somebody else's mama
  • Milkweed Editions (1995)
  • Harvest Books (1995)
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The lives of Paula and Al Johnson and their twin sons in a small, almost exclusively African-American town in northern Missouri appear stable enough.  Paul and Al have grown up in affluence: Al as the son of the town’s most successful citizen, its mayor and newspaper owner; Paula as the pampered daughter of an entrepreneurial mother in St. Louis, part of a set of well-to-do black families whose children go to the best schools, attend dancing classes together, and socialize with one another.  When we meet them, Al is reluctantly running for mayor, the twins are feuding, and Paula is hanging on.

Then Paula’s cantankerous mother-in-law, Miss Xenobia Kezee, sick and old, arrives from St. Paul, where she has lived since the death of her beloved second husband.  Miss Kezee is independent.  She is also blunt, tough, and opinionated.  She wants to go home, away from the memories of her first husband, Al’s father, and she openly resents Paula’s well-intended caregiving.

As Paula struggles to move from antagonism to common ground with Miss Kezee, she faces the substantial issue in her life: her own mother’s lonely death, which still haunts her; and her husband’s minimal engagement with the emotional life of his family.

The Johnsons prove an irresistible draw. They remind us of that peculiar combination of everything important and nothing in particular that constitutes family life, and through their story, a relatively rare depiction of upper-middle class black family life, conjure up that sense of the one place that, though we may leave it, profoundly shapes who we become.