Because I was not present at the time of my naming, I know it only as a story aided by an old photograph.
It is said by various family members that my mother, when she discovered she was pregnant, left the PhD program at Harvard and began to look for a place to live in upstate New York, where she drove up and down along roads lined with houses where the confederate flag is an implicit staple.
The photograph is of her, heavily pregnant in the front seat of a U-haul, smiling as if she is proud to be there.
On the album Giant Steps, there are three songs named for people. The first is called “Cousin Mary,” the second “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” and the third “Naima.”
It is said by my mother that babies can communicate from the womb via psychic interference.
The day she was driving up and down along roads in upstate New York and the song John Coltrane wrote for Naima Grubbs came on the radio, she decided that I was communicating via psychic interference.
I was communicating, she thinks, my name, but also my blackness, assurance that even if my skin was as light as her husband’s, my name would be Philadelphia jazz. My mother’s name, incidentally, is Mary.
The conversations that my mother and I are able to have are fewer and fewer in number. For example, we can talk about race and about songs.
We cannot talk about living or about heaviness or about the particulars of either of our respective lives.
When I am not with her, I think of things that we can talk about, order them in my head and plan to speak them to alleviate, temporarily, a particular kind of heaviness.
My mother once asked me if I was trying to hurt her.
I didn’t know the answer, but I knew that anything I said would be a lie.
The things she has said to me, when taken out of context, lose some of their awfulness. For example, I respect you sounds much better when it is not preceded by You don’t care about me or this family, which itself doesn’t sound so bad when not said in her particular drunken cadence.
She has several cadences, my favorite of which emerges when she is on the phone with her friend Walter. They are both from South Chicago and speak unapologetically in a tone that is warm in all the ways that jazz is.
I wonder if Coltrane had the same cadence, if when he wandered into the house, said he wasn’t in the mood for whatever food Naima had made for dinner, it was drunken, if when he talked to her about music, it was warm.
Wondering is, some of the time, a kind of asking, a kind of appeal, a kind of entreaty, a kind of remonstrance.
I wonder if, when the daughter of Naima Grubbs received a flute from John Coltrane at her high school graduation, she wanted never to touch it again.
I wonder if Naima Grubbs ever sat, as I have, in the back of an ambulance, stared at the pitted metal walls, and wondered if now was an appropriate time to cry.
I wonder, also, if she ever sat in darkened rooms, listened to an album named for movement, and wept for what she had once had.
I wonder if, because we share a song, because we are the same height, because she was married in the same month that I was born, we are connected.
My mother once asked me if I had ever listened to the song she had imbued with some romantic fantasy.
I was worried that if I were to tell her of its melancholy, its subtle cadences, she would want to stretch our conversation, said yes and only yes.
I wonder if, in listening to a song called Wise One, I am implicitly associating myself with the expectation that I be wise.
I wonder if, in listening to a song called Wise One, I am looking for advice from the person who is its subject, its namesake, its object and who might, loosely, be my namesake, object, or subject.
My mother once told me, drunkenly, that I was stupid and foolish.
A friend once told me, drunkenly, that I was wise.
Had I not been drunk, I would have told him that he was wrong. Had I been honest, I would have told him that when a child is told repeatedly that she is stupid or lazy, her stupidity and laziness become deeply rooted convictions and cannot be undone by words that come later.
The same friend, when I had finished existing in the back of an ambulance and wondering if now was an appropriate time to cry, hugged me in the way that people do when they are afraid for you.
I was, just then, incapable of any kind of emotional distance, capable only of intense cruelty.
For example, when I was a child, there was never a time when my mother was not beautiful, but then, in the back of the ambulance as she asked repeatedly for pain medication that she had already been administered, all I could think was that her flesh resembled uncooked bread.
My mother once sang to me, touching my nose lightly with the tip of her finger, that I was unforgettable.
Some people are aware of speech, of what it can and cannot do, of where it fails in the same way that names and titles do.
For example, some friends, when you tell them that you took your mother to the hospital today, will say Oh my god, and then not say anything, choose instead to nudge you with one shoulder after the silence has stretched.
Naima Karczmar lives and writes in Portland, OR, where she also studies English Literature at Reed College. Friends sometimes describe her as "a little intense." Her work has appeared in Drunk Monkeys and in other people’s living rooms.
Photograph by Christie MacLean