As a kid growing up in northern Minneapolis in the 1960s, Lyman Riley cherished family trips to the town of West, Mississippi, where his beloved grandparents lived. Walter and Sarah Kane, affectionately known as Papa Lemon and Mama Sarah, were pillars of this small farming community of less than 300 people.
Born in 1896, Papa Lemon has worked for the local railroad company for nearly half a century. He was also the first black man in West Town to ever own a car. Papa Lemon and Mama Sarah lived with their two children on the land of which they owned 246 acres. They were also famous for helping other families in need.
“Everyone in and around town knew Papa Lemon,” Riley said. “He was respected by everyone, black or white, it didn’t matter.” To this day, even though he was a young man at the time, Riley remembers being amazed at Papa Lemon’s wisdom as well as the grace and dignity he always carried.
Although he wasn’t the only grandchild, “Papa Lemon has always treated me like I was,” Riley pointed out. “It made me feel so special.”
Papa Lemon died in 1973 when Riley was just 10 years old, “I simply couldn’t accept my grandfather’s death,” Riley recalls. It was devastating. I keep thinking about it and the impact it has on my life every day.”
Riley graduated from Northern High School in Minneapolis in 1981. A few years later, towards the end of his college career, he needed some extra credits, so he decided to enroll in a creative writing course. “I never thought I’d be a writer,” Riley explained. “I just need to find another class.” And although he enjoyed himself, he did not pursue writing and began to make his way into the corporate world.
On April 29, 1992, about 1,900 miles away in Simi Valley, California, a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of beating Rodney King. For the next six days, Los Angeles caught fire. Riley remembers the pain he felt during that time.
Adding that to the collective pain and trauma that African Americans have now experienced for nearly four centuries, he wondered to himself what kind of difference he could make in the world. It was then that inspiration struck – divine inspiration. “God spoke to me,” Riley said.
Riley felt as if he had received a new call into life, and began to think about how to highlight his grandfather’s wisdom, benevolence, and charisma to help teach children about American history. So, he recalled what he learned years ago in his creative writing course, “The Roaming Little Adventures of Papa Lemon” Boy.
In the first book, Papa Lemon and the wandering youngsters travel through time on his magical train to witness the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The second show in the series revisits the American South in 1852 and chronicles the dangerous escape from slavery.
By 2003, Riley and his wife Tracy were the parents of four children, the eldest of whom was their son Deauville, along with their daughters Narees, Andrea, and Tiana. In addition to Papa Lemon, Riley began to be inspired by the ideas of his children. While he was thinking about his next story, a chance encounter happened when his sister Paul Dixon came across at a local store.
Although first cousins, Riley and Dixon knew quite a bit about each other when they were kids. Dixon, who grew up on the South Side, was raised by a single mother and had little contact with his father’s side of the family. Likewise, he did not know much about his grandfather Papa Lemon.
“Lehman and I saw each other occasionally on the sports field and a few other places, but all that said, we weren’t spending any time together,” Dixon recalls. Dixon’s sister and Riley exchanged phone numbers, and shortly thereafter Riley decided to call his cousin.
“I have a new idea for a book,” Dixon said. The two met to discuss it a bit, but then Riley didn’t feel that his cousin had much interest in the project. He will be proven wrong.
Dixon, whose toy experience includes working as a buyer for Target Corporation and as a sales representative for both plush toy company Animal Adventure and Walt Disney, was influenced by the popular success of Riley’s first two books and saw talent and promise in his cousin.
“Paul wanted to help, like an angel investor,” Riley said. But Riley was looking for an equal partner. After some persuasion, the two formed the independent publishing company Matter of Africa America Time Corporation.
Mama Sarah, who will live to be 101, had just one favor to ask of her grandson: “Don’t forget to include me when you write your next book.” He didn’t forget Riley, who described his grandmother as “the sweetest, kindest, and most patient” he’d ever known.
Mama Sarah was still around to see the third book come to fruition, which chronicles World War II and the remarkable legacy of Navajo Code speakers. “Your grandfather will be very proud of you,” Mama Sarah assured.
More books followed, including those that specifically addressed important issues such as depression and bullying. By 2020, there were now eight stories chronicling the adventures of Papa Lemon and his young men.
check out lizzie
In the early spring of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down. People are now intimately familiar with terms such as “social distancing,” “super-spreading events,” and “shelter in place.” As Americans everywhere adapted to this new reality, we witnessed the murder of George Floyd in our backyard. Minneapolis was now the center of the universe for all the wrong reasons. These were really tough times.
However, absolutely nothing could prepare Riley and his family for what happened on June 6, 2020. He received a phone late that night informing him that his youngest daughter, 23-year-old Tiana Elizabeth, was gone.
Lizzie, as she was known by her family, was trying to help an acquaintance who was struggling with addiction, trying to save his life. Instead, he ended up taking it. “She had a big heart. She would do anything for anyone, and that got her killed,” Riley said.
Unpretentious to the point of error, Lizzie was an extraordinary artist whose talent during high school caught the attention of both the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “She was so smart, so funny,” Riley recalled. “She would light up any room with her smile and good spirit.”
The heartache was unbearable. For months on end, Riley found himself in a “slow-moving, continuous fog”. Nothing matters anymore. The pain was stifling. “I never imagined I could cry as much as I did,” Riley said.
“I was feeling guilty. I felt guilty staring at the sky. Guilty looking at the grass and trees. Guilty eating and watching TV. Guilty drawing the breath.”
And then, in an instant, something changed. His second daughter, Andrea, now a mother, said, “Dad. We’re all still here. We need you.”
While that woke him up, Riley still didn’t know if he could muster his strength to write again, despite the encouragement of others. “I didn’t have that in me.”
But in the end, a close friend convinced him to consider writing a book about Lizzie, adding that with all the grief and trauma people have been through over the past two years, the kids need something to help them heal.
Riley prayed for her, and asked for a signal to move forward. He wrote one paragraph and then stopped. “I couldn’t do more.” Then he remembered what Andrea had told him and what Melody had also told him.
Although he cried throughout the entire process, he finally finished the ninth part of Papa Lemon’s book series, “Losing Lizzy: A Story of Grief,” which was officially released earlier this month.
Since he and Dixon began their journey together nearly 20 years ago, Riley has visited hundreds of classrooms to share Papa Lemon stories with tens of thousands of schoolchildren. He seeks to do the same with Losing Lizzy, imparting tips and tools to young children on how to deal with and overcome grief.
And while doing so, he highlights the beauty, love, grace and legacy of his daughter, Tiana Elizabeth.
To learn more about and purchase books in the “The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers” series, including “Losing Lizzy,” visit papalemonedu.com. You can also use the form on the website to invite Lehman Riley to visit your school.
Tony Kane’s experience in the nonprofit and entertainment industries in the Twin Cities includes work with the Minneapolis Urban League, Penumbra Theatre, Hallie Q. Brown and Pepé Music.
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