I do not remember if Bill and my mom gradually stopped seeing each other or if there was a big dramatic break-up. There was probably a fight, but there was always a fight. I only remember the sudden safety. The days and nights accumulating where no one was trying to kill us. I would sleep in my mom’s bed every single night during this time of no men. I would curl up next to her and wrap my whole body around her. I was 5 years old and forced to spend the long school hours away from her now that I was in Kindergarten. Then I spent the weekends at my father’s. So, weeknights were my mama time.
One Sunday night, I was getting picked up from my Dad’s as usual. Mom would either walk to get me and hold my hand all the way back to Brooklynside or she would get a ride with one of our relatives, often Uncle Alfred. I remember that. The phone rang and my big brother handed it to me. He stayed close so he could hear the conversation or at least one side of it. I don’t think my big brother was a fan of my mom.
“Hey, sweetie!” Mom was gonna be here soon. Why was she calling? She sounded weird. Was she ok? The anxiety was already flooding my senses and I think that is why I remember this exact moment in such detail. I knew that our life was changing. I knew it the second I heard my mom’s voice. Mom had called to tell me that she would be picking me up in a different car than usual and she wanted to warn me. She had a new… ”friend” and she was excited for me to meet him.
I can still see myself walking up the small hill behind my father’s apartment leading up to the parking lot where my mom once gave birth to me. She was now standing leaning against a red corvette with a thick black stripe going down the front. Mom was a looker back then. She had on acid-washed jeans and a flowery crop top that tied just above her belly button. Her hair was feathered in a 70’s shag. I could tell that she was feeling herself and she was loving every minute of this moment. I walked slowly toward her even though I usually ran, grateful to be back in my mom’s arms. I remember that it had been school picture day on Friday and I was still wearing or wearing again, the lacy powder blue dress that I felt so pretty in. A plastic pearl necklace was attached with thread to the front of the dress. There was a small hole in the sleeve, but you wouldn’t be able to see it in the pictures. We had gotten in at the thrift store and I felt like a princess in it.
I could feel the eyes of my step-mom and all of my siblings peeking around the curtains to see who had brought my mom in this flashy car. My father was bedridden on a hospital cot in the living room. They would definitely be reporting this display back to him.
I was scared to look directly at the man grinning from behind the steering wheel. I didn’t want to meet him. I did not want my mom to have a “new friend.” I did not like men. Well, I did not like men who weren’t my grandpa or my Uncle Bud, or my Uncle Alfred.
“Baby, Say Hi!” My mom was trying hard. I could tell she was nervous about this greeting. She knew that I would be polite. I was always polite, but maybe she was worried that he wouldn’t like me. “I have told Tom all about you all weekend. I have told him how smart you are and that you are my sweet little angel!”
Tom was a charmer. He knew how to perform and he was already in character. “Nice to meet you, young lady.” He said in a formal tone. I noticed that he talked a little funny, but my mom later explained that Tom was deaf. He could hear a little bit, but mostly he read lips. I didn’t know that yet, so I just mumbled, “hi,” shyly from the backseat.
“I have a surprise for you ladies tonight! We have to celebrate! Let’s go get ice cream!” Mom and I never ever got ice cream out. For one thing, I had recently won a coloring contest and earned a year’s supply of ice cream from the local grocery store. Some days, that was the only food we had to eat. For another thing, going out to get ice cream was expensive! I even knew that at 6 years old. Who was this guy? Bill never took us out for ice cream. He never took us out anywhere other than the paper route.
Maybe that specialness of this moment explains my detailed memories. Mom and I stood there in line with our heads held high. We usually both slumped into the shadows trying to avoid people’s stares, but we wanted to be seen standing in line to buy ice cream cones at the window! We wanted to be seen getting into this red sports car.
I risked a glance at Tom. He was handsome. He had thick jet black hair and dark blue eyes. He had full dark lips and the beginnings of a beard. He wore his button-down shirt tucked into blue jeans and he had on a big silver buckle. He didn’t really look like the other guys I knew. He didn’t look like Bill. There was something different about him that I couldn’t place yet. Maybe it was the formal way he acted during that time.
I didn’t know it then, but Tom had just been released from Prison. He had immediately moved back to PA where he had some relatives. Tom had a wife and daughter back in Florida where he was incarcerated, but the wife had had him locked away for Domestic Violence. You can be arrested for that? This was news to me.
“She lied about me. I would never hit a woman. I’m a real man. She just wanted to take my daughter away from me.” Wow. I couldn’t believe that he had gone to Jail or Prison even for hitting his wife when he didn’t really do it! I felt bad for him. I thought he knows what it feels like to go through hard and terrible things and some part of my heart made space for him.
Tom moved in right away. He was homeless. All that he had to his name was a backpack with a few outfits, a bible that was a gift from the halfway house he was coming from, and his favorite brush. He loved his hair and he loved that brush.
Mom and I were living in Public Housing so we tried to keep his moving in a secret, but we were good at secrets so this should be no big deal. Plus, when the Housing People came to do our monthly inspections, we wouldn’t have anything to hide, except for his physical body since he didn’t own anything. I wonder about this. How did he get that car? He didn’t have a license and he didn’t have a cent to his name. It doesn’t make sense. Maybe he stole it in Florida and then drove it all the way to PA. It is definitely a possibility knowing Tom.
My mom told Tom about my asthma, how I would just stop breathing sometimes and other times I would breathe so fast that I would pass out. He knew just what I needed. A little basic training, and he was the perfect drill sergeant. For those first few months, Tom and I would wave goodbye to my mom and head outside to run. I would race along behind him going up and down the hills in my town. Everything is hills where I am from and I would quickly be huffing and puffing. Tom told me that was good. I needed to build my strength. If it was raining, Tom would stand above me in the living room and count out the push-ups and sit-ups for me. If I did not do enough, he would not yell at me. He would just walk away and look disappointed. “You’re not even trying!” was all he needed to say. I never wanted to disappoint him. I never wanted to let him down. I had never felt such a need to impress anyone in my life.
I practiced day and night going through all of the exercises that Tom taught me. Now, I know he probably had done these exercises in prison. I can see how he must have loved to be the person in power looking down on me and training me to be a better version of myself the way that maybe some guard had stood over him. I don’t know but that is how I have always seen this memory.
Tom made me a deal, if I could do 100 sit-ups and 50 push-ups and run our whole route without stopping, he would buy me a new doll. He would buy me the baby check-up doll that I desperately wanted. I had my sights on being a Dr. Someday so I could keep people like my mom and dad alive. I loved that doll so much. I can still smell that new doll smell as I type this up. I was in love with the doll and in love with Tom. I started calling him Dad soon after that.
One night my mom and Tom were in their bedroom. There was a lot of yelling and I was terrified. I wanted them to come out, to open the door so I could see my mom and know that she was ok.
Finally, the door flew open. Tom was in a rage. He looked just like Bill did when he hit my mom. He was yelling and ripping pages out of my mom’s bible. The pages were falling all over the floor around me. I was curled into a ball hugging my legs watching those papers fly around the room when I realized I was screaming. “MOOOOOOOOMMY!” I didn’t even hear myself, I just realized Tom was squatting down in front of me when he pried my hands off of my ears. I just kept saying that over and over. “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” Until she was in front of me too. I needed to know that she was ok.
I will never forget what Tom said to me. He pulled me into his lap. He hugged me close and he said, “Did you think I was gonna hurt your mommy?” I nodded my head with tears still sliding down my cheeks. He lifted my chin with one hand and looked directly into my eyes. “I will NEVER hurt your mom. I would never hurt either of you. I promise.”
Later I learned that mom had disclosed her HIV status to him that night. Mom had been sleeping with him for months at this point and she was only now just telling him. This was 1991. AIDS was still very much a death sentence.
When I was 21, I was working at one of those cutesy food cooperatives in a gorgeous coastal town in Maine. I had no idea that rural could mean wealth. Even though this town was about the same size as the one I grew up in, it never felt familiar. It was like living in a postcard. I could never settle into myself there. Still, my first baby was born at home in that town, so I will be connected to that place forever.
I rented a room in a different small town that felt more like home, in a big house full of people that felt like family. Children from three different families ran through the living room, the kitchen was always full of good food cooking, and Spanish and English conversations filled the house. It was a dream living situation for me at the time, but, it was maybe 20 minutes from the co-op. My boyfriend, Jamie lived just up the road from the co-op in a “winter rental” cabin so I often slept at his place on the nights I worked. After a few months of that arrangement, I moved in with him full time at the cabin. I still know and love the families from the big noisy house and I still consider them part of my extended family. That’s kinda the thing about being an orphan. Once I decide you are family, I do not forget that.
The co-op was itty-bitty back then and everyone who worked there got to know each other really well. Like a lot of other stores, the co-op seemed to primarily hire pretty young women to work the register. Most of the men were in manager roles or cooking and doing dishes back in the cafe. I loved the arrangement because going to work felt like hanging out with my friends. We could gossip while stocking shelves and when customers were around, it was just more people for me to connect with. Mothers grew to trust me enough to hand their babies over the register and shop for a few minutes with two free hands. I loved all of the kids and they seemed to like me too. More than a few little boys brought me necklaces while I was working. It was a sweet and special time, for the most part.
But. There was one man who worked there who cast a shadow over this whole idyllic work environment. His name was John. He had been there since the opening of the co-op and he was in kind of a manager role over the cashiers. Maybe not officially, but he was 20 years older than the rest of us working the registers and his job was definitely slightly above ours. We all knew that he didn’t like to interact with customers and we didn’t like to interact with him so it worked out that us girls worked the register and he did whatever unloading of boxes etc that needed taken care of.
Still, this was a small town grocery store so there were many times every shift where there were no customers at the register and the cashiers were expected to stock shelves. This is where my work went from a sweet community loving experience to a nightmare. I know that sounds dramatic, but it is 12 years later and I am still wrestling with my feelings about this experience.
Stocking shelves was hell because it meant bringing my body out from the safety of the register and into the open aisles of the store. Every single shift, if I was stocking shelves, I had to guard my body. I had to locate John in the store and tune my ears for his footsteps. I learned to be constantly aware of where he was at any time and to be ready to protect my body if he was coming near me. John had a habit of accidentally brushing his body against mine anytime I got distracted or let my guard down. The first time it happened, I instinctively apologized, “Oh! I’m sorry! I’m always in the way.” Silly me. I was in his way. I remember turning around to see who had bumped me. John didn’t even stop. He just kept going like it didn’t even happen. I remember noting that there was plenty of space in the aisle behind me and that it was weird that he had bumped me. Still, I shrugged it off because he didn’t even acknowledge it. He was a quiet man and I figured he just didn’t notice me. Then it happened again. The back of his hand swept across the back pockets of my jeans when I bent to grab a bag of chips out of the bottom of a huge shipment box. I learned to contort my body so that my behind was never ever exposed to a possible hand or worse the length of his body. In all of the months that I worked there, I can not remember a single other person bumping into me like that. It was a small store….but not that small.
John made every single hair on the back of my neck go up, but as long as I worked the day shift and there were people around, I figured it was never going to be worse than a gross unwanted touch. I could minimize those by staying vigilant but I was working after all and sometimes I got distracted or let my guard down.
I started to study him to assess how much of a threat he was. I noticed that while he appeared to keep his head down and his focus on his work, he was also watching me. I would catch him peeking out from his bent head staring at my body. If I noticed him, he would blush and keep going. I was not used to this type of threat. The predators I was used to were more loud about it. John made me second guess constantly if I was overreacting or not.
I admit that I can be a little sensitive to this type of behavior. Still, I worked with lots of men at that store and I enjoyed getting to know all of the other ones. Male customers would come in and chat too long while I handed them their change and make eyes at me or whatever and it never felt threatening. I was a young woman and I was used to flirty men. I was not above being flirty myself. I pretty much flirt on some level with everyone. It’s just who I am. I love people. I love getting to know people and feeling connection. This thing that John did was not that. It was not harmless and it did not open up connection. It scared me.
One week in February one of my co-workers called out sick for an extended period. They worked the night shift which ended at 7 or something, but in Maine in February, 7:00 pm may as well be midnight. It is pitch dark outside at that time and there is no one else out on the roads. I picked up the shift because we could use the money and because I felt like the co-op needed me to. Jamie happened to be away that week, so my nerves were already a little worn. I was already not sleeping well or feeling as secure as I might have if he was home.
Jamie is a stone mason and he spent a lot of that winter working away at Moose Head Lake carving a hot tub out of a giant granite rock for people who were famous in some way or other. This set-up left me spending many nights alone at the cabin. I am a survivor of sexual violence and my trauma makes being alone at night particularly uncomfortable. I knew that I should be a grown-up about it and I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t just get over it. When Jamie was away, I couldn’t sleep without leaving the lights on. I slept with my contacts in or if I felt brave, I would take my contacts out but sleep with my glasses on my face. Jamie and I had a bed up in the loft but when he was away, I slept down on the couch so that I would not be trapped if an intruder came in. The loft only had one ladder to it, and I needed to be able to map out my escape. I had to feel prepared for the worst. So, I do bring that. That is something that is a part of me.
One night at work during one of Jamie’s absences, I realized the cafe closed early and the only staff left were me…and John. I could feel my heart racing and I spent the shift going over my safety plans. I left the front doors to the store unlocked in case I needed a quick escape even though I should have locked them right at 7. I held my phone in my hand while I vacuumed the floors with my friend’s contact pulled up and ready. I knew I would not hear John approach with the vacuum running and I was genuinely terrified. In his defense, he did not jump me in the co-op that night. He did not do any of the unimaginable things that my mind warned me that he wanted to do. But in my defense, I had spent months working with a man who touched my body without my consent at every opportunity. He touched my breasts, my butt, my thighs, my back, my stomach. I felt his unwanted touch on almost every part of my body, but because these touches were always quick and “accidents,” I was never sure if they really were what they felt like.
That night, I escaped the co-op safely. John told me he would lock up behind us and said it was ok for me to go. I ran to my car, locked the doors and sped out of there, but I still didn’t feel safe. I felt sure that he was going to follow me back to the cabin. I felt convinced that he knew that Jamie was away for the week. John might have noticed that Jamie never came in to say hi that week or overheard me talking to a friend about missing him.
The dirt road from the co-op to the cabin was icy and unpredictable. It followed the curves of the coast and even though I drove that road every day, the night had the effect of making it feel totally unfamiliar. My eyes were glued to my rear-view mirror, watching behind me more than I was watching the road ahead of me. I could not shake the feeling that he was following me. In my mind, it all led to this. He wouldn’t jump me in the co-op, he was smarter than that. You know where this is going, I’m sure. I hit a patch of ice and lost control of the car. I was lucky. I was driving slow, so despite banging up the front of my car, I was safe and the car was drive-able. Shaken, I called that friend that was still pulled up and ready on my phone. “Can I spend the night at your house tonight? I’m sorry. I wrecked on the way home and Jamie is still gone and I don’t want to be alone tonight.”
That night while she and I finished off a bottle of wine, I asked her for the first time if John ever “bumped into her” in a “weird way.” Surprise surprise, she said, “yes!” I was not even relieved to know that I wasn’t crazy. Deep down, I knew that it couldn’t just be me. It was so blatant at this point and so constant. I ran to her bathroom and vomited. I knew that I couldn’t let him keep doing this to us.
At work the next day, I waited until the milk truck came. It would take John a while to empty out the heavy glass bottles. “Does John ever rub against you when he’s walking by?” I asked another young, female co-worker. “Yes, but I think he’s just weird. I don’t think he means anything by it…Why?”
Not every woman who worked there said yes, but when I looked at the whole picture I could see that he chose us carefully. He knew which ones were quiet and which ones said, “Sorry.” that first time that be bumped into us. My training as a girl had been to apologize for taking up space and to always defer to men, but John didn’t count on the fact that I was growing aware of this in me and actively fighting to uproot it. I might have been an easy target but I was a target that was ready to fight back.
I could not convince a single girl to go with me to report this sexual harassment, but I had most of their blessings. I armed myself with the new knowledge that I was no longer tolerating this abuse because it was no longer just about me. No one else was ready to stand against it, so I needed to. I stepped into the general manager’s office and closed the door behind me. I steadied my breath and my trembling hands as much as I knew how. Karen, the GM looked up from her paperwork and smiled her big fake boss-smile. I had already gotten on her bad side a little bit when I questioned how ethical it was that none of us cashiers could afford to be member-owners of the store or really to shop there much at all. She saw me as a little bit of a rabble-rouser, and to be fair, I was.
Still, she was my boss and she was a woman, and I thought she would have my back.
“Crystal, come in. Sit down. What can I do for you?”
“Um…Hi, Karen. I am sorry to do this to you. I know this is going to be stressful…but….I am sorry.” Karen stops shuffling paper and watches my face waiting for me to spit it out already. Maybe she thinks I am quitting.
“It’s ok, Crystal. Go ahead.”
“Um…I am wanting to talk to you about…John.” I swallow the lump in my throat. I need to get this out even though I am scared. “He has been sexually harassing me…and not just me…some of the other girls too.”
“What? John? That doesn’t sound like him at all. Do you know how long he’s been here at the coop?”
“Oh, um, I don’t know. But. He sometimes touches me, or like, rubs up against me….”
“Crystal. I can talk to John about giving you more space if you want.”
“No, um. That is not what I want. I don’t feel safe here. He does this all the time. Like almost every shift I work with him. For months. He touches me. Please. I want to work here, but I don’t feel like I can keep working with him. It’s not just me. He’s doing this to some of the other girls too.”
“What other girls?” She looks around to point out that I am in here alone.
“Well, I promised I wouldn’t tell you which girls have experienced this, but just know that I am not the only one!”
“Crystal. What are you saying? What do you want me to do? John has been here such a long time.” Maybe she said the amount of time. I think she said 6 or 7 years. “He is a part of this place, you know?”
I am listening to her and getting more and more angry. I am wondering how many years you have to work in a place before it excuses sexual harassment, but I am young and I can see that I lost. and honestly, I am kind of embarrassed, because in my deepest heart I know that what John is doing is wrong and inappropriate, but I also know that I have survived so much worse. So much worse. So, why am I complaining about a man just accidentally rubbing up against me?
I walk out of there with my head spinning and I do not even remember how this conversation ended. Maybe that was just that. Maybe I just said, “Thank you.” and left. Maybe I said nothing. I do not know, because I went numb. I shut off my senses because it would be worse to feel that what this woman was saying was that my safety did not matter. My body did not matter. I could either choose to let a man grope me against my will at work while being paid minimum wage or I could quit and have no job that I was qualified for in this high-class small town. Even worse, I had to face the other girls who knew I was having this conversation and tell them that she didn’t care and that she wasn’t going to do anything about it. Nothing was going to change. “See?” they would say to me. “that is why we didn’t want to go with you.”
My mom was splayed across the bench seat in the front of the old pick-up truck. Her moans were squeezing out of the cracks in the windows. It was steaming hot inside the truck, sweat pouring down her face as she tried desperately to breathe and breathe and not push. Her fingers gripped the grimy dashboard, ”AAAUNNNNNGH!”
My aunt was there. Not one of my mom’s many sisters, but my Aunt Luann. She is my uncle Donnie’s wife. “Just hold on, Debbie, the Ambulance is comin’!” Aunt Luann tried to reassure my mom. Tried to calm her shaking body with a hand on her knee.
Only just an hour before, my mom had walked back from the Doctor’s office. She got a craving for some snacks and popped into the grocery store real quick on the way home. Mom was a stick figure back then and carried me right out front like a big watermelon. She must have looked ridiculous walking home that day swinging bags of groceries on either side of her big belly and stopping every few steps to rest. Mom couldn’t drive so she was no stranger to long walks, but by the time she got home, she was exhausted. She could feel the rhythmic tightening of her belly. Squeeze, Release. Squeeze, Release. Every time the squeeze would last a little longer and hold her in a tighter grip. The doctor had inserted a finger into her vagina and said, “Baby is still high! You are only at 1 centimeter dilated. Go home. Take it easy. You still have a ways to go.” I might have been high up when he checked, but I was definitely not high up after that walk home! Every time mom took another step, my big head pressed down harder and harder on her cervix. Every step up the hill that day, jostled me lower and lower in the birth canal.
Mom was raised to believe that she didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Her contractions were telling her it was go-time, but she told her body to quiet down! The doctor was the expert not her squeezing uterus. Also, this was mom’s first pregnancy so what did she know about what was happening in her body? My father on the other hand had witnessed this process four times already with the births of his children with his wife. He took one look at my mom swaying back and forth, little guttural noises pushing through her clenched teeth, and he knew this was it. The baby was coming! I was coming!
My father climbed up beside her in the truck. It felt like there was a bowling ball in between her legs. That is exactly how she described that moment to me! She could not even sit up in the seat correctly. She laid back across the shifter and let out a growl. “THIS. BABY. IS. COMING. NOW!”
All of the blood rushed out of my father’s face. They were not going to make it to the hospital in time. There was no way. The hospital was half an hour away in the next town over. “Call an Ambulance! Go! Go! The baby is coming right now!”
No one seemed to be moving fast enough. My father walked with a cane that he carved himself. He wrapped his fingers over the coiled snake and heaved his body out of the truck. Dad walked with a limp from contracting Polio as a boy, but he had spent years turning that limp into a cool, tough guy strut. That day, there was no time for swagger. The landline was all the way across the yard and into the kitchen against the far wall. My dad was not a fast man, but that day, he put one foot in front of the other and got to that phone in record time.
Meanwhile, there was a small crowd gathering around the truck. Women who had already birthed came closer to offer support and encouragement. Men and children scattered through the alley and sprawled on the grass a buzz of excitement and also just the scandal of it all. The sounds coming out of that truck were enough to make the whole crowd blush, but no one turned away. Small town life means anytime there is any kind of drama, a crowd will gather for the show. I remember once when I was young, watching my neighbor’s house engulfed in flames. Mom had pulled me from the bathtub to go stand on the sidewalk and watch it burn, my still wet hair dripping down my back. Having heard the story of my birth a million times, I stood there while everyone else watched the flames, searching their eyes. They were of course horrified but there was also something else in their eyes. Excitement, because they had been bored at home and now there was something to see! And Relief because they were only witnessing this vulnerability, not participating in it.
My mom had really played up the role of the crowd in her telling of my birth story. Even though she was the lead, mom downplayed scenes involving her and focused on the parts that didn’t turn her cheeks red. The stars in mom’s telling of the story were me, of course, and the witnesses. She would poke fun at herself naked and spread eagle with everyone from the Sunday school teacher to the grocery bagger in attendance. I loved to hear this story almost as much as mom loved to tell it. I hope I am doing it justice right now. I imagine her smiling down on me from some heavenly realm and still blushing at the parts where I turn the lens to her.
Here we go, mom. Get ready for the good parts. A siren screamed in the distance competing with my mom. She pushed her pants down over her hips and pulled one leg out. She could feel the pressure so intense now. She was too scared to reach down and feel between her legs, but she didn’t need to reach down to feel the bulge of my head filling her vagina. I was already crowning. With every contraction, my head would push through and then slip back in with the pauses. Mom was not ready to let go like this. She did not plan for her baby to come into the world in an alley in front of the whole neighborhood, but babies do not care about birth plans and I was coming ready or not.
The paramedic wasted no time, snapping on a blue glove while climbing into the truck with mom. “I feel the head! Do you wanna feel?” to my mom and then, “We can’t transport until the baby is born! We can’t move her like this. Baby is coming now!” to the other crew members and to the crowd. I slipped into the medic’s hands within minutes of their arrival.
My mama reached down and allowed one finger to brush against the the curls slicked wet against my scalp. Love, Euphoria, Oxytocin, temporarily washed away her humiliation. Now, she felt something new. She felt proud. Brave. Important. The paramedic whisked me away and washed off the blood and goo from my new skin and checked me over from head to toe. Once all of my parts were noted and accounted for, the medic held me high up for the crowd. The air around the truck had been silent in these final moments but now every eye was wet and cheers erupted. My mom was still laying in the truck watching this scene through the open door. She says the sun shone down on my face and all around people were shouting and crying and clapping. Mom had picked out the name “Crystal Fawn” long ago. In fact her twin already named her first daughter “Crystal Dawn,” but in that moment, mom considered naming me “Sunshine.”
At some point in my childhood, Disney released the original animated Lion King. The first time we watched it, Mom turned to me and announced, “Oh my God, Crystal Fawn! That was you! That is exactly what that moment looked like.” I watched Rafiki lift Simba into the air and my mom was laughing so hard tears were rolling down her cheeks. “Oh my God. It really was just like that.” I decided right then at 7 years old that I liked this origin story. I was special like Simba. I was proud. I think my mom was too. Telling this story always makes me feel a little bit closer to her. I can only imagine what she would say if she knew that I had two of my babies at home on purpose.
“Mom! It’s 7:45! Mom, WAKE UP!!” My middle child is screaming into my nightmare ripping me back to this universe.
“What? 7:45? 7:45!!! OMG! OMG! Ok, thank GOD you woke me up! We have to go NOW! C?! C, WAKE UP, SWEETIE, We have to go NOW. It’s bloodwork day and we are waking up late!”
The toddler is already crying. She doesn’t want to jump out of bed when she first wakes up. She demands our usual cuddle session, but there is no time! I don’t even change her out of her pajamas. I, quick as I can, grab our toothbrushes while yelling commands to the older kids. “Guys? Are you ready? Put socks on! It’s going to be freezing out there! Come on guys we have to go. NOW! Please!”
Luckily the kids know the drill. We go to the NorDX lab for bloodwork at least once a month and we have done that for all of their lives. My oldest was born with kidney disease so this is routine. Except now it’s covid so it’s not at all routine.
I grab a couple of blankets and force the squirmy toddler into some snow pants. Siblings are not allowed to accompany patients into appointments so the younger two will hang out in the car while I run in with the oldest. It feels awful to leave them in there, but we don’t have a lot of choices. Their dad has to work because I am the stay at home parent, with all three kids home 24 hours a day and one of the kids having a chronic health condition. One of us has to be stay-at-home and the other has to be bringing in money.
We do not have time for breakfast even though we are a big breakfast family. The toddler can’t wait to eat so no matter how much of a rush we are in, I need to find her a quick snack. I grab a banana and throw a handful of dry cereal into a plastic bowl to bring with us. We are out the door by 8:05.
We have to be because the lab opens at 8:30 and if we are not there before they open, they won’t draw her until closer to 9. She needs to get drawn right away so that her bloodwork is accurate. It’s a timed test and we need to do it FIRST thing in the morning. Already 8:30 is a little late.
I realize that the windshield is covered in a sheet of ice and there is almost nothing I can do about it. I blast the heat and get to work scraping away at the ice and praying that time slows down for a minute. I am so frustrated with myself for forgetting to get the car warmed up and cleaned off before I got all three kids outside in the cold just waiting on me. This is going to make us late!
Finally, I can see through the windshield and we are on the highway in less than two minutes. The roads are not slick and there is no traffic so maybe fate is trying to give me a hand here. We stop at the only red light between us and the lab and I offer only a smile to the person panhandling in the median strip. I glimpse at my dashboard and see that it is currently 18 degrees outside. I wish that I had a dollar but I didn’t even grab my wallet before rushing out the door.
The Universe smiles down on us and we are pulling into the parking garage by 8:25. I have no idea how I pull it off. I hand my cell phone to the middle child. He will be in charge of keeping the Elmo videos and PBS kids going for the toddler until I come back out. I take the oldest child’s phone so that the middle child can call us or text us if ANYTHING comes up. I can get to the kids in the car in 2 minutes or less if they need me. I park right next to the entrance, make sure the car is really warm, double-check the cellphone volumes, and lock the doors before throwing a mask on and racing for the entrance. We are wearing cloth masks but we need to pinch and pull out some new blue hospital masks when we enter. The tween grabs a child’s mask because it fits her better than this adult one which seems to be made to fit a giant. My fingers tie knots in both ear loops without even thinking about it or looking at it at this point. I want to rush the people guarding the doors through the questions. I know all the questions by heart and I know that the answer is “no” to all of them, but I do not want to seem rude and I want to show them proper respect and gratitude for their work in helping to keep these appointments as safe as possible. I try to slow my breathing and answer as calmly as possible even though we are in a hurry.
“Have you had any of the following symptoms in the last week? …Nausea? Vomiting? Unexplained rash? Trouble breathing? New cough? Runny nose? Sore throat? Chills? Fever? Body aches? Diarrhea? Have you been in contact with anyone who has had a confirmed coronavirus case? Have you been tested for coronavirus in the past week? What time is your appointment? Where are you headed? I see you already grabbed the mask. Please use some sanitizer and then put one of these stickers on your jacket so that they know you have been screened. Thank you.”
A couple of people have come in behind us and I notice immediately that the child does not have a mask on. We go all the way around so that we do not get too close and race to the elevator. I throw a glance at the car and see that the car is still there and no one is bothering it. The windows are tinted so I can’t see the children.
We are at the door of the waiting room and I hold my breath as I open the door praying that it is empty inside. It is not. There are no seats available because every 2nd and 3rd chair is taped off to make sure that people socially distance. That leaves only enough chairs for 3 patients to be sitting. We huddle up in a corner and try to look at the bright side. At least the person who knows us, and will get to us promptly, is working today. If it was a phlebotomist we didn’t know, this wait would be worse.
3 people are drawn ahead of us. I am already texting with the kids in the car. They are fine. It is still warm in the car. The phone we have doesn’t have internet or anything fun on it, so the kid and I are forced to listen to the classic rock on the radio that is on the shelf on the wall that we are leaning against and try not to be too obnoxious with our pleading eyes at the phlebotomist working the desk. Please call us up. Please call us up. Please call us up. We have taken coronavirus precautions very seriously since last March because we know how much is at risk here. We can not get coronavirus. We can not. It feels scary to be this close to so many people. We are rarely indoors anywhere with anyone other than our own immediate family and it is uncomfortable.
A big man comes into the waiting room and the phlebotomist asks him to wait in the hall. His beard is so big that his blue mask that is so huge on me looks tiny on him. He says, “Do I need to at least check in first?”
“No, sir. We are too full. Please step into the hall and I will come to get you when there is room in here.”
I gulp. Everyone in the waiting room gulps under our masks and feels a little bad that we are occupying the only space available.
The receptionist wiggles a finger instructing us to approach. I say my child’s name, her birthday, and confirm that we have the same insurance. No change of address from last week when we were here. “Standing orders this week, please. Just the usual.” I am feeling so grateful that it is finally our turn. My daughter was extremely anxious the entire time that we were waiting. I reach down and squeeze her hand! “Your turn!” I say with a smile that I force all the way up to my eyes so that she can see it.
“Um, I’m sorry. There are no orders in here.” The phlebotomist knows me and she knows I am not going to take this well.
“…No? Yeah, there are the standing orders that we always get. Would you please look again? They have to be there. We need these today. It’s really important.” I start listing off the orders that I know by heart after more than a decade of taking my child for these orders.
“I know they are important. Sorry. There is nothing here.” She is already starting to look around me and I am now feeling as anxious as my kid.
“Ok, um…I am going to run upstairs and get them to put the orders in and I will be right back! Please, hold our spot! Please, I have my other kids waiting in the car. And the kids haven’t even eaten yet…and..please!” I look around at the waiting room and back at the phlebotomist as if to illustrate my point that we both know this immunosuppressed kid should not be in here any longer than necessary with all these people!
“Ok, I will take her in as soon as you get back,” she reassures me. I let go of my daughter’s hand and dash for the door. “Be right back, sweetie! Wait here. I will be back in two seconds!” I race for the elevator but there is already someone stepping into it. I do not feel that it is safe to join them so I watch the door close and wait a second before pushing the arrow up so that the door doesn’t just open right back up with them still in it. I hope that no one comes up behind me and I will have to decide if I want to get on with them or ask them to wait or wait even longer myself.
There is no one at the desk in the pediatric nephrology office and I am trying to figure out the least rude way to get the staff on the other side of the room’s attention when they turn around and walk toward me. I do not wait for them to come all the way over or to speak to me through the mic. “Hi! C’s mom here. She’s downstairs and her orders aren’t in. and it’s PACKED!! Can a nurse please put her orders in like right this second? Sorry! Thank you!”
The receptionist says that I need to speak to the nurse directly so I am stuck waiting still. The phone in my pocket rings and I answer it. “Mom? Are you done yet?”
“No sweetie! Not yet! Is everything ok?? Are you guys cold?”
“We are fine. No. We aren’t cold, but A needs to pee.” A is fully potty trained and never has accidents unless she needs to pee and someone doesn’t take her to a potty as soon as she says she needs to go.
“Can you ask her if she can hold it for one second?”
“Yea, she says she can.” but we both know she probably can’t.
The nurse arrives and I say the whole Spiel again.
I run for the door, turn the knob, and wish that they had one of those sensors so I didn’t have to put my hand on it. I squirt some sanitizer on and rub my hands furiously while running for the elevator. Someone is in line. I wait for them to go first even though I desperately want to get to my kids. One is alone in the waiting room downstairs now and the other two are in the car.
When I finally get to the lab, there is already a patient at the desk being helped and there is only enough staff and space for one at a time so I wait again. The second the person steps away from the desk, I am there asking if our labs are in yet. “No, nothing yet. Next person, please.”
I am so frustrated. More and more people are coming in. 5 people have gone ahead of C and she is starting to grumble about being hungry. For a split second, I lose it, I feel the tears flood my eyes and I say something out loud like, “I hate this! Oh, God, I can’t wait until this is easier.” and then I realize what I have done. I have been trying to remind my kiddo to be calm. This is ok. We got this. We know how to do this. And then I go and collapse into the grief and anxiety of the whole experience. It is tedious and stressful and we have been doing this for 11 months. It was hard enough to navigate the medical world before Covid but these restrictions make it almost absurdly difficult. It is hard to explain. If you only have to get one blood work over this year of Covid, maybe this story will seem exaggerated. If like us, you have 3 dozen blood draws and dozens of doctor’s appointments to navigate on top of that, you will understand how we are just exhausted. Our resilience is feeling the strain. We do have this. We know we have this, but that doesn’t make it less hard and scary.
The orders finally pop in the system and C can go next. I know she has got this. Still, I have never left her when she was getting a blood draw. I tell her I will be right back. There is still a person in the chair and they will need to sanitize it before she can go any way. I run as fast as I can for the 4th time this morning to the elevator. Someone is there. I consider taking the stairs but don’t want to touch all the surfaces between here and there. So many doors. I get to the car, unlock it, set off the car alarm, put the key in the ignition to quiet it, then go around to the back of the car to get the toddler out. She doesn’t want to put down her PBS kids but I tell her she can have it back as soon as she pees. I unzip the snow pants and pull her pants down. Her underwear feels damp but not wet…but when I find a discreet spot to dangle her over the ground so she can pee (we can’t go inside to use the bathroom) she says she already went. I guess the snow pants absorbed it all or something because I check again and she doesn’t feel wet. I get her back in her seat after running a hand over her car seat to check for wetness. I do a quick assessment of the temperature inside the car to make sure that it is still warm enough for the kids. I apologize that it is taking so long and my middle kid says, “This sucks! Hurry back, ok mom?”
“Almost done, baby. It’s crazy in there. I promise I will be back soon!”
I do not stop at the screening desk this time, but hope they recognize me from earlier and also from the past 11 months. “Its just me again!” I shout from under my mask and head straight for the elevator.
When I get to the hall outside of the waiting room I have to squeeze past a line of waiting people. For whatever reason, they are all men and I feel uncomfortable being so close to them because of coronavirus and also because this is that small of a space and they are men. I wish that they made any attempt to move to the side even a little bit to let me through but they do not move an inch.
None of the people inside the waiting room is my kid, so I automatically let myself back into the blood drawing-room. I know she’s in there. I know the way. We have been here a million times. She is so brave and a real pro at blood draws. She is almost done when I get there and I know we are so close to putting this part of our day behind us.
We load our palms up with sanitizer for the umpteenth time and beeline for the door. “Can I take my mask off now, mom?” “Yeah, baby, it’s ok out here. There is no one out here.” We are both so relieved that it is over for now.
“Donuts??” My middle kid asks. He knows there is a good chance I will say yes because he has been so helpful with his little sister while I took C to the appointment.
“Ok! Let’s get donuts. What time is it? 9:15. You don’t have class until 9:45 right? Ok. We can make it.” We pull into the house by 9:43 am and I get the kids to online school on time. I have just enough time to put the toddler in a bath and throw her peed in clothes into the laundry. By 10 am I am on a telehealth appointment for the oldest but I do not pull her out of class for the appointment. She misses enough school as it is. I answer the doctor’s questions and bring the phone to her room so that they can see her for a second because they “have to at least lay eyes on her.”
“Be safe… be healthy.” the doctor says to me before she ends the zoom meeting.
We both know the heaviness of those words. “We are trying. I can not wait until we can get vaccinated.” I don’t even mean to say it, but it’s true. I wish that we could have some idea of when we might be eligible. Especially for J who has to go to work every day.
“I know. I am so sorry you can’t get the vaccine yet. I have been advocating for caregivers of our patients to get vaccines ASAP but there doesn’t seem to be any movement for that to happen. In New Hampshire, they are prioritizing parents of high-risk kids but Maine just isn’t willing to do it.”
I know this is true, but it still hurts to hear it. Some part of me had hoped she might say, “yes! They are including caregivers of chronically ill children in the next wave of vaccines!”
“Let me know if there is anything we can do to support your advocacy. We could write letters, make calls, provide statements…Anything.” Please just tell me how to help you make this happen. We need this.
I don’t let myself think about the vaccine too much because I know that even if we get it soon, children will still be waiting for approval first for ages 12-15 and then for 11-5. No matter how you look at it, we have a while before our whole family is vaccinated.
I thank the doctor and she says kind words to me about me being a good mom. Most of the doctors do not do this, but I appreciate that she sees me in this moment. Maybe she is a mom too.
I look over at the sink full of dishes. I check in to make sure the big kids are doing school work, roll up my sleeves, and clean enough plates to serve real breakfast on. Donuts will have only quieted their hunger. They will be needing more substantive energy so I grab some eggs and pull out some bread for toast. I look at the clock and resist calling the doctor’s office to check on the results of the bloodwork. Even if I call now, I will have to just leave a message and they will call me back when they are ready to call me anyway so it really won’t speed up the process. I decide to check the online health chart but no lab results are showing. I could use the peace of mind that all is well, but I will have a few more hours before I get it. We will do this all again next month as long as the lab results are ok. If they are “off” we will repeat labs in a week.
I can not wait until Coronavirus is over or as close to over as we are going to get.
Sitting in the hard metal chair, I heard my stomach rumble. I put my hands over my belly to muffle the sound. Lunch was still an hour away and I never ate breakfast at home. There wasn’t anything to eat and I was always running late anyway. Back in Elementary, the bus would drop me off early enough to take advantage of the Free Breakfast Program, but I guess they didn’t have enough mini cereal boxes or styrofoam bowls for the Junior High kids.
It was hard to focus on the algebra problems in front of me even when I wasn’t hungry. Numbers were never my strength. I forced myself to focus on the page and get it over with. I didn’t want this assignment to turn into homework because then I’d never do it. I was a smart kid and Aced pretty much anything that I attempted, but I never did homework. If it couldn’t be completed in study hall or homeroom, it was going to be turned in incomplete. It wasn’t a political statement about only working on the clock, it was just the way it was.
I had separated my life into two separate worlds. Home and school could not comfortably overlap. If my mom sat in the bleachers during my basketball game, I was grateful she was there but also distracted. If people saw my mom or talked to her, I thought they might see our secret written on her face. Could you see AIDS when you looked at her? I thought I could. She looked too old for 30. Her teeth had already fallen out, her hair thinned and greasy and she was too skinny. Better to keep my mom hidden away at home.
There was a whistle in my hometown that would blow at noon every day and then again anytime that there was a local emergency. If the firetrucks, ambulance, or police needed to be dispatched, the whistle would sound. Adults took note of it. In a town of fewer than 2000 people, a person was likely to know whoever that alarm was sounding for. Kids mostly ignored it, consumed in play or learning. I was never really much of a kid.
When that alarm blared, my heart picked up speed and my head screamed a million anxieties to me. Is my mom okay? What if that is about her? If she died, would someone come to tell me right here at school? Did we say I love you this morning? Yes. Definitely. We always said I love you because we knew that we would not have the privilege of saying that forever. If the phone in my classroom rang, I had the same reflexive body responses and racing thoughts.
That is what happened that day that I was solving for x while counting the seconds until cafeteria pizza. Brrrring! Brrrrring! Brrrrring! Mr. Andrews looks up annoyed. He was buried in a stack of tests from the first period and I had been watching him mark all over them with his red pen. I hope he goes easier on us tomorrow when we have our test.Answer it! I was glued in my seat but I wanted to race and answer the phone myself. Please! The lump in my throat was barely letting air through and I knew that I was white as a ghost.
I searched Mr. A’s face for any kind of clue as to what was being said on the other end of that phone call. “Mmmhmmm. Mmmhmmm. Ok. I will do that.” Do that?! Maybe they are telling him to send me to the principal’s office or the nurse so that they can tell me what is wrong?!
Mr. A dropped the receiver on the hook and sighed. I had not done a single problem in that entire time. I was still too terrified to drop my gaze. He stretched and walked back to his desk without addressing any of us in the class. Phew. I guess this wasn’t about me. We were still safe.
My shoulders were tense as I now scanned the room to see if anyone had noticed my bizarre behavior. I should not have been so obviously stressed out. People might figure out our secret if they saw me act so strangely. I needed to try harder next time to hide my fear. I wiped my sweaty hands on my jeans before picking my pencil back up.
The bell rang announcing that class was over and we were that much closer to lunch. I would have to finish this assignment in study hall.
Can you imagine how many times this scene played out in all of my years of schooling? When I heard the whistle in Kindergarten, I would sometimes pee my pants. I would sit there in terror waiting for my world to collapse while also hoping that the wetness squishing under my butt would evaporate or at the least, not be too obvious when I stood up. Later, when I realized peeing was not helping me conceal my secret, I would chew on my hair. Thick chunks of it sucked into my mouth until I had a mass of wetness fringing my face. These would all have been “tells” alerting my peers that I was a freak and my teachers that I needed help if anyone had been paying attention to me. But I had learned to make myself invisible long ago. Being invisible is the easiest way to keep a secret. If I never spoke up in class, I wouldn’t accidentally say the wrong thing.
My report card from 6th grade says, “Crystal is a pleasure to have in class. She is always quiet and polite. She does her school work and does not not involve herself when classmates are disruptive. She is a good student.”
My mom saved every one of these report cards. I have them now too. The little A’s and S’s proved that I was going to make it. I was going to survive this and become something better than this life we were trapped in. We both knew that she wouldn’t make it. But knowing that I would, was all that my mom cared about.
Our secret being revealed would mean that all of those hopes would be lost. If people knew the truth, we would be shipped off to live in quarantine on a deserted island. That’s what some people said should happen to individuals living with AIDS. Maybe our neighbors would show up at our house with pitchforks and chase us out of town. There was no way of knowing exactly what would happen if people knew the truth, but mama and I were committed to never finding out. I locked that secret deep in my stomach and kept it there.
I never once brought it out to examine it, even when it was safe. Mom and I didn’t discuss it when we filled her med box. She just sat there handing me bottles and watching me read the labels that were beyond her reading level. I would carefully pour the little pills of every color into my hands and count off however many needed to go into each little box. We could have unclenched our teeth and let the secret slip out in these moments. Let it stretch out and relieve us of its weight for a second, but we never did. That is how we kept it locked up for so long. I had built a fortress to protect our secret until one day when I looked at my mom and saw that she was dying. Saw that we were at the end, and took down every brick and fence myself. I told my friends from school, I told our neighbors, I told the people in the grocery store, I scheduled an appointment with the important men from the Rotary Club, and I told them.
17 years, I kept that secret, until my mom was on her death bed and we were facing our greatest fear. It has now been 17 years of living with that secret outside of my body. Sometimes it tries to creep back in, but just the feel of it scratching at my insides, sends me to the computer, or to the phone or to a friend. I need to let it out anytime I notice that I am hiding again.
I don’t have a lot of use for secrets in my life now. I am happy to protect someone else’s but these days, I feel safest when I am living fully in my truth.
Sundays meant church growing up. After services, the congregation would pour out of the chapel but no one would go home. We would run to our cars or reach in our bags and pull out casseroles or cookies to share with each other. Mama and I lived in an apartment only a block from my grandma’s church. We ran home to find a dish to share one Sunday, my mama with her long legs way out ahead of us, and Grandma and I straggling along behind deep in debate. I don’t remember the sermon that Sunday or what exactly got us going, but I know that this particular conversation never left me. I could feel the charge from both of us. We needed the other to understand. Grandma was known to back hand a kid across the mouth for any kind of backtalk or swearing. I felt the hot sting of her fingers on my mouth enough times that I only dared to disagree with her when it was critical.
The sun was hot. It was the summer before I went into Sixth grade. We were barely controlling our tone but managed to keep the conversation hushed until we made it the porch. I imagine that we meant to go inside to finish the conversation, but we were getting so frustrated with each other we were just locked in place. Grandma was probably double my size still but we were braced for battle, eyes locked on each other and shoulders squared up.
“I KNOW that God made all of us! And God doesn’t mess up! He made all of us and he loves all of us NO MATTER WHAT!” OMG, yes, you should know that I was quite a little child preacher and had the influence of the Pentecostals to give me some FIRE in my sermons.
“You don’t know ‘nothin! You are a know-it-all child who don’t-know-nothin!”
“UUUNNNGGGGHHH!!!!” I stomped my foot down and shook the whole porch. I don’t know how this didn’t earn me a smack in the mouth. Maybe Grandma was distracted with what she wasn’t saying out loud. What she was deciding to finally tell me.
“Yes, God made all of us and he loves all of us, but it’s not like that. You just don’t understand. You don’t know anything about all of this.”
“Jesus loves the little children! ALL the Children of the world…RED OR YELLOW, BLACK OR WHITE, we are precious in his sight cuz Jesus loves the little children of the world! Why would God make us all so different if only some of us were going to go to Heaven? Do you think he made some people the wrong way?!”
We had this conversation before, but this time my grandma seemed out of control of herself. She grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled my face right up close to hers. “Crystal, you don’t understand what it’s like to be Black! You don’t understand what it’s like to be the only Black person in town. I have to tell you something.”
I looked at her suddenly differently. I could tell we were not debating issues of justice, but getting personal.
“Crystal. My father was Black.”
She was still talking. Saying that it is so hard “for the children when they have a white parent and a Black parent” saying things like, “That is why you should never BE with a Black man…” saying, “Do you understand?”
I couldn’t make sense of this revelation. I looked at my grandma. She was white. All my aunts and uncles were white. All of my cousins were white. We were white trash. Everyone called us that. What the hell was she saying that her dad was Black? I had no examples of light-skinned Black people in my mind to pull from. I did not have a lot of access to television up to that point (and mixed people were not depicted on television a lot even if I had) and my mostly white town didn’t offer up any examples either.
Maybe if she had not said that next part about me being with a Black man someday, I would have been able to focus on her Big Reveal, but I had heard those violent words before out of the mouth of my step-dad and they made me see red. I just started ranting at her about how closed-minded she was being and she left me there on the porch. The trance was broken and the conversation was over.
All of these years, I have seen myself as somewhat of the hero of this story. My grandma of course the obvious old white racist villain. I knew this story mattered to me and to my life, but I thought it mattered as part of my origin story as a person who is always striving to be anti-racist. I did not ever once think about the fact that it was an even deeper part of my origin story. My grandma was offering me a truth that she never again tried to share.
Thankfully, the Universe decided to bring this back to my attention this year. On New Year’s Eve, I got a letter in the mail concerning some relative of my Grandpa. I don’t really remember any of my Grandpa’s relatives, so I reached out to an aunt on Facebook to get more info. She didn’t have a lot to share either as she didn’t know them well, but she said that she did have a little more information about Grandma’s side. She sent me a link and I skimmed it while making homemade waffles for my 3 kids. Most of the names were unfamiliar to me until I came to Cora, my great-grandmother.
She was someone that I loved a lot. My mom and I would go to visit her in the nursing home every single week when I was little, even though we didn’t have a car. Grandma would drive us or we would get a ride from someone else. Cora had helped to raise my mom and her siblings when grandma was in a psych hospital so she was an important figure to my mom. Cora’s nurses came to expect my visits, and they would give me cookies and balloons. I remember them and those visits vividly. When Cora died, I didn’t really understand what happened, but I remember lying beside my mom in bed while she cried and cried. I didn’t understand what death was yet, but I understood grief. This was the early years of my mom’s diagnosis, and she was sure she would not live much longer. She used Cora’s passing as a teachable moment. I don’t remember her words, but I remember the lesson. Death would come and come for us and it was scary and really really sad. I named my first child, Corah in her honor.
Cora stood alone in my mind because her husband was not alive when I was born. No one ever spoke of him. I didn’t even know what his name was and I had never seen a picture. But there he was on my broken i-phone screen beside Cora’s name. Walter Leroy Hyde. My great-grandpa! He was a beautiful child. Light brown skin, dark brown eyes and short curly black hair. He took my breath away. My mom’s side is all fair hair and eyes and even though I spent so much time with my mess of aunts, uncles, and cousins growing up, I just didn’t see myself in them. I didn’t look like anyone on that side at all. But looking into Walter’s face, I saw myself. I saw my dark eyes and curly hair. Not as curly as his, but my first thought was, “That’s where my curls come from!”
Suddenly, my conversation with my grandma 2 decades ago, filled my head. Oh my God. My Grandma’s dad was Black. She was right. Of course, she was right. I had done what everyone did to women in my family and just wrote her off as an old crazy rambling woman, but she was telling me something. Something really big. Something she never tried to tell me again and now that I desperately want to hear these secrets, there is no one left to finally listen to. Maybe because this bit of information came to me like a gift on New Year’s Eve, or maybe I was just ready for it, but I feel committed to finding the truth in this story. I want to know who Walter was. What happened to his parents? Was he “passing” at some point in his adult life? Was my grandmother considered “passing?” Did my mom know? She must have. I called her twin and we had a conversation about it. I got a little more info from that conversation and from a sweet internet friend who helped me do a little research. (Thank you Amy!)
Before moving back to the region in PA where my people are from, My great-great-grandparents moved to Virginia and bought a 600-acre farm. I thought I came from deep multigenerational poverty, and I do, but apparently, somewhere back there, someone had money. Great-Grandpa Walter was born in 1892 on that plantation in Virginia. Slavery was abolished 27 years before he was born but there were slave cabins on the property and I found accounts saying that Black people were “working the fields where they grew watermelons, corn, peppers, and beans.” There was a canning factory on the property and my great-grandfather’s siblings worked alongside the “colored help” processing the harvest. My great-great-grandfather , Edson (raised Walter but wasn’t his biological father) also owned and ran an oyster farm in Maryland. He would leave to go work there for long periods of time. The story goes that while he was away, Addie, my great-great- grandmother was having an affair with one of the Black people working in the fields. When I was told the story, I was told that she “fell in love with the gardener.”
My gut was full of fear because in the late 1800’s a Black man could be lynched for even looking at a White woman, let alone having an affair with one. Lynchings were happening all the time in Virginia the year that Walter was born. I was surprised at first that the Black ancestor was a man because I also feared that the legacy of white men raping Black women and especially the women who they enslaved would be a part of this story. I mean I can’t write that off here. Women can rape men and of course even though slavery ended officially, Addie held a lot of power in that situation. I will continue to dig into this because the truth is so important and because I want to know.
I think about Addie’s pregnancy with my great-grandpa, Walter. Did she wonder if the baby would be born brown? Did she know it was the unnamed man who was the biological father or did she not know which man was going to be the father? Addie’s husband, the White man who is on Walter’s birth certificate, was getting older. He was 57 years old the year that Walter was born. Addie was only 37.
Addie had married Edson at 18. She did not come from the same money and privilege as Edson. She had dropped out of school in the sixth grade and began working in the small town hotel soon after. She met Edson while working there. Was there love in that marriage? Did she marry him to escape? How did Edson react when their child was born and had brown skin and dark curly hair? Was Addie in love with this other man? And my biggest question of all…Who was the man that history erased from the story? Was he in love with Addie? What happened to him when their affair was discovered. Did he ever even see his son?
And Walter. I can only imagine what growing up was like for him. The family moved back to rural Pennsylvania “following some tragedies,” including the death of one of Walter’s siblings. Many of Walter’s siblings died. He was one of only three of their children to survive to adulthood. What was his childhood like being raised by this white family with who he was only biologically connected to the mother?
I can not imagine Walter’s reality, but I relate to some parts of it in big ways. I relate to living in secret and shame and fear. I relate to being raised (part-time for me and full time for Walter) in a family where I was the product of a parent stepping outside of their marriage. My father was married with 4 kids when he had his affair with my mom. Being in that house with his wife and their kids (who I love!) was not a comfortable feeling. I didn’t understand why completely, but I understood that at least in part, I was not a welcome addition. I was not a part of the family in the same way that they were and their mom was not My mom. Walter was raised full time like that in a family where he did not look like any of his siblings or his parents. He did not look like anyone in his whole town.
I am only at the beginning of searching for answers to my questions about my great-grandpa, Walter, but I atleast have a couple of stories now that I have gotten some of my aunts to open up a little bit. Their stories paint Walter as kind of larger than life man. Brilliant and brave. I wonder how no one ever told me any of these stories even though it is clear that he was loved and admired? The story goes that Walter and his older brother once built a little glider plane and they would climb the hills where I grew up and fly off the edge with their neighbor friend. One day the neighbor boy flew too close to a barn and clipped the wing off and that was the end of that. Another story is that Walter worked for the local electric company and he one time got shocked while up high working on a wire. The jolt sent him crashing to the ground, but he was so tough, he got right back up, climbed the pole, and went to work.
Part of me hopes that family will read this and have some more pieces of the story to share with me, but mostly I am sharing it because when I started digging the only official record is that Walter is white and that his father was white and the same man that fathered all of his siblings. The last generation that knows the truth is aging or already gone and the truth is disappearing along with it. I don’t know what happened between Addie and Walter’s Black father. I don’t know what happened to erase him from the story, but I can end the shame and stigma around talking about race in my family. I can speak the truth as I know it and learn from our history and our ancestors. I find it so interesting and bizarre that I have spent my whole life overcoming secrets and shame only to discover that that pain already took root in my family long before AIDS. I owe it to Walter and to myself to step out of shame and secrets and into the truth. I see this as part of my work as a white person committed and re-committing every day to eradicating white supremacy in me and in my society.
I am sorry that I did not listen to my grandmother that day. I wish that I sat in silence and let her tell me her experiences. I wish I could hug her and promise to carry the truth and speak it for her. I still know that my grandmothers stance on mixed race relationships is wrong but I am not so arrogant to think that I have any understanding of what her experience was or her fathers. I can not go back to that day or that moment, but I can move forward with intention and love and carry her in my heart as I search for the truth.
Remembering my great-grandpa Walter Leroy Hyde 1892-1963 and my grandmother Caroline Pearl Kellner 1936-2008
A few days ago, I saw a person die on the side of the road. I was driving my kids to the Skate Park and happened to be stopped at the longest red light of my life. First responders took turns giving chest compressions. First the woman. Then the man. They wore masks because of Coronavirus and I quickly realized that they were doing chest compressions ONLY with no mouth-to-mouth. This is all while I am still at the red light. I dont know how long I sat there. Was traffic just not moving? Was everyone glued to this horrific scene as I was. I realized I was not breathing. I feel trauma in my throat. It closes up until my chest aches with lack of air. When I was a child they diagnosed me with asthma for this exact reason and no one ever mentioned the words “trauma” or “anxiety.”
At some point I had to drive away. I had three children in the car. They were afraid too and they also wanted to keep going on to the skatepark. When I velcroed and snapped all of the pads and helmets into place, I realized I was still not breathing well. I was still trapped in the scene I just saw with an overlay of the scenes I saw in my childhood.
My mom attempted suicide more than once, but I have one time scarred into my mind. We are living in public housing. I am upstairs at the neighbor’s house. Another child is with me. We are 4, maybe 5 years old. We are supposed to be playing in his room but we are watching with our faces smooshed between the bars on the stair banister. My knuckles are white, clenching like my teeth. Maybe this is the beginning of my throat closing and holding my breath in fear? I am silent, but I want to scream and run to my mom. I can barely see her between the paramedics. They are surrounding her, but they are not touching her. They are in a circle and none of them know what to do and none of them want to be the one to touch her. There are three of them. My neighbor is the one who is holding my mom’s limp body upright in her kitchen chair. She is saying words I don’t understand. It is so loud. Every once in a while one of their radio-phones makes that cracklings sound and a loud beep. Then they push the little button and shout into it. I can hear noises coming out of it too but they are too mixed with the crackles to sound like words.
At this age, I dont know exactly what is happening. I only know that my mom was right when she told me that people will be afraid to touch her. That she is dangerous. I touch her all of the time. I want to touch her now, but I am too afraid.
As a grown-up I learned that my step-mother had the same thing happen when she collapsed and the paramedics refused to care for her because of her HIV diagnosis. Probably anyone who was living with HIV in the 80’s and 90’s has similiar stories. We weren’t just fighting for survival. We were fighting stigma and people’s fear.
This is what I am trying to grapple with at the skate park. “Mama, watch this!” I smile and say, “Wow! That is amazing. You have worked so hard at that.” But as soon as I watch the trick, I am glued back to the sliver of sidewalk winding past the field where I know the person is dying. I can still see the police from here. The paramedics are here too now and the fire department. There are a lot of trucks. No one is doing chest compressions anymore. My mind is racing. Would this person still be alive if they had done traditional CPR with mouth-to-mouth? Did they not do that because of Corona Virus or is that outdated? I have taken CPR courses many times but it has been years since I re-certified. Maybe some protocol has changed? Or maybe I am witnessing another horrific reality of this pandemic.
We do not stay at the Skate Park for long because every inch of pavement is occupied with man-bro’s. These grown men are apparently oblivious to my masked children who are clearly trying to respect social distancing. Aside from my children, there is not a mask in sight. I want to scream and cry and yell at these men that someone is dying just a stones throw from the park and do they not care about anyone else? But I know that would do nothing. So we leave. And my throat remains clenched.
I talk to my kids on the way home about the complexity of policing in America. They know about Black Lives Matter. They know that policing is rooted in institutionalized racism and directly linked to this country’s history of slavery. But in this moment, I talk to them about how policing as an institution and police as individual people are two different things entirely. While the institution is inherently racist, some of the people in the occupation are likely people who want to be helpers. People who get into it to save lives. Some of the people are the ones giving chest compressions to dying people in the park during a pandemic. I am overwhelmed with grief and gratitude but I am also a mother so I keep my cool to the best of my ability. I drive us home, get the toddler down for a nap and start making dinner.
Over the past few days, a woman’s picture has been circulating on Facebook. Her name is Joy. She is beautiful. I don’t recognize her even though we live in a small city. Still, her face is familiar and warm. The Facebook posts say she froze to death a few days ago in my city. My city, although “progressive” has abandoned the most vulnerable among us. We have left an older woman to die in the cold rather than provide safe housing and compassionate care for her alcoholism. I do not know if this is the same person that I saw die the other day in the park. Are people dying outside every day in my city? But even if this is not the same person, I feel connected to her. I feel accountable to her. I feel like I have to finally scream, and cry and add my anger and grief over her death and the deaths of so many to the community call to action.
I read all of the comments on the Facebook posts about Joy’s death. I am searching for clues as to who this woman was. I am searching for a way to quiet this shaking inside me. I still feel the tightness in my throat. I read a lot of comments online from people who have said things like, “Why didn’t she stay with a friend?” “Why didn’t someone take her in for the night?” and I am thinking back to my own experience of being homeless. And a Woman.
There was a period of time after I dropped out of college where I had no money and no place to stay. As an orphan and a 19 year old, I was completely on my own financially. A human angel and student at the college I just left, let me store my belongings in the apartment that she was renting with two other girls. We had all just finished our freshman year and their parents were paying for them to live off campus for the summer. Everything I owned in the world was shoved into a few plastic totes and some bags and pushed into an unsightly heap in their living room. These roommates of the angel friend tolerated it to my face, but I could feel their contempt. Some nights, I would sleep on their couch, but the guilt of taking up even more space in their apartment would often win out and I would search for other housing options. The nights I stayed there, I would sit outside on the sidewalk of their downtown apartment and chain smoke rather than be an eyesore upstairs.
I wasn’t old enough to go to the bar and the only other place that stayed open until 2 am was a coffeeshop called the Beehive. I would buy one cup of coffee for like $.95 and sip that for hours while smiling at people at other tables and scanning the room for a kind face. Usually by closing time I would have found someone who felt safe enough and nice enough to ask if I could stay at their house that night. I tried not to ask the same people too many times because I didn’t want to impose on anyone.
Some nights, the barista would start stacking chairs and I would not have found a safe person to go home with. On those nights, I would grab a chair and turn it upside down and put it on top of the table. They knew that I was helping because I didn’t want to leave because I had nowhere to go. If I was lucky, the person working that shift would be the sweet blond boy from West Virginia who was happy to play his guitar for me and tell me stories of the hills. Stories that felt familiar to me. That boy never touched me. Even though I was sleeping on his couch. Even though he was doing me a favor.
Other nights, the worst nights, I would go home with the red haired barista. He was not safe, but I knew what to expect from him. He wouldn’t kill me and leave me in a dumpster. I would be expected to kiss him and let him grope me all night. I knew that if I stayed smart and alert I could avoid anything further because his sister lived there and I would just scream for her if I had to. He tasted like cigarettes and not in the good way that I actually liked back then. He tasted like old man cigarettes and alcohol and rape. He was in his 30’s. I was 19.
I was mostly right about being able to stay relatively safe in his house accept for one night where he was particularly drunk and he was getting angier and angrier that I wouldnt have sex with him. When he got up to pee, I grabbed my cell phone and ran out the door. I spent the entire night walking around Pittsburgh talking on the phone with an ex-boyfriend who was in another state. I was terrified of being on the street, but it seemed like I used up my luck at that baristas house. It was time to pay up so I got out and never went back.
Another night, I was wandering the streets, looking for a new late night hangout when I noticed a truck driving very slowly behind me. It was the middle of the night and there were not many people around even though this was downtown Pittsburgh. The driver was emboldened by my glances back. “Hey, sexy! Come on, hop up in my truck and I’ll take you for a ride!” Every cell in my body was screaming at me. This was my worst nightmare. Rape was just a reality for a girl like me, but something about a stranger dragging me away into his truck to rape me felt worse than just the boys I grew up with.
I took off as fast as I could down an alley. I saw him turn his truck around and follow me. I cut across a lawn and dove into some bushes in front of a business that was closed for the night. I was curled in a ball praying that he couldn’t see me in there and also dialing the phone number of a friend I had met at the coffee shop. “Please, come get me!” The coffee shop friend was a boy just a year older than me that I felt safe with. I hadn’t ever been to his apartment but I was desperate. I hoped the man from the truck couldn’t hear me whispering the address to my friend as he drove by with his window down and his neck craned out the window looking for me. That night I got into a big fight with the safe boy because he couldn’t understand why I was so scared. “I’ve been beat up lots of times and mugged too, it’s not a big deal.” safe boy said to me.
“I’m not scared to be beat up or mugged. I have been beat up and mugged. I have been shot at and had knives held to my body. I am scared to be RAPED!”
No matter that I was trembling all over, this boy felt like he needed to mansplain to me that rape was no worse than being beat up. He insisted that he was just as at risk on the street as me. I thanked him for taking me in for the night and went to sleep wondering where I would sleep tomorrow and how could he not understand that rape is more than just an assault on a body. It is an assault on your whole soul. It is an assault on your humanity. It is just….For me, the one thing I still have a hard time talking about. I can talk about child abuse, AIDS, death, oppression, stigma, anything, but everytime I write a story about rape, it remains in my google docs and not in my blog.
I continued like this for a couple of months before I landed a position with Americorps working at a Women’s Shelter with mothers who were struggling with addiction. This job got me off the street and into a room with some kind adults who were all in their 30’s. My Americorps stipend covered rent but there was barely any money left for food. I was a lot safer than when I was on the street at night but I continued to find myself in the position where I depended on men for my survival.
I know that I am privileged to be writing this blog now from a different position than I was in back then. I partnered with a man outside of my class and saw myself lifted out of poverty. But I also know that if I had not met this particular man at this particular time in my life, I would likely have continued to find myself to some degree housing insecure and food insecure. I may have grown up to be a woman like Joy.
We live in a country with enough empty homes to house every homeless person. Yet, we refuse. We leave human beings outside to face all of the risks of being in that vulnerable position and sometimes those human beings die out there. We need to expect more from the society we live in. We can live in a world where every human being has access to housing, food, healthcare and dignity but we must demand it. I felt compelled to share my story today even though it feels a little vulnerable.
To Joy, I am so sorry. I saw you. I’m so sorry it was too late. I’m so sorry we will never get to hear your stories. I will remember.
My mom sat in the dirty orange armchair with her shoulders curled around the project in her hands. Her craft was hidden enough inside the cave of her body, but I would see hints of it every day for at least a month leading up to Christmas. A plastic grocery bag sat beside her now with sparkling synthetic yarn streaming out of the top. Sheets of plastic canvas were scattered around her and I would sit nestled on her feet like a cat and play with the teeny tiny little plastic scraps that she would cut away from the canvas to mold into what I already knew would be my Christmas present. I could tell what colors it would be. Bright white with navy blue and silver accents.
When she rose, her body resisted stretching out into her full height after hours of stooping in that old chair. She walked the 20 feet down the hall, knees cracking, body creaking, like she wasn’t a young woman still in her twenties. My mom never seemed young to me even though she had me just a month to the day, after her 22nd birthday. Maybe young moms always seem old to their kids. I know my own kids sometimes see me as older than I am, but also she really was older than she was. HIV and its shadow, depression, wreaked havoc on my mom’s body and mind and she really did carry herself around like a grandma. The Debbie Lynn that I heard about that loved to dance and get into trouble with her sisters, was long gone before I was out of diapers. I saw whispers of her over the years, but largely, this was the Debbie that I got to know. Yarn in one hand. Coffee mug in the other. Scowl on her face. Legs crossed at the knee. Foot wildly bouncing with anxiety.
When I heard the bathroom door click shut, I knew that I had only a few minutes to sneak a peek at my present. My heart was pounding. We were still living in the trailer on the Pentacostal Farm Commune and I was already wracked with guilt and shame for even wanting to look where I knew I was not to be looking.
The plastic bag was loud and the trailer was small, so I quickly abandoned the idea of just opening the bag to look inside. Instead, I put my face right up to the bag and tried to peer through it like a foggy window. I couldn’t see much but there was a hard book that I pulled the bag tight against so that I could read the letters through. I could read even though my mom could not. She would get what she needed for the pattern from the pictures. She was smart like that.
I couldn’t see the full title, but DOLL was clearly visible. My stomach sank a little bit. I hoped she wasn’t making one of those plastic canvas baby dolls again for me. I was not a baby anymore and I was now obsessed with Barbies. I heard the toilet flush and sat up quick and tried to act normal when my mom came back. If she noticed my blazing cheeks, she didn’t say anything. We were both performing to an extent for the sake of the other. She knew that I knew that she was making my Christmas presents but she wanted to hold out the hope that she could surprise me, and I wanted to give her that. I didn’t completely understand why it was so important to her, but I sensed that it was and I would have given her anything at that age. My mom was still my whole universe. We were each other’s universe.
We sat peaceful like that for a while. Savoring each other and our moment of safety.
“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!” The sound of metal slamming to the ground. My mom and I were so in tune. We did not make eye contact. This was another area where we needed to perform for each other. If she didn’t look me in the eye, maybe she could pretend that this wasn’t happening to us. If we never talked about it, maybe we could at least enjoy the moments between the violence.
The trailer shook when Tom slammed the front door. “Did you not hear me, woman?” (I swear to G*D Im not rewriting history from my feminist lense. That’s how he talked to us. He was constantly talking about the fact that we were female as a way to justify his behavior toward us.) He surveyed the room with his arms spread wide. Tom was deaf and spoke loudly all of the time even when he wasn’t angry, but when he was angry he was really really loud. “I need your help out there! I’m out here trying to fix this piece of shit car and you’re in here doing arts and crafts! Stupid Fucking Bitch Lazy Ass Woman.”
I’m still not moving, but I see my mom get up. This time she is quick about it. There is no room for stretching with an angry dragon breathing down your neck. He is spewing hateful words at her. He hasn’t hit her yet, but we all know that before the car gets fixed, she will be broken. I can feel his anger buzzing in my head. My senses are usually sharper when I am with Tom because I need to be ready for anything, but sometimes for no other reason, than maybe my brain trying to save me from it all, I lose my vision and I can’t really hear. Not completely, but like I imagine Tom hears. Muffled sounds that I can’t piece together and everything is a blur around me.
They go outside to work on the car and even though I am left alone in the trailer, I do not feel like snooping in the bag.
A few weeks later, it is Christmas Eve. I see a car winding its way down our dirt road and watch with anticipation as it pulls into our driveway! I hide behind a tree and peak around the trunk, hoping I haven’t been spotted. My belly is a mix of hope and embarrassment. I do not want this nice lady who is now pulling out a grocery bag just like the one my mom has with her yarn inside, but this one has wrapped presents inside! We live in a small town, so she will know who we are and hopefully not report back to her children who I go to school with. Again, I play the game. Maybe if we both pretend that we don’t see each other, she won’t reveal my shame when she goes home.
My mother thanks the woman a few too many times and backs away from her car, clutching the gifts that she will give me tomorrow and making teary eyes and giving little bows to the woman before scurrying up the steps to hide the gifts quick! before I “see.”
The next morning, I wake up before the sun, like every other child that celebrates this holiday, but I do not do what my children do. I do not run to wake my mom and Tom so that we can hurry and open the gifts or take down the stockings. We never have stockings and I am too afraid to wake up Tom. Instead I lie in my bed and hold onto all of those feelings of hope for what I might find in those wrapped boxes. I am not thinking about the gift my mom has made for weeks (months?) because I am too scared that I won’t like it and that she will see that in my face.
Finally, my mama pokes her head into my room. She is bouncing with the spirit of the day and she can not wait for me to come open my presents!
I open the wrapped presents first. They say “SANTA” under the word “FROM” and “Seven Year Old Girl” Under the word “To.” I draw the moment out for as long as I can. There are only a few boxes and I want it to last! The first package that I open has a children’s card playing deck! I look up at my mom and Tom and Thank them both and give them hugs. I actually love playing cards and if my mom is too busy to play with me, I will often just play both people’s hands!
The next present is a little bag that jingles when I pick it up! I carefully untie the ribbon that is securing the handles together and take out the first item. It is a Christmas necklace with a Santa Clause Bell! I reach in again and pull out two candy canes! My mouth is already watering. Tom, the hero, (He played hero AND villain in my life and I fully saw him as both) smiled at me and told me that I could go ahead and have one of the candy canes. So, before I even took out the rest of my presents, I put the hard cane in my mouth and felt with my teeth for the rough edge of the plastic where they knot it at the bottom. I bit that plastic between my teeth and ripped it open, pulling the candy cane away. I was careful not to break it though. I really wanted to hold the curved end and lick the long part until it was sharp as one of the icicles dripping from our porch and then disappeared. I loved how eating a candy cane was a whole thing. It was a whole experience. The last gift in the bag was a fuzzy pair of socks with Reindeer faces on them. I had seen socks like this at the Rite Aid in town and I could picture the woman that I saw deliver them yesterday picking these out for me. I put them right on my feet and sat licking my candy cane and talking with my parents.
My mom was bursting to give me the present that she made me so she handed me my last wrapped gift and implored me to “Open it!!!” I was hopeful as soon as I held the box. It was a rectangle and about the right size. I could feel that the front of the box was plastic and the back of the box was cardboard. I tore off just the corner and the hot pink was already visible. I tore off the rest and sure enough, there was a barbie inside! And not just any barbie but the exact barbie that I desperately wanted! She had a belly that detached and there was a tiny baby inside! Pregnant Barbie! She could be pregnant and then she could be a mom! Better than any princess in the world! This is what I wanted to be most when I grew up! I am not sure if she was Barbie brand but it didn’t matter at all.
My mom gave me half a second to fuss over my new doll before taking the bag out from behind her. There were no longer loose strands of yarn. Now the bag was overflowing and the sharp corners of the things she constructed were starting to jab through the bag. “I hope you like it, baby. Merry Christmas.” I could feel my mom holding her breath. We held our breath together.
I took out the first item. My mom took one step forward and then pulled her hand back and put it over her mouth. She could barely resist pulling out all of the pieces to show me what it was! I looked at her when I pulled the first piece out and said, “Thank you, Mom! It’s beautiful!” but she knew that I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. She gave it up and helped me pull all of the pieces out and put them in front of me. She had crafted me an entire bedroom set for a barbie. There was an elaborate dresser with drawers that opened and closed. There was a vanity with foil pulled tight to look like a shiny mirror. There was a bed with layers of blankets and pillows and beautiful flowy things that I didn’t even know the name for but had seen beds like that in catalogues. There were tiny lamps and bedside tables and a rug to put the whole thing on. Instead of the hard pink plastic that the Barbie Doll House Furniture comes in, these were soft yarn and elegant colors. All white everything with tiny blue flower accents. She wove the silver thread through every single piece that she made. My mom took “10 for a dollar” pieces of plastic sheets from the Drugstore and cheap synthetic yarn and constructed an entire 3 dimensional bedroom set for my barbies. She did that without the ability to read the pattern, going only by the pictures. A lot of people said my mom was dumb and a retard and here is the plain truth. My mom was not “book smart” she didn’t talk like “smart” people or think like “smart” people but she was the creator of many masterpieces. I grew to think of plastic canvas as a “white trash art” but now I regret that thinking. My mom could take $2 and turn it into Christmas.
I got right to work placing my pregnant barbie in bed and having her birth her new baby!
That night we ate mac-n-cheese with a can of tomato soup mixed in and hot dogs. Some years the volunteers who dropped off presents would also drop off a box of food, but this year it was just the gifts. We didn’t care. Or I didn’t care. It was enough.I went to sleep with a rare sense of warmth and love and magic.
By the time Christmas Break was over, I was ready to get to school. I was ready for my long breaks from Tom and my hot free lunch every day. I was ready to learn again and be around kids (even if I didn’t have any friends at that age.) The night before back to school day, I stayed up late, playing with my new doll and writing lists of things that I loved and things that I hated. I was never a doodler, but I would write stories and lists to pass the time. (There was A LOT of time to pass as an only child living in the woods with a Religious Cult.)
My bus was mostly filled with kids like me. Mostly poor and mostly unchanged from the Holiday break, but once I got to school I realized that we do not all celebrate holidays the same way. I mean I knew that the other kids might get more presents or whatever but it seemed as if some kids had gone through a total transformation. There were kids with all new outfits all the way down to the perfectly clean new sneakers! There were girls with their hair all done up in cute styles by adoring mothers and boys with clean new haircuts. I was suddenly aware of my same old hand me down clothes and my same old filthy sneakers and my same old poofy wild curly hair that neither my mother nor I had a clue what to do with.
The teacher had us go around the room and share one thing we got for Christmas and one thing we did over the Holiday. As I listened to the other kids talk about Family Vacations and gifts that seemed “better” than mine, I lost my sense of magic and wonder and started to feel that sick feeling of envy. Ugh. I hate that feeling. It is always paired with shame. Envy for the things I didn’t have that I “should” have like the other kids and then shame for not being a better Christian girl and being grateful for what I had. Envy. Shame. Envy. Shame as every kid spoke. When it was my turn to go, I said, “Sledding” (I grew up in the Allegheny mountains and my trailer was at the base of a giant hill!) and a “Doll House!” I felt like the other kids knew that I was lying, but for the most part, they only whispered about me. They didn’t full on bully me. I was one of the lucky ones like that. When I got older, my luck ran out, but I was still pretty invisible back in Elementary School.
I am writing this while listening to the snoring of my youngest. We are in the weeks before Christmas during a Global Pandemic. I will not map out all of my connections because most of them are too obvious, but I will remind you this holiday season, to share what you have, and without expectations from the recipient. Let us bring an end to the days where people are made to beg for assistance, justify the need for their assistance and then shower gratitude on the giver as if it is not only privilege that sets them apart. It is not heroic to share your/our excess. It is human. If you have too much this Holiday season, share it. And if like me in this story, you are the recipient, know that you are worthy of all of life’s gifts. You/we deserve the magic as much as the person who paid for it with money. Happy Holidays, Friends. Thank you for following my stories and giving me a platform to keep these memories alive.
This is my longest blog post by far. I dig into my journey to understand and resist my relationship to whiteness and honestly there is just so much to say! Content Warning on this one for anyone who does not want to read about that process for me.
The first words I ever typed into a Google search (or maybe it was Yahoo back then) were AIDS+ORPHAN+VOLUNTEER+INTERNATIONAL+TRAVEL. I had been living with my foster family for a few months and getting used to all of the resources suddenly at my fingertips. My mom and I had never had the internet before even though it was 2004 when she died and I was nervous to mess anything up on the computer that the family used and told me that I was allowed to use as well. We had a lesson in school on how to use the internet and how to search for things so I tried to remember what the librarian had taught us. I clicked on the very first result that came up. A year later, I would be on a plane to Brazil with that first result without ever even considering a different organization. `
For a while after my mom died, I was in a daze. But with time, the fog began to lift and the more awareness of my new reality came with the urge to flee. I wanted to run away. I am homesick for my hometown and the people and places that raised me now, but back then, I was ready to get away as fast as possible. I petitioned my high school to give me permission to graduate a year early. It could have been pretty simple. I would take the G.E.D. and then I could begin my new life as a grown up and leave behind my life as an AIDS orphan. But I was 17 and so I needed parental permission to graduate early. My foster family was kind enough to really give it some thought, but they decided that I wasn’t ready to be out on my own. It felt so weird to have this new authority figure situation in my life. My mom basically let me do anything I wanted. I felt powerless. But only for a minute. Once I realized that I was not going to make my escape to college for another year, I took a deep breath and worked up the nerve to do that google search.
I spent the next year of my life, focused entirely on my new mission to LEAVE and not only to LEAVE but to go as far away as I could imagine going. The organization that I found, had volunteer positions in a number of countries around the world, but I specifically wanted to work in an AIDS orphanage. That was really important to me. I had never met anyone other than my parents that was HIV+ and I needed that. I needed to be around people that understood this part of my history. I also really wanted to love on some kids in a way that I so desperately needed to be loved and cared for. Not in the way that people who are trying to save you love you, but in the way that people who really see you love you. Grown AIDS ORPHAN to BABY AIDS ORPHAN. I did not know yet, that while my heart was in a good place, I was stepping into a whole business that I have now learned is called Voluntourism. Shudder. Honestly, I rarely talk about my trip to Brazil, because I would never make it again. I never want to give anyone the impression that anything that I did while I was in Brazil made any positive change for anyone. It didn’t and I know now that I was part of a dynamic that actually causes harm to vulnerable communities while allowing mostly wealthy young people from around the World to feel like they are “giving back” in some way.
I wasn’t rich, obviously, but I did have the family that I was living with in my court and although they were pretty solidly middle class, they were well positioned in our community. Everyone knew and respected them. They made ME palatable. I ran with it. Suddenly people who had never given me a second out of their day were listening to my fundraising pitch. I had to raise a lot of funds for my trip! I was even invited to a luncheon at the Club that I had previously only entered when I went to help my aunt do her job there as the cleaning lady. I stood as tall as I could in front of these men all in suits and I began my story, “….I am raising money to volunteer at an AIDS orphanage in Salvador, Brazil….This is important to me, because I am an AIDS orphan. My parents all contracted HIV right here in this town and lived and died here in secret….” Saying those words to those people (to any people!) felt terrifying. But also liberating! The adrenaline and the release was intoxicating. Soon, I was knocking on doors selling hoagies to the neighborhood, “I am raising money to volunteer at an AIDS orphanage….My parents…died in secret.”
I had a Chicken BBQ at the one grocery store in my whole town. I had an uncle that had worked there all of his life right out of high school all the way until he was eventually laid off after 20 years of employment. Anyway, this is the same store where my older cousin would shove her moms food stamps into my hand when we were kids so that I had to check out when our moms sent us to the store together. I had to pay for all of our stuff in stamps and then a separate order all in stamps for my aunt. The cashier looking at me like I was trash and the other people in line groaning about how long it was taking to do two orders. This was back when food stamps were actual stamps and not EBT cards like today. It was a place where I felt shame mixed with anticipation for the food that would soon sooth my hunger at the beginning of each month.
I remember on this day, I was dressed in a long tie-dye skirt. I had recently pierced my nose and I wore a hemp bag with a rainbow peace sign stitched across the fabric. My hair was down to my waist and I was of course in sandals. This was when I was in my hippie phase, before I was told that I was too angry to be a hippie (true!) and before I realized that hippies were not the activists that I thought they were. In my hometown they were the only activists that I had ever learned about! No mention of Act Up or the Black Panther Party in my History classes. Anyway, I was there in the parking lot of a redneck town looking like THAT and talking to the farmers, the guys in pick up trucks with gun racks in the back, the faces of all of the parents of all of the kids that I grew up with who saw me as nothing more than trouble. One by one I stopped them as they approached the store. I was selling BBQ so people of course were gravitating toward the grill. The father of the foster family was graciously cooking away so that I could do what I really came there to do. “I am raising money to volunteer in an AIDS orphanage in Brazil…My parents…lived and died…in secret…” I am not proud of my voluntourism trip, but I am proud of teenage Crystal Fawn for looking my community in the eye, speaking my truth and demanding that for the first time in my life, they really SEE me.
While he waited for his chicken, one man turned up his nose when I said the word AIDS. He gave me a look that sent chills down my spine. He was offended and maybe even scared to learn that there were people living with AIDS in our little town nestled into our corner of Appalachia. “Why would you go all the way to Brazil for to take care of sick babies when we have enough of our own sick babies right around here?” I was trained to never speak back to a man and so it took all of my courage to reply but I was almost out of this town and so I was feeling bold. Plus, all those parents were right…I was trouble. 😉 I looked at him and I said the truth. “I want to take care of all of the babies in the world. I want to take care of all of the babies, because this town never took care of me. YOU never cared about the AIDS babies right in this town. And you still don’t. I AM taking care of the sick children of this town. I am taking care of ME and I am getting the hell out of here!!”
When school started back up and I was officially a senior, I poured myself into studying the history of Salvador, Brazil. I learned that the city was called “little Africa” because so much of the culture, religion, food, dance and everything! Was carried and now thriving in the descendants of people stolen from Africa and brought as slaves to Brazil. I learned that the slaves in that city rebelled and ran the Portuguese out! That Salvador was 98% Afro-Brazillian for this very reason. I learned all of that and so much more.
I began taking Portuguese lessons from the only person that I could find in my town that spoke the language. Unbelievably that person was the landlord who ruthlessly exerted her dominance over my home the day that my mom died. See previous blog posts to read about this joy of a woman. Anyway, I swallowed all of my rage and I sat at her kitchen once a week to wrap my tongue around the words that she was handing me in the hopes that it would all be worth it to be able to actually communicate with the children at the orphanage!
I graduated from high school which mostly just felt like nothing because my mom wasn’t there and that was it. A week later, I was on my first flight. First to Buffalo, then Atlanta, then Sao Palo and finally Salvador! My boyfriend drove me to the airport. He chatted with a man who had a celtic knot tattoo similar to his own while I checked in. We sat in the airport forever. It was my first time and I was nervous and excited and got there way too early. We were there long enough to see that man with the tattoo board his plane and then come screaming back off of it a few minutes later. He was sobbing and shaking and he glued himself to the window to watch the plane with his wife still onboard take off. My boyfriend went to go check in with him to make sure he was ok. Turns out it was his first flight too and he was very afraid. (also, side-note in case this isn’t obvious. WHITE PRIVILEGE!!! Can you imagine any man of any other race than white screaming and running off of a plane into an airport and not drawing the attention of security?!?!??!!?) I was pretty nervous about taking my first flight, but I decided I wasn’t going to do THAT.
I kissed my boyfriend good-bye and walked away from my childhood and into the next phase of my life. It sounds ridiculously corny but I was a teenager and that is exactly what I thought I was doing.
When I landed in Brazil, this is what I noticed. Every single airport employee was dressed in what I can only describe as farmer clothes. Or maybe what people who aren’t farmers would dress in if that were a costume at Halloween. I am talking straw hats, overalls, long gingham dresses, pigtails on all of the women and freckles painted on their cheeks with Sharpie? Straw tucked into pockets….boots…I mean. The whole thing was very…confusing. I had just left my Podunk town to experience a major international city and…this is what I was seeing? At some point, I learned that I was arriving right in the middle of a festival to honor …farmers maybe. I don’t remember exactly, but right off the bat, any assumptions of what I thought this experience would be were shattered.
The house that the organization put me up in, was occupied by 25-30 young adults from all over the world. Turns out I was the youngest. And the only person who had ever experienced poverty. On my first day in Brazil, I ate dinner alone at a table meant for 30 people and served up to me by a Brazilian woman who explained to me that all of the other volunteers usually went away on trips during the weekends to see more of Brazil and to have FUN. This was the beginning of my realization that this trip was not going to be the trip that I had anticipated. I was coming out of high school, so having a woman cook a meal and serve it to me on a big table, felt like the cafeteria at school. I didn’t realize yet, that it didn’t quite feel that way when it happened at breakfast and dinner every single day.
After that first dinner, I went for a walk. In a city of 2.6 million people. Alone. I had already taken my first flight. I was determined to fully be in this experience. To fully be this new person. I asked around for a store and found myself at a mall. I did not go all the way to Brazil to be in a mall, so I turned back around and started for home. Except I had no idea where I was or how to get back to my “home.” I tried to use my Portuguese from my lessons with my old landlord, but she spoke Portuguese from Portugal. Also, as desperately as I have always wanted to learn another language, I am kind of terrible at it. Years of Spanish and I still sound ridiculous every single time I try to speak with friends. At some point, I got smart enough to write down the address and showed it to a kind looking person. I walked the direction that they pointed until I felt unsure that I was still going the right way. Then, I repeated that with another kind person until eventually 3 or 4 finger points and instructions that I could not understand later, I found my way back.
Over the next couple of days, the other volunteers arrived. I felt like I had just moved into the Real World from MTV. Most of the volunteers were young women and they were all apparently in love with this volunteer named Travis who was from the US. Texas, I believe. There was a woman from India who was kinda actually dating Travis to everyone else’s heartbreak. There was a woman from Lebanon who dressed like she was a runway model every single day. There was a woman from Mexico who seemed the most down to Earth until she started sobbing over her secret love for Travis. I did not fit in to say the least, but I didn’t expect to fit in when I chose to go on an international trip so I was kinda loving it. I wasn’t jaded or judgemental in the ways I would be now. I just soaked up all the powerful woman energy and absorbed as much as I could about what it meant to be a world traveling woman! It was quickly apparent that this was not the first trip for these other volunteers. They had gone on vacations abroad with their families growing up, or trekked the Himalayas, or WOOFED in Ireland. At this point, I still believed that I wanted to be like these women. I planned to get a tattoo when I got back to the States of the raised fist, a symbol that I saw everywhere in Salvador, and then to get a new symbol on my body from every place I ever went until my body was covered in marks of places that I had been.
Anyone who knows me at all now, will find this impossible to believe. Brazil was my one and only international trip. I am kind of a homebody. I never got that tattoo or any tattoo, but Brazil left a much deeper mark on my body. More about that later.
On that first Monday, I got in the van that would drive me to my job placement. There were two other volunteers going to the same placement as me. One was a Black woman from Britain who had already been there for a while. The other was a white woman that I remember nothing about. The Black woman was in med school and wanted to extend her trip to Brazil. She had found the trip to be meaningful in a way that I was searching for and I hung on her every word. She had already seen so many volunteers come and go that she did not give me the time of day. Looking back, and really even then, I already didn’t blame her. I had been on the receiving end of enough well-intentioned but ultimately harmful social services to get why she didn’t trust me. (I did not yet get the ways in which white supremacy had shaped me or to understand these other significant reasons why she might not instantly trust me.)
The other volunteers were placed with the older kids because their Portuguese was actually coherent. Also, I imagine because they were adults. I was 18 and probably about the same size as some of the older kids in the orphanage. I was sent to the baby and toddler rooms. They were across the hall from each other and I was to go back and forth throughout the day, changing diapers, giving meds, and just holding and loving on the smallest people in the facility.
There was water knee deep in the building on that first day. It was the rainy season. A woman led me down the hall and cackled as she patted me on the shoulder and pointed to my first job. The toddler room had 8 wooden cribs lined along the walls and gorgeous chubby smiling blabbering faces peeking out at me from behind the bars. But I realized right away that the nurse who led me in here was not just laughing in that “good luck newbie!” kinda way. She was laughing because a girl about the age that my youngest is now, had taken off her diaper and fingerpainted the entire wall behind her crib in feces handprints. Her little fingers had smeared poop on every single bar holding her in that crib and I even found it on the babies within her reach to either side of her crib. I loved her instantly. I picked her up. I carried her to the outside plastic bucket where someone had kindly brought me a pitcher of water. I poured it down her body slowly while talking to her. The water must have been cold because she screamed and danced her body out of the stream. I imagine she must have been scared of me too, I was a stranger, but these kids were used to strangers caring for them already and she was all smiles with me as I had carried her outside. I cleaned her up and calmed her down with a towel wrapped around her body. Well not so much a towel as a clean rag for this purpose of drying off her little body. She clung to me and I carried her all wrapped up like that back inside. Now what to do with her while I cleaned out her crib. At first I made a rookie mistake of letting her play on the floor while I tried to clean the mess, but she was like all 2 year olds and was causing more chaos for me to clean up and I wasn’t making any headway on scrubbing off her artwork. I picked her up, and set her back down again in a crib with another toddler.
Soon I would learn all of their names. I would learn all of their stories. Some of them were HIV+. Some of them had parents who were HIV+ and had died. Some of them were waiting for results. On my first day, there was a new toddler to arrive. He was coming from a Catholic Orphanage that some of the other volunteers from my organization were placed at. He had tested HIV+ and needed to be moved into this group home facility. First he had lost his mom, then right as he was feeling adjusted to the orphanage, he was being asked to adapt to this new loss and adjust to this new community at the AIDS clinic. All before he turned 3.
I did not know that this facility was for all people living with HIV and not just for children living with HIV. The volunteer organization left that part out. Maybe they thought that cute babies would feel safe but adults with AIDS might scare off the wealthy volunteers. I loved the babies and the toddlers so much, but I was also longing for connection and to be able to connect with people who might hear my story of losing my mother, father, and step-father and actually relate to it rather than pity me. Whenever I was allowed, I would visit with the older children or the adults. Visiting with the older children is how I came to realize how harmful this whole volunteer program really was. It was set up to give the volunteer just enough time at their placement so that they could write home and sound heroic and or take selfies with brown kids to post on Facebook (sorry I will not be sharing any pictures likes that) and then they could leave without seeing their impact or being accountable in any way to the people or communities that they (WE! ME! I did this!) had spent time in. The older kids weren’t going to hand out sweet smiles or pose for any cameras. They were pissed and they saw right through this whole thing. I saw so much of myself in them. I learned that they spent 24 hours a day on site, even doing their school work from the facility rather than leaving to go to school in the larger community. They NEVER left the facility unless there was a volunteer willing and able to take them. The volunteers were always needed to do the work that they signed on for and so the kids stayed inside all day every day. I asked my van driver if he could start bringing me an extra day every week on my off days so that I could walk the kids the few blocks to the beach. I got permission from the nurses at the facility and that was that.
There was also a woman who reminded me of my mom. She was skinny as a bean pole, had no teeth, and she had huge ears. But it wasn’t all of that even that made me feel my mom’s spirit when I was in her presence. It was the way she put her hand on mine when we talked and the way that she listened so closely to my words and talked to me even when we both knew that neither one of us understood the other. She made me a pair of earrings that I still have. She was always crafting, again, just like my mama.
The day that I realized that there were adults living in the group home facility, I found the babies all cheerful and happy, already fed and each with a perfect lipstick kiss stained on their foreheads. I discovered the lips on a person that at the time I assumed was a man with sparkly high heels, a mini skirt and the brightest red lipstick I have ever seen. I did not have the vocabulary yet for transgender or drag or queer even. I did not know yet that I could just ask what pronouns this person would like me to use. I did not know and love as many transgender and or queer people as I know and love now. At the time, I just introduced myself and this person gave me a big smile and said, “you can call me, Mama. I am the Mama of all of these babies!” In Portuguese of course, but that much I understood. Soon, I would learn that this person came by most mornings if they were feeling well to give hugs and love on each baby. To make them feel loved by a face that would stick around…longer than any of the volunteers that came through just for a couple of months during the summer …like me. I learned that this person, “Mama,” was also HIV+ and lived at the facility being a glitzy gorgeous light for everyone, not just the children.
Every night back at the Volunteer House, I would stay up late into the wee hours, playing ping pong with the other youngest person in the house. Let’s call him M. He was young like me, right out of high school in NYC. We hit it off right away because we both LOVE to talk and have long conversations about everything in the world. I had never met anyone like him before and his experiences as a black boy in a huge city from a middle class background were so different from mine growing up in a small town as a white girl from multi-generational poverty. We would talk and talk and talk and send the ping pong ball back and forth across the table. At the beginning of the night, some of the other young people would join us, but after hours of hearing us go back and forth about race, class, gender, prisons, healthcare, education…they would eventually wear out and head to bed. Our friendship is one of my favorite pieces of the trip.
One night M found me crying on the couch. I had walked to the internet cafe to check my email and received a message from my boyfriend. Feeling threatened by my new friendship with M, he came clean about the times that he had cheated on me over the course of our relationship in the hopes that I would confess my own. But the truth was, I was not in Brazil to find romance. I was loving my time at the orphanage and learning from my new friend who I saw as only a friend. I loved that we didn’t have that energy between us. It felt like what I imagined college would be like. Having peers who were smart and could teach you and grow with you. I had nothing to confess to the boyfriend, but my heart was broken. He had held my hand through my grieving my mom’s death and so he was not an easy person to move on from. But M convinced me to get up! Even though we could legally drink for the first time, we both preferred our ping pong games to the bars. But that night we went out. I had no idea what to order and didn’t understand the bartenders recommendation so I just smiled and said, “sim.” He handed me a mug of a hot liquid that I immediately spilled when I took a deep inhalation of the steamy alcohol. We were already laughing. A couple of drinks in and M stood up. He tried to walk to the bathroom or something and one of his dreadlocks was caught in a chandelier above us. We were laughing so hard as he reached above his head to untangle himself and I tried to direct him where to go while also laughing hysterically. We were just two ridiculous tipsy teenagers out on the town in another country and I knew right then that no matter what happened with the cheating boyfriend, my life was going to be full of good people that I would love in one way or another. They might not know me inside and out. I wouldn’t ever again be able to introduce new friends or loves to my mom, but I would find so many good people worth sharing my life with.
Maybe it was because of this night, I don’t remember, but somehow M got the idea that he should give me dreadlocks. My hair was still really long and I was clearly a hippie spirit. We planned to start doing the process the next night instead of our ping pong game. The next morning, we made an announcement about it at the breakfast table and we were so excited. All of the white people were like, “Ok! Cool! Whatever!” They thought of M and I as kinda weird anyway, so they probably didn’t pay much attention. But there was a volunteer from Jamaica who stood up from the table and walked away angrily. Now, I know so much more about white privilege and responsibility. But then I was unaware of any reasons why me getting locks would be offensive or hurtful. I also didn’t know that while it was ok for me to not know, it was not ok for me to expect this black woman to teach me everything I didn’t know. I should have walked to the internet cafe and spent my time researching the history of how white supremacy has punished black women for wearing their hair in natural styles. I should have done the work. But instead I went to her and asked her to explain it to me. I wanted to understand. She was not a hand holder and she did not coddle me in the least bit. She was mad and she definitely made it clear that I was acting like a privileged white person. The other volunteers were watching all of this drama unfold and one by one the white volunteers piped in with things like, “Wow, it’s not a big deal!” or “She should have been nicer about it! You are just a kid!” and the more the white volunteers came forward to reassure me that I had not done anything wrong, the more I opened my eyes to her point. White privilege. It was a totally new concept to me. I had been vocally anti-racist in my hometown. Just intuitively racism had felt wrong and against my core beliefs, but my understanding of how racism played out systemically was non existent. I still thought that being racist was just when people called other people names or said mean things about them based on the color of their skin.
I learned one of the most important lessons in my life from that experience. It took me a while to digest it and to incorporate necessary changes in my life, and as a person who receives privileges based on whiteness every day, I will spend the rest of my life continuing to digest and make changes to myself. I owe her a massive thank you for giving me the gift of her time and her energy and helping me begin to lift the veil of whiteness that I had grown up with.
Once I opened my eyes to reality, I could not unsee what I was seeing. Everywhere I went in Brazil, I was noticing some things that left me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Crowds parted for me. Everyone was working to please me, protect me, entertain me and serve me. I had to really look at the fact that even as a poor orphan girl from the US who had experienced homelessness, food insecurity and constant violence, I was White. And that was a resource I had been cashing in on without even knowing I had it!
I was partially only seeing this for the first time because whiteness shields white people from seeing the truth but also because I grew up in such a “white” place. Out of a town of maybe 2000 there was only a handful of black people and maybe another handful of non-black people of color. In my town, the brownest faces that I personally knew were on relatives on my dad’s side. I grew up being told my dad’s side was Native American (I grew up in land that belongs to the Seneca’s but is currently colonized territory.) Me untangling my relationship to potentially having Indigenous Ancestry is maybe for another post but whether I do or whether I don’t (PLEASE DONT CHIME IN WITH YOUR OPINION OR ANCESTRY DOT COM RESULTS!! I get it our family has a complicated relationship to this conversation!!!) the bigger point is that I grew up believing that I was indigenous on my dad’s side and that had a powerful effect on how I saw myself in relationship to the world. Once when I was talking to one of my uncle’s on my dad’s side I said, “Listen, I will tell you what I have been up to in my life, but please don’t respond with anything racist. I just can’t handle that from you.” and my uncle said, “What?! WE Aren’t white! We can’t be racist, baby just tell me what you’re doin’ with your life.” and…ya, that kind of response shapes how you see yourself. Side note: Anti-black Racism still exists among people who aren’t white so just to make that clear, but the point is that I was being told that I wasn’t white and that wasn’t who “we are.”
Regardless of this part of me that didn’t connect with whiteness, (and now that I understand whiteness as an identity that is not even real, but was created to justify violence and oppression, colonization and slavery, I really do not connect with that identity) I DO recognize that the world does see me as white and that is how I move through my life. and when I say whiteness, I mean whiteness as a system of oppression not necessarily the color of my skin. I am not advocating for self hate. I LOVE myself and this body that I was gifted including my skin. ❤
Anyway, sorry this is so long, but race is complicated in America, and I was just beginning to really see that and grapple with it. I had to travel to another country to do it, but there it was. I was in a city where most days when I left the volunteer house, I did not see another white person. Not only that, but I had learned that Salvador was a port city and the first stop for slave traders to bring human beings to sell to the Americas. There were two doors on many old buildings a reminder that in the past white people and black people would not use the same entrance. There was still the part of town where slave auctions would be held. It was impossible to not stand in that space and feel the grief and violence and inhumanity of it all. But one night, in that part of the city, the part that made my spirit feel everything human all at once, I heard a drum thumping in the distance. I walked out of a shop that I was in and took a few steps toward the sound. I could feel myself pulled to it. My heart felt like it was trying to jump out of my chest. The drumming was so loud and it was clear there were many drums. I turned a corner and Oh my God! I could not believe my eyes. there was a dozen men with drums over their heads thumping and moving right down the middle of the street toward me. At least a hundred people were following them and dancing to the music. Like me, people were gravitating toward the parade until it was hundreds. A boy was moving through the crowd selling beers. I bought one and also bought a couple cigarettes from the next boy. I don’t remember who I was with or anything other than being in the center of a neighborhood that used to hold slave auctions and was now filled with Black joy and Black music and Black Celebration. I found out that this happened every Tuesday and vowed to go every week that I was there.
One day, M left his wallet in a taxi. The driver brought it back with every cent and even his passport in it. I remember someone in the house saying, “Wow! I can’t believe they brought back your passport. That is so valuable, because you are black and from the USA. I bet they could have sold that!” and I sat with that for a long time. It had been so easy for me as a white woman to obtain my own passport., Again, even as a child of poverty. Even as a young person new to the internet and living in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t sleep that night thinking about how difficult it would be for a young person from the orphanage where I worked to come to the US in comparison to me going to Brazil. I thought about how freely I could move here in this country where I did not speak the language and was a different color than most people who lived here. I thought about the tables being turned and how unsafe and unwelcoming my hometown would be for a Black Brazilian even if they could get the passport and visa to visit. and this is when I felt like less of a tourist/volunteer and more of a colonizer. I just could see the thread so clearly connecting me from my own country built on colonization genocide and slavery and the history of that in this new land and how white people were still traveling all over the world with a freedom that was not unconnected to this history of colonization. I just couldn’t unsee it and I still can’t. I don’t know if I knew that I would not travel again out of my country or if that realization came for me after I got home, but at some point I knew that my heart would rather sit right here and invest my love and energy into getting to know people from around the world who visit or move to the US and listening and learning more about immigration politics.
I still do not feel any call to travel. I love living in a community with a lot of immigrants. I love getting to know my immigrant neighbors and working to create a welcoming community in my corner of the world. I am committed to recommitting every day to my own work on decolonization and eradicating white supremacy in myself and in my community. This is not what I thought that I would find in Brazil, but 15 years later, I am still grateful for the gift of having my eyes opened.
Back in the US, just a few years later, I was already a mom and living in my chosen home state and M came for a visit. From our late night ping pong games, he knew that I was disconnected from my siblings since our father died when I Was 7. he told me I should call him “Uncle M.”
There is so much more I could have said, so many more memories of my time there, but you get the point. I love telling stories and have to pause somewhere. I leave you with this sweet pic of M and my first born getting to know each other.
Maybe I am wrong about traveling. I mean this as no judgement on those who come to a different conclusion about international travel. I mean, even retelling this story, I can see that a lot of good came out of my trip…But at what cost? So, ya, I am still where I am in my relationship with seeing the world. I am not proud of my trip to Brazil, but I am grateful.