Short story from Sheryl Bize-Boutte

PLATEAU

Miss Pennwender was late. 

The five of us in her first period American Government class were not particularly worried at first.  After all, she was a total flower girl hippie, the young white woman icon of that day in 1968, and we knew she liked to smoke a bit.  Sometimes we could smell it on her clothes or in her hair. We all loved her in our own ways. We all knew she loved us and wanted the best for us.  She came prepared each day to make sure we had everything we needed to excel in her class and to ace our college entrance exams. She didn’t just teach us the basic elements of American Government, she taught us the background and history and atmosphere of it all. She was unlike any teacher we had ever had and our bonds with her and hers with us, although never verbally expressed, were strong.

So, on this day, it was just not right that she was not standing in her usual place at the door when we arrived. Things felt tilted and out of balance as we took our usual seats in the portable classroom. Maybe she was just held up in traffic or had overslept, we reasoned with each other. In the beginnings of her lateness, we didn’t entertain any other options.

We sat there just waiting, not speaking as five minutes passed and too quickly became ten.  And even at that mark of time, in our know- everything- overconfident youthfulness we remained certain in our assumptions about her not being on time. After all, we were the “smart” kids, the “gifted” students who had been specifically chosen to be in Miss P’s accelerated college prep twelfth grade class at our Oakland, California high school.  This was no small accomplishment in our white flight neighborhood where being deemed as smart or gifted was a designation bestowed on students at our school less and less.  

While old yearbooks would reveal that almost half of the student body had been inducted into the National Honor Society, and two-thirds were enrolled in special college preparatory classes, this year, only the five of us out of twelve hundred students at our now mixed-race school, had “tested” smart enough to be placed in Miss P’s and other such courses.  We had been hastily assembled in the principal’s office at the beginning of our senior year and without looking directly at us, he mumbled to us that we had “fallen” into the “genius” category on our intelligence testing from the year before and would be taking “special” courses designed for “high achievers” like us.  It all seemed fairly messy and felt as if we had been notified at the last minute, and unwillingly.

We were an interesting group, to say the least. There were the Japanese twins, tall and angular Steve and Mark Tanuki; red-haired and introverted white girl Adelaide Morrison; blond and overly muscular football star Jimmy Fargo; and me, the talkative sandy-haired Black girl.  Sometimes there were four of us who wondered why and how Jimmy got into the class, but we didn’t dwell on it.

Soon enough, the ten minutes became fifteen, the universal cutoff for waiting for a teacher.  For some reason, we didn’t budge. We didn’t even look at each other.  We knew something unsaid. The tilt became more pronounced as we struggled to remain patient.  We knew things did not feel exactly right this day, the discomfort prompting nervous chatter.

“She will be here soon,” Steve said.

“Yes, any minute,” I said.

Adelaide began pacing the floor in the back of the classroom.

“Will you please stop that walking, Adelaide?” Jimmy said a little too loudly, making us all look over at him. “Your footsteps are driving me…”

Before he could finish his sentence, Miss P burst through the door, all shawls and straight middle-parted long brown hair, red-faced, sweaty and looking a bit crazed. In her right hand was set of Volkswagen bus keys.

 In her left hand was an 18-inch-long metal pipe.

“Guys and girls, get your things!” She said breathlessly, a small bit of spittle spray escaping her thin, dry lips. “We are going on a field trip!”

Without a second thought, we gathered our bags and books and followed her down the hall and out to her VW bus, haphazardly parked right in front of our classroom building.  Somehow, she had driven past the gated and fenced teacher’s parking lot and through the school grounds to pick us up.  We were so excited to be doing something out of the ordinary with our freewheeling teacher and going on what we thought was a field trip, it would only seem out of character when we looked back.

We happily piled into the VW. 

“Don’t worry,” Miss P said.  “I will have you all back by the 3:05 bell.”

Off we went.  Miss P’s VW bus allowed us a comfortable and scenic ride. The 580 freeway took us through town and then on to other cities along the way.  We talked, laughed and pointed out familiar landmarks as they passed.  I even showed everyone the exit my family took to get to my grandmother’s house in Richmond.  By the time we passed that landmark, everything else was new territory to all of us except Miss P and Jimmy, both of whom seemed to know much more about places further north from Oakland.

Soon we reached the San Rafael bridge.  It would be the first time I; the twins or Adelaide had crossed it and we paid attention to every bump and window view. After a little more than an hour of driving, we finally reached our destination, Point Reyes National Seashore.

We all disembarked from the VW bus, looking at each other quizzically.  Was this some kind of nature lesson? And if so, what did it have to do with American Government?  Her keys secured into her macrame shoulder bag, lead pipe in her right hand, Miss P turned to look back at us briefly and began swiftly walking toward an incline. We could clearly see the plateau near the top. Like sheep, we followed her.  We climbed along with her and didn’t say a word until we reached the grassy top.

The view of the ocean was magnificent.  It took what little breath we had left away and then its stunning beauty gave it back to us full force.  The waves were calm and dancing against the shore like ballerinas in a choreographed line.  It was a special place.  We knew we were here for a significant reason.

“Come and sit with me,” Miss P. said.  Her brown hair was glinting in the sun, pushed back the slight breeze with rhythmic timing. Her face was drained of color.  Her eyes seemed vacant.

“He hit him with the pipe,” she said as she held it up to the sunlight.

“That pipe?” I asked.

“Yes.”

 We all really looked at the pipe then.  There was a red stain on one end we had not noticed before.

“Where, when?” Steve and Mark asked in unison.

Below, even though we could no longer see them from where we sat, we knew the waves were silently breaking against the rocks. Surely, they would soften and cleanse everything we were about to hear.

“At the club last night.” Miss P had her head in her hands and began to moan as she rocked back and forth.  We instinctively drew closer and surrounded her.  We didn’t know yet what had happened, but we did know it was hurting Miss P and that she needed us. We didn’t know what to say to her, so we just closed in on her so she could feel us there.  After a while she raised her head and looked at each of us.  Her eyes were filled with tears. Her voice was weak and thready when she spoke.

“His name is Lamont.  He is the love of my life. That man hit him with the pipe.  He said to me white girl why are you with that spook? He said I have been watching you come in here with him.  Then he hit him with the pipe and dropped it where Lamont fell. He said you won’t be with him again bitch.

I don’t know why I picked it up. I don’t remember much except leaving the hospital this morning.”

She looked up at the sky.  She let go of the pipe and let it settle in the deep grass.

“Well, how is Lamont?” I asked.

Miss P just looked at me and dropped her head.  Then she walked slowly to the edge of the plateau.  We followed.  I grabbed her hand.  Jimmy took her other hand.  The rest joined hands and we just stood there together looking at the waves kiss the shore. They were gray and silty now.

Now we knew why she had brought us here. Of all the people she could have chosen for this moment when she needed someone the most, she had chosen us.

And as we stood there, afraid and worried for a man we had never even met, we felt Miss P’s palatable love for Lamont.  Although in different ways, and for different reasons, on that day we all felt the ugliness, bigotry, tragedy and horrid meaning of what had been done to him.

We heard the roar before we saw it. The waves had become all foam and fierceness. They hit the rocks below with such force the plateau seemed to move backward.

When the spray hit us as we stood there together, we all knew Lamont was gone.

“Well, I said I would have you back by the 3:05 bell,” Miss P said as she disengaged from our hands.

We walked back to the VW bus.  We rode back full of our own thoughts about what had happened. Everyone was sad.  Miss P was silent.  I was angry.  So, so angry.

We reached the school at 3:00 and stepped out of the VW bus.  Miss P hugged and kissed us all.

When the 3:05 bell rang out with a screeching finality, we watched as Miss P turned from us and walked slowly away, climbing into and starting up the VW.  

And with what would be her final wave to us, and ours to her, we watched wordlessly as Miss Pennwender drove away.

Pushcart Prize nominee Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte is an Oakland multidisciplinary writer whose autobiographical and fictional short story collections, along with her lyrical and stunning poetry, artfully succeed in getting across deeper meanings about the politics of race and economics without breaking out of the narrative.  Her writing has been variously described as “rich in vivid imagery,” “incredible,” and “great contributions to literature.” Her first novel, “Betrayal on the Bayou,” was published in June 2020 and a poetry collection she has written with her daughter Dr. Angela M. Boutte, titled “No Poetry No Peace,” was published in August 2020.  She is also a popular literary reader, presenter, storyteller, curator and emcee for local events.

Upcoming novel excerpt from Sheryl Bize-Boutte

Excerpted from Betrayal on the Bayou

Copyright©2020 by Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte

Oliver Charles turned five and it was time for him to go to school. He and Celeste had become inseparable as Celeste had begun and remained as his main caregiver. It was unthinkable to Margot that they would be separated into two different schools; Oliver Charles at Miss Tindal’s with the other Free children of Color, or with Celeste at the Tassin School with the White children. It was a major dilemma that neither Margot nor Emile had considered until it was time to choose a school. Margot had always assumed that Oliver Charles would join his half-sister at Tassin School because of his White skin and straight hair. Except for the shape of his face and his overall gentle manner, she saw little trace of herself in him and thought he would get by with just being known as Emile’s son.

To her hurtful surprise, Emile did not see it that way.

“Oliver Charles is half Black. He can’t go to the Tassin School,” Emile calmly explained.

“Oliver Charles must go to the Tassin School! He looks White enough! His father is White!” Margot yelled.

“It doesn’t matter what he looks like Margot. Everyone knows you are his mother.”

“Nothing matters except what he looks like, Emile. This entire town is built on what people look like.”

“Now you know that is not entirely true. If it were there are several who would not be in the positions they are in,” Emile laughed.

“Don’t make light of this Emile. It is a serious thing. You should be concerned about the quality of your son’s education.”

“He’s five, Margot! His education is hardly an issue at this point.”

“This is when it begins, Emile! This is his foray into the world! It must be right at the beginning or it never will be!”

“Oh, I am sure, Emile continued in his nonchalant tone, that his education will not make a difference in his life. He is good looking like his father. If he keeps his wits about him and figures things out as he goes along, he will do just fine. Tassin or Tindal won’t make a difference for him as a man.”

Margot was near tears as she screamed again at Emile, “It will make all the difference in the world for him Emile. There’s no need to try to explain it to you. Tassin or Tindal will make all the difference in the world to him and to Celeste.”

“How on earth does it affect Celeste?”

“Emile,” Margot shakily continued, “Up until now, not many would have said that Celeste has a Black brother. If he is sent to Tindal, that is what they will say. If you separate them that will be their proof.”

“Please, Margot. That is ridiculous. They think of you as her mother.”

“No. No they don’t. She does, but they don’t.”

Emile was growing more and more exasperated with this discussion. For him it was just a ridiculous complaint that never ended. He looked over at Margot with annoyance.

“Well what do they think of you as, Margot? What?”

“They think of me as the crazy, wild haired, Black lady who lives with the rich White man.

They think of me as the free Creole who lives in a house next to the same house of the rich White man’s wife.

They think of me as the colored woman who takes care of the rich White man and his children.”

“But you are wealthy in your own right!”

“Ah, many of them think of that as a mistake of the universe that can be corrected at any time.”

“You should think more of yourself, Margot.”

“I know my living truth, Emile. You not wanting to send Oliver Charles to Tassin School is my living truth.”

“Oh, Margot, you are overwrought about this!” Emile said, his voice slightly raised. “It is not that serious a thing! Oliver Charles can go to school anywhere!”

“But as a man of power in this town, if you don’t insist that he go to the Tassin School he won’t be able to go!”

“Well, I am flattered that you think I am a man of power in Tassin, but I am afraid my dear you have been terribly misled. While she rarely interferes with my life, for various reasons, it is Marie who holds the power here.”

Most of the time Emile was more than happy to have people think he was the town patriarch except on those occasions when he was confronted with a situation he found unpleasant or something he did not want to do. In either of those instances he would acquiesce to Marie and avoid all action or decision. Margot knew the conversation was over when he threw the power to Marie. She also knew that she could not give up. It was imperative that Oliver Charles go to the Tassin School. The rest of his life depended upon it.

Short story from Sheryl Bize-Boutte

THE DRESS   

By

Sheryl J. Bize Boutte

 

By the mid 1960’s my parents had four school-aged daughters to support and a fifth change-of –life daughter on the way. Birthday and Christmas gifts often supplemented outgrown or worn out school clothes along with the begged for doll, bike or skates.  Sometimes we got something special; something homemade, handed down or handed over that always brought a unique and precious feel to the celebration.

It was in this tradition on Christmas Day in 1966, while the color wheel changed the aluminum tree from blue to green to red and back again, my mother handed me a gold- ribboned box.  Inside was a simple frock; a multi-colored, multi-flowered shirtwaist dress with a wide belt and full skirt.  A gently worn hand-me-down from one of my mother’s wealthy acquaintances, the bottom of the hem hit just below my knobby knees and fit my unfinished 15-year-old body to a “T.” Even though it was a spring dress, I could not wait to wear it to school.  My fingers were already turning the front doorknob, as my mother’s voice admonished, “Girl, don’t you know it is JANUARY? You are going to catch pneumonia in that thin little dress!” But I was halfway down the street and about to round the corner on my usual path to my freshman year in high school before she could finish her second sentence. My inaugural wearing of this dress would also be the day a 17-year old boy would look out of his window from the 3rd house on the right and see me for the first time.

I knew I probably wore that dress much too often, but I had never had anything like it. It had the power to make my teenage self feel like a big gown up lady and became the favorite in my sparse wardrobe.  It also made that boy wait for me to pass his house each day and then fall into step behind me.  Stealthy and silent, he walked behind me for the five blocks to school for the rest of the school year. A bookworm and a loner, totally inside my own head as I made my way, I never thought to look back.

On a late summer day, after almost a year of following me after I rounded the corner, the forces emanating from that dress with me in it, would give that boy the courage to ring my doorbell and introduce himself.  “Hi, I’m Anthony from around the corner. Does the girl with the flowery dress live here?” he asked my sister who answered the door.  With her usual eye roll she answered, “ You must be looking for Sheryl.  She is always wearing that old-timey dress.”  She called to me to come to the door and from that day forward the boy from around the corner became my boyfriend and soon after that, my fiancé.

On a beautiful spring day in 1971, we married in the living room of my family home with only our parents, my grandmother and a few friends in attendance.  Still waiflike at age nineteen, my wedding dress was an elegant non-flowery peach chiffon and silk, the perfect compliment to my new husband’s ruffled peach shirt and coordinating bowtie. Our reception consisted of post-wedding photos taken in my parent’s park-like backyard, while our few guests dined on crust-less tuna and chicken salad sandwiches cut into little squares accompanied by Mum’s extra dry champagne.

Settling into married life was automatic for us and as though it was always meant to be.  I finished college and my husband was at my graduation along with my parents.  Soon after I began my career with the government while my husband continued his climb in the building industry and finished his degree.  During this time, the dress became so faded the flowers were barely visible, and so threadbare it was no longer wearable. Tearfully, I threw it away.

As the years passed, my husband would often come home on my birthday, our anniversary or Christmas with a ribbon-tied box containing an exquisite dress, suit or even shoes, from a small boutique he claimed as his territory for his gifts to me.  Once he presented me with a beautiful white suit and when I asked what the occasion was, he replied, “Because its Tuesday.” He always chose the correct size and only stopped the practice when his boutique of choice went out of business.  But of all the wonderful articles of clothing he purchased, the dress, or anything like it, was never among them.

Then one rainy December day in 1976, during one of my shopping trips through the annual major department store Christmas wish book I saw it; a multi-flowered shirtwaist dress with a white background, a full skirt and a wide belt. It did not matter to me that Christmas was near and I was ordering a dress from the catalogue’s preview for spring, I had to have it and ordered it right away. When it arrived I was a bit disappointed to find that the fabric had an unworn stiffness to it and therefore not as soft as the original, the flowers were not as vibrant as they had appeared in the catalogue picture, and the belt was a skinnier version of its predecessor.  But after so many years of dress drought, I decided this dress and I would make a pact to stay together, even though we both knew the relationship would never be ideal.

My husband loved me in this dress even though I knew it for the poseur it was. And because he loved it, I wore it to work and out to dinner.  I wore to the movies and to the supermarket.   I wore it with a shawl in the spring and with boots and a jacket in the winter. I continued to wear it after our daughter was born in 1977 and was surprised, yet happy that after I punched an extra hole in the belt for just a bit more room, it continued to fit. I wore it through my daughter’s early school years and into her entry to junior high.  After she told me how much she liked it, I wore it even more. Still, through all of that, this dress could not convince me that it was the one.

Since I could never get enough of how happy it made my family, over time the dress and I had settled into an easy truce. I came to accept the fact that it could not help me to recapture the feelings I had when I wore the anointed original.  And it seemed to know that although it was not the dress, my family’s reactions would make it a most treasured piece in my by now, extensive and often talked about wardrobe.

Then one day, after 19 years of wear, I put the dress on and discovered I could no longer easily button it, and had run out of room for more belt holes. In defiance, I buttoned it and fastened the belt anyway, breaking a fingernail to the quick as I did so. The dress countered my orders for its cooperation with sharp and intense rib pain and taking away my ability to breathe.  We stood at loggerheads in the mirror for a few seconds before I gave in and feverishly began to free myself from its grip.  My disappearing waistline and the dress had finally conspired to betray me.  With mixed emotions I knew we would have to part ways.

Time went by and dresses with magic flowers and full skirts were often sought but not found. Over the years, I tried to replicate that special dress many times over, but it always ended in disappointment and eventual rejection; sometimes by me, but more often by the dress as the Body Mass Index continued its upward climb. Along the way, I happened upon beige and brown flowered silk shirtwaist and I bought it, but like the substitute garden scene dress I had previously outgrown, it was just not the same. I even tried other styles, and I felt I looked just fine, but I felt nothing extraordinary when they draped my frame and somehow that just continued to feel like a requirement.

From time to time, I would still pine for that original long-lost dress and the power it had to make a shy boy follow me to school, my daughter smile, and strangers stop to tell me how great I looked. Even though I was loved well, had a happy home and fulfilling work, I still wanted the all the dress had given me.

In 1995, our daughter went off to college and we became empty nesters. We moved on with life and the blessings of family and love continued as the years passed without the dress. Then on Christmas Day in 2010, my husband presented me with a golden box wrapped with a golden bow.  We had decided not to buy gifts that year, because we felt so blessed, so I was both surprised at the gift and annoyed that he had broken the pact. In the middle of a hot flash with lips pursed, I launched into my protest, “But I thought we weren’t going to…” I was stopped in mid-sentence when my smiling husband and daughter said in unison, “ Just open it!”  Their smiles grew wider and wider as I pushed through the tissue paper labeled “Zell’s Vintage” and opened the box.

Inside was a simple frock.

A multi-colored, multi-flowered shirtwaist dress with a wide belt and a full skirt.

The Dress was back for Christmas.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Sheryl J. Bize Boutte

 

This story was originally published by Harlequin Publications in their 2013 holiday story collection “A Kiss Under The Mistletoe” by Jennifer Basye Sander, and in my 2014 book, “A Dollar Five: Stories From a Baby Boomers Ongoing Journey” available at Amazon.com and other booksellers

 

https://www.amazon.com/Dollar-Five-Stories-Boomers-Ongoing/dp/149938310X/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=14

 

Short story by Sheryl Bize-Boutte

Uncle Martina

I don’t know why Daddy brought me with him to Uncle Martin’s house that day or even remember whether it was just he and I, but there we were, standing on the curb edge squinting into the sun, waiting for Uncle Martin to cross the street.  Dressed in an un-tucked flowy white shirt and severely creased beige slacks, Uncle Martin was looking back nervously over his shoulder as he slowly made his way across the yard and on to the sidewalk carrying a small raggedy suitcase containing what he would later tell me were his “essentials.”

Much later, I would understand that Daddy was the logical one to be there that day.  He and Uncle Martin had been close since the day Daddy married his only sister, my mom.  Uncle Martin took one more quick look over his shoulder just before his foot hit the black asphalt of the street.  Standing in a stiff row behind him were the family he was leaving, an angry wife and three children; a girl aged 10 and two boys aged 7 and 5.  The girl stood solidly beside her mother trying her best to mimic her adult fury, while the oldest boy simply looked lost and confused.  The youngest boy, who looked nothing like Uncle Martin, had a look on his face that coincided with his mismatch, that of utter detachment.

In the middle of the street now, car engine running, Daddy called out, “Come on man, let’s go.  It’s hot as hell and I’m wasting gas here!”

With that, Uncle Martin wound his long slender fingers into a tighter grip around the fragile suitcase handle and sauntered in extended elegant strides to mom’s humming, brand new 1962 Chevy “Big Rider.” Daddy grabbed Uncle Martin’s shoulder and squeezed it, which made Uncle Martin lower his head and smile a strange combination of devastation and relief.  We all piled onto the new car smell green leather seats, and with Daddy and Uncle Martin in the front and me in the back, Daddy pulled away from the curb.

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Short story by Sheryl Bize-Boutte

Chosen

noun: immigrant; plural noun: immigrants
a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.  (Google dictionary)

“Most don’t think of adoptees as immigrants. They don’t arrive by what we have come to believe are the current means of immigration. They are, after all, chosen.” –Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte

I vividly remember when I first saw her.  I was seven and she was eight. Her yellow petticoated dress glowed amber in the sunlight behind her as though she had arrived on a sunbeam. Although the almost blinding light obscured her facial features, I could see that her dark straight hair was neatly parted down the middle, providing a pathway for the two thick long braids that lightly brushed her waist.  But it was her welcoming smile that broke through all of that with a singular brightness of its own and captivated me immediately.

It was her first day in America. The unwanted child of a Japanese woman and an African American soldier, she had been among the countless babies who had been abandoned at orphanages in Japan after the war.  Having no children of their own, my career Army godfather and godmother had adopted her on one of their many trips to Japan. By the time she and I would meet for the first time, her Japanese name had been erased and replaced with the name Cassandra.

As I moved closer to her to get a better look, her smile never wavered.  She spoke little English at the time, but we did not need words. My godmother stepped in between us and handed each of us a small jewelry box. We simultaneously opened them to find matching rings she had purchased on a recent trip to Istanbul. Grinning, we each put on our rings and in that sunbathed impromptu ceremony we became sisters for life. On that day, it never occurred to me that this meeting and the rings had been in the planning stages for some time.

We spent our childhoods playing together whenever our parents visited each other.  We missed each other when we were apart but had no control over our meeting frequency.  Cassandra remained very much Japanese, quietly keeping her own counsel, while she slowly explored her African American heritage.  Sometimes she would show me her photo album from the orphanage, full of the mixed race children that Japanese mothers did not want or could not keep. My godparents had chosen her out of all of those unwanted Amerasian children looking expectantly into the camera lens, with eyes full of hope and longing. I often found myself looking more at the beautiful Japanese clothing they wore to avoid those eyes. With the exception of showing me the album once in a while, Cassandra rarely spoke of her time in the orphanage or of her biological parents.

Much later I would learn that Cassandra had been born in Gifu City, Japan, known as the “crossroads of Japan” due to its location in the center of the country.  It would be this central location that would cause Gifu City to be the target of relentless and heavy bombing during World War II. During the American “occupation” and reconstruction of Japan from1947 to 1952, thousands of mixed race children were born to U. S. servicemen and Japanese women. Cassandra was one of these children.

Some of the Japanese mothers simply left their mixed race, mainly African American-Japanese, or as they were called “hofu” children on the street.  Many were taken to the Elizabeth Saunders Home, a Christian orphanage founded in 1948 by Miki Sawada and named for her major benefactor, Elizabeth Saunders. This orphanage specialized in the placement of unwanted African American-Japanese children with American families. The thought at the time was there was no possible way to assimilate these “hofu” children into Japanese society; they were simply not wanted. For Miki Sawada, that meant they had to be rescued and returned to their native land in America.

Although I don’t know whether Cassandra was a resident of the Elizabeth Saunders Home, I now think it is very likely she was, and I may have been looking at an album of pictures from that very orphanage on my visits with her. In that sea of smiling and longing faces, I may have been looking at a little girl who was then known by her Japanese name, Masako.

As we grew, we became solid “God sisters,” and as budding teenagers, spent countless hours steaming our faces with hot washcloths to banish breakouts. We used gallons of Noxzema and thought of it as a miracle cure. Even though I don’t remember it really doing much to banish the bumps, we reveled in the routine and the promises made on the jar. We always swore we looked better after one of our “treatments.” We had many sleepovers at her house; I don’t remember her ever coming to mine.  That was fine with me. I did not want to share her with my four younger sisters anyway and besides, I got to be the little sister when I was with her.

We both met the loves of our lives in our late teens and made our entries into early womanhood during the Black Power movement of the 1970’s. Under strict parental orders to shun militancy, we were simultaneously frightened and enthralled by changes taking place and wore dashikis and black leather jackets to support the cause. With the danger infected courage of the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton in our surrounding atmosphere, I served as her matron of honor while my new husband played the conga drums at her African themed wedding.

She was the first to have a child and would have four to my one.  We both would get college degrees: mine in English and hers in Child Development.  With her degree in hand she started a daycare business called San’s Childcare.  My then baby daughter would be among the first to receive the benefits of her loving care.  She became my daughter’s second mother and instilled many valuable traits from infancy through early teenage years.  When I was climbing the work ladder, it was Cassandra who supported me in teaching my daughter many things woman and many things strong.  When I could not be there, Cassandra made sure that all was well at school, the homework was done, the scratched knee was bandaged and the meals were healthy. She was a precious gift sent to accompany me on that vital part of my motherhood journey. My daughter was a part of her family and we both knew we were blessed to be in her presence.

All too soon the children would grow up and Cassandra would decide to retire from the childcare business.  The children she had taken under her wing had all arrived as infants and reached their preteen years at the same time. The time had come for them to leave the nest and fly on their own.

On one of my last trips to pick up my daughter, I encountered Cassandra and her husband on the sidewalk in front of their house.  She was again back-lit by the bright sun and I could only see her outline, moving toward me with a slow and unfamiliar gait. As they got closer and her face came into view, I asked how they were doing.  “OK, she said.  I just have a little cancer.”

Matter of fact.

Just like that.

Everything stopped: The cars on the street were no longer moving; Charlie across the way was suspended halfway up his front stairs; the dogs next door ceased their incessant barking; everything but Cassandra fell away. She had to go in to the house and tell her children.  I had to tell my daughter. I told her she would be all right and that I was there to do anything she wanted. She hugged me and without looking back, walked up the steps and through her front door. She and my unknowing daughter passed each other at the threshold and hugged each other tight as they said their goodbyes. I held my tears until I arrived at home.

Cassandra fought her disease with all of her might.  When we would visit her in the hospital during and after her treatments, I would try my best to make her laugh.  But soon it became clear that the treatments were not having the desired effect.

And so, in an effort to save her, her husband moved Cassandra and their family to his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee where the world-renowned cancer specialists at Vanderbilt University could treat her. Things would go from good to bad again and back for some time until bad stayed much too long.

In what would be my last conversation with her, with the sounds of her children in the background, and barely able to speak, she told me there had to be something she could do.  That she did not want to just lie there and die.  I told her how much she meant and would always mean to me, from the day I saw her in the sunlight with the long braids and the smile. Then we laughed and talked about Noxzema and dashikis and how we both still had our rings and about being true sisters. I thanked her for sharing her light and helping to make my daughter the beautiful loving person she had become.  I told her I would always be there for her children as she had always been there for my child.  She took a breath and I could hear through my own tears that she was crying as well.  Then she said, “Thank you so much.  You don’t know how much your words mean to me. I love you.” “I love you too, Cassandra, I said, and I will see you later.”  Her last words before we hung up the phone, were, “I will see you later, too.”

Two days later, I received a tearful call from her youngest daughter.  All she said was, “Mommy didn’t make it.”  At the young age of 44, a loving wife, devoted mother and my treasured sister was gone.

As her children began to re-group and return to California, I have kept my promise to always be here for them. Although they are all grown up now with children of their own, and I don’t see them much, the bonds are strong and deeply rooted.

I think of my chosen sister often and miss her still.  And each day, with the rising sun, little Masako continues to share her light with us all.

Copyright©2018 by Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte

Poetry by Sheryl Bize-Boutte

THE 40 PARADOX

 

The hazy summer of the new millennium

Finds the four of us

Inching through the daily scramble of the 405

That finally lands us on Wilshire Boulevard

Mother, Father, Daughter, Nephew

We all look for movie stars at the corner Starbucks

Giddy that two are real enough to stop and chat

After compliments on latest movie

And our travel plans shared

Telling looks and “I have to go” smiles

Stage whisper we had lingered

as long as we could

 

No real relationships are solidified

Warm goodbyes float on the Westwood glitter

And the smoggy rumor of

A Los Angeles sun

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Poetry by Sheryl Bize-Boutte

Not As Sweet

This one is not as sweet

As the one before it

I was taken in by its good looks

The rich green color

The dark and perfect striping

I thumped it

Sniffed it

Weighed it in my hand

And then I took it home

With the first cut

The signs of heartbreak were there

Thick, tough and resistant to my instruments

It fought the quartering

Railed against separation from the rind

Exacted revenge by making me the fool

Tissue paper flesh should be discarded

But I am hungrily devoted

To the bland watery chunks

Tasteless and diluted as they may be

To partake is to be the same

Fighting the seduction of inviting aroma

And the whispers that outside pretty

Means the inside is just as

Because you know when they get together

They don’t always tell the truth

This one is not as sweet

As the one before it

And even knowing that

I sprinkle the sugar

And devour it anyway

Copyright © 2017 by Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte