My parents threw great parties. But of course, that is what all young, Black surburbanites did in the 1980s, especially yuppie immigrants and their much younger wives.
When my parents bought their first home in 1986, my father was a 35-year-old dual-degreed man of the world, sporting teeth with all the shine and strength of elephant tusks. My mother, then 22, had moved through her life with a quiet hope, knowing and believing that one day she’d leave Ghana and raise her children in the United States. I’m not sure about the circumstances of their meeting, but I do know it culminated with my dad asking her what she would do if he married her and took her to America.
One year before my birth, they hired a realtor and took out a mortgage on a two-bedroom house in Houston. It was the stuff of a sweeping love story, the natural progression of things. I often wonder how my life would be different had my mother stayed in her homeland. But it was her fervent sense of expectancy, the rapture of my father’s worldliness and the dazzle of his smile that sealed the fate of my Texas upbringing.
I grew up in the eastern half of a duplex on a corner lot, with a bathroom for each of its two bedrooms and a backyard with a carport surrounded by what seemed like an endless field of lush green space. The fertile soil beneath it would one day bring forth my mother’s okra and tomato plants, my father’s banana tree and sugar canes, even the lone cantaloupe that grew out of the ground one spring from a seed I pushed into the earth but never nurtured. The melon was so out of mind and out of place as it ripened that I threw it away after I plucked it from the ground. It could never have been any good to eat; I didn’t plant it with any purpose.
In our first years in that house on Chestnut Hill, what did have purpose, my mother believed, was this dream she was realizing. This family she was now responsible for and this home that was now all hers. My father, also a Ghanaian immigrant, had been apartment dwelling for the decade prior to buying the home. During this time, he studied for a master’s degree and chased a promising career in the insurance business. With his wife, a lady with knowing eyes and skin the same shade of paper-bag brown as Clair Huxtable, he was building his own brand of middle-class African and American affluence. And like the fictional Huxtables, whom we watched and adored every Thursday night on TV, my parents eventually had four daughters, but they had no son. I was the first child and the immediate beneficiary of my parents’ new Black affluence and their damn-near-legendary house parties.
I was the first child and the immediate beneficiary of my parents’ new Black affluence…
And with a house like ours, who wouldn’t have wanted to throw a party?
There was an archway paces from the front door, made of red bricks and enough mortar to bind my parents’ dreams for their lives. Party guests passed under this archway in 1988, their arms bustling with wrapped presents for me. I was turning a year old, and anyone who crossed our threshold into the foyer and tip-toed between the red-faced children dancing across the living room floor could find me taking my first steps to what my Dad refers to as Michael Jackson’s “I’m bad, I’m bad, you know it.” I bounced and stumbled across the living room to the crackles of the record player and Michael Jackson’s synthesizers, kicking through the balloons and streamers and paper bells that festooned the carpet. The kitchen was probably 50 baby steps from the center of our living room. Passing through, guests would find our dining table, a lavish buffet of what was, likely, food from my parents’ homeland. My parents never had a party without a lion’s share of fufu and stew and seasoned fried fish heaving from serving platters, the ones we kept on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinets and used only for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and parties like this one.
And then there was my mother’s soup, a hearty gumbo of fresh chicken whose feathers she plucked herself after buying them live from Mr. Kerkey’s farm. Mr. Tielke was his name, but with my parents’ accents, I didn’t know that until I visited his farm one day when I was older and read his name off his mailbox. In her soup there were juicy chunks of tomato from her garden, slivers of ginger that would liquefy on our tastebuds and onions with just enough texture that I could bite into its pieces without the sting. It was spicier than any soup or gumbo I’d ever have. As I grew up and had friends over, they had to cool their lips against glasses of ice water or lukewarm rice balls after my mom’s spicy food, while I devoured it in gulps. “You can handle it ‘cause you’re African,” they’d say.
My mother had been dizzy over the party’s menu, I imagine. It was her first house party, her first foray into showcasing just how super of a woman she could be in her newfound American domesticity. She wasn’t alone in the kitchen that afternoon. She traded laughs and giggly high-fives with other expatriate twenty-somethings turned mothers, wives and homeowners. They sliced hard-boiled eggs atop aluminum pans of green salad like they were born to do it. But what kid would want lettuce when there was an abundance of grocery store sheet cake and sugary red punch at the ready? The salad was for the adults, as were the sweaty bottles of Heineken. I do remember, for a fact, that there was Heineken.
I don’t recall bottles of Heineken making an appearance at my sister’s outdooring two years later. Instead, there were cans of Miller High Life and dark glass bottles of Guinness. Akin to a christening, an outdooring is a West African naming ceremony for newborns. Mine had been held on a Saturday night a few years prior at a reception hall, replete with printed invitations and my parents in matching getups. My sister’s was no different, except that the balloons, streamers and paper honeycombs had been scattered through our backyard instead. Our concrete carport doubled as a dance floor, and a plastic canopy shaded the patch of grass that my sisters and I would one day run through on summer evenings. My parents moved wicker furniture and glass tables outside, and folding chairs lined the fence we shared with Rick and Florence Freeman, the couple with whom we split the side-by-side duplex.
Since the music was so loud and there would be so much hustle and bustle throughout the afternoon, I wonder if my parents talked the outdooring over with our neighbors, Sherman and Mr. Patel (whose homes faced our backyard) or even Alfred and Olivia, whose front door mirrored ours from across the street.
The party started as one weekend morning faded into its afternoon, and there was just enough extension cord to pull giant speakers just past the sill of our backdoor. I was three years old at the time, and the speakers were as tall and booming as I was. It was around this time that I gained notoriety for being the kid who danced at parties, and not just my parents’ but everybody’s. I had a penchant for breaking any inhibition and emulating the hip dance moves I’d seen on BET’s Video Soul, cajoling the adults to give me money. I often worked my best imitation of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation to the sounds of traditional Ghanaian highlife, which had been piping from our living room’s cassette deck into the air of Texan suburbia. Highlife was ripe with hi-hats, synthesizers, drum kicks, zig-zagging bass lines, squealing horns and measured sounds that could have only come from a Casio keyboard. The music hastened us to twist our waists, switch our hips and contort our fingers to the guitar riffs as we shuffled our feet.
I was every bit of three-year-old cuteness that day, wearing a floral printed dress, complete with a pink bow, white stockings, barrettes in my hair and Mary Jane-style shoes. As if it were not enough for me to do my best dance move—the running man—for change, that day I thought it alright to take up smoking.
There were three men at the party, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer out of aluminum cans and leaning against the fence we shared with the Freemans. I think Florence smoked Virginia Slims, so it’s probable that she and Rick didn’t mind the shapeless scent of Marlboro wafting into their backyard. The skin of these men was a rich and hefty shade of brown, slick and glistening under the Houston sun, the same shade as the motor oil that would one day stain the concrete that, on this day, was a dance floor. I watched the men pin their shoulder blades to the fence, ease into a pocket of comfort and nonchalance that seemed to shirk the day’s energy. But they managed to fit in perfectly. It was a natural kind of calm. I imagined the flavor of nicotine and embers clouding into their mouths, swirling with the taste of beer. The three men were the purveyors of a Black Cool that I had never seen, even for all my Video Soul watching and Janet Jackson idolizing and Theo Huxtable crushing. My mouth watered at the sight.
There was a white pen on the glass table in front of me. I was sitting on a wicker chair beneath the canopy, central to the action of the party. My parents might have been dancing. Maybe my dad was schmoozing, and my mom was probably in the kitchen slicing hard-boiled eggs over the salad. My sister, the center of attention, likely was being handled by her godmother and making disjointed use of her senses, her eyes bugging around to follow the sounds she heard and to gander at the faces that peek-a-booed into hers. She was far away from the smokers, who thought they were being polite by taking their habit to the far end of the festivities, against the fence we shared with the Freemans. The highlife was piping, with its singer wailing at the top of his voice. It bolstered many to dance, but the Black Cool seemed to just lean into the music. I was under that canopy by myself with a white pen and a visual fixation with those satiating an oral one. They didn’t know I was watching them.
It was one of those pens I could pull part, the kind I could unscrew halfway and with the help of an internal spring, click at the base in order to reveal the tube of wet, rippling blue ink. I unscrewed the pen, which I recall smelled like bitter chemicals. The scent of it stung my eyes the way ammonia would. I don’t know why the pen was there in the first place. Maybe someone had used it to sign a card. Maybe it was the same pen my dad used to address the invitations summoning Black Cool to our corner lot of suburbia. Regardless, the pen as it had existed, irrespective of its previous use and its immediate purpose for being under the canopy with me, was no more. I had unscrewed its parts, determined I had no need for its internal spring, its tube of ink and its second half, which held the retractable clicking base. I took the pungent top half, which I pretended was akin to embers and nicotine and cool, and sucked on it, parting and puckering my little lips just so. My chest rose as I inhaled, and I watched the Black Cool lean against the fence we shared with the Freemans. I pulled the pen from my lips, exhaled whatever carcinogens existed in the odor of blue ink pens, and looked around as if the pink bow on my floral dress had morphed into a sash of sophistication. The videographer, likely the same man who taped my first steps at my birthday party two years earlier, pointed his camera at my feigned maturity. I remember the taste of the hardened plastic against my tongue, the acidic staleness of the ink fumes careening across my taste buds and down my windpipe, yet I don’t remember being captured. But I know that I had been validated, only because the sudden swell of my shoulders in that videotape says so.
It’s quite likely that with a pan of salad tethered to her hip, my mom left the kitchen, crossed the threshold of the backdoor and then shooed the Black Cool away from the fence we shared with the Freemans, flailing her hands and chiding the men for smoking around her babies. I likely dropped the pen at the sight of her, knowing that while it was not a real cigarette, faking a drag was wrong. Or maybe it was my dad, who had reappeared from where ever he was and pulled me to dance with him on the concrete dance floor. I don’t remember looking for the pen and its pieces ever again. Charge it to my short attention span or my affinity for dancing. Whatever it was, I’m sure that my dad and I spent a portion of the afternoon cutting the concrete with our fancy shoes. For all I know, that pen could be buried in the dirt from which I inadvertently harvested a cantaloupe or on the patch of grass where my dad would let the live chickens run free after buying them from Mr. Kerkey’s farm. Until we ate them for dinner.
That’s the thing about the places that make us. Simple things like brick and mortar can signify the seasons of our lives.
Years later, we worried about the brick archway in front of the house falling on our heads. Together with Rick, my dad and uncle dismantled the brick that hung overhead and the pillars on each side of the arc. This is right around the time the cars showed up, one by one, in the backyard. My dad had taken to buying used cars at auctions and flipping them as a hobby. By this time, our house parties stopped altogether.
That’s the thing about the places that make us. Simple things like brick and mortar can signify the seasons of our lives. As the family changes, as little sisters are born and renovations are made, the structure of the house and the things that made it special change as well. The one-time dining room-turned-buffet was converted to a third bedroom, to accommodate visiting relatives and family friends just passing through.
The dreams changed, too: my mother didn’t want the house in the divorce and after a small electrical fire the year I turned 16, I never lived in the house on Chestnut Hill again.