One Crazy Summer

by Rita Williams-Garcia

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What woke Cecile up in One Crazy Summer?

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Cecile’s indifferent behavior bothers the three Gaither sisters when they travel three thousand miles to visit her in Oakland, California from their home in Brooklyn. Delphine, eleven, Vonetta, nine, and Fern, seven, are taken aback that she is nothing like they could have imagined. She remains nearly a stranger till she sees them perform a poem she has written at a Black Panther rally, for which they have prepared entirely on their own.

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How three sisters reclaim a place in their mother’s life, seven years after she has left them as toddlers and an infant, is the story of Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer. Delphine Gaither, an eleven-year-old, is sent to Oakland, California by her father to meet her mother. She is accompanied only by her younger siblings, Vonetta, who is nine, and Fern, who is seven.

Being responsible for her siblings is something Delphine has been used to nearly all her life, as the three of them have been growing up in Brooklyn, New York, with their father and paternal grandmother, Big Ma. As the big sister, she knows Vonetta and Fern inside out, and manages their moods and fears with great skill. Delphine is also used to hearing her grandmother call her mother the most selfish person ever made by God. Since Big Ma is from Alabama, she instills politeness in the girls and frowns on anything that would draw attention to them in public. She believes that such behavior is a let down of the whole community of colored people.

When they reach Oakland, they are met at the airport by a mother who seems to be in disguise. She also shows no sign of affection, not touching them in any way, striding ahead while they struggle to catch up to her with their bags. As if this wasn’t surprising enough, they find that her kitchen is declared permanently out of bounds for the three of them, even to get a glass of water. She declares that she never asked to have them over, and they can stay their stipulated twenty-eight days just so they do not disturb her peace and quiet.

While Delphine and her sisters had dreams of going to the beaches of California, meeting movie stars and going to Disneyland, they find that their mother is not going to cook anything for them, or arrange a single outing for entertainment. She takes the cash that Delphine has been given for the trip by her father, and rations it out as per need. Their first meal has to be a takeout that they have to go and fetch themselves. Breakfast is something they have to queue up for with a bunch of people at the summer camp being run by the Black Panthers at the People’s Center. They then spend the rest of the day at the camp, so that their mother can have her peace and quiet.

Under these strange circumstances, the girls manage to make friends with the other attendees at the summer camp, and join in activities of making posters, learning history, dyeing T shirts and playing games. After Delphine insists on cooking, because her youngest sister’s stomach is upset by the daily takeout fare, she is grudgingly permitted into the kitchen, where she sees that her mother has set up a printing shop. The girls also notice some Black Panthers visit the house and have a meeting with their mother, and are given a box of flyers to deliver to the Panthers manning the camp. Gradually, it becomes clear that Cecile, who has renamed herself Nzila, writes and prints her own poetry, and offers her printing services as a volunteer to the Black Panthers.

However, it is her selfishness towards Delphine that proves to be the most difficult to understand. She eats every last scrap that Delphine cooks, without helping her with materials, or helping in the least with the cooking and cleaning. Worse, she seems to look down on Delphine for doing it, telling her that it wouldn’t hurt her (Delphine) to be more selfish. The hard shell she seems to wear around her heart seems to be proof against all manner of circumstances. She refuses to call her youngest daughter Fern by her name, and Delphine recalls her grandmother telling her that she left them because she wasn’t allowed to give her chosen name to the baby. Will she ever change? Will she ever show love to her own children? This is the question about Cecile waking up, in the course of the book.

With the days of their stay running out, Delphine realizes she must make sure that her sisters and she should have at least the basic minimum holiday experience. They thus take a bus out of Oakland and go to San Francisco, where they ride the cable car, see the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, and the Fisherman’s Wharf. It is indeed an exhilarating day, but the girls return to find their mother being led out to a police car. She is under arrest, and when the police question her about her children, she says she doesn’t have any, the girls are a neighbor’s kids. Delphine and her sisters too, corroborate, and walk past the scene till the police leave, before letting themselves in to the house.

They are stunned to find their mother’s print shop a complete mess, ransacked and destroyed. They struggle to set it to rights, and discover their mother’s poetry in the process, and how she signs her poems “Nzila”. Their friend Hirohito Woods from the summer camp arrives with his mother and they are taken under Mrs. Woods’ wing for the next few days, rather than continuing to stay in the house without their mother.

The day arrives when a Black Panther rally is being held at the local Park. Here, the three of them recite their mother’s poem “I Birthed A Nation,” instead of the Gwendolyn Brooks poem that Vonetta had been practicing incessantly before her mother’s arrest. When they are on stage, they don’t realize that their mother is out of jail and in the audience, watching them. They are wildly applauded, and meet her later, and something has definitely changed in their equation. Cecile Johnson aka Nzila acknowledges them in public as her daughters. They reach home and are able to share with her all the details of their San Francisco trip. They hear about her time in prison. Then they have to pack up to leave.

Later, Delphine and her mother have a confrontation in the kitchen that leads to Delphine finally knowing about the circumstances that shaped her mother’s childhood, and the manner in which she left her kids. This is what is going to be the basis of their enduring relationship, it is made clear. As they get dropped off by their mother the next day at the airport, Delphine looks back to find her still standing and watching them as they are in the ticket queue. But it is Fern, the one who their mother kept referring to as “little girl”, who runs back to give their mother a hug, which they all finally join in.

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What woke Delphine up in One Crazy Summer?

Delphine is woken up by a loud thump. She had fallen asleep with a copy of the Island of the Blue Dolphins in her lap. The noise is coming from her sister Fern, who's making her way to the kitchen in her little heels. As Delphine knows that Cecile is "crazy and unmotherly", as she puts it, she shakes herself awake and tries to stop Fern.

But it's too late. Fern makes her way to the kitchen, where Cecile is standing guard over whatever it is that she's hiding. Sleepy and sweet-voiced, Fern asks for a glass of water. A simply request, one would think. But nothing's ever simple when it comes to Cecile. She tells Fern to drink the water from the bathroom. Fern replies that the water there is nasty, to which Cecile responds unsympathetically,

Then you ain’t thirsty, little girl.

Clearly upset at her mother's callous, dismissive attitude, Fern proudly affirms that she's not a little girl. Cecile raises her hand as Delphine approaches. Delphine's smart enough to back off, sensing that there are no limits to her mother's craziness. Feeling that she's reestablished control, Cecile then makes it clear to Fern—whom she still insists on calling "little girl"—that one's going into her kitchen.

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