Originally posted 10/26/17
Apparently, I have been living in an imaginary world of my own ignorant creation for 40 years. I have denied my roots by the sheer act of not bothering to dig too deeply into the history of my family in order to distance myself from the unpretty. Why am I suddenly in the throes of this realization? Death and politics. I will explain presently. Ok, here’s the situation…
My mother was born to an 11 year-old girl. You read that right. My biological grandmother was one year younger than my youngest daughter who, as responsible as she is for her age, cannot be trusted to walk her dog once a day without a reminder. ELEVEN years old? Eleven. Years. Old. ELEVEN YEARS OLD! I keep repeating it in part because it’s still new, but mostly because it is impossible for me to imagine a child that young having a baby. I mean, I was practically a baby myself at 18 when I had my first child. But 11 years old? An 11 year old cannot possibly possess the emotional, psychological and social maturity to consent to sex, much less rear another human being. Right? I mean…right? Ok, the shock of this news is only made more shocking by the fact that I have lived nearly 41 years ignorant of it. If not for my mother’s brother passing away last week (he was 2 years younger), I would still be clueless.
I wanted to comfort my mother in her grief. The only other person who could attest to her painful and difficult childhood is gone from the earth. As long as her brother lived, my mom had an ally who understood her, who could soothe her with his presence simply because he knew her ugly and loved her anyway. In one telephone conversation my mother recalled the many times that she had to rescue her brother. You see, my mom is a small, belligerent woman who would literally cut a bitch. Actually she was a small, belligerent woman. These days old age has quelled her temper a bit, and I think she’s trying to get to heaven. Anyhow, she grew an impenetrable layer of tough to protect herself and her younger brother from an indecent world.
Unfortunately, I did not know my uncle. I can only recall seeing him one time, so I could not share my mother’s grief. However, I wanted to guide her through her pain. I listened while she confessed some of the terrible things that she could allow herself to remember. I listened to that part of my ancestry that I had so cleverly dodged all of my life and had mostly convinced myself that it didn’t really happen. It was a whisper on the wind that you’re never sure you actually heard. It was too hideous to look at, lest I would have to admit that the hideousness resides somewhere in me.
After the bombshell of a conversation with my mom, I happened upon a woman who I know casually. Somehow I got the impression that she was avoiding me. She was avoiding me? I was incredulous. I don’t even like her. No, that’s not true, because to not like a person requires an active thought about her. It’s more appropriate to say that I don’t even consider her. However, I could find more interesting things to do than talk to her, like file the dead skin off of my heels. How dare she she attempt to avoid me? She should be overjoyed to know me, because, let’s face it, I’m freaking awesome!
For 30 full minutes I let myself be annoyed by that mayonnaise woman, until something occurred to me. I was more bothered by this new development than I had been by my mother’s grief, my uncle’s death and the disturbing situations the two of them endured throughout their childhoods. Why did it matter that mayo chick didn’t want me to see her? At least I now know beyond doubt that our feelings are mutual. No need for fake pleasantries or uncomfortable conversations. I should be relieved that we can say hi and bye when our paths cross without feeling obligated to anything more.
I am never one who can leave questions unanswered, so I thought it through until I came to a conclusion. As callous as it sounds, my mother and uncle are foreigners to my world. I learned to cut myself off from the awareness of all of the harshness of my mother’s upbringing, because it did not fit into the pretty life that I had concocted. In my world, my parents were happily married intellectuals who had political debates over dinner. They read the newspaper as they sipped their morning coffee and smooched while dancing. My fantasy was the Huxtables and I was the sister between Vanessa and Rudy. In my fantasy world, I was a regular kid living in an ordinary house in which the fridge was always full and the air was always cinnamon and warm. I’d be damned if I was going to let a pesky thing like reality burst my plastic bubble.
I grew up living in that fantasy world. It was my impenetrable layer of tough, my coping mechanism against a harshness which threatened to swallow me in one gulp. I lived in my fantasy world until I made it my reality. While I got off to a rough start, I look about me now and see all of the manifestations of my imagination. I have a handsome, funny, intelligent husband who I adore and who adores me. We have three bright, beautiful kids who are healthy and (mostly) lovely. We have owned some truly magnificent homes and are less than a year away from purchasing the home that our youngest will spend the rest of her childhood in amidst one of the most affluent communities in the nation. There is morning coffee, political debates, smooches while dancing and the air is always cinnamon and warm. My world is a dream. Ha! You already know where this is going.
My dream world shattered a bit around the edges last November. I cannot express how profoundly shocked I was that we elected that man to preside over the most powerful country on the planet. How could we? People I know. My friends and acquaintances. The inhabitants of my dream world voted for him. Some of them are even proud and boast about it. Others broadcast in surreptitious ways– the odd comment in defense of the latest buffoonery, questionable memes, online debates. Their betrayal of the unwritten laws of TonyaLand sent me reeling from that gut punch feeling that I’d tried my whole life to escape. I DON’T BELONG. What’s worse, I spent this past year feeling like THEY don’t want me here.
I gradually stopped volunteering in the community because of the gnawing suspicion that some of my peers don’t want me here. I stopped extending myself to neighbors, because some of them don’t want me here. When I see people proudly displaying an American flag, I cringe because I see it as a symbol that they don’t want me here. When I think about my friends who voted for the guy who actively refused to lease or sell properties to people who look like me, I cannot come to any other conclusion but that they don’t want me here.
For a moment I am sad. I am utterly destroyed to suddenly know that mayo chick and some others like her don’t want me here. At the very least, my presence causes them discomfort. Then I’m angry. The part of me that is a small, belligerent woman screams and cries, tears and snot flinging with two middle fingers shoved into the air “F*@K YOU!” Another part wants to run away to a place where I may fit in better.
However, ALL of me knows that it’s no use to run or curse or cry. I’ve been around the world, and I just don’t fit in… anywhere. Still, whether they want me here or not, I’m here. And I have every right to be here. Honey and I worked hard to get here. I spent sleepless nights studying while running a household to get here. It took me two marriages and living like a miser for decades to get here. I hustled and scrapped to get here. I earned my place HERE. I’m about to drop a big piece of change on an overpriced property, because THIS is where I choose to reside. I’m not about to give it all up just because I make some people uncomfortable with my presence. Deal with it.
That’s it! You may not trust that I didn’t have this moment planned when I began typing, but it’s true. I had only a vague notion of what I wanted to say in this post. Not until a moment ago did it dawn on me that “they” cannot like or dislike me because I’ve been too busy living in a pretty little fantasy. Anytime anything has gone not according to script, I ignored it like it didn’t exist. It’s the same with our country. The election was a splash of cold water to the face of our collective denial. We need to face the reality in front of us. We are far from the fantasy that we pretend to be.
By the end of 2016, the ugly had flung itself against the dome of my fantasy world so violently and relentlessly that all that remained of the dream were shattered shards of perfection lying at my feet. Reality would no longer let me pretend that I didn’t come from an eleven year old grandmother or that my own mother was a teenage mom who sometimes used drugs to escape from the darkness that occupied the corners of her young mind. I had to face being a bastard child from the murder capital of the country who knew what it meant to be hungry, cold and poor. As much as I strived for pretty, my reality was deformed, grimy and gnarled off at the edges.
I am Newark, NJ and the backwood of Linden, NC. I am an 18-year-old mom, divorced at 22. I am a survivor of inappropriate fondling at the hands of someone I trusted. I am hunger and grit and making a way out of no way. I am an 8 year old scrubbing my clothes on a washboard in our bathtub, because my parents can’t afford to take them to a laundromat. I am a 16 year old washing my cheerleading socks in the bathroom sink, so my White friends won’t guess that I can’t afford to live in their world.
I am grief and laughter, failure and triumph, poverty and wealth, ugly and pretty. I am me because of my flaws, not despite them. Mayo chick doesn’t know me because, hell, I barely know myself. She doesn’t know that I absolutely hate shopping at the mall, because it all feels plastic and pointless. Or that I love finding a beautiful dress at the thrift shop because I feel connected to its previous owner and secretly hope she strikes up a conversation when she recognizes it. Mayo chick doesn’t know that I count my friends on one hand, because I can barely tolerate inane prattle or the way too many people size you up based on how their association with you can enhance or benefit them. Or that I have the same best friend since high school, because she is the first person that I ever trusted with my ugly and is still the only person who can laugh with me through the darkest bits of life. Mayo chick knows none of this, because I spent a lifetime trying to evade and ignore any pieces of me that do not fit into her mayo world.
Well, eff that life. As a matter of fact, eff these past two horrible years. Eff trying to fit in. Eff caring about them wanting me here. Eff that fake, shiny, plastic, boring ass mayonnaise world that I never truly wanted to be part of in the first place. In MayoLand, they don’t dance, and I am a dancer.
“They were assholes”, I tell my mom when I call her back. “Those people were assholes and the things they did to you were evil. They should have protected you. They should have helped you and your brother, not mistreat you and discard you like you were barely human.”
“I know that”, my mother laughs. Her tears have dried. In this moment, she is no longer grieving for her childhood, though she still aches for her brother. I marvel at her strength and her ability to see beauty in what others consider ugly. She moved back to Newark because, as gritty and unpleasant as it may be, it is home. She relishes being the mother of the community, doling out smiles and advice to young people who remind her of herself. She is quick to put someone in his or her place when she thinks they are putting on airs. She is strangely optimistic and helps everyone she can though she has very little to give.
My mother and I are completely different. I disagree with her on nearly every major life philosophy, but I am immensely proud that her courage and unabashed optimism pump through me as surely as her blood runs through my veins. I am eternally grateful that she did the one thing she could for me. She stayed. Despite the fact that she had me, her third child, at the age of 20, she stayed. Despite the bouts of debilitating depression and not knowing how to provide for four children after a divorce, she stayed to be the mother that she never had. She stayed so that my siblings and I could complain about her and be embarrassed by her, because she knew what we did not. It is better to have an imperfect mother than to have no mother at all. Even now, when I complain about my mom, a secret part of me whispers a breath of thanks that she had the courage to square up to life and embrace the ugly bits. And stay.
That is what I am learning to do. That’s what our country must learn to do. Our history is not pretty. It is deformed, grimy and gnarled off at the edges. It is slavery and rape. It is genocide and war. It is misogyny and oppression. It is police harassment, brutality and violence as the overseers became officers. It is Jim Crow and lynchings and burning down thriving Black communities. Our shared American history is sick, dark, twisted and unpretty. The hideousness resides somewhere in all of us. However, we are here, and we are beautiful. We are much more interesting and wonderful than those parts we fear will pull us asunder.
It’s time for us to take a cue from Gloria and amass the courage to square up to the ugly bits, tears and snot flinging with two middle fingers shoved into the air with a grand F*@K YOU! Let’s stop living in a plastic, whitewashed fantasy world and remember how terrific it feels to dance.