i never had much, but what i lacked in material possessions or assets–i made up for in relatives. i have a lot of friends who come from small families. some were only children, some had only one sibling. and not many cousins nor extended family to speak of.
i often envied those from small families. i assumed they had the resources to get whatever they wanted in the form of toys or videos games. they never had to wear “hand-me-down” clothes because their wardrobe didn’t break the family’s bank. they had a sizable weekly allowance and didn’t have to fight over the prize in the cereal box. their family could afford to buy cereal with a prize in the box. not Corn Flakes with that stupid chicken on the front of the box, and not so much as a maze or word search on the back to keep us occupied while we ate.
maybe that chicken wasn’t stupid. that was unfair of me to assert.
was it a rooster? i can’t really recall…yeah, maybe it’s a rooster?
i remember one of the times we got evicted and moved to Grandma Gert’s apartment in Van Dyke Projects (it’s technically named “Van Dyke Houses,” but come on…).
my three brothers, mother and i slept on the living room floor each night on a pile of sheets and sofa cushions. beneath that was a run-down red shag (wall-to-wall) carpet that seemed like the carcass of Mr. Snuffleupagus.
but we didn’t care–we were at Grandma’s house! and we stayed on that living room floor until Uncle Chink (don’t ask (also don’t ask about the black cat that lived there, who was named “Honky” (because if i stop to explain those, then i’ll also have to tell you about Gert’s friend “Super Nigger.” and there’s not enough time for that.))) moved out. at that point, my three brothers, mother and i got to share the bed Uncle Chink left behind. there was an awful lot of sharing, and as you know–kids don’t often enjoy sharing.
so i spent a good amount of time envying others. friends, relatives and neighbors who had their own beds, their own rooms, their own toys, their own underwear. i was so preoccupied about stuff and things that i never stopped to consider how my mother must’ve felt even being in that situation. Ma was always gracious enough to never let on how bad things really were. that way, we wouldn’t have to be ashamed to know how petty we were. as an adult, i realize how much pride i would have to swallow to ask someone to take on me (no A-Ha) and four kids. i’m embarrassed to go to Ma’s house and eat food there!
but Gert is a legend, that’s why she’s in the Old & Wise video (at 1:57). she is immortal to half of Brownsville already, and it is specifically because of her wit and self-sacrifice. professionally, and in her personal life Gert has always given more than humanly possible to make someone else’s life easier. so she took us on and never made us feel unwelcome. let’s face it–grandkids are probably cool for a quick visit or a weekend stay. but a three-year stay? two separate times?
Gert got us through it. so did Uncle Fabian and Aunt Janine who would have us over to visit our cousins, feed us and give Gert and my mother a damn break from all them kids. Aunt Deborah, who watched us while my mother started going to night school. Uncle Kevin, who would humor us while we were annoying him (boys like to get picked up and thrown across the house). Uncle Donald and Aunt Ethel (Gert’s brother and sister) who lived in East New York–the next ghetto over (and took care of their mother until she passed at age 100 in 1994) pitched in greatly. Aunt Ethel would always open the door knowing damn well we wanted ice cream and change for the video arcade. she gave both every time we came–which was often. but we’d sit and talk to our great-grandmother who was already in her mid-eighties at that time. “Mama” was always so excited to talk to us, and we were always excited to hear her, share ice cream and watch The Price Is Right together. Uncle Donald’s area of the apartment looked like the cutaway scenes from Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids. there were tons of stray objects that he’d collected around town.
so he always had something to gift a curious kid. plus, he had enough spare parts (plus know-how) to make a bicycle for each one of us–right on that terrace in Brooklyn! Gert’s mom and her many siblings (I wanna say “6”) have since passed on, but she’s still in the game at 81. She’s now a great-grandmother, with (i think) 8 great-grandkids. Gert said to me last year “Yahya, i will not leave this vale of tears until you bring me a great-grandchid.” at the rate i’m going, she will live to be (at least) 106. or i’ll get that vasectomy so she can live forever.
so these and many other amazing elders guided my many siblings, cousins and godbrothers through life during some rough times in NYC during the 70s and 80s. i will only speak briefly about the joy of having so many people to play with and trade toys with. not so joyous was the inheritance of used clothes. as talented a seamstress as my mother is, we did clamor for new clothes. but what she and others could not buy, they made up for in love, support and encouragement. i suppose they hadn’t much choice.
the lesson here is, “love is free.”
i find out constantly from my friends who come from small families that they envy the vastness and togetherness of a large clan. they envy the fact that my family shrugged off material concerns to stoke our imagination. maybe it’s a case of the “grass being greener.” i would’ve loved to have Cap’n Crunch every day for breakfast.
but i do value my experience. love is free.