Sunday, January 25, 2015

Remembering Melissa

2493 Richton, in Detroit, is the oldest place I know. It’s not the address that I was born into, but when I think of “home”, the place my roots lead me to, a place where I always had a place, it’s that house that I think of.

Richton was the home of my Aunt Bernice, my mother’s sister, and her family. It was also the hub of my extended family; the place my brother Rhett and I vacationed almost every summer after we moved to New York, and where so many other family members – some so distantly related that the connection was not always clear – lived for a time when they came north from West Virginia or the Carolinas.

Aside from Aunt Bernice, the person I most associate with this most cherished home of my heart, is her daughter, my first cousin, Melissa. Melissa was the eldest of the small bunch of us cousins growing up together. Her brother Jeff was the youngest. In between them were Rhett and I, and Linda and Terry, whose father Earl was our mother’s closest cousin. The six of us spent so much time together, mostly on Richton, with Melissa presiding over and guiding us. She was only three or four years older than Rhett, but her maturity and confidence made her almost adult in our eyes. Certainly, she was the intermediary between our childhood worlds and all that lay beyond.

I have three standout memories of Melissa. The first dates from our earliest childhood, when the six of us, and a couple of the Spielman kids from across the street, would gather at Richton on a Friday night, left by our parents into Aunt Bernice’s care. Melissa was, among other things, a great entertainer and story-teller, and the bunch of us never tired of Melissa taking us into the basement, turning out the lights, and thrilling us with a scary story.

Our favorite, for which we clamored every time, was about Johnny & the Liver. Looking back, it’s such a gruesome and ridiculous story, but we never tired of Melissa’s re-telling. It’s about a kid who is given a dollar by his mother, to go to the butcher’s for a pound of liver. Johnny decides to keep the dollar, to buy candy or something. So, spying a bum lying unconscious in an alley, Johnny takes his utility knife and cuts out the man’s liver, wraps it in paper, and takes it home. After dinner (and no, I can’t remember how Melissa covered that part!), Johnny goes to bed, where he’s soon unsettled by disturbing sounds outside his window. After awhile, he hears a hoarse whisper, rising to him from the back alley that runs beneath the sill. It says, “Johnny! I want my LIVER back, I’m on the FIRST step!” This was the point at which we kids started to squeal and quake and poke each other in the dark. Melissa would build up the tension, with details of Johnny’s efforts, first to ignore the voice, then to somehow barricade himself against the inevitable retribution stalking him in the night. I won’t even try to duplicate the level of gleeful terror that Melissa would have inspired by the time the vengeful spectre reaches the tenth step, and Johnny meets his fate. Ah, what fun that was!

My second memory finds me at about fifteen, during one of our summer stays in Detroit. Melissa had blossomed musically, and was playing piano and singing in the church choir. I’d started dabbling in music myself, and was sitting one day, trying to pick out the piano part of “O Happy Day”, the gospel tune by the Edwin Hawkins singers that had become a hit on top-forty radio. Melissa heard me going at it, and sat down and taught me a wonderful version of the tune, with the left hand banging out the strong, rhythmic baseline that made the piece so dynamic. Melissa was so patient with me, but also, as excited as I was, as I gradually caught the energy and flow of the song.

My third memory is from just before my 20th birthday, when I’d dropped out of college to bounce around the country for a few months. Over the years, 2493 Richton had seemed to diminish, somehow. We cousins were branching out, trying to discover our own paths, the elders were older and less active, and I remember a feeling that perhaps something that had been alive and beautiful was now dead and done. But I arrived to find Melissa, not long married, and with her baby daughter, Ramana, just on the verge of learning to walk. I instantly fell in love with Ramana, and seeing my cousin, now married and a mother, was transformative. She’d always been like an advance scout for my generation, into the world of maturity and adulthood. And here she was – ARRIVED! Melissa was still the same young spirit, loving and fun and creative as she’d ever been, and at the same time, she was a married woman, with a child, and an entirely different future to grow into.

But the key thing about that visit was seeing how Ramana’s very presence created that future, not just for Melissa, but for the entire family. We were all in love with Ramana. And I remember my mother, also visiting, and aunt Audrey, the matriarch of the family, great aunt to both Melissa and I, who was living at Richton at the time, and so many others in the family, sitting around for hours at a time it seemed, watching Ramana’s every move, commenting on her every gurble, delighting at every expression and exploration, seeing the future emerging in front of our eyes, bringing new life, new hope, new possibility.

So yes, my strongest memories of Melissa aren’t just about her at all. They are embodied in her children, in those of us she taught, and those of us she guided and cared for. Her life was never just her life, it’s always been the life of an entire family, of a community, of a place that was home for so many. And so, of course I will miss Melissa. But she’ll never be gone, really. She, like love and life, is everywhere. She’s as deep as roots grow, as long as memory, as eternal as hope and possibility, and as satisfying to the spirit as being scared and thrilled in the dark, because, after all, it’s your mother/sister/cousin telling the scary story,  and you know that the light is just up the stairs a way.

Thank you, Melissa.