The following story by Esperanza Cintrón is reprinted from Shades: Detroit Love Stories, published by Wayne State University Press.
The church is full of Grandma; her long white box sits on a pedestal in the front. I can see her dark-brown face peeking out, the tip of her nose and a shiny chocolate cheek. There are lots
of flowers, carnations with stiff pink bow ribbons. She liked carnations cause they last a long time. Roses, white and red, and loose-petaled yellow flowers are spread all around the box and across the stage circling the preacher’s place. They smell pretty, sweet and fresh; I don’t know where Momma is. I can’t see her nowhere.
Wide, round, purple, blue, and black Sunday best hats nod, making soft waves that wash over rows of ladies in navy and black dresses. Every once in a while, there’s a splash of green or deep purple or a man pressed tight in a dark suit and tie with a high-buttoned white shirt and brushed-back hair. An old, old lady with balled-up, brown-paper-bag skin is sitting across the aisle from us. She is wearing a wide navy hat with a big puffy, organdy flower pasted right on the front. She is humming a slow song that I can’t make out. Her voice is rusty and wet.
I’m sitting on a bench scrunched between two church ladies wearing white uniforms. Crocheted doilies are pinned to the breast pockets of their crispy dresses. Pearl-like buttons go all the way down the front; only ankles in white stockings and thick-heeled shoes peek out. One of them keeps pressing my face against the crocheted doily on her pocket. It’s stiff, not soft like it look. I try to wiggle my face away so I can breathe better, but the other church lady’s bosom is guarding the other side. I stare down at the tiny white pearl-colored buttons on her wide white lap.
I have on new black patent leather T-strap shoes and my turquoise-blue dress with the long waist. Grandma called it my jazzy dress, said it looked like one she used to have when she was a girl. She showed me how to wear the long beads that came with it. When I tried the dress on in the store, Grandma took the necklace and put it around her neck. She wrapped it so that one part was close around her throat and the other hung down to her waist. Then she put one hand on her hip and pretended like she was chewing gum while she took the long part of the necklace in her other hand and twirled it around. She winked at me and said that’s the way the fast girls did it. I laughed, and then she twirled the beads around again and made a cockeyed face. I laughed harder because she looked so funny. Then she picked me up and twirled me around. The beads feel smooth and bumpy. I smile.
I hear Momma somewhere crying. I turn to look for her, and she’s there in the aisle held up by two ladies in white. Momma’s face is red and crumbly, her mouth open wide, crying. Her friend Belle is coming up the aisle behind them. “Diane,” she call out to Momma. Momma shake loose of the church ladies so she can hug Belle. Momma crying on Belle’s shoulder. Belle hug her back. Old sloe-eyed Deacon Harris—that’s what Grandma used to call him cause he was always trying to get with Momma—come up behind them and hand Momma his handkerchief. She take it and blow her nose. “Diane. I got her,” he say and try to take Momma from Belle, but Momma won’t go.
“I want my momma.” I start crying. “I want my momma.” I’m standing on the wooden seat trying to climb over these church ladies, but they won’t let me get to my momma. One of them is holding me by my waist, making me even more hot and sweaty, and this other lady is blocking my way. They won’t let me get to my momma!
This lady saying, “Baby come on sit down here with me. You can’t have your momma right now.” So I scream and cry and scream louder because I want my momma, and she right there and they won’t let me have her. Shh, the lady in white croon in my ear. She try to rock me against the bumpy smoothness of her dress pocket as she wipe my nose with a handkerchief.
“Don’t Sister Greene look good,” my other keeper say. “Swanson did a good job. Sister Greene would be real proud.” I peek out at Grandma, who is looking pretty and peaceful, and I quiet down because I know she would want me to.
“A good woman,” say one of the church ladies, “tithed ’til it hurt, and all those kids. She deserve a nice send-off.”
A crew of church lady nurses stand along the back wall, hands behind their backs, a line of straight white posts holding the church up. I’m wondering where they keep the cold rags and smelling salts they give the people who faint when they get the Holy Ghost.
Grandma would be standing there with them if she wasn’t resting in her pretty box bed. Her hair is all shiny and curled like when she get it done on Saturdays. I smile and remember how Grandma used to say getting her hair done once a week was her one indulgence. A treat, she said it meant, like the little brown bag of penny Squirrels and Banana Splits she used to give me when she came home from the beauty parlor. Grandma was always teaching me new words and other things, like the capital of Colombia is Bogota. Colombia is a country way down south. She liked to read and tell me about other places. Bogota. I like the way the word sounds in my mouth.
Uncle Jeff is sitting up straight and crisp in his white Navy uniform. His face is quiet and serious; his mouth a straight line. He nod his head up and down every time Aunt Jamie whisper something in his ear, but he won’t turn to look at her. Aunt Jamie look nice in the dark-blue suit she borrowed from Momma. Uncle Ronald is sitting next to her with some lady I don’t know. Momma say every time she turn around Ronald got a new girlfriend. Uncle Ronald paint crazy pictures with weird mismatched colors. Momma say he can’t see straight cause he always high on that reefer, but Grandma say he just trying to make sense out of this crazy world.
The organ music start, Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves. We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves. The people in the choir stand up. One of my keepers take my hand, and we stand as we sing along with the choir. It sound good, full and loud, and I smile because Grandma is smiling. The preacher’s black-and- purple robes swirl around him as he take his place in front of the tall stand that look like the thick trunk of a tree growing out of Grandma’s box. “We have come together this day to celebrate the life of this good woman, to rejoice in the fact that we were fortunate enough to have this gracious woman touch our lives. Let us begin with a prayer of benediction, a pronouncement of His divine blessing.” His words sound like a song as he bow his head and stretch his palm out to us.
We bow our heads too. I can feel Grandma’s warm palm squeezing my hand, reminding me to be quiet, to bow my head and let the gentle beauty of prayer wash over me.
Esperanza Cintrón is the author of three books of poetry that include Chocolate City Latina, the 2013 Naomi Long Madgett Award winner What Keeps Me Sane, and Visions of a Post-Apocalyptic Sunrise. She is a native Detroiter of Puerto Rican descent who holds a doctorate in English literature and teaches at a local college. Shades: Detroit Love Stories is her debut short story collection.