In our series of letters from African-American journalists, novelist and writer Dora narrates her story of growing up black in New York City

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I think back to last winter, with my family in an old house on the shore of
New York City’s Hudson River. The snow was piled around the deck and a little
brown dog wandered in, then out again. As the winter was ending, he would sit
for hours on a porch chair and watch the lights of the city twinkle over the
water. He wouldn’t eat, he wouldn’t shed, but he stayed there long after
sunset.

I didn’t recognize my mother’s new friend, I just tried to be polite. What
was her name? The thought of talking to her made me feel funny. I didn’t know
how to explain it to her, but I’d just as soon stay away. I felt like this
woman was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t tell her what it was,
because I didn’t know. I just wanted to be left alone.

I look away from the window and down into the kitchen to my mom. She’s
sitting at the table. The table is littered with the dishes she’s made, but
there are only a few in the sink. A few of my brother’s toys are on the floor
next to her. The sink is filled with dirty water. All the dishes were washed
last week. My mom never goes through these mundane tasks anymore. It’s just
something we do. No longer do I need an answer.

I pick up my spoon, the glass is cold and hard. I stir, taste the soup,
smooth it into a rough shape. I stir some more. I put my spoon back into the
saucer.

“Dora?”

“Yeah,” I say quietly. My mom’s voice is shaky. There’s a lot on her mind
today. There’s always something.

“Are you okay?” She asks.

“Sure,” I say. She’s asking if I’m okay.

“Are you going to eat?” She asks again. She always asks me that. In
theory, I don’t know what she’s saying. I’m too young to realize she’s
talking about food.

There’s a quiet pause. I don’t quite know why she’s asking me again. “I’ll
eat when I’m done.”

“There’s that little guy you’re looking for.” She says. I turn around.
There in my old window, is one of my father’s suitcases.

“Haven’t seen him in a while,” I say quietly.

“It’s nice to see you’re not as angry as you were when you came in here,”
she says. Her eyes are watering. She has the most beautiful eyes. They were
blue before, but now they have that silver glint. I wonder what it would be
like to be able to read someone like that.

I try to think of something to say. Everything I knew about my
mother’s life has been burned into me in all the years since I was a baby. I
see her, walking with her hands in her pockets. Her hair gets caught up in
curls, I can’t see her face very well. She wears the best clothes, but it’s
all cheap, I always thought, and then of course there’s the other thing. I
see my dad’s face in the picture in the book she and her friends, had in the
front pocket of the suitcase under the pictures of my dad holding me in his
arms. I saw his lips move as if he was sleeping.

“I miss him, too,” she says. I nod slowly.

“I miss him, too,” I say.

“You’re not the only one,” she tells me.

I nod again. What’s she talking about? I try to remember. She always asks
me that.

“You know why I couldn’t sleep after I saw him?” She says.

I look at her a moment, not knowing what she’s doing, but then I ask, “What
did you see?”

My mom takes a deep breath. “I see him walking down the street,” she says.
The old car drives down the street with its lights off. We see my father
walking past. The car goes around the corner. My mom says, “I saw him walking
down the street like he was going home.”

I look at my mom, “Why didn’t you go?”

“I could, but what would I do?” She asks.

“If you could, would you want to?” I ask.

“Of course,” she says.

“Why are you asking me that?” I ask.

“Because I want you to know the truth.” She says.

I look at her for a moment. I’m not sure what she wants me to know. I
wonder if she’s going to tell me what she saw or tell me she saw something
she couldn’t see. I’m about to say something, but my mom says, “The thing I
saw was a ghost.”

I don’t know what to say. I don’t say anything. Words run out of my brain
and then I just shake my head. I keep staring at mom, not really believing
either of her accounts.

“Did you ever talk to your father?” I ask.

“We talk. Every week, we talk.”

I look at her. She’s smiling. I feel like she’s telling me something but
I’m not sure what. There’s nothing to say. I know what I’m supposed to say,
but can’t quite say it.

“What do I need to do?” I ask.

“You need to go talk to someone,” she says.

I nod. She’s the one who always tells me to talk to someone, about everything.

“I’ll walk you,” she says.

I follow her down the stairs to the basement. I start to feel lightheaded.

“Dora?” She asks.

I shake my head.

“You need to go and talk to someone,” she says. She picks up the broom
that’s lying on the floor, dusts the place on the floor, and puts it back
down.

“I’ve got to find someone.”

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