Mom’s soldier: A story for my younger self

     Faith Bartley is shown telling her story at a live Every ZIP Philadelphia storytelling event. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

    Faith Bartley is shown telling her story at a live Every ZIP Philadelphia storytelling event. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

    It’s 1974. Christmas time. And there’s a little girl with pigtails, light skin, and thick glasses with a strap.

    “Kenny! Kenny!” I yell, “It’s Christmas day! Wake up! We got bikes underneath the Christmas tree!”

    It’s 1974. Christmas time. And there’s a little girl with pigtails, light skin, and thick glasses with a strap.

    “Kenny! Kenny!” I yell, “It’s Christmas day! Wake up! We got bikes underneath the Christmas tree!”

    “I ain’t waking up now. It ain’t even daylight yet.”

    “Mommy gonna get us!”

    “She ain’t gonna get us, she asleep, she’s hungover from the night before. Nah, let’s wait til daylight.”

    “Okay, cool.”

    I fall asleep next to him.

    “Kenny! Kenny! It’s daylight! Come on downstairs. We can see the bikes now, and we can open some gifts!”

    So we go down the steps. We see the bikes. I see a purple bike with a long seat and a basket in front and a bell on the handlebars. I see my brother’s bike, a royal blue bike with a long seat and a bell on the handlebars. We get on the bikes. We start riding in place, waiting to go outside, but then I came up with something else.

    I say, “Kenny, let’s open a gift! You open your gift, I’ll open mine.”

    I opened my gift. A a pair of pink, clear Jelly Beans. My brother opened his gift. He had a nice pair of sneaks called “Bobos.”

    We sing together, “Bobos, they make your feet feel fine! Bobos, they cost $1.99! Bobos, I love my Bobos! I love my Bobos, my Bobos, today!”

    And then there was my mother’s gift. Next gift up.

    I say, “Kenny, let’s take mommy her gift.”

    “Nah, she’s still asleep. She’s hungover from the night before.”

    “Yeah, but let’s take it to her, anyway!”

    I was always a rebel. I always went against the rules of my mom. That’s why I stayed with a busted lip all the time. Always gathered up evidence for my grandmom to see.”My mom had a get-high party last night, Bubby.”

    Bubby was a Jewish name for grandmothers, and my grandma would always work for Jews all her life, so she taught us to call her Bubby instead of grandma.

    So I take the gift upstairs to my mom. The gift was a bottle of Jean Nate perfume — a yellow bottle with black lettering — and a small bottle of Charlie perfume that she loved so much. I’m telling you, Jean Nate, we would give it to her every Christmas because it was cheap back then.

    So I shake her and say, “Mom! Mom! I got a gift for you. We got a gift for you!”

    Waking up slowly she says, “Where’d you guys get money from?”

    “Well, running errands with people around the block and, plus, Bubby helped us too! Bubby contributed, and she took us to go get it!”

    And she opened it. She said “Aw, man, Jean Nate. Jean Nate, that’s cool.”

    Fast forward to an adult Faith. Strung out on drugs, I just barely made it back to see my mom off. My mom was dying.

    I’m walking down the boulevard. I was getting high the whole night. My brother rolls down the boulevard. I turn around and I hear somebody calling.

    2″Faith! Faith!” And it’s him, Kenny.

    “What’s up, Kenny?”

    “You know Mommy’s dying?”

    “Yeah, I know that’s why I was trying to stay in this abyss that I’m in, man. I don’t wanna face it.”

    “Aw, come on, you gotta face it. Get in the car.”

    I’m smelly, I’m dirty. He takes me to go get a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. He takes me to the crib to go get a shower. I go to my mom.

    Walk down the block; she’s sitting on the step.

    I say, “What’s up, mom?”

    “Wow! You made it back, huh?”

    “Yeah,” I say. And I give her a kiss on the cheek.

    Metaphorically speaking, she stuck her hand out as to pull me out of the quicksand, out of that abyss I was in. She gave me a pack of cigarettes and a trans pass and told me to do what I gotta do ’cause she wasn’t gonna be around long.

    She died September 2009. My sister called me the day before the funeral.

    She said, “Faith, I don’t think I can see Mommy twice in one week. You gonna have to go view the body to make sure she looks good for her funeral the next day.”

    “Okay.”

    Talk about taking accountability. When I came back, I had no money to bury my mom. So I had to show face on something. My brother called a couple of minutes later.

    “Faith, I can’t see mommy the same day, same time twice in one week. You gotta go view the body.”

    “Yeah, I just got off the phone with Keisha. I’ll go.”

    I’m walking, pacing my apartment, the very apartment my mom used to live in that I live in now. Pacing.

    Lil’ Mama comes down the steps.

    She says, “Faith, what’s wrong?”

    “I gotta go view my mom’s body the day before the funeral. I’m scared to death. I don’t know what to do.”

    “I’ll go with you.”

    So we go to the funeral home. The funeral director lets us in, opens up the door to where my mom’s body is sitting. And I stop. I stop because I can’t go no further in that room. So Lil’ Mama just makes her way around the casket, puts some red lipstick on my mom, adjusts her ponytail and all is well.

    I go back out, we leave the funeral home.

    My mom always called me her “No. 1 soldier.” I couldn’t imagine why. I guess she saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. That inner strength.

    So, I walk in the funeral home, I take my place at the foot of the casket. Like her soldier! At attention! As people walked past the casket, I became at ease. That was something else. I didn’t know how strong I was.

    So when I see me — this little girl, seven-years-old, light skin, thick strap on glasses, pigtails — I say to her, “You’re strong. You’re strong. And you ain’t even know it, you’re strong.”

    And I reach my hand out for her and take her with me.

    Faith Bartley is a member of the People’s Paper Co-Op at The Village of Arts & Humanities in Germantown.

    This story is adapted from a story that was originally told at a live EveryZIP Philadelphia storytelling block party, “Stories For Our Younger Selves.” Listen to more stories from that event.

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