Tending a remnant of home

How a glass shelf connected a woman to what mattered most.

Two months into losing both of my parents, I felt an urgency to leave. I needed to be in a place that still felt like theirs. I left my home in Compton, California, and traveled to their home country, Panama. It was my first trip there without either of them in the world to guide me, to make sure I arrived safe. My uncle, my father’s brother, now the eldest living sibling, explained that I was running to a familiar place to deal with an unfamiliar grief.      


For the first time, I visited the Museo Afroantillano de Panamá, or West Indian Museum of Panama. Established in 1980, almost 70 years after the completion of the Panama Canal, and supported by the community’s Sociedad de Amigos del Museo Afroantillano de Panamá, the museum formally honored the West Indian labor force that made the construction of the canal possible. Housed in a former single-room church, it held artifacts, books and display boards that corrected the historically underreported numbers of workers and deaths and grounded them with first-hand accounts. The rear of the museum was divided into three spaces — a bedroom, lavatory and dining area — set up to mirror the typical homes of the workers and their families, adorned with reminders that they were more than the labor that brought them there. I recognized the furnishings and decorative items, washboard and oil-wicked lanterns, the same type and color of the ones my father bought from yard sales or thrift stores — which my mother placed on the entertainment center — and near the table against the wall, a glass cabinet, a display case similar to a glass shelf my mother kept in the apartment where I was raised.  

MY MOTHER DID NOT EMIGRATE FOR WORK. “I came here for love,” she confided. The person she loved, my father, had said to her, “I am leaving and I want you to come with me.” So, together they left. Left her mother, his father, his wife, his eldest children, their eldest daughter. Yet, upon their arrival, when it seemed their relationship could not withstand the physical and emotional journey from Panama to California, labor replaced love. Like their grandparents before them, who were part of the workforce recognized by the Museo Afroantillano, labor influenced how and where they lived. In the 1980s, they settled in the city of Gardena, close to a car wash on Rosecrans Avenue that was a first stop for employment for Panamanian men, including my father. Nearby, my mother worked at a small factory, embroidering pieces, appliques and patches. She brought that skill home, and, when I got older, she taught me needlepoint, how to cross-stitch flowers, or create animals with plastic canvas boards and yarn. She later worked as a cashier for a large retail chain. She worked as a caretaker and nanny for another family, along with being a caretaker for her own. When she took a job as the manager of a 32-unit low-income apartment building on Long Beach Boulevard in Compton, we relocated there. 

The places we lived in the 1980s to 1990s — Compton, Long Beach, Watts — were like constellations along the Alameda Street and Long Beach Boulevard corridors, near industries that employed African American migrants and Central American immigrants. While I attended an elementary school named for the second African American to fly in space, my mother worked for minor wages in a major aerospace manufacturing company, which would ultimately lay off over 10,000 employees, including her. There, she was a canteen cafeteria employee, along with her brother and several neighbors. She worked long shifts, mostly on her feet, and was absent from home for whole parts of the day. Sometimes she would bring home large, soft-baked chocolate chip cookies covered in plastic wrap, the best cookies I ever had in my young life. Her labor fed us. 



OUTSIDE OF WORK, my mother carved space for herself at home. Work required her to make sandwiches, rice pilaf, baked chicken, spaghetti — typical “American” fare that required none of the seasonings and spices that crowded our kitchen cabinet and countertop. But at home, she prepared the dishes of her upbringing: black tea and bakes with sausage, patacones with eggs, pork and beans with sliced frankfurters, rice and peas or guandú, stew chicken, plátano and cucumber salad, bacalao with tomatoes and onion over white rice. At home, she also applied her handiwork to how she arranged our apartment. Homeplaces, bell hooks wrote, were “places where all that truly mattered in life took place — the warmth and comfort of shelter, the feeding of our bodies, the nurturing of our souls. … The folks who made this life possible, who were our primary guides and teachers, were Black women.” Even if the outside world was in disorder and disarray, our mothers ensured that our homes were not. Hooks, who also hailed from a poor, working-class background, explained that  “irrespective of our location, irrespective of class, race, and gender, we were all capable of inventing, transforming, making space.”

In our small apartment in Compton, my mother was creative with space. The apartment had one open receiving area, which we called the living room. It buffered both the kitchen and the square patch of linoleum that fit a four-seat glass dining table. In the living room, with TV only permitted for use on weekends, she created a space to host neighbors. She purchased a gray sofa and loveseat, with fabric and wooden panels etched in swirls, hers for a year of monthly payments. The sofa faced a stereo system and entertainment center, which doubled as a display case for glass and ceramic trunk-up elephants, vintage Coke and Cerveza Panamá bottles, and framed photos of distant relatives. With glass flourishes and mirrors in the coffee table, dining table, and shelf, anyone sitting at the table, sofa or loveseat could see each other. She could look over what she created and call it good. 

“Irrespective of our location, irrespective of class, race, and gender, we were all capable of inventing, transforming, making space.”

My mother dedicated most of her attention to two items of furniture. The first was the stereo. I rarely saw her sitting, but every Saturday began with her as DJ, seated on a dining room chair in front of the stereo, carefully sorting through her music collection to start the day. Her love and taste in music required a system that delivered pristine sound, worth the payments she made at the local Rent-A-Center. The stereo stood about three and a half feet high, several black rectangles, with small and large buttons and knobs, stacked between wooden shelves, all behind a smoky plexiglass door that sucked shut. Two black speakers, several inches taller than the stereo, carried music throughout the apartment and out the front gate. She kept rows and stacks of albums, cassettes and CDs of music that crossed countries, languages and time. A morning of cleaning started slow and strong (La Lupe’s “Qué Te Pedí”), peaked with vacuum dancing (Tabou Combo’s “Fiesta”), then eased to a finish (Anita Baker’s “Same Ole Love”). On Nochebuena, she welcomed neighbors into our home, with this same offering of music and food. My mother, a Saturday morning and Nochebuena DJ, saved lives.  

The other star of the apartment was the glass shelf. My mother’s glass shelf connected us to a diaspora of homes featuring some version of the glass cabinet display case: in Panama, a piece of furniture in the dining room installation of a Panama Canal worker’s home at the Museo Afroantillano; in Trinidad, in the family home of author Elizabeth Nunez, “storage for a mother’s treasured collections ... delicate china, dinner sets and tea sets she used only on special occasions”; in London, as a drinks cabinet, described by author Michael McMillan as a common feature in the homes of British West Indian Windrush immigrants, which “took pride of place in the front room with glass shelves neatly filled with rows of shining, gold-rimmed glasses that ...  provided a sense of achievement.” In Compton, my mother did not have a full glass cabinet with doors, but the glass shelf offered a solution to limited space. Positioned against the wall next to the dining table, the shelf held a collection of crystal glasses and serving ware that she rarely used and would cost my life to touch. I never observed my mother drinking wine, though she had the glassware to enjoy it. The glass shelf, and the items she placed on it, were both remnant and reminder of the home left in the home made, two feet in the present, one heart in the past, and beauty — beauty in the small treasures and moments not to be wasted. 


WHILE AT THE MUSEO Afroantillano in Panama, I met artist Giana De Dier. A multimedia collage artist, her work has been shown in exhibitions in the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Panamá (MAC) and around the world. We communed over the glass cabinet, a fixture in her home and childhood in Panama as it was in mine in the U.S., both of us descendants of the West Indian workers celebrated by the museum. Her work utilizes family histories and archives of West Indian migrants who worked on the canal. She rearranges these pieces into creations that are at once new and an elaboration of the original.  

My mother curated her glass shelf like an artist. She placed minor objects on glass and elevated them, brought them together with her hands and gave them new meaning. She arranged this display with what she had, or found, or could afford — family photos, wine glasses, decanter, ceramic elephants faced away from the front door, marching in good luck; translucent objects on the top shelf, lightweight objects on the lower one. She made careful choices, paid attention to detail, shape and orientation; decided, in the moment and over time, what to add, what to let go, and where to place it. She considered what looked or felt good, what old pieces to move forward, what to leave behind. If work took her time, home was where she reclaimed it. When not submitting to the demands of children or lover or job, she curated for herself parts of life that pleased only her. A small recreation gave re-creation; a glass shelf, an altar and blessing. 

ONCE, MY MATERNAL GRANDMOTHER came from Panama to visit us. She carried around a plastic bag she called her “grip.” Out of it, Menticol, Tiger Balm and an unending supply of ointments emerged. I never knew what or how much was in her grip. When I asked her questions about her life, her childhood, her relationship with the grandfather I never met and my mother barely remembered, she refused to answer, saying those things were in the past. I didn’t understand her refusal, but at some point, I stopped asking. Though I wanted the stories and the lessons they may have taught me, stories to pass on to my daughters, my grandmother was not transparent about her experiences. Whether or not the memories may have been too painful to share, they were hers. In a world that expects women to birth and carry and share everything, she decided to keep parts to herself. She, too, stored precious things. 


I DID NOT ASK and, therefore, did not know for sure why my mother maintained the glass display, with its array of rarely used items, and even that was a revelation. She possessed an internal world and reasoning, something kept for and to her, beyond the labor and motherhood that defined, and, perhaps, at times, limited her. She found and pulled some inspiration from her world, perhaps not realizing that I was a witness. I was her audience, observing her creativity and appreciating it (now) as art that inspires my own. Though she came to California for love, she stayed for herself. In De Dier’s collage sketch  Mother and Child, a child sits secured on the mother’s back, while the mother looks forward. 

“To be simply this mother and that the best thing she was was this lovely child or these children … no, you are your best thing. You are.” 

In my current home, just a few miles away from the apartment I grew up in, there is no glass cabinet or shelf with crystal or unused items. I decided everything would have a use. There is a shelf for books and a shelf for photos and mementos. My children can touch them. They have even taken a framed photo from the shelf and put it in their room. Yet, what have I judged, and misjudged, about the glass cabinet, my mother’s glass shelf? What have I sacrificed in my decision to not follow my mother’s way of living and valuing literal things? What do I have, secure and put away, that is mine yet on display for my children and others to understand that they cannot have every part of me? Perhaps I missed an important lesson, that I must now take up for myself and pass down to my daughters. There is a quote from Toni Morrison that has become mantra and affirmation for many, for which even I own a shirt with it printed: “You are your best thing.” Morrison, a mother, explained the idea, drawn from her novel Beloved, in an interview: “To be simply this mother and that the best thing she was was this lovely child or these children … no, you are your best thing. You are.” Perhaps my mother’s glass shelf, in the apartment that she kept through the fruit of her own labor, with items that she bought and gave value, reminded her that she was the most valuable thing in the room, her own
best thing.   

Jenise Miller is an Afro-Panamanian poet, writer and urban planner from Compton, California, whose work explores art, archives, mapping and memory. 

Giana De Dier investigates the experiences of Afro-Caribbean migrants in the segregated canal zone and in Panama at the beginning of the 20th century. Her works show the sociability of the black Caribbean woman in Panama and possible narratives, difficulties and stories of resilience.

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