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Florence in Words

On Absence—and Health at Eighty-seven

I was shocked to realize that I had not written a blog in more than a month. Do I have an excuse? Do I understand why this has happened? My last blog is up: on my dear friend and author Louise Meriwether, who is at work on a film script for her novel, Daddy Was a Numbers Runner, a possibility that came out of the Feminist Press event I wrote about in May, in my last blog. At this end of this blog, I will describe the newest event in Louise’s life. And keep in mind that she is almost ten years older than I.

What I’ve been doing this past month is, once more, attempting to get some medical clarity about why I can’t walk easily or normally. My general care doctor’s response to my being able to walk only very slowly was that that was sometimes an early symptom of Parkinson’s disease. Which made me think of seeing a neurologist, perhaps the very one who had helped Mariam Chamberlain. This man saw me immediately and recommended some tests, one of which indicated that my balance must be somewhat related to the lack of a functioning right ear. This doctor tried to help by prescribing medication which would assuage the balance in some chemical fashion. Good idea perhaps, but my system rejected the medication as causing still more imbalance and dizziness. Then we talked a bit about the fact that I was walking anyway, but only when accompanied by a strong person whose arm stabilized me. I then mentioned that because I was so out of shape, I had to stop frequently to catch my breath. The next thing I was directed to do was to see a cardiologist and I was given a name, a phone number and urged not to waste a moment before calling.

I followed instructions, made an appointment, and then thought about it. I felt silly because, within the last six months, I had had two or three examinations by my general practitioner and had asked him about my heart and had heard him pronounce my heart excellent. So why was I incurring more expense and spending more tax dollars? But then I thought about a recent walk with Don Thomas four or five short blocks to the AT&T computer store on 72nd Street. Yes, it was a hot day. But we had to stop every few steps, and in the middle we sat down on a bench I had spotted.

So I called again and requested the appointment on Tuesday of this week. And the examination was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Two different brief procedures, the first resulting in a page the doctor could hold in his hand when he came in to do a further test which appeared on a computer in the room as he moved his “wand” around my heart. The result: indeed something is “wrong,” though the doctor claimed it was not “terribly serious.” I have A-Fib for short. The atrial or top part of my heart doesn’t seem to be working, which has resulted in the bottom working harder than ever. At least that’s my way of thinking about it.

So, yes, I need more tests: I’m to go to the doctor’s office next Thursday to be strapped to a small machine for the following 24 hours, which will produce a printout that will describe how my heart copes with various things I might do in that time. Yes, will keep you posted.
Note promised about Louise Meriwether. The Feminist Press has announced a fiction contest in Louise’s name. See the website for detailed information about the rules and rewards.
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On Louise Meriwether

For Feminist Press author Louise Meriwether's ninety-third birthday this week, the Borough of Manhattan's President, Gail Brewer, declared the day to be Louise Meriwether Appreciation Day, and presented her with a beautifully painted plaque detailing some of her accomplishments, The audience of nearly 100 of Louise's fans, young and older, black and white, enjoyed the party at CUNY's Graduate Center, drank the bubbly, ate the birthday cake, and, most of all, took their places before the audience and the camera, all wanting to say what Louise meant to them. Yes, it went on for hours. And,yes, The Feminist Press at CUNY, who had arranged the party, sold copies of Daddy Was a Number Runner to people who knew the book but were buying for their grandchildren!!! I want to acknowledge Cheryl Hill, the new director of the Harlem Film Company, for inviting me to speak. This is what I said.

Exactly forty years ago, the Feminist Press republished Daddy
Was a Number Runner
by Louise Meriwether, allowing me forever after to call myself Louise’s publisher as well as her friend. I was betting on a winner. In 1970, when it was first published, Publisher’s Weekly said the novel “breathes reality and heartbreak…A rough, tender, bitter novel of a black girl struggling towards womanhood and survival.” Paule Marshall, who reviewed the novel in 1970, praised the novel’s “vitality and force behind the despair.” She continues, “It celebrates the positive values of the black experience: the tenderness and love that often underlie the abrasive surface of relationships…the humor that has long been an important part of the black survival kit, and the heroism of ordinary folk.”

As publisher, I was smart enough to include a short essay by James Baldwin, also published in 1970. He writes: “We have seen this life from the point of view of a black boy growing [up]…[but] I don’t know that we have ever seen it from the point of view of a black girl on the edge of a terrifying womanhood.”

I also decided to invite the black critic and professor, Nellie McKay, who was at the University of Wisconsin, to write an Afterword. It, too, is worth the price of admission. (And it’s one of the great pieces of criticism we have from Nellie, who died young of pancreatic cancer.) Nellie McKay sees the novel not only as “well-crafted,” but also as “captur[ing] the essence of a historical time and place in the experience of black people.” She sees the book as a “tribute to poor, uneducated, black women, who, through centuries of watching their men being ground down by poverty and racism, continue to live each day with the assurance that conditions will improve. Expecting little for themselves, not from lack of self-worth, but because they understand the politics of race, gender, economics, and power, they scrub floors, wash windows, and absorb racist and sexist insults, so that their children can have better lives than their own.”

When the twelve-year old Francie says she wants to be a secretary, her teacher tells her that she should be setting her sights towards cooking, sewing, or domestic work. Francie has not seen a black secretary or teacher, but the novel makes clear that she sees sex workers, the daughters of neighbors, on the street daily. One more note about this novel that I believe all of you should read, especially if you are concerned about the sexual abuse of children. This is a fact of life Francie has to deal with every day, not only from perverts who follow her into the movies or onto the roof of her building, but even from an occasional Jewish merchant. No, this child does not tell her parents. Somehow she suspects that telling them would result in catastrophe for the family. Somehow, she knows that she must deal with the abuse through wit and ultimately with the aid of a strong kick, and in the novel, she knows that other girls her age do as well.

Still, how can I claim this is a comic novel, and one that will hearten your belief in the strength of humankind, in the strength of what Louise calls, as the subtitle of the novel, “Yoruba’s children?” The sharing from family to family, and from those that have to those that don’t; the grief expressed not only for one’s family but for one’s neighbors; and the strength of all who can sometimes find it possible to laugh rather than cry over their losses. One person who helps Francie’s family is her mother’s sister, who is unmarried and hence could independently decide to take full time employment as a domestic in a white family. She uses some of her money to help her sister and to treat her children when they come to see her. She certainly brightens Francie’s days from time to time.

(Reading the novel again this weekend, I was reminded of my father’s asking me many times about whether I had dreamed a number the night before, and at least once or twice I could remember giving him one and feeling very excited about it. Though I didn’t understand what the dream had to do with anything, I heard my mother’s crying when my father arrived with very little cash, having lost his money on an unlucky number. And I remember also the time he could pull off a $100 dollar bill to pay for a coat he wanted to buy me for my thirteenth birthday.)

I want to conclude by mentioning a screen play Louise has written that would make a fine film. Perhaps there is someone here who has the clout to look at that. And of course there is Louise’s new work. At 90 she began to write a new novel and though I’ve not seen any of it yet, I’m betting on her. She is my role model, and if you are looking for a role model, I may be willing, in the spirit of Francie’s family and other members of Yoruba’s children, to share her with you.
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