For Lucille

I

Lucille was 41 when she died
She was a big robust
working class
black woman
She worked for my folks
cleaned the house and
took care of us kids
afternoons
sometimes all the time
when our folks were away

One of those times
she took us to stay
a weekend
with her family
uptown
I loved it
the warmth
the disorderliness
We saw a baseball game
at the Polo Grounds
It was the first time
I ever went
to Harlem

Lucille was full of life
all kinds of life
She would talk
about her kids
(she had 9 of them,
or maybe 2 were nephews
I never really got it straight)
about gettin’ loaded
and carryin’ on
about Martin Luther King
about her blood pressure

When she came into our lives
she brought some friends with her
Sam Cooke
The Staples Singers
Aretha, Otis, Jackie Wilson

This old brown RCA radio
lived on top of the refrigerator
and when I came home from school
I’d hear that sweet, sweet music

It was the early 60s and
young white America
learned about
Black America
on the radio

And I had Lucille
who loved that music
And I learned from her
to love that music too

II

I was 16 when Lucille died
It was 1968
I was this precocious
scared Jewish kid
on his way to college

It was a Monday morning
I was still home
And Lucille was late
very late

My mother called her house
one of her sons answered
I think it was Willie
her oldest

He said they’d had a big party last night
and Lucille had gotten real drunk
and yes he’d go wake her up
right away

He put the receiver down
and no one ever picked it up
You could hear the screams
and the chaos
in the background

I don’t know what happened to her family
Lucille was the glue that kept it together
the organizer
the stabilizer
And now she was gone
It couldn’t have been good

III

I was 16 when Lucille died
As a man in the making
I didn’t feel anything when she died
just this eerie numbness

Six months or so later
when I finally got that
James Brown riff down on guitar
it hit me

I was sitting on my bed
at school in Chicago
and started to cry
uncontrollably

Because Lucille
at that moment
it became clear to me
that I would get good at music
and you wouldn’t be around
to be part of it

I miss you
very much

(A recitation of this poem is on the Blues in Progress cassette, released in 1989.)

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4 thoughts on “For Lucille”

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