I Am Isabel the Storyteller

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#64 Muffins with secret ingredients, orange juice, science, and magic: If my story were a meal with many courses, this chapter is a palette cleanser.

On Tuesdays we don’t have cross country practice, so Oliver and I walk the twins home from school. We meander; it’s a scrum-then-scatter pace. Sam and Clyde skip ahead, yell over their shoulders about gym, race back, explain a recess game, stop to check the sidewalk cracks, explain their hot lunch choices, run ahead…repeat. But today, all of a sudden, as if we were joined at the hip, we come to a halt. Across the street, Belle the Barrister has emerged from Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe with her sandwich white board. The twins read it out loud in unison. They holler: GET ‘EM WHILE THEY’RE HOT: MORNING GLORY MUFFINS!  Laser-focused on the sign, we pivot, cross at the crosswalk, and give Belle hugs and kisses. While I use my cell phone to check in with Our People, we hoist ourselves up on the counter stools. I love this sort of serendipity.

A few notes on “cross country” and “cell phones:”

Cross Country: Our school has separate junior and senior cross country teams, but Mr Grim—my teacher—coaches both and we practice together. Oliver is on the senior team—he is very fast—and I’m on the junior team—I run a respectable 7 minute mile. On practice days, either Zia, Pop, or Mimi—or sometimes all three of them or combinations of them!!—pick the twins up. When there’s a meet, they come to cheer us on. (Being retired, they can center their entire lives around us; phenomenal for us at least.)

The Cell Phones: After the harassment incident, Mimi, Pop, and Zia leaped into the 21st Century with this statement: Oliver and Isabel should carry a cell phone for emergencies. And just like that we were cell-toting teens. When I showed it to my classmates, they were amazed that,number one,I hadn’t begged for it and, number two, it came with no tracking devices and parental  controls. Honestly I’ve been too preoccupied for the former and was ignorant of the latter. It’s not that I’m clueless; it’s that I’m “clued” in to other stuff.

Pop had a few rules: 1. No Pokémon GO in math class. (I think he was joking with this one.) 2. Answer when it’s Your People calling. 3. Check with them before downloading. 4. Don’t show it off. (I wasn’t flaunting it when I told my class about it; it just came out, literally: it fell out of my backpack.)  5. Do good with it, not evil. (I guess this would mean if we witness police brutality we video and broadcast it? But don’t be pulling it out and texting or taping and annoying and hurting and embarrassing? I sense that we need to mull #5 more.) 6. Our People have promised not to call or text us during the school day unless, needs must as I say.

Back to Morning Glory Muffins:

Belle doesn’t even have to heat them up. Straight out of the oven, you guys. Lots of secret ingredients today. Can you figure them out?

I pick out sunflower seeds and line them up to eat later. It looks like Belle’s tossed in some dark chocolate and cranberries (don’t like cranberries). The four of us sip orange juice and sort out the various chips and chunks in an effort to decode the recipe.

I meander down memory lane. ”Orange juice is a mixture of water, sugar, and citric acid,” is what Mom would say.

 I have the twins undivided attention. Mention Mom or Dad and they’re on you with unblinking eyes and quivering chins.

One time, before you were born, we were drinking OJ from those cartons with pictures of missing children on the side? Mom opened her notebook and wrote this: H20 + C12H22O11 + C6H807.

And I write the formula for orange juice on my placemat! The letters and numbers glow. My handwriting is unusually legible. I sense an energy—a presence—that hadn’t been here a few moments before.

Oliver, Sam, and Clyde look away from the equation and stare at me like I’m Harry Houdini.

How’d you do that, Isabel? asks Clyde as he pats my hand and hugs me. I’m his supergirl.

I pluck crumbs off his sweater. I pulled that memory out of a deep lagoon, Clydster.

 I am gobsmacked. How DID I remember this. 

Oliver is watching me carefully. Isabel Scheherazade. This is what you mean about your Mom and Dad sitting in the Way-Back Seat, isn’t it? Your Mom is, like, nearby?

I nod. I don’t want to scare the boys, but they’ve moved on to hugging. Sam is leaning over for a hug from his stool on my other side. He doesn’t like to be left out. He gestures to Oliver, You too, mister.

It’s a stretch for four people on counter stools to hug without an accident happening, so Oliver hops off his stool and gets behind all of us and squeezes. He and I are cheek to cheek and laughing. I like it. The boys squeal. Bella comes over to top off our OJs and check on how we’re doing on the ingredients. The hug lock is over, but I know my cheeks are still pink and I think Oliver is blushing. It’s hard to tell.

So far we have the following ingredients:

Brown sugar, dried raspberries (NOT sour cranberries, that’s why I liked them), coconut flakes, flax seed, cinnamon, shredded Granny Smith apple (that’s the green kind that’s sweet?), shredded carrots (you’ll never frown at a carrot again after eating these), crushed pineapple, applesauce, pecans, vanilla, and baking soda-salt-spelt flour-eggs. Oliver did a ski and bake winter break camp in Vermont before he came to be with Zia. He knows that probably all muffins have some arrangement of the hyphenated list of ingredients

He keeps staring at me like I’ve become a unicorn. Is it the up-close and personal cheek to cheek? Or the up-close and personal Mom mirage?

Bella sends us home with three whole muffins for Our People. She adds the OJ formula to the white board.

See what mean? Palette Cleanser.

Isabel Scheherazade

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# 63 To what lengths and distances do living beings go to preserve or dissolve families? And shouldn’t someone be accountable?

Dear Honorable Judge Welch,

I am researching our town’s racial past. My friend Oliver—the same Oliver who asked to be emancipated a while back?—was racially harassed the other day and ENOUGH ALREADY. I am trying to understand how our country was ok with flourishing on the backs of enslaved and disenfranchised people. I know if I don’t learn the history I might help perpetuate the systemic racism that empowered Oliver’s attackers.

My research got me thinking about families and how they are preserved or dissolved. I’m astonished at the great lengths living beings go to in order to do this preserving and dissolving. The phrase “to go to great lengths” means to spend a long time or to take a lot of trouble to affect something or other. I see it also in terms of the DISTANCE it takes to dissolve or preserve. For instance:

5,000 miles: The distance 10 to 12 million enslaved peoples and their families were abducted across the Atlantic to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th century. To Dissolve.

8,000 miles: The distance the Upland Sandpiper flies from the Argentine Pampas to Alaska’s Upland tundra to mate, nest, and raise their young. To Preserve.

4,000 miles: The distance Arturo’s Tante traveled from Peru to cook and clean for her nephew and grandnephew after the Mama died. To Preserve.

3.2 miles. The distance Mom and Dad drove from our “nest” to the traffic light in time for Mr A. Spinoza Carlotto to run it. To Dissolve.

If my thoughts are Dad’s garden last Spring, then they are still germinating. Not to be morbid, but maybe this is where my metaphor is going:

Dad’s garden was almost ready to harvest when he and Mom were murdered. We decided to let it go to seed—like Peter Rowan’s song: if I die before you do, let the garden go to seed. We wanted nature to take its course. So nobody picked the beans, or plucked the tomatoes, or dug the potatoes; and next Spring the process will start all over again, without Dad. My immediate family is like Dad’s garden—butternut squashes, broccoli, kale—going to seed, rotting in the ground. Will it regenerate? Do I believe that?

Please do not think I am “turning a corner” and that my will for revenge is softening. I am not shrugging my shoulders and doing the teenage whatever.

I want to reiterate that Mr. A. Spinoza Carlotto needs serious jail time. Somebody has to pay. Right? Even though it doesn’t seem like anyone is “paying” in regard to the enslaved peoples; their descendants are still suffering and it’s been a few centuries.

Please don’t let your sentencing be influenced by this, Judge Welch.

Isabel Scheherazade

#62. Fake arrest warrants; slave traders from South Carolina; sabotage; a truth and reconciliation opportunity? Or a story that proves (again) that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it inclines towards justice?

Oliver and I are in the dusty archives of our local paper, using an ancient microfiche reader. It’s our first non-Google research experience and it’s a very physical task: Push levers, pull handles, unroll film or fiche. Before the advent of digital media, microfiche was the only way to preserve newspapers in a format that provided easy storage. But the task has become an emotional one too. We’ve unearthed a story that would work as a Netflix documentary short series for all ages.

I don’t want to appear disrespectful when telling this story, but enslaved people were allowed only a first name, although some were given the name of the enslaver eventually. Our hero is Scipio: not an immigrant, even though he or his parents came from Africa; and not a refugee, even though his home may have been destroyed by war. Scipio was most probably a “spoil of war,” meaning he was the invaders’ property. It is possible that his ancestors were abducted from Dukandarra in West Africa. We deduced this because several other enslaved people near our town came from there in the 1700’s.

When Scipio was eight years old he was bought by a Mrs Abigail Kirk. But when he married Venus without Abigail’s OK, she “sold” the couple to her son, Peter, a minister in town. Scipio was a hard worker: In addition to laboring for free as an enslaved person, he earned and saved money from work other people paid him to do. When the American Revolution started, Minister Kirk’s home was raided and he was threatened with tar and feathering because he sided with the Tories. I love Kings, he yelled as he fled to England, leaving the farm entirely in the trusted hands of Scipio and Venus and their growing family. In the words of his “legal guardian” Elias Henry: Scipio lived in Kirk’s House, and conducted his Business with Prudence until said Kirk’s lands were taken and leased out; at which time said Scipio and his Family were turned off and supported themselves comfortably for about five or six years, without any assistance.

Oliver and I are greatly puzzled when we read about this “getting kicked off the farm” business.

The “legal guardian” says they were evicted even though they had done a great job of operating the farm: raised sheep for wool to barter with, pounded 4 bushels of corn each day for the chickens, carded wool, paid their debts, and helped their neighbors. Oliver underlines these words in our notes: no one in town spoke up for them when they were evicted from the farm and replaced by white tenants. No one.

It seems to Oliver and me that the townspeople were horrible: they let the state oust the family; they didn’t give them any help. Resourceful and impressive in their ability to manage, Scipio and Venus were of the community, but still enslaved; they were no burden to anyone, but not defended. (At least they weren’t lynched, I mutter.)

We stop reading for a few minutes, our eyes smarting from scrolling and squinting at the microfiche images of old newspaper articles. Oliver and I are shocked. This is a racial history story that is not going as we thought. We were anticipating that we’d find examples of enslavement because our state had more enslaved people than was previously thought. Many of our college buildings, for instance, were built by enslaved labor; but Scipio’s story was an actual, factual, local example. We were naive to be disappointed that the “white people didn’t help.” Somehow we’d assumed “our” town would have acted better than other towns.

But, “needs must” (as I like to say I like to say): When they were evicted so that a white family could take the farm, Scipio and Venus squatted. Using the lands right next to the Kirk farm, they supported themselves and continued to give food and a helping hand to those who asked. At the end of the war, they re-occupied the farm when the white tenants abandoned it. The farm was in a terrible state of smash. Working 24/7, Scipio and his family mended fences, repaired buildings, nurtured the soil, husbanded the cattle, and returned the farm to its previously prosperous ways. Did Minister Kirk appreciate their huge effort? The answer is an emphatic no.

From England, Kirk arranged with a South Carolina slave merchant to sell Scipio, Venus, and their eight children “down South” to pay off his considerable debts.

Terrible trouble looms. A gang of heavily armed ruffians charge the farmhouse. The attack came at a bad time for a good outcome: The men and boys of the town had gone to practice their militia moves, so “only” the women and children were around to protest.

But protest they did. Unlike earlier when they’d allowed the family to be evicted, the women sabotaged the harnesses of the slavers’ wagon. They harassed them and screamed in their faces despite having swords brandished at them. One eye witness says, The slaver held a Drawn Sword in his hand and as I attempted to go into the house from whence the Negroes was taken, he shook the Sword over my head and Charged me with great anger in his countenance not to go in upon my perrel.

Tiny digression here: We found several “firsthand” accounts written in dip pen and stored at the state library website. (Less dusty than the newspaper archives.) The writing is that spidery style? It looks like the tip of the pen is perpendicular to the paper and pressing only minimally so the letters extend above and below the “line.” I mean, sometimes it was so hard to decipher Oliver joked that it was really Old English grimoire—that being a type of text which has no meaning but looks perfect. (BTW this is the only joke we came up with during our research.)

Back to the drama: The men forcibly enter the house and confront Venus who’s nursing her new baby. They tie Scipio and the older kids to the back of the wagon. The “foreman” waves his power of attorney documentation and deed of sale in one hand while yanking Venus and her infant into the wagon with the other. The neighbor ladies and kids try to grab the papers. To no avail: With some of the family in the wagon and the rest leashed behind, the slave traders rumble out of town. Scipio scooped up heavy stones and deposited them in the wagon in an effort to slow it down when the gang was looking the other way.

But finally! The town rallied. The women sent messages to the militia drillers, we must save our neighbors! Immediately the men galloped toward the pier, concocting a plan as they thundered along. The Tall Tale They Concocted: The local tailor has filed a formal complaint that the family left without paying for some clothing: one Blue Broadcloth Coat with White Mettle Buttons worth Six Shillings, corduroy britches partly worn,for a total debt of eighteen shillings. So a warrant was issued for their “arrest.” (The “warrant” and “complaint” were tucked in a saddle bag.) The posse let out all the stops to overtake the abductors.

The warrant for their arrest uses wording still used today: Fail not but due service and Return make according to the law.

Some of the family was already aboard and in chains when the posse presented their warrant and took the family into “custody.” Scipio’s salt tears were frozen on his face” as he saw his fellow townsfolk coming to the rescue. That night there was a huge celebration in the tavern, with Scipio and Venus partying along with the rest of townspeople. We found a bill with the amounts of beer and ale and food that was drunk and eaten. Refreshments for ourselves and prisoners, 7 Breakfasts plus 8 Negro Breakfasts plus Bitters, at a cost of 16 shillings.(The town paid all the bills except for the bowls of toddy, brandy, and cherry rum!) The amount of alcohol consumed that night indicates that other residents of town joined in to celebrate the return.

But still the agents of Peter Kirk tried to capture, sell, and split up the family. To thwart these efforts, the theft subterfuge had to be pursued and a two year “sentence” was imposed: Two years of “service” supervised by one of Scipio’s good friends.

All was resolved when the state’s General Assembly reviewed the many petitions and depositions filed to free Scipio and his family from slavery. I have been a neighbor of Scipio and Venus for 15 years during which time I have observ’d but few if any of the common Vices of Mankind in them.

No other enslaved person has received as many depositions from local residents in support of a particular request; also, the testimony was overwhelming as to the cruelty of their seizure by the gang of men.

They were emancipated from slavery and forever free in 1789.

Know all whom it may concern that we the Town Selectmen well acquainted with Scipio, Servant to the Peter Kirk, and cannot say anything respecting his Morrels but that they are good, and that he has the Character of being a sober, honest, industrious fellow.

Why didn’t Scipio run to Canada? Get on the Underground Railroad? Did he feel an obligation to tend the farm? Kirk had said nice things about them; perhaps he promised freedom? Was their family just too large to lug around? And what motivated the townspeople to finally help them in a public way? Was it that the popular thinking was transformed in regard to race, slavery, and liberty during the Revolution?

This is one of those stories that show that we humans will do the right thing, but only after trying all the wrong things, or ignoring the problem all together. (I think this is a variation of something Winston Churchill said, but I’ve appropriated it.)

And does this help us deal with the bigotry and race hatred of today? Oliver says, probably not, but, wow, what a good story.

And good stories sustain, even Winnie the Pooh knew enough to ask for a story such as would help him during his time of tightness. He’d eaten so much of Rabbit’s honey, he couldn’t get out the burrow doorway.

Our People think we should put this story into play form and present it to the community. It could be an example of what it looks like when the hidden racial history of the town is revealed. Perhaps because it’s not a lynching, we could get past the indignation and denial stage of reconciliation faster.

#1 (I keep fussing with how to start my story, here’s another “chapter” #1)

I, Isabel Scheherazade, teen-aged story-catcher, wish I could revise my life as easily as I revise this blog of my life…

The Killer sits down at a solo table in the coffee shop. 

I recognize him from the news: black curly hair, one big eyebrow, whiskers, a faded jean jacket, work pants, and Wolverine steel-toe boots.

He stares at his coffee, pushes it away, and holds his head in his hands.

I slip out of my chair and glance at Mimi (my grandmother, newly in charge of us forever), but she’s distracted. The twins dunked their Lego men in the cocoa and are searching for them in the whipped cream. 

I stand at his elbow.

He lifts his head and picks up the coffee. Yes?

You killed my Mom and Dad.

(I now know what it means when someone says her words pack a punch.) His face morphs from blank confusion to startled recognition. My words hit him like a round-house right. His hands tremble. His coffee splashes onto his fingers and the checkered tablecloth. 

I wonder if he’s scalded himself. I hope yes, but then think ouch.

His eyes dart back and forth like he’s hunting for an escape route. 

And see those kids there? I point back towards my table without turning my head. You killed their Mom and Dad, too.

I stop. I don’t have any more words. 

We stare at each other. His face collapses. Tears spill out of his bleary eyes and seep into his whiskers. I’m sorry, he whispers. So sorry. He pushes back from the table, up-ends his chair, and rushes out the door, leaving the coffee.

I watch the door ease shut after him, the bird and viney window curtains whiff carelessly. That makes sense: how many “cares” could cheerful gauze curtains in a cute coffee shop have?

I’m pumped and dazed at the same time. Like a robot, I straighten the chair, sop up the coffee with my sleeve,  toss the cup in the recycle bin, and walk back to our table. I’m awe-filled; or awful; I didn’t know I had tough and bold in me.

Mimi stares at me over the heads of the twins. She’s horrified.

Not me. I’m hate-i-fied.

#61. After the racial “incident” we talk with “our people” and decide that sugarcoating racial history leads to no good.

Oliver grabs my hand and we sprint, first to get Zia; and then, each of us holding one of her arms, we fast-walk down the path to my house. We’re rallying “our people,” gathering the elders. Mimi, Pop, and Zia have decided to work together in a grandparent-grand aunt-grandkids-grandnephew co-op. Gives us the stability of a three-legged stool, Zia explained to us a while back. Your grandparents and I are on challenging footing with the raising of you kids. But, if you use a three-legged stool on an uneven surface you don’t wobble. Far superior to a two or four legged stool. It’s math: any three points must always lie in the same plane. I think of this when I spy her milking goats—perched on an ancient, but still sturdy three-legged stool.

When we pull open the sunroom slider, Pop is cutting veggies for supper. The twins are doing spelling homework in the breakfast nook. Mimi is taking clothes off the line, folding as she goes; she takes one look at the three of us and pours orange juice—her remedy for shock.

We sit on the sectional couches with our juice—Pop making an exception to the no food or drinks on the couches rule. He senses we need hugs from both furniture and people right now. His face goes from grim to grimmer as Oliver and I recount the “incident.” (Wrong word, right? What is incidental about a racial “incident?”)

Were you scared? Sam asks me while he pats and kisses my hand.

Not at first; I didn’t even tune in to what they were saying!

Oliver gets very still. Then he swallows and says,That’s part of the problem, Isabel. I’m not blaming you of course; you’d never say that stuff, but most white people don’t have a racial sensitivity station to tune in TO.

Hard to hear, but, Pop frowns, that’s exactly the right analogy, Oliver. Enough of us aren’t tuned in.

Did the rowdies go to your school? asks Zia.

We explain that they’d come from the court and headed to the bus station, so no, they weren’t fellow students.

But even still, we need to rethink our so-called teaching tolerance curriculum, says Oliver.

Teaching tolerance sounds pretty good, says Mimi

Oliver shakes his head. Too timid.

Timid? More words, young man, says Zia as she takes a firm hold of his hand and shakes it.

African-Americans, Asian-American, East Indian, Native American enslavement has happened since the beginning of our country. Slave labor was considered essential to the economy. But, listen, guys, I asked for copies of the curriculum and “frameworks” and searched. The words “tolerance” and “multicultural” are sprinkled on every page, but there is no information on how the history of non-white people in the US will be taught. And these documents do go into detail about other topics. Teaching phonics, for example; it’s spelled out—how’d you like that pun, Isabel?—spelled out for pages and pages.

Mimi protests, But I remember Isabel’s father having to learn Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.

Spot on, Mimi; the “good parts.” But no requirement to delve into why Dr King had to give the speech in the first place. “Yes” to abolitionists, inventors, civil rights heroes: but “no” to the ugly truths: enslavement, rape, segregation, lynching assassinations, and white-nationalist terrorism.

Pop, Mimi, and Zia look at Oliver with new respect. Pop says, I get what you’re saying. Black History Month focuses on achievements but avoids mention of protests and their aftermath, historical barriers, systemic exploitation and oppression.

In fact, no instruction in the history, agrees Zia. The history that might make us white folks uncomfortable.

Oliver sighs, It’s the same for every non-white group. We learn about a famous Chinese scientist, but don’t learn how mobs massacred 19 Chinese in Chinatown or how Chinese laborers were banned after they were brought here to build the railroads or how Chinese women were banned period. What’s taught in school is window dressing.

The way you describe it, OIiver, I’d say it’s more like lipstick on a pig. Zia shakes her head and squeezes Oliver’s hand harder. He lets her even though he’s blushing. Remember the lynching project we visited?

Right, in Atlanta. Oliver fills in some background. Before settling in here I took the summer to hike the last part of the Appalachian Trail and walked out of the forest at Doubleheader Gap and there was Zia, right on time!

Oliver and I had it planned, of course, but my car has no GPS. I memorized the route; I can still recite the end of my trip: “from Blue Ridge, take Aska Road 13.5 miles until it dead ends into Newport Road. Turn right, go 4.5 miles until it dead ends into Doublehead Gap.

Oliver laughs. It was a relief to see you. He adds more details. Earlier in the summer Judge Welch had said “no” to emancipation and assigned custody of me to Zia. Incredibly, right away she gives me permission to hike solo. To tell you the truth, Zia, part of me worried that you might be too old to know what’s best for me while another part of me thought YES!! But, no matter, there you were, waiting for me, trusting me to show up as arranged. He squeezes her hand now too.

Zia says,You’ve got that mostly right, Oliver. But, I was terrified. At the same time it seemed the only way to start our life together. For the record, you were the skinniest, smelliest kid I’d ever laid eyes on when you walked out of the gap. “Ewee” as the twins like to say.

After Oliver cleaned up in a park shower and ate four double cheeseburgers and inhaled two thick shakes at the Toccoa Riverside Restaurant, they drove to Montgomery Alabama to see 800 steel crosses swaying in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. There’s one cross for each county in the US where racial terror lynchings took place. The names of the victims are engraved on the columns. The hope is that the the community responsible for the lynchings will engage in truth telling about racial injustice and their own local histories. Once historical markers, soil collection ceremonies from the lynching sites, and other programs are held, a monument will be placed in the community indicating that it has engaged in honest reflection and acknowledges their part in racial terrorism.

Pop gives more background, Systemic racism in our country is due to the unresolved history of slavery and white supremacy. As a race, African-Americans have been traumatized throughout their history. Projects like the one in Montgomery have the potential to change things.

Oliver does his slump-shoulder thing. It’s scary being a truth-seeker about our racial history; people seem to think it’s ok to bully someone who doesn’t look like them. Maybe it’s because of the president we had during the pandemic? I don’t know. I was much younger. But I’ve read this might be partly the cause.

We sit around for a while more, pondering. I don’t know what the twins are thinking; but it didn’t seem appropriate to shoo them away. We wide-eye Oliver as he talks, sip OJ, and devour Moravian cake Mimi had made for tomorrow. (We finish it.) With our second helpings, Clyde says in his tired, little boy voice, Ice cream make everything better, don’t you think? And Pop adds a dollop of Canton Creamery mint chocolate chip to each piece.

Zia asks Pop (he used to be a judge, remember?) to see if he can talk to the court and find out who the kids were. She’s worried they’ll come back maybe. Turns out they each have a parole officer who is going to get them into a “program.” I have my doubts if that will help. At least they didn’t physically attack Oliver, like some policemen have done to non-white people they stop for “traffic” violations.

Our People promise to help Oliver and me change the school curriculum; they’ve got ideas, and Mimi already has ties with the Black Lives Matter movement. One thing? I know that the measure of who I am will fall in the gap of what I do about this and what I’ve told you.

Between Mom and Dad getting murdered and witnessing racial harassment first hand, I’ve aged. I furrow my brow and the wrinkles stay.

Isabel Scheherazade

#60. Murmuration: wherein a flock of birds suddenly fly as a shape. Likewise, I suddenly see our race problem that’s always been there but hadn’t murmurated for me yet.

I haven’t mentioned race before because, well, because so far I’ve concentrated on murder and revenge and chickens and Sir Isaac and coffee shoppe drinks and explicit sexual lyrics and courts and Mom, Dad, me, Sam, Clyde, Pop, Mimi, Zia, and Oliver. Hmmmm. Quite a hot mess of narrative threads, but that’s life: tangled. 

I bring up race now because saying nothing about racism is the same as being a racist.

In my opinion.

Our town has 4,325 people. Most of them seem to have a similar genetic background as Mom, Dad, Mimi, and Pop. I’m veering on racist with that “most of them”  statement, but stay with me here, ok?

My grownups gave each other 23AndMe vials and mail-back boxes for presents last year, and the results were as we expected, with a few surprises: Pop is Scottish and Scandanavian (Swedish); Mimi is Croatian (Southern Europe); Dad was a combination of Pop and Mimi; Mom was British (Guernsey Islander) and Ashkenazi Jewish—not a country or region, but Ashkenazis have their own reference population because they’re so genetically distinct; though not distinct to ME, this being the first I’ve heard of this part of my ancestry! All four have a speck of Neanderthal in them too. That’s fun. 

So, pretty European in origins, right? But, our town is lucky also to have a lot of non-Europeans.  Pop, Mimi, Zia, and Mr Grim gave me background on families that I’ve met since moving here. 

Oliver and I are friends with the Jefferson kids. Their families run the the pharmacy, the gas station and the foreign car repair shop. An older daughter is training to be a neurosurgeon and came to speak in Mr Grim’s class this week. (Mr Grim is short for I don’t remember what and he comes from Ukraine.) Back to the Jeffersons. They are descendants of enslaved people and came north during the Great Migration. Barack Jefferson is in Oliver’s class. He wants all his relatives to change their name to a Nigerian one, since who wants to be named after a white slave owner he says, even if he was the President. Gee, if you put it that way, I’d say, do it!

Mrs Nguyen is our Superintendant of Schools. She was one of 120,000 Boat People who fled Vietnam by cramming into boats and ships when the North Vietnamese captured Saigon. The boats were good for sailing near shore but not the open seas. It was a humanitarian crisis. The Unitarian Church in our town sponsored the Nguyens, the Hoangs, and the Daos. We have several generations living here now. 

Dr Moon is Korean and Native Hawaiian (Kanaka Maoli) and he is our pediatrician. His family came from Korea to Hawaii in 1903. That’s where his grandfather met his grandmother. By the time our Dr Moon was born and educated, Hawaii was a state. 

The Freijes have owned and operated our grocery store for 50 years. They came from Syria. “Freijes Food” has organic fruits and vegetables, free-range chickens and beef or lamb, canned goods, grains, bread, and of course daily specials of Mahshi—veggies stuffed with rice or meat—and kibbeh—think: deep fried, torpedo-shaped, filled with meat. Yum. The Freijes donate food all the time; they have a huge community outreach. 

The Razooks are Lebanese. They are candy makers. I met them at the end of this summer when Pop brought me to their store to watch them make the filling that’s in many of their desserts. It’s called Kashta.  Mrs Razook boiled milk with rose and orange blossom water and extracted the clotted cream at the top. She hugged me.  Mr Razook gave us sample dishes of Znoud El Sit, a fried crispy roll stuffed with Kashta and topped with nuts. Even though I was sad sad sad (it was only a few days after Mom and Dad were murdered), the surprise sweetness of Znoud El Sit tickled my throat and tricked me into laughing. I couldn’t help it.

The Amars own and operate our hardware store. Their daughters are our lawyers. For a long time they thought they were descendants of enslaved people from Africa. Then 23andMe showed their lineage here began with a man named “Tony” from East India. He was captured and carried to the early Virginia colony by a Captain George Menefie who traded Tony for a “headright” entitling him to 50 acres of land. The Amars have been here since BEFORE the Mayflower hit Plymouth in 1620!

One of my classmates is Atika; she is from Somalia. She loves hip-hop, wears a jaunty hijab, and is trilingual—her first language being Kinyamulenge which she learned as a tiny kid in a refugee camp. She and her mother Maryan belong to the Somali American Farmer’s Association and are experts on raising goats and sheep (but, alas,no camels) and fresh vegetables. Atika gave a report to our class recently where she described how the Somalis and several land owners are working together to make sure everyone has access to fresh and organic produce and meats. She explained that to jumpstart their efforts, land owners had donated parcels of land and put it in trust for the Somalis. This gave her people a cushion of security so they could, in turn,give food security to others.

Several years ago our town had a refugee influx from the Bosnian War. Because she speaks Croatian, Mimi worked with Mr Grim who had several refugee kids in his classroom. She noticed right away that all the kids didn’t speak Croatian and that they were not best buddies with each other. At the end of the first day, a terrible fight broke out between two of the kids. Turns out their families were on opposite sides of the conflict! Mimi was shocked by the hate in the kids’ faces as they slugged each other. Mr Grim called the families in and Mimi translated, ENOUGH ALREADY!  She decided to use picture dictionaries to teach the kids to read, speak, and write English. Mr Grim asked his sister who runs a chimney sweep company to help out; she added two work crews and hired several of the adults. The situation is defused, as they say. 

I know I don’t have all the groups, but now I must focus on Oliver and what happened to him.

While Zia is all Italian, her nephew married a woman from China—Oliver’s mother. Her family had immigrated to San Francisco, but then a shoe factory owner from North Adams, Massachusetts hired them to work as strike-breakers at his factory. Talk about a surefire recipe for super-charging a race and labor battle! This was 1870. Eventually, Oliver’s mother’s family made their way to Boston’s Chinatown where they thrived. 

What does Oliver look like you might be thinking? Well, he’s cute, I have to say. Tall, jet black hair, wide cheekbones, and no crease around the top of his eyelids—I noticed this last detail because he sits across from me after school in the breakfast nook and, hmmm, I like to look at him. To tell you the truth since I knew Zia was Italian, I assumed he was Italian-American. Shows how much I don’t know. 

So the other day he and I were walking past the courthouse; the twins—thank goodness—had been picked up earlier to go to Dr Moon for a checkup. We’d gone to the coffee shop to chat with Belle and were sharing a giant chocolate chip cookie as we walked home.  All of a sudden a bunch of older kids pour down the court steps, high-fiving each other, and lighting cigarettes. Probably got off with a hand slap mutters Oliver with a scowl. He glances at them and then looks away, but I think he may have caught their attention, based on what happened next. (Not that I noticed what happened next WHEN it was happening.)

My mind registers that they’re talking louder than usual, but I’m so engrossed in telling Oliver about the twins run away attempt, I don’t attend to the scrum behind us. In fact I’m miffed that Oliver does not laugh at the funny parts of my story. 

Suddenly Oliver stops and rounds on the loud kids behind us. He  shakes his fist. 

I do NOT eat bats. I am not your slave. I will not give you an N-pass. This IS my home. My family came to this country in 1870. And it wasn’t the China Virus. That’s crazy talk.

The gang stops too. Everyone’s fists are clenched. 

I’m gob-smacked. First, I’ve never seen Oliver lose his cool. Second, I hadn’t computed the jumble of words behind me; I was so enthralled with my own story. But the slurs and taunts hit the bullseye—Oliver, loud and clear. 

For a split second I wonder if this will be my first rumble.

Instead the kids spit, say F-U Asians, sneer, fist-bump, and cross to the other side of the street towards the station, giving us the finger as they climb aboard a bus. 

To be continued in #61–Isabel Scheherazade 

 

#59. Wynton Marsalis plays “I’ve got a nagging feeling” in the sunroom and I think about Arturo’s breakthrough, beaver dams, and the mystery tugging at my mind and heart.

When Arturo looks at me, smiles, and talks, I picture a scene from the Way-back Seat of my memory— back when I lived with Mom and Dad back when, well, back when they lived:

Beavers have dammed the brook that flows through our back lot, causing the yard to flood and water to trickle into our cellar. Not a good thing. I go with Mom or Dad to stand on the dam and pull out sticks. Actually, I stand and teeter and they pull sticks and steady me so I don’t go into the water. Each year, If we get to the dam before the beaver makes it strong and permanent, all we need to do is pull out a few branches, and then the force of the brook disintegrates the dam. And the beaver finds another site. 

Well, that’s what happened with Arturo. The breakthrough was the little book and his determination to tell the story behind the sketches: it’s like his words were dammed up inside him.

Oliver asks him, So, what are you an expert at? Picking books? Drawing?

I look at him like he’s clueless because I already know what Arturo is great at.

Papa.  He points to the smiling Papa. I make him smile; I’m an expert at it.

Oliver tells me later he was going to ask him why Papa was sad, but then the teachers announce, Time to clean up, kids.

I look at Arturo’s first picture, the one with Papa sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. There is something vaguely familiar about this. I can’t put my finger on it though.

cropped-isabelcrossleg22.jpg

ISABEL who’s got that nagging feeling and also loves Wynton Marsales.

# 57 Even though they are fabsolute (absolutely fabulous) about the chicken project, Mimi and Pop don’t know everything. For instance, they didn’t get the Taylor Swift cardigan ad.

Before Pop put the TV away, we sometimes ate breakfast with “Morning Joe” (and Mika) on the MSNBC channel. There was this Taylor Swift ad. It’s looking kind of chilly out today. What am I gonna wear? Taylor wonders. Then she slides open huge, white barn doors to reveal a slew of sweaters—all exactly the same: white cardigans complete with trios silver stars sewn onto the elbows. I think I’ll go with (lots of deliberation) a cardigan, she decides. I knew that the white cardigan is the nub of the joke because “Cardigan” is the lead single of her album Folklore. But Every Single Time the ad was on, Pop and Mimi would say I don’t get it; why does the closet contain only white cardigans? What is it with this girl and all those sweaters? Finally I took them in hand, showed them videos of Taylor Swift singing “Cardigan” and explained that it was a joke and, likewise Capitol One is the only choice for a bank, this all being in service of the sponsor, Capitol One.

We had a few laughs looking at YouTubes of another Taylor Swift ad. It promoted her Lover album. She played a waitress at a diner as “Me” played on the jukebox. It was like they were touring Mars; I had to explain so much.

But it’s only the very contemporary and superficial items they are clueless about. They have a deep well of knowledge for all the rest.

An example? The chicken project. Not that they knew about chickens, but they knew chickens were Just What We Needed.

I’ll give an update on the dear creatures: They arrived in the mail, something that’s been happening since 1918! Chicks are mailed the morning they hatch and can survive up to 3 days without food or water because immediately after they hatch they ingest the nutritious egg yolk! When they arrived at our little post office by ground transportation, we got a call to come pick them up. Our Postmistress, Mrs Grim—wife of Mr. Grim my teacher—was being serenaded. We opened the box and stood spellbound.

Sam counted One, two, three, four, five, six…seven. One two three four five six SEVEN! We had only ordered six chicks.

Then Pop informs us, Er, they send one extra.

Even I don’t get it at first. One extra, like a bonus, thanks for being our customer sort of thing? I’m a little puzzled that Pop is so tentative but all of a sudden I get it. Oh, in case one DIES.

And then we go pin drop quiet thinking of replacement Mom and Dads.

Our school should substitute raising chicks for that class they have in the upper grades where the kids have to carry a RealCareBaby Simulator to teach them what it’s like to be a parent. (Like it’s so hard to know that babies are a 24/7 deal, people? Who doesn’t know this?) It’s a learning aid to teach early childhood, parenting, infant health lessons, and sex education. (It used to be call Baby Think It Over or BTIO, for obvious reasons?) It’s like a smart phone, only it’s a smart baby that uses wireless programming to track and report on the caregiver’s behaviors, like care events, mishandling actions, time in a car seat, clothing changes, etc. Oliver is helping with our chickens and he and I are going to put a PowerPoint together on this idea and present it to the school board. He also just read this over my shoulder and says I am clueless if I think EVERYONE thinks about bringing up the baby when they engage in baby-making behavior. He’s such a know it all. (He’s also SUPPOSED to be picking Sir Issac’s hoofs; I already curried the burrs and thistle.)

In my opinion, chickens and children are the same, with a few obvious differences of course. Both never get over a bad start. A good chicken start includes: a brooder, heat lamp, bedding, lights, feeders, and waterers. In the beginning they stay in the brooder until they’re big enough for the coop—about 6 weeks, when they’ll have most of their “juvenile” feathers. The timing works since we’re having to redo parts of the chicken run; Oliver and I discovered a few more potential predator access points. The brooder is Sam and Clyde’s old crib—they slept head to toe in the same crib until they went to “big boy” beds. Also, like with human babies, we have to pay attention: Are they too quiet, panting, wings extended? (Too hot) Are they evenly distributed in the brooder? (Just right) Are they crowding under the heat source and doing a distress calling? (Too cool) Are they gathering in just one place? (Check for drafts) We had to teach them to eat. We placed feed on squares of paper and then, once they got the idea of eating feed, we switched to feeders. And fugetaboutit if you think you can economize and use bowls instead of feeders. Chicks will kick the food out and the bedding in. Think baby in a high chair with finger food. Empty, clean, refill feeders and waterers; repeat. Change the heights as they grow. Change the food as they grow. Make sure they have their vaccinations! Pick them up and cradle them. Chickens can recognize up to one hundred human faces and they keep track of who feeds them and hugs them up. And, yes, it does take a village: All of us do the chicken project; it takes ten hands, five hearts, and five minds—well, 12, 6, and 6 if you count Oliver. (Can you tell he’s still reading this over my shoulder?)

Another serendipity is this: Arturo has chickens too! (Spoiler: He and his Papa and his Tia (Peruvian for Aunt) eat them, so instead of naming his chickens, he hugs them and now that he’s talking, he talks to them too.) We ARE naming our chicks. Oliver found a list of the 150 most popular chicken names. Pop thought we could call them all by the same name until we see what each one’s personality is. I mean, who can tell them apart right now anyhow. Sensible idea but Sam and Clyde don’t understand. They think they’ve named them Chicken Nugget. Egg Nog. Jewel. Turkey Lurkey. Drumstick. Muffin. Daffy or Daffodil, but they don’t know which is which. I don’t like names that make you think of chicken on a menu, but you know how it is with naming things. Mimi said her mother and father couldn’t decide for months what to name her. Of course, eventually they did. But when she had to get a copy of her birth certificate from the town hall before she married Pop, she saw that instead of her name it still said Baby Girl!!

Isabel Scheherazade, grandkid of Pop and Mimi and interpreter of Morning Joe advertising to the Baby Boomers

#56. Judge letter draft two, written after the fading penumbral eclipse has flamed my anger. My murdered Mom and I were going to watch this together.

Dear Honorable Judge Welch,

My Mom and I had a date to stay up all night on this particular night. We were going to watch the entire Penumbral Eclipse. Just in case you don’t know how big a deal this is, let me explain. I assume you know the essentials? The moon shines because its surface reflects the set-sun’s rays? I ask because some people think the moon just up and shines on its own. A lunar eclipse happens when the Earth comes between the sun and the moon and blocks sunlight from directly reaching its surface. A PENUMBRAL lunar eclipse occurs when the Sun, Earth, and Moon align in an almost straight line. The Earth blocks some of the sun’s light from directly reaching the moon and covers a part of it with the outer part of its shadow. This is known as the penumbra.

And Mom has missed it because Mr. A. Spinoza Carlotto ran a red light and murdered her and my Dad. And he’s still on the loose and they’re up in Heaven or some such place depending on your personal beliefs. Perhaps they have a better seat for the eclipse than I did. I spent the hours watching it from my window seat, all alone.

This brings up the fact that since my parents were killed by Mr. A. Spinoza Carlotto, I have not had a good night’s sleep.

The sentencing hearing is coming up soon. I urge you to give him the maximum. A life’s sentence. After all, my family has been dealt a life sentence of missing my Mom and Dad. Ad quod damnum.*

Sincerely yours,

Isabel Scheherazade

*My friend, Oliver has researched this concept. He was in your courtroom recently asking to be emancipated—tall, dark straight hair, olive complexion, very smart, but too young to be set free? He told me that he thought the penalty for Mr. A. Spinoza Carlotto should correspond to the damages inflicted. The Latin—in case you want to look it up in your legal Latin book—is ad quod damnum—according to the harm would be the translation. One life sentence for another life sentence?

# 55. Mom and I were going to watch the penumbral eclipse together, but since she’s been murdered, I have to watch it alone which is forcing me to sit in that middle seat of our van with all the crash day and court day memories. Not good.

From my dormer window seat, I study the giant Hunter’s Moon, squinting my eyes to see if the penumbral eclipse has started.  Mom was eagerly anticipating this night. We’ll watch it together, Isabel is what she promised. Hey, who knows; I am experiencing the Mom-is-nearby feeling. I hear her voice as if from the great silent void of space saying, On its southern-most edge, Earth will move between the set-sun and the full moon. This will allow us to see the outer part of Earth’s shadow. And there it is, Mom—our penumbra! It’s getting clearer and clearer.

But missing Mom is putting me in that middle van seat of memories; in real life Mom and Dad kept that seat folded down in order to fit the double-wide twin stroller; so, as a metaphor it works, since I usually want to bury the horror of the crash day and now the court day. But like the penumbra sneaking into view via my peripheral vision, I revisit a scene sliver from the court caper. As Pop and Mimi were marching me outside, I glimpsed the killer in a shadowy alcove beyond the metal detectors. He was lit from above by a chandelier missing most of its lightbulbs.

Here’s what I saw: the killer is hunched over like he’s carrying a load on his back—burdened, as they say in books. Too pooped to pop as Mom used to say when she was pregnant with the twins. Another man, his lawyer maybe, supports him on one side. On his other side, more in the light, is a tiny lady dressed in layers of bright, colorful clothing: a square woven cloth that covered her narrow back and shoulders, secured in front with what looked like a sturdy diaper pin; an embroidered skirt with several other skirts underneath; and a vibrant hat loaded with beads, sequins, and bric-a-brac. She pats his back as they walk. Is it his mother? She looks like an illustration from my National Geographic magazine on Peru.

His suit is strange. I think it’s too small for him, like he might have gotten it for his wedding years ago and then grown up. You can see his white socks and all of his wrists. His hands shake, just like that time in the coffee shop.

The scene gets fuzzy along with my and Mom’s penumbral eclipse, so I crawl into bed. Even though I punch pillows and yank covers, I’m not as filled with venom and vengeance as I was immediately after Mom and Dad were killed. Maybe it’s because of the chickens or Sir Isaac or Oliver or maybe even Arturo. My madness is more muted.

But not so muted that I’m giving up on seeking revenge. Pop and Mimi go on and on about different laws and shades of meaning, blah-blah-blah. No disrespect to Mimi and Pop, but Mom and Dad are dead because of this guy.  I want the judge to put him in jail and throw away the key. Darn. The problem with thinking about this now is that it riles me and I can’t sleep.  I might as well get up and write a Judge Welch letter.

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