A Gaggle of Geese, a Flight of Fancy
A sight, sound, or smell can be the bridge that transports a person far back across that all too fast-flowing river of time. This fall, the sound of geese, with their squawking call of pending escape from the coming cold, has provided that bridge to my past.
My partner and I recently moved from elsewhere in Brooklyn into the quiet neighborhood of Windsor Terrace. This change lets me approach autumn from a new direction.
I mean this literally. Since the Atlantic Ocean lies just south of Brooklyn, geese must detour as they leave their Prospect Park summer-lake paradise. First, they fly low, as they gather into a flock over our home, which sits sandwiched between the Park and Greenwood Cemetery. From here, they fly westward in formation—crossing the East River just below the tip of Manhattan, over Staten Island and the lower Hudson Bay—to reach the New Jersey mainland. Then, they can follow the coast and landmarks on a southern course toward their winter home.
In moving from the South to this great city three years ago, we took the return journey that these geese seek out every spring. However, our migration was one-way and a reversal in timing of theirs, for we came to New York City in the fall of the year—the fall of our lives—to stay. Still, when I hear the insistent honking of these geese, each steeling his neighbor for the difficult trip ahead, I cannot help but recall the preparations we made—mental, physical, and fiscal—for the tough trip to New York and away from our southern origins.
Like these geese, we go where we are called, fulfilling some instinctual yearning not fully understood—but to be obeyed, if we desire peace of mind.
I am home in New York City, in my paradise near Prospect Park. For my partner and me, this city of over eight million souls is a quiet refuge from intolerance. No longer do we suffer the incessant, cruel insults of local and state politicians. No longer do we fear the legal license granted there to those who would hunt us down like rabid dogs—or like ducks free for the shooting, just for the sport of it.
I live in a refuge, a pocket of protection; that’s all this country begrudgingly allows me. Even though I am a natural-born American, I am denied the basic freedom from fear of being fired, or even killed, simply for loving whom I love.
Even here in my chosen home, other states would still intervene, denying me the freedom of marriage to the person with whom I want to spend the remainder of my life. Even though I pay the same taxes as any American, still I am denied the legal rights to equal tax benefits that come with marriage. Strangers who know nothing of me would dictate to God a denial of his blessings upon our commitment in love to one another. Finally, when I die, those same strangers intend to impose one final insult: They would deny me the right to pass my already-taxed assets to my partner, an automatic advantage that married couples enjoy.
Geese face the coming cold and decide to flee. Or is it instinct? We stared into those cold, fear-filled eyes of would-be Christians and saw the chill that had descended on their hearts. Seeing no warmth or goodness there, we chose to flee. Whether free choice or instinct, the decision works for the geese, and it worked for us.
I cherish my adopted city, but I would have preferred my success to be in the land of my birth. Nevertheless, I will take victory where I find it. So, thank you, New York, for the welcoming spirit you extended to these two immigrants. Still, every fall I have left, I expect the bracing breath of autumn’s kiss on my cheek will serve as a poignant reminder. I will look up expectantly, with my ear cocked, for that line of geese shaped in a “V” for victory. My motherland will call, but I cannot answer. So, I will mourn that which should have been mine without need of flight—my birthright of acceptance, understanding, love.
“I’m doin’ some o’ my boy’s stuff,” she confided on this day. She says this every laundry day. “I have to check his pockets. He never does.” She’s told me that before today, as well. I wonder how old her son is. She’s beyond ninety.
“Boy, these things are mighty ugly!” she says, walking up to me and pointing to a magazine displaying custom-detailed motorcycles.
“I’d love to have one,” I tell her, “but not one of those.” She chuckles. I know that was just a move to break the ice so she can talk about whatever is really on her mind. I wait.
“I been thinkin’ ‘bout goin’ over,” she says. I’m not sure what she means, start to ask her to clarify, but think better of it. “Really?” I say, leaving an open doorway for her to continue. I’m folding clothes, trying to appear just the right mix of listening without giving away just how interested I am, for fear that she could think better of it and back away.
“Over yonder,” she starts, then interrupts herself, “Excuse me for not havin’ my teeth in. I took ‘em out to eat—my gums are stronger than my teeth—and I forgot to put ‘em back. They’s upstairs in a glass o’ water.” Then she begins again, “Over yonder must be sich a pretty place. Mista Jimmy—from up on second floor—died two-three years ago. I’s in the lobby when it happened—when he all of a sudden took sick. The doorman called the amb’lance but theys couldn’t get through di-rectly. It was summah-time and we was havin’ them block parties all over. So when theys do gets here, he was gone a’ready. But, as he passed, he looked at us and jist smiled. He musta seen somethin’ real pretty over there.”
Next, she tells me about an old friend who died several years ago. “We was close—real close. We’s told each other that anythang we saw unusually we’ould pass on amonst each other. That’s how we learned. And we always did, too. So when she passed, I went to her funeral, and when I‘s walkin’ past her casket—after a right-good service—at the cemetery, my dress, it blowed up somthin’ awful. Now, dis was June, mind you, and warm. But dat cold wind came out of nowheres and gives me a chill. My teeth’s—I had some then—they was goin’ click-click-click.” She demonstrated the technique, but was a bit unsuccessful with her missing dentures. Then she continued, “My daughta, she led me on home that instant. And as soon as I teeched my doorstep, well that chill, it was gone away.”
“Later,” she adds, “I was speakin’ with a lady—very God-fearin’. She told me that sincen you can’t come back after you crosses over, my friend was a tryin’ to tell me goodbye. Well, I ‘membered our promise to tell each other all our learnin’s. I knows she was tellin’ me that somethin’ there is that comes after you leave here—somethin’ nice, I ‘spect, since Mista Jimmy smiled so. So I’m not worried.”
Last week, Miss Mary told me about her family. Today, she wanted to talk about “over there.” While she was alluding to the inevitability of death, I hope that her focus on it was no omen that her “crossing over” is imminent. I enjoy this little lady’s strong spirit and positive attitude.
She has become an avid reader—self-taught, I imagine. “All sorts o’ great books layin’ ‘round here,” she told me on another Friday. “None o’ these here young-uns seems to care ‘bout readin’ no more, but I loves it,” she added. Her gnarled hand gently rubbed the spine of a book she had picked up from the bookcase leaning, like the Tower of Pisa, into the corner of our gloomy laundry room. A gaze seemingly lost to this time and place overtook her face as she said in a heavy voice, “Back yonder, we didn’t have much in the way of readin’ stuff. They called us ‘Negroes’ then—if-in we was lucky.” Her voice had just trailed off quietly.
I waited for more, hoping for more, wanting more insight into this woman and the life she has lived. But, nothing more came that day. I dug deep into my mind for some word or phrase I could say to evoke the wellspring of her memories, but our backgrounds were too dissimilar. I stood there empty, yet knowing she was full to overflowing with stories—bursting with remembered images, sounds and smells. If only I could bridge that crevasse between us.
“Maybe I’ll see ye here next week. My son sorely messes up these clothes with that work o’ his!” she says, slowly rolling out her neatly folded clothes in a squeaky cart.
I look closely and notice only dresses are visible—no men’s pants. Her son could be, what—seventy or more?—if still living. There are so many questions I want to ask, but the words never came today. I’ll try again next Friday, and the next, until I’m comfortable in her world and she’s comfortable having me in it. I want to know about this boy of hers. Does he exit? Did he ever?
Miss Mary makes my laundry day more meaningful. I lend her a hand in hanging out her memories for a little airing, and she helps me focus on the details that matter: spirit, life and people.
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