~This essay first appeared in upstreet: literary magazine (2016).
My ancestors haunt a dirt road called Egypt. At the end of the road, my aunt’s bones rest beneath a rise of earth. Her grave is unmarked, and it is my fault. A clearing in the woods, our family’s boneyard is full of other, older, nameless mounds and dead red leaves. We used to tiptoe through those woods, my aunt and I, my little hand inside her big one. We watched our steps — bad luck to walk on a grave, you know; means you’re next. Broomsticks in hand, we swept away leaves, whispering to her brothers and sisters: Pick, Pug, Fred, Bee. She made me sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” told me about her mama when the swept-away leaves revealed “Bertha Coleman.” She let my hand go, I mushed my nose, inhaled the ghost of Jean Nate′. She’s right there beside them now. Their plotted arrangement: Great-grandma Bertha, Aunt Bee, then her— skeletons of matriarchs, a row of bones once covered by light-brown mole-pocked faces, relaxed hair still growing inside silk-lined boxes, cigarette-puckered cheekbones—high and arched cause you know we got Indian in us. But you wouldn’t know she was there unless you knew she was there. Unless you were there on the day we laid her down, touched my arm while I sat next to the casket in the woods, heard a rose thump her pearl coffin. Unless you were at the church and felt my shoulders heave behind the first pew, the pew reserved for daughters, for husbands, for grandchildren—she had none of those, only me, a great-niece of 28 no one trusted to get it right. And everyone spoke over me. And I forgot to give her grave a name. Her grave in the boneyard inside the hollowed space in the woods at the end of Egypt Road where some poor ancestor of ours decided to cut down some trees, dig a hole, and lay a body, then cut another tree, dig another hole, lay another body—cut, dig, lay, cut, dig, lay—till Colemans wandered Egypt-land like Isrealites.
But before I buried her, before she died, before the death rattle, before the hospice, before the phone call to come home, when we first admitted her to long-term care that turned out to be so short, I lay beside her crumbling body on the thin nursing home mattress and held her small hand inside my big one. Evening had come, but the sun wanted to stay. It pushed through the shades, white light not going to be stopped for nothing, flicking between cracked salmon blinds like through the trees on Egypt Road, and her skin had taken on the iridescent gray of fish. I lay next to her, slipped a pearl ring off her finger, and placed it on my pinky. I held her hand; put my head to her shoulder, and I remembered when my mom was a teen mom and my aunt had kept me after school. Off the bus, down Egypt, her trailer was tight: fat little boy figurines holding out arms saying I LOVE YOU THIS MUCH, Garbage Pail Kid cards over paneled walls because my cousin gave them to her, and she never said no, pictures—me, school photos of my cousins, me, family I didn’t know, family I’d just seen, me, her dead mother asleep in a casket, me—plants snaking the half wall between the kitchen and living room, Mahalia Jackson’s alto moan, and pork-n-beans with burnt hot dogs. She never forgot a thing. Holding her hand, head on shoulder, I cried because fuck cancer! Sunlight still fighting through the blinds, she would die in that nursing home. 65, only 65. The family we had left was there: her sister Patty, my mother, my soon-to-be-husband, my brother, me, me, me.
She never forgot me.
She breathed in, but not out, and the sun finally touched her.
Cut, dig, lay. Cut, dig, lay. The woods so tight spent too much time watching my step. For seven years: mortgages, bills, children, excuse, school, bills, excuse, excuse, excuse. And even if I do—when I do—I still never ordered the goddamn tombstone.
An army of ancestors—the Coleman clan, a dying breed—march through Egypt, searching for their names. In the middle of the clearing they all stop: here lies Elizabeth Anderson née Coleman with nothing but a dead red leaf stuck to her mound.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
My aunt passed away in 2008 following a short battle with cancer. As her guardian, I met with the nursing home staff when she was admitted to sign all the paperwork. They asked me what procedures she wanted should she fall into a comatose state: should they try and resuscitate her or should they let her go? After the meeting, I tried to speak with my aunt about what she wanted in that circumstance. I should’ve known never to discuss the topic of death on the day you are admitting someone into a nursing home. Now that I think about it, it sounds like common sense, but at the time, I was so inept in handling this situation, I completely screwed up even minor decisions. After considering her death for the past several years, there are so many aspects of what took place that I feel guilty about. This essay is an amalgamation of that guilt drafted in images that remind me of her and all my other deceased relatives. I felt that if I couldn’t memorialize her name on her burial mound, the least I could do is put it in print for the rest of the world to see.
ABOUT TYRESE L. COLEMAN
Bio: Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, and attorney. She is also the fiction editor for District Lit, and an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. A 2016 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a nonfiction scholar at Virginia Quarterly Review's 2016 Writer’s Conference, her prose has appeared in several publications, including PANK, Buzzfeed, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hobart, Washingtonian Magazine, listed in Wigleaf's Top 50 (very) short fictions, and forthcoming in the Kenyon Review. She lives in the Washington D.C. metro area, and can be reached at tyresecoleman.com.