her adherence to truth.
When I was a child, if you had told me I could get close to God if I stood on my head three times a day, I would have broken my neck trying. During my time in Catholic school, I learned different forms of prayer, to saints and to Mary, that I used to say along with the other forms of praying I had learned at New Hope. Barbara was walking past my room one day, and she heard me praying the Hail Mary. She barreled into the room, in her blustery fashion, and demanded I stop.
Startled, I looked up at her. “But I’m only praying,” I excused.
“You don’t have to pray to anyone but Jesus! He is the only true God.”
That made an impression. As loopy as other’s deemed her, and as convoluted as her thoughts sometimes could be, she was secure in who the Source was. Despite the faulty teachings, and false hopes, she never lost faith in God that she would be healed, and she never got angry with God because it never manifested in this life. She didn’t understand the whys, but it never stopped her from continuing to seek answers, ask questions, and trust God’s will and heart toward her. I model much of my relationship with God from her example: Unyielding faith, eternal trust, yet never afraid to be fully human.
Even when I thought I had stopped following her life, she was still committed to following mine. Like Gerry, she loved her family, and was loyal to a fault. When I would phone the Ferdinand house to speak with Bay, I would hear her excited voice in the background,
“Jennifer! Oh yes—let me speak to my sister!” Bay would surrender the phone, and she would ramble on about Lil Mike, Joshuah, Aimee, her job, or about nothing in particular; she just enjoyed the process of connecting with me.
I made a conscientious effort to be the “auntie” to my nephews and niece, particularly at Christmastime. I made sure that Lil’ Mike, Joshuah and Aimee (who had the misfortune of being born on December 24) had something, even if it was only coloring books. Barbara would exclaim, and ooh and ahh over the little gifts, as if I had given them college scholarships. She was grateful for kindness, especially toward her children.
I didn’t understand the depths of her love for me until after she died. At Barbara’s repast, a very thin and agitated young girl walked into the church hall where it was being held. Joan greeted her, then brought her over to where I was sitting. The woman was a coworker of Barbara’s, and she had traveled two hours by bus to pay her respects. She was very apologetic, because she had gotten lost and missed the wake. When Joan introduced her to me, her face lit up with recognition.
“You’re Jennifer!” she exclaimed.
“Yes,” I replied, extremely puzzled at her highly familiar exclamation.
“Barbara talked about you all the time—how smart you were, and your clothes—and she used to tell me you wore these wild earrings!” We all laughed, then she continued to go on and on about how Barbara talked about me. I sat there and listened, and cried over this precious gift from a total stranger: a part of my sister that I never knew existed, and unfortunately, realized too late. I mattered much to her, and was thought of, even in my chosen 3,000 mile exile.
Chapter 16: The Law of Reflection.
Everyone has people who are mirrors in their lives; some render true reflections, others do not. June’s mirror is a solid plane that has rendered an accurate reflection, allowing me to view myself and my world with some degree of normalcy. I have never felt reduced in her presence, and I have never been made to feel as if I were “less than” in her eyes. I know that I would not have had the courage to believe in myself, pursue my dreams, or move away from our family dysfunction had June not been in my life. The mere fact of her acting as that solid plane has caused the direction of my “light” to change for the better.
Yet, while we share similar values, beliefs, and preferences, we are definitely opposites. I’m more of a social butterfly, and she’s a homebody, preferring to sit in her place and read, or play her beloved computer games, than be in a roomful of people. I’m extremely creative and innovative, enjoying projects that have a defined beginning and then moving on to the next task. June is more analytical—she enjoys maintenance, and the mundane details and redundant tasks involved in it, where this type of work drives me insane. She will often listen to my view on something, and she’ll say, “You know what, you’re a strange kid!” But she means this with no malice, and it’s usually expressed with her dry wit. The mirror defines our kinship. Her positive reflection of me when I was younger helped me navigate what, for the most part, was a troubling and confusing childhood. And now that I’m an adult, she still reflects a clear image, confirming who I have become and affirming who I can continue to be. There are a handful of people who I know will love me no matter what I do, and she is at the top of the list. She adores me and is among my true fans—always encouraging me to be true to who I am, to write, to not give up on my creativity. Always reminding me that the dreams that I dream can, and will, come true. She’s a great source of inspiration, an emotional support, and the epitome of what family means.
Chapter 15: Enigma.
The intervening years had seen their share of divisiveness and rancor, and they has taken their toll on all of us as sisters. June was always faithful to pray and hang on to hope of a restoration, when I had simply resigned myself to the fact that I lived on a different planet than the balance of my siblings, and had no expectation of any common ground for continued peaceable relations.
Two weeks before June died, Adrienne and Joan flew in from Chicago and took care for her. This, as well as their concern for mine and Gabi’s welfare, reflected a stark contrast to the disregard and battling that had occurred in the past. June was able to see us agree on ways to best care for her, and to see them reach out and sacrifice to ensure her health and well-being. That was her prayer answered, and a promise fulfilled.
It was in 2006, that I began sensing the first thaw to the cold front that existed between me, Adrienne and Joan.
I received an email from Joan, inviting me to participate in this online movie site where you rate movies and chat with other people who have similar cinematic tastes. I saw this as a hand through the door that I have left open, so I extended back and responded. She’s shared snippets of her life (new cat, new job), then fully opened the dam, releasing a floodgate. Sister is back in full swing, and we have chatted for hours on over instant messenger and on the phone, catching up on each others’ lives. After June’s death, we have committed to spend at least one Holiday together each year, and so far that has gone well.
This recent development is as bittersweet as all the others—who knows when or if division may rear its ugly head. But, I continue to hope that maybe this time, we are ready to actually be Sisters and that this will remain; no matter where we disagree, or what goes on with us.
With Adrienne, it began after a serious illness where she almost died. June phoned me to let me know that she was in the hospital, so I tracked down the phone number and immediately called.
“Hi, Adrienne, it’s Jennifer.”
“Well, hello! How come you haven’t given me your new address? I wanted to send you a birthday card! It’s your 40th, right?
“Wow! What a good memory you have,” I said.
“I have everyone’s birthday written down in my Bible, but I always remember yours. Maybe because you were the last.”
“Well, thanks for remembering.”
“I have a pen and paper, so go ahead.”
I gave her my information, and we chatted for about twenty minutes about what happened at the Foxx Family Reunion, her condition, and what was going on in my life.
“Joan said she saw your writings on the Internet.” I was initially shocked, then realized between my blogspot and my writing coach’s website, I could now be Googled.
“She must have happened on my writing coach’s website. I’m finishing up my novel.”
She was impressed by this, and said she looked forward to when it was finished. We talked a bit more, and then I decided to end the call.
“Do call me any time,” I said. Again, she may never bother, but I still refuse to slam the door.
From the Epilogue: The Destination is There.
During their visit to care for June, I talked with Adrienne about things that we never shared in the past: challenges at their church, marriage, being a spouse and running a household. In writing my memoir, I had collected many of the old photos of the Foxx and Oliver families, and Adrienne wanted a disc. Looking at the pictures together, we both noticed how our Aunts Allene and Everette had aged, then calculated how old our mother would be if she had lived. It was 2008, so she would have been 77. Adrienne marveled at this, then said, “Sometimes, I wish she were still here.”
I was quiet, as I had no immediate response. In reflecting on this later, I realized what I did miss—the possibility of what might have been. Surely the restoration and alteration of relationship would have extended to us as mother and daughter. But that will never be in this life, though I am sure it will be in the next.