BUFFALO, N.Y. — He stood next to his mother as she lay in her white coffin, gliding his palm between his 9-year-old son’s back and his grown daughter’s shoulder.
Just days before, Wayne Jones had watched a video filmed from the point of a view of a gunman who reloaded a rifle, pointed it at his mother’s head and pulled the trigger. He knew then that she was with God.
Jones, 48, was the only child of Celestine Chaney, one of 10 Black people slain in a racist massacre that, for all of 10 days, was the year’s deadliest mass shooting. Her love had been bottomless; now its absence was.
Jones had six children of his own, and they needed care, too. They required a pillar, and so he had allowed only fleeting glimpses of his heartache during the 10 days between his 65-year-old mother’s killing and the funeral. But as dozens of mourners came to him to offer an embrace as he sat in the first row of Elim Christian Fellowship on Tuesday, it was time for him to feel his pain in full.
In the United States, it has happened at least 214 times in this year alone: Shots ring out, and when the mayhem ends, at least four people are found dead or injured, meeting the cold, statistical definition of a mass shooting.
The mourning, whether in Buffalo or Laguna Woods, California, or Uvalde, Texas, has a now-familiar, frenetic, front-loaded cadence. The bursts of voicemail messages from reporters, the infinitely repeated video on cable television. The deaths described at news conferences in police-report language, the deluge of donations and condolences — and the swiftly organized funerals.
Inevitably, another tragedy arises in another city and attention fades. Then, each family left behind must find its own path. In this moment, in Buffalo, hundreds of congregants dressed in Celestine Chaney’s favorite pink extended their right hands to pray for her son, who would shepherd his family forward.
Jones rocked his head. His face tightened. And with his partner at his side, he finally allowed his tears to spill. His mother’s coffin was shut, and his eldest daughter, Kayla Jones, shook.
Wayne Jones clutched her right hand. He held her as she sobbed.
Modest checks, and a meaningful life
Mass gun death is a signature American experience: shots after an argument at a party in the West, or within a single family in the South. Again, at a birthday celebration or outside a nightclub.
Again, at church or an elementary school.
Again, at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo where older Black neighbors congregate on slow weekend afternoons.
Hundreds of lives have been claimed by these tragedies. And now Chaney is one among them. The youngest of four sisters, she raised her son largely as a single mother in a modest home filled with sewing materials on Buffalo’s East Side.
She gave birth to Jones as a teenager, and worked fashioning men’s suits and baseball caps at manufacturers for $110 weekly checks through the 1980s. On the first day of many months, after government benefits arrived, she would bring her son on excursions to the market. They grabbed ingredients for her preferred dessert, strawberry shortcake. A simple way to splurge.
They did not have much. But they always had Chaney’s famous smile, one that made her deep eyes narrow in their corners and her cheeks perk up.
When Jones was young, paramedics picked Chaney up from their home after she had a brain aneurysm. The prognosis was bleak. But she beamed after leaving the hospital, and she managed to smile again later even after two more aneurysms were discovered. Around 2003 came breast cancer. Chemotherapy changed her skin, her hands darkening as she fought the disease for more than five years.
That would not be her time to go, either. But on this side of Buffalo, health care is scarce, death arrives sooner — and neighbors have their own mourning rituals. When a beloved nephew died last month, Chaney began designing a sky-blue pamphlet with his image.
On May 14, she planned to print copies with her older sister, JoAnn Daniels, for a barbecue memorializing the nephew the next weekend. But on that pleasant Saturday, the shop was closed.
So Chaney turned to the next item on her checklist. She had strawberries at home, but no store seemed to carry the small dessert cups she needed for shortcake. With their extra time, the sisters went to hunt them down at Tops market.
They were in the aisles when an 18-year-old, who had driven some 200 miles to execute a plan of killing the Black people he believed were taking over the nation, opened fire. The gunman had sought a ZIP code with a high percentage of Black residents, and had seized on Tops as a target. It was among the only places nearby to buy fresh food.
There was a rush to the store’s rear, and as the sisters followed, Chaney fell. With her ailments and age, she could not easily run. She told Daniels that she would be right behind. Minutes became hours as Daniels waited to see Chaney turn a corner, and smile once more.
Then, at once, she knew.
“From my feet all the way up to my chest, I felt her like a light in me,” said Daniels, 74, the last living sibling. “I told my niece, ‘I feel Stiny. Oh my god, she’s gone.’”
“You survive everything she did. And you couldn’t survive going to the grocery store,” she said.
The barbecue would now honor a nephew — and a sister.
‘I don’t want to think about Tops anymore’
Family portraits from cruises and amusement parks are arrayed across a shelf at the entrance of the home in Cheektowaga, just outside Buffalo’s city limits, where Jones and his longtime partner, Halimah Madyun, have raised their children: Nasir, Donell, Chayna, Charon, Kayla and Wayne Jr.
Tucked on a slow street, this place offered a promise of steadier schools, a sense of safety and a stable pace of life. The front door displays a collection of child-made artwork.
The families of Jones and Madyun have been intertwined since grade school, and the couple has spent more than a decade together. Some of their children came from previous relationships. But “step-” and “half-” are not used here. There are only parents, brothers and sisters.
Six days after the shooting, as throngs of relatives arrived to offer support, it was time for a meal. Chicken from Tops was served for dinner: The market was delivering food to the families of those who had lost loved ones.
“Why is everything from Tops?” Donell Jones, 9, asked his father. “I don’t want to think about Tops right now.”
Two of Donell’s older sisters had flown up from Atlanta. For the eldest, 24-year-old Kayla, “grandmother” was synonymous with “best friend.”
Kayla Jones was a school-aged child when Chaney was fighting cancer, still learning what that word meant as she watched her grandmother lose her hair. As a teenager, she began purchasing wigs to help her grandmother feel more comfortable. It was the least she could do for someone who had done so much for her.
Chaney often labored in the kitchen as an exercise of love, preparing 7UP cakes and fried chicken, or making a dozen deviled eggs at a time for Kayla Jones on many visits.
On this May evening, the family home was overflowing with food.
Fruit and cheese platters, macaroni and potato chips. Premade sandwiches, brownies, cornbread and burger buns. There was simply no room to store it all.
One cousin surveyed the ingredients around the kitchen: pickled relish, Miracle Whip, a recently delivered carton of eggs. Maybe it would serve a purpose, after all. He asked someone to boil a pot of water.
“You better make them like my grandmother,” Kayla Jones shouted.
When the deviled eggs were ready, Kayla Jones grabbed three to begin. And then, she added more to her plate.
An exhausting reality
Wayne Jones’ family was already familiar with racism’s physical threat.
In Philadelphia, Mississippi, where a relative on his father’s side lived decades ago, Ku Klux Klan members were known to ride by his home in hoods, the family lore goes. The relative often kept a shotgun in his lap when he sat on his porch.
Generations later, Chaney fell victim to a similar hatred.
The massacre at Tops was excruciating enough. The persistence of racism made the days that followed all the more exhausting.
Jones was dissatisfied by the answers the country offered. The stagnation of gun control efforts frustrated him, along with the idea that such killings are an inevitable facet of American life. The suggestion that the pandemic helped foment the violence seemed cruel, when his family had suffered so deeply these past two years.
Jones’ grandmother was hospitalized after contracting the coronavirus, and in September 2020, she died. When Chaney was busy, his grandmother had filled in to help raise him.
Neither was around anymore.
Amid the funeral preparations, Jones’ eyes sometimes landed on no place in particular, and his mind wandered. His children worried. How would he fare when his house emptied? When he had more time to linger on the what-ifs, whether things would have been different had he just waked up earlier that Saturday and visited her.
All that hindsight was for later.
Wayne Jones Jr., 27, stopped by a salon to get a strand of color in his twists. It looked red to his sisters; it was meant to be pink. The women took trips to get their nails done, all in rosy shades. And Wayne Jones wrangled his three sons to get fitted for their funeral attire of black suit jackets, white shirts and pink ties.
One evening, he organized a game night for his children. They played Uno with relatives, and laughed through other games. They raised their drinks to toast, more than once. The 4-year-old, Nasir, crawled under tables and tapped on a tablet.
Madyun sat on their black sectional sofa working on the funeral program, between interruptions from their little ones. Jones joined her to add his part, writing a five-line poem for his mother’s pamphlet.
Some of the children piled upstairs when it was time to sleep. They each found their own spot, next to one another in their parents’ bed.
“They needed this,” Jones said.
In their grandmother’s memory
It was Chaney’s 65th birthday, and she had ordered the most expensive item on the menu: a filet mignon and lobster meal that pushed $70. But it was no problem for her. Kayla Jones was paying.
Kayla Jones had not been in Buffalo for almost a full year. But she was sure to travel back for Chaney’s birthday and treat her to dinner at a seafood restaurant on Main Street. They ordered mimosas and giggled.
Eight days later, Chaney was gone.
Kayla Jones, who runs an online candle company from Atlanta, had a project she had hoped to share with her grandmother: a new candle for breast cancer awareness. She could even send funds to the site where Chaney underwent chemotherapy. “And then the day I think of it,” Kayla Jones said, “she died.”
Kayla Jones lives alone. Her return to Atlanta worried her, with only her wandering thoughts to fill the time. In Buffalo, she was surrounded by siblings, aunts, cousins, her father and so many others.
Two days before the funeral, Kayla Jones embarked with her sister Charon, 24, on a 30-mile morning drive to a tattoo parlor in an outlying town. The two wanted the same art. The store’s owners declined to charge.
As the needles whirred, they recalled Chaney’s contagious laugh, how it could spread to others even when a joke fell flat. How she would offer them all the food in her house, pummeling them with options until they acquiesced and agreed to eat.
Toward the end, the artist stopped his work for a few seconds.
“I don’t want to get choked up,” the man, Joe Marzolf, said. “I wish I could’ve known her. She sounds like a really cool girl.”
“She was,” Kayla Jones replied softly.
Their tattoos were complete. Matching pink breast cancer ribbons, their grandmother’s name inscribed within.
At Forest Lawn Cemetery, Wayne Jones clenched the pink rose in his hands but could not bring himself to set it on his mother’s coffin yet.
Over her years of illness, her death had appeared imminent at times. He was prepared. Or, at least, he thought he was.
Memories, however, refuse to be buried. Her light pinches and offers of peppermints to win silence during church services. Her two-step and arm bob whenever “Uptown Funk” played. Just her voice.
So with his family surrounding him, Jones paused in front of her. And after mustering the will, he lay the rose over her.
He blew her a kiss as she descended into the ground.
He found a seat alongside his 15-year-old daughter, Chayna, who leaned her head on his left shoulder. He shut his eyes for extended periods. When he opened them, he gazed straight ahead.
As relatives took their own graveside moments then backed away, his oldest children remained.
Tears streamed down Kayla Jones’ cheeks, too fast to wipe them all away. Her sister Charon embraced her. Their older brother sent more blossoms into the grave. Pink, purple, whatever color was nearest.
Wayne Jones took two white flowers and walked away.
In their own time, his children found the strength to follow him.