A bunch of high-spirited West Indian immigrants packed in a Bronx living room circa 1945, maybe they’re celebrating the end of the war, I don’t know. I know little of the rotund man on whose shoulder my grandmother Maria Cornelia’s left hand rests except that his name was Judge and I’ve always imagined, given his right hand’s delicate embrace of his left, that he was a kindhearted judge in a court of law. When I think of him I think too of Uncle Rudy, a New York City police detective in the 50s, 60s, 70s. Totems of law and order, the two. Rudy’s not pictured here though he’d have blended right in: brown and handsome and upright with slicked-back hair, he looked like he could at any moment break into a flamenco or tarantella. He was Jamaica-born but had a thick Manhattan accent—not Brooklyn, Queens, or Bronx but Midtown Manhattan. No hard-boiled fiction, no film, nothing could faithfully depict Rudy’s way of talking. It mesmerized me whenever we visited him in the central Florida home with a pool to which he retired in the early 80s. I sometimes paused pool play just to listen to him talk the kind of talk I don’t myself talk except when I’m angry. So Uncle Rudy was a New York City police detective and I don’t know whether Judge was a judge—probably not—but I know his name.
I know that living room they’re crowded into, I lived for five years in the wooden house that contains it. 2354 Maclay is in the Westchester Square neighborhood, near the east edge of Parkchester. When I think of Looney Tunes, I see myself watching it alone in the unpictured corner opposite my mother, who is leaning pretty with a studied pose against the woman sitting on the floor with my two batshit aunts, one older than my mother, one younger. I was born in the Bronx, another neighborhood, but my parents and I left when I was two and my mother and I returned when I was seven to live with my grandmother’s longtime friend Akeita, who is standing in a flower-patterned dress a bit squeezed in there in the back row, center. When my mother and I first arrived at 2354 Maclay in the heat of August of 1979, I spent a lot of time in the dank, unfinished basement. It was cool down there and our boxes were piled by the stairs, almost directly under where Aunt Akeita stands. Slight, determined, I climbed the boxes over and over, looking for new ways up and down and out. My mother paid Aunt Akeita, no relation, $300 per month to let us stay there at 2354 Maclay while my mother worked and went to graduate school and saved so she could buy a place of our own. $300 was a lot. Child support payments from my father came when they came and when they didn’t come, I didn’t see him.
I see Marjorie standing there in the back row, the fifth woman from the left, so diminutive. She and her husband were morticians. They often came to visit. I didn’t learn what it meant to be a mortician—what did they do, exactly?—until the mother of one of my mother’s friends died and we went to the wake and I was made to stand before the bloodless body and pray. On the way home that night, I’d been dozing off in the backseat of our Dodge Dart when the car came to a sudden stop. A man had waved my mother down and now stood in front of my window. His skin was black, black and it took me a moment to understand why it glistened. He was covered in blood and held his guts in with his right hand. “Please help me, I’m dying.” There was a pay phone nearby and my mother called an ambulance. We waited for the ambulance to arrive. The man had been stabbed in his kitchen.
Aunt Akeita had breast cancer and asked me over and over whether I wanted to see the place where her right breast had been. I said no, that’s okay—or right now? or I don’t think so, maybe later?—and she showed me anyway, again and again I saw this scar. I was seven, eight, I said nothing at the sight of it, the folded skin, the missing nipple. What pleasure, for her, in this? What did she want? She always wanted me to stay inside with her after I finished my day at St. Raymond Elementary School but I wouldn’t. As Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan campaigned on the small black and white television in her bedroom, I played one game of gin rummy with Aunt Akeita and then went outside and played in the street until it was dark and there were no children left.
Do you play with colored children? Are any of them colored? She always wanted to know what color people were, my friends, my mother’s friends, anyone we talked about. Aunt Akeita was a black woman from St. Croix and always wanted to know, to place people somewhere on the black-white continuum where she uncomfortably sat. Most of the kids I played with were Italian, Irish, a few Puerto Ricans for whom I was persistently mistaken. Trinidad. I’m from Trinidad. I’m from the Bronx but I’m from Trinidad.
During our last few years at 2354 Maclay, I avoided Aunt Akeita, ignored her in her long, woolen A-line skirts and stares and drab-colored oxfords and cardigans, a few buttons undone. I see her forever cloaked in the dullest grays and creams and taupes, no flowers, no wavy up-do, no jaunty nothing though she did have this hep strut as she moved from one room to another. Where had she picked up that strut? My memory otherwise makes her indiscernible from the decor of the home I so uneasily occupied, locking myself in my small room that had in it, inexplicably, a sink. I never used it. I sat in a sunny spot on the rough-carpeted floor and read. I still smell the apple cores rotting in the waste basket in Aunt Akeita’s room above the living room, kitty-corner from my room upstairs.
In those last years, rather than go home after school, I often stayed late at the nearby home of the Dolans, an enormous Irish family. The Dolan and Dougherty children and I played basketball and double-dutched and kicked the can. I was practically a Dolan myself, marching up Fifth Avenue with the clan in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. On the rare occasion I did see Aunt Akeita—we sometimes passed on the stairs—I didn’t say a word. And she came to outwardly despise me for paying her so little mind, to snort at the sight of me, to complain about me to my mother, to my grandmother, how unfriendly I was, what an unfriendly, rude child. Or, a different tack: Don’t you love me anymore? She had a slow-moving mutt named Susie that I walked around the block for 10¢ a pop. I am Suzy to family and even as a child I recognized the chore’s poetry. I executed it without complaint. I became deeply allergic to apples.
Once, Aunt Akeita called me into her appled room to say hello to someone on the phone. It was my grandfather, Cyril, the laughing man on the far right side of the photograph. I never did meet him and all I remember of the call is his deep voice: “Hello, Suzy.” He didn’t sound too interested in speaking with me. His Trinidadian accent—his people were from way east in Sangre Grande, it must have been thick at one time—was gone. He had owned three restaurants on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, all between 116th and 117th Streets—Watson’s, Ruby’s Rotisserie, and The Sugar Bowl. My mother traveled to one of them to pick up child support checks for her mother. A boy around my mother’s age was behind the counter and always had them ready for her and nothing to say. There had been a few children in Westchester Square who looked like my mother and her sisters—my mother remembers one of these dead ringers, maybe the same boy who would later hand over the child support checks, standing outside their house on Glebe Avenue, a few blocks from Maclay. She came to learn that he was her half-sibling.
When Aunt Akeita died, I was eighteen and at the post-funeral reception held at 2354 Maclay, I approached her grandson Luis. He had teased and provoked me when we were younger. Now he was quiet and handsome. Out of a bizarre impulse, what might be my life’s only exercise of pure spite, I invited Luis to join me later that week at a Manhattan comedy club. Luis lived in Mexico City. Despite excellent grades, his father, Uncle Everett, standing in the back row, smiling behind Marjorie and in front of the paned door, couldn’t get into the dental schools to which he’d applied—he was, after all, colored—so he went to school in Mexico and settled there. At the comedy club, I laughed and Luis didn’t but I didn’t care. The joke wasn’t in the room, not that one. Aunt Akeita—still smiling, still standing there against the far wall of her living room in a flower-patterned dress—was dead and I’d arranged for her sullen grandson to sit beside me as I laughed.
Suzanne Maria Menghraj’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Writing on the Edge, and Punctuate. A 2020 creative-in-residence at the Brooklyn Public Library, her essay-film “Northern Range” was recently screened on the library’s façade at Grand Army Plaza. She is currently at work on a narrative project that imaginatively depicts photographs and other archival materials as traces of global migration to Trinidad.