My Mother’s Words Still Make Me Cry
Photo: Courtesy of Nelson George

My Mother’s Words Still Make Me Cry

Dementia has taken the mind of the woman who raised me, but it can’t make me forget the life she lived.

“You’re not my son.”

These words from my mother, Arizona Bacchus George, still make me cry. Not simply because they were hurtful when she said them a few years ago—they were—but because I knew it wasn’t her speaking. The voice was hers; the tongue it spoke was her dementia, which had taken her far from the reality we once shared. I know she didn’t mean it, but still it haunts me.

The woman who first taught me the value of words now uses them in ways I don’t understand. The mind that made me curious about the world is now buried deep inside her. Today she resides in a nursing home in her native Virginia where, because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, my family can’t visit her on Mother’s Day. So I want to honor Arizona’s memories by revisiting a conversation we had decades ago, a conversation which we can no longer have.

I’ve long known the general outline of her adult life. She’d moved to the Big Apple from Virginia with her husband Nelson Elmer George in 1956, had both me and my sister Andrea by 1961, and shortly afterwards separated from my father. Arizona could have become a social policy stereotype – single black women with two kids living in public housing in Brooklyn.

But my mother had a dream. Like so many in her civil rights generation, she believed in education as the route to escape ghetto limitations. By the time I was three, she had taught me the ABCs. Entering the first grade, I was already reading newspapers—a fact lost on my teacher at the time, whose default mode was repeating things Arizona had already shown me. This was lazy, my mother thought, so she went up to my elementary school to, as he said, “give her a piece of my mind.” It was during that visit she encountered Mrs. Harper, a black substitute teacher, who she soon bonded with. Mrs. Harper began giving me piano lessons, which actually became an excuse for them to talk while I messed up my scales. I wasn’t to be a musician. But, out of Mrs. Harper’s mentorship, my mother got the idea that she, too, could be a teacher.

During many long night-school nights, Arizona pushed toward her degree. By the time I was in the sixth grade at that same Brooklyn elementary school, she was what they called “a para-professional,” working in classrooms on her way to being certified as a teacher. Eventually she pulled us out of the projects and bought a house, all while earning a master’s degree in education. During the “New York Drop Dead” ‘70s and ‘80s my mother was part of a generation of black civil servants who helped keep the city’s heart beating.

She was my hero. I envisioned Cicely Tyson playing her in a movie I wanted to write about her life. But it wasn’t until one Christmas in the mid-’80s that I was able to record her telling the tale of her tragic childhood. She was growing tired of New York and contemplating her reverse migration South. I was a budding young journalist, anxious to find out the details. We sat on her bed in the home she’d purchased in East New York and, amid lesson plans and copies of TV Guide, I found out about the events that had toughed her for the big city. Her voice stayed even, though it carried great emotion, and was spiced with an enduring Virginia twang. I’ve had the cassette for years, but the current inability to visit her has heightened its power.

Our relationship changed for good in that Virginia hospital room, during one night in which she was suddenly transported back in the 1940s. She was again a small child in her father’s home. I was not her child, but one of her brothers. Where she saw a staircase, I saw a wall.

Arizona’s father Daniel worked, as most of the men in Newport News did, at the shipyards, the economic engine of the Tidewater area. He was a dark, burly, prematurely bald man who would spend forty years at the shipyard, retiring as one of its first black foremen. His wife Berneda Wilkins Bacchus was a small, fair-skinned woman who tended to the home and raised their five children: Cecile, Francis, Daniel (aka Son), Rudolph, and my mother, who was so tiny and cute when she arrived in 1935 that she was nicknamed “Doll.”

My mother remembers her early childhood as warm and loving. The Uptown area of Newport News where the Bacchuses lived was filled with black homeowners who mostly toiled at the shipyard or in their backyard gardens. When they went shopping in Overtown, a white shopping district, they sat at the back of the bus. The family spent all day Sunday at a nearby church where Daniel was a deacon. It was mandatory,  she told me: “Sunday school. Morning service. Three o’clock service. Night service.”

“The neighborhood was tight knit,” she told me. “Any parent could speak to anyone’s child if that child misbehaved, or even hit a child if they wished. The parents didn’t object to that. We could go into each other’s house. We were all very close.” Since she was the baby of the family Arizona was the last to attend school. Often alone during the day she created two imaginary friends, Ella and Joe Bella, to keep her company. When she did begin her education, it was in all black schools with all black teachers.

In the summer of 1943, while World War II raged overseas, my mother’s life was scarred by a series of tragedies. Riding on a bike with her brother Son, they struck a rock and tumbled over; a spoke of the metal wheel pierced her right knee. “There was a hole there and my mother put alcohol on it,” she recalled. “It seemed to be alright.” A few days later the knee became swollen. A local doctor told her mother to stick with old-time remedies: cold compresses, liniment. Only later was it found that the spoke had punctured a bone, and the bone had deteriorated.

That whole summer, Arizona battled illness. “My leg would swell,” she said. “The hole would open up and pus would come out.” A white doctor in Overtown, a bone specialist, sent her to a hospital in Norfolk.  It wouldn’t be her only time there; in that year alone, she was admitted three times, including a three-week stint, and missed much school time.  Over the next eight years, Arizona would be in and out of hospitals for treatments and surgery, but her right leg would never fully recover. There was a scar along the inside of that leg that was jagged and deep. One of the most frightening memories of my own childhood is watching a family friend carry her out of our apartment to an emergency room when her leg acted up again. Because of that enduring injury I always felt our family lived dangerously close to disaster.

The injury in summer ’43 was a precursor to another life changing event the following January. My mother’s sister Frances woke her and her brothers, the house in flames. “There was so much smoke we couldn’t see each other,” she told me. They opened windows. Frances jumped out one, Son another; he ran around to knock down the house’s back door, then carried their mother out. Arizona sat on the windowsill “spellbound with fear”—until Rudolph pushed her out, and into Frances’ waiting arms. “We went around to the front of the house,” she said. “My mother laid out on the lawn. She breathed her last breath right in front of us.”

KEROSENE BLAST FATAL TO WOMAN, read the headline in a local Newport News newspaper. Berneda (“Berneda Bacchus, 48, Negro”) had been pouring kerosene into her kitchen stove from a five-gallon can when the fumes ignited. A local physician told the reporter that when he arrived at the scene “she was dead, but her body was still burning.” It was the worst case of that type he had ever seen, he said.

If a life-altering injury and the death of a parent wasn’t enough, young Arizona would experience yet another shock six months later when her father remarried. Rumors abounded in the Uptown area about whether the woman Arizona called “Mrs. Viola” had been seeing Daniel Bacchus before his wife’s death; one popular accusation was that she’d “worked the roots” to seduce him.

Whatever the speculation, my mother, then eight, did know one fact—she wasn’t welcomed by her stepmother. “We tried to accept her,” she said. “I went to see her after they got married and I said ‘Hello, what would you like me to call you?’ It would have been hard to do, but I might have called her mother. But she wasn’t warm to me. Very cold. I could tell she didn’t want me around.” Looking back on that traumatic time Arizona said, “My father was different. The house was different. It was not the same house without my mother in it.”

For the next decade, until she turned eighteen, my mother and Mrs. Viola waged a cold war. Sometimes Arizona lived with her older sister Cecile, going on occasional Saturday shopping trips with her father. When she moved back into her father’s house, she became the target of verbal and psychological abuse from her stepmother, her injured leg a particular focus. The next time she needed to have the leg treated, Mrs. Viola told her, they would either cut her leg off or she would die. My mother became so paranoid that she and her brother Son grilled a doctor for the truth about her condition. He reassured them that she would recover, but the internal scars—of the abuse, of Arizona’s father consistently taking his new wife’s side over his daughter’s—would linger.

During high school Arizona had to wear a shoe with two-and-a-half-inch heel on her right leg, because the injury retarded its growth. “I went through a whole psychological thing about the leg, the shoe and the staring from other students,” she said. “I went through a very bad emotional trip and Mrs. Viola didn’t help.” With the support of Son, she slowly rehabbed her leg and regained her ability to walk confidently. By her junior year her injured leg had grown stronger, and she became involved in a number of activities at all black Huntington High, including student government, civics groups, the school choir and the Red Cross. With friends from school she’d spend some afternoons at Franklin’s Funeral Parlor, where students would gather to dance in an upstairs apartment with a turntable.

Arizona’s grades were good enough that she was accepted to historically black college Virginia Union. But her conflicts with Mrs. Viola weren’t over. Her father told her she wouldn’t be returning to college for her sophomore year; his wife had convinced him that he was wasting money by supporting Arizona’s education, and he stopped paying her tuition. It was around this time she caught the eye of my father, who’d just returned from serving with the Army in the Korean War. If my mother had still been attending college, perhaps they wouldn’t have gotten married at that time—but she was looking to change her life, and Elmer wanted to give New York a try.

Photo: Courtesy of Nelson George

So, in 1956, Arizona and Elmer became part of the great Southern migration north, initially settling in Crown Heights before moving in the brand new Samuel J. Tilden public housing complex in the once Jewish, soon to be black, ghetto of Brownsville, Brooklyn. After they separated, Arizona worked as a supermarket cashier and a bank teller before finding her passion as an educator. Looking back on my childhood now, I realize my mother had already been through a physical and emotional hell well before facing the challenge of raising two kids alone in the Big Apple. I never knew how she kept going. But when I re-listen to the tape, I hear an almost stoic sense of purpose. She was a determined little woman who had dreams—college for her children, home ownership, higher education—that wouldn’t be denied. I rarely saw her cry, even when she’d sit watching a television at night, absently rubbing her eternally troubled leg.

When we visited Virginia as a family, my mother would always stop by her father’s house. Outwardly, everyone was cordial, but an unspoken tension greeted us. I’d sit with my grandfather and talk haltingly about my life in Brooklyn, but never could tell if he was really interested. My mother and Mrs. Viola put up a polite front for us, but the dislike was clearly mutual. As a result we never spent the night at that house, staying with Arizona’s brothers and sisters on summer vacations. Thankfully, late in Daniel Bacchus’ life my mother and he had some honest conversations to come to terms with the past, which gave my mother some sense of closure.

I’ve had to come to terms as well—not with my mother’s past, but with who she is now. Just a few years ago, in 2013, Arizona fell down by her garage in Newport News, that bad leg giving out yet again. It was during her subsequent hospitalization that we saw the first signs of the oncoming dementia. She'd say things that didn't make sense, referring to people or incidents the immediate family had no knowledge of. She would get angry if pressed for clarity, a symptom of the disease. Our relationship changed for good in that Virginia hospital room, during one night in which she was suddenly transported back in the 1940s. She was again a small child in her father’s home. I was not her child, but one of her brothers. Where she saw a staircase, I saw a wall.

She is irritated when I don’t see what she sees or hear what she hears. I yearn for the easy laughter that once defined her and the love of soul music that filled her Saturday nights. She’s paranoid and has a tendency to wander off, leaving her room—and the facility—whenever possible. Dementia or not, Arizona’s mind sharpens when it comes to lying to nursing home staff or finding escape routes.

She now lives vividly in a time long gone, a time that, to her, feels like right now. She doesn’t remember last week or even five minutes ago very well. But the distant past is not the past. It is happening now and again and forever.  My mother time travels, living in multiple periods of her life. These are not just memories. She is not looking back; she is there. In these moments Arizona has folded time back upon itself.  

At first this frightened me. Where was the women who raised me? Had I lost her forever? The answer is both yes and no. Though in her eighties, the body of my mother is surprisingly strong. But dementia has altered her. Often I am encountering young Arizona, the daughter of Daniel and Berneda Bacchus, the doll baby of her family, the child who lost her mother in a fire, who resented her stepmother and was bedridden with a terrible injury.

Accepting this reality has not been easy and, sometimes, I refuse to.  But in the pain there is a lesson. By listening I’ve learned much more about her childhood. Not about the facts of her life, told to me years ago, but about the feelings that made her laugh and cry. I do my best to understand. I listen closely.  After all, I am meeting the girl that became my mother.