Welcome to Autostraddle’s 2021 Black History Month essay series. In their recent multi-media anthology Black Futures, Black queer creators Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew ask, “What does it mean to be Black and alive?” And so, this Black History Month, Autostraddle is reaching past, and pushing forward, to explore realities beyond (the pain of) what we have inherited.
“She died six months ago, and you still can’t say her name!”
In January, I was helping my mother pack up our Christmas tree. She keeps it up longer than most people would deem “OK” — in part because we’re Puerto Rican and that means Christmas isn’t over until January 6th when the Three Kings visit baby Jesus and bring him his baby presents. It’s a whole thing. And in part because… fuck what other people think, you know? Christmas is her favorite time of the year. And she should be able to extend it as long as she wants. Winter’s hard enough as it is.
We were taking down the bulbs, the oldest ones. Shiny and delicate with chipped paint at the temples, aluminum peaking through and dotted rhinestones that have long ago been rubbed dull but still manage to catch light. They were my grandmother’s and every year my mom tells the story of how my grandfather would wait until she was home for Christmas before putting them on their family tree. I try to imagine them in a cramped Brooklyn apartment. I try to imagine her young. These are ones we save for last, wrapped individually in crinkly reused tissue paper, stored away like gems.
I told mamí that I was worried about her. I’m always worried about her. I’d worry about a ladybug on a blade of grass if you let me. But my mom? She’s 64 and this past year has sometimes felt like watching her age ten more. She said she was fine. I didn’t believe her. She said she was worried about me, I scoffed. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve had some spells in the last eleven months; I haven’t always showered, I haven’t always gotten out of bed. But nearly a year into a pandemic that’s doubled as one of the worst years of my life, I also haven’t fallen into one of my trademark depressive episodes. I know what true darkness looks like. And I knew that this wasn’t it. So instead, we got louder. Each round a new one of who had the most right to be worried more.
I know she wasn’t screaming, but in my head it was the same:
“She died six months ago, and you still can’t say her name!”
The night my mother told me that Auntie Lorna’s cancer had returned, I laughed. I was heating potato skins in the oven, drenched with cheddar cheese and bacon. A treat two months into a pandemic for which it increasingly felt like there was no end in sight, I was going to pair them with a ice cold beer and a romantic comedy — comfort food to go with comfort television, Love & Basketball, I think. Her words kept echoing in my head, bouncing thisaway and thataway like a ping ball machine that had no lights, no bells, no prizes to win. “Auntie’s cancer has returned.” I elevated somewhere outside of myself, watching these hollow bones move my arms to pick at melted cheese from a cookie sheet. “Auntie’s cancer has returned.” It was the funniest four words I had ever heard.
There are two versions of Lorna C. Hill.
Lorna Curtis Hill was the founder and Artistic Director of Ujima Theatre Company, Inc. She founded the organization in 1978 in Buffalo, NY, and at 43 years old Ujima is currently oldest Black arts organization in Western New York — it’s one of the oldest Black theatre companies left in the country, period. My Aunt Lorna was the first woman to ever be accepted to Dartmouth, where she received a B.A. in American Intellectual History in 1973. She received her M.A. in Theatre in 1978 from Buffalo State. In 2014, she retired from the Buffalo Public Schools, where she taught theatre. She was the recipient of countless (and I mean countless) local and national recognitions.
I can recite all these things because I was tasked with writing her longform obituary. It was published in full by Buffalo’s local Black paper, The Challenger. My Aunt’s leaving of this earth was covered by every newspaper and television station in the city of Buffalo, because her imprint cannot possibly be untangled from the city itself. She was, in and of herself, Black History. For many people, that will be her legacy.
But when my Aunt Lorna smiled, it was the sun. She had a language and humor unto herself. She loved beer and cursing and playing cards and her garden. Her standards were exacting and her trust hard-earned, but my God her love was eternal. If you don’t know or didn’t grow up celebrating Kwanzaa, ujima is a Swahili word meaning “collective work and responsibility.” And from that tenet, she built my family.
My Aunt Lorna is not my mother’s biological sister. But they were sisters. Her children are not technically my cousins, but to fix my mouth and call them anything else would be a lie. What’s a blood relation when y’all are raised together. When your oldest memories are of each other’s faces and the sounds of your smiles. When you’re going through the very worst shit in your life, theirs are the names you first think to call. In 34 years, I have lived in five cities and no less than eight houses, but Auntie Lorna’s house is the one that I think of as a childhood home. It’s where my initials are engraved on a swingset, where I celebrated my 18th birthday, where I know by heart how many steps to the second landing or where to find the exact mug I love in the cabinet. The tucked away corner where I could read books in quiet and the table downstairs where you could always find someone willing to talk the hours away. The indentation of the couch where I’d fall asleep with the sound of Auntie Lorna and my mom playing Spades real loud carrying over from the backyard as my lullaby.
Her home was hers, but she also made sure that it was ours. You were never lost, there was always a home you could come home to. Collective work. Responsibility.
In my favorite photo of Auntie Lorna, we are in the backyard which was her favorite place. We’re celebrating her “One Year Cancer Free” party. Margaret (Margaret, Auntie Lorna, and my mom raised me) threw it. There was overflowing women everywhere, more women than chairs or steps or even sometimes it felt — places to stand. Music and speakers and sunshine and barbecue. I caught her laughing at the picnic table set up at the side of the house, she was smoking a cigar and just really making a show of it on purpose. She had long dangly red earrings that she made herself and a top in West African prints. I grabbed my camera. She winked at me and took a long drag inhale, making sure I got a good shot. There was nothing worth doing for Lorna Hill, unless you were gonna do it right.
She was small. Slender, not magnificently tall — though as a kid I thought she towered in her elegance. But no, she was small. And large. She was the largest woman I’ll ever know.
Once, when I was about eight, I got straight As on a report card.
Whew chile… you couldn’t tell me nothin! All As, you hear me? Not a B in sight — and those other letters of the alphabet? Never met them. Didn’t even want to know their names. That day I walked on water. My shit didn’t stink. I was but a small child goddess among mortals.
That night, we were working in the theatre. I ran up to Auntie Lorna, she was always person I most wanted to impress. We were inseparable during rehearsals, I’d sit in the chair next to her or behind her, reading off her script (I could barely read) and falling asleep in her lap.
“Auntieeeee! Guess what??” I was bouncing like a jack rabbit.
She raised her eyebrow, “Hhhhmmm?”
“I got! ALL! As!!!”
I had been imagining this moment all afternoon. My big reveal. The way her face would crack in two from smiling. That she would swoop down and hug me and ask for every detail. I was going to recite exactly how I did it! All the facts I had learned, how I could multiply now and how neat my penmanship had become. A one woman show, the burning bright lights of Broadway, starring Carmen — that’s me!
She quirked her eyebrows again and looked down. I stopped in my tracks. I had played this all wrong.
“Good. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Then she turned back to her work. My bruised eight-year-old ego left to be picked up in her shadow.
I tell that story often you know, pausing in all the right places for comedic effect. The build up, the let down. The lessons learned about not bragging over accomplishments. I told it again this summer to Auntie Lorna’s home health aide, after my mother and I packed up our lives and moved back to Buffalo to be with her in her last weeks. The aide whooped and laughed in all the right parts, but Auntie Lorna just smirked.
“I’m glad you remember that day.” She motioned for me to get in bed with her. I folded my body close, like when I was little. She held my hands in her own.
“It’s not that we don’t celebrate our wins. It’s that we don’t celebrate when there’s still more work to do. You were always smart Carmen, that was never the question. What were you going to do with those smarts, that’s what mattered.”
The first time Auntie Lorna was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was 24 years old. I wrote her a letter.
I wrote about a concert she and my mom took us to (myself and my younger cousin, her daughter) when I was about 10 years old. Sweet Honey in the Rock is a Black women’s a capella ensemble of folk singers. A capella folk music wasn’t exactly aligned with my music tastes in fifth grade (I was into Brandy, LL Cool J and the Spice Girls) but we had gotten dressed up, which felt special and unusual to hear music, and it was my first time in a fancy concert hall, so I was willing to play along.
But there was one song. I made my mom buy the CD. As a teenager, I downloaded it on my iPod. As an adult, I still stream it. My kid brain couldn’t describe exactly why, but “There Were No Mirrors in My Nana’s House” felt warm and all encompassing — like a hug. Gentle and sweet like a lullaby, but with none of the implied sleepiness.
“There were no mirrors in my Nana’s house,
no mirrors in my Nana’s house.
I never knew that my skin was too black.
I never knew that my nose was too flat.
I never knew that my clothes didn’t fit.
I never knew there were things that I’d missed,
cause the beauty in everything
was in her eyes (like the rising of the sun);
…was in her eyes.”
And you see, that song was us. The beauty of everything was in her eyes, and in her reflection I saw myself. As an adult it’s taken me a long time to unpack just exactly how anxious I was as a child. How terrified I was of making the wrong choice or saying the wrong thing or how exhausted I was from all the loud voices screaming all the time in my own head that I was going to somehow mess up. But in Auntie Lorna’s presence, I only felt calm. With her, I heard quiet. It was secure. Unwavering. And when you’re a kid who’s very insides feel like they are clawing away at you — the search for that quiet? It’s everything.
I sent her the lyrics, written in sharpie on a notecard. I told her, if people ever wanted to know the very best of what’s in me, they only needed to know her.
I was reading recently about how cruel it is not to be able to mourn in ritual. I feel guilty, because my aunt didn’t die of Covid and I don’t want to co-opt a narrative that isn’t mine to claim. But she did die this year. And because of this time we’re living in, my family was not able to have a memorial.
We were able to be together, which I know counts us as luckier than most. Having created a tight circle around her care in her last weeks, we were always only together anyway — before “pods” became an uptick in Covid related slang we may never soon forget. The night she left us, we drank beer and played Spades in her backyard until it was so dark we used our phones propped up against bottles for light. And I know, I know she was with us. But damnit —
Lorna C. Hill was larger than any one life. She was supposed to be sent home with drums at her feet. With the many, countless people who loved her being able to sing her name and hold each other out loud and in public.
And what comes for those of us who are left? Where does grief go, how can it work through our bodies, when it’s left unattended. I wish I was smarter, somehow, more poetic. I wish I knew how to be in service, the way that she taught me. To find a way to guide through. Instead I just feel… here.
Here is a really fucked up, angry, mundane, nothingness place to be.
I promised myself I’d write about Auntie Lorna for Black History Month when I saw a tweet that said something to the effect of, “the story of how your grandparents met, that’s Black history too.”
Lorna Hill was Black History in a literal sense that she did community work for Black people for decades and that will have an impact that outlives her in every capacity. She’s also my Black history in that you cannot tell the story of my being without her. I imagined that in writing about the woman who so loved Black people and so believed in Black stories — the woman who’s greatest gift to me was in loving those same things — during the unequivocal BLACKEST month of the year — I’d have a better ending.
Instead, all I have is an ellipsis. Grief is a flat circle. And I never imagined I would have to live through grieving her.
My mom’s right. I haven’t talked about my Aunt Lorna. The funny thing is, I haven’t been able to bring myself to talk about pretty much anything else, either. I talk a lot. I mean every day, from the minute I wake up. I can fill almost any space with my voice. But I also don’t talk much at all, if you know what to look for. The trick of talking about everything is that you’re really talking about nothing.
Everything that matters is stuck in the back of my throat. I don’t know what to say. I still can’t bring myself to say that she’s not here. I was there. I watched them carry her away. I close my eyes and she’s still right here, she’s right here next to me.
But now I’ve said 2,644 words about Auntie Lorna. She remains the very best of me.