Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Winner - " A Broken Promise In Brooklyn " Jeanine DeHoney

                  2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Winner

A Broken Promise In Brooklyn


Jeanine DeHoney

 “If you name her after me Eddie Lee, I promise she won’t ever have to worry for nothin’.”

 My Great Aunt Corrine circa 1931.

 Long before I came into this world, before I took my first lungful of air outside my mother’s 

womb at Kings County Hospital, before there was that familiar parental debate over who I 

favored, my Mother or Father, there was a promise made in Jersey City. For  years that promise 

would remain unfulfilled and cause a ripple of sadness across the bridge in Brooklyn for my 

mother’s baby sister, whom because she had the voice of a songbird, we called Sing instead of 

her given name Corrine.

 As a child, I never associated Brooklyn with broken promises. Back then, the promises made to 

me were simple enough to be kept. The promise of a hand full of jiggling coins on a humid 

summer day to buy ice-cream from the musical truck that stopped on the corner of Blake Avenue

 in Brownsville. The promise of a new pair of shoes from a shoe store on Pitkin Avenue when 

my heels were run over. The promise that if I’d get swooped up into my father’s strong arms and 

my knee dabbed with a bit of spit on his handkerchief if I fell while playing outside and scraped 

my knee.

 As all children were at my age, I was naïve about adults and how complex they could be. I 

thought that when they professed their love, when they said that they would show up for a child 

they would. But too often their promises were like writings in the sky. They vanished like a 

billow of white smoke, as if they had never been etched into the heavens much less a precious

 child’s heart.

 “If you name her after me Eddie Lee, I promise she won’t ever have to worry for  nothin’.”

 Those words from my Great Aunt Corrine would haunt me even though I heard them 

secondhand. Maybe that was why I always kept my distance from her when we piled into my 

father’s blue station wagon and went to visit her. Maybe that was why as I sat on her plastic 

covered sofa, in her poorly lit room that smelled of mothballs and were full with expensive 

antiquated things, I bit my nails to the skin and refused her food and tapped my feet on her 

creaky wooden floors waiting to escape. Maybe even then I sensed that she had committed an act

 of betrayal on someone I so deeply loved. 

 Great Aunt Corrine was my maternal grandmother, whose name was Eddie Lee, sister. She had 

never married or had children of her own but lived a financially comfortable if not lonely life. 

When she realized it would be this way until she went to her grave, when my grandmother 

declared this was her last child, she asked if she could have the honor of having a namesake. 

 My grandmother was living in a tenement on Sumpter Street in Bedford Stuyvesant then. She 

was struggling while my grandfather was away in the Army. Other kin had promised to help her 

and hadn’t come through. That promise by my Great Aunt Corrine made my grandmother 

pungent with the expectation that some of the burden of being the mother of five would be eased

 off of her, so indebted she agreed.

 Great Aunt Corrine’s promise though was as good as a piece of lint one plucked off of one’s 

clothes and let fall where it may. Sing would have a suitcase bursting at the seams with worries

 nearly all of her life. She was just seventeen months old when she lost her father, my 

grandfather, who died at the Fort Hamilton Veterans Hospital after a lengthy illness. I once

 thought about how my life would be without the imprint of my father and my heart skipped an 

abysmal beat. I imagined hers did too, when she ached for the father she had never gotten a 

 chance to know.  

 After graduating from high school she went to work at a soda factory in Harlem. When she got 

off work, she would head back to Brooklyn but stop over at a local bar with her co-workers. The

 bars that lined the streets of Fulton Street and Nostrand Avenue with their jukeboxes playing

 music that swept her mind away from her troubles was addictive.

Before long she met a handsome man there who was in the Army. After a short courtship she 

married him and left Brooklyn to go to Hawaii where he was stationed. Her marriage ended not

 long after she got there. You’d think that in such a place with such breadth and beauty, new love 

would bloom effortlessly as a rushing waterfall but it didn’t.

 Sing came back to Brooklyn, to my grandmother’s apartment on Sumpter Street heartbroken 

and pregnant. A baby boy was born prematurely months later and only lived a few days. She was

 too distraught to attend the memorial service for him and a mix-up caused him to be buried in 

Potter’s Field.

Pain settled deep in her sinews and the only way she could get rid of it was by drinking.  It was 

as if she had written her own obituary, pulled out her funeral dress and was ready to be buried.

 “So sad,” my aunt Louise would say as I sat in her kitchen on Pulaski Street many years later

 after Sing had passed away. Grief was etched all over her face. Even then. 

 I swallowed the lump in my throat. Vignettes of Sing’s life flashed in front of me like an old 

movie camera. Like it does now when I think of her. We were like two peas in the pod, the both 

of us. Sometimes she was as giggly as a schoolgirl. 

Although I shouldn’t have been, I became her confident. As we sat in my grandmother’s living 

 room, she sitting in Mama’s old beat-up flowered armchair smoking a Camel cigarette, Tina

 Turner legs crossed at the ankle, I’d sit at her knee on the cold linoleum floor hanging onto her

 every word. 

 Sometimes on the weekend when I saw her getting dressed, I’d almost do backflips to keep her 

home knowing that she was headed to the local bar. One time I stood by the door and tried to 

block her but she left as soon as I moved away to pick up my cat, the stray one we found on the

 street that we acting like co-conspirators, convinced my grandmother to keep. My cat loved her

 just as much as she loved me. And Sing took good care of her too. 

 My grandmother’s apartment had a fire escape. If I stood just so and stuck my head over its 

railing I could see all the way down the block. The fire escape was timeworn and corroded from

 the weather. It would dangerously teeter if you put too much weight on it and I was constantly 

being told to come back inside by my mother. In the summer I would sit on the safest part of it 

to wait until the wee hours of the morning for Sing’s return. Sometimes it would seem as if time

 stood still. Other times I’d get distracted by the young men shooting craps or singing Doo-Wop

 underneath me and the time would go by faster. In the winter I’d sit by the window, lifting it to 

just a crack so I could hear Sing’s high heels clicking down the empty dark street.

 Once I heard her walk up the stairs I would unlock my grandmother’s double bolted door.

 Everyone else would be sleep, and I’d take her hand and lead her to her bed. She always fell

 asleep right away. I’d take off her shoes and cover her with one of my grandmother’s quilts. I’d 

lay beside her and through the night inch closer to check to make sure she was breathing, not at

 all repelled by the putrid smell of alcohol on her breath. My grandmother was very religious 

and she taught me to pray about everything, so I prayed “Please God let her stop drinking.”  

 There was a despondency that loomed over her even when she laughed or danced or sang one of

 her favorite Aretha Franklin songs. No one or nothing could suppress her blues except for 

alcohol. Maybe I often thought, if Great Aunt Corrine had kept her promise, instead of trying to 

trick my Grandmother into having a namesake, things would have been different. Maybe if she

 had held little baby Corrine tenderly in her arms and cooed to her how beautiful she was and 

whispered the dreams she had for her future close to her ear, I’d have a different story to tell. 

Maybe if during her life when she knew she was at the end of it and she realized how wrong

 she’d been and made amends, happiness wouldn’t have been so evasive in Sing and she would 

have felt special, chosen, wrapped in love like a patchwork quilt from this female kin who could

 have changed her destiny.  

 At times I think, Great Aunt Corrine spoke a curse over not just Sing but over our whole 

family; the curse of broken promises.  For it resonated wherever we were, wherever we

 relocated, be it another borough or another state or even another country like where my niece

 lives with her family in Italy. It caused us, the women to be skeptical when someone said they

 would do something for us. Our hearts were only eighty percent open. The other twenty percent 

thought they might disappoint us. The other twenty percent expected them to.

 By the time I became a teenager Sing had stopped drinking. She called me often and we talked 

about everything. She bragged about her niece being a writer and I’d read her my stories over 

the phone. When I got married and started a family of my own she called me at least once a 

week. Busy then with my own life, I was always in the midst of something and never talked 

long. Sing had moved to an apartment in Downtown Brooklyn. She appeared to be at peace but 

to keep from drinking she swallowed a palm full of prescribed pills each day.

 One day I answered the phone while visiting my mother. Sing was dead. She died in her sleep. 

It was in May,1985. I heard glass cracking. Jagged edges and small shards. So many fragmented 

pieces. She was only fifty-four years old.  

 There has always been a loose thread that kept unraveling in my life. Now I know it was 

because I hadn’t told Sing’s story. I’ve told my mother and my father’s stories several times 

over; in essays, in fiction, to perfect strangers in the doctor’s waiting room. My aunt’s story 

though, her struggle with alcohol, had been like a shameful verse in her life and I was fearful of 

tainting her image. But how could I talk about her without talking about the totality of who she

 was. For that was how I loved her. Even with her faults and fears and pain she was my

 backstitch; underpinning and fortifying the stitches my mother embroidered in my tapestry. 

There was a gentleness in her touch as she mapped my face with her hands to coax a smile if I 

was pouting. And a tenderness in her voice that helped me breathe free of worry even when I 

was worried about her.

 Sing had countless perfect moments that I will remember. When I close my eyes I can see them,

 hear her voice sounding eagle strong during her sober moments. I can see her sitting in her robe 

tightly pulled around her drinking a cup of Sanka coffee at my grandmother’s dinette on a 

Sunday morning. I can see her doing a crossword puzzle with her glasses on the edge of her 

nose. And I can hear her voice urging me to live my best life.

 Addicted souls are fragile souls, their DNA porous, their emotional skin more like parchment 

than corrugated cardboard and they need love, pure and nonjudgmental. I am thankful that I gave

 that kind of love to Sing. Maybe that was my promise to her even though I never verbalized it. 

Maybe that was a way to untie the cords of the broken one made by my Great Aunt Corrine.

Maybe it’s called redemption…finally in Brooklyn.

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