“I shuddered to think that while we wanted that flag dragged into the mud and sullied beyond repair, we also wanted it pristine, its white stripes, summer cloud white. Watching it wave in the breeze of a distance made us nearly choke with emotion. It lifted us up with its promise and broke our hearts with its denial.”
— All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, Maya Angelou
I do this mental exercise now where I try and remember my paternal grandfather, if not only for the fact that this past year’s anniversary of his death marked the first year which he would have been dead for more years of my life than alive. I try to remember specifics about the way he looked or his voice, but it’s always foggy. I first recall a few things vividly: loose skin the same brown color as mine, his eyes always watering from the bite of the cold or the heat of the sun, his hands rough and calloused from laboring as factory worker and groundskeeper, but he always touched my face gentle as if it was made of flower petals. I remember more about him in the summer; the straw hat he wore outside; peeking out the front pocket of his buttoned-up shirt, a monogrammed handkerchief that he used to wipe his tears, nose, and forehead when sitting or working in the sun. I don’t remember his voice too clearly, but I remember him singing, in a dramatically lilted faux-Crucian accent, Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song. Come, Mr. Tally-man, Tally me banana, daylight come and me want to go home…
My grandfather was born Daniel Oswald Joseph in Yonkers, New York, to a set of parents born on the island of St. Croix, part of what is now the United States Virgin Islands. He loved the outdoors and often ventured there but was, for most of the time, limited to his small garden and the front yard of his house, which was set across the street from project housing and down the street from what became my parents’ house.
In the summers, before the emergence of low-cost day camps, when my parents were at work, he and my grandmother (“Ma”) would watch us for the day. The house had a backyard where about half of the yard space was dedicated to his and Ma’s garden. The garden was enclosed by a green chain-link fence with single-latch gate door for entry that hailed an iron weather vane-like ornament at its top. The gate’s latch was more often than not locked to keep both the two dogs, Woody and Delman, and us kids, Jordan and I, out. The front of the plot hailed rooted vegetables like potatoes or carrots if he happened to plant them that season. In the middle was always tomatoes and peppers and other plants that needed to grow up the metal stakes I helped push into the ground. Behind them was a row or two of leafy ground-dwelling crops like collard greens and cabbages, which fell victim to caterpillars and skunks. Along the broad-side of the fence that was shared with the adjacent neighbors, he only once grew tiny strawberries but consistently pruned the white “morning glories” that blossomed open at sunrise and closed to sleep at night.
The garden was made peninsular by a four-inch-deep trench (the shared fence wall excluded), part of a well-intentioned, but poorly-executed attempt by Papa to build a raised porch in the backyard. Ultimately, the intended foundation served the purpose of preventing flooding and runoff from the garden and creating a land bridge around the yard. The trench, in its size, depth, and width, sometimes housed a small, flowing stream after the garden got a good watering, and this made great conditions for make-believe for my brother and me, in which an otherwise small and unremarkable backyard transformed.
I almost snapped my goddamn ankles leaping from the trenches to our woody shore. I zipped past Woody and Delman into the garden to pick barely-ripe tomatoes I’d rarely eat. It was an oasis of idyllic rurality in the midst of our ghetto. Ma would hang laundry on the clothesline run through a pulley stretching from the raised porch to a pole at the back of the garden. Usually, she’d only hang the white articles on the line, and they filled with wind like sails, billowing themselves dry in the sunlight. If they caught a good breeze, I’d run and weave through the gossamer linens beneath the thick, relentless sun, which dried them in moments.
My grandparents’ yard became a world all its own, with no deference to time or space. In the thick of the bamboo stalks that grew anomalously in the back, we were running up the Island’s hill with Papa as a child. We were a teenage Ma, dressed in all white, hanging clothes sewn by our great-great-grandmother in the Carolinas’ sun. We leaped over the stream with my father and his cousins, at Papa’s brothers’ farm in Monticello. We bounded into a game of hopscotch drawn in penny-chalk in the concrete with teenage Mommy, the sound of her Mother’s sweet voice and piano my fantasy’s score.
One could say my grandfather was a groundskeeper by trade, his upbringing divorced enough from slavery that it permitted the inheritance of idyllic, rather than violent associations with tilling the land. He eventually pursued this education at the New York State School of Agriculture on Long Island. The unfortunate circumstance of his colored-ness, however, never permitted him access to engage with it fully in the way he intended: ownership. Year-after-year, I would ask for a quarter-horse for Christmas, and he would jokingly respond that I would get nothing but “coal and a switch,” but then after, always quietly, but if we had some land…
As he was dying, I hinged my hope on the dream that if he was to survive, by some miracle, we would get this land. At the time, I hadn’t seen enough of the world, or even America, to envision it well, but in these dreams, there was a stable of horses for us to ride together, long grass that didn’t make me itchy when I sat with shorts and lots of bunnies that I could give a good chase on foot but would never overtake. I remember Daddy repeatedly saying maybe he’ll get out, maybe he’ll get out. He, too, remembered all the land he hadn’t had, all the dreams they had. We all thought that maybe this wouldn’t have happened had the air about him been cleaner, had he not been cooped up in a Bronx hospital where the window of a shared room only opened a crack. Maybe then his death would have been wild and free, instead of broken and contained. I felt this strange relief even at ten when he left, as if life trapped him and only in death he would be free.
I imagined God came right into his hospital room and picked him up on the tractor he’d long-imagined, and he left his decaying mortal frame for a transfigured lithe body of vivacity and health. He dropped him off at his Promised Land, all those that had left were already there. Papa meets up with them on the lawn of his sprawling house, in all the yard around it, there’s bamboo, block parties, bacchanals. Almost all his brothers are there and David, who he had not seen since getting stuck beneath the tractor under which he perished, pilots God’s golden one. His Mama in the kitchen, Woody and Delman, who died of sadness shortly after his death, are also restored to health, sleeping at the foot of beds prepared for the guests who would eventually arrive.
When I try to remember my grandfather, all those memories are inextricably tied to American soil. He spoke about it often: tending it, preserving it, buying it, hunting on it, fishing from it. I invested little in thought of it other than his sincere promise that he would buy a horse for me when his sickness was past and he had acquired more of that sacred soil.
I remember the ending of his funeral most vividly. A small Color Guard had come to pay their respects and place the Flag on his mahogany casket. Someone handed out flowers to each mourning attendee. The flag representing this land was the cruelest irony; finally, was he honored for fighting for it and yet had died without it. I put the flower, plucked from the Soil, atop the casket and turned away before I saw them both returned to it.