Nana’s Lips


A lifeless peach toned gnome whose cheeks were stained red with blush. And a smile forever engraved upon his face sits in a predominately black neighborhood, whose skin in comparison to the happy go lucky gnome, were rich colors of beige and browns. Upon these crowds were various mixtures of hairs ranging from tight curls to loose waves. Broad noses to small narrow peaks and voluptuous lips to small Juliet rose petals. Carrying upon them generations of blacks, slaves, servants, workers and Lords upon their skins. This gnome who so blatantly appeared joyful in the presence of a crowd that they themselves had often whispered their titles as lost humans, seemed rather blended with his environment. As if his white skin against the backdrop of this black neighborhood did not show him as vicious or naïve to the world. But rather somehow hid him away from troubles of the people around him, making that little place on my grandmother’s yard his sanctuary.

                My grandmother, who I often called Nana lived a few houses down from me when I was younger. Where she resided in a worn down and somewhat cold looking black and white peeling house. Just before her doorway was a short walkway that lead towards the street that was not only before the gate to which lead to the inner area of the property, but also was below. Seeing as the house was elevated and placed away from the street. A wired fence surrounded her yard and a gate door sat before the walkway which at the time was very unusual to me. Considering how most of the people on the block didn’t have a fence like my grandmother’s including that of my next door neighbor, Mr. Carter. Whose house sat on a plot big enough for two houses including his own.

I often used to hear, “Oh your must live on the other side of the train tracks…” growing up through the public school system. To which I never really understood what that meant entirely when growing up in Montclair. I knew that the majority of my classmates that were black lived on my block and over, and my Caucasian friends lived on the other side. But I didn’t acquaint that with my living situation. I didn’t think living on my side of the tracks was worse off in comparison to the other side of the tracks. I didn’t think about their children who still got buses even into high school, while us the children of a long line of proud African Americans in Montclair as high school students had to pay for the bus. I didn’t think about the great separation that would happen later in that year. When Montclair will split into two, and one portion becoming Upper Montclair and the other regular ole’ Montclair because of taxes, name sake and differences in postal zip. Because I often looked at Mr. Carter’s house, my grandparent’s house and other houses on the “other side of the tracks” and noticed that these houses. Though larger than most and had enough space to fit one to three houses (in my grandparent’s case) including themselves on their lots as rich.

So therefore when I often visited my Nana’s house during the summers, as we often did when she was alive. I didn’t think that our summers that was showered with grits that was reheated every breakfast and at nights sat on the stove on a low flame till the next morning were considered meager, or how no matter how long my grandmother stayed on that block. How her house always seemed empty or without flare or touch. As being poor….

That little gnome stood, his porcelain skin shimmering in the light though cracked here and there and shoes covered with dirt. Held his chest high as if the slightly dulled paint, the small cracks that scoured his face, or the years of mud and dirt that had settled in those cracks didn’t exist. There he stood in all of his radiance proud of the empty garden that was left untamed for him. The only thing of worth that situated next to him were a row of small rocks that I and my brother collected during one of the summers with my Nana. Near the glen that was situated in the darkness of the parks. Where my mother often commanded me and brother to never tread, venture or even go near. It was there in that glen, where a man was shot, where a girl was rape, where we believed a series of drug deals went down. That our small fingers dug through the tainted green waves to find the small rocks hidden in the trash. And those rocks that we retrieved out from the broken glass and trash bags. To cradle in our arms and carry back to my grandmother’s place to live out a new life. It was those very rocks that we placed and situated around the gnome to protect, as his new yearlings. Rocks that were forgotten by the world but remembered in the eyes of my grandmother.

                My grandmother smelled of warm cocoa butter, of sweet Marlboro and delicate black rum. Her wrinkled skin hung from her arms in a soft folds. As her light brown eyes were hidden behind her sunken lids and her lips always held within her mouth. As if she was trying to hold a secret. My grandmother, Nana, was a quiet woman who was quick to defend but never rose her voice in anger. Though in my dreams I had often heard her screams, seen the tears she tried to hide and the anger she devoured every time. My mother would pull her aside to whisper to her before leaving me and my brother with her for those warm summer nights. Though I loved my grandmother I often felt distant to her, as if she had firmly placed her hand upon my chest to hold me away from her. As if she was afraid that I might look past her beige skin to find that hollow center of a being left from years of alcohol and smoking abuse. I didn’t think that my grandmother was poor because of the bottles of whisky, rum and wine she tried to hide from me in her pantry on the top shelf. Or the reason she retreated into the bathroom into almost 4-5 times a day to smoke her two packs of cigarettes between those small half hours.

She often covered her sorrows with movies, her scars with fake laughs, her pains with hollow smiles and showered us with love she withheld with all her might to keep us safe from her crushing guilt and shame. It wasn’t until years later when my brother celebrated his 20th birthday that we would find her corpse, smelling of leftover summer days. Of how quickly her exasperated soul left her body to left her destroyed husk to rot. Or how her lovely brown skin could quickly burn its green lifeless shrivel in my mind.

The gnome stood in all its glory protecting my grandmother’s garden as if he had eternity to live, as if his insides were filled with all the bravery the sculptor had engraved upon those rosy cheeks and brilliant smile. The gnome stood disillusioned of the failing paradise that was waiting to consume him, unknowing of the hollowness inside him that was waiting to break forth and shatter him into pieces. The gnome stood smiling as if he had all the time to be glad and joyful in a world that practically ignored his existence.

                When my grandmother and I was left with her diary. It was only then that I understood the storm that raged in her soul. Of the how deep her wounds bore upon her, of how far away she actually held me. My grandmother made me understand that what she feared the most was not dying alone, or losing herself to her depression but was seeing me. Her granddaughter, her little one whose hands resembled her own lose herself to the same fate. My grandmother was that gnome, she was that character that though I didn’t pay much conscious attention to it. And yet I held it in the back of my head. My grandmother was that house that was cold and pale. She is those rocks that you find in the trash. She believed that maybe if someone could find her as we did with those rocks, if someone could live in her as she did with that house, if she just kept smiling like that gnome that she one day she would live. I don’t know if she found it, but I do know this. That though she kept me at a distance, that though she hide her sorrows in abuse. She loved me enough to survive.


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