Thursday, March 17, 2011

Girls on the Roof

Loss brings reflection. Now that Van is gone I’m looking back, not all the way but to my 40s. By then, I had learned a few things. I still wasn’t wise but was no longer stupid.

In this post-Vandelear world what I am missing most is our rooftop girls' gatherings. Van is the second one of The Girls on the Roof we’ve lost in less than a year. MS took Sandy, who hosted us on 112th Street, last July. Up on the roof, overlooking Bank Street School, Van fleshed out the details of Vandelearia, the island she was going to buy when she hit the Lotto. She wouldn’t have to do anything mundane. I’m not doing a thing when I hit the Lotto. I’m going to hire someone to pick my nose. Vandelearia would be the ultimate women’s paradise; delicious, chocolate, long, tall drinks of water would be fanning us in loincloths.

On the roof, the food was great and the champagne flowed. But the highlight was always the peace-pike enhanced conversations. Most details are foggy now but the gathering I remember most was the one where we discussed old lovers. Linda, who had recently completed her film Flag Wars, was mulling over a new idea and wanted to do some informal research. Asked if we could recall all our lovers’ names. I remember thinking, This could be embarrassing, even with my girls. Remember wondering if I’d be completely honest. But, as the woman began to talk, I heard that we all had embraced the sexual freedom that came with the pill. We all had numbers, except Minnette who’d been married to the same man since she was 25.

We all had numbers but we couldn’t remember all the names. Recently Bianca—the only youngblood we let hang with us on the roof—told me she’d been shocked that we’d forgotten some names. She was mid-twenties then; now, at almost 40, she understands. Has had one or two herself who weren’t memorable, whose names are difficult to recall.

I was somewhat ambivalent about Bianca’s participation. Often asked myself, is hearing our no holes barred conversation a good or bad thing? I didn’t think any of us were jaded but naiveté, for the most part, was out the window. Replaced with real life experiences. Sometimes I wondered if there’d been valid reasons for the information my mother, aunts and grandmother withheld? Bee never had any ambivalence, knew she was receiving essential information, feels these dialogues helped prepare her for life.

It wasn’t just the conversations but the company—my girls were an accomplished group of women. Bianca received a top-notch education listening to the uncensored chatter of a world renowned jazz musician, a filmmaker and founder of an interdisciplinary art gallery, a published author/editor/stylist, a couple of actress/writers, an educator, and a dancer/choreographer. We were women who weren’t afraid to take risks, women whose lives illustrated a myriad of possibilities. Bee credits the Girls on the Roof sessions for making her the woman she is today.

Although I’m getting to know a new group of women here in San Miguel and am being enriched by our interaction, my recent trip East reminded me I miss my old friends. What’s that old cliché say; one is silver and the other gold? Got to mix my gold with my silver, find more ways to integrate my old and new lives.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Eulogy for Van

My dear friend Vandelear Walker died today at five. The death certificate will say that she died from bone cancer but she was really a Hurricane Katrina casualty. We’d moved to New Orleans a scant 10 days before the levees broke and washed away all our belongings. Van never found her way back. Starting over is always hard but harder when you’re 55 and the American workplace is downsizing everyone over 50. It broke her spirit and when she had indications that her breast cancer had returned she didn’t go to the doctor. She’d lost her job, didn’t have medical insurance and couldn’t find the energy to fight for the medical treatment that should have been her right. When she finally got to the hospital several months later, her cancer had moved from breast to bone. She fought a valiant fight but didn’t win the battle.

I met Van one hot summer afternoon in the 80s at an outdoor jazz concert in Brooklyn where Cassandra Wilson and Olu Dora were cutting up onstage. It was instantaneous friendship. We read the same books, liked the same kind of music, loved theatre, dance, photography and art. While everyone else was sleeping in on Saturday mornings, Van and I met early to do our weekly shopping, take care of our other chores. We wanted to get the weekend business out of the way so that we could get to the real purpose of days off from work, fun. Van was a good time girl. Almost from the beginning we were road dogs. We often traveled together, to New Orleans, Atlanta, the Caribbean, Ghana. When the National Black Touring Circuit started booking my one-woman show, Sally of Monticello, Van was my stage manager, handled all the details of life on the road so I could be free to perform. She was the sister I’d never had.

Van had moved to Baltimore when Bianca, a young woman who became my adopted daughter, had a seizure and was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation of the brain. Bee didn’t have medical insurance and Van returned to New York as often as she could to hold my hand as I fought the Medicaid bureaucracy for Bianca’s surgeries. A few years later, Van took the Greyhound to New York every weekend when I had a tumor removed from my spine. And I was there for her, when she was sexually assaulted, when she bought her first house, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We celebrated life’s high, propped each other up during the lows.

Van was excellent cook, loved nothing better than preparing food for her friends. She was larger than life; had a personality that matched her full name, Vandelear Venita, and almost six-foot statue. She was generous, took people at face value and never judged. I love you Van. We all do, all of us who knew you. You will be greatly missed.