From death poet to repository
In my family, I secretly have referred to myself as the death poet. When our loved ones pass on, it is very often me who is called upon to immortalize them through rhyme, through rhythm, and prose. It began when I was in my 26th year; this death poetry. I was asked to write a poem about the our dear matriarch, my great grandmother, Mama Lettie. The request was made in a simple question. It came from my grandmother, Mama Lettie's daughter. "LeTonia, would you write something for Mama?" I responded yes. The request was simple, but to me it held such responsibility. To me, I was being asked to bring her to life in front of all of us; just one more time for one last moment. I was being asked to spin words to create images of her love, her kindness, her convictions, her ideals, her morals, her beauty, and her lessons. She was our matriarch and had touched all of us in only the way a matriarch could. At the time of her death, there were 5 generations following her. I, member of the 4th. She a life ending with 98 years, mine a life beginning with 26 years. I was being asked to do something more than "write something for Mama". I was being asked to remember for all of us. I was also being asked to cast hope for a future of what was to come, now that she had gone.
In that moment, I realized that my family had been telling me stories my whole life. Some of them were deep secrets. Some were of adventures; and scandal. Some were of beauty and sorrow. Some were of dreams. At 26, upon the loss of one of the greatest forces in my life, I came to understand my role within my family. Following my great grandmother's transition, I was asked to write a piece for my mother's 1st cousin. Next, it was for my own 1st cousin, then a great Aunt. I began to understand myself as the death poet.
A writing workshop instructor once told me that I should not refer to myself as a death poet. She told me that instead, I should view myself as a repository. A place where my family could feel safe enough to leave pieces of his(her)stories. Most recently, I spoke at the funeral of one of our youngest members of our family in recent past. A vibrant 20 year old young woman, Sophia, who was struck down by men's violence. On that day, I readily understood my purpose in my family and in the world. Not only was I to bring her back to us for a moment, but again, I was there to cast hope for a future of what was to come without her and of great significance, to send a message that violence against women must end.
I wrote and spoke of my great grandmother on the day we said good-bye, as a "keeper of secrets". After 12 years, I now realize that our roles were one in the same. And I fully understand that our stories are important. They are the pieces of us that are left behind once we move into other realms. And just as the stories are important to tell, the ears that hear and the heart that stores what we hear are also important. What began as an uncomfortable role in my family is now my role in the society at large. Women tell me their stories and it is my job to bring them forward in as many ways as possible. And even more importantly, it is also my role to share my own.
I am a repository; a keeper of secrets. I am a collector of glimpses of truth as told by the teller and experienced by me as the listener and the witness.