Remember the discussion of The Master Marrative a few weeks ago? Celina Ottaway mentioned a story she stumbled into while parked in a braid shop. Her editor encouraged her to pursue it, and she wound up with the following three-part series. There are lessons in her journey. I’ll post one a day, so we don’t get overwhelmed.
Here’s Celina with some background: I often use these stories as examples of how sourcing can work. I’ve never really talked about them in terms of writing. I found the idea because I was sitting in a braid shop for a little one-paragraph item in our “Best of” section. The owner of the shop was busy, so I was waiting and listening to the women talk. They were all telling stories of the day they got out of their mother’s braids.
My editor thought the braids stories would make a unique Mother’s Day package, so we went in with that in mind. Once my editor and I decided what we were going to go for with the stories (we wanted three, like braids I guess), I had to work fast because I only had a few weeks before Mother’s Day and features worked a full week ahead. I knew that no matter what else I did, I would need a mother and daughter who were negotiating getting out of braids. I was able to tap a source in the Boy’s and Girl’s club who found me a mother and daughter who were on the cusp of this transition. Within 24 hours I had my first story. I went back to the shop owner to fish around for the second story and she told me an incredible tale of losing track of her daughter in a civil war. That became story number two. After all my conversations ( I did many interviews with other women who are not in the stories just to understand the subject and know what I should be asking) I knew that I wanted someone who could give me some history, take me back a few generations because the issues around hair had changed. I asked several sources for an older woman and found the subject for the third story that way.
The third story is the most idea driven and the least successful, I think. The other two stories basically wrote themselves, but the third one I really struggled with and I think it shows. I didn’t really have a narrative line or anything to pull the story along, most of it is just a flash back. In retrospect, I might have structured this story differently. At the time, I think I was trying to make it match the other two stories.
I had to do a lot of serious negotiating with my editors and the copy desk because we didn’t use any quotes in these stories. There are a lot of internal thoughts. In the third story, I used Miss Seel’s voice in italics to take use back into the flash backs. Also, we had a lot of discussions about whether I had to pull out of the storylines and talk about this stage of life, or what it meant to mothers and daughters in a general sense. I opted against that because every time I tried, it just clanged. Instead, I tried to weave the larger picture stuff into the storyline.
Anyway, these stories were an experiment. I learned a lot from writing them, and I gained access to a lot of future stories that I never would have known about if I hadn’t done these.
Here’s the first:
The Times Union (Albany, NY)
Six weeks. A couple months at most. Salina Holt sighed and ran her hands through her daughter’s hair.
She didn’t have much longer. Salina could see the signs.
Her daughter Shamyiah had plopped herself down on the milk crate in Salina’s bedroom just like old times. But it wasn’t always so easy these days.
Just the other week, Salina had put the old metal crate at the foot of her bed and called to her daughter, ”Come here, Shamyiah, let me comb your hair.”
Shamyiah, all skinny legs and arms that seemed to grow taller by the minute, sat herself down at the dining-room table.
”Do it in here, Mommy,” she’d said.
They’d already had a fight that morning about getting Shamyiah’s hair up in braids at all. Shamyiah was going swimming and wanted her hair in a ponytail. Salina wasn’t having any of that. Put it in a ponytail and it would coming flying out in the water, pieces sticking this way and that. Looking a mess. It’s going in a braid, she said. And she’d won. For the moment.
That night, Salina had given in a little and braided Shamyiah’s hair at the kitchen table. She was happy just to get her in braids at all.
Six weeks. A couple months at most.
Every Sunday night since her daughter was a year old, Salina had sat with the child between her knees and braided her hair. She’d run her hands over her daughter’s scalp, scooping the green African Royale grease onto her finger and rubbing it in to make the hair soft. Then she’d grab the worn wooden brush that fit perfectly in her palm and smooth out the top, getting ready for the week’s braids.
These were the times when she could talk to Shamyiah. No matter how busy life got she knew she had an hour every Sunday night. Pressing Shamyiah’s neck against her knee and telling her to be still, she would tell her stories about life in the South. Stories about the small town in Georgia and the big family house with the pecan and magnolia trees in the yard. She wanted her daughter to know who she was and where she came from.
Shamyiah was 11 now. And on this Sunday, she had come into the bedroom with no fuss. But she wasn’t fooling Salina Holt. A mother knows when she is losing her baby.
Shamyiah would be in the seventh grade next year. Walking around in her mother’s cornrows was for little girls. Shamyiah was starting to balk at the simple rows Salina would weave, starting from the edge of her hair line and leading into the center. Her daughter was talking about a bob cut. Something that could be done in a shop where she could sit around with the older women and listen to the local gossip, be part of the laughs and sisterhood of a beauty parlor. Something that would look like the older girls at school who had already busted out of their braids and straightened their hair.
Not yet, Salina kept telling herself. Not yet.
It seems like just when you really want to hold your daughter between your knees with your hands wrapped around her head, up close where you can talk some sense into her, just at those times it seems that’s when she’ll break away.
Take the subject of boys. Most days, Salina Holt didn’t even want to go there. Why place ideas in a little girl’s head? But what’s a little girl anymore? She’d heard how they had day-care centers at some of the local high schools to take care of the teen mothers’ children. That just wasn’t right in her mind. Makes it easier for them, she figured, sends the wrong message.
She had plans for Shamyiah. Her daughter was a strong student. She figured they would stay in Albany until Shamyiah finished high school and then head down South. Salina Holt was already thinking about which black college would be best for her daughter.
She’d like to keep Shamyiah in her braids for several more years if she could. That way, when it came time to talk about boys, and Salina knew eventually there would be a time when she had to, they would have their Sunday night routine. But she knew that by then Shamyiah would be down at the beauty shop or doing her own hair, not sitting between Salina’s knees listening to her mother tell her how the world worked.
So Salina told her what she could on these Sunday nights. She talked about AIDS and about school work and asked her about her friends.
This recent Sunday night, she questioned Shamyiah about a field trip she was taking with the Boys and Girls Club of Albany. The club had sent home a permission slip for a dance class at another site, but the slip hadn’t said where they were going. Salina didn’t like that. No one was taking her daughter just anywhere without her knowing.
It was only two weeks ago that she had let Shamyiah walk to the bus stop alone for the first time. Of course, she was a nervous wreck and had to call the school as soon as she got to work. Yes, Mrs. Holt, they had said. She’s here.
Salina Holt’s girlfriends teased her and told her that she had to let go and let Shamyiah grow up. Even her own mother had taken Shamyiah to get a perm during Shamyiah’s annual visit down South. Salina had been furious.
On Easter she’d let her daughter wear her hair down in the back with just the front braided. Maybe now that Mother’s Day was around the corner she would let her try something else for the weekend. But never for school. She at least had the rest of the school year, short as it was with June creeping up.
She was going to take Shamyiah to get her hair braided with extensions before she sent her South to Grandma’s for the summer. Maybe that would keep Grandma from running the girl down to Miss Ann’s beauty parlor for a perm. But it didn’t really matter. Salina knew that when Shamyiah came back from summer vacation, her braiding days would be over.
She had six weeks. A couple months at most.