A poor teenage couple struggling to provide a decent life for a small child would engender feelings of sympathy and charity in most people. But not many would take the step to become a principal source of support, especially if that step had to be made across long-standing racial, religious and cultural chasms — and especially if that child were actually triplets. Even under the best of conditions they would be triple the trouble. But in her autobiographical account “Walk With Us”, Elizabeth K. Gordon shows that the struggle may be as much spiritual and psychological as it is physical and financial.
“Walk With Us” is sub-titled “Triplet Boys, Their Teen Parents, and Two White Women Who Tagged Along”, but it is much more than that. North Philadelphia is the setting and its crumbling neighborhoods are a principal character in the drama. The unwed teen parents are (names slightly altered) Tahija and Lamarr, and they are bright and strong individuals who know they must resist the mean streets. Tahija converted to Islam when in the eighth grade and dresses in traditional Muslim garb. Lamarr is a devoted father, and both teenagers are constantly striving to better themselves and their situation despite the barriers.
The “two white women” are Elizabeth and her partner Kaki Nelsen. Motivated in large part by the tenets of justice and compassion of their Quaker religion they took Tahija into their home, and with both love and frustration they remained close through the birth of triplet boys. Triplets arrive about once in every 8,000 live births. In this case the delivery itself is difficult and Elizabeth’s account is worthy of being read in medical schools. The relationship between the teenage parents and the “two white women” is often strained. Concern about the triplets’ well-being brings the attention of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services. (Tahija wryly comments that if she’d had quadruplets the city would have bought a house for her). Facing a threat of the boys being split up, Elizabeth and Kaki become legal guardians.
The boys were kept in the nursery more than ever. Tahija cut out all meetings and social activities, coming straight home from school and going straight up the stairs. I wrote her a letter trying to explain my view and asking for more for them — more food, water, exercise, encouragement, stimulation, affection. I wrote that childhood is like the eyepiece end of a telescope. If you move it the tiniest fraction, the view at the other end, adulthood, moves millions and millions of miles. She had the telescope in her hands, could point their future up at the stars, or down at cement.
The nursery began to feel like a separate house. A house with very thin walls. When they cried I felt I knew what it was they needed; felt it in my molars, in the cartilage of my spine: needs I could not meet, perhaps had no right even to want to meet.
— from “Walk With Us”
Elizabeth is torn by guilt over her inability to do more, and by her love for the people she strives to save. “In living among and purporting to ‘serve’ poor African Americans,” she writes, “I had the hidden motivation of redeeming myself from my family’s, my country’s and my own racist past.” Motivations and much more have come out of hiding.
Elizabeth K. Gordon now lives in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. She joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to update us on the triplets and their parents, tell about her and Kaki’s experiences and of her experience writing “Walk With Us” (it was awarded the 2008 Next Generation Indie Book Award as the best multicultural non-fiction book of the year).