In Negesti Kaudo's New Book, "Ripe," the Author Reflects on Being a Black Woman in the Midwest

Negesti Kaudo’s beloved father died when she was 8. She tells her story of grief, guilt and an unfillable void.

Negesti Kaudo
Author Negesti Kaudo

This story is excerpted from “Ripe,” an essay collection by Columbus writer Negesti Kaudo about her life as a Black woman in the Midwest. The book will be published in April by Mad Creek, an imprint of Ohio State University Press.

My dad is dead. I can hear it in the panicked tone my mom is using to speak into her phone, even though she won’t tell us. Instead of taking us to dinner, she drops my sister and me off at a family friend’s house and we play cards and bake cookies before going to our elementary school’s talent performance, the Extravaganza. Tonight is the end of a lot of things. This is the last Extravaganza that my music teacher will take part in, and I will never forget the way she clicks her ruby red slippers at the end of the show to remind us all she is moving to Kansas. I don’t know it yet, but this is also my last Extravaganza. Next year, in fourth grade, I will eat too many clementines, get sick, and have to stay home. Tonight, my sister and I will lose a parent, and our family will shrink.

An interview with the author:Negesti Kaudo digs to the core in ‘Ripe’

Before all of this, though, my mom has to drive from the hospital to pick us up from her friend’s house after the Extravaganza. She has to sit in the car and listen as we tell her about the amateur acrobatics we performed and the songs we sang. She will put the car in park outside of our house and begin to tell us, but I will interrupt her and say, “He’s dead, isn’t he?” I will ask where his body is, and she will tell me it’s at the hospital and not inside our house where my dad has been dying for months. My sister will cry all night, and I will sit on my bed next to her, trying to be a good older sister by looking out of the window without shedding a single tear. I am 8 years old.

Negesti Kaudo and her father Edward Joseph Gaines

I will find out by listening in on phone conversations that my half-brother, on my father’s side, tried and kept trying: forcing air into our dad’s lungs and pressing on his fragile chest even after the paramedics came. In the house, the hospital bed is empty and stripped of its blue sheets, and the house is filled with stale air. The hospital will come and remove the bed, the tubes and the empty bedpan, but they will leave the spare white sheets and clean bed padding, which will be put on the highest shelf of my closet, where I won’t find them for years.

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By choice and out of fear, I will not attend the visitation. I sit in the back seat of the car alone as my family all go inside to have one final look at his body. I am in the car by myself for a long time, wondering what he looks like, if they’ve cleaned him up or if he’s in his camouflage Army uniform for a war I never had the chance to ask about. I wonder if he still has his dreads or if they shaved them all off, including the ones hanging from his chin. I wonder if he still looks like my dad. I wait. They return to the car, and my sister, who seems more mature than ever, cups her hand against my ear and whispers, “He looks like he’s sleeping.”

My mom lets Nia and I stay home from the funeral. We sit on our cousin’s faded maroon leather couch while everyone but us and our cousin Ashley attends. Our cousin is peppier than seems appropriate as she talks to another one of her cousins sitting in a faded recliner. My sister and I listen as Ashley talks about how great our dad was, how he was funny and nice, and my sister and I will have nothing to say. It is no longer April 11, a date now burned onto our brains.

When we go to my dad’s house on Leonard Avenue, it doesn’t cross my mind that this will be the last time I see my second home. We lived with our mother because our parents never married; sometimes we spent weekends with our dad and sometimes he came over to our house when our mom was gone, taking us to and from school. This is the last time I will see the fallen, forest green siding hanging off the front of the house lit only by red, yellow and green, Rasta-colored lamplights; it’s the last time I will walk through the green door with the Ethiopian flag hanging in front. I am allowed to take whatever I want, my mother tells me, and I disregard the bin of toys that my sister and I shared and pick up a golden-framed photo that will never be hung. It is of me as a baby, months old, with my pre-dreadlock afro and dressed in my signature yellow onesie with matching hair bow. My dad is holding me, not looking at the camera, but instead at me as I stare wide-eyed at the camera and most likely my mom behind it. There are a lot of photos like this, he and I, and they’re all Polaroids trapped underneath noisy plastic covers in a photo album. But this one is mine. It is one of the few things I take from the house, and it will never be my mother’s, and it will never be my sister’s. I don’t know what happens to the rest of the items in the house.

On Father’s Day, two months after his death when things begin to return to normal, my sister and I stick handmade, construction-paper, Father’s Day cards in the back of the framed photo. They sit there for years, fading and unread, and no one bothers to throw them away or move them. Three dates seem to be bolded on the calendar: April 11, Father’s Day and Dec. 12. My sister and I work hard to calculate his would-be age every year on Dec. 12 (his birthday), but we don’t talk about him. These days come and pass like any other, with an occasional, “Do you know what day it is?” from our mother and a quiet “Yes” in response.

Negesti Kaudo with her father, Edward Joseph Gaines, when she was a child

A year later for spring break, we go to Universal Studios with two of my mother’s co-workers and their two daughters, Melanie and Giselle. I am the oldest in the group, and my sister is the youngest, and though it will take us a few more years to realize we don’t really know or like either of these girls, we think we are friends. We are in the backseat of the rental van, the four of us—three piled in the far back and one of us sitting in the middle row next to one of the other moms.

“You don’t know who your daddy is.” Melanie states it so bluntly that my sister and I can only look at each other to recover from the shock.

“Yes, we do.” We speak in unison, and I look from the depths of the backseat toward the front where my mother sits talking to her friends.

“Our dad died.” My voice is quiet. They look at me skeptically, ready to laugh.

“What’s his name then?” Giselle counters, and the two of them smirk at Nia and me. We are confused because we know exactly who our dad is and have no reason to lie.

“Our daddy is Edward Joseph Gaines.” My sister’s voice is strong and matter-of-fact even though she is not even 7 years old. I look back and forth among Nia, the two girls and our mothers, who are now eavesdropping on the conversation from their seats.

“That’s not your daddy. That’s just the man your mom told you was your daddy.” Melanie spits her words at us, hot from her 7-year-old mouth. Our mom jumps in and tells them we know our dad and somehow the older women find something to laugh about from our conversation, but Melanie’s words sit with me and Nia.

Later, our mom sits us down in the hotel room and tells us that Melanie and Giselle don’t know their dads. That their mothers told them that a man was their dad, but he’s not and so, they think we’re like them, but we’re not. We are not products of short-term relationships. We know our dad. We grew up with him in our lives, stayed at his house; he introduced us to veggie dogs and coffee. He made us “skatemobiles,” which were hand-crafted wooden scooters with a seat for your knee, and he painted them Rasta colors and let Nia and I ride them up and down his street until the streetlights came on. We met some of our half-siblings, but mainly we knew Edward, one of the oldest of the many we had. We knew his neighbors, the dirty little girls farther down the street and the old couple that grew their own vegetables in the front yard. Our parents may have never married, but we still knew both of them.

Negesti Kaudo when she was a child

As I get older, I will stop celebrating Father’s Day. I watch my mom buy my sister dresses for multiple father-daughter dances she attends, tagging onto her friends’ fathers while I sit at home, the idea of attending one of these dances never even crossing my mind. I decide that if I get married, I will walk down the aisle alone, not discussing the opportunity with my brother, cousins or uncles.

Years will go by, and I will blame myself for his death. My mom believes that I am depressed but won’t tell me until she thinks I’ve fallen out of it. I will replay April 11 over and over, trying to see what was different about that day. Finally, I will pinpoint it to me saying “goodbye” instead of “I love you” when I left that day because I was excited for the Extravaganza. Thinking about it more, I will lose religion after I remember how my uncle prayed over my father in tongues only days before his death. I will blame God and myself for his death, for his absence, until I am 15 years old. At 15, I will find myself in my first writing course writing about how I’ve blamed myself for seven years. But he was dying; I couldn’t have fixed it.

I will meet people who don’t know that my dad has died. Some will think that I’m lying and believe I’m just trying to cover up the gritty details of a relationship gone bad, of a father who left. It’s not something I bring up in conversation; people find out when I’m ready to bring it up.

When I become obsessed with astrology, I will find out my dad was a Sagittarius and my mom a Pisces. Later, I will read somewhere on the internet that those two signs are the best-fit parents for a Leo; I am a Leo. I will meet a Sagittarian boy and fall in love with him. On his own, he will find out that my dad died and believe that was my reason for cutting off my dreads. Besides this, he will know nothing about my dad, but on the ninth anniversary of his death he will be there for me as I silently walk the halls of my high school trying to hold it together. My best friend will tell him what day it is, chastising me because I didn’t tell him, and he’ll ask me if I need him, watching me from a distance for the rest of the day, just in case.

I find the sympathy cards that the kindergartners and third-grade students signed for Nia and me after it happened. I see my friends’ names scrawled all over the card, over 75 signatures between the two of us and cards from four different classes. We missed close to a week of school when our dad died, and these were the apologies from our classmates for what had happened. The names are so messy, and I can’t appreciate the card, thinking only that my 8- and 9-year-old classmates didn’t understand, couldn’t sympathize with me. I don’t want an apology because there’s no need to apologize for something that isn’t their fault. Other people’s sympathy seems fake, simple words said to make me feel better. But words won’t bring him back, words won’t turn back time, so that my mom actually listens when he complains of pain instead of brushing it off. I don’t want anyone’s words.

I have a hard time with emotions. It took me years to shed tears for the death of my father and actually feel that difference. I lack empathy, which makes people think I’m a cold person. How do I tell people that because I spent most of my childhood putting my emotions in a box—that was how I coped—I don’t feel the way everyone else does? There was a long time between when my father died and when people I knew started losing people they loved. When my best friend tragically lost her uncle, I said what I knew: “That sucks.” Because it does. It sucks. No one knows what you’re feeling, no one understands what you’ve just lost, but they want you to feel better. What people don’t realize is in that moment, you don’t want to feel anything at all.

In the decade or more since, I’ve learned that not every death needs a comment, not every death needs an apology. Sometimes, grief is best accompanied by presence and silence. I don’t need to say what we already know—that it sucks—but I can offer space and comfort. As I watch people close to me begin to lose their parents, I feel like I have a role to play in their grief, as greeter to the Dead Parents Club. Welcome, I have been here for years, waiting, with my sister. I imagine we have pamphlets, tissues, fruit trays, casseroles—but none of it is enough.

Xavier was the first person my age that I met who lost a parent when they were young. His dad was killed when he was a newborn. I will find myself on the phone with Xavier late one night and he will ask me if I think it is better or worse having known my dad before he died. “I only knew him a little bit,” I whisper.

“But you still knew him. I didn’t know my dad.” It’s quiet on the line and I can tell he’s thinking in the dark too.

“I’m glad I knew him, but I don’t know which one’s worse. I have someone to miss, and you don’t have to miss anyone.” I want to tell him that I have a void. An empty space inside of me that can’t be filled, and I will try to fill it constantly and fail. Does he have that?

The cover of "Ripe," an essay collection by Columbus writer Negesti Kaudo about her life as a Black woman in the Midwest

There are things I think about that make me feel guilty. I ate salami sandwiches at school even though I was supposed to be a vegetarian. And when my dad, a vegetarian, would ask me about my day, I’d lie and tell him I had a peanut butter and jelly for lunch. Once, I rested my hand on the cold metal barrel of a barely hidden shotgun under his bed and told no one I’d found it or touched it—and as a child, shouldn’t I? It’s too late to confess, now.

I pledge to myself that I will go to the house on Leonard Avenue before I leave the city for college, but I never make it. Anxiety and panic attacks as I get closer to the neighborhood or city will keep me from visiting. Seeing the sign on the highway for the exit twists my insides and the closer I get to his street, the harder it is to breathe. My vision tunnels as I clench my hands into a fist until I am far enough away. My dad was an artist, his house littered with paintings, drawings and statues. At home, I walk past my father’s hand-carved fisherman statue in the corner of the foyer and under the door chimes without noticing him, but he always seems to be watching us. The signed oil painting my dad painted will never be hung in the house, but always lean against a wall in the living room, collecting dust. Writing becomes my art because I am not a visual artist like my dad; so, I use words to paint pictures. I dedicated my first self-published book to him, but I got the death date wrong and it’s too late to fix it and it makes me sick to my stomach.

My sister and I are the only daughters of both Edward Gaines and Helena Dameron. We don’t have either of our parents’ last names, but we have their blood. We are the only completely related siblings in both immediate families, but we have a stock of half-siblings on our father’s side that faded from our life once the casket was lowered into the ground. I don’t know how to spell any of their names, so I won’t be able to find them. I look up my dad, trying to find out more about his family, vaguely remembering the stories of his parents, and after hours of searching, I find nothing on his Louisiana lineage.

My mom says I’m like him. My aunt says that I’m “just like Shaka” (my dad’s nickname). I wouldn’t know, but I bite down on the smile that wants to form. They mean I have his hoarding tendency, his selfishness, his sensitivity—all negative qualities, but they still say it with a glimmer of a nostalgic smile. My dad and I are both fire signs, both artists in our own way. I am 27 years old. Today, my dad would have been 80.

It was stomach cancer. That’s what did it. That’s what put him in the hospital where we visited for weeks before they sent him home with us and set up the makeshift hospital in our TV room. We watched television together and, in the days leading up to it, we watched old Extravaganza videos with him, sitting on the floor in front of the hospital bed. He was thin and getting thinner, the oxygen tube protruding from his nose and ruining my memory of his face. I slept in the adjacent room and every day before I went to school with my sister, I hovered over his bed in my MacEwen plaid jumper with my backpack on and kissed him on the cheek. And every day, until his last, I told him I loved him. 

This story is from the March 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.