I stand in an American Foursquare
two and a half stories tall
in a space a thousand miles from where lines of my blood have shed.
Currently, I am the last step.
I look up to my ascendants,
though now they are all down in the ground,
wondering if I’ve descended or ascended.
Strayed far from their grace,
in attempts to reach levels that they could not.
With each step,
my bloodline has shortened.
My greatest ascendant,
great grandmother Neva Nell
nearly six feet tall,
baked the sweetest of sweet potato pies
from her two bedroom, one story Henderson kitchen
where bitter tea in a round red pot sat on her gas stove.
Red was the dirt along East Texas
all the way up north to Texas’ hat.
She cleaned white men’s estates and
cooked their dinner for her dimes,
making their spots shine,
while her daughter was raised by her mother.
Weekend burger dates,
then back to work.
Her daughter’s cries had to be denied
to earn what bits she could give.
Back to work,
back to back.
The same work ethic was not lacked
by her daughter
who left middle-of-nowhere Rusk county and ventured to the big city of Houston –
Texas Southern University
Black excellence sought and obtained by those whose names remained
ignored and exchanged for ‘girl’ and ‘boy.’
Itty bitty, five foot tall Ressie Mae worked
but could not make the grades.
She married a soldier
made a 3-bedroom one-story house a home
with her husband and child.
Not too shabby, not too fancy –
a happy middle class.
As white flight took off
Ressie Mae wasn’t too far behind
after Prince Charming revealed himself to be a Beast.
Laws left her with the home
upkept by work
work, work, work
Waitressing in a diner,
janitor at banks and businesses
night school in nursing
grades never made
stuck scrimping, saving, and fighting
to hold onto the next step.
A second story of her one story.
A life far from the red dirt roots
to sustain the livelihood
where little Alicia flourished
like the landscaping Ressie Mae planted
of banana plants, roses, and ivy.
Her new roots were to stay, at least for one more generation.
The third story is that of little Alicia.
She never made five feet tall,
but lived larger than life itself.
Neva Nell’s girls appeared to slope down from her tall frame
their drastic drop in height jarring to see.
Resemblances lying in moles, smiles, and cheeks.
Deadbeat daddies’ phenotype dominates
but the mighty matriarch mentality moves the line forward
with relentless dedication to thrift and laborious night and days.
The house’s interior unchanged from 1960.
Outdated, but pristine,
the lawn meticulous, but never gaudy.
Little Alicia in uniforms, praying hands, and parochial school
paid for by a relentless mama
who would not allow the line to backslide.
Stepping forward to attain that which her mama could not grasp
as her mother before her,
and her mother before her.
A graduate of Texas Southern University
with an English degree
And membership in Delta Sigma Theta,
a historically Black Greek sorority.
A banker, a teacher, a janitor
because nothing in the big city comes cheap.
Neither do law school dreams
that she’d sadly never achieve.
I was the second generation born and raised at 11214 Jutland Rd
two hundred miles and three generations away from 1000 Wilson St.
I was the second to put on a uniform and pray my way into educational opportunities.
Another step forward
With each generation there would be an ascension of a descendant,
though not in physical inches.
Another step forward
to the dreams deferred for the one before.
A top Texas scholar, I left home to pursue
that which I could not see, but what I hoped was out there for me.
Another step up
But did I step up,
Or step away?
Praying ended once I left parochial school
Two graduate programs
One failed marriage
One baby boy
I broke the line of ladies
Bought a two-story house one thousand miles away from home base
My tethers had their lifelines snapped at
78, 72, and 31
I was 11, 23, and 6
Did I run to the future they wanted for me?
Or away from the future I feared would be?
I’m living a repeat of working night and day,
As a single mother
To not only provide,
but to elevate
They held such strength
I felt that I could fly
so I leapt
knowing the ripcord safety net belay were in place
Until they weren’t
Freedom in Their Bindings
lines on shelves
organized by the predilections of the ladies of the house
grandmother, mother, daughter
Mrs. Sirles, Ms. Sirles, and Ms. Lyons
in their living room stood a large homemade bookcase
boards cut and sanded
taking up an entire wall
nearly eight feet tall
housing the paper and heavy boards
printed letters to elevate
the bookcase was the handiwork of matriarch Mrs. Sirles
she had more books than she could ever read
more books than she’d ever need
in possessing them I believe she felt freed
or possibly attaining a key
to a world denied her,
but access granted to descendants
by words both living and dead
A’Ja Lyons was born and raised in Sunnyside, the oldest African-American community in southern Houston, Texas. Her writing centers on self-reflection and analysis. A’Ja was a book reviewer and column contributor for Pennsylvania Diversity Network’s Valley Gay Press, as well as an article contributor for Gallaudet University’s The Buff and Blue. A’Ja’s work has been published in Sinister Wisdom 85’s Youth/Humor issue, and the Lucky Jefferson digital zine, Awake. She is the proud mother of an athletically gifted and animal-loving child. She can be found at https://twitter.com/ajalyonsroars and https://www.facebook.com/ajalyonsroars