Keisha-Gaye Anderson

the door

Women who dance in storms

August 6, 2012



I shouldn’t be alive.

German Measles causes birth defects—the kind that working class Jamaican women had scarce resources to manage, especially in the 1970s. But, then again, my mother had always been stubborn.

“Deaf, blind, and mentally handicapped.” She heard the words from three separate doctors. Someone in the house had it and a pregnant woman couldn’t be too cautious, if exposed.

The doctors’ suggestions to abort were well-intentioned nudges coming down from the ranks of the haves to those in perpetual wanting: Don’t bring a new problem into a society whose existence was, itself, a sort of unresolved problem.

Jamaica in the 1970s was a pissed off youth, poised with a Molotov cocktail, oblivious to the well-dressed snipers in the hills behind his back.

And yet, it had always been an old African woman sucking her teeth in midst of a hurricane. My mother came from such women.

She ignored two doctors and instead, allowed me to draw my first breath in a place called Kingston—the first act of love I would instinctively understand. Regardless of the weather, life materializes on its own terms.

Yes, a mother is assumed to love her child vice versa, but the story of my almost-death gave me quantifiable evidence that I was wanted, which deep down, every child wonders, especially when the blue-collar treadmill produces perpetually exhausted parents, a growing pile of envelopes with red lettering, and a nine year-old latch key girl too knowledgeable about all things adult.

We had become New Yorkers. This was progress. This was the effective movement of labor across borders, giving way to greater opportunities. It was all, they said, for me, ironically, the only one in the family with perfect vision.

I was lonely.

Our American adventure was christened with a blackout and looting, a recession, and intimate contact between my father’s temple and the barrel of a gun, on more than one occasion. Who robs a South Bronx gas station at gunpoint and locks the workers in a storage shed?

It was a journey wrapped up in my bedtime winter coat in a frequently heatless Flatbush apartment.

It was the muted hope of life in a ‘better’ Queens neighborhood, where a black family’s home had recently been set ablaze, rumor had it, by those just one generation from Europe.

Yet, I knew I was loved. It was the only thing I knew for certain.

Love was in the liver and onions, and chicken gizzard dinners, to which dad ascribed fantastic origins for his budding writer daughter, already given to fancy. It was in my grandmother’s hand-monogrammed leotards. It was in my non-Catholic parents’ sitting through the Catechism and converting, just to get me into a school whose southern Italian gatekeepers felt that I was a little too dark, even though we were the same complexion.

But most of all—my mother brought me into this world and my father stood by her side, unwaveringly. One might call this instinct, but there are times when instinct cowers in the face of oppression, the type of oppression that makes one aware that they are a just a minor character in a very long epic.

I understood the potency of this kind of love better as I began to uncover the stories of the string of women’s lives in our family, linked together by the courage to make precisely the same choice my mother had made to bring me into the world. Because true love, the love that created cobalt blue oceans and birds of paradise, is more than just a feeling; it is a force that propels us over each hill of creation, allowing us to embrace what lies ahead, in spite of the trials we’ve left behind.

After three generations of facts, I used my imagination, history books, and an MtDNA test to paint a picture that stretched even further back.

I imagine a Yoruba girl. She has my face, only darker, and she is turning a spoon in a large pot over an open flame. She wears Victorian peasant clothing, though sometimes, in my mind’s eye, she is dressed in green and gold African garb with an elaborate head dress—but only when she’s dreaming me into existence. Those are the times she smiles when there is no reason to smile.

There’s a cane field in the distance and she is hoping to hear an abeng’s nasal staccato skip across the wind, signaling the men to set the fields ablaze. But she knows no one will come, just as she knows the baby girl inside her will have to run as soon as she can walk to survive in this gross imitation of life that calls itself a plantation society. She knows she will let the baby live. She knows the child will suffer.

That too is love.

My maternal ancestors unnamed, the child commodity, the domestic and nanny, the dressmaker—they all loved, in spite of the shape of the world in which they landed. The fact that I breathe now is a result of that love.

Yes, the men were killed, then and now. Women’s bodies were only spokes, then and now. And the more they climbed, the higher the wall got, then and now. Still, I am here.

And so, when I sat on the doctor’s table four years ago, looking at the little girl doing the breaststroke in my belly, I knew that, just like I did for her brother, I would make any and every way for her to take her first breath in a place called Brooklyn.

The phrases, “cysts in the brain…could be Down Syndrome” were a cosmic déjà vu. But they only revved me up. “What books will we need? What two other jobs do I need to find? How exactly will I curse out the people who look at us sideways in the street?”

That was it. Period.

As it turned out, there are cysts and there are cysts. These had the significance of a pimple, I was told. My girl is just fine. And I will still clear away all the new versions of old obstacles to give her, and her brother, the chance to brighten up this time and space, as they see fit. It’s their birthright.

Life materializes on its own terms, always through the mystery of love. I am just one door. And I have learned that survival is revolution for women like us, women who continue to dance in storms. I now understand that love is how we do it, again and again.

Walk always in love.