|As I See It? 6-24
Sunday, December 23, 2007
By Tari Muñiz
“Hang all the mistletoe, I want to get to know you better, this Christmas”.
I miss my ex-laws during the holidays and found kind of it startling. It's really the only time such a thing occurred to me. I was part of that family for 15 years and for 15 years we did the same thing on Christmas. At the time, it seemed like a real pain. My partner then was fourth of the seven children of Miss Thelma. Seven children, a few daddies and no one was considered “half” a sibling. All of them graduated from high school and none of them had been in jail. The matriarch, she ruled over her family during the holidays. She expected all her ducklings to show up for Christmas, regardless of where they lived or the circumstances of our individual families.
We showed up. And filled the flat in Highland Park to the brim. Getting off the Lodge was like entering Bosnia or some other war zone in a foreign land. Miss Thelma and the daughter who took care of her lived on a street where three out of four houses were abandoned and full of crack heads, rats, roaches and who knows what else. It was grossly inaccessible. Miss Thelma had a stroke in the early eighties when she was in her early fifties. She had been in a wheelchair for a long time when I met her.
So we all showed up on Christmas. Sometimes we had a big feast and sometimes not so big. It depended on who showed up with what and how the season was treating them. There was always some kind of big meat and greens for sure. Sometimes someone would bring them a real tree and sometimes they decorated “Charlie Brown”. Someone had to go get Aunt Pauline. Everyone always got presents for everyone, no matter how much money there was to spend. I still have the earmuffs I got one year and am grateful for them every winter.
After feasting and gifting there would be television. Men watched a game on the TV in living room and sister would show videos of Negro award shows she'd taped. And we'd watch people sing and talk about them. Eventually, we'd all be in the extremely well lit, extremely warm dinning room watching people sing. Miss Thelma watched people sing with her eyes closed and her hand lifted. She would report after listening if they could “SING”. “She saaaang that song”. Stephanie Mills always “sang” whatever song she performed. There were debates about performers - who was better? The Temps or the Tops? The Temps, they all knew all their names and what years they were in the group and which ones had tragedy. Luther or Freddy? Luther to everyone except sister Sherry. Patti Labelle - diva or screecher? Depends on the era you're talking about - back in the day…
They talked about them like they were neighbors, who beats his women and who got cured of it with some hot grits in the face and the lord. When you're from Detroit, these people are your neighbors. Or least you know who their mamma was or what side they grew up on or had a connection with a cousin. Like rooting for the Lions, it's what you do when you're from Detroit.
Back in the day
Highland Park was a community. Families were raised to be proud on the streets with the lovely brick houses. The government was local. People had good jobs. Everyone knew who the neighbors were. Miss Thelma was a singer. She was young and part of gospel group and she could sing. She taught me about the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Blind Boys from Alabama. They say Miss Thelma could have gone somewhere, but she got pregnant at 17 and her daddy made her quit. Back in the day, folks like Sam Cooke, Della Reese and Lou Rawls used to still stop by and pay Miss Thelma her due when they were in Detroit. The kids remembered meeting these folks as part of growing up.
Folks just came to Miss Thelma's. All were welcome regardless of race, sexual orientation, or level of sobriety. You never knew who beyond the magnificent seven an' 'em would stop by. All family members connected to one of the kids were know as “an' 'em” So you had Pat an' 'em, Boopie an' 'em, Mickie an' 'em and so on. There were lots of people with lots of stories, everyone with a different version of the same event, everyone's weak spot lovingly picked on. Sometimes the watching and listening to music would lead to a little dancing - space allowable, and the oldest of one and the youngest of another generation would dance like it was 1968 at the Hullabaloo. Children were running all over the place. They would all talk about dancing back in the day and who did the best robot and if anyone there could moon walk.
We would always listen to the Temptation's Christmas. I remember Silent Night in particular. You were welcome to sing along if you were of the ones who could sing. Not all could. And you knew who you were, so did everyone else. The ones who couldn't would often sing along anyway and nobody got mad or anything. I was very happy when Miss Thelma declared I could sing. And then someone would put Donny Hathaway on and Miss Thelma would beam, surrounded by her ducklings and their ducklings, and we'd sing “This Christmas”. Miss Thelma passed the winter I left the family. Her children have not been all together on Christmas since she died.
A couple of years ago I heard Donny Hathaway, his version is the best, and was transported back to the eighties and nineties in Highland Park at Christmas. I saw Miss Thelma sitting in her wheelchair, smiling and nodding along with the song. Now when I hear “This Christmas” I listen while I close my eyes and raise my hand.