To speak about certain pains is also to remember them.
And in the act of remembering we are called to relive,
to know again much that we would suppress and forget.
—bell hooks, Sisters of the Yam
On a cold January evening in 1990, my daughter Iris came to visit with her three-month-old son. She was unusually quiet, almost withdrawn, so I asked if anything was wrong. “No, Mom, I’m fine,” she replied. But as she answered, she clutched the baby to her breast, almost unnoticeably.
From across the kitchen table, I saw red marks on her neck. “What are you doing with all them hickies?” I asked. She just shrugged and looked down, embarrassed.
A couple of weeks later, I saw fresh marks. Iris’s skin is smooth and creamy like chocolate pudding, and it was painful to see her beauty marred. The aching sensation I had the first time returned to the pit of my stomach, but again I ignored it.
The next time I saw her, she told me her milk had dried up. I couldn’t help remembering that day twenty years ago when I took her to my breast. She had sucked hungrily, desperately, then turned away screaming as though she was in great pain. I walked her and cuddled her, then tried to nurse her again. I checked to see if her diaper needed changing, then tried once more. Finally, as a last resort I squeezed my nipples only to find that my milk had disappeared.
As I looked at my daughter now, I didn’t want to—no, I refused—to pay attention to the thoughts that kept begging me to listen to what was going on in my mind.
That night I tossed and turned for a long time, recalling the hands of her own father, Bob, around my throat. I remembered him coming at me as I held Iris in my arms; she was so tiny, hadn’t even begun to crawl yet. I remembered how I threw myself down on the bed face first, almost smothering her, to shield her from the blows that came down on me. And I remembered my doctor, who had been giving me Vitamin B injections, saying that stress was what had caused my milk to stop flowing.
I wanted to help but didn’t know how to bring the subject up, afraid of what her answer might be if I asked the question. What mother wants to know that her daughter is suffering, that history is being repeated?
I left my ex-husband at the age of thirty and drove through the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina with a black eye, a broken jaw, and my kids huddled together in the back seat of the car to get back to the safety of Mama and Minnesota. I spent the next ten years in poverty, raising my children alone.
I thought I was showing my daughters that they didn’t have to put up with abuse. I thought I was teaching them that going through tough economic times was better than living with danger. At the same time, I wanted my sons to know that if they don’t treat their wives well, they would more than likely lose them.
SOME DAYS LATER, Iris came over for dinner with the baby and her boyfriend. Twice, when he tried to pick up his infant son, the baby screamed as though he were dying. I saw the tall young man’s jaws tighten as he glared at my daughter, blaming her for the breach between him and his son. I called her into my room. “What is going on?” I asked. She wouldn’t look at me, just sat there wringing her hands and looking down at the floor.
The next day she called me from a phone booth and begged me to come and get her. Her boyfriend had beaten her up, kicked her out of the apartment, and threatened to kill her if she tried to take the baby.
I called the cops, then rushed to meet her, my head pounding with the memory of Bob’s abuse when he transferred it from me to our children. I wondered why the example I thought I had given my daughter hadn’t taken hold, and why it is that each generation needs to learn its own lessons, no matter what parents try to pass on to them. Mostly, I was grateful that Iris only lived a few blocks away so she wouldn’t have to wait long for me to get there.
I will never forget the sight of the girl who waited for me in front of the restaurant on the corner of Twenty-sixth and Lyndale. Anxious for the light to turn green, I watched as she stood alone shivering in the cold, her clothes torn, and her face bloody. Car after car drove by, and people walked past, glanced at her, and kept going. No one stopped to offer help. Years later, Tania would tell me that she learned in her college sociology class that there’s a name for this phenomenon: bystander apathy.
While we waited for the police, my arms tightly around her, I thought back to that night in North Carolina when I stood in front of the magistrate’s desk pleading for help, my face as bloody as my daughter’s was now. The balding man who sat like a stone behind his desk just shook his head.
“Sorry, girlie,” he said, barely looking up from the papers on his desk. “Can’t help you. Go on back home and be a good girl.” I couldn’t help wondering what it was that stood between him and my blood that stopped him from helping me. Had he beaten his wife before coming to work that night? Was her blood on his hands?
Finally, two police cars arrived and escorted Iris and me to the apartment to retrieve the baby. My heart thumped hard and my hands shook as I waited for the boy to obey their command to open the door. What if he had harmed the baby?
I’m sure those cops expected the door to be flung open by an angry young Black man, high on crack, probably pointing a gun at them. But when my grandson’s father stood in the doorway, dressed in jeans and a dirty T-shirt, nervously raking his fingers through his pale blond hair and peered at them with defiant blue eyes, the cops cleared their throats and shuffled their feet. And I was relieved that he was holding the gurgling baby in the crook of his left arm as though nothing had happened.
The lead cop could hardly get the words out of his mouth to order the young man to turn the baby over to his mother. The boy pushed his glasses up onto the bridge of his freckled nose and declared, as he gave Iris the baby, “I don’t know why she called you. This is her fault.”
After we got home, Iris told me that the boy, the son of a wealthy Ohio family, had been holding her hostage with the threat that he would take the baby away from her if she ever tried to leave him.
“You wouldn’t stand a chance,” he taunted. “I’m a rich white guy and you’re just a poor Black girl. All my father has to do is call one of his lawyers, and you’ll never see that baby again.”
It hadn’t occurred to Iris to question his threats. She just assumed that whiteness plus money equals power, and that she had no choice but to stay.
In an effort to comfort and strengthen her, I reminded her of the meeting I had with the boy’s father earlier in the year. Because his parents so strongly disapproved of becoming grandparents to a child of mixed blood, I suspected that he had come to Minneapolis to offer her money for an abortion. I knew she wanted the baby, so I told her to arrange for me to meet with him. She shouldn’t have to face him alone.
“I wanted him to know,” I reminded her now, “that even though we are Black and are not wealthy, you have a family who loves you and that I am a force to be reckoned with.”
I never found out if my suspicions were correct; the issue never came up. Instead, we sat around a table in the restaurant at the Holiday Inn where the man was staying, a very odd foursome: Iris and her boyfriend gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes while his father, a chunky nondescript man in a gray suit, sat next to me.
After a while, he reached into his pocket and pulled out three chunks of metal, each a different size, shape, and color. He became animated as he talked about his job as the international vice president of his company.
“This,” he said, referring to the octagonal piece, “is a sample of a highly refined copper.” His eyes shone like the metal as he played with it, turning it until it hit the right angle to reflect the dim light in the restaurant.
Stunned, I tried to bring the conversation back to the kids. I needed to broach the subject of the baby. All he said, though, was, “My son can’t even take care of himself, let alone a baby,” and quickly went on talking about his work, showing me the silver-colored piece.
“And here’s a piece of stainless steel. You probably have knives made of this.”
As he droned on about his carbon and titanium products, I looked from him to his son and wondered what kind of childhood the boy must have had if his father loves chunks of metal more than a human being.
During the weeks that Iris and the baby stayed with me, I convinced her that since the boyfriend had a police record and was addicted to crack, he would never be able to gain custody of the baby. For further assurance, she called the baby’s pediatrician, who said she would testify, if necessary, that my daughter was a good mother.
I was disappointed but not surprised when his pleas and promises to change convinced her to go back. And of course it wasn’t long before he picked up where he had left off. By this time, Iris was pregnant again, but the truth eventually sunk in. If she stayed with him, her life and her children’s lives could be in danger. Finally, she left him for good.
She did an excellent job raising her two children as a single parent. Trent and Tess are in their late twenties now. Trent is studying to become a pilot and Tess was recently named one of fifteen “Up-and-Coming PR and Social Media Marketers to Watch.” Unfortunately, their father was killed in a car accident. Iris made many efforts to connect with his parents while the children were growing up; she sent school pictures every year as well as birthday and Christmas cards. Her persistent endeavors paid off after their son’s death: Trent and Tess now have good relations with their paternal grandparents and their father’s siblings.