Elizabeth de Souza is a writer and curator with a special focus on the arts emerging from the African diaspora. She is particularly interested in the mysterious link between artistic genius and mental health. Elizabeth earned her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and has received awards, fellowships, and grants from MacDowell, Hedgebrook, Twelve Literary Arts, and Creative Capital, among others. Her essays have appeared in print and online publications such as Southern Indiana Review, Callaloo, Surface Design Journal, Solstice, and the Journal of Baha’i Studies. Her first book, Sleeping in the Fire: Reclaiming the Lost Legacy of M. Bunch Washington and Other Seminal Black Visual Artists in America, is forthcoming. She is the Director of the Bunch Washington Foundation, which she co-founded in 2021 with her brother, journalist and filmmaker, Jesse Washington, to support Black painters and sculptors. Elizabeth currently lives in the Pittsburgh area with her husband and two young children. Follow her online at her website and on Twitter and Instagram.
THE COLOR OF NANA’S WISH
By Elizabeth de Souza
“Can you believe,” she asked from across our dorm room, “that my Nana is like that?” The only light came from the clock radio, a small plastic box with green glowing numbers that made an odd clicking sound each time a minute passed, like a fingernail flicking against a ceramic button.
“Well, she’s from that generation.”
We paused, our thoughts drifting together like summer clouds, trying to imagine ourselves in sepia instead of full color. The present moment was stamped around us in various forms; a coffee mug, a T-shirt, even encircling a rose quartz set in a beveled ring: Class of 1994. “When I was dating a guy who was dark-skinned, Nana’s only comment was: “Why in the world would you want go backwards?!” I gasped, sharp and high. “And when my little brother brought that cute gymnast home, Nana had the nerve to say the girl looked like a runaway slave!”
My hand flew to my mouth. “She did not!” Our laughter, dark and guilty, spilled between us. I shifted in my narrow twin bed, tugging the fitted white sheet back onto the impermeable blue-green plastic-coated mattress. I thought of the proud way my father sometimes carried himself; shoulders stiff, everything held taut. His skin was blacker than Southern sharecropping on an empty stomach. “They used to call me liver lips,” he’d told me so many times, eyebrows comically raised. Folks were often surprised he had a daughter who looked like me.
When I met my roommate’s Nana at their family barbecue, she lifted a bony, jeweled hand to my cheek, then gently pressed my long, silky, heat-straightened tresses between her thumb and the crook of her pointer finger as if she were handling new money, her light eyes bright as a young girl’s.
Someone passed the story to me casually, like a discarded banana peel. Right away I called, although we’d drifted apart after graduation. It’d been five years. She was in Texas, I was back in Brooklyn. “How did you know to call me?” she asked. “Did you hear…?”
The rumor was true, but incomplete; deathly wrong. Yes, she was pregnant. She’d also spent a month in the hospital with fractures and broken bones. The man was a familiar stranger. He’d made deliveries to the office where she’d worked for two years. A white man. It happened in her car, a new Nissan with leather seats. Right outside her workplace.
After the hospital, she’d stopped talking to just about everyone. They all said the same thing. “I tried to do it,” she confided that day on the phone. “But I couldn’t. I walked out of the waiting room. Everyone thinks I’m insane. I just can’t force myself to do it.”
I said everything I could think of. She was silent. I pushed on and on blindly, not knowing what to grasp and what to let slip away. The moment I thought I’d lost her for sure, she spoke. It was only one word, but in the smallness of her voice a note of certainty rang clear and true.
And again, when I stumbled toward an empty word, I could hear her nodding: Yes.
The photo came in a little white envelope months later. I was transfixed by the tiny face and copper ringlets, loose and dreamy as a future memory. Heavenly seawater eyes gazed into mine. With a jolt, I realized that Nana’s wish had survived the passage of time, even though it was the ordeal of the journey that had first conceived it.
Torch Literary Arts is a nonprofit organization established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.