Summer Mother

Michael A. Gonzales recounts the life lessons of a favorite auntie.

Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | October 2020 | 6 minutes (1,720 words)

Though my mother was an only child, I grew up surrounded by many aunts. These women, mom’s “play sisters” as she called them, were not siblings by blood, but were connected by long friendships, residual remembrances and childhood memories, as with Aunt Carol and Aunt Margret, who grew up with her in the Pittsburgh community known as the Hill District. After relocating to New York City in 1953, mom attended George Washington High where she had classes with Aunt Bootsie and Aunt Charlotte; after graduation, she began to hang out in various Harlem night spots including Carl’s On the Corner and the Brown Bombers, bar-hopping with my future godmother Aunt Myrna as well as with roommates Jill and Barbara, the only ones of her sisterly crew that I didn’t call aunt.

These women were beautiful, educated, artistic, and upwardly mobile, and helped shape my own aesthetics, sensibilities, artistic leanings, and taste in women. Still, the one “sister” that I developed a deeper relationship with was Aunt Ricky. A few years older than mom, she had grown up a block away from her in Pittsburgh. With her round, pretty face and full-figure , Aunt Ricky was always pleasant. Still, when I was a baby, I cried each time she walked into the room or picked me up. “You were such a friendly baby,” mom told me years later, “We never knew what it was about Ricky that made you act that way.” Thankfully, I got over it.

Aunt Ricky in October, 1977. Photo by Frances Gonzales.

Every summer, when other kids in our neighborhood were shipped off “Down South,” me and baby brother Perky went to Aunt Ricky’s place in the Pittsburgh suburbs. If we got out of school the last week in June, two weeks later we were on the Greyhound bus holding greasy bags of fried chicken and frozen sodas on our way to the suburban world where there was a house with a driveway and garage, a swimming pool in the backyard and a finished basement with the Jackson Five blasting.

The three-story brick house where Aunt Ricky lived with her daughter DeeNee and Uncle Ed, a Jamaican immigrant who owned a green Mack dump truck and worked in construction, was in a mostly white community. There weren’t any racial incidents and all the kids in the neighborhood played together. There was a garden in the backyard and some mornings Aunt Ricky made fried green tomatoes along with eggs and bacon.

If we got out of school the last week in June, two weeks later we were on the Greyhound bus holding greasy bags of fried chicken and frozen sodas on our way to the suburban world where there was a house with a driveway and garage, a swimming pool in the backyard and a finished basement with the Jackson Five blasting.

In my young mind I thought of Aunt Ricky as our “summer mother,” and she often passed down many valuable lessons that included examples of feminism, by proving to me that “girls” too could drive trucks, and about race relations, when she explained that she would never buy “anything” from a certain catalog, because they didn’t hire any Black models. “Not a one,” she said, disgusted. In the early years when Aunt Ricky wasn’t working, we’d pile into the car for a trip to the mall, the amusement park, or nearby East Hills Shopping Center where we bought frozen Cokes at Woolworths. Sometimes when we got to be too much, she would drop us off at the movies, usually a double-feature of horror, blaxploitation, or machine-gun-spraying gangsters.


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On other days Perky, DeeNee, and I, along with our playmates went into the woods on long hikes or took long bike journeys through the trails. Although there were three of us, there was only one bicycle between us, a light green Schwinn five-speed. It was faded and rusted in spots, but we rode it regularly and often argued over “whose turn” it was to ride. Aunt Ricky, tired of the bickering, finally gave us designated days. From morning until night, though sometimes we took breaks to go swimming or watch cartoons, the bike was ours to do what we wanted.

***

The year 1977 was a transitional period for me. I turned 14 and graduated from 8th grade at St. Catherine of Genoa. Come fall, I was headed to Rice High School in the center of Harlem. That summer, because mom had to go into the hospital, our Pittsburgh visit was pushed back until August. That season in New York there was a major heat wave, a serial killer named Son of Sam and, on July 13th, a blackout that jump-started a night of midnight marauders looting stores and rioting in the streets. More so than usual, going to Pittsburgh was a welcome reprieve away from the chaos of the city.

Cousin DeeNee was 17 that year and had long grown out of her old five-speed bike she had passed down to me and Perky. The bike was in desperate need of maintenance and sometimes the brakes had a mind of their own, not that either of us ever said anything. One day, when it was my turn to ride, I took a short journey with some of the neighborhood boys.

The trip led us to a long hilled street that reminded me of the rollercoaster. Recently tarred, the street was smooth and black as onyx. For a few moments we sat at the top of the hill weighing the possibilities, and then deciding, “Fuck it!” Seconds later I raced down that tarred slope as though I was Evel Knievel. However, as the two-wheeled beast began to pick up speed, the brakes suddenly went out. I dropped my right foot from the pedal to the street, burning a hole in my Pro-Ked sneaker. I wanted desperately to stop, but instead just kept going faster and faster until everything was a blur.

However, as the two-wheeled beast began to pick up speed, the brakes suddenly went out. I wanted desperately to stop, but instead just kept going faster and faster until everything was a blur.

In a moment of extreme foolishness, I closed my eyes and seconds later, smashed into the back of a parked car, fell off the bike, and rolled down the street. Cartoon stars swirled around my head, animated birds tweeted in my ear. Wearing a short-sleeved shirt, my hands and arms were badly scraped and burned. Blood dripped from my right hand and a big hole in my jeans exposed a bloody knee.

For a minute I lay still as the neighborhood kids gathered around, wrapped their arms around me, lifted me from the street, and walked me home. Limping, I looked as though I was returning from battle. When he first saw me, Perky started crying and screaming, “Aunt Ricky, Aunt Ricky, Aunt Ricky,” until she finally emerged from the garage. “Is Michael going to die?”

Unlike the rest of us, Aunt Ricky was calm as she walked me up the driveway, into the house, and upstairs to the bathroom. She sat on the edge of the bathtub and, after taking off my shirt, gently washed away the blood and then treated the fresh wounds with peroxide. Lastly, she covered me in Band-Aids. Before letting me go downstairs to watch television, she said, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be fine. Just be happy I was here and not your Uncle Ed. He would’ve just poured alcohol all over you.” She paused, and gave me one of those serious parental looks. “I know you’re hurt now, but, when you’re better, you’re going to get back on that bike.”

Of course, I couldn’t think of a more dreaded idea, but I knew it would be a while before I was better. Two weeks later we were preparing for our annual family reunion in Highland Park. As Aunt Ricky packed the back of the truck with food, sodas, and games, I overheard her tell Uncle Ed, “Make sure you put that bike in the back of the truck too.” Since my accident, Uncle Ed fixed the brakes. Picking up the bike, he flashed me a grin and winked. That quick, I knew it was my time. A half hour later, we were at our designated spot inside the park where there were picnic tables, a single hoop for basketball, barbeque grills, and plenty of space for activities.

The family reunion was always fun with tons of soul food and blaring music, group games that included rowdy spades tournaments and tug-of-war with cousins who weren’t really cousins, and some people I barely knew. That year backgammon was on the rise with Black folks and a few relatives played as the soundtrack of the day consisted of the soul of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Heatwave, and of course, the Brothers Johnson. It was only a matter of time before folks —some sober, most buzzed from beer and other liquid pleasures — started dancing.

Everything was going smoothly until Perky asked loudly, “Is it alright if I ride the bike?” Aunt Ricky looked up from a paper plate of ribs and potato salad. “Sure, you can ride, but after Michael takes a ride.” Uncle Ed had placed the bike near our tables. Aunt Ricky walked over and I looked her in the face. “I don’t want to ride,” I said. I had scars on my hands and missing skin on my left shoulder, but the most scarred part of me was whatever organ provided courage. “You’re going to get on this bike and ride it,” she replied.

I had scars on my hands and missing skin on my left shoulder, but the most scarred part of me was whatever organ provided courage.

Looking from the bike to her non-smiling face, I realized it would just be easier to ride out my fears than to argue.  Slowly, I climbed on and placed my right foot on the pedal. Seconds later I was moving down the path at a moderate pace before finally picking up speed. I wasn’t flying, but I wasn’t keeping pace with the tortoise either. I didn’t stop riding until I heard Perky screaming, “What about my ride? I asked first.”  After skidding in the dirt, I stopped without falling and climbed off.


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Perky ran toward me, but when I turned around the only person I saw was Aunt Ricky smiling as though she just accomplished something major and, in a way, she had. Certainly, in that corny afterschool special way, we both had. That summer, the summer of ‘77, would be my last time in Pittsburgh. The following year I got a summer job, as I did every other summer after that.

Although we’ve stayed in touch by telephone for years, with the exception of a weekend visit to our apartment a few months after the family reunion, I never saw Aunt Ricky again. Still, the motherly lesson she taught me about facing fears has stayed with me through decades of school issues, relationship differences, writerly defeats, and other personal problems. Of course it’s not guaranteed, but sometimes if I can just get back on the bike and ride, things just might work out.

***

Michael A. Gonzales writes The Blacklist book column for Catapult. He has written for The Paris Review,The Village VoicePitchforkNew York magazine, and Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop edited by Vikki Tobak. A former hip-hop journalist, his articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in The SourceRapPagesVibeEgo TripXXLComplex, and Mass Appeal. In addition, he is the co-author of Bring The Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (1991). Currently he is working on a hip-hop novel.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson