Althea Christina Hughes


My mama never uttered a negative word about Daddy’s family until I turned eighteen. Overnight, they became Those Damn Wentworths. “You a Wentworth too. I wasn’t going to badmouth your blood. But you grown now,” she said.

So, when Damn Wentworth Senior, aka Grandpa, arrived unannounced three weeks after my birthday, mama was hot. “It’s a Saturday! I’m watching my stories. What do you want? (She had recorded As the World Turns on the VCR.)

Bent over catching his breath, Grandpa said, “He’s back! DJ is back!” A short, stocky man who favored overalls, he had sweat through his clothes. He wiped his face with his ever-present handkerchief while I handed him a glass of sweet tea. His only son, Duncan Wentworth Jr., my father, had reappeared after a four-year absence. Talking about how Daddy was in bad shape and needed his wife and daughter. I didn’t think I’d heard him correctly.

“That’s great! Now I know where to send them divorce papers,” Mama said. “That fool don’t need nothin’ but therapy, AA, Holy Water, and Jesus.” She looked relieved. “Thanks for the 411. You can go now.” She plopped back down on the couch. I noticed she didn’t press play on the VCR.

“This isn’t sweet,” Grandpa said as he handed a now empty glass back to me. “How you gon’ call yourself a Georgia girl and you can’t make sweet tea? Need to spend more time with your grandmama. And what’s that smell?” He managed to grunt all that out between dry heaves.

I held the hand of the man with the backward priorities, assisting him to sit down at the yellow Formica kitchen table. “Mama had to work today. I made pork chops for dinner. I burned them.” I’d opened all the windows to get rid of the burnt flesh scent. Fortunately, an unusually warm February breeze flowed through the house.

“Pork chops.” He nodded with approval. “Make them for your daddy when he comes back here. He likes ‘em slathered in—”

Mama jumped off the couch. “He ain’t coming back in this house. Fool bet’ not step one foot on my property!”

“He’s your husband. Can’t tell a man he can’t come back to his own house.”

“This my house. My name is on the deed. If I die tomorrow, this house and everything in it belongs to my child. Not him.” She raced over and pointed at Grandpa. “You are not welcomed here. Get out.” She walked into the bedroom and slammed the door.

My dad was alive. I didn’t know what to feel about this truth bomb. I knew I didn’t want grandpa to leave yet. Some of my best moments were with Daddy’s family. I ate my first Krispy Kreme doughnut with them. My grandma made the best blackberry cobbler. Me and Grandpa watched the Atlanta Braves play baseball on the only television in the house. They let me stay up late to watch reruns of The Three Stooges and The Twilight Zone. (Mama wouldn’t let me watch either show. To her, the Stooges fell into the television category of “Stupid Shit”: “Grown ass men hittin’ each other over the head.” The Twilight Zone” was “Weird White People Shit”: “We already live in the Twilight Zone. We black. Turn that mess off.”)

Mama had all kinds of reasons to dislike her in-laws. During my parents’ wreck-of-a-marriage, Daddy’s family instructed her to spritz on perfume before he returned home from work (when he worked). Smile more. Flirt more. Wear tighter dresses. Be nicer and his alcoholism will *poof* disappear. Said as kind suggestions at first, at least when I was in the room. When my mom wasn’t around, judgment flew fast and loose like John Smoltz’s balls across home plate.

After my dad failed to return home after thirty straight days, Mama and I moved from College Park to South Atlanta. What used to be a walk around the block to the Wentworth side of the family became an eighteen-minute drive. Not far, but far enough for mama. I was fourteen.

Mama and my grandparents negotiated a deal: once a month I’d spend the weekend with them. Mama’s negotiation strategy was simple: Y’all-best-not-say-squat-to-me-about-Duncan, Jr.-and-don’t-you-blame-me-for-his-trifling-ways-no-more-or-you-won’t-see-this-child-ever-again-do-you-hear-me? Am-I-making-myself-clear? Good. Then-y’all-come-pick-her-up.

Grandpa directed his plea to me. “Come see your Daddy.”

I said, “no” for this reason: Last week, I’d filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form for Georgia Institute of Technology. Under the “Parents” section, some of the questions were:

  • How many people are in your household?
  • Highest level of education completed by Parent 2.
  • As of today, what is the marital status of your parents?
  • Month and day your parents were married, remarried, divorced, or widowed.
  • At any time in 1988 or 1989, did you, your parents, or anyone in your parents’ household receive benefits from any of the federal programs listed below?

The seemingly never-ending list of more questions about my parents broke me. I had cried sitting in that same chair.

Grandpa slammed his hand on the table when he heard my answer. “Doggit, now! I’m not leaving without you! He needs y’all!”

I said, “Did he ask for us? Did he say, ‘I want to see Renee and Beverly?’”

“He didn’t ask about you and your mama. He showed up without telling us anything. We were so happy to see him. I thought y’all should know.

“You could have called first.”

“I thought—”

“—you could tell me what to do. You can’t do that anymore. I’m eighteen.”

“And that makes you what? Queen of the World now? Just because you headed to Georgia Tech don’t mean you know nothin’ about life.” He blew his nose into his handkerchief. He shook his head. “Talkin’ to me like that . . . disrespectful. Got yo’ mama’s mouth.”

“I’m not ready to see my dad, okay? Can we talk about this again soon? On the phone . . . I can meet you somewhere . . .” My words drifted away as I watched my grandpa’s shoulders sink. The weight of grief leaned him sideways. If he’d cried like a baby, I would have thought his tears were a performance. Instead, he shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut. The tears fell one by one, rather than in a stream. I placed my hands over his. I’d never seen him cry. “I’m sorry. I can’t today.”

The bedroom door opened. Mama walked out, her eyes as pink as grandpa’s. “She done said ‘no’ twice now. It’s time for you to go, Duncan.”

Me and grandpa stood up together. “I’ll walk you out.” While he composed himself, I glanced at my mother. Looking smaller than she did a few minutes ago, she collapsed down onto the chair I’d been sitting in.

Grandpa was right. I did have mama’s mouth. I planned to use my tongue to whip the snot out of Parent 2. “How you just up and leave your family? How do you justify that in your mind?” But not today. Today I had to take care of my mama.