The stumble I don’t recall; only the image of the tall, lean nanny named Jean standing at the top of the basement staircase looking down at me, unmoved by my cries, navigates the hippocampus. Next is my one-year-and-five-month older brother James, his gravity-defiant halo of golden hair about his face, pulling me up step by step in my walker as if we were climbing a mountain. After reaching the peak, he made us jelly sandwiches and me a bottle.
This memory was verified as such when one day—after the falling outs, the fights over the trust fund, the years of muzzledness, the death of dad, the disagreements about family, the death of mom, the one-sided silence, the other-sided silence—James asked, “Do you remember when you fell down the stairs and I helped you back up?”
“I wasn’t sure if that was a dream,” I replied.
“Nah, that was real,” he affirmed.
But he had always been my hero. With him near I always felt safe—except for the couple of years his temperament untamed exploded toward me in an anger roused by anything. And even then I was never scared; and even those few times were a blink or two in a long stare toward protection that centered both my self-esteem and boundaries as a young lady. Through it all, he was a hero.
“What did you say about my sister?” he’d ask if a boy made a comment, complimentary or not, about me. When we participated in the Wichita Summer Youth program, where we worked together at McDonald Douglas golf course filling divvies with chicken feed and trimming trees, he ensured the all-white male adult staff respected his thirteen year old sister. “That’s my little sister, man,” he told Steven, a rambunctious former frat boy who used comedy to approach lines of inappropriateness that were never crossed at the guidance of my then fourteen-going-on-fifteen year-old brother.
“I remember when you were little. You used to walk around in those toy plastic high heel shoes,” he once told me. “If someone tried to pick you up or give you a hug, you’d just start kicking. You were real wild.”
A year after telling me how unfriendly of a child I had been he stopped talking to me again, upset I was finally selling our neglected childhood home. I sent him a holiday reminder: “Happy Father’s Day! I’ll still kick your ass in my plastic shoes!”
Never was a “ha ha” more victorious than the one he texted.
Comedy had been our bond since we were two kids jumping in our parents’ bed, competing to out-cuss one another after sneaking a listen to Richard Pryor’s That N**ger’s Crazy. Years later we would watch Charlie Murphy recount his Rick James and Prince interactions on The Dave Chappelle Show from the den sofa in my subprime mortgaged house.
In early pregnancy, unaware I was carrying my third child, James caught me as I fainted while walking up the same concrete stairs inaccessible to us as youngsters during dad’s cocaine days, when the Mary Kay room transformed into a drug den behind a locked wooden door.
And he was my animal hero, too. My first pet, a cat named Oreo, was procured because he had the courage to brave a big orange tom cat with a purple tongue who randomly attacked people guarding dad’s friend’s front porch housing a litter of kittens. Ten years later he’d carry into the house my new she-wolf Princess, an alpha to her brother Bear’s omega, as she attempted to snap at everyone as a cub. And a decade after that, he was my hero when removing a large gray Persian cat hissing and pissing all over my basement.
When our dad returned home after four years in prison to children having hit milestones in his absence—his youngest daughter no longer in elementary, his sons becoming young men, he was unable to re-establish authority as the head of the household. Once again, James would prove to be my hero.
Yet even heroes have limitations.
James was the not the firstborn son, John John was.
John John: the eldest son requiring a first name double repeat differentiation. He has been tall and good looking his entire life, and by the time dad came home, he stood higher than even him. John John had always been popular, succeeded academically and was good at many things: basketball, track, football, sketching.
“I like this song, but don’t tell John John,” James and I would preface our slow jams we were fond of shares, fear of the melodic compositions not being fast enough for our Atomic Dog-loving big brother always a weight in our scale of acceptability.
John John taught me some of the things a dad would teach their child: how to ride a bike, shoot hoops and hit a baseball. We sometimes played free verse trivia and—despite my being four years his junior—I would often win thanks to a memory fueled by the collection of encyclopedias in my closet that I read from front to back in reference to my random curiosity.
My brothers and I were attending summer school—for fun as dictated by mom—when dad came home, John John for driver’s education, James for a core subject and I for pre-algebra. My class ended first, so I would sit atop the red vinyl bench in the second row of the family’s white station wagon (gone was the desire to sit shotgun with my father) as dad vented about his sons.
“What is that music they listen to?”
“I don’t know,” I lied. It was NWA.
“They don’t have any respect.”
I stayed silent.
“John John played that crap on the way to church. Where the hell is he at, anyway?”
“They have to drive around, so sometimes they get back late,” I answered. “Each person in the car has to take turns driving.”
“You think I should kick em’ out of the house?”
“Those are my brothers.”
It is only now, writing this thirty years away from sitting in front of East High school under a shade tree in a very practical car dissimilar to the baby blue and maroon Cadillacs and black Mercedes ushering us through the ’80’s, when the excess of the decade was a hallmark in my house, where fur coats and precious gemstones were poured onto an under-the-age-of-ten me, yet similar to the blue station wagon set ablaze in the driveway on Independence day that was hardly independent for millions of Americans for the first eighty-six years of festivities, when my favorite Hardee’s Shirt Tales character died—it could have been Digger, Rick, Tyg, Pammy, but not Bogey; I loved them all but, please, let it not Bogey; but it was Bogey, burned to a crisp; they were all in the very back of the station wagon in position for play in case we left the house, all but Pammy, at least; when Bogey died I stopped loving any of the Shirt Tales even though each one represented a lunch date with dad after kindergarten pick-up; but what is meant for evil God turns to good and so that day would be my brothers’ and my first visit to a lake, when our big sister Valerie and her then boyfriend now husband and a couple of his sisters took us to Cheney where I was introduced to the idea of swimming with algae and rocks; and shortly after (Or was it before?) we would lose another blue car to a fire, the blue Buick gifted to my parents by my Grandpa Hannah, another hero, a pillar really, whose long-term planning either changed the trajectory of my life or firmly placed me back on it, however you view it; the blue Buick fire-starter only revealed themself decades later during a casual drive that made me realize, Wow, this woman can keep a secret; and though I am the woman’s daughter, I did not keep dad’s inquiry a secret, that I become aware the action of my telling my mom promptly what dad had asked—“You think I should kick ‘em out the house?”—was perhaps the catalyst of the next event.
Of course dad had once been a hero. He was mild-mannered to mom’s storm. He taught me three important life skills: how to tie my shoes, how to tell time, and how to eat lobster. There was a feeling of freedom by his side and from it a confidence and entitlement to any space grew and never left, even after my parents divorced and he had.
Though his lesser moments left a hole in the hearts of his children, he developed and maintained a level of integrity many never know. More than his whiteness—and the privilege that entails, his ability to forge his own path while pulling others up was his super power.
The last time dad and I sat together in the white station wagon waiting on my brothers after summer school class is the last time we would have a conversation for many years.
“I am going to walk over to Hardee’s and get a sandwich,” I informed him, prepping to exit the car.
“I don’t have any money for a sandwich,” he snapped.
“Dad, I didn’t ask you for any money.” I responded, palming the dollars in my shorts pocket. “Hardee’s is right there on the corner, so I can walk.”
“You better watch your mouth, little girl,’ dad quipped. “You’re not too big to get your ass whipped.”
I was shocked. I had received many whippings from my mother; that’s how she was raised, and that’s how she raised us. But not dad. Floored, all I could do is cry. When James approached the car to get in, he immediately noticed my tears.
“What did you do to my sister?” he questioned dad.
“Oh, you think you’re a man?” dad responded, opening his door and walking to the other side of the vehicle to approach James. “You wanna challenge me?”
I’d never seen James back down from a battle. True to form, he stood his ground. Before I knew it, he’d grabbed a branch from the shade tree. “Take your best shot!” dad shouted. James did. He missed.
We often claim the the gift is the journey, but the truth is the goal is to claim the victory. And in that moment, it was beginning to look like a loss.
But then there was John John. There is no timing like God’s timing, and when our eldest brother suddenly emerged from the school and onto the yard, approaching calmly yet with a serious disposition, I knew to Whom to give the glory. “What’s going on with my brother and sister?” he asked. Dad immediately walked to the car and got in. Although he sat in the driver’s seat, he had been dethroned.
John John, in all his extraordinary physical strength, was a subtle hero. More than James and I, with our strategic natures, I think John John craved the warmth of a family and simple comforts. Nearly eight years ago, underweight, and healing from a major surgery, John John came to our mother’s home with food, cooking it and bringing it to me as I lay on an oversize brown recliner in the den. A few days prior to going to the emergency room, where I would end up being admitted to the hospital for multiple tumors, and I would learn I had a rare cancer, all I wanted was the logs in the fireplace kindled so that I could focus on a thing of beauty; all the stuff mother refused to discard had slowly crept into my mind over the prior year, and even when I left her house her junk occupied a space in my psyche that made me feel scattered, no matter where I went or how long I stayed gone. When John John lit the fire, the flames seemed to burn away the clutter.
Recently, I spoke with James after more than a year without communication. We talked about caring for the sick and dying. We discussed business. I recognized that over time we both became the people we were called to be. Many focus on discovering who they are instead of remembering who they were—before the trauma, the loss, the accident—at their core. It is returning to the crawl in need of one’s soul—in short, it is gratitude and humility.
When dad was lying on his deathbed battling lung cancer a year and half before my cancer diagnosis, I was in East Harlem fighting eviction. I had recently expanded my ghostwriting business, but payments had been slow. To supplement income, I was long-term substitute teaching. The last person in the family to find out he was terminally ill, over the past year I’d spoken with him fairly frequently, and about all the things in which I wondered. Never once did he mention he had cancer. He told me about our genealogy and he spoke about his mother and maternal grandmother. He talked about his father, whom he’d had a tumultuous relationship with when I was a child. “My father worked very hard for his money; and you’re the one who did something worthwhile with it. I am damn lucky to be his son!”
I asked him out of his three marriages why he never married a white woman.
“Well, honey, in my experience black women and hispanic—or I should say Mexican American, because that’s who I have experience with—are much warmer.”
It was a maternal aunt who broke the news to me. When I called him, he did all the talking. “You’re my baby girl,” he told me, before drifting into a gargled speech of indecipherable words.
“Your timing was impeccable,” my sister Valerie would later tell me. “He didn’t speak again after you called.”
They say with grit he fought his cancer until the end. I disarmed myself from the world to heal from my cancer; whatever knowledge Jesus lead me to, that’s what I did. The last meal dad and I shared were fish sandwiches about six years earlier. Hot, humble sandwiches. A feast for heroes.
© Margery Hannah 2022. All Rights Reserved.