Saturday, September 23, 2006

Cheaper Than Therapy

I recently updated my Bloglines feeds and realized that ever since Dawn changed up her site that I’ve been missing out on This Woman’s Work. I really enjoy Dawn’s writing; I feel she is very thoughtful in the very literal sense of the word, and it’s been interesting following her journey. So I fixed the feed and then started reading back over her last several posts. One, called “Playing Tennis,” really struck a chord with me, particularly where she writes:
…And that reminds me of something else. My mom used to say that I looked a lot like my oldest half-sister. When I was a teen-ager this fascinated me. I thought it must mean something and I also had this fantasy about meeting her and what that would be like and how she would really like me because I looked like her. Then when I was thirteen she flew out to see us all — she must have been 20 or so? — and she didn’t like me much at all. Looking back I realize that seeing us must have been like what I have with my littlest sisters only to the nth degree, since she was harboring her own fantasies. The visit, as I remember it, was a total disappointment for everyone and I haven’t seen her since. She quit talking to my dad for about a decade after that and went through her own troubles. It was all so half-there. So not one and not the other. Everyone’s heart cracking into little pieces because what we were pretending wasn’t true.
Oh my soul, how I identify with this piece. Dawn apologizes that it is disjointed, but in my experience, that is how family is. There are so many pieces to every family, and talking about one inevitably makes you veer off toward another, and they are all interconnected, so in the end there is some sense to it, even if it may not seem so on the surface.

At any rate, when I got to this point in her entry, I started nodding my head. I am a dead ringer for my father. It is spooky how much I have always looked like him. Since my mom took me and my sister and left my dad when I was not even a year old, and since my dad never bothered with visitation until I was a teenager, this was a sore point with me for a long time. I thought it must have bothered my mom every time she looked at me. I didn’t want to look like him. I would much rather have looked like my mom, who was the Most Beautiful Woman Ever in the Entire Known World, with really thick dark curly hair, beautiful brown eyes and tan skin. It pained me that I looked so different from her and from my sister (and I did, back then, although as adults my sister and I look so alike we’ve been asked if we were twins). My sister was (is) pale, like me, but she had dark brown hair and brown eyes. I, on the other hand, had blue-green eyes and a dirty-blonde Afro (which, as I got older, graduated to light brown).

Nonetheless, I was fascinated by my father. I was sure that if he spent any time with us, we'd all get along great, and I was just as sure that had I been a boy, perhaps he would have made more of an effort. Funny, but mostly sad, the things kids blame on themselves. When I found out that he had another family – that we had a half-sister whose mother was the woman he’d been cheating on my mother with – I was stunned. She was, I thought to myself, just another girl. And yet by the time I learned she existed, she was already 8 years old (I was 10), and he had stayed with her mother that whole time. What was so special about her? I thought. Even at that age, I was well aware of how race complicates things, so when I realized that the mother of this child was white, I was stung to the core of my little racially-mixed-up self. Was this the reason for his complete rejection of us?

As an adult, I realize things are hardly ever this – well, black and white, if you’ll pardon the expression. My father was an alcoholic, and a Vietnam veteran, and underemployed, and a black man who could pass for white. He had a lot of issues.

I met my half-sister S. when she was 8, and she had only the vaguest grasp of how we were related. I was struck by how perky and innocent she seemed. I liked her and developed a bit of an affection for her, but as we grew into adolescence and I actually began to spend time with my father (and sometimes with her, though my dad had moved on to another wife and kids by then, and S. wasn’t living with them), I realized that we moved in very different worlds. And the world she was living in was a kind of a bubble where black people did not belong. Despite moving amidst my dad’s (admittedly high-yalla) extended family for most of her life, she wasn’t comfortable around black people or black culture. And as she grew into an adult, she wasn’t comfortable around even her very light and practically white half-sisters, either.

When S. was getting ready to be married, my dad called me from Cape Cod one day and was complaining about all the money he was spending on the wedding. After several minutes, I determined that the wedding was only a few weeks away, and I realized that neither my sister Lola nor I had been invited. I was not surprised that I hadn’t been invited – by this time, I had already moved to the West Coast – but Lola lived at that time only 40 minutes away from the bride-to-be. I surmised that we had been cut out, and so we were.* Years later, when Lola and I returned together to the East Coast for our father’s funeral, S. showed us pictures of her (white) husband and three sons. We exclaimed over how cute the kids were and what a nice family she had. When I showed her a picture of Viva (then only 8 months old), she looked at it with what I can only describe as a smirk and handed it back to me without a word. At that moment, I knew I would never speak to her again. I knew I could not go on pretending. We are family in name only.

By the way, on that same visit, we were welcomed with delighted, enthusiastic and open arms by my stepfather’s family. [My stepfather, in case you don’t know, is also white, lest this story has led you to think I automatically hate all white folks. For the record, I do not.] They all rearranged their schedules to see us, offered to let us stay with them, helped us dig our rental car out of the snow. These are people – step-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – that I have known pretty much all of my conscious life, since I was four years old, and these are the people I will always consider my family. My mom and my stepfather are divorced, but I will never divorce them.

One more excerpt from Dawn’s entry:
My meandering, rambling point is that you can’t get away from this. You can’t just excise people from photo albums and pretend they don’t matter. You have to let your kids have that opportunity to make sense of it themselves.
And here is where it gets sticky, and where I need another post because I could go on for hours: my relationship with my mom, grandmother, and Lola is very strained at the moment. Ever since Easter, I have had it with them. And yet, recently, Viva has been asking about Nana and Grandma and when we are going to see them. I feel that my job as her mother is to protect her as much as possible from things which might be hurtful to her. And yet, they are her family. At the same time, she is going to realize at some point that she is being treated differently, which will be hurtful. What Dawn says about letting your kids make sense of it themselves resonates with me, but makes me want to dig my heels in and fight like hell against it.

I am still working out how I want to handle things with them. I feel I have (once again) been cut out. As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with me. I am angry, and sad, and sick of it all. I have prayed, and cried, and ranted about it for hours (sorry, Sweet Dub). I feel I have tried my damnedest to mend fences, and it's time somebody else made an effort.

Ah, Internet, it is late, and I’m sure you have somewhere to go. I’m sorry I rambled so long. You have been a strong shoulder to cry on. No, no, I know, really, it’s late. Go on, brush your teeth and tuck yourself in. I’ll check in with you later.

* "Cut out" in more than one way -- my dad never spent a dime on either Lola's or my wedding, not that I expected him to.


Dawn said...

Oh wow, this post made my stomach hurt. Especially this part, "And yet by the time I learned she existed, she was already 8 years old (I was 10), and he had stayed with her mother that whole time. What was so special about her?" Ouch ouch ouch.

I just read "Mixed-Race Daughter and the Mother Who Gave Her Up" and I wonder if you've read it? It's not the same but it has a lot of the same issues. It made me think of some specifics in Madison's life a lot but it was a hard (painful) read.

Lisa Blah Blah said...

I just went and read some of the reviews of "Mixed Race Daughter" and they definitely made my stomach hurt! Nonetheless, I will probably read it because I'm sure there are many relatable moments. Thanks for the tip!

E. said...

Wow, very tough history. Families are so complicated. There always seems to be at least one totally toxic or insidious person you get stuck with, and when you have a child the option of saying "fuck it, I'm just not going to deal with this person" gets more difficult.

Like Dawn, my stomach just clinched up at the same passage. Very well expressed. It must've been difficult to write, but it sounds like it was theraputic, too.

Cee in SF said...

This post is very relatable. In a lot of ways I'm lucky. My family (mom and sissies) is pretty close - except my dad, but I've finally realized that that's all on him because I can't continue to play his reindeer games. I'm not a bank!

Recently, I've been learning that my mom was forsaken by her family for some unknown reason(s). We wondered why we never knew of them when we were young. We still don't. I related to the quandary of allowing the kids decide for themselves who they want in their lives because I'm sure my mom had the same problem. I wonder how or if my life would have been different if we knew my mom's side of the family. I still wonder.

Lisa Blah Blah said...

Yes, this is the tough stuff that I generally choose not to think about. What I find interesting is people who think I should just get over it. If it were that easy, I would have done that already!

I never in a million years would have predicted that I would not be close to my sister as an adult. Cee, you are lucky to have such a close relationship with your mom and sisters. It is really a blessing!