If You Knew

Last night I was looking for new music to download onto my iPod from iTunes. Have you ever tried this? Heavens! It’s addictive! Just bloody addictive, I swear!  Actually, I’ve even started downloading TV shows (Grey’s Anatomy! How could I not?!) and films, but that’s an obssession to share another time. Anyway, as I was doing my browsing for tunes, I came across some old Nina Simone gems, like I Put A Spell on You, Ne Me Quitte Pas, and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and it reminded me of the time I met her.

I was 18 and had just arrived at my new school in Switzerland and was going through the first week of orientation. My mother and sister had travelled with me to help me settle in and they stayed in a nearby hotel where, we discovered later, Nina Simone was staying, as well.

I remember sitting and having lunch with my new friends and a woman approached me and said Ms. Simone would like to see me. As she described who Ms. Simone was and I sized her up, I just had an odd feeling and politely told her I was sorry but had no idea who she or Ms. Simone were and that I couldn’t go with her. Looking rather incredulous, the woman turned on her heels and marched off. Meanwhile, my friends and I looked at each other, puzzled, and I shrugged my shoulders, thinking, “whatever”.

Later that evening, when I met up with my mom at the hotel for dinner, as we had been doing each night, she and my sister started telling me about how they met Nina Simone and that she had invited us to her room for drinks. As they spoke, I began to remember Nina Simone as “one of those singers that mom likes listening to”. As it happens, they were at breakfast that morning and the waitress had said that Ms. Simone had invited them to her table. My mother was nonplussed at first and then it registered that it was THE Nina Simone. Apparently, my mom was a bit apprehensive at first, but did go. She said that when they got to her table, Ms. Simone let out a warm and boisterous, “Hello! My people!” accompanied by a huge hug. (I could just see my mom, now.) It is probably worth mentioning that there were no other blacks in the restaurant or hotel, so this is likely why they got that sort of reception. It’s one of those things where if you’re in a foreign country where you don’t see any other black people and then you suddenly see some, then there is this odd, knowing acknowledgement of each other when your eyes meet. You don’t know each other, but then when your eyes meet and it’s like, “Hey there! It’s nice to see you!” Often it’s not spoken. There is a nod and a smile and maybe a “hello”. It’s funny when I sit here and reflect on it, but it does really happen. So, this espisode was, no doubt, a variation on that theme.

I told my mom about how the woman had approached me in the college dining hall and I learned that she was a friend of Ms. Simone who had, in fact, sent for me. My mother laughed, but somehow I think she felt reassured that her daughter would be just fine in this far off place, noting my cautious behaviour and good judgement. Overall, she found the whole experience rather amusing and “nice”. Bermudians are not particularly starstruck people, on the whole. We’re not hugely into the whole gushing over “celebrities” thing and my mother, although gracious, is even less so. (Although, I’m not so sure how she would have been if it was Sidney Poitier!) Don’t get me wrong, she LOVES Nina Simone’s music and outspoken stance on racism during her time – especially as a black woman – but to my mother this was just another person who happened to be blessed with incredible talent – a musical gift. This could be seen in their conversation when we all met up that evening. It was like two old friends talking who understood and endured life’s twists and turns and ups and downs.

As for me, well, Ms. Simone gave me a bit of a hard time. She warned my mother that she would lose me by letting me attend “that” school. She believed that once I got settled and immersed myself fully in my new surroundings, that I would become so assimilated that I would later shun my identity as a black person and all that it represents. In short, she felt my mom would lose me to a European lifestyle, abandoning my family and culture. My mother did not think so and I definitely didn’t agree. My mom felt she set a foundation for me and I had a mind of my own; and I felt that I didn’t have to choose one or the other in terms of culture or race. Instead, my style was to pick the things that were good and appealing to me as an individual, whether they are found in black, white and any other culture. It remains my attitude today.

Nontheless, Ms. Simone stood firm and just kept telling my mom, “You are going to lose your daughter.” She spoke kindly, frankly, and endearingly to my mother and sister, but continued to give me a hard time (which I took with good humour), telling me I am not to speak unless spoken to and to “sit over there in that chair”. It was very much a “who do you think you are” sort of attitude towards me and I am guessing that my refusal earlier in the day to see her when I was called to, didn’t help things. It was okay, though.

Throughout the conversations that night Ms. Simone had shared with my mother how she felt she lost her own daughter when she let her attend a European school. It sounded like they had a strained relationship and it left a deep hole in her heart and soul. My sister’s first son who was about three or four at the time was with us and anytime he went near Ms. Simone she would ask that he move away. I didn’t understand what that was about at first, but my sister explained to me later that Ms. Simone’s daughter, who was grown by then, had a small child and so seeing my nephew reminded her of that and the pain of not having him or her in her life at the time because of the strained relationship.

When I looked at her that evening, I thought how tired and sad she seemed. Like a woman who had been through and had to fight for so much. Clearly, she had graduated from the school of hard knocks. She was an amazing woman and I don’t think I appreciated how amazing or important her lifestory was until I became much older.

In the end, she did ask me if I would like to go snorkelling with her one day and I chuckled and said, “sure”. She said she liked swimming and snorkelling and scuba diving. I also noticed her French was outstanding and she said she had picked it up over the years from spending time in France and Switzerland and other french-speaking places. I never heard from or saw her again, so we never did go snorkelling. When my mother and sister returned to Bermuda, I think they had some fleeting contact and then I guess it petered out, as such things do.

Years later, I read bits and bobs that suggest that she and her daughter did become close and have a relationship again. I think there was a video clip I saw of them together as well and that made me very happy for them. One never knows the real story behind such family relationships and mother-daughter relationships can be particularly challenging, even in the best of times, so good for them!

As I sit here and think of the conversation from that evening and much of the things she shared about her life, her experiences, her struggles…I wish I knew the value of that special evening then as I know it now. I wish I knew the value then of the stories my mother shared and the insights shared between her and Ms. Simone. But I do value it now. They were two clever women who gave me some important lessons about strength, dignity, and perseverance that evening. They didn’t even know or intend it, perhaps, but they did. It’s the way life is and I was a very lucky young lady.

My mother has dementia now. That is a terrible blow to our family because we miss her very much even though we continue to love her and enjoy her. However, this Nina Simone memory has me remembering today the many things I learned from my mother. I see her now and I wish she could know how much I love her and appreciate her and what a lucky woman I am to have her as my mother.

Somehow, that naughty twinkle in her eye makes me think she does.

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~ by Carol-Ann Simmons on August 26, 2008.

One Response to “If You Knew”

  1. I really enjoyed this post. It was a curious encounter with one of music’s phenomenal personalities. I love the honesty in your prose, and I think your mom’s heart would just burst at the tenderness of this tribute.
    I will stay tuned to your blog.
    Thanks,
    Zina

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