I am Chontate Brown and the west side of Chicago holds my best memories. I recall the early part of my childhood to be as perfect could be for me and for my brothers, Pierre and Raffeal. My family lived in a basement apartment at 1628 South Sawyer Street and my mother Vivian’s mother, Bernadine, lived next door.
Vivian worked hard to make ends meet at Rauland Corp., a subsidiary of Zenith, where the company made color television sets. My Aunt Denise or Vivian’s mother would babysit. Vivian was already the single mother of one child before my birth. The father of my older brother, smart-mouthed and big-headed Pierre, had already left the building and I do not think that my brother even knows how his dad looks to this day. Well, about a year and a half after he split, my mom met what she called a fine, sweet-talking, sharp-dressing kind of fellow; in other words, a slick-ass nigga, named David Gant.
Yes, indeed, and can you believe this moron with pigeon-toes, crusty-knee, a bald spot in the middle of his head surrounded by Shaka Zulu hair, wearing Stacey Adams shoes without socks but with blue jean shorts had the nerve to still think he was fine.
Anyway, back to the story. Mother and David began to date and in the process of them getting their freak on, I was conceived.
I was born April 24, 1971, at Mount Sinai Hospital. My mother had the Winnie the Pooh crib, passed down from Pierre, all prepared for my sweet arrival but of course my brother Pierre, who was the family comedian always, had something funny to say. When my mother told him to come and look at me, he said, “Mom, I thought you said you were bringing me home a baby sister. You brought home an old man.” My family who was there began laughing, but my mother did not think anything was funny.
My dad hung around from time to time until right before I was about to turn two years old. He told my mother that he was going out to get me a birthday gift, but he never returned and none of us ever saw him again until I was eleven years old.
A few years after David’s departure, Vivian met a handsome man who was 15 years older than she was. Vivian was 27 years old and he was 43 years old. His name was Clarence Lemons. Clarence was 6 feet and 2 inches tall, light skinned, with grade-A hair. Clarence was doing very well for himself working for a company named Bally that manufactured casino slot machines.
Yes, Vivian, single mother of two, had finally hit the jackpot with this one.
We were still living in the two-bedroom basement apartment when they met. Clarence was a great handyman because he was the one who put some life into that dark-looking basement. He and my mother painted the apartment and he made a bar he painted with black and white polka dots. Hey, in the 70’s that was hot! Pierre and I shared a bedroom. I remember when Clarence bought me my first rocking chair, in black and white leather. Nobody and I mean nobody, could sit in my rocking chair or there was going to be hell to pay.
Clarence really loved my mother and us kids too and asked my mother for her hand in marriage. Clarence was not only a great husband to my mother, but also a great stepfather to Pierre and me.
Life was good for my family and me. Still considered “poor,” our family never lived according to the standard of poor. My parents believed in providing the best for their children. I guess you can say we were living a champagne life off Kool-Aid money.
My mother was a caramel-brown color, sharp dressed, 5 feet and 4 inches tall with gorgeous black long hair down her back. As a young woman with expensive tastes, her favorite stores were Lord and Taylor, Sears, Carson Pirie Scott, J. C. Penney, and Marshall Fields.
For the Easter holiday, she bought me a white leather coat and hat and a gorgeous yellow dress. Pierre had a two-piece white pantsuit with a burgundy shirt and white tie with burgundy platform shoes. He also had a burgundy leather jacket and golf-style hat. We were “casket sharp” though not attending church that day.
Both my brother and I were the first on the block to get bikes. I had the red Radio Flyer tricycle and my brother had a two-wheel bike with the big wide handlebars and banana seat. When my brother went to the store with his friends, he would be the only one with a one-dollar bill, while everyone else just had maybe a quarter to spend. Yes, Pierre was Mr. Popular; though I must admit my brother was a little cutie too.
My step-daddy would hand his paycheck over to my mother and she would pay all the bills, buy groceries, and whatever else was needed to be paid, then give him back whatever was left. My step-daddy even bought my mother a beautiful, shiny, powder blue Chrysler Imperial car.
We were living the good life with no stress or worries. Especially after Raffeal, my baby brother, was born in June of 1974. Raffeal was one of the most gorgeous babies you may ever have seen. He looked like a mixed-breed child with a head full of dark, soft, curly hair. Let’s just say Raffeal did not look like he belonged in our family. He was his daddy’s child.
What was exciting was our first Christmas as a married family. My parents bought this huge aluminum Christmas tree that was placed right in the basement living room window. My mother bought one of those changing-color lamps for in front of the tree, so it would turn three different colors: red, green and yellow. People would stop in front of our apartment just to see the tree change colors. We had all the holiday trimmings with objects moving and singing Christmas songs.
Clarence spent five hundred dollars in cash on the family Christmas gifts! Five hundred dollars!!! Heck, that’s a lot of money to spend on gifts today, let alone back in the day. I remembered our parents waking us up to a living room filled with all kinds of toys and clothes, a kitchen and table set, many different dolls, cars, a doll house, army men, a wood playpen for Raffeal, trucks, and so much more. It was like Toys-R-Us in the hood. We still do not know how they hid all of these gifts from us, but it was an awesome thing for any child to experience.
Since Raffeal was an extra head to keep a roof over, we needed to upgrade to something much bigger. Clarence’s father owned a two-flat, white apartment building at 1339 South Troy. Clarence’s step-sister, Edna, lived upstairs and our family moved into the first floor apartment.
This was a beautiful place with four bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and a very large living room with a separate spacious dining area. Starting from the dining area was a long hallway where our bedrooms were located. My room was first on the left side with a pink and white bedroom set. My brothers’ room was diagonal from my room to the right side. Pierre had a queen-size oak bed with matching dresser. If you walked a little further, to your left was the first full bathroom. You had to step up to this bathroom and it had one of those antique bathtubs right in the center of the room. I believe it was a light bluish color.
Boy, there would be days when my baby brother was able to get into everything and he would be found waiting in that tub with nothing on but his shirt hoping for someone to come turn on the water for him.
Across from the bathroom was my parents’ bedroom. They had a king-size, black and white bedroom set with black beads dangling at their door. Clarence’s father lived with us and he stayed in the fourth bedroom that also had a sitting area.
Mr. Lemons was a very tall, bald man who drove a burgundy and black Cadillac. He was very quiet, but was a nice man. I was afraid of him at first, I guess because he was so tall and skinny.
The kitchen and second full bath were in the far back of the hallway. We had a wide, white, wood back porch that had a green porch swing, where my mother would love to polish my toes and fingernails with her multiple colors of nail polish. It looked over one of the largest, most beautifully landscaped, fenced backyards in our neighborhood. One side of the apartment building was completely covered with a green vineyard.
In addition, a sidewalk trail led from the backyard to the front of the fenced yard where diverse beautiful flowers and roses were grown. I get excited to this day when I see stunning floral landscapes or arrangements, and of course, I am a spring baby. We also had a basement where we would play on our very own pool table and pinball machine.
Our apartment was walking distance from Douglas Park. The memories are vivid as I recall this neighborhood recreational park with swings, slides, monkey bars and a small lagoon surrounded by sand. It seemed like people from everywhere would come to this park.
My mother would pack up some sandwiches, chips and drinks, grab a blanket, and watch her kids enjoy themselves. I don’t recall any danger or harm among anyone there, just good old fun.
If we were not at the park we would be at home with our parents, listening to the hits of my mother’s favorite musical group Earth Wind & Fire. In the living room we had a brown floor-model cabinet television and stereo system by Zenith. If you had one of these, you were considered the top dog in the hood.
Many days, my mother would have Pierre and me sing out loud to her favorite tune called “Reasons”. She would even record us on her tape recorder. My mother sure knew how to move her hips to some music! Moreover, if some stepping music played, boy it was a done deal, she was a showstopper.
Ms. Brown used to throw down in the kitchen with the family meals. My mother cooked a full meal every day, unless it was too hot to cook. In our dining area we had a beautiful, pure wood, antique formal dinette table that sat up to eight people with a matching china buffet cabinet. We always ate as a family at this table. There were no separate eating times or areas; you either ate when dinner was served or you did not eat at all.
Our house was always clean and tidy. Most days our house was peaceful when my brother and I were not at each other’s throat. Clarence and mom would have arguments here and there, but there was never any domestic abuse.
Watching Channel 11, the PBS channel, was one of our favorite ways to watch educational programs such as The Electric Company, Sesame Street and Zoom. The characters I loved most were Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. In addition, please do not let me forget about the Mickey Mouse Club. I was so glued to the television when this show came on and was position ready with my Mickey ears to sing the famous tune M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.
The Christmas holiday came back around again and we still had that big aluminum Christmas tree, but this time mom and Clarence had spray-painted the tree with white snow. My mom placed those color lights in front of it with the tree placed in front of a huge picture window and again our house was the center of attraction.
Now, it did not have anything on the Marshall Field’s Christmas window display, but in the hood we were the next best thing. Clarence and Vivian were the ultimate Mr. and Mrs. Claus again. This Christmas was crazy and off the chain. My brothers and I woke up to another room filled with all kinds of stuff. The majority of our toys came from Toy-R-Us and the FAO Schwarz toy store.
I got the first new Barbie who was able to ride her own battery-operated bicycle until one day the destructive baby boy broke her handlebars off and that was the end of her riding that bike. I swear that child was like Godzilla. He demolished everything that was in his path. The family name for him was Bam-Bam. He even destroyed his wood playpen.
I also had the new crawl-away doll that crawled on her own. Sometimes I would let her crawl to the wall and watch her try to keep going. What was funny was that her batteries went in her butt. I even had the whole Sesame Street play set and it was portable so I was able to carry it around. Then my parents blew me away with an elegant, all-white piano that came with different color keys to help you learn to play the piano, a stool, and a lesson book. It was a piano fit for a princess like myself. I fell in love with my awesome gift, but Pierre had gotten something that was bigger and shinier than my piano — a Mickey Mouse drum set. This was not just any kind of drum set; it was of high quality too. It had everything a good drummer would need — three tom-toms, crash and ride cymbals, snare and bass drums, bass drum pedal, throne (or stool), and of course some hard-core drumsticks to get his rock on. Man, it was sick and all of that. Pierre was very stingy with his prize procession, but I was eager to play on those damn drums by any means necessary.
I would play on them while he was at school, getting my fake Sheila E. drummer on. I was told on numerous occasions to stop playing with Pierre’s drum set, but I did not want to hear that. One day I was getting down on those drums and hitting the bass drum pedal against the bass drum with just a little too much force and before I knew it the ball of the drum pedal went through the bass drum. When I realized what I had done and thought about how my brother was going to kill me and the ass whooping I’d get from my parents, I did the best thing I could do at that time – blamed the baby brother, Raffeal. Pierre freaked out when he saw what Raffeal had done to his drum set. But the truth came out because remember, the set was of high quality and my baby brother was only 1½ years old. The drum set was fixed; I was punished, and banned from his room when Pierre was not present.
Pierre was in second grade by now and I was still at home with my mother and baby brother. I used to get excited when going shopping with my mother. I remember one day she took me downtown on the bus to the Sears store on State Street. It was crazy to drive and park your car downtown when there was public transportation that would drop you off right at your destination. I cannot forget that day because it was the day I tripped down the escalators stairs. Luckily I was caught by the hands of bystanders before going completely down, though I remained terrified of escalators until I was older. My mother had my hair in two curly ponytails so I looked like a black Cindy from The Brady Bunch.
On our way home, we stopped at McDonald’s to get something to eat. This was definitely a day in March because they had the green shamrock shakes that came in a clear souvenir glass with the McDonald’s characters on them. Boy, that shake was good! But as we were coming back towards the house through Douglas Park, we were walking across the platform of a huge statue when I tripped and dropped my shamrock shake and my glass was broken. I was really tripping that day. I looked at my mother with my sad face, but she refused to go back to get me another one. She finally did, though, later in the day.
You would think life could not get any better for us and, guess what, it did not. I guess we knew things were changing, because Clarence and our mom began fighting a lot. We never saw her bruised up, but we did see them fight a lot.
One day things kind of took a turn for the worse. Pierre and I were playing outside when some kids we knew came and told us our mother was in our backyard with a gun. We took off running and saw people from the neighborhood watching from outside the fence as if they were looking at a live boxing match.
Our mother was standing there with a 45-caliber gun in her hand and about four feet in front of her was my father, looking like a scared yellow chicken. We could hear my mother telling him to strip down out of his clothes. He was pleading with her, telling her he was sorry for hurting her and he would never do it again. My mother continued to demand he take off all of his clothes and said, “Motherfucker, I mean now.” All of this seemed so unreal to me, like, is this really happening?
All the spectators were laughing and poking fun, but for Pierre and me this was heartbreaking and embarrassing. Daddy had taken off his shirt and pants like he was told, but Ms. Brown wanted him buck naked. He pretended he was about to take off his underwear and tried to take off running, and the next thing we knew we heard a loud sound. She shot at daddy! Pow, we heard again, and she began to chase after him.
We didn’t know what to think. Was daddy dead? Did she kill him? Why did she want to shoot him?
Passed Around By Man But Not Passed Over By God Chontate Brown Copyright ©2013 All rights reserved.