blues trips through memory
by rasheena fountain
You are the road – the soundtrack for my memory. I remember you on road trips. When we were at the University of Illinois where Dad studied, I only knew you faintly, though you surrounded me like the cornfields in central Illinois. Visiting relatives provided more peeks into you; my family was my gateway into what they knew about you – about our ancestors, about the land. My first memory with you happens down I-57, further south than typical, to Mississippi. I couldn’t’ve been more than five or six years old, and you guide me in this memory of road trips. My memories are unclear, and you have taught my mind to improvise, sometimes turning road trips into joyous occasions, even if they weren’t. You allow me to fill in the holes – to reimagine the lands in my memories that have grown up with me. I recall
going Down South two times, and you and time have made the memories of the two trips collide and become less linear. You remind me that these road trips are in remembrance of life and death. That’s your unique quality – the ability to take pain, make it plain and digestible, even beautiful. I imagine you with Grandma when she migrated north, with Granddad as he went to the Korean War, with Mom and Dad when they made the decision to leave Chicago to pursue education in central Illinois.
Hints of you were in that big maroon van I rode in with Mama’s side of the family on the road trip Down South. Grandma was there, her sister, Mama, and another cousin, too. You are so Black. You are subtle, a soft vibrato in memory. In you, we drive through the west side of Chicago in that van. I put you on repeat – the memories as a child where I see the west side storefronts, duplexes, and the corner hustlers near corner stores that fed us. You blur and bend and stretch images: intimate renditions of our stories often untold, misunderstood, and buried. I see my slice of our city – the 4D art gallery with familiar smells fading in and out, changing with each street block – moving stills of memory. I am in the van with Perlie Mae, Grandma’s younger sister in K-town, where she lived, where many of us went during the Great Migration. You went to K-town too, and you are still there, even if some of us are not,
even as we are displaced, migrate, and escape.
You have long traveled up and down I-57. You follow us, or maybe we follow you. I wonder if Grandma was following you on the road trip when we left the city. In this memory we weren’t escaping; we are on a willful journey. I remember all the green and white city stops along I-57; the south side street markers drag into the 100s into the suburbs. City structures become less and trees with leaves wave windy hellos like church ushers showing the way. You’ve had different experiences in the woods. The woods could be threatening, mysterious clumps; they could change colors in the Midwest, turning summer breezes into silencing hisses. You warned me about trees. But you allow me to fill in the holes – to reimagine the lands in my memories that have grown up with me: our histories beyond the city concrete and the spaces that time has conditioned me to fear.
I play you in my mind, hammering away at time, and I see myself giggling in that van with my older cousin as she put lipstick on me. Makeup made me feel like a woman – like I was special like Mama and Grandma and the other women in the family. You loved seeing Mama and other women put on makeup too. You allowed us to push against the constant: the Church
of God in Christ rules that Mama had converted to after marrying Dad. You told us that we could wear pants and dance. You allowed me to see Mama, and I enjoy her rebellion in these moments. You ain’t selling me no fairytale in that van, only the possibilities in spaces where women rule. Mama later told me that my cousin was trans, and you led me to the discovery that I’ve not been alone in my queerness. It wasn’t nothing new, you scream. And I remember my cousin was welcome in that van; wasn’t no distinction made, or any fuss about who she is. I had heard family on both sides make fuss over gay and transgender people over the years. But, you allow me to see truth despite the years and people that socialized me. Deep down I’ve known that Mama’s side of the family was different than Dad’s, not better or worse, just different. I see you in Grandma on Mama’s side. I know Grandma had her own share of shunning and she lived how she wanted – a church usher on Sundays, but she’d cuss you out during the week, lovingly. She accepted everybody, was many of our safe haven. That’s what you do, welcome, all of me in these memories: an adult, single mother, and Black queer woman. You remind me, that had Grandma known me to be queer, she would have continued to be my safe haven.
Transport me down the road, along Illinois flat lands on I-57 where trees turn into cornfields. Make the cornfields sound like weepy violin sections in an orchestra: calming and mysterious. I am warm in familiarity, but rural Illinois has sundown towns. Did Grandma know about them? Did you help her learn where to stop on rural roads? I remember Grandma showed me an old outhouse at a rural rest stop on this road trip – like she was showing me her life in another time. Grandma took me into the wilderness to a wooden shack that felt unsecure. I followed Grandma anyway into the shabby space with no toilet.
Grandma’s cooking always took me to other places. She gave us a taste of the South in her kitchen in Chicago. Neckbones with hot sauce, collard and turnips mixed with cornbread, catfish, and salmon croquettes. I hadn’t understood that her food connected her to the South – the scraps that she had to turn into wine. While on the trip, we had a crawfish boil. I had never seen anyone eat these in Up North. Around family, some I didn’t know, we gathered around the bright, red, crawfish carcasses, as fishy smoke surrounded us. I thought they looked like little alien bugs, but like the outhouse, if Grandma said this was what we did, then I believed her and welcomed it. And she had told me to be open, to not judge, and that this was where she was from. So, I broke the shells, eating the thin meat from the little crustacean bodies.
“You see, it is best when you suck the head,” Grandma said.
I looked down at the crawfish’s bulging, dead eyes and took pause. I felt Grandma was really trying me, the picky eater. But I loved Grandma, so I did just that. And when I did, I felt proud of myself. I felt as if I had joined a new club and the sucking of the crawfish head was initiation. And it was a big initiation for me. For as long as I can remember I got an itchiness in my throat every time I ate shrimp, crab, and lobster. “I feel funny,” I would tell my parents. But they ain’t listen to me. I think the idea of allergies was foreign to my family. Perhaps this is true for many Black families and could be rooted in the history of our resistance through Soul Food. We had to eat what we had.
I had never had crawfish before, so I didn’t know that my undiagnosed shellfish allergy extended to these bulging-eyed bugs. My throat began to feel a scratchy, yucky mess. I stopped eating them and suffered silently, not wanting to make a fuss about the struggle in my mouth, my throat, and my arms. Luckily the swelling and the itchiness were the extent of my suffering. I don’t think I told anyone. I am sure I was holding my promises to Grandma. I loved Grandma that much and was game for wherever she’d take me.
“This a outhouse. You got to squat,” Grandma said. I remember with you to understand the landscape: the hole in the ground, the lack of plumbing, no way to flush, no cushion, our asses are exposed. Grandma showed me how to squat, and side by side, Grandma and I squatted and peed into the small holes in the ground. You show me new glimpses of Grandma – that there was more to Grandma than I had previously known. Grandma felt comfortable in areas outside of the city. Maybe she didn’t hide that self from me out of any fear or preference for a city. And after squatting, you showed yourself as we moved further toward rural roads. “Now, where I am from is different than Chicago. Don’t look down on where I am from,” Grandma prepared me.
The road trip up until I felt you, was only an adventure – a fun ride with Grandma Down South. You were a warning, a serious tone stamped in my memory, and I wondered what was beneath it. Grandma’s voice matched you in a somber tremolo against the joy in the van. As a child, I didn’t know what there was to judge. I had always heard of the South talked about with pride and heard the lingering south in my grandparents’ dialect, but, again, you warned me against my assumptions.
Show me unfamiliar; show me home. Show me the streets with less concrete, more browns and dusty roads. I want to be transported away from the stench of industrialization in the air. I can imagine the breezes that smell like nature: plants, the trees, and the agriculture Grandma knew. I can remember the muggy summer, and Uncle Teddy’s shotgun house in Merigold, Mississippi. I find welcome in cousins’ guiding me through the southern soil outside
of the van.
“This is my motorcycle,” my child cousin, Lil’ Bear said.
Lil’ Bear, a small child, runs on the dirt roads along the house, smiling. He is comfortable in the vastness, in the open space that surrounded the shotgun house. I didn’t ride the motorcycle, but I vicariously live through my cousins who did. I watch them ride, unpoliced and with the confidence from family, that we would be safe outside. You know we ain’t safe Up North, that Grandma’s Great Migration wasn’t freedom. You warn me against romanticizing Lil’ Bear’s freedom Down South. You know that freedom for us is more nuanced, even if I remember it as freedom through my childhood memory. Even then, I had been able to compare freedoms. I didn’t feel that me or my cousins were free Up North; we didn’t have the carefree attitude my cousins seemed to carry. Lil Bear’s freedom looked more like freedom to me.
Your transport through time and space is not perfect, and my vision gets hazy like Jimi Hendrix blues, mashing and separating like tectonic plates in a subduction zone. Maybe you are prompting me, like a Choose Your Own Adventure Story. Maybe you are giving me that freedom. Mama has provided voice overs for my memories, corroborations on my improvised journey with you. I take Mama’s stories and my memories and submit to your interpretations of time: the family times, the dirt roads, and Grandma are constant. The specifics, you mangle, and allow me to construct. I mourn and understand loss and simultaneously feel warm in my ancestors’ smiles. And in all variations, in all these memories, I am left with you.
A: I’ve Got Memories’ Blues
You take me to a time of mourning Down South. In this memory, you surround me in that small church in Merigold, Mississippi. Your mood stenches the air and makes me sad. The summer heat fizzles in the church with no air conditioning and people fan themselves to stay cool. I see people in their Sunday’s best – family, and maybe friends. Teddy, Bear, Monkey, James and Pearlie Mae are all dressed in black. I was used to you in fast tempo, uplifting melodies that made us want to dance in the spirit. Today your melody diminuendos, mimicking feelings, helping us release hovering clouds inside of the church.
You show me her in a casket: Grandma’s mother, my great Grandma. She looks familiar, like Grandma. You give us grace in time, a grace that is clear on her beautiful dark Black skin. I want you to show me her eyes, but instead she lay stiff, emotionless. And that’s when you take over Grandma; she crumbles as pain wells up onto her face. You take control of Grandma’s mood with your high notes of sorrow. Again, the organ feeds you. You are a time machine. I am there and here. I sift through the memory of Grandma being escorted away to the back of the church and my own inability to resist you at age five and now. If Grandma couldn’t keep you at bay, then I am no match. I’ve only seen you make Grandma lose control.
Grant me memory snapshots: I see Mama next to me in the church as you make me lose control. A single tear runs down my cheeks, and you – the feeling of you – is so hauntingly clear. I lay my head on Mama, as you possess me. Our family doesn’t have rites of passage like quinceañeras or bar mitzvahs, but I now know my first time with you to be a rite of passage. You welcome, recruit, devastate, and give us hope all at once. In you, I am a part of something, even as we mourn in the Mississippi church. You hold us and give us voice in the sorrow, the pain. You held Grandma, even Up North, as more family turned to ancestors and as her own children turned into my ancestors prematurely. And as I grew, I got used to you in all your complications and variations.
A: Yes, I’ve Got Memories, Blues
I rebel in you. I want to go to happier times when I was with my great grandma in her backyard in Merigold Mississippi. I see pecans on green grass. Your presence is gentle, and the lightning bugs shine around me. I can see my great grandma; her dark skin is like Grandma’s, beautiful, glowing. I see grace in her eyes and smile, as she looks at me and my cousins playing. I’ve learned to take control of you – to improvise within the geography of my
pain. You transport me to the small church often, to her funeral. But you, and my memories are not linear in time. In memory, she is awake.
This memory that I’ve held onto is life: fertile green grass, lush trees that dripped pecans onto the ground like prosperous tears, and my cousins and I collect them. I learned years ago that pecans and walnuts made my throat itch too, but these itches were inconveniences I ignore to be a part of you and the land that gives them to us freely. The abundance – the space, the range, the living outside of the city we had been socialized to only see – feels like freedom. As we run across the grass, collecting the pecans and laughing, I can clearly remember my great grandma sitting in a chair. She smiles the genuine type of smile – the kind that does kick flips and pushes its way up from the soul and parts the cheeks.
My oral histories are scarce and diminishing, but God gives me memories. My great grandma is silent in my memories, at the small church and in the backyard. Even now, I wonder so much about her and other oral histories. In memory, I improvise and reimagine that she was proud and had reached some version of The Promised Land that day seeing her great grandchildren in joy on her land. I hope that our smiles gave her some version of The Dream.
I know that this time in the backyard during the road trip was before the trip to her funeral. To imagine life after death defies a truth and secular constructs. But memories don’t care about constructs; they give me freedom to defy time. I reimagine my great grandma’s smile, the pecan trees, and two road trips as one memory of hope. In memory, I defy you. My great grandmother lives – a fixture in that chair on the green grass surrounded by pecan trees Down South.
B: I’ve Got Memory, and You Give Me Freedom Blues
Take me back to the sharecropper shack, the one you gave Uncle Monkey. You helped him turn muddy water into wine: a shack into a juke joint. This is one of my favorite memories with you, one that I channel when I play you on my guitar now. You sat with us one night in the juke joint, and I didn’t know what a juke joint or sharecropper was or what juke joints meant in the scope of you and the Deep South. I was sitting in history, in Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, one of the last surviving juke joints and a Historical Blues Trail marker. I am there with my safe haven, Grandma, in a space that was a safe haven for your women and men in a Deep South that hadn’t always been kind. And I feel safe in this memory.
Remembering with you led me to images of Uncle Monkey’s juke joint as an adult: on Instagram, in the New York Times, on Wikipedia, on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. But I remember it as Uncle Monkey’s club Down South, where I sat with him and Grandma one night. The inside of the juke joint has wooden walls, Christmas lights, and the lighting feels dim. It feels small, intimate, home. Your songs play from a juke box as I sit with Uncle Monkey and Grandma at a table. The night is muggy. I imagine a cracked window lets in refreshing breezes from the fields surrounding the juke joint. I feel calm. Uncle Monkey and Grandma sit in your arms. If only you could speak details to me, telling me memories over the years that Grandma and Uncle Monkey only share in each other’s gaze. I may never know. So, I capture
and cherish small glimpses you show me from my memory’s pocket. In the juke joint and in my memory, “Mom’s Apple Pie” by Tyrone Davis plays on repeat from the jukebox.
Time and you have taken Grandma. Uncle Teddy, Bear, and Monkey and Aunt Perlie Mae are now ancestors too. Each loss makes me feel less home, and home feels ever-changing for us. You carry a weight of displacement unresolved. Grandma’s dream is now less centered on the west side of Chicago where she settled after the Great Migration. A lot of our family now lives in far suburbs and in different states. Now, I carry Grandma’s dream with me, even though I mourn for many connections lost – the times with Grandma and the memories she carried as a bridge from the South to the North. So, I riff through my memories, improvising road trips for lost connections and for hope. As I hope, my ancestors are dead and alive, still connecting me to a past to reimagine. You, the blues, allow me to fill in the holes – to reimagine the lands in my memories that have grown up with me; the improvisations across the geography of my memoryscape guide me as I struggle to remember my way home.
Rasheena Fountain is from Chicago’s west side communities Austin and K-Town. She has been published in Hobart, Penumbra Online, Jelly Bucket, The Roadrunner Review, and more. She earned a MA Ed. in Urban Environmental Education from Antioch University Seattle and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington, Seattle, where she is currently a PhD student in English Literature and Culture. Fountain is working on a multigenre memoir about nature, environmental justice, land, and Blackness.