Rosa Lee Jackson was the first of 13 children born to Roosevelt and Hattie Mae Brown of Tullahoma, Tennessee. I don’t know much about my aunt’s childhood except that her left hand was tied behind her back to suppress her inclination and insure that she wouldn’t be subjected to a life “wrong-handed.” That experience stayed with her all her life. The other thing I knew about her childhood is that she didn’t like black-eyed peas. She couldn’t bear to eat the “eyes.” My mother would discreetly eat the peas so that her older sister wouldn’t get a whippin’ for being wasteful.
But my strongest memory of my aunt is that she hummed to herself. When I think of her in my mind, she is humming.
One reason Auntie was so close to me (and me to her) Is that her birthday is one day after mine. She was born on October 21 and I was born on October 20.
I remember the day Auntie took me to get my smallpox vaccine. I was her “play daughter” before she had Leticia. On a beautiful Southern California day, my little hand in hers, my three quick steps to her one, we walked through Villa Park. Later, we ate ice cream sandwiches.
When my brother and I had chicken pox, she took care of us during the day while my mom worked at Bell & Howell. She slathered us in Calamine lotion to soothe the hot, painful itchiness, until finally she put socks on our hands so we wouldn’t scratch and scar.
My cousin Leticia was born on the morning of February 9, 1971, the day of the big San Fernando earthquake near L.A. She made an unforgettable splash into the world! I immediately adored her. She would be my little sister, I decided. Whenever they visited, I would stare and stare at her. When Auntie safety-pinned a little red swatch of cloth to Leticia’s undershirt, I wanted one too.
Sometimes Auntie took Leticia and me to the market to pass out leaflets for her church. Embarrassed, I stood there offering mimeographed papers declaring a “New Paradise” to the shoppers, usually mothers with a baby on their hip, while Auntie sang “Jesus on the Mainline.” Sometimes she sang other hymns, but instead of saying Jesus or God, the name “Jim Jones” was crow-barred into the measure. It sounded awkward and sore-thumbish. I wanted to disappear into the brick wall, but I could never disappoint her.
In ’77, Mom got laid off, and we moved to Tennessee. Around the same time, Auntie and Leticia moved to San Francisco. I wanted to go too. Anything was better than moving to the little country town where the air was too thick and stale to breathe, and the local twang made me cringe.
One day after school, a year later, Grandma called to speak with Mom. “Dear God,” she sat down, holding her head. “Dear God.”
Auntie wrote three letters, one from San Francisco, two from Jonestown, Guyana. I have one in a scrapbook and the tambourine that belonged to Leticia. It was returned with their ashes.
Shocked. Buried alive in my sadness. This couldn’t be true. I’m still haunted by the images. Taunted by talking heads who turned “Don’t drink the Kool-aid” into a cultural bumper sticker for an event that took an icepick to my world.
Her loving nature, her quiet manner, the patience she always showed, the way she loved her daughter, the dimples that kissed her cheeks when she smiled. That was my Aunt Rosa Lee.
(Shawnda Birch may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)