Between the Devil and the Deep Sea
When my father was dying, he wanted me to read him Lamentations and Ezekiel.
July 1, 2009
Jul 1, 2009
13 Min read time
When my father was dying, he wanted me to read him Lamentations and Ezekiel.
When my father was dying, he didn’t talk about his pain or his fear, but about the first and second temples in Jerusalem. He wanted me to read him Lamentations and Ezekiel. He asked me about the desecration of the temples.
In 587 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar, servant of the King of Babylon, entered Jerusalem and destroyed the first temple, the temple of Solomon, the House of God, the Beis ha-Mikdash. On July 31, 593 B.C.E., six years before the desolation, Ezekiel the priest received God’s call on the banks of the Babylonian Chebar. “In the 30th year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” Ezekiel’s warning begins with the appearance of winged human-headed creatures. Under the wings are hands; on the front of their faces, the look of a man; on the right side, the face of a lion; on the left side, the face of an ox; and at the back, the face of an eagle. In this scene of glory, there are wheels, and “the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” Wheels within wheels. Chariots of fire. The voice of God.
Prophecy comes to Ezekiel in the form of a scroll that he must eat. Words of mourning and woe taste to him like honey. God orders that he eat bread baked on human dung. When Ezekiel objects, saying that he has never defiled himself, never eaten foul flesh, God tells him to substitute cow’s dung. Throughout Ezekiel’s oracles of warning, desolation is pollution, whether the flesh of harlots, the rot of bodies, the blood of the slain, or the leak of women. The virgin of Israel became the vessel for God’s disgust. Against images of blood and excrement, breasts fondled and mutilated, the stink of seminal outpouring, God sets the whirling wheels and his cherubim, and the promise of purification.
Jewels and shit. Law and grace. Now I begin to understand my father’s need to hear, to talk about this prophecy. But, by my father’s deathbed, I fixed instead on Lucille’s ghosts. They gave me solace. What would it be like if the woman with the long white hand reached out to me from under the ground? The niece who died from the bite of the black widow spider in the attic, returned in the night, an orphan with her hand over her heart. The ghosts that vied with my father’s rules of proper belief and knowledge returned, thrown up in the skies toward the wreck of Solomon’s temple. Voices of steam and promise. Dry bones without breath. There are always two kinds of love, two ways to be reborn.
While my father showed me fear, there remained a woman of strength who believed that the meanest ghost carried glory in its breath. Not my mother. I’m talking about Lucille, the woman who raised me. She joked with me about her five dead husbands. She loved to tell me how they died. She laughed, and when she clapped her hands at the really good part—when the scythe split open Ben’s foot as he cut Florida cane or when Joe Moses got caught in a cotton mill and lost everything from the torso down—I learned how terror could be exalted.
Lucille saved me from the Lord’s fury. And even though she scared the living daylights out of me, fear became a kind of ecstasy. While my father warned me not to talk about Ezekiel’s chariot, which the prophet was not supposed to reveal, Lucille brought mystery right down beside me. I could feel its fleshy wheels and smell the perfumed oil in between the ruby stones. “What you gonna do when death comes creepin’ in your room,” she asked me one Saturday afternoon. I told her I would ask God to forgive me and bless his name. She said that I’d do better to say nothing and just get ready for the ride to the other side. That day I heard for the first time “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” She sang it easy and slow. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot, comin’ for to carry me home.” The chariot didn’t swing down from heaven. I never knew what direction it made for. “Rockin’ Lord, rockin’ Lord.” Not up, not down. Instead the chariot moved back and forth, a rocky boat going across the waters to an eternal shore. “If you get there before I do, comin’ for to carry me home, tell all my friends I’ll be comin’ there too, comin’ for to carry me home.” I knew that some people might get there before me, but once I got across the river, then I’d be blessed anyway. They’d all be waiting for me.
When I think about the glory and gold of Solomon’s temple, I remember what Lucille told me the year before she died. “You can find God in an outhouse hole.”
On the 25th anniversary of his exile, Ezekiel was transported in a vision to the temple mountain, where God promised restoration and hope by describing in detail, measuring out, down to the cubit and handbreadth, the dimensions of the Temple to come, from the wall and gate to the doorposts and chambers, even into the holy place. “Adonay shammah.” “The Lord is there.” In his vision Ezekiel prophesies the future temple by remembering the first. When I think about the glory and gold of Solomon’s temple, I remember what Lucille told me the year before she died. “You can find God in an outhouse hole.”
I want to know where I stand. Which God? Can I call on my father’s God while I cherish Lucille’s Lord?
I never forgot the sentence: “And I will set My face against you.” Whether my father recited it to me or I heard it during the service on Yom Kippur, I don’t know. But I always felt it hiding somewhere; that face awaited me. When I walked to my first-grade classes, I performed rituals of uprightness. I did not want to walk contrary to God, because I knew that then He would walk contrary to me. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul that you may live.” In the early morning, I walked repeating to myself not the Lord’s Prayer, but the series of questions I recalled from the service of atonement, that day when God’s book would be closed, when my fate would be sealed: “Who shall live and who shall die; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by sword, and who by beast; who by strangling and who by stoning; who shall be brought low and who shall be exalted?”
The Lord God called me to knowledge in dread and punishment. “I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life; and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire their first-born, that I might horrify them, I did it that they might know that I am the Lord.” Lucille’s God loved to hear what his believers had to say. She told me that he never slept. He was too busy talking. He didn’t command, he cajoled. “He knows he’s loved. No proof. He cares squat about proof.”
It is not surprising that for most of the year my father lay dying I kept thinking about the spiritual “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.” Ezekiel joined my father and Lucille in my vision of unprecedented possibility. “And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, though knowest.’”
• • •
On a Friday night in Atlanta, my dog barked while my husband prayed. She is a Black Labrador Retriever, glorious in her black muscled body with a bark that pierces the night. It was the Sabbath. The two silver candlesticks were on the table with the little white “Holyland Candles”—in smaller letters, they were also named “Israeli Candles”—not yet lit. There are two boxes of these candles in the kitchen cabinet. Each box contains 72 candles. That means 72 nights’ worth of candles. Distributed from Brooklyn, New York, they are “strictly kosher,” whatever that means. I thought that kosher was only what you ate. What, I wondered, would a non-kosher candle do to a Jew? Would its flame contaminate with its unhallowed glow?
I have no way of understanding how I got to this table with the silver wine cup that my husband holds and drinks, with the candles that must be lit by me, with the breaking of the bread, and the strange pass over it my husband makes with his hands, as if to make it disappear. The gesture is like each part of the ritual I must observe, listening respectfully to the prayers, watching my husband who is a stranger standing there in the dark, seeming to recall something important from a past in Jerusalem when his father stood before his family and intoned the same words in the same rhythm with the same self-absorption.
On this Friday night, I listen to the sing-song plaint, the prayer of the father, and I watch the husband. I sit stock-still, in shock, not because it is odd to be hearing this prayer, which I remember, but because this man seems to call me to attention, to force me to look up and concentrate on a ritual that does not give him joy—he is, he tells me, an atheist—but instead makes his eyes look vaguely into the distance. A wife, a Jewish wife, made this performance possible. He waited a long time. He needed a wife in order to become his father. Not just any wife, but a woman who carried the blood of his people. I was part of a consecration: a submission to duty, not an embrace of happiness.
The crickets thrash their legs in the yard and I stand as if frozen at the table. Jesse, the Black Labrador Retriever barks. John, the wan husband, stops praying, screams at the dog, puts down the book, walks away from the table, and locks himself in his study.
• • •
I dreamed my mother’s nightmare. She was in me before I knew it.
For four years as a child I had a recurrent dream. A truck was travelling fast along a road, its backdoors flung wide open, with the song of Superman, the sight of Clark Kent’s open coat, the giant “S” splayed across his chest, the whoosh-like wind, the thumping drums. It was not a truck. I could see it was white, an ambulance. Something came out the back that looked like black tar. It grew larger and spread out along the road. I ran but could not get away. The blackness took the shape of two legs stretching out like rubber behind the ambulance. Then I was in a white room flooded with light. Too pure in its whiteness, I always thought. A gurney with white sheets, pressed tightly and without creases, drew me to it. There was nobody on it.
Now I can find my mother. Her life ended in an apartment in an Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn. She stood out on the terrace, looked at the black hats, at the girls in long skirts filing out of their yeshiva, all the yellow school buses in a row at the curb. “Where am I?” she asked me. “What a neighborhood.” She sighed. When she stopped talking, she still sang—sometimes once or twice a day—“Baby, it’s cold outside.” Far away from her home in Atlanta, where once she watched for dogwood and honeysuckle outside her window, she saw the buses, the girls, the men, the concrete, and the cars in the main thoroughfare called Ocean Parkway. In her dying days, she lived only six blocks from where she had moved with her parents 70 years before, when they left Port-au-Prince, Haiti, right before her fourteenth birthday.
They left Haiti in 1936, two years after the American occupation ended. When my mother arrived on Ocean Parkway, she wondered about the sea, why it was hidden, why no one ran into the waves, and what to do when the snows came down so white. My mother, as the eldest daughter, was introduced to the most eligible man in town. No matter that he was seventeen years older, that she did not love him. He took her to the circus. He tried to teach her to ride horses and eat mussels. I don’t know what she thought about the circus, but she could not ride and, until her dying day, hated anything that looked slippery and lived in shells.
No more bojangles, no more black legs, no more mystery, no more threat. Instead, he became himself: the urbane man in love with the lovely lady in white.
The year my mother left Haiti, Swing Time with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire was released. In the pain of the Depression it promised romance and glamour. I saw it for the first time on Turner Classics a few months ago. Lots of whiteness, a décor of stale purity, but in the middle of the snow and staircases, I saw a dance number that brought back my dream. After all these years, I knew again the terror of the ever-running and syrupy legs that pursued me. The chorus lines sing out “Bojangles of Harlem.” Fred Astaire in blackface imitates Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The dance begins with what I took to be the dark double of Astaire’s real set of legs. Long and black, they come out from his crotch. Dancing ladies surround him. The legs spread out from him and over the stage, black and all-enveloping. The ladies keep dancing. They take hold of the legs, pick them up and carry them away. Then Astaire’s real legs, the white legs, small and elegant, begin to dance.
No more bojangles, no more black legs, no more mystery, no more threat. Instead, he became himself: the urbane man in love with the lovely lady in white. I wonder what this film meant to my mother. After the dances for the vodou spirits, the yanvalou and crabignan legba, after the dirt and the lizards and the drums that she used to tell me lulled her to sleep, there she was on Ocean Parkway, going to the movies, watching the thin white dancer in blackface on the white marble linoleum floor, in love with another pale and golden-haired dancer that he whirled up the stairs; and once linked in his arms, they stepped out together into a future of love.
After my mother married my father, they honeymooned in Mexico, then traveled to Nashville and, finally, settled in Atlanta. The South was a cross between Haiti and New York. Where did she think she had come to? There was no ocean. There was no snow. But she was far from Haiti. An exotic, offered up to women who hated her and men who longed for her. My father broke her heart early in the marriage. One night he worked late in his office. He left her waiting—a girl not quite eighteen years old—alone in an apartment on Berkshire Road in Atlanta. She was without friends, without her family and by herself, drinking beer until she passed out in the wee hours of the morning.
She never left my father. Instead, she banished feeling. She became a mannequin. Like a movie star. Her mind was veiled. It did not want to know her. It backed away. “Behind the eight ball,” she used to say to me. Then she cast her spell upon me: “You’re going to be behind the eight ball. Left holding the bag.”
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” My mother must have heard those words, that voice, on the radio in the late ’30s. The Shadow had the power to cloud people’s minds so that he could be invisible. She would walk into my room and whisper, “Heath-cliff, Heath-cliff.” Now I know that she was recalling Merle Oberon’s cry on the moors of Wuthering Heights—the dead lover, Kathy, who had married the wrong man calling to her true love. No more Ginger Rogers. No more dancing and no more light. Instead, there was darkness and there was night. I dreamed her life. I dreamed her death. She died many times. Blood on the carpet. Sirens in the night. At the front door in Atlanta, my mother. I lose it there, as the men take her away.
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July 01, 2009
13 Min read time