She sat at her dressing table putting on her make-up. This woman, Hattie Mae Burton, was 71 years old and looked 50. “Good livin”, she smiled whenever anyone asked. Hattie Mae was putting her make-up on and her best friend, Gussie Simon, was curling her hair. She was going to the funeral of her grandson, the fourth grandchild to die in the last six years. It was harder burying children.
“Lawd have mercy.” She said. “It’s so hot in here an’ you ain’t helping much wit’ dat curlin’ iron!”
“I know it’s hot Miss Hattie but you got ta git yo’ hair done.” Gussie called her friend “Miss Hattie” even though she was only five years younger, but everyone on S. 18th St. called her “Miss Hattie”. After all she had been on her block more than 50 years.
“I don’t se why you got ta’ fuss over my hair anyway?! Shoot, I’m wearin’ a hat ain’t I?”
“I know, but what’s showin’ got ta look right don’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess so”, said Hattie. “I’m sorry fo’ hollerin’ like dat. It’s just dis funeral….”
“That’s OK,” Gussie smiled, “Lord knows you got a right ta’ be a little grumpy.”
Hattie closed her eyes and was silent. Gussie dropped her head and was silent also. These two women had an understanding. And when they were alone together like this they would fall into silent prayer, as if on cue, each respecting the others need for a moment or two of silence.
“Thank you Jesus”, Hattie sniffed and opened her eyes.
“Amen”, said Gussie.
“You know Gussie, I caint understan’ why all my gran’babies been dyin’ like this. I mean I raised all my kids right and God fearin’. They all turned out OK, now my gran’s is dyin’. I guess it’s just God’s will.” She paused and wiped a tear from her eye. “Now don’t get me wrong, I know better then to question His will, but why my little ones? They was all good kids. I just ‘bout raised ‘em myself.”
“Well Miss Hattie, you know the streets poison young’uns a lot faster these days. All ‘dis crack, all ‘dis money. Lawd, the movies ain’t nuthin’ but sex an’ guns an’ stuff. And the music is the same, all loud an’ cussin’. These kids just doin’ what ‘dey see.”
“My gran’s was not street poisoned!” said Hattie sternly. “It was God’s will plain and simple.”
Gussie knew she was treading on dangerous ground. Hattie thought, like all grandmothers, that the sun rose and set on her grandchildren.
Gussie’s voice was very soft, “Well Arthur Lee was on dat dope wasn’t he? His own momma……”
Hattie cut her off, “Wasn’t nuthin’ wrong wit’ Arthur Lee! It was ‘dem boys he was wit’ gave him ‘dat stuff. Humph, Arthur Lee was da’ smartest chile I ever seen!”
Arthur Lee Burton was Hattie’s first grandchild and the first one to die. An overdose of heroin had ended his life six years earlier. He was 26.
Gussie knew about dope and dope addicts first hand. Her one and only son, Sam Jr., had also died of an overdose almost eight years before, and she had suffered with the hopelessness of having an addicted son.
She put down her curling iron and sighed. Absentmindedly, she started scratching the side of her thumb with her index finger. She did this whenever she was nervous or thinking hard about something. It made her hands look awful because the sides of her thumbs were always scratched and bloody, but she did it anyway.
“Miss Hattie, when his own momma put him out, you took him in. And when things started missin’ from yo’ house you said they was misplaced or somethin’.”
Hattie looked at her friends reflection in the mirror and frowned.
Gussie forged on, “When Sam Jr. was in ‘dat drug program ‘dem people tole’me bout somethin’ called “denial”. They said denial was seein’ somethin’ right in front of yo’ face an’ not really exceptin’ what you see to be the truth. Honey, everybody knowed Arthur Lee was on dope. You was the only one said he wasn’t.”
She paused to see what effect her words had on her friend. Hattie just kept frowning.
“You is in denial ‘bout all yo’ grankids, “ Hattie’s eye’s slitted in anger. “I’m not sayin they was all bad, I’m just sayin’ dat kids is harder today then ‘dey once was and we gots ta’ ‘cept that they don’t always grow up the way we think ‘dey should.”
Normally a woman of few words Gussie had spoken her piece and stared intently at her friend.
Hattie rose from the dressing table. She turned slowly to face Gussie. She stared straight ahead, her face was unmoving but tears flowed freely down her cheeks meeting under her chin. She thought of her other dead grandchildren: Liza, 18 years old, murdered in a Brooklyn crack house. The second child to die. Liza….so young, so pretty. She had started dating men at 15, they were always older and drove big cars. She wore too much jewelry and her skirts were always too short, but she was a good girl. Hattie remembered buying Liza her first white party dress.
Willie, 22 years old, dead grandchild number three. Shot right on the corner in front of her house over a $10 dice game. Willie was the first grandchild to go to college. When he got kicked off the football team after two years, he dropped out and came home. He couldn’t find a job to suit him so he took to hanging out on the corner. Hattie thought of Willie’s smile. He could charm the birds right out of the trees, she called him her little con artist.
And now today they were burying James. (Number four) James, who was killed not one hundred feet from where Willie was shot. Little James, who had walked with a limp since birth. James, who never really worked anywhere, but always had money, and was the sharpest dressed child in the family. Little crippled James who always came by to see grandmom and give her a little money. So short, so cute, so young. It seemed to her that he was just starting to make his way in this world when suddenly he was gone. A passing car, the hail of gunfire, and her little James was no more. She had heard the shots and in an instant knew it was James. She just knew it! He had said, “I love ya’ granny”, pressed $40 in her hand and went out the door to meet his fate. The fate of too many 21 year old black boys. The fate of too many of her grandchildren.
As the two women looked into each other’s eyes, Gussie was also thinking. She had known people who were the best of friends, lose years of friendship over a few careless words and she hoped she had not damaged theirs by speaking so bluntly.
“Listen Gussie,” Hattie broke the silence. Her voice was calm and strong at the same time. She moved to the closet to get her black hat. “I don’t know nuthin” ‘bout no denial, but I been on this earth long enough to know ‘bout love. I know my gran’s weren’t no angels. But a child needs plenty of love and luck to last in this world and was it so wrong for me to give ‘em plenty lovin’ and remember ‘em fo’ the good little babies they was ‘stead of what they turned out to be!” She turned to look at Gussie, “Love don’t know nuthin’ bout denial. Love is just love. Soon as folk stop tryin’ ta’ put conditions on love an’ ‘cept the fact that love is just love, the better off they be.”
“Sure Arthur Lee was on dope and James and Liza and Willie was all livin’ way too fast, but do that mean I got ta’ stop thinkin’ and prayin’ that my love is gonna help ‘em? No, it don’t! I seen what I seen. I seen what everybody else seen too and I kept lovin’ an hopin’ anyway.”
Hattie found her black hat and turned to the mirror to put it on. Gussie remained silent. She knew that by saying what she did, she had hurt her best friend on a day when she didn’t need any more hurt. She scratched her thumb some more.
Hattie took a deep breath and went on, “ I know you said what you said ‘cause you ma’ friend and it hurt, but I ‘preciate it. I really do.”
Gussie let out a sigh of relief. “But is it so bad fo’ me to see a person an’ not see what they doin’ ta’ they self? You know, just see the love an’ nuthin’ else. I chose not to see all the bad things that was happenin’ cause I looked at ‘dem kids wit’ my heart ‘stead of my eyes. What choice did I have? They was my babies. You know, a grandmother ain’t ‘spose ta’ bury no grankids. It ain’t right.” She stopped to think, “I guess it is plenty of denial in love”, she said finally, “but them babies needed me an’ what I did fo’ ‘em. That’s just the way it is.”
Hattie turned and started to walk past her, suddenly Gussie reached out and hugged her friend. A warm, strong, hug filled with love and mostly, understanding.
“Miss Hattie, I’m sorry if I hurt yo’ feelins. You right, it’s plenty of denial in love, ‘cause I sure love you in spite of yo’ self!”
Hattie stepped back and looked at her friend and after a second or two they both started giggling and laughing till the tears came.
“Girl you crazy,” Hattie said. “C’mon, I hear a car horn, wipe yo’ face, we gon’ be late. You know how Big James is. He hate to be late.”
Gussie caught Hattie’s eye as she was putting on her jacket and both women knew that what had been said had passed. Their friendship was still intact, maybe even stronger than before.
They went downstairs and out the front door to the waiting car. Yes, Hattie Mae Burton was burying another grandchild, but not her love.