An anxious immigrant at 64, my mother says she is learning English. After pulling Sears Best cinnamon stockings to a roll beneath her knees and sitting that Baptist ski slope of a hat on her head, she rides the rattling El train to a steel spire in downtown Chicago, pulls back her gulp as the glass elevator hurtles upward, and comes to sit at a gleaming oak table across from a pinstriped benevolent white angel who has dedicated two hours a week to straightening the black, twisted tongues of the afflicted. It is this woman's job to scrape the moist infection of Aliceville, Alabama, from my mother's throat.
"I want to talk right before I die," Mama says, "Want to stop saying ain't and I done been , like I don't have no sense. I done lived too long to be stupid, acting like I just got off the boat."
My mother has never been on a boat.
But 50 years ago, a million of her, clutching strapped cloth suitcases and peppery fried chicken in waxed bags, stepped off the buses at the Greyhound depot in Chicago, eagerly brushing the stubborn red dust from their shoes.
"We're North now," they said in their southern tongues, as if those three words were vessels big enough to hold all those dreams with bulging seams.