I wanted this very first entry on my new blog in this new year, to be happy and cheerful. But as I sit here typing this, it’s hard not to think of loss. A little over one year ago, in early December, my Mama died. She had lived a full, dramatic Leo Diva life. Once a famous runway model in Harlem, she was literally bigger than life when I was growing up. Over the years we grew into our Mama/daughter relationship; two strong-willed, opinionated Leo womyn in the world. That last year she was in hospice; we learned to sit in silence, to look at her gorgeous vintage modeling photos , to read poetry and to reminisce. I was comforted that I had taken intermittent Family Medical Leave to spend time with her and though I was grateful she passed away peacefully, it was really hard losing her. She was my first and fiercest advocate. Figuring out where I fit in the world, without my Mama, has been a journey this past year.

There were no siblings to cry with, or aunts or uncles to go down memory lane after Mama passed. I suppose that’s the luck of the only child. Spoiled and indulged growing up, but alone, in significant ways, as we age and learn to embrace grief. I am the third successive generation of only children in my family on my maternal side and knew little to nothing about my father’s side of the family.  My father died when I was in sixth grade and my maternal grandmother, Mama Pearl, who co-parented me with my Mama, had passed away nine years before Mama. While there was this sadness that seeped through so many aspects of my life, as I navigated this new loss, I also stayed afloat, thanks to the beauty of chosen family, especially my life partner and our two sons. I think for many only children in tiny little families like mine, our friends are our extended family. It was clear, after losing Mama, that I had a beautiful circle of extended chosen family and friends, who I could really lean on.  So this little essay on loss is also about finding joy in small, meaningful gestures.

Author, JP Howard and her Mama, Easter Sunday, circa 1970's

I remember friends rushed back to our apartment after the funeral, with food and drink and set up for repast. I smiled when I came through our apartment door after returning from the cemetery and realized my one friend had assembled our new curtain rods, replacing an old one that had dangled awkwardly for over a year over our windows, so that our living room was finally presentable. Another sistagirlfriend went with me to pick out Mama’s last outfit for her funeral, a bright, glimmering crimson sweater, and laughed with me, as I imagined Mama smiling about her bold new top.  “Girl, I’m going to outshine everybody in that chapel,” I imagined Mama announcing confidently. My stepmom, who I hadn’t seen in years, found old family photos of my Dad and his mother (who I had never seen before), and mailed them to me weeks after Mama’s passing. Each of these gestures was a gift that helped me come out from that fog of self-pity. I learned with time, not to see myself as an only child alone in the world, but as a  grieving grown womyn, with a strong, supportive tribe of chosen family and friends.  Each month this past year brought some new joy, some new way of looking through the lens of grief and turning to cherished memories, while learning to be grateful for the present.

So when almost exactly one year later, a good friend of mine, passed away, without warning, a few weeks ago,  I wasn’t ready for this new shape of grief. My friend, a talented poet, was relatively young; she was brilliant, pursuing her life-long dream and working towards her PhD. I would often tell her, she was my role model, having worked many years in a government job, her first book published later in life and she was a devoted Mom and Grandmom. I could relate to all of those things, as a Mom, as a new author published later in life, who also happened to have a government job. While I am deeply spiritual , it has been hard these last few weeks since her passing, to make sense of it all. But as I sat in her funeral last Friday, and listened to all the comforting memories folks shared, I loved learning that she had always been political, and always been an activist, an artist and writer from a very young age. Her siblings, her children, her cousins, and fellow poets all shared words of celebration and numerous folks shared how she was also their powerful role model. I am glad I had shared with her on multiple occasions how much she inspired me, both as writer, doer and devoted mother/grandmother to her family. I had made sure to include her as a featured poet in my literary Salon over the years and only nine months earlier, she sat on a panel which I convened, where we celebrated black lesbian poets, something we both enjoyed doing. I still have all the emails and texts she sent me telling me the work I was doing in the literary community and in the POC queer community was necessary and empowering. And so, I guess what I’m learning is that her legacy is the joy that I have to hold onto.  Just like with Mama. Those two Sistas will continue to shine and guide me. 

JP Howard | January 7, 2017