Category Archives: Memoir

My Mom and Rashod Ollison: A Love Story

My Mom and Rashod : A Love Story About the Healing Power of Excellent Music Journalism 

My mother, Phyllis Michele Amato Congilosi, which she will quickly tell you is her maiden name, aka Our Lady of Perpetual Drama, aka The Woman Who Talks to All Strangers, aka The Woman Who Speaks in Exclamation Points, a seventy-eight year old, nine time cancer survivor, has not been doing well.

Each week seems to bring more worrisome moves toward decline.  More often than not, a phone call from her, or one not answered by her, brings bad news.

Two years ago, one of my mom’s titanium knee joints–what my 12 year old son calls her RoboLegs– locked up during a midnight trip to the bathroom.  She fell hard and was so seriously injured she couldn’t yell loud enough to be heard.

My son and I were still living with her then; I found her at 5:30 a.m. when I woke to start my day.   I summoned the EMT service to get her off the floor, but she loudly refused transport to the ER.

For two days I tended to her at home, while she continued to snarl at me whenever I mentioned the hospital.   She grew weak and pallid and feverish.

On the third day I forced her to go to the hospital after I had a horrifically vivid dream of her death.   I got stern and steely, not my usual stance with her, but one I’ve had to adopt on occasion.

Not long after her intake at Princess Anne Hospital she had emergency surgery to remove her gall bladder, which had been injured in the fall.

My disturbing dream turned out to be fortuitous; her gall bladder was—oh, how I cringe to write this—gangrenous and necrotic.  Yes, infected and dying, it had exploded.

Exploded.   Another day and she could have died.

Hooked up to a morphine drip in her recovery room she looked more like a sweet, kindly grandmother than I’ve ever seen her.

A beatific smile lit up her face when my son entered the room and her arms went up for him to hug her, which he did.

Sweetie, she called him.  Dolly, she called me, using the nickname my late grandmother gave me.

Don’t get me wrong—she loves my son, and the two older grand-daughters my brother and his wife gave her.   But for years her normal demeanor has been more on the surly side than the sunny.

I’ve tried my best to understand: certainly anyone who lived with daily pain, repeated bouts of chemotherapy and radiation, and the nasty attendant side-effects, such as impaired balance and neuropathy, can’t be expected to be Sweet Pollyanna every day.

Still, it was nice to have my Mama back, the smiling giver of hugs and kisses, whom I remembered from childhood.

A few days later we learned that a biopsy done during her surgery came back positive for cancer, again. This time it was her gall bladder, which the surgeon had removed.

Yet, she wasn’t sure if they had been able to get all the cancerous cells; there was still a chance it could spread to another organ.   This meant yet more chemo, and possibly radiation.

I remember thinking: OK, God—I think she’s had enough training in this miraculous recovery program you appear to be running.  

She survived that bout like all the others.  Now her DNA is being studied by a local geneticist from England who also works with Angelina Jolie.

Ollison
cbsnews.com

You can bet my mom enjoys the name-dropping this association affords her.

Meanwhile I deal with the on-going slippery slope of keeping up with a stubborn 78 year-old prone to tripping.   Her latest fall, while alone at home, caused her to spend 18 hours on the floor, her cell phone forgotten at church,  until I showed up the next day.

I’d said goodnight to her at around 8:00 p.m. the night before, then left her a message in the morning.  When repeated calls went unanswered, I made my way down the road, propelled by a growing unease.

I had a key, but she’d put the chain on the door.   A quick phone call brought a maintenance man who bore an unnerving resemblance to Darryl Dixon, the redneck survivalist, from The Walking Dead.

Ollison

He promptly broke down her front door, with a surprisingly minimal amount of damage, as my mom wailed from the back of the apartment.

I couldn’t quite make out what she was yelling until I made it into her living room, “I DON’T NEED AN AMBULANCE! I NEED A SHOWER AND A CUP OF COFFEE!”

And in case I missed that bulletin, “I! DON’T! NEED! AN! AMBULANCE!”

After the EMTs left without my stubborn, angry mother, Daryl Dixon’s double just as quickly put the door back up.

It took a call from Father Tim, her thirty-something priest and confessor, who through the power of Jesus the Christ, holds more sway than fifty-something me, to get her stubborn, purple-bruised seventy-something behind to the ER by ambulance.

The ER doctor, backed by my mother’s own physician ordered her to stay at home and rest for a week.  With Father Tim co-signing, daily mass would have to wait.

She was back in the pews in three days.

Since that incident I jump, just a little, when my phone rings.  A morning not long after her last hospital stay was no different.

Me: {Zzzzzzzz}

Phone: {Pharrell’s Happy starts out softly, gradually gets LOUD: the ringtone I keep meaning to change.}

Me: Hello….? Are you OK?

My Mom AKA the Woman Who Speaks in All Caps with Exclamation Points at Top Volume: HONEY!!

RASHOD WROTE THIS GREAT ARTICLE ALL ABOUT MOTOWN…IT IS SO GOOD! HE REALLY IS SO VERY TALENTED. YOU NEED TO TELL HIM FOR ME.

My mother has developed a super-fan-girl crush on award-winning journalist,  and memoirist, Rashod Ollison, who writes for The Virginian Pilot.  Once she found out he and I were Facebook friends, I began to receive weekly Rashod Praise Calls after she’d read his column.  

Reading Rashod never fails to put her into a good mood; for this I’m thankful.   Soon after he began writing about music and culture for the Virginian-Pilot he became one of my favorite writers.   

Me: Mom….I did not know you were on a first name basis with Mr. Ollison.  Yes, we are connected on Facebook.  Um, no, I am not going to tell him you read everything he writes and share it with your church friends…and Jewel the hairdresser.

Maybe you should write to him. Lord knows he needs somebody else to write in besides the extras from Deliverance and the Sons of the Confederacy…and wanna be rock critics pissed they didn’t get his gig. Ha! Stop laughing…you know I’m right…

MOM: I LOVED THAT RICK JAMES PIECE HE DID A WHILE AGO, YOU KNOW RICK JAMES WAS FROM BUFFALO, RIGHT? LIKE US? YES, THERE IS TALENT IN THAT WATER. IS RASHOD FROM BUFFALO?

NO?  THAT IS NOT A WEIRD QUESTION!  ARKANSAS? MAYA ANGELOU WAS FROM ARKANSAS!  RIGHT? JUST LIKE RASHOD. THEY HAVE TALENT IN THEIR WATER, TOO.

HONEY! I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT BILL CLINTON! HE WAS A GOOD PRESIDENT EVEN WHILE THEY TORE HIM DOWN BUT HE COULDN’T KEEP IT IN HIS PANTS.  HE MADE HILLARY SAD, AND THAT’S WHY SHE DOESN’T CARE HOW SHE LOOKS.

BUT THEN HE HAD A HEART ATTACK AND SHE LOOKED PRETTY HAPPY AFTERWARDS.

ANYWAY—HONEY, YOU HAVE GOT TO HEAR THIS……{loud rustling of paper} (She begins to read from Rashod D. Ollison’s latest Virginian Pilot article, in a hushed and honeyed, cultured tone, stopping repeatedly to marvel at the muscular grace of his prose, the impeccable quality of his word choices.)

Me: Mom, I will read it online. OK. OK. OK. I will let him know.  Mom, it is not like I have tea with the man weekly.  I will tell him.

MOM:  YOU KNOW THAT MOTOWN WAS FROM MY TIME, THAT’S MY MUSIC, TOO. WHO DO YOU THINK PLAYED IT FOR YOU?  THE SIXTIES WASN’T JUST ALL WOODSTOCK AND THE BEATLES!

I DID NOT ONLY LISTEN TO MANTOVANNI! THAT WAS LATER WHEN I GOT NERVOUS. THAT ELEVATOR MUSIC WILL CALM YOU DOWN.

OHHH, MARVIN GAYE WAS SUCH A BEAUTIFUL MAN!  (Sighing.) HE SHOULDN’T HAVE DIED! (More sighing.) HIS FATHER WAS A PREACHER, MAYBE A CRAZY PREACHER…BUT I SHOULDN’T SPEAK ILL OF THE DEAD…IS HE DEAD TOO?

Me: I think so…yes he robbed Marvin Gaye from the rest of us.  Mom, Are you ok? You had fits when I listened to Sexual Healing in high school.

Mom, I’m sorry, but…do you think you can bring the volume down just a little? I need to get up and get going, but are you really OK?

No, I am not being disrespectful.  You did have an irrational hatred of John and Yoko, too.  What!?  No, Yoko did NOT break up The Beatles.  I swear you believe whatever is on the news.  She wasn’t screaming—that was avant garde.

That was a really loud laugh, Mom.   Right in my ear.

MOM: I’m SORRY honey (trying to catch her breath from laughing).

Me:  What is that noise? No it’s not MY phone.  THAT sound…I swear your phone has been possessed since you first got it.  Maybe you should… (laughter)

MOM: What?  Oh, OK smartass. Maybe I will have Father Tim pray over my phone!  He needs to pray over YOU! Is Rashod a church-go-er? No!  I wasn’t telling you to ask him.   OK, I need to go re-read that article. YOU KNOW DIANA ROSS REALLY IS THE SYMBOL OF GLAMOUR—THE ICON…HE GOT THAT RIGHT!  WHAT IS HE GOING TO WRITE ABOUT NEXT?  WHEN IS HIS BOOK COMING OUT? OK! OK! I LOVE YOU HONEY! KISS BRAHMA FOR ME! DO YOUR BEST AND GOD WILL DO THE REST!

Me: I love you too, Mom.  Bye. {Closing my eyes.} I will. I will call you later, Mom. I will. Bye-Bye.  Bye. Mom, you have to stop talking after you say Bye.

About Rashod

Rashod1Rashod Ollison is an award-winning music and culture critic and native of Little Rock, Arkansas. He has been a staff critic at The Dallas Morning News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Journal News in Westchester, N.Y., The Baltimore Sun and The Virginian-Pilot.

He is a 2000 graduate of The University of Arkansas, where he earned a B.A. in creative writing and journalism with a minor in African-American studies. Ollison’s literary debut, Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl, is a memoir published in Jan. 2016 by Beacon Press.

For lectures and interviews, contact Rashod at minniechaka@aim.com

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Buy “Soul Serenade”–Tell them Phyllis sent you.

Enjoy Rashod’s Soul Serenade soundtrack on Spotify .

 

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My Aunt Norma in Puerto Rico circa 1955

My Aunt Norma in Puerto Rico circa 1955.

Her name was Norma Giraloma Congilosi.  She had jet black curly hair, olive skin, sloe green eyes. She was the epitome of culture, style, and grace.   She could also curse like a longshoreman and saw no contradiction in that.

Norma
Norma Giraloma Congilosi, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1955.

Almost entirely self-educated and no sufferer of fools, she started her post-secondary education at a community college only to leave, disappointed, because she was more well-read than her instructors.

She worked for United Airlines and traveled the world, often alone, which was considered unusual at that time.  She spoke French, Spanish, and Italian, including the Sicilian dialect her Sicilian/Ethiopian/North African father spoke at home.

She was a poet, a feminist, activist, and fighter for civil and equal rights way ahead of her time.

I was fascinated with Norma and her stories of beatniks, revolutionaries, poets and playwrights in San Francisco and NYC.  

Her contemporaries were white, black, brown, straight, lesbian, and gay.   She wrote poetry under the pseudonym Nya Gailord Carver. 

I loved how she simply took her freedom; she didn’t wait for it to be granted or sanctioned.

The nasty comments sometimes thrown her way were a small price to pay for autonomy.

Somewhat surprisingly, her mother, my grandmother Maria Grazia Amato Congilosi, a devout Catholic Sicilian paired in an arranged marriage with her father’s tinsmith apprentice, my grandfather Alfonso Congilosi, not only did not judge her iconoclastic daughter harshly, but seemed to vicariously enjoy her adventures.

She worried about her unconventional daughter, but she never tried to clip her wings–not even when she fell in love with a Jewish doctor and began classes to convert to Judaism after he proposed.

Norma  packed a whole lot of living into her first twenty-seven years.

She was stricken with MS at age twenty-six; she stayed independent as long as she could.

She weathered abandonment by her Jewish fiance, the loss of her spectacular San Francisco apartment, her job, and her independence,  with a feisty spirit and a salty tongue.

By age thirty she was confined to a “rest home” where she continued to curse, laugh, smoke a hookah, and shake her fist at God.

As a child, I both loved and feared visiting her there. She lived to age sixty-two; I had a hard time forgiving God for her thirty-two years in a hospital bed.

As happens in families, I was often mistakenly called by her name by my mother and grandmother.

  In our family, her name was synonymous with style, verve, and a sensibility on a first name basis with originality. 

I took it as a compliment. 

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Author’s Note: I wrote a poem, Sweet Revenant, to her memory,  and paired it with Kristin Fouquet’s gorgeous photos of Ingrid Lucia.

 

 

Riding With Miles, and Max, My First Car

Riding With Miles and Max, My First Car

MAX

My first car was a huge old boat of a vehicle, a wine-red circa 1975 Plymouth Gran Fury found for $1100 in the inner sanctum of Newport News, VA , via the Virginian-Pilot Classifieds, when I briefly lived in Hampton with my soon-to-be-first-husband in 1988.

I named my new old car Max; he looked much like the shiny model pictured here, the same color, if a bit worse for wear.

M ax
Me, age 26.

I was twenty-six, new to Virginia and a newly minted driver; I’d failed my first driver’s test in NY after a month of driving lessons with one Miles Frommer, of American Driving Academy, an elfin man with a dark 1950s-style suit, Malcolm X eye-glasses,  and a deadpan hybrid Brooklyn/ Chicago accent.  

Max

When I squinted at him behind my shades, I envisioned him as him as one of the lesser known, shorter  Blues Brothers.

First you get mad, then you get sad, then you get glad, he said by way of explaining the stages of submitting to driverhood.

While we waited at stop lights he told me about his wife, an accountant, and his addiction to bread. Apparently he kept his breadbox locked in order to thwart his wheat jones.  

To my mild surprise, he also felt comfortable enough, mid-way through our summer of lessons, to warn me against moving to Virginia to be with my submarine sailor boyfriend.  

Not a chivalrous lot, those Navy men, he intoned blandly, in between jokes about the true nature of submariners.  Thirty men go down to the sea; fifteen couples come back up.

Inappropriate humor aside,  Miles was an endlessly patient teacher, who barely blinked as I faced my near paralytic fear of commandeering a ton of steel and glass along the mysterious backstreets of Kingston, NY.

Though I lived in New Paltz, Kingston housed the nearest DMV office.

Miles remained as mild and comforting as an old monk,  no matter how many times he had to slam on the dual control brakes, but my DMV driving test proctor was a screamer.

Max

Five minutes into my test I lurched the test car into the crosswalk as he screamed at me, Now you’ve killed several pedestrians! This test is over! Pull over! Pull over!

The pedestrians were hypothetical; my road test failure was not.

I waited until I’d relocated to Virginia and had a few more lessons before tackling the driver’s test in Denbigh rather than Hampton on the advice of a new friend.

She was right.

After simply driving straight for a few miles I was asked to turn right, turn left and then simply park.

No parallel parking,  no crossing lanes of oncoming traffic, no chance of crosswalk carnage, no screaming or forehead veins bulging.

The first time I drove my new old car alone, to my temp job with a VA Beach architect, I thought I’d fly over the guardrail of the first curving overpass I had to drive at 55 MPH.

I white-knuckled it all the way there and back to Hampton.  I never stayed late at that office to avoid driving in the dark.

My fiance found that hilarious.

A month later,  when another young woman was kidnapped from the office parking lot after hours and murdered,  I thanked my fear-based intuition

Almost everywhere I went, especially car washes, and junk yards where we looked for esoteric car parts, elderly Black men approached me to admire old Max.

I repeatedly heard some form or other of: Young lady, what are you doing with my car? or Now, THAT’S my car.

I loved hearing the stories of their glory days; as they talked I could recall seeing fine young Black men cooly driving similar cars.

With one hand on the steering wheel,  they’d glide through the streets of Poughkeepsie back when I was a teenager shopping for 45s at the Black Power record shop,  deep at the far end of the Main Mall .

The tiny record shop wasn’t really called Black Power, but the two men who ran it favored the tight pants, leather jackets, perfect Afros, Black Power fist Afro-combs, and the revolutionary literature of the Black Panther movement.

When I went there with my older,  Black boyfriend the two of them ignored me as they exchanged dap with him.

Max
Me, age 13.

When I shopped there alone the taller man would flirt with me, and ask me to repeat everything I said; the smaller, older man usually folded his arms over his chest and gave me the side-eye.

I chalked it up to my age, my racial ambiguity, and my slight stutter; I kept coming back, always averting my gaze from the long sticks of incense on the counter labeled, “Pussy”.

Max

One of the undocumented features of my vehicle was the wine-red roof upholstery that had loosened over the years and hung down over the back seat like an exotic tent curtain that made me think of the inside of the magic bottle in “I Dream of Jeannie”.

Max

The swooping swathes of maroon velveteen gave the car a funky, slightly trippy vibe; I always felt like I should be wearing patchouli, fringed leather, and feather earrings while listening to Chaka Khan and Rufus amid the haze of Nag Champa incense.

 

I felt safe traveling in that outsize car; it really felt like a big old land yacht rolling down the freeway, music playing (8 track!), it’s big old prow parting the air before me.

My then-husband was an impatient man who didn’t possess the values of conservation and preservation; when something went wrong with Max after two years he relentlessly pressured me to trade it in towards a Saturn.

I should have seen it for the red flag it was; but I was still blindly loyal, and in love.  I missed quite a few of them.

The Saturn was new and shiny and candy-apple red, but not the same as old Max, not by a long shot.

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In Quotations: Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World

In Quotations: Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World 

 

Elizabeth

“Art replaces the light that is lost when the day fades, the moment passes, the evanescent extraordinary makes its quicksilver.

Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us, as we move in and out of each other’s lives, as we all must eventually leave this earth.

Great artists know the shadow, work always against the dying light, but always knowing that the day brings new light and that the ocean which washes away all traces on the sand leaves us a new canvas with each wave.”

from The Light of the World , the memoir Elizabeth Alexander wrote following the unexpected death of her husband, artist and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus.  

Elizabeth

I recently read Elizabeth Alexander’s luminously sad, yet ultimately joy-filled memoir, which she wrote to make sense of the sudden death of her robustly healthy husband right days after his 50th birthday party.

The book is a memoir but also a down to earth love story.

Theirs was that lucky rarity in our times of fifty-percent divorce rates and Tinder–a truly happy marriage, between two artists, a poet and an painter.

Alexander examines their life together, the nature of memory, the necessary functions of art, and how the living somehow go on after loved ones take their leave.

At 209 pages, The Light of the World , is a fast read, but one that will stay with you and beckon you to return to it’s pages once you finish.