We go on with the dead inside us.
—Eve Joseph, “Yellow Taxi”
Two years before I celebrated my fiftieth birthday I moved into my parents’ duplex in South Minneapolis. Not because they needed me; my stepfather had passed away some years before, and Mom, a petite but tough and feisty lady in her seventies, was as strong as she had ever been. The move was the result of some unexpected financial problems that occurred after I resigned from an untenable employment situation and was struck with a serious illness before I could find a new job. My severance—including my medical benefits—had dried up. My home was about to be foreclosed on and my savings account was quickly dwindling.
My youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Ebony, was the last of my five children still living at home. It was important to me that she continue to have a stable environment, but it was humiliating to be returning to my childhood home at an age when I should have been creating a comfortable space for my grandchildren. Nevertheless, I couldn’t deny my good fortune. My parents’ long-term tenants had purchased a home of their own and were moving out at the same time I had to vacate my house.
My parents’ duplex, built in 1935 in a quiet neighborhood near Minnehaha Creek, was beautiful and spacious. A large picture window invited the sun into the living room during the day and enticed the moon and stars to cast mysterious shadows at night. Hardwood floors that shone like honey stretched from the living and dining rooms all the way through to the three bedrooms, each as big as some of my friends’ apartments, and a cozy breakfast nook nestled in a corner of the roomy kitchen.
One evening a couple of months after we were settled in, I kissed my daughter goodbye and sent her off to whatever teenage thing she was doing that autumn night. It had been a long day of meetings for a new literary arts organization I was in the process of building, and I was looking forward to a night of solitude. I slid a movie into the VHS player and slumped down on the sofa and was about to dig into a bowl of freshly popped popcorn when I thought I saw something shadowy out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t pay much attention, thinking it was probably my long-deceased maternal grandfather who had been making periodic visits since my difficult pregnancy with Ebony—always showing up in the wheelchair he smiled from in a sepia-toned photograph that has held a prominent place in my mother’s home for as long as I can remember.
Feeling comforted that Grandfather Robert had stopped by to check on me once again, I turned back to my popcorn and Sleepless in Seattle, which was about to begin. Soon an odd, icy breeze passed through the room. I looked toward the door wondering if I had left it open a crack and was taken aback to see a tall, stately woman standing there. She was dressed in a Victorian-era gown made of an expensive silken fabric woven in wide, vertical black-and-antique-gold stripes. Dainty buttons, covered in the same fabric, snaked up the bodice from her waist to her neck where a neckband, topped with fine lace, encircled her throat. A bustled skirt drifted from her tiny waist to the floor and long sleeves, puffed at the shoulders, hid her graceful arms. A large hat, enhanced with what appeared to be ostrich plumes, covered her black pompadour. She was accompanied by a tall, dapper gentleman dressed in a tan suit and a top hat, and his arm was looped possessively through hers. I stared in disbelief, almost dropping my popcorn.
I was stunned by this ghostly intrusion, yet I somehow knew she was a relative, an ancestor. Fear and curiosity flooded over me as I wondered who she was and why she was there. She gazed at me with intense, dark eyes and then, as though responding to my thoughts, said, “I am Liza. You have to tell our story.” And just like that, she and her gentleman were gone.
Visits from loved ones who have passed on were not new to me. Just the year before, my sister called on me to help her decide whether to stay on the Earth plane or to cross over after she had suffered a brain aneurysm. Though she was in San Francisco and I was in Minneapolis, I reached through the veil and held her hand, and I knew the moment the aneurysm took her life. Also, my beloved stepfather paid me a reassuring visit when I woke up from surgery shortly after he passed away in 1984. And, of course, there was Grandfather Robert. But this was the first time a spirit showed up with an explicit command.
Once I recovered and could breathe again, my mind was full of questions. Why was I the one she came to? What does she want me to say? What parts of my family’s story want to be told, need to be told? Which will demand to be told? Who will be hurt by what I write? Who will be healed?
IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE to sleep that night, so when Ebony got home—a few minutes past her curfew—I told her what had happened. All three of my daughters are used to hearing my stories of ghostly visitations, but a visit from a spirit with an explicit command was new to all of us. Ebony had questions that mirrored mine. So did my two older daughters, Iris and Tania, when I told them the next day.
I knew I had no choice but to follow Liza’s command, but I didn’t have a clue where to begin. I thought that maybe my first step should be to try and find out who she was. The next day I asked my mother if she knew of someone from our past named Liza. I was reluctant to share the reason for my question, fearing that she wouldn’t believe me or would ridicule me for what she tended to characterize as my overactive imagination. Thankfully, she didn’t ask, choosing only to tell me that she didn’t know of anyone by that name.
I then called my cousin Stephanie and my stepmother, Joyce, both genealogists. Joyce said she had found a Liza in my father’s ancestry, but all she could give me was the name; she didn’t know her story.
Cousin Stephanie, on the other hand, who also receives occasional visitations, said she had uncovered an Eliza in her research of my matrilineal line: an enslaved woman who was living at the same time as the Liza my stepmother had found. Eliza had lived on the plantation of a slave owner named John Lee and gave birth to my mixed-race Grandfather Robert, giving him the surname Lee. She moved to Denver, Colorado, with her son in the Gold Rush era.
It is unclear whether Eliza escaped after enduring sexual exploitation or if, perhaps, she was John Lee’s mistress. From what we know of chattel slavery, either story could have been true. It is no secret that many of our foremothers were raped at random—often repeatedly by the same man, and then bore his children. We also know that slaves were sold at the whim of the “owner” whose “property” they were. But there are also stories of slave women and children who were taken care of by men who loved them.
Based on some of what I know about the history of my people, of my family’s history, and also of my own life, I started writing whatever came into my mind, mostly drivel. After a while, stories began to form. Most writers are familiar with the muse who helps us with our writing and the internal critic who tries to put roadblocks in our path. For me, the muse and the critic are the voices of my maternal aunts, both who have been in the ancestral realm for many years. Sometimes when I’m working on a difficult passage, I imagine them sitting on my shoulders: the aunt who held strong religious beliefs sits on my left shoulder shaking her finger and saying, “Now don’t you go stirring things up.” My other aunt sits on my right shoulder, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other. She smiles encouragingly and says, “Don’t hold back, child. Someone out there needs to hear what you have to say.” Sometimes it is difficult to find the balance between their words and mine, what to say and what to leave out. I do the best I can.
WE LOST MOTHER in 2013. In her will, she stated that she wanted me to sell the duplex and split the proceeds between myself, my stepbrother, and my niece. I moved back into her home once again, having decided to spend a year clearing things out and preparing the house to sell. Mom and Barney had lived there some forty years, and clearing it out would be a difficult task. But with my children and grandchildren’s help, I managed to get it done.
One day while going through family photographs I gasped upon coming across an old sepia photograph that I had never seen before, a picture of a woman who resembled the woman who had stood at my door that night so long ago and identified herself as Liza. Tall and stately, she was dressed just as I had seen her that night in 1993: in a Victorian-era gown made of an expensive silken fabric woven in wide, vertical black and antique gold stripes. Dainty buttons covered in the same fabric snaked up the bodice from her waist to her neck where a neckband topped with fine lace encircled her throat. A bustled skirt drifted from her tiny waist to the floor and long sleeves, puffed at the shoulders, hid her graceful arms. A large hat, enhanced with ostrich plumes, covered her thick, black pompadour. Her piercing eyes gazed out at me from the picture frame the same way they bored into me that night in 1993, as though reiterating her command.
The stories of trauma that started with the enslavement of my people in 1619 when the first known slave ship, the Man of War, docked in Jamestown, Virginia—coupled with the traumas that we continue to endure today—make it clear that we need to keep telling our stories, that the healing power of story cannot be stressed enough. This is what Liza demanded.