by Sayeeda Copeland
[Parts 1-3 are in the exquisitepandemicarchive.com]
My parents met in ’82, ten years before I came into the picture. I asked my mother if that story Aunt Sheryl told any and everyone who asked, was true. My mother told me that she first met my father that summer. She said it was a hot day and she and her friend were sitting in a park minding their business when he kept walking by. She would smile every time she told me the story, as if she went back to that very moment.
“Your daddy was a huge flirt, girl,” she would blush. “He kept coming around, then one day I just asked him if he liked what he saw?” I would giggle, imagine my daddy drooling at how pretty my mommy was. She said she began to see him more often, but it wasn’t until a party that they were officially introduced. She had pulled out her favorite leopard dress and high heels that night. She would brag that she had hair down to her butt, so there was no need for a wig. Her boyfriend at the time picked her up and they drove over to Morningside Park where a summer party was happening. As soon as they got to the party, her boyfriend told her he had
someone he wanted my mother to meet. She said he came back with her drink in one hand and my daddy right beside him. When their eyes met, she tried her best to act like it was her first time meeting him.
“Yolanda, this here is my main man, Martin. Martin this is my lady, Yolanda.” Mommy
said that whole night she would catch my daddy staring at her while she moved through the
party with his best friend. He still came around the park where she first seen him, offering her
and her friend money to buy ice cream on hot summer days. Eventually she wrote her number
down on a piece of paper and told him to use it or lose it. He didn’t call. At least not until word
got around that she and her boyfriend had broken up. My father, twelve years her senior, asked
her out on their first date. My mother would be hesitant to tell me certain details of their
relationship, but as I got older, she opened up a bit more. Once they were dating, he revealed
that he’d been a Sergeant in the Vietnam war and was honorably discharged in 1971. Instead of
returning to Moncks Corner, South Carolina, where he was born and raised, he headed to
Harlem for a new life. He landed a job in the bookstore of City College and worked there for
many years. They dated off and on for years, but in 1990 she swore my father and her
relationship was getting serious.
She said he drove to her house one evening and asked her to meet him outside in
his car. Their favorite song, If Only For One Night by Luther Vandross played as he told her he
wanted to ask her a serious question. He pulled out a small gray box and handed it to her. She
opened it, gasped, and he placed the shiny diamond ring on her finger. My mother said her eyes
swelled with tears as she held her hand out in front of her body, admiring her new gift and
waited for him to pop the question. She said she had a feeling he would because for the past
weeks leading up to that moment, he had become so anxious around her. He then asked her if
she liked the ring. She blushed, telling him that for an old man he had taste. He was silent, not
usually laughing at her slick comments about the years between them. He then asked her if she
thought the ring would fit the finger of the mother of his two young daughters. Her happy tears
turned into anger as she asked him to repeat the question. Before he could she threw the
diamond ring at him. It bounced off the window and landed right in his lap. Before he could
apologize and tell her he didn’t mean it that way, she left the car, slamming his door with all of
her strength. That following year he married the mother of his daughters. He told my mother
the marriage was because his now wife, had threatened to not allow him see his daughters if he
didn’t commit to her. He already had a teenage son from a previous relationship.
Despite his marriage, he insisted on being in my mother’s life. He would sneak on his lunch breaks at City College to spend time with her. A year later I was born at Harlem Hospital.
Despite being newly married, he came to the hospital after my mother gave birth to me.
She said he was excited, so excited she would have thought I was his first child he ever had, if
she didn’t know of his previous children. He held me close for the first time, counting my
fingers and toes over and over. He sent flowers daily to my mother as she recovered from my
birth. On his lunch breaks from work, he had stopped by to check on us. Before leaving the
hospital, my mother had paged him to come drive us home. He came with a dozen roses in
one hand and a brand-new pink and purple car seat in the other. As I lay wrapped tightly in my
blanket, my father lifted me as if I was glass, and placed me snuggly in the car seat. My mother,
almost forgetting, placed my birth certificate in front of him. He stared at it for some minutes
before asking her what she needed.
“Well, your daughter needs a name, that’s one, and you need to sign yours,” my mother
said. He placed his reading glasses on his face and read the birth certificate again.
“I like the name Angel, for her.” My mother scoffed at his suggestion, and asked him to
sign his name. “I can’t do that right now, Yolanda. It’s complicated.” He handed her the paper again, with a look that was a mixture between sadness and regret. My mother asked him did he not think I was his daughter. My father explained to her that he never told his wife about her
pregnancy. He never told his wife about their relationship, if anything, she thought it had ended
a long time before he proposed.
My mother sat on her hospital bed, now dizzy from the news. She was his secret. I was
his biggest secret. When she was telling everyone around Harlem how she was proudly carrying
his baby, he must have been denying her claims. She felt angry, and even more upset that his
wife seemed more important than his newborn child. As they sat there in silence, a nurse came
into the room to ask my mother to sign some of the forms for us to be discharged from the
“I’m sorry, what is your name?” my mother searched the nurse’s uniform for a name tag
but didn’t see one.
“Mine? Oh, I'm sorry, I’m Nurse Aubrey, Ms. Williams,” the nurse stuttered.
“How do you spell that?” My mother scribbled the nurse’s first name on the birth
certificate form and then her last name, Williams. “Aubrey Williams. Sounds about right. It’s cute. I like it.” She admired her handwriting and handed the nurse the finished form. She stood, grabbed her night bag, the car seat I was in, and walked out of the door, without another word to my father. By the time he caught the next elevator to the lobby, she had already hailed a cab and was gone.
My father’s wife lived in the Bronx, in Soundview’s projects. She frequented Harlem,
so she was familiar with who my mother was and what reputation she held, as being a
“firecracker.” If she didn’t know exactly where my mother lived, Harlem was so small, she
eventually found out. Rumor has it that once I was born, she arrived at my mother’s apartment
on the hill to see this new child everyone was saying her husband had fathered. My mother, at
the time, had a job working in an office in midtown Manhattan, a job that my father had gotten
her. She left me in the care of her mother, my Nana, Rosalie. My Nana was very young looking,
had broad hips, short hair and a southern twang that made you wonder how long she’d been
living in New York City. She was just fifteen years my mother’s senior, and if you saw them together it wasn’t hard to mistake them for sisters. My father’s wife came that Easter, laying on my mother’s bell until my grandmother buzzed her in. Before she could knock on the door, my
Nana swung it open with the What do you want? expression on her face and hands on her hips.
My father’s wife wasn’t alone, alongside her was one of her friends. My Nana said her face was
caked with Vaseline, an obvious sign she and her friend came prepared to fight my mother. She
asked if my mother was home, and when my Nana didn’t answer, she then asked to see me. My
Nana turned, slamming the door in their faces, to retrieve me from my crib. She brought me,
wrapped in a pink blanket, to the door. My father’s wife peered at me, asking my Nana to move
the blanket back from my face to get a good look at me. After several seconds, and many grunts
from her homegirl, she turned without a word and stormed off. That spring she asked my father
for a divorce.
* * * *
Juanita and I swore to always have each other’s backs no matter what or who came to the
Alston’s house. It was refreshing having a sister figure with my cousins no longer around. I was
able to come to her with my emotions about being in care, missing my mother and even
crushes on boys from school.
Before church one sabbath, she asked me how much I trusted her. Not knowing where it was
coming from, I tried to shrug her off. “Seriously, Aubrey, don’t we tell each other everything?” I knew this look quite well. It was a strange stare she gave when she would ask questions she already knew the answers to. I ate my grits and eggs slowly, wondering if this was a trick question. I did tell her everything, like how I had a crush on one of the neighborhood boys who I rode my bike with in the summertime.
I finished my breakfast and jetted to the attic to see if my journal, which I now hid in a new place, had been tampered with. As I was placing it back underneath my mattress, Juanita
came up the stairs. “It’s perfectly normal, Aubrey. No need to hide it from me. I told you I find
everything.” I paused, turning slowly, wondering if she'd now started reading my journal.
“You read my journal?” I started trying to think of what possible journal entry could have
gotten her upset. I did write about what she told me her mother did to her.
“Chile, please. I’m talking about this.” She grabbed my hand and almost dragged me down the
stairs. She pushed me into the bathroom and pointed to the edge of the tub for me to sit down.
Juanita sat on the toilet seat, and placed the small pink garbage pail Mama kept in the
bathroom tin in front of me. “Open it,” she demanded. I opened the bag cautiously and peered
inside. It looked like something wrapped up in a ball of tissue that was red. I went to pick it up
when she stopped me. “I can’t believe you got yours before me!” She swatted my leg, with a
half smirk spreading across her face. I wanted to enjoy this moment with her, share
something intimate between two sisters, but what that pail held did not belong to me.
“That ain't mine.” I looked at the mysterious object again.
“Aubrey, I know you started your period. It's normal, seriously, you just did a bad job of hiding
it.” My brows bunched together as I started to ponder if it wasn’t Juanita’s, or mine, did Shay
hide it? I was just learning about puberty from health class in school, and yes one hair did
appear from my under arm recently but I did not start my period.
“Juanita, Mama said don’t swear but I swear on my daddy, I didn’t get it. That ain’t mine.” I crossed my heart and pointed to the sky to show her I was serious. I nudged the pail
closer to her with my foot, and grabbed my now queasy stomach. I narrowed my eyes, thinking
this was a backwards way to have her confess she’s now a woman. In a strange way I was
“Well, it sure as hell ain't mine, and Mama too old to get hers.” I thought women could
have periods until they died. The way my mother had me and my siblings, you would have
thought she was a baby making machine. “Mama got menopause so her period stopped mad
long ago. Who’s pad is this?” There was a knock at the door. Papa needed to use the
bathroom. We spoke in rushed hushed tones, returning the pail to where it was, and tying the
plastic bag. Juanita made up an excuse that I had spilled grits on my dress and she was helping
me get it out as to why we were taking so long to get ready for church. We promised not to say
anything about this mystery to Papa nor to Mama either.
[to be continued...]