She was known as “Fire,” but was named Christina by my grandparents. Christina was our aunt, my mother’s eldest sister. Though we usually called her Aunt Chris, during tense times in our lives we referred to her as Fire.
With the jagged scar across the right side of her face, accompanied by many others of varying sizes scattered on her hands and arms, she appeared to be a street fighter. She was short and a bit stout, with a dark complexion, and wore a black wig, which partly covered her right eye. She was wild and boisterous, spoke her mind, and didn’t take mess from anybody.
Fire was known by everyone in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, as well as in the South Bronx. She brought her reputation with her from Miami, Florida, where she grew up. They say that when she lived in Miami, she once cut a Cadillac in half. Yes, a Cadillac car. We believed it because we saw her in action doing things that we had not seen women do, like lifting refrigerators. She had even confirmed that half of that Cadillac was hers and she had a right to it.
We really loved our Aunt Chris, and she earned our respect because she seemed to understand kids in a special way. She was also our protector in the neighborhood. It seemed that we had an unspoken understanding to call her the name Fire only when necessary, like a real fire.
Though she had no children of her own, you would think that she would make the perfect mother. Fire would always have an open ear to listen to any problem that you had. Kids would run to her when they had issues with their parents, even if they were not kinfolk. She would calm them down, give them a glass of Kool-Aid or juice, and then tell them that everything would be alright. Our parents did not understand like Fire did. We admired her strength and her attitude, Fire did not seem to fear anyone, not even our parents.
She knew how to show us kids a good time too. She loved music and parties. Every weekend there was a party at her house. Her boyfriend, Homer Lee, played the guitar and she would play the piano. We kids would dance and laugh and have lots of fun. She seemed to enjoy watching us having a good time, and we enjoyed her as well.
Our neighborhood wasn’t particularly rough. Several of the kids came from large families like our own, with nine or ten children. There were gangs, but they didn’t bother us. Our block consisted of a series of brownstone houses on both sides and three multi-dwelling buildings. There were a few trees and an open lot filled with rocks and glass where a building once stood. It was our turf and we played from one end of it to the other. We knew everyone on the block. There were times, however, when we had run-ins with bad-seeded kids from certain families or someone new on the block who did not know the rules of play. Fire was always an earshot away.
There was one occasion when a few of the regulars sided with the new kids on the block and started bullying me. I had become a fighter since being forced to defend myself in school on several occasions. We were at the end of the block when the fight started. My house was on the opposite end. I don’t remember exactly why or how the fight started, but it was one of those “he said, she said” moments that kids have. Before I realized it, I was being double-teamed. Fighting my hardest and showing no fear, I was unexpectedly knocked to the ground. The thought that I could possibly lose this battle flashed through my mind. That’s when I began to scream for backup in my loudest voice, “Fire, Fire!” Bystanders watching the fight began screaming because everyone loved watching a good fight.
The words seemed to zip through the air as if by carrier pigeon. Yes, my aunt heard them, even at the other end of the block. When I looked up, she appeared out of nowhere like a genie out of a bottle, asking, “what’s going on here?” Everyone froze in their positions with eyes popping and puzzled expressions on their faces. I guess they were also wondering about how she arrived so fast. She proceeded to snatch me up from the ground as if I were a feather, all while lecturing us kids about fighting with each other. She told us that we should respect each other. My opponent’s heads hung in shame, not even daring to attempt an explanation as she spoke. They had great respect for her. I’m sure that they were remembering a time when she had saved their butts from danger. After the lecture, she sent us off to play as if nothing happened.
Fire is gone now to join our ancestors, but her spirit still lives today in the many young people that she helped, gave a kind word to, or protected. I am one of them. My Aunt Chris was a very special person with a gift. Her influence on my life helped to make me the person that I am today. I truly miss her fiery spirit.
Phyllis Roker is a writer and filmmaker originally from New York. This story was written during her time in Chicago as a member of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance and was first published in their Journal of Ordinary Thought.