Brick House—Clark Humphrey
A home. If it really means what it ought to mean, it’s something you don’t give up on.
And in my family, it really means what it ought to mean.
It’s just another red brick, two-story, compact square house on the North Side. Well kept, but still modest. But it means everything my family worked and fought for.
My grandparents bought it when my dad was a kid. The whole “white flight” in the cities was underway. Good houses like that became really cheap for a while. We were the first black family on the block.
Now we’re the last. Between the gentrification thing in the 1990s and the housing bubble in the 2000s and all the foreclosures after that, it’s a white place again.
But they’re different white people than before. The previous white people here, they were working stiffs. Yeah some of them were racist, but they were straight up and honest about it. The new white people here, they say they’re into diversity and all that shit, but that just means they like Motown and Ice Cube. A real life young black man like me, who’s not a singer or rapper or athlete or drug dealer, they don’t know what to do with.
But the house. It’s THE thing, you see? The thing that made us. My grandparents called the house their own Promised Land. The family’s arrival. Out of slavery, then out of Jim Crow land, then out of the ghetto, finally into dignity and respect.
I’ve always lived there. I went to local colleges so I could stay there, and help take care of grandma and grandpa. Now they’re gone.
And my father’s gone now too. Cancer. Just last month.
We finally had the memorial this weekend. Took that long to get all the relatives to Chicago.
Just before the service, mother dropped a bombshell. Father’s gone and we’re all grown up; so there’s no need for her to stick around. She wants to go live with her sisters in Charleston.
The service was at the church where my grandfather, my father, and I had all been deacons. It celebrated everything father had done and stood for.
There were videos and PowerPoint slides showing his life from beginning to end; with all his favorite music, from jazz to spirituals. My sister and I spent more than a week putting it together. Everybody loved it. Almost all the snapshots and home movies were shot at the house.
And people talked.
About how he’d kept them away from drugs and promiscuity; helped them get out of abusive relationships; encouraged them to keep going when things seemed hopeless; introduced them to their current wives or husbands.
They kept talking at the reception afterwards. Ladies and gents dressed in the best of their Sunday best. Talking and eating and laughing. Mentioning the parts of my father that nobody mentioned during the service; the harsh, judgmental, passive-aggressive sides. How he’d only help out a young person if they deferred to his authority and never gave him any lip.
I started to tune out some of these voices. When you live with some of the people I lived with, you learned this skill early on. I love my whole family, understand that. But sometimes I just had to let their voices pass through my head without stopping.
That’s how I wound up ignoring everybody in the room except for my mother and her sisters at the other end of the reception hall. I couldn’t hear it perfectly, but I think she told them she was SO glad the ordeal was over. I thought she meant the ordeal of coping with his disease. But then she said there’d been times she just couldn’t take being mated for life to this ultimate goody two shoes. At least three times, I think I heard her say, she’d almost had affairs. Each time it would have been with one of his best friends. Her sisters just nodded and kept her talking. If only there’d been something, anything at all about him that was imperfect. She could hardly wait to get out of Ice Town and into a place where nobody knew her as the perfect deacon’s perfect wife, where she could treat herself to a buffet line of southern fried dark meat.
That was the second bombshell of the day. The third was when my brother, sister, and brother in law led me into the hallway. They’d decided, without even asking me, that they’d sell the house as soon as prices went back up. Until then they’ll rent it out. Which meant I had to get out.
Everything reliable in my life, everything that kept me rooted in one place, was gone or going.
And then she came in.
My ex-fiancee. I hadn’t seen her at the service. Hadn’t expected to see her either. Not after the breakup, which was probably my fault. She’d kept saying she didn’t need to get married now, or maybe ever. And kids? Not for her, probably ever. She wanted her career (civil engineering). She wanted to be free, or at least to feel free. She sure didn’t want the life I wanted, to raise the fourth generation of my family in the family home, kids who’d grow up nestled in the arms of a loving family and a caring church.
Because she didn’t want that life, I’d decided I didn’t want her.
Until she reappeared that day.
She came up from behind me, just as I’d returned to the reception hall from the hallway. She tapped me on the shoulder and made a bird cooing noise (a private joke between us.) I turned around. She stood there and focused her laser beam eyes on me and I melted.
She said she wasn’t at the service because she thought that should be for the people who’d really known my father.
She didn’t say, and didn’t have to, that my father hadn’t liked her. Between cries of pain while clutching the general area of his liver (nobody will ever know how exaggerated those displays of his were), he’d called her a selfish priss. A woman who refused to bring life into the world. Who wanted just to make money for herself. Contemptible. At least once he said these things in her presence.
So she wasn’t at the service. But she was here now.
I told her how I’d not just lost the man who’d been the rock of my life (even if he was more like a stubborn boulder sometimes). And how I’d also be losing the only home I’d ever known.
She said she understood. Then she said really, she really understood.
She said I was a good man. That I’d proved it, sacrificing much of my young life taking care of him, and of my grandparents before that.
She said I was a man any woman would be proud to know.
And she said that if I wanted her back in my life, she’d have me back.
She even suggested that, since my ties to this block and this city were over, I could follow her new job somewhere in the west.
And you know, I’ll probably do it.
The familial Great Migration, stalled for a few decades, was about to resume.