I found Momma on her knees many times that first month I was back home. Her prayers were never quiet, each one ending in wails and foreign tongues. Sometimes she repeated the same words over and over, incantations of mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy or watch over him Lord, watch over him Lord, watch over him Lord, urgency in each refrain. Whenever she’d go silent, I would tiptoe to her room, hold the door steady as I opened it slowly, softening the creaks as it widened inch by inch. Her back faced me, knees bent on small pillows, a lace scarf covering her head and spilling onto her bedspread. Sometimes, when she was still rocking, sobbing and murmuring into the mattress, I’d walk my steps back and close the door behind me. But the other times, when the side of her face rested on her prayer veil, her body slumped into the bed frame, I’d walk over to her, place my hand between her shoulder blades and bend down towards her ear. “Momma,” I’d say softly, “why don’t you come on and go to bed.” She would ease herself awake, uttering an excuse: just this one other thing she had to do. Rest wasn’t a thing she often consented to.
I realized early on that, though I was the one who came home to be with her, I didn’t know how to be there for Momma. She was getting used to being back in her home after spending months away from it. I was getting used to being back home after spending twelve years in Philly. Though she’d housed us all temporarily over the years, Momma spent long stretches alone in her two bedroom bungalow. Yet there was a piece of all five of us in each of its corners: Zeffy’s clothes in bins stored in the basement, things he couldn’t carry when figuring out if he’d move back to Philly or try something new in Denver; Tishbi’s drum collection covered in African cloth scraps leftover from the fabric I’d brought with me from my semester in East Africa. Momma saved small pieces of each pattern after sewing dresses and skirts and little cute tops out of the colorful Ankara prints; Zack’s coats and winter garments, a 45mm in its case, his fancy watches and other accessories his main girlfriend couldn’t keep for the eight years he’d be confined in a prison eighty miles up the interstate.
The things I left, Momma wore. Our bodies were always close to the same size and she enjoyed adding a bit of my flair into her own wardrobe: a marled sweater here, a vintage leather jacket there, some booties I’d passed down because “that kind of heel” had gone out of style. Whenever I visited, I would leave something behind because she’d complimented it, tried it on, loved it in a way that I knew I didn’t need it no more.
My sister Von, though, rarely left Momma with inanimate things, things like clothing that could be unpacked and borrowed or furniture that could be used until it was reclaimed. Von was responsible in that way. Whenever she made moves—across the city or country—she packed her own things, she gave her stuff away, she carried it with her. But Von was a tornado. And the only one of us with children. What she’d often left with Momma was the responsibility of raising one of them: TJ, Von’s firstborn and Momma’s eldest grandchild.
Of the two rooms in her house, Momma had made one of them his. It was mine now. When I arrived, it took us a few days to pack TJ’s belongings in boxes that she wanted stored in the basement. Though we both considered alternatives to keeping them, we ultimately abandoned those options, just in case something changed. Maybe he’d be released sooner than later and would go looking for his favorite polo shirt or the pair of Converse he wore when skateboarding. Maybe he’d need a suit for his hearing, the judge, upon noticing his necktie, would say, “This must be some sorta mistake.” Momma prayed for such miracles, kept jars of water with his and Zack’s names written on paper labels taped to its glass, a ritual as old as our ancestors, returning when her hands and knees weren’t enough.
Two weeks after I’d moved home, Momma took me to see TJ at the juvenile detention center. Once we’d gotten past the glaring security guards, the metal detector and the dimly lit corridor that opened into the cafeteria where the confined children awaited their visiting loved ones, TJ, at first calculating his steps under the watchful eye of the correctional officers, reached for Momma and then me, holding us each in a long, breathless embrace. I smiled wide and patted my cheeks dry as we let each other go and found our seats next to each other at a round table, scooting our chairs as close together as we could.
Shortly after our greetings, as Momma and TJ started integrating serious stuff about TJ’s case into our conversation, I learned about the hearing that would determine if my nephew would be tried as an adult. The St. Louis mayor had publicly promised the people that the consequences would be harshly doled out, eager to make an example of TJ and his friends. The hearing was scheduled for Monday, September 28, 2015 and Momma was expected to testify about the events that occurred the night of the incident. I was aghast at the news, mostly at the thought of Momma taking the stand. There were too many stories of the way Black folks, especially Black women, were reduced to nothing when faced with the lines of questioning in a courtroom. And now, because of TJ, my mother would be doing just that in five months.
But I said nothing at that moment. Momma, in performance mode, navigated with grace the ebbs and flows of this hour we spent with each other. She gleefully gave her grandson her full attention as he sat arm’s length between the both of us and talked incessantly about the detention center art classes, the cars he’d recently seen in some magazines and his post-prison plans of finishing high school and joining the military. Then there was me, sitting between them, straining to be as present as possible. It felt like it was only me, straining to listen, straining to smile, straining to hold the immense anguish and the impending angst I felt rising up within me, for my mom and for all of us who’d been, at once, catapulted into crisis.
It was five months earlier on a Sunday afternoon in November. I was still in bed. The midday sun, clear of clouds, came through the curtainless windows and made my room so warm that I didn’t have to adjust the fireplace beside me, mounted on the wall. When Zeffy called, I was reading an interview from the October issue of The Sun Magazine: a Black woman pastor, a lesbian, leaning into the Gospels, talking about her advocacy for the poor, for communities on the margins, the interview aptly titled, “Dangerous Love.” I answered the phone knowing my brother would want to catch up about how we celebrated our respective Thanksgivings in the days before—his first in Denver and my first alone in Philly. Maybe we’d do some reminiscing on the one we spent together with most of our family in Philly just two years earlier. Maybe we’d eventually get around to talking about how shitty it was that the St. Louis courts didn’t convict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown just days ahead of the holiday. But when I picked up the phone and greeted him, my brother didn’t meet my enthusiasm on the line.
“Nique, TJ got locked up.”
“Wait…what?” The air thinned. “When?”
“Early this morning. Like the middle of the night,” Zeffy took a beat. “Nique. They say he killed somebody.”
“What, no. No, no, no. Zeffy. No.”
“Momma called me this morning. She said he said he got into a fight with a Bosnian who called him and his friends niggers as they were crossing the street. The Bosnian dude got out and tried to fight all of them when one of them hit him with a hammer. He ended up dying at the hospital, man,” he sighed by the end of his telling. I was sitting up in my bed now, crying, in disbelief, my stomach in knots. I thought I would vomit.
“It’s all over the news, Nique. They been saying it’s a hate crime in retaliation of the news about Darren Wilson. The Bosnians are protesting all over Bevo Mill right now.”
“Damnit, TJ! What the fuck?!” So many emotions welled up at once and I immediately wondered about my mom. How confusing this must be for her. How unsafe she must feel in her home embedded within the Bosnian community. I wondered if she would be vilified and her house targeted by the protesters. I hoped that her neighbors would shield her from the harshness, even though one of hers had killed one of theirs.
I had just seen TJ the month before. I brought my dog, Jaxon, to St. Louis to be with him and Momma as I made my way to an organizing gig in Alabama. TJ had just returned from a botched visit with his mom out in Los Angeles. Von and her second husband were raising TJ’s little sister and a new little brother in a house in South Central. My sister had been courting the city for a few years and finally cemented her stay when she fell in love with an undocumented immigrant with whom she’d move in, bestowing upon them the titles of husband and wife and, together, parent her children and have him father another. TJ, newly sixteen, threatened this utopia she built with this husband. TJ reminded her of a decade and a half of false starts, failed unions, homelessness, heartache, and all the scarcity in between. They fought so much during his last stint on the West Coast that Von threatened to have him committed to a psych ward if he didn’t leave California.
When I saw TJ, he moved through elation about my visit and Jaxon’s arrival to dejection about his mom’s most recent rejection, his return to St. Louis and his struggle with getting back into school. It was then that I noticed he had started talking with a Spanish accent, similar to the way his new stepdad talked. My brother, who had seen TJ months before when he went out to California to see Von and our baby sister, Tishbi, had warned me of some of the vices TJ had turned to. Zeffy told me about the weed and the pills and the cigarettes he’d found TJ with. Said he talked to our nephew and encouraged him to go back to school and stop smoking what he called dope. But TJ didn’t let on to any of those struggles when we were together. And I didn’t ask. My visit was an entire day long and we spent all of those hours together. He’d let me hug his neck, even though he now towered over me. I’d cup his face in my hands, even as his stubble pricked my palm. I noticed he was growing into a man and I noticed the trouble behind his eyes, but I never wanted to bring it up because I enjoyed so much his return to boyhood when he was with me.
Von and I were pregnant at the same time. She and I, a little more than a year apart in age, would have our children within four months of each other. But I was embarrassed for myself and my parents. Two of their unmarried daughters, obviously fornicating and getting knocked up. The Gardner’s must be running a whore house! the church folk would say, See! pointing their fingers at our family and our fall from grace. I kept the baby news to myself. Me and its maker devised a plan and, just before the summer of my 19th birthday, I walked past picketers offering me other options and entered a building that I would not exit the same.
I went home after the procedure. Then we lived in a red brick two-story off Antique Row. It was the first house Momma rented after she and Daddy separated. Von and I shared the largest room upstairs. Though Von was rarely home, she was sitting on her bed when I arrived, listening to music with the door to our bedroom patio open, the early evening sunlight brightening up the dingy white walls, a breeze moving between them. Von seemed to be illuminated by the orange glow of the early evening sun, her belly forming some roundness on her petite frame. She was wearing a pair of denim shorts that was left unbuttoned and a crocheted crop top that accentuated her breasts and stopped right above the bulge forming below them. Her blossoming body annoyed me.
I stood in the doorway, watching her for a moment before I walked in and turned off the stereo. I closed the patio door and retreated to my bed, keeping my clothes on and climbing under the covers, bringing the blankets over my head. Von looked up and, while glaring at me with righteous indignation, ran her mouth until I became undone.
“Momma! Something wrong with Nique!”
I was crying uncontrollably when Momma walked in. She stood in front of me, patience and curiosity in her eyes, and asked me what was wrong. I told her everything as Von looked on, this new knowledge shoring up some superiority she would hold over me.
“Thassa sin. I would never kill my baby.”
“Von, get out of here. Let me talk to Nique.”
As Von left, I started sobbing in Momma’s lap. Von was right: I had sinned. And the shame that drove me to do it now overwhelmed me. Momma let my tears soak her skirt.
“Why did you do it, Nique? Why didn’t you come talk to me, baby?”
“I was afraid, Momma. And what would the church think about both of us being pregnant at the same time?”
“I don’t care about none of that. We would have loved both of those babies. You know I don’t agree with no abortions, Nique. It’s a sin. You can always bring a child into this world and we’ll figure it out. We will always find a way to love on that baby.”
TJ was born midsummer. He was brown and beautiful from the beginning, his skin new, wrinkly, soft to the touch, his lips a puckered circle between his plumping cheeks. However, his perfection didn’t pause the tumult that had grown between Von and his father. Their years-long, volatile love affair had become gravely untenable and, soon after his birth, they quit on each other, the burden of caring for a baby left with my 17-year-old sister. Her resentment would wind itself into the upbringing of her first child, her anger towards the father turning towards him, her need to hustle hard, using her body as a commodity, hindered whatever affection a mother would inherently have for a baby brought forth from her body.
It was Von and TJ who would put my mother’s proclamation to the test.
I read the police report soon after I settled back into St. Louis. Momma had given it to Daddy to look over before, maybe even read some parts of it to Grandma, but she spent some time processing her thoughts with me as I sat in the living room with the documents spread across the coffee table.
“They say they think TJ is the one who used the hammer. All the boys are blaming it on him. I think he got confused when he was talking to the officer. I just…I just don’t know…”
I wanted to read it without her inferences, but I knew she’d been holding so many of these details alone for so long. Though I had yet to see her cry, I knew it was her sadness or despair, maybe guilt, that weighed her down. Well into the darkness of most nights, if she wasn’t praying, I would find her sitting in the dimness of the den, only the light from the naked bulb of a small lamp on the corner table poked through the room’s opacity. I often wondered how many times Momma replayed the scene in her head: Jaxon alerting her first, frantically barking when the bright lights from the police cars were cast on the house just after midnight. The banging on the door and windows that startled her awake. The fear and dread and shock. Police officers, too many of them, in her living room, towering over her, surrounding her, bombarding her with questions. Her questions: where’s my grandson? Is he okay? The quickening pulse. Her quickened pace. Her hastily getting dressed to be escorted to the station. Her questions: where’s my grandson? Is he okay? Their questions. Her prayers, the ones uttered out loud and in her head, Oh God, oh God, oh God. The confusion of who she’s talking to. Who to talk to? Lawyer? We don’t have a lawyer. “One will be provided for you.” The few moments that she shares a room with her grandson. Her questions: What happened? Him slipping away. Hours later, emerging from the station in new daylight. The fear and dread and shock.
For the thirteen-plus years Momma inhabited that block, Bosnians, who fled a collapsing Yugoslavia and ethnic cleansing in the mid-90’s, were the residents of the homes on either side of hers. Momma’s neighbors were parents who had become grandmas and grandpas since the time their children learned science and social studies in the public school where Momma taught; her former students, running into her at the corner store and still calling her Ms. Logan, introduced her to the babies on their hips and the husbands by their sides. These were families who knocked on Momma’s door and extended invitations for weddings and memorials, baby showers and birthday parties, sometimes Momma returning home from these events with a covered dish of dumplings and kebabs and, only occasionally, one or two pieces of homemade baklava, perfectly crisped and sticky to the touch.
It was 2001 when Momma first moved to the neighborhood. She was teaching as Tishbi matriculated into fifth grade, both of them at the middle school two blocks away from the new house. Me and her other four children had dispersed into our newly-adult lives: Zeffy, some months home after serving in the Army, was riding around the state of Illinois selling insurance policies to veterans, mostly in rural, white towns that most of us wouldn’t drive through at night. He rented an apartment in a suburb near the areas he frequented. With his erratic work schedule and long traveling days, he rarely visited us in the neighboring state. Von was stripping in seedy nightclubs then, also in Illinois. It was in between pole dancing and parading around those clubs with her bare breasts and in jeweled panties and stilettos that she met a sugar daddy she called Ralph, an old and lonely white man who acquired for her a Volvo and furnished a two-bedroom apartment in South St. Louis. Here, TJ stumbled into crawling and wobbled into walking, weaned off his mother’s breast and watched and experienced his mom at war with the world. Zack, though still a teen then, had also left home. An older woman had moved him in and was teaching him how to be a man in the streets. He was running drugs and guns and whatever else while playing daddy with her kids, even as he needed his own father figure. I learned years later, after Zack came home from an eight-year prison sentence, in the middle of a therapy session that I had set up for him and that he’d ask me to sit in on, that our daddy’s departure is what devastated him most. That he needed him in those years before he aged out of boyhood. That he often felt lost in the moments between the sheets of an older woman and the streets of the unknown. I cried on the couch beside him that day.
I was still in St. Louis when Momma moved to Little Bosnia. In fact, I was just returning to St. Louis from spending three months in a shipyard somewhere along the swamps of Louisiana while awaiting the completion of a river-barge cruise line. I had been hired to be part of its inaugural journey. But its completion date kept changing and, with each passing day in the cheap motel where they boarded us, I missed home and the boyfriend I left behind. When I got back to St. Louis, I moved in with him, a man fourteen years older whose manipulative and jealous tendencies became most apparent as I prepared my exit for Philadelphia two years later.
It was in those days when I visited Momma and she shared the stories of war that her students often broke open with. The horrors they fled and held onto were handed to her in the haphazard way trauma spills out of children, their growing bodies expelling grief and loss and rage in the most unlikely ways and places. This vulnerability—Momma’s ability to add onto her burdens, theirs—was the kind of intimacy she established early on among a group of people who, in their initial relocation into this new city, a city that would brand them “refugee”, was more foreign than her own blackness in the still segregated St. Louis of the early 2000’s. And this established closeness was the thing that brought her back home.
It was after the news broke: “Four Black Boys Involved in Hammer Killing of a Bosnian Immigrant in Bevo Mill;” it was after they released the names of the boys and after the pictures of the-then adolescents surfaced in places online when they couldn’t appear in the papers; it was after the Bosnian residents formed a televised protest, Momma’s house in the background, aggrieved men and women with their signs telling St. Louisans that their community was now targeted by the blacks in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s murder and the acquittal of Darren Wilson; it was after Momma peered at them between the fingers that parted the few blinds of her living room window, now alone with TJ’s belongings, afraid for rejection and retaliation, sorrow for the likelihood that there would be no return to normal. It was the many days, then weeks, after the incident when she made a trip back to the block to check on the house and pack some things she needed during her retreat to Grandma Mae’s, that an elder of the Bosnian community, Ma Hadiya, would slowly stagger over to Momma’s house and find Momma at the edge of her porch. Momma tells me that Hadiya leaned into her cane as she took Momma’s hand and covered it in both of hers.
“Meddy,” Momma would tell me, mimicking Hadiya’s accent and the way she’d switch the lone “r” in Momma’s first name to d’s, “Come home. We love you. This your home.”
Momma didn’t immediately tell me how she responded to Hadiya’s plea, but she told the story carefully, as if pulling it from the deepest place.
“That meant so much to me, Nique. That they didn’t hate me…that they didn’t hate TJ. That made me feel like I could come back to my house.”
Still, Momma decided to wait until someone else could inhabit the space with her, acknowledging that living alone in the house again wasn’t something she was ready to do.
My siblings and I all agreed that it made the most sense for me to come home. We considered our options with Zack in prison and Von’s estrangement. Zeffy had just signed a new lease on a house with his roommates in Denver and Tishbi was reluctant to return to St. Louis as she had just started pursuing music in LA. I had been contracted to do some organizing work for the Affordable Care Act and the closing enrollment date and the subsequent end of my assignment loomed. It became apparent that I was the most likely and willing to be home to acquire a job and support Momma financially, if needed. But what else we all knew, an unspoken truth, was that when it came to caring for Momma, I also had the same loving hand that she often extended to us when we needed her. I wouldn’t rattle her with questions and demand for them answers. I was slow to criticism and knew how to be quiet alongside her, allowing harmony to be the thing that prevailed, allowing her to immerse herself in prayer, even if she numbed herself to the parts that hurt most while doing so. I could be patient with whatever she needed and whatever she sought for her own healing, her own peace.
Daddy didn’t let no grass grow under my feet before he wanted to see me when I first got back to St. Louis. Before me and his wife ended our decade-long quarrel and during long weekend or holiday visits from Philly, Daddy and I would meet at this quaint little diner that he loved near his house on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. This was considered the neutral ground between his and Momma’s house. I knew I could always get him alone in this diner, away from the affront of his wife’s scowl and my scarce words, him and his defeat, worn as close as his clothing, sitting between us. The diner offered neutrality in this way as well, affording us freedom to be our jovial, excitable, reminiscent selves. Just a daughter and her daddy.
When he made these diner dates with me, he was always hopeful that I would be on time. I hoped he hadn’t closely scheduled another appointment or, worse, met me for breakfast before he had to report to the transit center. In cases when it was the latter, when I would arrive late and find him seated in a familiar spot, in his uniform, despondent, he would chide me about my tardiness and say “‘Cause you late don’t mean I can stay here late now with you, Nique. Those busses can’t drive themselves…not yet anyway!” His gloom would quickly dissipate and together we’d burst into laughter at the thought of automated city buses on the routes where he complained about “the broke niggas that wanted free rides” and “those poor white folks who wanna get on the bus still actin like they better than erbody else.” Somewhere in there, I’d assure him I won’t be mad when he has to pop up and leave me alone with my plate of pancakes and, after that, make false promises that I wouldn’t be late again.
This time it was morning and he had nothing scheduled. I’d been back home for less than a week and had been in constant communication with him since leaving Pennsylvania and driving myself to Missouri. When we talked over the phone, he inquired about Momma, asking how it’s been, the both of us returning to her house, being in the company of the other. It was a passing pleasantry then. But now, together, just the two of us in person, after he hugged me and introduced me to the waitstaff, a couple of elder white women who knew his name but weren’t nearly as friendly to him as Daddy was to them, he asked me in earnest, “How’s your mom?” I wanted to tell him that I didn’t know if she was sleeping or eating at regular intervals. That Momma prayed too much and cried too little. That her faith was all-consuming. That her hopes often overshadowed the hard truth: their grandson, my nephew, wouldn’t be home no time soon. Daddy was a realist so I knew that he’d nod in agreement, offer a platitude or two to ease my angst. I also feared that something said to soothe me would come at Momma’s expense. That there would be inadvertent finger pointing, an allusion to the idea that TJ’s ordeal could be somehow pinned upon Momma in the same way the demise of their marriage was, especially among folks on Daddy’s side of the family, even as Daddy’s infidelities were long known, though easily forgotten.
I gave him answers he could hold onto without needing more words. “It’s been fine, Daddy. We’ve been good. Packed up some of TJ’s clothes. Moved some things around. I’m making the second bedroom my own. Jaxon’s feeling like it’s a return home.” At the mention of my dog’s name, his attention shifted, an apology for forgetting him evident in his voice.
“Jaxon?! How’s my big boy?” It was as if my large animal were another grandchild.
“Oh he’s fine, Daddy. I think he misses TJ, too.” We both nodded our heads at that, a beat surfaced between our words.
“Daddy, did you read the police report?”
“Yes I did,” he said, quickly, confidently, and shifted himself in his seat.
“Did you?” He took a sip of coffee.
“Mmm. What did you think?”
“I don’t know what to think. It was a lot.”
“Yeah it was.” He eased back into his seat, his back aligning with the cushion of the chair. Then he rested his elbow on the table, leaning his body into it and facing me. “You know, Nique, there’s a lotta things I don’t understand. Like why was this boy even out at night like this? And what was he even doing with a hammer in the first place? I know he was with some other boys but, I know my grandson…”
Daddy went on and on for a while about TJ’s recent erratic behavior and how uncontrollable he’d become, how turbulent he was, how broken he must’ve been. He also talked about how hard it was to see his first grandson in the detention center. How demoralizing it was to pass through the security system, checking in his personal items and getting patted down by a metal detecting wand or someone’s open and stiff hands.
“I know what you mean, Daddy. It’s so much harder to see TJ where he is, even though we’ve been to prisons before, right? It’s just so different.”
“So different! I mean, I go see Zack all the time and it don’t bother me nearly as much. We make that trip down ‘nere, I take enough money to get change and buy all the snacks your brother wants and then we sit there and play chess or Scrabble and just talk the whole time. I mean, I’ve spent hours there with him. And we talk about TJ. I tell Zack all the stuff TJ be sayin about coming home, like he ain’t did nothing, like this ain’t something serious he done did.”
I saw the emotion rising up in him, some sadness, some anger. He was as hurt as I was for this troubled child in our lives. But I also wanted to ask Daddy about his role in TJ’s collapse. There had long been finger wagging and whispers about how he’d allowed his wife, L., to do the thing she always did: reject his kids for her own, denying us the space within their house that she allowed hers, regardless of their shortcomings. I wanted to believe that there were greater barriers that prevented Daddy from taking his first grandson into their home, especially when that was the thing that was expected of him after he’d gone to LA to extinguish the fires his daughter had started.
A year and a half earlier, Von found herself in LA with her husband, her children and our two siblings, Zeffy and Tishbi—all of them desperately trying to rein in the tumult of this growing and increasingly anxious teen that belonged to us all. TJ had filled out into a newer body of long legs, square shoulders, and a handsome face framed in a boxy jawline. It was early August and I was attending a writing residency in Lagos, Nigeria when I FaceTimed TJ on his birthday. He had turned fifteen-years-old and Tishbi and Zeffy had taken him from South Central LA to a hotel in Burbank for the weekend. The three of them crowded into the rectangular screen baring their teeth and singing songs. We laughed and marveled at the miracle of technology, its capability allowing us to be together on such special occasions, despite the miles between us. I took a screenshot to document the moment, posting it on Instagram to share with friends our love, our commitment to our first nephew, our presence in his life.
After spending three months in Africa, I returned to Philadelphia in mid-November. Zeffy, also returning to Philadelphia a few weeks after me, would be the one who’d tell me about the mayhem that unfolded mere days after our family Facetime. On a winter night months after the ordeal, Zeffy sat across the dinner table at my house in West Philly and described in great detail the day a woman from California Child Protective Services showed up at Von’s house demanding that TJ be surrendered to her. Zeffy, who had been living and working in South Philly at the time I left for Africa, had gone out to LA ahead of TJ’s birthday because he had heard about TJ being hospitalized due to a failed suicide attempt, an event that no one bothered to disclose to me while I was traveling abroad. Apparently, after his suicide attempt and stint in the psychiatric ward, TJ had been mandated to attend therapy sessions, for which he hadn’t been present for any sessions—or my sister had failed to get him to them. These absences prompted CCPS involvement.
TJ was removed and immediately placed in a foster home and a series of court hearings to regain custody of our teen was scheduled in succession. Zeffy called the court hearings a family affair: him and our brother-in-law, Von and their one-year-old son, and our baby sister, Tishbi—all of them, waking up early and piling into Von’s husband’s white pick-up truck to get to the city court building well before their case was called. Zeffy said that sometimes they would sit for more than an hour in the hallways, hordes of children amid the colorful toys and play pens, their families and caseworkers passing through, all of them awaiting a judge or jury to determine their fate.
It was at the second custody hearing that Von came up with the idea to tell Daddy to come and get his grandson. Von purchased a roundtrip ticket and, within days, Daddy flew out for his first-ever visit to the state of California under the pretext that he’d be the one saving TJ. Daddy spent one full day in court, making promises to the judge that TJ would be in his care and signing the paperwork to seal the deal. Daddy flew home the next morning and, a week later, the Tuesday after Labor Day, Zeffy said, is when the courts surrendered TJ to them. Von, eager to get her child out of California, subsequently arranged for Zeffy to take TJ to St. Louis where Daddy could fulfill the promises he’d made in court. And that’s when the two of them, uncle and nephew, took a three-day train ride halfway across the country where, upon arrival, TJ would face rejection once more.
Zeffy said it was L. that barred TJ from coming to Daddy’s house. And whenever Von or Tishbi talked about it, they spat it out of their mouths like bitter fruit.
“L. don’t want nobody staying at they house but her kids. Set TJ right out and he’ain have no place to go BUT back to Momma’s. Thass how he got in all this trouble he in.”
“All this trouble” meant TJ’s growing penchant for drugs, his disinterest in going to school and his longer, later nights spent in the street. He couldn’t be restrained when he got back to St. Louis. And Momma stood in the way of any means of discipline for this grandson that she doted on and loved blindly.
“Momma wouldn’t let me do nothin’ with that boy, Nique. He was out of control.” Zeffy, shaking his head and sucking his teeth while telling me this, admitted that this was the reason he returned to Philly after I got back from Uganda.
“He was gone, Nique. And there was nothing I could do. So I just came on back to Philly.” Zeffy stared down into the table and silence swelled between us. I wondered more about what he’d seen and what I’d missed. I wondered if I should be thankful that I was absent during all the drama, because I never felt that kind of relief.
Almost two years later, while Daddy and I sat beside each other, a coffee cup in his hand and a full plate of breakfast in front of me on the table, getting cold, I wanted to ask him myself why he didn’t keep his promise. Why he hadn’t brought TJ to his home, enrolled him in school and became the guardian he was supposed to be when TJ returned to Missouri. I didn’t ask Daddy that day, but I had an opportunity later to ask his wife, L. As is her nature, L. was short and to the point with her response.
“I couldn’t deal with TJ. I just couldn’t do it. I told Mary and I told yuh daddy??: he’ll tell the courts in California we’ll take ‘em, but when he get here, he can’t stay at our house. Nooo, buddy. I couldn’t do it, Nique. I couldn’t handle him. He was too much…and I couldn’t deal. And see what happened, don’t you? Just like I thought. He was outta control.”
And just like I’d thought, everybody had been right about L. Whether the decision she made to deny TJ had been imagined or heard as explicitly as I had, she was indeed the roadblock to TJ’s refuge with my father. It brought me no solace to know undoubtedly that she refused our growing boy a safe place to stay, a father figure in his grandpa, and the boundaries of their strict Christian home, especially when I knew that she and my father had extended this kind of support to L.’s teen granddaughter, L.’s elder niece and, finally, L’.s niece’s young son, regardless of the baggage they brought with them into their home. Daddy’s children—us—and our children—TJ—weren’t worthy of the space Daddy and L. made for hers.
But these aren’t the places me and Daddy went when we met in the diner on that particular day. At that moment, with the unraveling of a family, the tearing of the seams, the burden of holding it all together being disproportionately distributed into the hands of Momma not yet made evident to me, I held for Daddy the same tender space I was holding for Momma and desiring for myself in this great big loss we were tethered to.
At Momma’s house, there was no room and no time to point fingers, to criticize, or to play “I woulda, coulda, shoulda.” There was only planning and prayer. When I brought up in conversation what I knew folks were saying, what was happening in the news, or what family members weren’t doing and needed to, she sat quietly. She didn’t have it in her to argue about the aloofness of my siblings, the disinterest of TJ’s mom, the hands-off approach of Daddy and anybody else who had nothing to offer but more helpings of blame and shame. What I eventually understood was that what she needed from me was to keep my badmouthing and brooding to myself. Momma was on a mission. And what I eventually understood was that what she needed most from me was to assume the position of her right-hand woman.
The first time Momma met Matt in person was during a visit to see TJ. Matt had been assigned to TJ’s case promptly after the incident. By mid-December he had called Momma to introduce himself. By that time, though, she already knew quite a bit about him because she had quizzed the white woman who phoned her to tell her about the public defender for our family.
Who is this man? What are his qualifications? How long has he been practicing law?
Somewhere among these inquiries, the white woman on the line disclosed to Momma that the man was Jewish. Somehow, as maybe the white woman knew, this eased Momma’s mind. It was the thing she hinged all of her hopes on when she talked about Matt’s advocacy for TJ.
“Well, Nique, you know…he’s Jewish, so I feel like he really has TJ’s back. And he really seems to care about this case.”
Then she’d lower her voice as if telling a secret meant to be kept just between us.
“He really feels like what TJ and the boys did was in self-defense.”
I listened to her, offering head nods without saying nothing else. I didn’t trust any of them, especially when I knew this was free work. Charity. Even if they did mean well, I was certain they were fighting for five or six or more Black boys just like TJ and feeling overwhelmed or exhausted or apathetic. I knew that it was tragic that we had no money for a defense lawyer, that our child was basically fatherless, basically motherless, living with his grandma in a house that was rented and not owned, with a car that was old and unpaid for. That we were Black. The latter our greatest burden, but in naming the other factors, makes that fact loom less large.
Matt told Momma she’d be a character witness for TJ when she took the stand.
Tell a story of the baby boy you love, the loss he’s felt between his two parents, his searching, his great sadness. Tell them about the abuse and neglect, the fending for himself he often had to do. Tell them he sometimes wanted to disappear, sometimes dreamt of offing himself.
Don’t tell them about him being kicked out of schools, about the underage drug and alcohol use, his easy access to these substances and the bad company he kept. Refrain from saying he regularly stayed away from home and there were nights you worried about where he was. Don’t mention his erratic behavior and angry outbursts, the way you were sometimes afraid, for him and for yourself.
I imagine that this was how Matt coached Momma. And if that was what was asked of her when she was questioned in court, she would have aced it. Not because of Matt, but because of her own convictions, what she believed or what she remembered, the romanticization of the grandson she loved after he was taken away from her. The infantilization of a teen child when he is at his most vulnerable and in need of our hands and our help.
But, as it turned out, Momma didn’t need none of what Matt asked of her. She’d later say, in his defense, that he told her to prepare herself in that way to present a kind of distraction, to give her something to focus on as she spent those months readying herself for the unknown. It was a benevolent read on what happened, a belief only Momma and her loyalty to a person in whom she put her trust could muster.
On the day of the hearing, I hardly slept. In my phone’s archives is a 6:34am text to a friend that reads:
“The hearing for Travis is this morning. Please take a moment to pray for us today.”
On the other side of my bedroom door, I heard Momma quietly moving around the house. She wasn’t on the phone or in prayer or singing a spiritual or gospel tune to prepare her for the day ahead. While I’m sure she had prayer lines that extended beyond St. Louis, people of faith petitioning God from coast to coast, she became a solemn warrior that morning, preparing for a battle she knew was a losing one.
I remember working that morning, presenting a workshop at a school and rushing to the courthouse directly after. I remember my nerves the entire drive there, an anxiety rising up in me as I parked, as I passed through security, as I searched the hallways for the room, its old, ornate wooden doors, my mom and my nephew behind them. When I finally found the courtroom, the hearing had already started. I remember not being able to enter immediately—not because I wasn’t allowed, but because my body was unwilling. I remember the way tension swelled in my belly, pushed into my muscles, made me feel as if vomit was its only relief. There was a bench in the middle of the lobby floor, directly in front of the doors to the courtroom where, initially, I sat, twitching and fidgeting, getting up every minute or two to peek inside the long, slim windows in the center of each of the double doors. The courtroom was packed. The victim’s family, other Bosnians, friends and community members from Little Bosnia, a lot of them present and seated on one side of the courtroom. Daddy and L. were there, seated close to the front and on the side of the defense. I didn’t see Momma or TJ in those moments, although I was certain they were both there.
I remember that on the times I looked in, there was a different person on the stand: a police officer; a young white woman, presumably the victim’s girlfriend who was with the victim on the night of the incident; a correctional officer whom I noticed from the Juvenile Detention Center where TJ was being held. Finally, after a long time of pacing and waiting outside the courtroom walls, I peeked inside one of the long windows and saw Momma on the stand. I hurriedly and quietly opened the courtroom door and shuffled into an open space in a nearby bench on the defense’s side. My body was riddled with a dull tremble.
I remember hearing and losing the questions as they were asked and only focusing on Momma’s responses. Her voice, smaller than I had ever heard it, was also calm and measured. Her answers were solely about what happened that night. I remember her telling the court about how deeply she slept and that she didn’t even know TJ had gone out. I remember her repeating that detail once or twice more. I remember her descending from the stand and taking a seat, perhaps where she was before. Though still unsettled, my body felt slightly better regulated.
I remember Matt talking next. It was my first time seeing him and he looked like a young, rookie lawyer, fresh out of law school and taking his social justice convictions to task on this case involving my nephew. He argued, as he’d promised Momma, that the boys were defending themselves against a grown man who was skilled in martial arts. Matt outlined for the judge and for everyone in the courtroom what details we already knew about the event: the victim allegedly yelled a racial epithet, the n-word, at the boys as they were crossing the street; somehow the victim stopped the car, exited the vehicle, and a fight ensued; during the fight, one of the boys brandished a hammer and hit the victim upside the head, fatally injuring him; the boys fled. Matt urged the judge to consider the ages of the boys, the rage that consumed them upon hearing the word, the plight of the city, the incident happening days after Darren Wilson’s exoneration, and the victim’s proficiency in martial arts.
The judge, Jimmie Edwards, a Black man and St. Louis native, could not be convinced. He gave a brief speech after Matt’s, condemning him for bringing up the expletive, and chiding my nephew and his defense team for even considering it as a reasonable excuse for the loss of life. He talked as if the killing was deliberate and, shortly thereafter, before slamming his gavel down on the desk, made the determination that TJ should be tried as an adult. The hearing was over. TJ stood and it was the first time I saw his face that day, in plainclothes and with confusion casting a shadow over his face. He would shift from the Juvenile Detention Center to the adult jail downtown before evening. He had been seventeen years old for a month and a half.
Leaving the courtroom was uneventful. It was when I got in my car and drove across the Poplar Street Bridge and called my friend, when I heard her voice on my Bluetooth, reverberating throughout my car, that I started bawling. Sobbing in heaves. She told me to pull over and take some deep breaths. She told me she understood and to keep breathing. She stayed on the line and just let me cry. She knew it was the only place I could.
When I got home, Momma was there preparing some items for TJ, things she didn’t know if he could even have at the adult jail or not. We didn’t talk about anything that first night, even though we ate our meals together and sat in the living room together as we normally did.
For two days, she remained as quiet as she had on the morning of the hearing. I hadn’t even heard her praying in her room or around the house as was her daily, several times a day, routine. Maybe she had finally grown angry at God. Perhaps she noticed this as her “Job” moment and resisted going to the Lord in prayer. I wanted so desperately to figure out her stoicism. How I’d cracked and she hadn’t.
But it was in the quiet of that evening, those two days after the ordeal, as we sat in our respective places in the living room: her in the champagne-colored wingback chair and me, in the center of the white couch that was covered in plastic. This, too, had become a part of our daily routine: us two little ladies in a bungalow with our big dog resting comfortably on a piece of furniture nearby. Maybe I had asked her something. Maybe, in a moment of courage, I wanted her to process what she was feeling and I articulated exactly that. Or maybe we said nothing at all. And still, she noticed that what she held for months could not be held no more. She noticed that prayer could no longer be an anchor for this massive grief. She noticed, she noticed, she noticed. And she gave in.