“Grace, Joy and Faith”
Excerpt from my Coffee Table Photography Book Published 2/22/2017
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with joy throughout my life. I have been open to receiving it, I have been fortunate enough to be able to offer it to others, and yet, there have also been those times when I’ve impelled it away. Nevertheless, it is always within our reach.
However, as with many of our other inheritances, we struggle to show up for it.
It is not by chance that I write about joy over the Christmas Season. Much of the joy I recall feeling early on in my life involved being around family; opening Christmas presents and relishing in our traditional holiday meal of collard greens with ham hocks, mac and cheese, cornbread, turkey, ham, chitterlings and potato salad. Desserts of pound cakes and sweet potato pie, rice pudding and vanilla ice cream.
Sitting here in my mother’s favorite recliner chair, while she lay asleep resting her body on Christmas Eve, having just returned from an early morning drive through the small black community where I was raised from third to eighth grade, Gracetown. My tour of the old neighborhood began on Weldon Street; Weldon, also the middle name my mother gave me when I was born. The community has changed. Where there were once fields, there are now homes. Most of the old wooden homes my friends lived in have been torn down and replaced with newer and more modern homes. It’s also no longer an all-black community. As I gazed out of the car window at what used to be the yards of my past childhood friends, I could hear, “Hey T-Bird, you coming out to play?”
I drive past Fuller Lane where my cousins lived with their parents, as well as several of my friends. I could visualize the large open field where we’d play tackle football, talk trash, tell mama jokes that led to fights, and laugh – a lot. A right down Dunstan Lane where my sister and I used to walk to school together. I notice the sign, “Thoroughgood Elementary School” and stop at the gate opening; the same one we use to walk through each day. I park and get out of the car to get a closer look. I see the play area where I once participated in track meets and basketball games and other athletic competitions. It’s where I shined as a young man, as an athlete. I circle around the back of the school known as Buffalo Hills, and instantly remember hanging out here with my friends, smoking one of my great-grandfather’s cigars or my aunt’s cigarettes. On my walk back toward the car, I notice those big grassy trees under which I may have kissed a girl or two.
Head toward the dead-end of Winter Road and on the left I notice that the home where I once lived is no longer there. John’s house remains, though, on the other side of the fence that divided our two communities. I can see the two of us shooting hoops in his backyard and my having to scoot away as his dog was always barking at me. I am reminded in that moment of his parents’ discomfort with having a black boy playing in their yard with their son. However, over time they came to know me and welcomed me into their home and into their family. I truly appreciate their kindness and willingness to overcome the bias many in their white community of Thoroughgood had against those of us living in Gracetown.
I park at the end of the road to take it all in. Rest my head back and close my eyes, and am brought back to my Christmas pasts.
One of my favorite gifts as a fifth-grader was one of those Panasonic cassette players that recorded voices and songs from the radio. I recorded all of my favorite songs and listened to them over and over again. Songs like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Sing a Song” and “Shining Star” and The Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power.” I remember waiting at a local record store in Norfolk to meet the Isley Brothers when a long white limo pulled up and they stepped out with their big hats, cool clothing and platform shoes. The cheers from the fans only enhanced the smoothness with which they adjusted their clothing after they stepped onto holy ground. The way they’d strut their stuff as smooth as silk as they walked into the store made you feel excited about life.
I couldn’t wait for each Sunday evening to come when I could listen to WRAP-AM 850’s “Oldies but Goodies” radio show hosted by “The Beast from the East, the Magnificent Maurice Ward,” his voice like velvet and high energy, and his careful choice of words always made you feel like he knew what you wanted and needed to hear at that very moment. He always played my favorites, like “Stay in My Corner” by The Dells. Man, I still love that song, and yes, I can hold that long note. I held onto many of the tapes I recorded until they broke, some 30 years later.
Another favorite was the Schwinn 21-inch 10-speed bicycle I got at age 12. The bright yellow frame, with a narrow black seat, the thin tires that barely touched the road the faster I peddled, the handlebars wrapped in a magic black tape to make sure my hands would never slip, the silver hand brakes so steady and strong. I treated that bike was like it was my first car. I purchased side view mirrors, even a signal light set for the rear. You couldn’t tell me anything about my bright yellow car, until one rainy day when I was riding really fast, to avoid the ghost of my neighbor Tom, and went flying, tearing all the skin off my left knee, right down to the fleshy white meat.
My memory then flashes to my high school basketball tournaments during the holiday season. My mom was raising three children, struggling to make ends meet, to keep food on the table and clothes on our backs. But, she never missed one of my hundreds of games and athletic competitions through the end of high school. She wasn’t like some of those mothers screaming in the bleachers, or jumping up and down on the field, but she watched and felt a sense of pride in her boy; and in herself. I found joy in her joy. And, she found joy in mine.
I hold back the tears as I open my eyes and head back to Mom’s.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a collection of photographs from my childhood years in Gracetown. However, I feel blessed to have enough of a photographic memory that I can revisit my neighborhood from over 40 years ago and reclaim the joy that was once lived there. This reminds me of why photography has become such a passion of mine. Photography transcends time. Capturing the glimmer of life allows the ships of sadness to pass by, even if just for a moment. I particularly enjoy the moments when kids are laughing and playing together. It’s these moments that we must recall when life challenges us through the senseless losses we face each day. As many fond memories I have of Gracetown, I have those that are still hard to swallow. My mind flashes back just then to the neighborhood tragedies that I experienced while living there. The teenager who attempted suicide after his popular girlfriend broke up with him, and how he ended up paralyzed for life. The old man Tom we were all afraid of, whose murder still remains unsolved. I don’t allow myself to stay in the darkness, though. We must let those ships pass us by.
Joy has been a constant in my life in a variety of forms. The most consistent and present form came in the birth of my son, Laquan, in December 1990. There was nothing like watching him grow through the expansion of his mother’s belly, the flutters of his kicking feet, and the heartbeat rendered through the Ultrasound. Witnessing him inch his body into the world as his doctor tugged at the crown of his head, my baby boy came into the world at 10 pounds, 12 ounces. With his first breath of air, he breathed life into mine. His loud cry brought the fear of fatherhood forward, but his touch told me life was going to be all right. Experiencing his birth was pure joy.
Laquan became a father in May 2017 when his son, Ezra Ignatius Miles, weighing in at 11 pounds, came into this world. My boy got to experience both the bliss and the fear of fatherhood. I am blessed to watch my son grow into a father. Most importantly, this year Laquan and I brought my mom the greatest Christmas gift ever, her first great-grandson.
Before I left to return to Boston, I asked my mom how it felt to finally meet her great-grandson and to have him here with the family for Christmas. Her eyes beamed with radiance, “I miss that baby boy already; I enjoyed him so much and wish I could have kept him longer,” she says with the sound of laughter in her heart.
“He made me feel real good, made me feel so much better. So precious. Lord have mercy on my sweet little boy.” He reminds her of Laquan as a baby, she says, “Look at that big boy! Laquan was big, but this baby is bigger than his daddy was! He was just so loving, cuddled in my arms right away. Bless his little heart.” Elated with a warm feeling, she exhales, “That’s Gramma’s Man, that’s who he is, Gramma’s Man!”
– Thaddeus Miles