Sunday, February 18, 2007

good luck

near the end of my last workday, my co-worker came to me to let me know that legendary actress and author ruby dee was going to make a book-signing appearance at the department store five blocks away!!! i wrapped up my work within a half-hour, bundled up against the cold, and hustled myself through the gallery and down market street to get there. i hadn't been to the wanamaker building since i was a little kid. it is huge, and i wandered through the men's wear area looking for event signs, until i saw the crowd. i followed the sound of her voice, husky and poised (think maya angelou with a different cadence) to the sight of her face. she looked just like her pictures - smart soulful eyes, ample cheeks, acutely present bearing... it was her!

i read an article about her and her husband, ossie davis, one summer in an old folks magazine my grandma had lying around the house. my grandma is big on magazines, and i am big on reading, especially anything about black folks, even back when i was ten years old. the spread talked about their lives together in the past, their entertainment careers, their long marriage, and their active elder years. active, indeed! i first saw them on screen as mothersister and da mayor in spike lee's do the right thing, which is one of my favorite movies, from tina dancing with boxing gloves to mookie walking down his looted street. i loved mothersister instantly. in the spike movies that i followed with cult devotion, i saw other reincarnations of ossie and ruby, showing us different facets of our parents and grandparents. as i learned more about the civil rights movement, i found out ossie and ruby were there, too. there is a great picture of them standing in the midst of the movement with their three children and picket signs. they knew malcolm x, i discovered! they knew everybody! they were everywhere! their names were spoken together, always together, in one breath: ossiedavisandrubydee. even after her husband's passing, for which i shed my own private tears, we more often think of both, not one or the other, much like coretta or myrlie or sister betty.

and there she was, not ten feet away from me. a woman who had several things i wanted - a love, a family, a writing career, and a story of achievement and service. the book she was reading excerpts from is her husband's. it's a collection of some of his writings, throughout which you can find some editorial commentary from ruby dee. i headed to the back of the long line, purchased my copy of life lit by some large vision: selected speeches and writings, and waited to greet her face-to-face. the sound wasn't so great, so from waaaay back in the line, i couldn't hear her. i figured, she ain't doing nothing but reading excerpts from the book anyway so i might as well go on and read it while i'm in line. which i did. first i read his speech for the schomburg center, which my friends took me to visit for my birthday a year ago today. then i read the eulogy for betty shabazz, which brought me to tears right there in the line. each section made me want to read another, and i panicked.

i wanted to discuss the book with this man's widow and thank her for giving this gift to us. i hadn't known about ossie davis' writing talent, or his humor. i hadn't seen him give any speeches. but here in this book, i held those gifts of his to the world. his wife and his daughter made it happen for me, and for the others in the line and anywhere else who would buy the book. even in his life's epilogue, their teamwork survives. even now, they are as one, as surely as somebody must have said on their wedding day decades ago. now that is a testimony to real good loving. not just between man and wife, but between leaders and their people. i was very moved by these thoughts. but i knew there was no way i'd have the time, let alone the words present in my mouth, to tell ruby dee all that when i got up to the front of the line. what would i say? how would i greet this hero?

everyone in the line had green post-it notes on which to write the correct spelling of the name we wanted her to autograph the book with. i wrote my name and the name of my beloved. i wanted a veteran to give the both of us whatever wisdom she felt best. when she saw the post-it, she asked, "are these brother and sister?" i smiled proudly and said, "no ma'am, that is my boyfriend, and i love him very much." then i added, "we want to be like you guys." she looked at me (beautifully) and said, "good luck." that what we needed, according to her. and in fact, despite what i told her about my willingness to work hard, she pointedly repeated that i'd need good luck. and that's what's in my book - "good luck - ruby dee - 2-26-07." i reached out for her hand after she signed my our book, and she let me squeeze her hand lightly. i was too shy to go up for a real hug or hog more time posing for a photo op. the lil' squeeze was enough. with some good luck, when my children study about her in books and when they pick up this book, i'll be able to tell them, i squeezed that giant's hand. we stand on the shoulders of her and her husband.