INTRODUCTION BY RION AMILCAR SCOTT
Every single day Mama tells everyone she knows that tonight is the night that her lover Eddie Levert will arrive. Mama is suffering from dementia. These two things are related.
From the first notes of the elegiac story “When Eddie Levert Comes” by Deesha Philyaw, you know that Eddie Levert, the Philly soul singer and the object of Mama’s obsession and infatuation will never arrive. It’s a testament to the magic that Philyaw weaves that somehow every time Mama says it, I found myself rooting for her Levert love affair. Just another few paragraphs, just another page turn and he’ll be here. I wanted Eddie Levert to arrive and bring Mama joy in her final phase, the joy her earlier phases of life could never give her.
Through the eyes of Daughter, Mama’s youngest child, her primary caretaker and a woman with no name, barely allowed an identity her entire life outside of her identity as her mother’s child, we see that Mama’s previous lives, before becoming saved and after committing to the church, were marked by the constants of loneliness and bitterness which she took out on her daughter.
Mama A.C. (After Church) no longer plays cards, or bedhops with her friends’ husbands or talks shit with her worldly girlfriends, but Daughter still incurs her mother’s wrath and silences just like the Before Church era. All of that takes a toll on a child.
“Years later,” the narrator notes, “Daughter wanted no part of the church or brown liquor because they had both made her mama cry.”
In another, lesser story, the soul singer shows up bathed in soft, hazy light, a magical deus ex machina delivering mother and daughter from their emotional wreckage. That would be an easy bow to wrap around the story. What Philyaw gives us here is more complex, a reckoning that is ultimately more beautiful.
Prepare yourself for it. As Mama says of her soul singer lover: “He’ll be here shortly. Make sure you let me know when he’s at the door, hear?”
– Rion Amilcar Scott
Author of The World Doesn’t Require You
The Past Doesn’t Hurt When You Don’t Remember It
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“Today is the day,” Mama announced, as she did every day when Daughter came to her room with the breakfast tray.
“Good morning, Mama.” Daughter set the tray on the padded bench in front of Mama’s vanity. She squinted at the early morning sun shining through the thin curtains. Mama’s vanity was covered with powders and bottles of fragrances that hadn’t been touched in months.
Mama brushed past Daughter without a word. She opened a chifforobe drawer and took out a navy-and-white-striped short-sleeved blouse. She carried the blouse over to her bed and placed it above a light-blue cotton skirt with an elastic waistband, smoothing down the fabric of both items with her hands, as if ironing. She frowned.
“Where did all my beautiful things go?” she asked Daughter, the room, the air. “My beautiful wrap dresses and my pencil skirts? I want to look my best for him. He’s coming today, you know. Where are my lovely sheer blouses and my pantsuits? Have you seen them? Did you move them from my closet? Are you stealing from me?”
“No, Mama,” Daughter said.
“I bought all of those things with my employee discount at Marshall Field’s department store. You have no right to take them from me.”
Daughter didn’t remind Mama that Marshall Field’s didn’t exist anymore, and that she hadn’t worked there since the eighties. Instead she gently led Mama away from the bed and into her recliner so she could eat. Mama’s appetite was still solid. The doctor said that was a good thing, relatively speaking.
Mama chattered on as she busied herself buttering toast and adding ketchup to her eggs, something Daughter had always thought gross even though she liked both ketchup and eggs.
“He’s coming today.” Mama said between chews. Droplets of ketchup dotted the white ribbon on the front of her nightgown. Irrationally, this irked Daughter, and she made a mental note to put some stain remover on it before throwing it in the wash. Easily irked and forever trying to make order out of chaos, she was indeed her mother’s daughter—the mother before this current mother. In some ways, Daughter preferred this current mother. In the oblivion of her mind, Mama was kinder—accusations of theft notwithstanding—and her needs were simpler.
Mama dabbed at her mouth with a paper towel. “Delicious. Thank you,” she said in Daughter’s general direction.
“You’re welcome, Mama.” Daughter was still getting used to such courtesy. She headed for the door. It was almost time for her first house showing of the day and for the home nurse to arrive and relieve her.
“You can come right back for this tray,” Mama called after her. “I got to get ready. He’ll be here shortly. Make sure you let me know when he’s at the door, hear?”
Daughter heard, but she stood silent with her hand on the doorknob, her back to Mama.
“Did you hear me?” Mama’s voice took on an edge of pleading. “Today’s the day.”
Daughter left the room and shut the door tight behind her.
As a kid during summer breaks from school, Daughter would sometimes whisper her real name to herself, just so she wouldn’t go months at a time without hearing it. Everyone except her teachers followed Mama’s lead and never called her by her name, always “Daughter,” as if she existed only in relation to her mother, to her function in the family. Daughter. Housekeeper. Cook. Babysitter. Nurse. Slave. That’s what she felt like. Daughter, could you do this? Daughter, could you do that? Which translated into: You will do this. You will do that. Without question or complaint, or else she got slapped. Meanwhile her brothers Rico and Bruce had been called by their given names and did only what they pleased.
Not much changed in their adulthood, only that Bruce was dead. Drugs. Rico, his wife, and kids lived on the other side of town. Daughter had to shame him into coming over on occasion to give her a break at least, even if he didn’t care about spending time with Mama.
“Yo, she’s gotta stop saying, ‘Today is the day,’ ” Rico had complained to Daughter the first time Mama told him about Eddie Levert. “I don’t want to keep hearing that crazy shit over and over again.”
“I listen to it day in and day out,” Daughter snapped. “You want to trade places?”
“You could hire someone full-time—”
“Or you could act like a son who gives a damn.”
Rico crossed his arms and sighed. At forty, he still had a baby face and a perpetual pout.
“I shouldn’t have to pay someone to sit with her when you’re right here,” Daughter had said. “I know she wasn’t a perfect mother. But she is our mother.”
“Don’t lecture me about her,” Rico said. Daughter knew that Mama didn’t like Rico’s wife, and the feeling was mutual, so she’d never gotten to know her grandkids. But Daughter had never asked Rico what it was like for him those two years between when she’d left home and when he left to join the air force. They had all been grieving Bruce’s death in their own way. But whatever life with Mama was like for Rico after Daughter moved out, she couldn’t imagine it being worse than what she endured: Mama had never laid a hand on Rico or Bruce.
“Fine. I won’t lecture,” Daughter had said. “Just . . . if Mama wants to talk about Eddie Levert, let her. She ain’t hurtin’ nobody, Rico.”
At least not the way she used to.
The Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” In Mama’s case, in her old age, she never spoke of the Bible. Instead she preached the gospel of the coming of Eddie Levert, lead singer of her favorite group back in the day, the O’Jays.
Both Eddie and Mama, son and daughter of the South, had had to bury their children, something even Daughter, who had never had kids, understood as especially cruel. Perhaps Mama had followed Eddie’s life and career over the years and felt a special, unshakable bond with him.
In one of the family photo albums in Daughter’s basement, there was a Polaroid picture of Mama with Eddie, taken in the seventies when the O’Jays came to town. Mama had somehow gotten backstage after the concert—Daughter had never been told the details—and took the picture, which Eddie signed. In the picture, Mama wore a low-cut, fire-red dress that hugged all her curves. Her hair, dyed a brassy reddish brown, had been hot combed and then curled into Farrah Fawcett flips. If not for her full nose and lips, she could’ve passed as a Farrah lookalike, as she was barely darker. Eddie was as dark as Mama was light. He wore a white suit, his chest bare, lapels wide. With his arm wrapped tight around Mama’s tiny waist, Eddie grinned big at the camera. Mama grinned big at him. As a child, Daughter would pull out the album from time to time and stare at the photo, proof that Mama had once been happy.
When Daughter moved out at eighteen, it was partly because she feared Mama’s unhappiness was contagious and partly because she was tired of being everyone’s maid. Once she was out of the house, Daughter didn’t walk away completely. There were no more slaps, no more wounding words, and from the outside looking in, Mama and Daughter could’ve been mistaken for close.
One Friday evening, Daughter and Mama sat at the kitchen table waiting for Rico to arrive. Daughter had shamed him into coming over for a few hours so she could go out to dinner with Tony, an old friend from high school. Tony stopped by from time to time to take care of things Daughter needed taken care of around the house. Including Daughter. The year before, after Mama had a second stroke and the doctor diagnosed her with vascular dementia, it was Tony, not Rico, who had helped Daughter pack up Mama’s belongings and move her into Daughter’s house.
When Tony arrived, Mama told him, “Today is the day. Eddie is coming.”
Tony smiled at Mama and said, “Okay, young lady. I see you!”
Mama beamed and stood up to show Tony her outfit. “This is all I could find in that chifforobe to wear.” She cut her eyes at Daughter, who just shook her head. “Do you think he will like it?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am!” Tony said, “If I was a few years younger, Eddie would have some competition on his hands.”
“Oh, go on!” Mama said, blushing.
“It’s been so long since I seen him,” Mama said. With one hand, she tapped her tapered nails against the tabletop. With the other, she scratched her head. Daughter felt negligent; Mama was overdue for a wash and condition. Daughter would call her friend Tami in the morning to see if she could squeeze Mama in at her salon.
When Rico finally arrived, forty-five minutes late, Mama clapped and said, “There’s my baby boy!”
Rico kissed Mama on the cheek, but rolled his eyes when she told him Eddie was coming. “Why is she scratching her head like that?” he asked Daughter with entirely too much bass and accusation in his voice.
“Don’t.” Daughter hissed at him in response. She turned to Mama. “Mama, Tony and I are going out. Rico is going to stay with you. I’ll see you later.”
“Okay,” Mama said to the air. And to Tony: “You have a good time, young man.”
Inside Tony’s car, Daughter wept openly, and he rubbed her back and let her.
Once she had calmed to just sniffling, she said, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Tony asked.
“For . . . all of that. I don’t know where that came from.”
“Maybe it came from the fact that you taking care of your mama and she doesn’t even know who you are. But then Rico comes in, doesn’t lift a finger to help without you asking, and it’s all love from your mama. I’m just surprised it took you this long.”
Daughter sobbed again. Tony started the car and began driving. “Dinner can wait,” he said. “We can just drive, if you want.”
Daughter nodded. “You know, even after I moved out, I was still there for her. After Bruce died, she threw herself into everything—children’s church, Girl Scouts, Sunday School. And I drove her anytime she needed a ride. I took her to the grocery store every other week. I made sure she didn’t spend Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving alone. Me! Not Rico. And now I’m taking care of her. Even after . . . even after how things were for me growing up. Trying to let bygones be bygones. I was there for her. And I still am. But for all she knows, I’m just another home nurse.
“And I try not to be an asshole like Rico about the whole Eddie Levert thing, but she cares more about that man than she does me! Every single day, it’s the same thing. Sometimes I just want to scream, ‘He’s not coming! Ever!’ ” Daughter exhaled. “Is that terrible?”
Tony stroked his beard and tilted his head from side to side, like he was working out a kink in his neck.
“What?” Daughter asked.
“I don’t want to speak out of turn . . .”
“Just say it.”
“First, you need a break. And I don’t mean this, us going out for dinner. You need a real break. A vacation. But more than that . . .” Tony sighed. “Look, I don’t know what all went down when you were growing up. But you gotta make peace with it. I know that’s easier said than done. But I think you have to find a way.”
That’s all I’ve ever done, Daughter thought but didn’t say. Find a way to keep from upsetting Mama, find a way to keep Rico out of Mama’s hair, find a way to get away from Mama, find a way to take care of herself with no help from Mama. Work low-wage job after low-wage job until she became a Realtor and found she had a knack for selling, buying, and flipping houses. And now a second job: take care of Mama. Daughter cursed under her breath.
“Like I said, I don’t know what all went down. . .” Tony said.
“I’ll tell you,” Daughter said. “But let’s go eat. I’m starving.”
People in the neighborhood used to say that Mama kept pushing out babies until she got the color right. Daughter, her middle child, was darker than Bruce, the oldest, despite Daughter’s father being lighter than Bruce’s. Mama’s third and last child, Ricardo, called Rico, fathered by a Puerto Rican musician who passed through one summer, was a buttery yellow baby boy with green eyes and sandy hair. His tight curls, thick lips, and broad nose meant that he could never pass. But passing wasn’t the point. From what Daughter could piece together between her own observations and what she overheard Mama telling her friends, the point was that Rico had Mama’s color. So for once the genetic dice had rolled in favor of the light-bright girl who believed dark niggas fucked the best of all. She played a kind of DNA roulette every time she brought one into her bed. And then Mama got saved. It happened one Easter Sunday—they only went to church on Mother’s Day, Christmas Eve, and Easter. On Mother’s Day, Mama would wear a white flower pinned to her dress—Bruce called it The Dead Mama flower—and spend all day before and after church in her bedroom sobbing and missing her mother.
Daughter, Bruce, and Rico had few memories of their grandmother, a well-dressed, white-looking Black woman who had disowned their mother for having children out of wedlock. But she did come to visit a few times when they were growing up, always bearing bundles of toys, a crisp twenty- dollar bill for each of them, and for Mama, withering words about how she was living outside the will of God. Even as a child, Daughter understood her mama’s tears on Mother’s Day. She understood how your heart was still connected to your mama, even if she hurt you sometimes.
At first Daughter and her brothers felt joyful after Mama got saved, even though they didn’t fully understand why. They were twelve, ten, and eight years old, and the best they could figure is that the church ladies who surrounded their mother as the pastor prayed had done some sort of magic. Mama had walked to the front of the church weeping during the altar call, but left the service smiling, her arms wrapped around her children, holding them close as they walked home. Mama’s mama had died suddenly the year before—Daughter had overheard Mama say the word aneurysm, but didn’t know what it meant. She’d also overheard Mama tell her friend Miss Lajene that she’d wished she’d gotten right with God before her mama died.
Unfortunately the zeal of the newly converted is bewildering to the children of the newly converted. One Saturday night, you’ve got every blanket in the house draped over your head to drown out the sound of your mother’s headboard banging against your bedroom wall as she hollers her soon-to-be-ex-best friend’s husband’s name. And the next Saturday night, she’s snatching the softened deck of playing cards from your hands because “Games of chance are from the devil!”
Daughter, with the logic of a ten-year-old, thought she could understand how gin rummy might be from the devil, seeing as how the name of the game had gin in it. But what was wrong with “Knuckles” or “I Declare War,” her and her brothers’ other favorite games?
Some things changed about Mama A.C. (After Church, as Daughter thought of her). Like banning cards and men from the house. But some things didn’t change. She still told Bruce and Rico to shut their mouths—and Daughter to shut her Black mouth—if they talked too loudly when her stories were on.
And the church was no match for Eddie Levert. The O’Jays were still Mama’s favorite group, and Eddie Levert was still her favorite in the group. Mama B.C. (Before Church) would tell her girlfriends Miss Nancy and Miss Lajene, “Eddie Levert can have me anytime, anywhere, and anyway he want it, honey! You hear me?” And they would all fall out laughing.
Mama B.C. played O’Jays albums on Friday nights after dinner, if she didn’t have a date or a card party to go to. She’d close her eyes, swing her hips, and sing along with the music. Her dance partners—a Kool cigarette and a glass of whisky, on the rocks. Johnnie Walker Red was her drink of choice.
On those Friday nights, Rico played DJ, changing the albums for Mama, while Daughter played bartender, adding ice and more liquor as needed, before Mama could ask for it. It was like a nightclub for one, with Mama getting lost in love songs and crying by night’s end. Bruce would be out in the streets somewhere, staying out long enough to sneak in after Mama passed out on the couch, but before she woke up in the middle of the night to check on all of them and drag herself to bed.
As they entered their teen years, Bruce was the one out smoking dope, stealing, and brawling over crap games. But it was Daughter whom Mama warned, “Don’t be out there showing your color!” on the rare occasions Daughter went out in the evenings.
Mama A.C. still spent her Friday nights with Eddie Levert, and she needed Daughter around to entertain Rico. Without a cigarette and a glass of whisky, Mama was free to wave her hands in the air as she sang, much like she did at church. In both places, Mama’s nightclub for one and church, she was moved by the spirit to sway and eventually cry.
But over time, Daughter couldn’t discern any joy in those tears. Mama’s friends, Miss Nancy and Miss Lajene, remained “in the world,” as Mama would say. So Mama distanced herself and soon lost touch. And the ladies at church who had surrounded Mama at the altar that Easter Sunday stopped calling after Mama finished the new member’s class. Their work was done. They had led the poor unwed mother of three to the Living Water, as church folk referred to Jesus. But she wasn’t their kind of people.
Years later Daughter wanted no part of the church or brown liquor because they had both made her mama cry.
When Daughter and Tony returned home from Red Lobster, Daughter paused at Mama’s bedroom door and motioned for Tony to keep going down the hall to her bedroom. She cracked the door open just enough to see Mama curled up beneath her thin blanket and hear her snoring lightly. She closed the door and stopped to wash her hands in the bathroom once again, convinced they still smelled like crab.
In her bedroom, she found Tony already beneath her comforter. She undressed and slid in beside him. They had fallen into an easy groove with each other when Tony first started coming around, a decade earlier. He was thirty-two then, had been twice divorced, and was lonely. Daughter had never seen marriage or children in her future, had always been independent, and preferred her own company. Still, she had needs. Tony made her laugh and made her think. He was a generous lover and he was handy. For Daughter, that was enough.
Daughter tried to stay in the moment, to savor how alive her body felt next to Tony’s. But her thoughts wandered to Mama. Always, Mama. Tony gripped her tighter and stroked her faster, as if he knew he was losing her. The headboard banged against the wall, and Daughter remembered how Mama B.C. didn’t seem to care if her children heard her having sex. But the headboard banging had stopped when Mama found Jesus.
There’s an old saying: mothers raise their daughters and love their sons. But who had ever loved Mama, besides her children? Despite her devotion to the church and chaste living, Mama had never had that peace that passes all understanding that was supposed to be yours when you invited Jesus into your heart. Nor did she have that joy, unspeakable joy, promised in the Scriptures. What Mama had was the love of Jesus—whose touch, Daughter imagined, was too ephemeral to quench anything—a quieter, more passive lover than the men she brought into her bed, but who nevertheless demanded everything.
The next morning after breakfast, Daughter asked Tony to sit with Mama for a little while.
Instead of calling the hair salon, she ran to Target and bought tearless baby shampoo and conditioner and everything else she would need to do Mama’s hair herself.
After Tony left, Daughter explained to Mama that she was going to wash her hair. Mama could still shower alone and dress herself, so Daughter, wanting to respect her privacy, asked whether she would mind leaning over the kitchen sink.
“Well . . . I don’t know.” Mama patted her hair. It was mostly white now, too thin for the Farrah Fawcett flips, but still hung to her shoulders. “Do you think Eddie would like it? He’s coming today, you know.”
“Yes, Mama. I know.” Daughter swallowed the lump in her throat. “And I think Eddie would want you to let me wash your hair over the sink.”
“Well, all right then.”
It took a few tries to get the water temperature just right. Daughter had lots of towels on hand so Mama could pause and wipe her face whenever she needed to.
When they finished washing and conditioning, she took Mama back to Mama’s room to change into a dry shirt. Then Daughter sat Mama at her vanity table and stood behind her to blow-dry her hair. Mama smiled into the mirror.
As Daughter parted Mama’s hair into sections, taking her time to oil each section and massage the scalp, Mama sighed and leaned back into Daughter’s middle.
“You know, Mama,” Daughter began. “Eddie called and told me he’s going to be late.”
“Oh, no!” Mama said.
“But he doesn’t want you to worry. He wants you to know you’re in good hands with me. He said, ‘Now you take good care of her until I get there, Daughter.’ ”
“Yes, Mama. It’s me. Daughter.”
“And what else did Eddie say?”
“He said . . . ‘You tell her I’m coming and take good care of her.’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir. I will tell her.’ ”
“You always were such a polite girl,” Mama said.
She reached up and patted Daughter’s hand. “You remember me, Mama?”
“Sure I do!”
Daughter began to tear up, but also couldn’t help but smile. She didn’t know whether Mama remembered her. But it was enough to know that Mama wanted her to believe she did.
She continued massaging Mama’s scalp. “Does that feel good?”
“Mmm-hmmm,” Mama said, over and over until it turned into humming, a random tune Daughter didn’t recognize.
Daughter looked at the two of them in the mirror. Light and dark, but an otherwise matching set of round faces and big, brown eyes stared back at her. Mama’s scalp was still pale, but the rest of her had darkened over time. She was still lighter than a paper bag, she might’ve bragged, if her mind still fixated on such things.
“Mama, a long time ago, you were real hard on me. Real hard. And I don’t know if you remember any of that. Part of me hopes you remember, because I can’t forget. But then, if you remember, I wish you would apologize, or at least recognize. . .”
Mama kept humming. Then she said, “You know when Eddie sang about having a lot of loves, I was one of them loves.” Mama poked at her chest. “Me. Lil nobody me.” Mama chuckled to herself. “Eddie loved me once upon a time. That one night.”
“You’re not a nobody, Mama.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, who am I, then?” Mama sounded so lucid, it startled Daughter. As if someone else had come into the room with them.
“You’re . . . someone who can’t give me what I need. But you’re not nobody.”
Daughter twisted Mama’s hair into a single braid. Then she laid out a new turquoise sundress on the bed for her to put on.
“I’ll step out and let you get dressed. And I’ll bring your lunch when I come back.”
“That would be nice,” Mama said. “I want to be ready when Eddie comes. Today’s the day.”
When Daughter returned with Mama’s lunch tray, Mama was in her recliner, smoothing her hands over the sundress dress, smiling. “I look beautiful,” she said.
“Yes, you do,” Daughter said. She placed the tray on Mama’s lap.
Mama picked up the Polaroid next to her sandwich plate. She stared at it for a moment before putting it down and picking up her sandwich.
Daughter sighed and played the song she’d cued up on her cell phone. As the opening chords of the O’Jays’ “Forever Mine” filled the room, she expected some flicker of recognition from Mama, a smile or something. But there was nothing. Even when Eddie came in on the third verse, it didn’t seem to register with Mama that this was the same song she had quoted earlier. The song played on. Daughter wasn’t sure whether Mama was even listening. Mama ate her sandwich and fruit salad, the Polaroid forgotten.
And then, as Eddie begged his lover to stay, Mama picked up the photo and began to sing along with him, her voice strong and certain.