I wonder if their stories were as grand as my memory of them.
The South Bend gloom, the perma cloud we called it. We made jokes – as we trudged across campus, interview notes tucked safely in our backpacks, sleet clinging to the still-green blades of manicured grass. We wondered about why Holocaust survivors, Black Americans in the Great Migration, would choose to live the rest of their lives here to the armpit of Indiana.
I had seen a flyer in the life sciences building. Looking for some extra money? Want to learn how to interview people? Want to help answer the question of: what is at the root of resiliency in people and why do they live so much longer? Dr. Bergemen who would be my boss – salt and pepper hair with cherub cheeks and a bounce step in her white smart tennis shoes – hired me, threw me into the research without any real training. I was 19 years old. No sense of the difference between someone’s healthspan and their lifespan, or what a long life could be, or what the spirit tucked deep into someone’s belly is that keeps an eye on the horizon while looking at the present air around them.
I was so nervous, sitting across from my first research subject. As I fumbled through the consent process, my interviewee sat there serenely in her wheelchair, in a quiet corner of the nursing home, calmly observing me, green and yellow afghan tucked around her, soft dark hair freshly rolled, nailed painted red. Her brown eyes with the blue film of age and having seen so much, all of it. Let’s call her May, after her birth month. She touched my arm, I breathed.
May told me her story, patiently, purposefully, like she was unwrapping an intricate and layered gift, so delicate. Growing up in the red Alabama clay, sharecropping, moving Northward, away from the Jim Crow South – she chuckled remembering a question she asked her dad about who just was this Jim Crow and would she ever meet him. Just a little girl hanging onto the promise of her dad and mom as she held onto their hands and didn’t look back down the road. Grasping for something she didn’t understand, a striving, a better up there-ing, a notion that north was up and out. She was 100 years young when I met her.
One of her sons was killed in the Vietnam war, a husband died of a heart attack many years ago, friends too, house fires, casual racism if there is such a thing, overt racism, exclusion. All of those things that are tethered to having a Black body in America.
And then how she became animated. Her community. The number of people who ask after her, call her. Some deep and down the hall and some less often. There is touch there, there is connection, there is meaning. There is profoundness.
Resilience. Resiliency at what cost, I’ll never know.