September 15

Edwina reminded me the other day that her son Steve will be leaving prison on September 15. She can’t wait.

In all the time Steve’s been locked away, Edwina hasn’t visited him once.

“I told him I wasn’t gonna come see him til the day he gets out,” she told me.

“If I do, I’d be cryin’ all the way home cause he has to stay there and can’t come home with me,” she explained.

While Steve and Edwina haven’t seen each other face to face in many months, he calls her regularly. Sometimes several times a day.

“I thought inmates only got to call home once or twice a week,” I said when Edwina told me how often they touched base.

“Yeah, he got a cell phone in there, so he can call me whenever he wants,” she replied.

I didn’t ask any questions. My guess is that keeping a cell phone in your cell isn’t above-board behavior in prison.

Checking boxes and eating oreos

An envelope from Social Security arrived in Edwina’s mailbox a couple of weeks ago. It contained a packet of forms for Edwina to fill out to reapply for disability, and Edwina’s first response was to be defensive.

“Miss Rayan, I got to have that disability check,” she insisted. “I can’t work like this,” pointing to her problems getting around and completing the most basic of tasks by herself–dressing, preparing meals, even sorting through her prescription medicines.

I assured Edwina that the forms reflect a part of the process to make sure that people receiving disability still need it. Anybody with an ounce of common sense would see that Edwina’s situation hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s worsened.

After trying to fill out the portions of the form that Edwina and her sister Linda couldn’t figure out on their own, I headed to Edwina’s with questions and a pen. And oreos, which she had texted me to say she needed “real bad.”

Page by page, we worked through the form. It was slow going.

“Okay, let’s start with doctors at Cooper Green during the past 12 months,” I said.

Bit by bit, Edwina pulled out memories of doctors she’d seen and tests they’d ordered. At the Coop, most of Edwina’s medical care is related to her diagnosis of breast cancer.

Then we turned to Princeton Hospital, which sits just a block away from Edwina’s apartment. It’s where Edwina goes when she’s facing a medical emergency, like when she couldn’t catch her breath and ended up with a diagnosis of COPD, and eventually, an oxygen machine.

I recorded her prescriptions from the bag of bottles she keeps by her side, throwing out those that had expired or she no longer took.

Finally, we got to the part of the questionnaire focused on Edwina’s day-to-day activities, from the time she gets up until she goes to bed at night.

“I get up and wash my face and get something to eat,” she told me. “Then, I do whatever needs doin’ around the house, washing some clothes maybe.”

Edwina occupies herself in the afternoon with her puzzle books and spending time with family. She ends the day with dinner, some tv, and a bath. Then, it’s off to bed.

We finished the form to the best of our combined ability, and I told Edwina that I would slip the large blue envelope into the mail.

Time for milk and oreos.

Child marriage in Zambia

A recent BBC report features the problem of child marriage in Zambia:

Families in poverty are subject to offers they cannot refuse, in this case, money in exchange for the hand of a young daughter.

Fortunately, as the report reveals, some tribal leaders are speaking out against the practice. They point to the losses associated with child marriage: too many unfulfilled dreams, maternal death during childbirth, and an ongoing cycle of poverty and unhappiness.

While I saw much joy in Lusaka, Zambia, I also observed plenty of despair. Changing the practice of child marriage might help to alleviate at least some of the hopelessness experienced by many girls in this part of the world.


It’s funny how your mind works when you have a little down time.

The girls and I were enjoying a trip to Panama City Beach, filling our days with waves and sand, a little mini golf, time at the pier, and travels to nearby Seaside and Rosemary Beach. Maybe because we jam-packed our vacation with fun, I found myself experiencing bizarre dreams when my head finally hit the pillow at night.

One nightmare in particular stood out, and I couldn’t shake it. Finally, it dawned on me that this unpleasant dream carried a taint of truth.

In my dream, I uncovered a family secret that my maternal grandmother’s family had been slave owners. As the dream played out, I struggled to put this history into place. I tried to explain to people who, after learning this secret, asked how I could possibly claim to be Edwina’s friend and advocate when I came from such a prejudiced past.

I awoke shaking off the absurdity of the nightmare. But then, a reality that I often push to the side slid in to take its place.

My grandmother, and her brothers and sisters, were racist in the extreme. All my life, I heard them utter slurs that even at a young age seemed shameful to me. My mom used to say that that’s the way my grandmother and her siblings were raised. Fortunately, my parents offered a very different example, always teaching me to treat people with respect.

When I was old enough to begin dating, my grandmother would tell me not to ever bother coming around with “any boyfriends who were N______.” All black people were the same in her book, and by same, I mean all of the worst assumptions that can be made about a person.

As we drove home from the beach and the girls slept in the car, I filled the silence with thoughts about the memories behind my nightmare. I wondered why I’d never thought about this side of my grandmother in all the time I’ve known Edwina, Lumon, Roderick, Lisa and others.

I guess I’ve been focused on the friends I’ve met and not on the color of their skin.

Apartment woes

I stopped by Edwina’s apartment earlier today to drop off her belated birthday present. It was good to see her and catch up on things I’ve missed during the past few weeks.

One of the first things Edwina wanted me to know about was a problem she’s having with her apartment.

“Miss Rayan, the rent people are gone!” she told me.

“What do you mean?”

“They done closed down the building they was in, the telephone number don’t work no more,” she explained.

Edwina went on to reveal that the guy who had taken over management of her building in recent months was on his way to prison for embezzlement.

“I don’t know what he done,” she admitted, “but he ain’t coming back for a long time.”

For now, Edwina told me, she and the other people living in her building are just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“There ain’t nobody to give our rent money to and we don’t know if we gonna get kicked out or what. We all just sittin here.”

In the meantime, Edwina is giving her dad her rent money so she won’t spend it on something else and not have it if the rent guy comes knocking. She’s also going to start looking for another place, though she worries she might not find a place in west end that she likes as much as the apartment she’s currently living in. It’s the only home that’s ever been hers, alone.

Let them eat cash?

Today’s New York Times ran a story titled “Let them eat cash”:

The author proposes giving cold, hard cash to the poor rather than either giving to organizations with a mission to assist the impoverished or offering gifts to the poor that come with the intent already designated. While I agree with the sentiment that controlling how the poor spend is akin to treating folks like children who aren’t capable of making sound choices, the mishandling of money poses a greater threat to those who have no reserves.

Recently, Edwina asked me to chip in some money for her phone bill. I told her I’d give her a small amount but she’d have to find the remainder elsewhere.

“Ok, Miss Rayan,” she chirped. “I can get the other money if you give me some.”

A few days passed, my contribution already in Edwina’s hands, before I heard from Edwina again.

“Can you give me money for the whole bill?” she texted me. “I spent the money I had on something else.”

My answer was no. I told Edwina that while I’ve done the same thing myself, using money intended for one thing on something else altogether, I always knew that I wasn’t going to get that money back. There’s a limited amount of cash I have for my family’s expenses, and there’s a limited amount that I can offer to her.

“Ok,” she replied, letting the matter rest.

At home in the heartland

The girls and I just returned from a visit to my hometown in Illinois. Somehow the tragedies that occur in a rural setting look different on the surface than they do in the ‘hood, the sort of environment in which Edwina and her family live.

While plenty of good things happened during our time in Illinois–hanging out with friends and family, rides in the pickup with my dad to check out fields of corn and soybeans, return visits to my favorite haunts growing up–we also experienced some darker moments.

I learned that my brother’s ex-wife Rhonda passed away a few months ago from liver disease and COPD. She’s the second of his ex-wives to die in the past two years from drug and alcohol-related illnesses.

Then while catching up, my niece mentioned a scary moment from last year when her dad/my brother overdosed on drugs and she had to rush him to the ER. Stepping up to handle matters of life and death is part of the job description for family members of addicts.

And the night before we headed back to Birmingham, a friend of mine from high school was killed in an accident at the local grain elevator he managed. News traveled fast and everyone I talked to was in shock. Tom was an all-around great guy–honest, hardworking, kind. His death was a reminder that farming is a dangerous profession despite the romanticism often associated with an agrarian lifestyle.

Good things and bad things happen wherever we live. In the heartland, the worst of times can be deceptively camouflaged by the calm and quiet of open roads.