Though four inches taller than my mother, I felt small next to her. We sat on the sofa, the box between us. Mom leaned back into the pillows, her slender hands delicate, their joints and veins forming intricate angles and planes in her translucent skin. The woman at my side was much more than my mother: She was a woman of ancient times passing on a legacy for future generations. As she spoke, I reached for her hand and held on to it.
“Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president,” she said. Her thin, high-pitched voice resonated through my living room, repeating the words I had heard so many times, each word lingering with a hint of a Texan drawl.
“Exactly thirty years ago,” she said, “when my daddy was very ill, he made me the griotte. It tired him out, but over three days, he told me all the stories, the ones passed down to him and the ones about his own life. Then, at the end of the third day, he reminded me that our history goes well beyond America’s boundaries. What we believe in and what is important to us come from the vastly different beliefs and values people hold in Europe and Africa. And this,” she said, searching my eyes, “is very important, Bettye: Each griot in our family has to understand that the Other Madisons might struggle sometimes to know how to live our lives, but when we share our stories, we build a sense of togetherness, and we learn who we are.”
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