Folks, I’ve never blown — now, now, this is a non-fiction blog post, not one of my Negrotica naughties — a trumpet or any other kind of horn. Well, unless a conch shell counts? I’ve blown a few deadlines, many chances, some fuses including ones in my brain, okay.

When I was a young girl stuck with a play-by-number organ, instead of gifted with a piano that must’ve dropped from my Christmas wish list — e-v-e-r-y year — while Santa Claus was either texting his head elf or sexting Mrs. C (or vice versa), my mind was blown upon watching “Soul Train” one Saturday morning: The band rocking out on Don Cornelius’ hip show was Sly and The Family Stone. (I was a kid; I knew nothing about lip syncing and instrument syncing back then.) However groovy and funky the frontman was, I was transfixed by Cynthia Robinson (pictured above within a photo of Sly and The Family Stone) showing the trumpet who’s boss. “Daddy, I didn’t think a girl could do that. Gee, wow!” Yeah, those were the days when lots of working-class families had one television (or only one color television), so the entire nuclear unit would be watching shows together. Those also were days when I used to exclaim in such geeky ways.

When the musical dynamics changed on “Stand,” I nearly lost my lil mind. Amid my father’s crisp fingersnaps sounding like the popping of fresh stringbeans and my choreography unbefitting of a Brownie, I never lost sight of my role model and heroine: Cynthia.

This past weekend, I had a good time viewing a rebroadcast of TVOne’s “Unsung” profile of reclusive musical genius Sly Stone during the dynamic cable network’s marathon of ninety-nine episodes. (Just a sampling of the unique, seven-year-old biographical series blows both A&E’s “Biography” and VH-1’s “Behind the Music” out of the broadcast journalism water.) As I was sitting riveted on my settee, and cussing every time the need for English subtitles arose during Sly’s raspy accounts of onstage performances and on-the-road antics, I was elated to see and listen to music legend Cynthia Robinson — one of the world’s first female trumpeters — providing her perspective of experiences as a key member of The Family Stone. After smiling at the still photo of  her with her then-school-aged daughter, I received a pleasant surprise when Cynthia got real in a sassy, Cheryl Lynn way on the topic of romancing the head stone.

“That was my man!” she said about Sly. It was like witnessing Cynthia transforming into a chick nearly fifty years younger because her face lit up like that of any assertive young woman boasting about her main squeeze. There she was, my first female idol — after my mother, grandmothers and my septuagenarian Puerto Rican baby-sitter — rolling forward and backward on her hips and rejoicing with laughter as she waxed rapturously about a true love. Methinks I spied upon the pearly whites of a victorious mistress. To be fair, and clear, she was commenting within the context of Sly being married at the time and, thus, she was acknowledging not being his woman.

Hmmm … How many Black women of various ages today are rising above the funk of spinster-style fatalism, choosing to share rather than despair? It’s not for me to judge any sista’s decision — conscious or subconscious — to ignore her boo’s tan line around a particular digit or, for that matter, to relish droppin’ it like it’s hot on the finger that his wife had “put a ring on it.” Whoah-ho-ho, all I’m saying, here, is that Cynthia — in love as in music — was ahead of her time. She owned it. Therefore, by living in the authenticity of her being, she rendered the word “mistress” an anachronism.

Never ever hard on the eye, Cynthia Robinson was, musically speaking too, a beautiful badass to the end. My only regret is never having the chance to see her featured with Prince in any live concert. As the Bard might say: To think, perchance to dream.

 

She would’ve turned seventy years young this coming January 12th. Rest in peace, Cynthia.

 

 

Text only: © 2015 Chantale Rêve  All Rights Reserved

Image result for death of trumpeter Cynthia RobinsonImage result for death of trumpeter Cynthia Robinson

Image result for death of trumpeter Cynthia Robinson


 Photo Credit (above):  Asterio Tecson

The first time I heard Whitney Houston’s voice, the song playing on an FM radio station was “You Give Good Love.” The year was 1985; the season, late spring. As a young woman barely out of her teens, I found Whitney’s sweet but throaty, gospel-trained alto the perfect vehicle for depicting the awe and beauty of falling in love, and the apprehension, courage and responsibility of being in love.

My paltry paycheck couldn’t come sooner. Once back home from the record store, with the Whitney Houston album spinning loveliness from my File:Whitney Houston - Whitney Houston (album).jpgturntable, I couldn’t get over the contradiction between the jacket’s front and back covers. On the front was a close-up of a fresh-faced girl like me wearing a pastel gown like a goddess of virtue and, flipped, was a full-length image of a leggy woman in a stunning white swimsuit posing like a sensuous warrior at the ocean’s edge.

At the age I was then, Whitney’s songbird voice spirited me through my academic weekdays and crisp, green weekends. In those days of firsts — pink-frosted feathery haircuts, lipstick, kisses, miniskirts, lingerie, nightclubs, concerts, and forbidden invitations — life transformed into rainbow colors as soon as the needle dropped to the vinyl or the chunky “Play” button was pressed on the Walkman.

When the straight, popular girls (read: big-busted skanks) would snatch away the straight and bisexual normal boys, the only guy I had to hold me was a figment of my imagination. That was OK, though, because all I had to do was shut the door to the attic, snap my fingers to summon my fairy godsista, Whitney, and “dance with somebody who loves me.”

The Greatest Love of All

Image via Wikipedia

Back then, whether a record or an artist won a Grammy didn’t matter to me. As long as the music moved my bottom half — heaven forbid if the lyrics also stirred my soul, as in “Thinking About You,” Whitney’s duet with synth maestro Kashif — I found kinetic bliss a prize worth pursuing. An undergrad degree was more difficult to achieve through a combo of unpredictable death benefits, an eleventh-hour grant that covered only senior-year textbooks, and a part-time night job the commute from which courted danger in a predominantly white section of town. With A Dirty Mind and Around the World in a Day bookending my freshman and senior years, it was a miracle that any schoolwork got done. Though, it was easy to understand how I got done. Seriously, Prince (before and during The Revolution), Whitney, Michael Jackson, Angela Bofill, Madonna and Eldra DeBarge all helped me get through college studies and some heavier stuff right at home.

Thanks to the conviction with which Whitney sang “Saving All My Love for You” and, in a duet with Jermaine Jackson, “Take Good Care of My Heart,” I had intuited a clue to love’s mystery and had received fair warning of the complex emotions that unfolded in relationships which catapulted my tenderoni self into adulthood. By the time Whitney was full-bodied, her mature pipes fluttering and “shooping” through “Exhale,” so was I.

When it came to covers, Whitney reshaped a song and made it her own. Several examples of Whitneyfied remakes include “The Greatest” (originally recorded by R&B-jazz singer-musician George Benson for the 1970s movie The Greatest, starring then-heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali) ; “Living for the Love of You” (The Isley Brothers); “I’m Every Woman” (Chaka Khan); “I Believe in You & Me” (from the soundtrack of The Preacher’s Wife [that film itself a reimagining of The Bishop’s Wife], and originally recorded by The Four Tops); and, as alluded to in the title of this blog post, the thematic song for the 1992 blockbuster film The Bodyguard: “I Will Always Love You” (written by and originally recorded by Dolly Parton).

Whitney Houston   -   Concert in Central Park ...

Whitney Houston – Concert in Central Park / Good Morning America 2009 (Photo credit: asterix611)

Over the past decade, it was refreshing to find Whitney — daughter of the legendary gospel and soul singer Cissy Houston, cousin of pop icon Dionne Warwick, and goddaughter of “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin — performing more gospel songs live and with verve. She was very much alive. She looked and sounded inspired. It’s not my place to judge whether her elated or dreamy expressions were from natural highs or recreational ones, for Whitney showed the world that, despite the various drug-related controversies and media witch hunts, she was but a humble servant of her Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is to Him I’d like to think her soul floated for divine comfort and joy, and eternal rest.

This weekend, Black Entertainment Television (BET) re-aired “Celebration of Gospel,” from 2011, in which Whitney surprised the on-site and television audiences by stepping onstage in a pretty, gray dress to join the legendary Kim Burrell for a stirring gospel duet. The riveting encore moved emcee Steve Harvey, too. I had watched the excellent program when it was first broadcast, and its appearance on my TV set on February 12th led me to the news announcement, during commercial breaks, of the tragedy. My fairy godsista, Whitney, was gone.

I didn’t learn of the much-adored yet widely maligned pop icon’s passing until today — Sunday — because over a sixteen-hour period I had been sketching and writing the short story “Mixed Signals” for my Negrotica blog. I usually don’t believe in coincidences, but it’s an eerie one that around the time Whitney was reported to have died (according to the news I viewed on BET and CNN today, February 12th), I had incorporated the emotional relevance of her song “Run to You,” from The Bodyguard soundtrack, into the aforementioned short fiction.

Cover of "The Bodyguard (Special Edition)...

Cover of The Bodyguard (Special Edition)

Whitney’s film career was launched in 1992 with The Bodyguard, a romantic thriller that I loved then and now in spite of a plot which has more holes than a thin slice of Swiss cheese. No disrespect to her co-star, the gifted and handsome actor Kevin Costner, but the movie (co-produced by Costner) turned into a critical vehicle for Whitney Houston and revitalized her pop music image. According to Wikipedia, Lawrence Kasdan, The Bodyguard’s screenwriter and a co-producer, had pegged Steve McQueen and Diana Ross for the leading roles back in the ’70s, when he scripted the film. As a gi-normous Harrison Ford aficionada, I didn’t need Wikipedia to inform me that Kasdan wrote the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi.

Although Whitney’s model good looks were taken for granted in The Bodyguard, the woman was incredibly sexy and portrayed the seducer, which for me was a first for a Black actress in a major motion picture involving an interracial romance as a subplot. Were it not for Whitney’s alluring crescents for eyes, expressive lips, serpentine movements and earthy charm, there would’ve been no credible chemistry between the “Queen of the Night” and her protector, and no basis for the 360° farewell kiss at film’s end. Midfilm, though, Costner’s Frank Farmer had my cheeks burning when he taught Houston’s Rachel Marron a horizontal lesson about tinkering with a sharp sword.

Having let down his guard and agreed with (t)horny Rachel to give her an authentic dating experience, he invited her into his private world: his kind of bar, his kind of flick, his kind of fetish. One would think that the vintage Japanese film which they had viewed at the cinema in town was In the Realm of the Senses. (Surely I joust, you say? Hai, hai. Besides, Rachel’s neck scarf was worn loosely, and there was nary an egg in sight.) Experiencing Far Eastern cultural aftershocks from the samurai movie, Rachel gave herself the green light to pierce through to Frank’s sensual layer. While she certainly was no Black geisha, she approached her off-duty bodyguard’s mounted weapon with slippered poise.

Her demoted, incompetent bodyguard, Tony, had learned the hard way just how proficient Frank was with knives, but she was about to get the point of his fetish. Although she first had seduced Frank, she was now in his man-cave by his design, and he only needed to be lured to the edge of passion to take over the seduction. Executing a few, faux samurai moves, Rachel extended the sword like a temptress with penis envy. After halving her silk scarf like an illusionist’s act gone awry, he got her undivided attention. Awestruck and startled was she. Twinned with desire was he. Unheard but understood was his direction to his member to: “Chaaaaarge!”

Their suppressed, forbidden lust unsheathed, they were woman and man, no longer pop diva and bodyguard — at least not until dawn. Can any true appreciator of The Bodyguard forget how the camera slowly revealed Frank’s massive, long blade penetrating the crotch of Rachel’s dainty, lace, limp panties? Am I the only one who frankly didn’t give a damn that it was overkill when the camera next panned over to the bed, where the pair lay embracing each other in their afterglow? The bedroom was bathed in indigo blue; their faces, in blissful satisfaction (hers) and ambiguous regret (his).

For me, Frank’s perilous sword maneuver — his chivalric touché to Rachel’s initiation of foreplay — in The Bodyguard was the sexiest Kevin Costner scene since his smooches north and south on Sean Young’s statuesque bod — he in uniform, she in lingerie — across a limo’s wide backseat in the Cold War-era suspense film No Way Out (1987), based on Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock. While the film’s eponymously titled, synth-drenched balladic duet led off by Paul Anka saturated the night, Costner’s naval commander and Young’s two-timing mistress frolicked and panted away behind the involuntarily shut slide, leaving the disappointed chauffeur (Bill) to circle DC’s illuminated monuments. And, no, Costner’s Tom Farrell didn’t leave his hat on.

File:TheBodyguardSoundtrack.jpg

Not since The WIZ, Saturday Night Fever and Purple Rain had I played an original soundtrack (OST) back to back over an entire year! I adored then, as I do now, every track that Whitney laid down on The Bodyguard OST. Also highly listenable are the cuts not performed by her, such as “It’s Gonna Be a Lovely Day” — Clivilles-Cole’s sensually aerobic rendition of Bill Withers’ 1977 hit song “Lovely Day” — which remind us of their contributions to the film’s atmospherics. That is, they musically aid director Mick Jackson in dramatizing the enviable (to some) lush life juxtaposed with a paranoid sensibility that can accompany the perils of celebrity. To date, The Bodyguard remains the highest-selling OST on Earth.

Not one film that Whitney’s talent, name and fame carried — not a one — tanked. I’ve exhausted my praise for The Bodyguard. Now please allow me to take you back down memory lane, for this now-ascended star who in mortal life easily flashed her megawatt smile also had entertained us with her commendable work in The Preacher’s Wife (with Denzel Washington), Cinderella (with singer-actress Brandy in the title role) and Waiting to Exhale (with a tremendous ensemble cast that included Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine and the late Gregory Hines).

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[I’m infamous for my asides, so here we go:

Aside #1: Thank you to director and Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker for bringing us the gem Waiting to Exhale in 1995. We need, no, crave, many more films that represent the multifaceted Black Experience. We are human, too, and so non-Blacks (now’s not the time to pelt me with the anthropological “Lucy” theory) will perceive and appreciate the universality in our stories just as we do in theirs. If we can guffaw through The Help — a film I refuse to sit uncomfortably through when an über-rich person such as Oprah Winfrey keeps touting it — then non-Blacks and Blacks can view a film about, say, a happily married, working-class Black couple trying to deal with their twentysomething son’s PTSD after he has survived his “tour” in Afghanistan but no one wants to hire him.

Here, I’m making my plea to: Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, Forest Whitaker, Sanaa Hamri, Tyler Perry, Carl Franklin, Marlies Carruth, F. Gary Gray, Darnell Martin, Antoine Fuqua, Neema Barnette, Denzel Washington, Julie Dash, Clark Johnson, Cheryl Dunye, Lee Daniels, Angela Robinson, John Singleton, Coquie Hughes, Sheila Norman, Martin Lawrence, Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Hughes Brothers, Ayoka Chenzira, Bishop T.D. Jakes, and the rest of you responsible Black American, Caribbean and other African-descended filmmakers. Please lift your cameras and, for the auteurs among you, your pens now like never before!

Aside #2: I’m still wishin’ and hopin’ and prayin’ that somebody will make a major motion picture about the life of Tammi Terrell — and I’m for real. I’m continuing my campaign launched with my November 2010 post on this Blah-Blah-Blah-Blah Blog, in which I stated that actress Taraji P. Henson would be magnificent cast as Tammi. If those with the capital to fund just about every damned thing else could get in touch with author Vickie Wright and her co-author on the Tammi Terrell bio, Ludie Montgomery, who is Tammi’s sister, then these wonderful ladies will be able to bring their film project to fruition. I plan to be on line on opening night.

Aside #3: Now, what’s being plated in heaps among the annual sampling of films (and TV shows) containing predominantly Black casts? Junk food. We desire soul food! Tyler Perry shouldn’t take all of the heat. He’s a self-made millionaire in an industry that would never do what he does: employ many long-seen-and-heard-from Black actors. And they’re major talents. But I take issue with the excessive histrionics and slapstick that often distract from the serious matters which Perry had the insight and courage to explore. Don’t get me wrong; Madea is fucking hilarious! However, when we already are presented with such a gigantic woman — Perry in drag as a caricature of a composite of grannies and great-aunties some of us know or knew all too well — do we really need the actors in supporting roles going over the top like Madea’s prosthetic tatas? Or should I say, taDAHS!

I’m all for tribute and affection wrapped in comedic irreverence, but in the burial scene in Meet the Robinsons, did Jenifer Lewis’ strident-voiced character need to desecrate “Amazing Grace” and get shoved into the open grave? Why didn’t Perry go further and write a few broken limbs into the script? You Tyler Perry fans know that’s a rhetorical question. Perry sketched a two-dimensional cartoon character, for in the kitchen scene that follows the burial shot, Lewis emerges only with a facial bruise and a crooked wig. Rubbish.

Auteur Spike Lee justifiably was publicly critical of Perry’s representations of Black people and the ironic acceptance by Blacks. But the responsibility of making quality films cannot rest solely on Spike’s shoulders — by the way, I’d say that if he stood over six feet tall. Spike isn’t flawless, of course. He seemed preachy in parts of his 1990s films, such as the scene in Jungle Fever in which Wesley Snipes’ adulterous protagonist steps out of character to give a PSA-worthy speech about unwed teenage mothers. Yes, Spike misstepped there by not ministering to unwed teenage fathers.

However, Spike doesn’t rely on slapstick and on Black characters acting like white actors in blackface in a minstrel show. That’s Perry’s forté. I only hope that I don’t waste $12 ($20 with popcorn and a beverage) walking out of Perry’s Good Deeds the way I did with For Colored Girls.

Aside #4: We are force-fed a plethora of movies from male-dominated POVs that depict Black men, women and children as “coons” — yeah, I went there. Those types of characters are nothing but 21st-century versions of actors made to ape around in flicks that European American audiences flocked to see during the half-century following the end of legal U.S. slavery.]

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Back to the subject of this blog post: the late great Whitney Houston

When Sparkle, her last film and a remake of the 1976 classic that starred singer-actress Irene Cara in the title role, is released this summer, let’s all go out and support it. Thank you, Bishop T.D. Jakes, for bringing it … and for bringing it back to life. Yes, thank you for resuscitating a film that most of the world forgot, perhaps because it’s about a Black adolescent (singer Jordin Sparks in the title role) — a middle child — who has God-given talent, a big dream, a strong church family, a supportive and adoring friend and, most importantly, a single mother who loves her so much that she fears losing her to vices and materialistic success.

In Sparkle Whitney portrays the matriarch of a family of sisters in a role originated by the graceful actress Mary Alice, who illuminated the small and big screen with an authentic, downhome kind of femininity and mature sensuality. (Mary Alice was ubiquitous in 1970s television programs, especially “Sanford and Son” opposite comedic legend Redd Foxx, and she’s long overdue an “Unsung” profile on TVOne.  Hint, hint.) Recalling Mary Alice’s poignant performances during my youth, and how she balanced poise and feistiness, I’m so happy that someone had the prescience or genius to consider Whitney Houston — a religious, doting mom to a teen-age daughter who publicly had expressed her own music industry dreams — for such a coveted role in Sparkle. Timing is everything, and Whitney is a natural for the part.

Those of you who either lined up outside the cinema house in ’76 (as I did that autumn with my mom) when the original Sparkle was released or have viewed it on cable television (thanks, TVOne) or DVD, know that all three daughters were fast-tracked into adulthood amid harsh urban realities. You also may recall that the eldest sibling, “Sister” (pronounced Sistuh), played to the hilt by Lonette McKee, lost her battle to drug addiction — heroin, the drug plied by her pusher-lover, Satin. It’s inspired casting when one considers Whitney’s courage to make a comeback after struggling with a failed marriage — one in which substance abuse and love were intertwined (if not symbiotic), by the pop icon’s own admission.

In the film’s original version, set vaguely in the late 1950s to early 1960s, the midtempo song “Hooked on Your Love” seduced the moviegoer with its muted horns and stripper beat while the gowned-down girl group (McKee’s, Cara’s and Dwan Smith’s characters, in proper birth order) sashayed what their momma gave them to the delight of single and attached men seated at tables in the nightclub. It would be a travesty if in the rebirthed Sparkle movie, “Hooked on Your Love” (sung on the soundtrack album by Aretha Franklin; in the film, by McKee on lead vocals) were omitted instead of re-envisioned.

This time, the whole world will take notice of the film, not only for the dramatic performances and the great soundtrack, but also for its lifesaving messages about loving and believing in oneself and about the significance of supporting and standing up for family and friends when one gets a divine call. Yes, the entire world will pay attention to Sparkle this time around because Whitney Houston no longer is.

Cissy Houston, thank you for trusting the world with your beloved “Nippy.” Many out there did your baby wrong, but they’re greatly outnumbered by us — the longtime fans that discovered who Whitney was through the music which also helped us discover ourselves, who encountered an angel on earth and whose love for her will live on like her amazing legacy.

Just Whitney

Image via Wikipedia

 In Memory of Our Recently Departed Sista-Girl,
Whitney Houston: 1963-2012

© 2012 Chantale Rêve

All Rights Reserved

In Memoriam

2011/05/28


Mourning the very recent passings of:

GIL SCOTT-HERON

JEFF CONAWAY

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My personal tributes:

As a child of the seventies, my first memory of revolutionary urban griot-poet Gil Scott-Heron was skipping rope to the beat of “The Bottle” as Gil’s voice raspily singing “Nah-nah, nah-nah, nah-nah, nah-nah, nah-nah, nah-nah …” crackled out of our overblown speakers at a family BBQ that continued into the night.  At that young age, though, the meaning of Gil’s lyrics to that R&B-jazz suite went as high above my head as the airplanes that seemed ready to land in our backyard as they approached JFK Airport.

My fave adult memory of Gil was his performance as part of a socially conscious concert at New York City’s Beacon Theatre in the early nineties.  By that time, I had formed a worldview, protested domestic and international injustices from police brutality and apartheid to imperialism.  Hmmm …  Perhaps Gil’s lyrics on that summer day back in the early seventies weren’t beyond the grasp of my subconscious mind.

As a young teen in the late seventies, my first memory of Jeff Conaway was of him skidding across the silver screen as “Keneckie” in the blockbuster Grease.  His tidal wave of blond hair slicked back on the sides, he gyrated sensually opposite John Travolta in the “Greased Lightning” number until I blushed and clapped simultaneously.  And thus was born my love of car racing — OK, viewing on television only, where I can’t get mowed down in the stands, but where my face still can flush from the high-octane rush.

My favorite memories of Jeff are too many to mention because he was the only reason I watched “Taxi,” on which he (as “Bobby”) often out-heartthrobbed Tony Danza with his megawatt smile.  (I also tuned into the sitcom because I dug jazz musician Bob James’ ” Theme from ‘Taxi.’ “)  If you had to grill me for my fave “Taxi” episode, though, it would have to be the one in which the very talented ensemble cast performed an ode to Broadway.  In that tribute, oh, how Jeff shined.

 

May their artistic contributions live on like every sunrise and sunset.

May their souls rest in peace.


 

In an effort to beat the holiday blues, I am running the following story, which I wrote and first published in December 2008, in the hope that it connects with the inner child of each adult, female and male, reading the Blah-Blah-Blah-Blah Blog.

While I do not have a recollection of exactly when I stopped believing in jolly Ol’ Saint Nicholas – as he was embodied in various media images – I can recall with the clarity of an idle snowglobe that the week leading up to Christmas Day felt surreal.  Okay, I did not know the concept of the word surreal at the age of three or seven or even eleven.  It was a magical time, when my thin body felt lighter than the new snow into which my childhood friends and I would make angels. There was not a plaid wool coat or parka that could stop us from practicing that winter ritual, especially at Christmastime.

It was an innocent era.  We would run up and down the block, enthusiastic about the perennial Rankin/Bass TV movies of doll-like stop-motion characters – Kris Kringle, Rudolph, et al. – and of lollipop-bright colors that made for warm winters.  We would bid each other a cheerful “Good night” so we could finish our dinners in time to watch one of the programs, knowing that each aired only once a year.   In a similar vein, it was a sin to miss A Charlie Brown Christmas, and there was no DVR back in those days.

Houses on my block smelled like gingerbread was baking inside, while on the outside dazzling light displays competed with others.  Despite the frosty air – back then, global warming was an unknown threat of the future – neighbors with reddened ears and noses still managed enough warmth to stammer “Have a merry Christmas” and “Happy holidays” through their carbon dioxide mist to passers-by.  In this atmosphere, the most outlandish scenario was believable.

So when my parents asked me and my older brother to compile our Christmas lists, we both believed that those doodads would find their way on Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve.  It did not matter that we had no fireplace in our modest brick home.  I just figured that Santa had found an ingenious way of creating a route from the chimney to the boiler room, from which he easily could sneak up the basement staircase, pad across the kitchen, and skulk into the living room to leave us all presents.  I used to think that Santa must have studied ballet, for what other way could he tiptoe in those clunky black boots around that lopsided tree without disturbing any dangling ornaments?

All I had to do was brush a branch with the bun atop my head for ornaments and bulbs to come tumbling out of their places and tinkling as they hit the bare, glittered “blanket of snow” wrapped around the faux pine tree’s red-and-green base.  My young mind could not bear to imagine Santa getting electrocuted from the tangle of strung Christmas lights and twisted metallic fringe.  Who needed strings of popcorn with that chaos?

Each year, I kept my faith in Santa Claus, knowing it would be redeemed the next morning upon my sighting of dolls crying “Mama” and my brother’s Lionel train chugging around the track that made a village out of our small living room.  So intense was my anticipation on Christmas Eve that, until the age of eight or nine, I would become so anxious that I would – to put it as indelicately as it felt – lose my dessert.  My belief in the portly red-and-white angel was so potent that I was torn between staying up late to catch a glimpse of him and having my nose sprinkled with pepper as punishment for not obeying my parent’s nine o’clock bedtime curfew.

Until the age of eleven, I faithfully accompanied my mother to her workplace – a nearly all-female branch of Ma Bell – every Christmas Eve day for the chance to sit on Santa Claus’ well-padded lap.  There I would bring his legs closer to an arthritic state as I whispered my wishes into his ear and then feel his belly roll from his thunderous “Ho, ho, ho!”  I had a wonderful fashion sense at that age already, and so I noticed how well the big man’s white hair, mustache, and beard complemented the white fur trim of his suit.  His coat was, like, a vintage Lilli Ann number, but designed for men of generous girth … above the belt, that is.

What a harmonious sight!  I would swing my annual gift from this workplace Santa:  a foot-long, red net stocking filled with toys and hard candies.  How psyched was I that Santa had stopped at my mommy’s job for the afternoon before whisking off to join his reindeer for an amazing trek around the globe, including my brick house that night!

When the next summer arrived, I saw red.  Not the red of Santa’s suit or of the candy stocking, either.  Rather, I gasped at the first sign of womanhood. It was a total coincidence that I had viewed Brian DePalma’s horror movie Carrie only a week earlier – I believe it was a double feature with They Came from Within (Canadian title:  Shivers), about fornication-inducing parasites.  Honestly, I was more freaked out by Carrie than by the horny-parasite flick, because of what I interpreted as an evil connection between telekinesis and menses.  But, hey, I figured if Sissy Spacek’s scary Carrie could make knives levitate, I could use my yet-to-be-manifested telekinetic powers for a positive cause:  making Santa’s reindeer fly.

What can I say?  The mind of a young writer can be a minefield of absurdity.  Perhaps I lived in some enchanted suburb.  No, not every child on the block and in class discussed the existence of Santa Claus. Or could it be that my faith in Santa was so great that when those who were naughtier than nice spoke of his non-existence, I simply could not hear them?

Reflecting back – this time with a little less clarity, like the Animagic vista of a shaken snowglobe – I realize that my parents did not know what to do about the Santa Claus tale that they had raised me (and, when he was much younger, my brother) to believe.  Later on, I figured out that my father was just going along with the Santa program.  My mom, on the other hand, loved fantasy.  She was a major fan of Natalie Wood, having grown up with her film characters, and so it was one of our perennial traditions to watch Miracle on 34th Street together.

To this day, I faithfully watch Miracle on 34th Street at Christmastime, albeit on DVD.  Back then, the movie was playing on the old black-and-white television in the kitchen while I helped my Betty Crocker-wannabe mom bake Christmas treats (and make a major mess).  I can recall my tween self shrugging off the cynicism displayed by Wood’s precocious Susan.  And so I said within, and with conviction:  “I believe.  I believe.”

You see, I had no awareness that I was too old to believe in Santa Claus. At the time, I was still playing with baby dolls as earnestly as I was with Barbie dolls.  On my Christmas list for Santa, there was no request for a Nintendo DS, but for new fashions for my four-year-old Malibu Christie doll and diapers for Newborn Baby Tender Love. I was midway between dreaming about how soft the first kiss from a boy might feel and fantasizing how powder-fresh my first baby might smell.  Oh, and how I’d share the news of each event with my mom.  Looking back, I am glad that I gave her that glimpse into the future, even if only part of it would come true.

I forever will be mystified that, that summer, my mother encouraged me to get baptized. Although I remember the lone walk down the aisle to join the church while the choir and congregation sang, I do not remember the feeling just before the minister plunged me backward into the water during the baptism, which occurred the following week. Or perhaps my subconscious remembers that suffocating feeling because whenever life seems too tough, it is as if I’m being submerged in water while I can see the light above me. I do recall the splashing of the water upon my emergence and my gasping for air as I was cleansed of sins I had no idea I had committed—apparently since Adam and Eve’s transgression.

Soon I was learning more about Jesus’ life and His Resurrection, and being told that I was on a path to being a Christian adult. And months later, in December, it was as if my mother (my non-churchgoing father was silent on this) was equating Ol’ Saint Nick with Jesus Christ.  She talked of faith and the need to believe.  She had lost me.

Somewhere between my thirteenth and fourteenth year came the poignant pause to Santa Claus.  My mother no longer could keep down her dessert, but not because she was anxious about Santa’s arrival.  In fact, she was frequently having difficulty with her appetite and sustaining a healthy weight.  Despite being mysteriously ill, she promised that for our family the next Christmas would be the best one yet.  I have no idea what she discussed with my brother, but she asked me to think hard about what I really wanted.  I was a teenager, but she still told me to compile a Christmas list – and to complete it as quickly as possible.

In vain, I wrote down the only three objects that I desired:  a Miss Piggy hand puppet, comedian Steve Martin’s album featuring the smash “King Tut,” and a Polaroid Land B camera.  I cried an ocean that day because I knew that Santa Claus would find it a breeze to deliver those objects but doubted he could summon up enough magic dust to actualize the wish that was not on my list:  to keep my mother alive.  And not just long enough to hear me swoon about my first kiss and to coo with my first baby.

In less than a year, Mom had surgery and was diagnosed as terminally ill.  Our family was stunned.  She continued to work at Ma Bell, and I began going there after school so that we could travel home together.  While she had the fate of a tragic operatic character, I had plenty of time to kill watching soap operas in the break room – the end of “General Hospital” (the Luke & Laura days) and the entire “Edge of Night” – until she was ready to depart for home.  Every one-on-one moment of those after-work evenings was special to us, and all these years later they are a reminder of the significance of quality time.

It was difficult, however, to be draped in her melancholia every day and to listen to repeated accounts of well-meaning friends, co-workers, and strangers wishing her a successful pregnancy.  She resembled a woman in her last trimester; oncologists had given her six months.  A working-class parent, she could not actualize the made-for-television fantasy of traveling to all the places she wanted to see before dying.  Years later, we would meet each other on nameless beaches in faraway tropical places of my recurrent dreams.

The vicious reality of my mother’s fate had wiped out my already waning belief in Santa Claus as swiftly as the cancer was devouring her tissues and organs.  When the claustrophobic feeling of being submerged in the baptismal tub washed over me, I was smacked more than fourteen years back to my voyage from amniotic fluid to the birth canal.  Dropping to my knees, I prayed through moist, shut eyes to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  This time I needed the Trinity to, in the words of Natalie Wood’s Maria praying to Madre de Dios in West Side Story:  “Please, make it not be true.  Make it not be true!”

By the time her final Christmas Day with us arrived, my mother had firmly believed that she was journeying closer to Mary’s Son in His resurrected form.  There she was, already close to heaven, and we were stuck down on earth, unable to hide our somber faces.  She was afraid and unafraid; she had faith.  We were the helpless ones, unable to attend church without her.

Cessation of work gave her more time to begin planning her cremation.  She had control of the where although she could not know the when.  It was ironic that she wanted such spare accoutrements, the opposite of the Black character “Annie Johnson”’s opulence in one of my mother’s favorite films, Imitation of Life, the 1950s remake of which was required viewing in our household.

Funny how I grew up to prefer the original Imitation of Life, released in the 1930s.   Instead of a white actress, it featured a Black actress, Fredi Washington, in the role of the teenage Peola Johnson.  It is interesting to note that in the original Imitation of Life, the racial identity of Peola’s father was revealed as Black, not white.  People tend to forget that detail, yet that fact makes Peola’s rejection of her Blackness much more emotionally complex than passing.  And in no way am I saying that it was easy for all ivory-complexioned Blacks to pass.  By the way, it is Peola’s mother, the live-in servant Delilah Johnson (played by Louise Beavers), who reveals Peola’s father’s identity – saying that he was a light-complexioned “colored” man – while she is disclosing her daughter’s inner torment to Beatrice Pullman (played by Claudette Colbert).  “Bea” is her employer and later becomes her partner in a business based upon Delilah’s pancake recipe.  (What else is new?  Can you spell A-u-n-t  J-e-m-i-m-a?)

By the time of the 1950s redo of Imitation of Life, just as Blacks were still getting lynched in the South and North, there was still no way to whitewash the tragic circumstances of an identity-confused young woman who believes she must choose between loving her mother – and, by extension, herself – and the murky privileges of “passing” in segregated U.S. society.  Ironically, the 1934 original is more positive with regard to Black self-determination than the 1959 remake, within the macrocosmic context of real-life Black people being better off economically, culturally and spiritually during segregation than in assimilation.

My mother may have nixed the idea of a formal funeral à la Imitation of Life, but she did want to hear Mahalia Jackson … while she was still alive. Surrounded by colorful, sparkling Christmas cards mounted on the living room wall and an assortment of gifts that would have loaded down the Three Wise Men, my mother wailed and hummed along with Mahalia Jackson as one of her Christmas albums spun on the turntable inside the flip-top stereo unit.  I thought it strange that Mahalia seemed simultaneously exalted and sorrowful, her voice bending as the needle popped with static against the record beneath the wobbly metal arm of the old unit.

As the LP spun slowly and unevenly, I imagined that the buxom angel belting out Christmas carols gospel-style also was preparing Mom spiritually for her coming transition.  Only one religious selection by Mahalia caused my mother to weep that Christmas morning, and all these years later the reason is midnight-clear:  “No Room at the Inn.”  Its meaning was not apparent to me then.  And just like that, my mom had lost me again as she had done in my twelfth year when she talked of faith and the need to believe.

Indeed, I was lost, in an “Amazing Grace” kind of way, but all I needed to do was turn to God and find peace in divine comfort.  Although I could not see Him, I needed to believe that He existed just as I had held steadfast to a belief in Ol’ Saint Nick in early childhood.

Copyright © 2008 By Chantale Reve