As a kid growing up in 1960s North Minneapolis, Lehman Riley cherished family trips to the town of West, Mississippi, where his beloved grandparents lived. Known affectionately as Papa Lemon and Mama Sarah, Walter and Sarah Cain were pillars in this small farming community of fewer than 300 people.
Born in 1896, Papa Lemon worked for the local railroad company for nearly a half-century. He was also the first Black man in the town of West to ever own an automobile. Together with their children, Papa Lemon and Mama Sarah lived off the land, of which they owned 246 acres. They also had a reputation for helping other families in need.
“Everyone in and around town knew Papa Lemon,” said Riley. “He was respected by all, Black or White, it didn’t matter.” To this day, even though he was a youngster at the time, Riley remembers being awestruck by Papa Lemon’s wisdom as well as the grace and dignity with which he always carried himself.
Even though he wasn’t the only grandchild, “Papa Lemon always treated me like I was,” noted Riley. “He made me feel so special.”
Papa Lemon passed away in 1973 when Riley was only 10. “I simply couldn’t accept that my grandfather was gone,” recalled Riley. “It was devastating. I continued to think about him and his impact on my life every day.”
Riley graduated from Minneapolis’ North High School in 1981. A few years later, toward the end of his college career, he needed some additional credits, so he decided to enroll in a creative writing course. “I’d never considered being an author,” explained Riley. “I just needed to find one more class.” And, although he’d enjoyed himself, he didn’t pursue writing and started to make his way in the corporate world.
The little wanderers
On April 29, 1992, some 1,900 miles away in Simi Valley, California, a jury acquitted four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King. For the next six days, the city of Los Angeles was on fire. Riley recalls the anguish he felt during that time.
Adding that to the collective pain and trauma that African Americans had now suffered for nearly four centuries, he wondered to himself what kind of difference he could make in the world. That’s when inspiration struck—divine inspiration. “God spoke to me,” said Riley.
Feeling as though he’d received a new calling in life, Riley began to ponder how he could highlight the wisdom, benevolence and magnetism of his grandfather to help teach children about American history. So, he summoned what he’d learned years before in his creative writing course, and “The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers” was born.
In the first book, Papa Lemon and the little wanderers travel back in time via his magical train to witness the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream speech.” The second offering in the series revisits the American South in 1852 and chronicles the dangerous escape from slavery.
An unlikely partnership
By 2003, Riley and wife Tracy were the parents of four children, the oldest being their son DuVale, along with daughters Nareece, Andrea and Tianna. In addition to Papa Lemon, Riley had started to draw inspiration from his own children. And, as he contemplated his next story, a chance meeting occurred when his sister ran into Paul Dixon at a local store.
Although first cousins, Riley and Dixon knew little of each other as kids. Dixon, who grew up on the South Side, was raised by a single mother and didn’t have much contact with his father’s side of the family. Likewise, he didn’t know much about his grandfather Papa Lemon.
“Lehman and I saw each other occasionally on the athletic field and a few other places,” recalled Dixon, “but all told, we’d hardly spent any time together.” Dixon and Riley’s sister swapped phone numbers, and shortly thereafter Riley decided to give his cousin a call.
“I have a new idea for a book,” he told Dixon. The two met to discuss it a little further, but afterward Riley didn’t sense his cousin had that much interest in the project. He would be proven wrong.
Dixon, whose experience in the toy business includes working as a buyer for the Target Corporation and as a salesperson for both plush toy specialist Animal Adventure and the Walt Disney Company, was impressed by the grassroots success of Riley’s first two books and saw the talent and promise in his cousin.
“Paul wanted to help,” said Riley, “something like an angel investor.” But Riley was looking for an equal partner. After some persuading, the two of them formed the independent publishing company Matter of Africa America Time Corporation.
Mama Sarah, who would live to be 101, just had one favor to ask of her grandson: “Don’t forget to include me when you write your next book.” Riley, who called his grandmother the “sweetest, kindest, most patient woman” he’s ever known, didn’t forget.
Mama Sarah was still around to see book three come to fruition, which recounted World War II and the remarkable legacy of the Navajo Code Talkers. “Your grandfather would be so proud of you,” assured Mama Sarah.
More books followed, including those that specifically tackled important issues such as depression and bullying. By 2020, there were now eight stories that chronicled the adventures of Papa Lemon and his little wanderers.
In the early spring of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic completely upended the world. People were now intimately familiar with terms like “social distancing,” “super spreader events,” and “sheltering in place.” As Americans everywhere adapted to this new reality, we witnessed the murder of George Floyd in our own backyard. Minneapolis was now the center of the universe for all the wrong reasons. These were troubling times, indeed.
Still, absolutely nothing could have prepared Riley and his family for what took place on June 6, 2020. He received a telephone late that night, informing him that his youngest daughter, 23-year-old Tianna Elizabeth, was gone.
Lizzy, as she was known by her family, had been trying to help an acquaintance who was struggling with addiction, trying to save a life. Instead, he ended up taking hers. “She had such a big heart. She’d do anything for anyone,” said Riley, “and that’s what got her killed.”
Modest to a fault, Lizzy was an extraordinary artist whose talent while still in high school garnered the attention of both the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “And she was so smart, so funny, reminisced Riley. “She would light up any room with her smile, her kind spirit.”
The heartache was unbearable. For months on end, Riley found himself in a “constant, slow-motion fog.” Nothing mattered anymore. The pain was stifling. “I never imagined I could cry as much as I did,” said Riley.
“I was consumed with guilt. I felt guilty gazing into the sky. Guilty looking at the grass and the trees. Guilty eating, watching television. Guilty drawing breath.”
And then, in an instant, something changed. His second youngest daughter, Andrea, who was now a mother herself, said, “Dad. We’re all still here. We need you.”
While that woke him up, Riley still didn’t know if he could ever marshal the strength to write again, in spite of the encouragement of others. “I just didn’t have it in me.”
Eventually, however, a close friend persuaded him to consider writing a book about Lizzy, adding that with all the grief and trauma people have experienced these past two years, kids need something to help them heal.
Riley prayed on it, asking for a sign to proceed. He wrote one paragraph, then he stopped. “I couldn’t do any more.” Then he remembered what Andrea said to him and what Melodie told him as well.
Although he cried through the entire process, he finally finished the ninth installment of the Papa Lemon 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 sharing his Papa Lemon stories with tens of thousands of school children. He seeks to do the same with “Losing Lizzy,” imparting to young children tips and tools on how to process and overcome grief.
And, in the process, shining a light on the beauty, love, grace and legacy of his daughter Tianna Elizabeth.
To learn more about and purchase books in “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.