Authors: Sidney Poitier
Letters to My
For my family,
and my family of friends
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
23, 2005. A
A rude blast of cold greeted me the moment I stepped outside of the baggage-claim area of the Delta Airlines terminal at Atlanta’s notoriously labyrinthine airport. It was two days before Christmas, and I’d just flown from a sunny, mild Los Angeles morning into the darkening Georgia afternoon—where the plane landed, and where overcast skies further contributed to the somber mood that winter invariably conjures in me. While I was en route to the hospital in the old city of Atlanta to meet my great-granddaughter—just two days old—the weather outdoors struck me as woefully uncooperative in matching my inner feelings of joyful expectation.
At almost the age of seventy-nine, a year and a few months away from reaching the milestone of eighty years old, I had already welcomed two generations of offspring into the world—my daughters Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, and Gina (the four born to me and my ex-wife, Juanita) and my daughters Anika and Sydney (the two born to me and my wife, Joanna), followed then by Beverly’s two, my late granddaughter Kamaria and then Aisha, and by Gina’s three children, my granddaughter Guylaine, my grandson Etienne, and my granddaughter Gabrielle.
Now, incredibly, the first of the next generation had made her debut on December 22, 2005. Born to Aisha and her husband, Darryl, Ayele had shown the good sense to arrive close to her due date—demonstrating upon her entrance into life a grace and charm in keeping with the season of celebration.
Not for anything under the sun would I have missed the opportunity to be on hand in person at her life’s commencement, to introduce myself—her great-grandfather on her maternal side.
That being said, I wasn’t prepared for the impact of the sight that awaited me when I finally stood in the middle of the hospital room, surrounded by relatives, representing multiple generations, who had gathered to welcome Ayele into both the family and the world. As her doting father, Darryl, hovered nearby, there she was, center stage, cradled in her mother’s arms, snoozing contentedly with a look of such peace and wisdom, I was convinced she knew that time was absolutely working in her favor. With her mother, Aisha, holding her close and beaming down at her, just above the two of them, bathed in the same maternal glow, were the radiant faces of Ayele’s grandmother Beverly and great-grandmother Juanita. Together the four generations presented a living portrait that was instantly arresting.
Vestiges of Native American ancestry could be seen not only in my ex-wife’s features—the defined cheekbones, straight hair, reddish skin tone—but also in the younger three, though to lesser degrees. Some of the physical traits from my side of the DNA branch were evident as well, ironically not pronounced as much in my daughter and granddaughter as they were in the newborn—who appeared with her open yet serious countenance, even in sleep, to be as close to a female version of myself at her age as there has ever been. Or so I imagined the case to be, given that I have never been privy to what I looked like as an infant or as a young child; in fact, I was sixteen years old when the
first photograph was ever taken of me. Nonetheless, judging by the chorus of declarations in the room, I wasn’t alone in believing there to be a strong likeness between the two of us.
Of course, aside from discernible inherited traits, each of the four women shone with her own remarkable essence: Juanita with her quiet determination; my daughter Beverly, family-oriented, vibrant and alive, an embracer of life and others; my granddaughter Aisha, knowing and certain, a modern young woman; and even Ayele, already a trailblazer, already making her mark in our lives.
It was then, in that unforgettable moment, while looking on fondly at the four generations of women arrayed in front of me, that the idea for this book as a series of letters to Ayele first flitted into my thoughts.
As has happened a time or two in my wanderings, the idea that came to me unbidden in this fashion was about to require a shifting of gears. Over the past couple of years, I had been seriously at work on a book of essays that were to go under the collective heading “Unanswered Questions, Unfinished Lives.” The scope of those questions encompassed everything from the most universally pondered issues of existence to the personal mysteries of my own travels—starting with the puzzles of life that I’d been attempting to unravel since early childhood.
In every stage of my growth—over the first ten and a half years, when I lived on tiny Cat Island in the Bahamas, separate and apart from the rest of the world, through my youth in Nassau and then Miami, all along the road to adulthood that began when I arrived in Harlem at the age of sixteen, and over the next several decades, in which both opportunities and obstacles endowed me with a sense of the true measure of life—profound and nagging questions have continued to arise in me.
The notion that my time here is not unlimited—a reality that age and an earlier health scare helped to underscore—had certainly added urgency to the realization that I had many more unfinished, unanswered questions to address and much to do before resting. The other side of the philosophical coin had come from my observation that those who stop their questioning—at seventy-five, sixty, even at thirty—cut short their explorations and end up with permanently unfinished lives. To lose interest in life—to retreat from being totally alive and totally engaged in the worlds within and outside of ourselves—is a tragic plight in my eyes, yet one easily remedied whenever we muster the willingness to bear up to our thorniest questions.
Such had been the focus of my writing in the period leading up to Ayele’s arrival. Now, suddenly, as I stood in the middle of the hospital room, positioned at the far end of my history in this lifetime, gazing adoringly at my great-granddaughter at the beginning of hers, a new focus emerged.
It began with an awareness that I was more cognizant than anyone else of the four generations of women present there that day, which allowed me, as I stood looking at Ayele in her mama’s arms, to focus even more closely on the child—on the stark differences between us and on our unique kinship. She and I were connected by virtue of the contrast, in that I was not far from eighty and she was two days old. Beyond the realization that she had just arrived and that I was moving toward the end of a journey, my thoughts unfolded next to consider all of the history that had transpired between my own arrival and hers.
In the weeks that followed my first meeting Ayele, the more I reflected on the intersection of our paths, the more I thought that it would be fitting for me to adapt the focus of the writing that I had
been doing. After all, if she were to begin her search for roots later on, at age sixteen, twenty-two, thirty, or thirty-five, she would have not much more than a sketch of me from which to draw. Even if she read the previous books that I’ve written, hers would be only a partial view. And it occurred to me that I needed to go beyond the sketch to tell her more about the questions, answers, and mysteries that have concerned me at various important junctures; the partial view would not do for usage in her significant passages of life.
The partial view is the same sketch that I have of my grandparents. On my mother’s side, I was able to catch a glimpse, while my father’s mother and father were gone by the time that I—the youngest child of nine kids raised by my parents, Evelyn and Reggie—was old enough to form memories. The little bit that I was able to glean about those elders has only made me realize how limited the sketch of them has been.
And I wanted more for Ayele. I wanted her to know me in my own words, from stories not passed down but told from my lips, stories from my mind and imagination, from my philosophies and experiences—my life, as told to her, intended expressly for her and those of her generation wanting to bridge similar gaps of time and contrasting connections in their lineages. I wanted her to be able to lean on certain aspects of history that buoyed me, and that came before me, even before my elders—going back before the time of Jesus and Moses, before the time of written history, back tens of thousands of years to our earliest roots as
Homo sapien sapiens,
as our subspecies of our human origins is known scientifically.
Why should she not have that? If our human family, which began nearly one hundred thousand years ago, is who we are today—with the same brain size and the same capacities to ask the fundamental questions that also define our species—why should Ayele not be
introduced to our ancient roots early on? As she grows, there will also be more history, refined by science, that she will come upon, and I wanted to be able to expand her understanding by passing on what the knowledge was in my time.
All of that thinking provided the backdrop to the writing of the letters contained in this book, as did the decision to share the contents with those of you who are searchers like me—regardless of the generation into which you have been born.
The process of writing these letters to Ayele has been both sobering and enlightening. It has allowed me to revisit some old haunts and observe at a safe distance how perilously close to the flames I have danced. It has served as a reminder that even if I live to be a hundred, the time left to be shared between Ayele and me will be short at best. Nonetheless, I am encouraged that on these pages, between the covers of this book, she will be able to visit with me, learn who I really was, who I really am, and what life on this earth has been from my vantage point.
If perhaps you have read or heard some of the stories that I’ve told elsewhere yet repeat in new renderings ahead, I hope you’ll indulge me in my choice to tell a handful of them again. The beauty of memory is how it allows us to look back at the events of our lives through the lens of different contexts and to see meanings overlooked before—revealing even more riches than we first suspected.
My intention has not been to send a message or to instruct my great-granddaughter, but rather to let her draw her own conclusions by seeing me at important, vulnerable turning points—in moments of fear, doubt, uncertainty, desperation, and loss of confidence, at times when the odds against survival rose higher and higher, nudging me dangerously close to the edge in more instances that I care to count. It has been with pleasure that I have shared with her
my moments of victory and have described the kind of joy I feel when I look at myself through the eyes of my mother and see Ayele reflected there. It has been humbling and energizing to recount life lessons that had to be relearned more than a few times, to share intimate secrets, to shoot the breeze, to consider the juxtaposition of our respective “outdoorings” and expeditions, and to lend support to her search for answers that will undoubtedly lead to her own self-realizations.
One final thought has infused this undertaking as it pertains to the heightened challenges facing our civilization in the times in which we’re living. My sense is genuinely a hopeful one that solutions will be drawn by those of Ayele’s generation, by those who rush forward and greet the discoveries of science while never forgetting the lessons of our primordial past, back when human creatures were called something else—those predecessors from whom we evolved. So many amazing earlier life-forms and creatures came to flourish here, and then fell into extinction, unable to make the cut. They are early cousins, untold numbers of prehistoric creatures who existed once, not in a span of so many years, tens or hundreds—but over millions of years. These living things took shape and inhabited the same fragile earth that we do now, and they had their time, but somehow they couldn’t effectuate their survival in perpetuity.
Against that backdrop, we are all the more miraculous for being alive as human beings today and for continuing to ask the big questions—who, what, and where we are, why we’re here, how we got here, and how our search goes on. Though my answers are not complete, what I have observed through my untrained but questioning sensibilities is included ahead. These observations are presented with infinite love to my great-granddaughter Ayele, and to you.