My phone vibrated against my thigh.
“I’m so sorry Sugar. I’ve been busy working. I meant to answer you earlier.”
I read the text message from one of my “friends” about four times before I realized that it was doing something to me I didn’t quite understand. I suddenly remembered there was only one other person in my life to have ever referred to me as sugar.
Judy was from Virginia. I only remembered her having one sister, a few brothers. Then there was Brother and Boy, Florence. She was either a cousin perhaps or a lifelong BFF. Then there was the infamous Momma B. Every black house hold had a Momma B. Momma B was Judy’s mom.
Momma B was a tough cookie. I have no recollection of her younger days but I do recall seeing black and white pictures of her in the south standing against old cars, barn like homes, wooden rails that lined roadways all against what looked like clear blue skies. She wore ankle length skirts, solid colored button up shirts and her feet were in white looking tennis shoes. She never wore a smile, always a stern serious, no bullshitting look rested on her eye brows, lips and forehead.
In the mid to late 80’s, Momma B was on borrowed time. Before she could no longer take care of herself and diabetes took her big toe on the her right foot she lived alone in an apartment off 16th Ave in Newark NJ. Judy, would visit her with buckets, wash rags, and cleaning products and all of her foster children to wipe down the yellow walls. We tried to wipe the caked on grease and cigarette smoke and turn them as white as possible. It was gross. You can’t wipe off years of grease with cold water. Those walls will never see the crisp clean of white unless she move out and allowed the landlord to gut out the walls and replace them with new ones.
By the time I was eight or maybe nine, she was bed ridden in the girl’s room on the second floor of 115 south 9th street. She smelled of urine all the time, was blind as a bat, and always cried in pain. Momma B especially complained about the big toe that was stolen by her diabetes. She’d cry, call, and yell for one of the many kids that ran in and out of the front door to hand her the bed pan, remove it, dump it and then rub her feet with greasy Ben-Gay. She didn’t want us to just rub it over her skin but message her old scaly, rough, cracked, dry feet.
“And don’t forget the big toe” she instructed as she pointed her long finger at the right foot. Her eyes were now cloudy. It was strange to look at them directly. It was considered rude to stare.
When the banshee’s siren is heard downstairs, the children ran for the hills. I never did. I volunteered willingly to avoid the embarrassment of the public display of an ass whooping when I refused. The Ben-Gay smell always lingered on my hands for hours after I was done. I tried to use it as a mechanism to help me stop sucking my thumb it never worked. I’d just wash my hands continuously with the brown soap until it was gone and I’d plop my left thumb back in my mouth.
I’d walk up the stairs and notice the creak in each step. I didn’t run. I never ran. I just walked to my task. I did it because she was old. She was dyeing and no one wanted to touch her. I felt bad. So I never complained and as a result I got my first glimpse of an old used adult pussy with salt and pepper hair drenched in piss.
Once Momma B began to notice that I was the only child to help her, she began to banshee call for me.
“Where’s my white sugar? Come on and put some of this here Ben-Gay on my foot.”
There’s nothing better than some old fashioned racism to keep the day going. She’d call me the white hussy as well. I began not minding helping her even with my disgust pounding in my chest. I’d even bring her cups of fresh water from the bathroom sink where we washed up in the morning. We had a bond of some sort yet when she passed I didn’t attend her funeral or I don’t recall that I had. She was just gone one day. No more Ben-Gay. She was buried down south and until this day no one else has ever called me Sugar or a white hussy.
The days and months that followed her death, I don’t recall seeing Judy crying. I can currently say that it was her strength that kept from breaking, or simply note that she knew the day would eventually come. There was no need to cry if she knew her mother would no longer suffer.
Looking back, Momma B was not just suffering from her aging bones and organs giving up, but she would no longer suffer from the racism of the south. She would no longer label me “white” and not completely understand that I was Puerto Rican. I can’t blame her. My skin had to remind her of a time she probably wanted to forget.
I considered myself white too. I looked more like the white teachers at school than the black family that raised me. But by the time I was 9 years old, I was already exposed to all of their oppression through their very own eyes. I knew what “Mississippi Burning” was all about and in a sense their fight became my fight. I stopped calling myself white. Only skin was. I knew I was black and you couldn’t tell me anything different.
A few months after Momma B passed away, there were times I’d over hear Judy talking to another adult. It could have been Florence or she may have been on the phone.
“Momma comes and visits. I can smell her when she’s here. If you listen quietly, the stairs would creak, just like it did when she walked up the stairs.”
I wanted to know what she meant. So I’d stop in the hallway sniffing like a greyhound dog, but I’d never smell Ben-gay. I never heard the stairs creak. I was just glad I never had to rub her missing big toe.
I texted my friend back.
“Yo, you’re the only other person who’s ever called me sugar. lol”
I told him I loved him for it.
© 2017, Lopez. All rights reserved.