Category Archives: family

To the Place / I Belong

Currently, I’m having an issue with John Denver. At night, almost every night, his country hymns are the ones that lull my 7- and 4-year-olds to sleep.

I realize that in the grand scheme of things, the musical bedtime selections of our kids is not a big deal. And I acknowledge that overall, our kids’ tastes in music are quite varied. Like in the car, where they clamor for ’90s French rapper MC Solaar. Or in the kitchen, where they hang on for dear life to keep up with the rollercoaster that is Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. U2, Stevie Wonder, The Who, they dig all that.

But when you’re a mother of color trying to instill some sense of black culture in your kids — and the shiny meadows and shinier blonde mops all around you make you feel you’re already living a John Denver song — hearing those opening twangs about the Shenandoah River night after night after night can feel like a losing battle. I’m not sure how the CD, which belongs to my husband, first got into the rotation. But at bedtime, as their eyelids flutter and finally sink into sleep, there is only one voice Sky and Rose want to hear: the voice that sings Rocky Mountain High, Sunshine on My Shoulder and of course, the top grosser of all Denver’s hits, the ballad that gets mentioned with John Lennon’s Imagine and Aretha Franklin’s Respect as one of the most influential songs of the 20th century: Take Me Home, Country Roads. Attempts to slip in the occasional Erykah Badu or Harry Belafonte are futile.

“I like how his voice sounds singing with the music,” Sky explained the other night. “It sounds, you know, nice.” And part of me can’t argue with that four-star review — especially since I made a stink to Brian about the last CD that was in heavy rotation, Led Zeppelin II (remastered). I’m sure Sky and Rose have no idea what Robert Plant is talking about, but there’s something weird about peeking in on children bathed in the glow of a Hello Kitty lamp and hearing “Squeeze me baby/ ‘Til the juice runs down my leg” waft through the crack in the door.

Now, some have called Denver’s songs soaring melodies of hope. I would call them syrupy odes to romantic love and an idyllic notion of America that doesn’t really exist. I would not be alone in that assessment. In 2007, in the midst of an apparently heated battle over whether to declare Rocky Mountain High the state song of Colorado, a Denver Post columnist opined, “Rocky Mountain High deserves its place in Colorado . . . in Muzak form on supermarket speakers or during a marathon Time Life infomercial hosted by Air Supply.” Of course with music, it’s all relative. If Ray Charles and legendary ska band The Maytals saw fit to record covers of Take Me Home, there’s gotta be something to it that I’m missing.

And as I write this, I’m actually recalling another heated debate that took place right around 2007, in a cell phone conversation between Brian and me. I’ll attribute some of the things I said, and the conviction with which I said them, to the hormones coursing through my body during my second pregnancy. But I distinctly remember screaming about the importance of our kids understanding the revolutionary sound of A Tribe Called Quest. And I remember Brian saying something about hip-hop consisting of a lot of noise and only a very little bit of actual music.

The other day, as I heard Denver’s relentless major chords drift once again through the hall, I decided to try an experiment. I started Googling “John Denver” and “African-American,” just to see if there was any possible intersection of Denver and black culture other than in this house.

It didn’t take me long to find it.

In the 1970s, after Denver married first wife Annie Martell, the couple had trouble conceiving. They adopted a son, Zachary John, and later a daughter, Anna Kate, who Denver would later say were “meant to be theirs.” The little boy who inspired Denver’s  Zachary and Jennifer and A Baby Just Like You (which he wrote for Frank Sinatra), was black. If the Internet is to be believed, he is now in his 30s, happily married, and still lives in Colorado.

In an interview he gave to People in 1979, Denver talked about his family. He made no mention of race, but he made his feelings about fatherhood very clear. “I’ll tell you the best thing about me. I’m some guy’s dad; I’m some little gal’s dad. When I die, Zachary John and Anna Kate’s father, boy, that’s enough for me to be remembered by. That’s more than enough.”

Well I’ll be damned. There’s an idyllic notion of America, and I want to sing along.

Falling Dormant, Waking Up

Note to readers (if this blog still has readers, that is):

Never, ever start a two-part blog post about race and children’s books when you are lost in the tunnels of your very real, very adult racial mid-life crisis. When the school bus driver’s confused stare, just a few seconds long, starts to stay in your mind’s eye for hours. When a row of maple trees might as well be a row of metal bars. When the path you’ve made with another person — every piece you snapped in place together, every willing compromise and good intention — obscures itself. And two things that never stood in the path before, blackness and whiteness, look so big you can’t see if the path continues on the other side.

My intention back in November was to blog about Hazel the Hedgehog, a vintage children’s book in which a brown and spikey hedgehog is banished from the barnyard by a posse of strangely blond farm animals. At a certain point, the mere act of picking up this book used to make Brian and I laugh out loud.

That was part I. Part II was to share a book that is Hazel’s antithesis: Spork, the uplifting tale of a mixed kitchen utensil.

I am going to share it now, here, because it’s a beautiful parable with beautiful pictures, and because Kyo Maclear, the book’s half-Japanese, half-British author, has her own beautiful story to tell about how this book came into being. (You can read about Maclear’s and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault’s upcoming book, Virginia Wolf, which addresses depression, here).

But as I look at this adorable spork of a child, searching for identity in the silverware drawer, I realize how drawn I am to his parents: the fork father and spoon mother “who thought he was perfect just the way he was.” They look so happy.

Do they argue about balancing Spork’s spoon heritage and fork heritage? If you are made of prongs, can you truly understand a round hollow? And if these utensils are a family, where can they all happily live? Because like much of America (still), drawer organizers tend to be segregated.

When you’ve written a children’s book that has been used as an allegory for everything from transgender identity to the Middle Way in Buddhism, and that educators use to introduce kids to philosophy, you have done something worthwhile. In an interview, Maclear said it took a common camping implement to get at the deeply personal messages she wanted to convey.

“When I conceived of this story, I knew I didn’t want the protagonist to be distinctly human . . . I wanted to avoid the ‘social studies’ approach to talking about these issues, which can become ponderous and joyless,” says Maclear, who lives in Canada with her husband and young daughter. “I definitely didn’t want to make my character purple or some arbitrary mixed color, because I find this trivializes the real historical and cultural experiences of being a person of color.”

When readers meet Spork, Maclear says, they are disarmed. I have no idea if Sky and Rose consciously see their mixed selves when I read this book to them. But I know they root for Spork, and I know more than anything they love how it all ends.

Removed from anxieties about race, class, ethnicity, sexuality or any number of other dividing lines, Maclear says, adults and children suddenly find themselves able to explore what it means to be different, and what it means to belong. “Sometimes,” she says, “we need a new language, and fresh words.”

If there is a better guiding principle when it comes to race, I can’t think of one. Yes, there are deep injustices to battle. There are presidential candidates who have figured out how to divide across color and culture, and there are families still trying to figure out how to love across color and culture . But so many of these things hinge on the stories we tell ourselves, or have told ourselves for too long. Sometimes we need a new language. And fresh words.

A Leaf Falls On

This blog is predicated on my living in a town where the sight of a black person turns heads and boggle minds. Lately, my sanity is predicated on getting away from twisted heads and boggled states. Far away, not just from the reality of being judged or prejudged, but from the fear of it happening, anticipating reality. It’s my perpetual Maple Street dilemma: Does keeping the blog mean losing my mind?

Tar spot, a disease of maples caused by Rhytisma acerinum.

Fall is here. I have not written for a while, but that is not because there is nothing to say. It’s because there is too much to say. Questions, there are plenty of: Was it a mistake to move here? Even if you take into account the joy bursting from small feet that tear across an endless yard; even if over the river and through the woods really does lead to grandmother’s house — not just in a song or on Thanksgiving but several times a week, every week; even with the smattering of area families who are like us and who seem happy, or at least more well-adjusted: Was it the right thing or the wrong thing to leave Boston for a town where we are visible curiosities? If it’s not a mistake yet, will it turn out to have been later, when those little feet begin to step into biracial identity? Does asking these question reflect a lack of mental toughness? A weakness of will? Can we belong somewhere just by declaring that we do?

I used to be patient; I used to be the person who told other black people to calm down. A black editor once led me, the new girl, on a tour of a newsroom by introducing me only to other black reporters. I remember feeling so sorry for him. I thought: It’s 1994. What is that about? Now it’s 2011, and I know what it’s about.

Not too long ago, I could find the humor in almost anything — even, at times, in ignorance. Even in racial ignorance, and even in racial ignorance directed at me. I don’t know where that person went. I suspect she may have been ground to dust, trying to help a succession of well-meaning, white-gloved folks hear the sound of their own quiet racism. Quiet racism, while polite and muted, can be deafening; if I’m having this much trouble tuning it out, I worry for my 6-year-old, my 4-year-old and my 2-year-old.

I came home the other day to find the UPS man in my driveway. A package!

Right there was my problem, apparently. I thought I could just come home and get a package.

“I’m just leaving this for the owners.” My hand goes out, his hand pulls back.

“You live here?”

Yes.

“You . . . live here?”

That time, he got me wondering. Here, in this driveway and with this package withheld, am I living?

What Kind of Mother

I grew up in a place called the Main Line, just outside Philadelphia. The Main Line isn’t a town or a school district or a county. It’s not a train line, although it got its name from a stretch of the Pennsylvania Railroad built in the 1800s. The Main Line contains a collection of towns, the same way Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses contain collections of jewels. It’s a loosely defined region, but more importantly it’s a state of mind, an atmosphere: of blue bloods and old money, horse shows, cricket clubs and sprawling estates. It’s the hometown of icy political spouse Betty Draper from Mad Men. When you read about or hear about the Main Line, you should imagine it being pronounced in an accent dripping with privilege, like Thurston Howell III.

If you’re the daughter of black immigrant doctors and you grow up in a place like this, the pressure to act or not act a certain way can be considerable. My mother wanted us to study hard, to excel, to race to the top. Underlying those aspirations was a cardinal rule: Don’t do anything or say anything that will confirm a negative stereotype white people have about black people. Don’t be loud. Don’t be late. Don’t talk like that. Don’t walk out of the house with your hair a bushy mess or your clothes a wrinkled mess. And I don’t think I ever did. Which is why, on a sunny day in August, hoisting 3-year-old Rose out of her car seat and into a cart at the supermarket, I froze when I realized something: My daughter had no pants on.

I had scooped her up so quickly in the driveway, I hadn’t noticed she was only wearing underwear and a shirt — a tunic-cut shirt, but a shirt nonetheless. Her Hello Kitty panties were exposed for all the world to see. And all I could think about was, what kind of mother do I look like? Or, just as likely since my daughter is so fair-skinned, what kind of babysitter do I look like? I prayed I wouldn’t run into any neighborhood parents — which I did (a perfectly tanned couple and their blond daughters, who had floated out of a J.Crew catalog). I prayed Rose wouldn’t broadcast it in her high-decibel warble — which she did, at the crowded deli counter. (“Mommy, where are my pants? This cart is making my butt freeze!”) It was the fastest market run I’d made in years.

I know all parents have these moments (right? right?). But in that brief instant, I wasn’t just a frazzled, disorganized mom picking up last-minute ingredients for dinner. I was the black mother whose child was in a public place in her underwear. I saw myself the way Betty Draper might see me, and the feeling I got was as irrational as it was real: I hadn’t just let down my daughter and her slightly shivering backside. I had let down my entire race. I didn’t want to feel that, but I couldn’t escape feeling it.

Big thanks to Fabiola Perez-Sitko, maker of the handcrafted, multicultural line of dolls fig & me for the photo above. It’s a funny story: Not wanting to use a photo of a real child in underwear, I started searching for images of dolls and landed on her blog. Then, a few minutes after my email, these words from the northern shore of Lake Superior: “I am Mexican, and my husband is Canadian of European descent. More often than not people do not associate my children with their father, and in some occasions have thought and said he had adopted them.”

Amazing. Caramels abound.

Love, to a Guinea Hen

Pretty much everyone in our neighborhood knows Kanga and Charlotte, the two goats we inherited a while back from Brian’s uncle. In one of my early posts for this blog, I explained the unlikely but true story that Kanga and Charlotte were the perfect goats for us to inherit, because they are racially loaded. What I mean by that is, Charlotte happens to be the fluffy, docile, utterly non-threatening white goat. And Kanga happens to be the hostile, aggressive, apparently troubled black goat, forever trying to jump the fences and escape. Now, there’s a lot one could say here. But this blog post is not about goats, so for now I’ll only say two things. One: The task of explaining to your kids’ friends that they can pet the nice fluffy white goat, but they can’t touch the mean black goat, is just more than what should be asked of a black woman living on Maple Street. Two: Kanga, I feel you.

One of the biggest gulfs we’ve had to bridge in this marriage has to do with animals. I often tell people that over the years, I’ve been conned into living in the animal menagerie that has overtaken our house. It’s not even a very good con, but somehow it always works. “Come on, Francie Pants, the cat won’t bother anybody!” (Hello, allergies.) “Come on, Francie Pants, chickens will be fun!” (Hello, chicken shit in the driveway. Hello, bare feet of three children casually stepping in chicken shit in said driveway. Hello, chicken shit on the living room floor, from chicken wandering inside screen door left wide open.) “Francie Pants, that’s a mother raccoon and her babies. We can’t kick them out of our chimney in the dead of winter!” (Hello, raccoon urine dripping down fireplace. Hello, bullet hole in brand-new cabinet wall from gunshot husband fired when mother raccoon terrorized our kitchen).

I curse the animals, I ignore the animals, I roll my eyes when Brian turns to me and asks, after a long silence, “Francie Pants, what do you think the cat is thinking right now?” The one thing I don’t do — that I can’t do — is feel. I’ve never felt anything for an animal, ever. The animals make my two sons and my daughter giddy with joy, and I’m aware that that happiness is something I have no way of understanding. I’m aware that Brian knows all about it, because of the epic love stories he and his family have shared with the dogs in their lives. Rags. Smiley. Caesar. Sequel. Seeing that love in our kids makes me jealous, but it also makes me feel warm.

One morning a few weeks ago, I was standing in the kitchen and noticed one of our guinea hens on the ledge of the back porch. Guinea hens make the most grating sound known to man. (It’s often the sound that wakes me before 6 am. Again, conned.) I don’t know why, but I started looking at this guinea hen differently on this particular day. It was focused and insistent. It did not move from the ledge. “It’s calling for its mate,” Brian told me as I reached up for the cereal bowl. A few days earlier, one of our guinea hens had wandered onto Maple Street and got run over. The ledge on the back porch looks directly out onto the road.

And for the first time, there it was. A feeling. I listened to that scraping, awful cry and I thought, if the pain of losing someone you loved were a sound, it would be that sound. I kept listening and the more I heard it, the more that cry sounded like two words. Come back. Come back.

When Your White Husband Is Blacker Than You

A few years ago, Brian ran into a woman he knew while hiking in the woods in Dover, the sleepy, semi-rural town just over the bridge from our sleepy, semi-rural town. He was with our son Sky, who was then 3. It was summer, and Sky’s skin had that bronzed, Meso-American tint; the woman was a distant acquaintance and middle-aged. The conversation went like this:

Woman: “Is this your son? Oh, he’s adorable! Where did you get him from, Guatemala?”

Brian: “No, I got him from my wife.”

What he desperately wanted to say was, “No, I got him from my wife’s uterus” — and he would have, if he hadn’t known the woman. That he had the presence of mind to formulate a comeback (not to mention a reserve comeback he refrained from using) proves the maxim I have occasionally found to be in true in our nine-year marriage: Sometimes, and I hate to say this, Brian is a better black person than me. He’s never seen Do The Right Thing and he can’t hear the difference between Kanye and Q-Tip. But when it comes to knowing what to say in the face of racial ignorance — and not being afraid to make people feel uncomfortable in their ignorance — Brian’s got me beat cold.


My husband is one of the strangest white people I’ve ever met. He’s a blue-collar roofer with blond hair whose CD collection includes Public Enemy and a compilation of MLK sermons. He’s the baby of six in a traditional Irish-American family who believes the shortest route to anywhere you’re going is through Dover (the town where he was born), but who spent his 20s hitchiking the country — often with no plan and next to no money. He’s an award-winning slam poet who can’t stand what hip-hop has done to slam poetry, and an avid radio listener who can’t stand what right-wing shock jocks have done to radio. For years, I’ve had to deal with my own husband riding me for patronizing a local sub shop whose owners blast right-wing radio 24/7, and who generally seem to fit the profile of Obama-hating Tea Party loyalists.

“How can you eat there?”

“I don’t know . . . their subs are really, really good.”

“Francie, if it was up to people like you, blacks would still be sitting in the back of the bus.”

And yet, before we had kids, Brian was the kind of person who basically subscribed to the belief that if you focused on raising your kids right, things like race and their sense of blackness would take care of themselves. Now that we actually have kids, he is realizing that it is much, much more complicated than that.

Not long after we moved here, I was driving along Main Street and spotted a yard sale at a church. On a sunny weekend morning, nothing makes me happier than stumbling on a yard sale. Nothing. I hopped out of the car, and as I roamed among the vintage chairs and side tables, a woman working the sale — white, middle-aged, nice-as-pie smile — came up to greet me. “Now, tell me,” she said, “how on earth did you find out about a yard sale all the way out here?” And just like that, she crushed me. She crushed me and she also froze me: For what seemed like minutes, I couldn’t come up with anything. Then I said, very quietly, “I live here.”

Back in the car, I called Brian and told him how a woman I had never laid eyes on before ruined my day in under 15 seconds. When I told him what she had said, the comeback was instant. How did I find it? Well, I was on my way to a carjacking and thought I would stop and pick up a desk lamp. I would need a separate blog to document every time Brian has come up with something like this. It’s as routine as brushing your teeth in the morning, and quicker than the snap of a finger.

I often think: Why can’t I do it? Why am I always unprepared for racism, and Brian is always fully prepared? Is it because I’m a girl? Girls, we are taught, shouldn’t make others feel uncomfortable. Is it because I’m a good little immigrant black girl? Good little immigrant black girls, we are taught, should never, ever make the people around us feel uncomfortable. Even if a stranger can’t fathom that you live in her town; even if a sales clerk asks you for ID, not having asked the white person in line in front of you; even if someone tells you that the prejudiced thing they did or said isn’t their fault because they’ve only ever been exposed to people who look like them, do not, under any circumstances, go off. Because if you do, you will become “that” black woman. “That” black neighbor, “that” black coworker, “that” black sister-in-law or school mother. The trap door to that stereotype is so unconscious and so seductive, it will fly open every time.

My husband once told me that if he were black, he would be walking around in a constant state of anger and rage. I relayed that statement to a black friend a short time later, and he articulated in words what I already knew. “He’d be in a constant state of anger and rage for about five minutes,” he said. “Then, he’d just be tired and resigned.”

Spoken like a true black person.

The Sometimes Ironic T-Shirt

A while back, I bought Satchel a t-shirt that reads “She’s My Mommy, Not My Nanny.” It’s a funny shirt.

What’s funnier is that because I’m an overextended working mother, and because I don’t pay much attention to what I yank from Satchel’s drawer in morning rush to get him dressed, he is much more likely to be wearing the shirt when he’s with Jana — our, um, nanny. Which means that in addition to people not thinking I’m Satchel’s mother when I’m out with him, people generally think Jana is his mother when she’s out with him and he’s wearing the shirt.

Being hip and ironic about your mixed-race family is complicated.

If you’re interested in these shirts, you can purchase them from the  Swirl Syndicate. They’ve got a bunch of new styles, too. The line-drawn blender is my favorite!!

I’m Lighter than You

It’s summer time, which means the little caramels in my life are turning into the sticky, summer versions of themselves. It means day camp in the morning and the water hose snaking down the driveway and deep into the yard. It means chasing chickens half-naked (as opposed to chasing chickens in bubble jackets). And it means a melanin boost that can only be described as delicious, and that I find myself wishing they could keep all year long — not only because it looks great, but because life on Maple Street feels just a little sweeter, a little less complicated, when I look more like my kids’ mommy and less like their nanny.

 

 

 

 

Generations pass. My grandmother on my father’s side lived in Haiti, where my parents were born and raised. As kids, we would go there to visit relatives and when we did, my grandmother would urge me to stay out of the sun. She understood well the laws of our colorstruck world: lighter is better. White is better than black; and among blacks, light has always been better than dark. What my grandmother wanted was to make sure I didn’t get any darker than I already was. Every day, thousands of black girls are born to mothers and grandmothers who want the same thing — to be something other than what they are.

Despite everything we’ve done to shield our kids from this scarring logic, it is seeping through. In the car a few days ago, Rose decided to pick on Sky with these words: “I’m lighter than you!” Upon hearing that, I could barely maintain my lane.  And then before I could even react: “No you’re not! I’m medium and you’re medium! We’re both the same!” I wish I could say that I have no idea how a 3-year-old could absorb colorism at such a young age, but the truth is I have a very good idea: She lives in the world.

Amazingly, there is a documentary film coming that will address this very legacy head on. The film is called Dark Girls, and it is a labor of love brought to us by the black film director Bill Duke. If the trailer is any indication, it’s going to be a searing mix of cultural history and personal revelation, of families passing down untold pain and girls going to bed with eyes squeezed shut  — hoping, praying that they might be lighter when those eyes open.

The sun was spectacular today. Let summer begin.

 

 

The Way to Belonging

Lately, there have been two music tracks in heavy rotation for rump-shaking in our house. One is “Kouman Sa T’a Ye,” a driving roots rhythm by the Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans that literally bursts with joy and asks the question, “What would life be without the neighborhood yard?” The other is “Dirty Water,” the 1960s garage-rock anthem by the Standells. It’s a love song wrapped in a snarl, and it celebrates Boston — muggers, filthy river and all — as the best goddamn place on earth.

If it’s possible for two songs to capture the meeting and meshing of our family’s cultures — black and white, roots and rock, CaribbeanAfricanIrishGerman — these two might be it. But despite the wildly different genres, it turns out that Boukman and the Standells have a few things in common. For example, rebellion: With their bold riffs and growling vocals, the Standells are considered by some to be godfathers of punk. Boukman Eksperyans, a group whose politically charged songs have been banned at times in Haiti, named itself in part for the high priest of rock guitar, Jimi Hendrix (as in, Are You Experienced). And with these tracks in particular, the echoes go even deeper: these are two songs that speak the same language about a common idea: the idea of home. It’s a notion that has eluded me, a daughter of immigrants, my whole life. And it’s a notion that defines my husband, whose long family line of dairy farmers, blacksmiths, police officers and town selectmen have left a deep imprint on the neighboring town where he was raised. The town that years ago dedicated a road after the family name. The town where Brian’s mother has been the school nurse since 1975.

 

 

Dover Town Hall, photo by Paul Keleher

 

After 12 years traveling these roads in Brian’s work truck, I can safely say he knows every single solitary house in this town’s 15 square miles. He knows the stories of the oldest houses still standing, and he knows the stories of old houses that once stood where oversized McMansions sit now. He knows who paved which roads and who built the stone walls that seem to go on for miles. The other day, the town’s retired police chief ran into my husband. They got to talking, and the chief started telling him how he would never, ever forget the period during the Depression when Brian’s great-grandfather, Michael W. Comiskey, drove around town delivering quarts of milk to families who could not afford it. He made the rounds early in the morning, before anyone woke up, so that none of those families would be embarrassed.

That sense of belonging, six generations deep, was an instant magnet of attraction when I met Brian. The idea that I could feel a rootedness I had never known, that I could pass those roots on, was irresistible. And as conflicted as I often feel about living in this hushed, small-town neverland, as a mother I am fascinated by what this grand experiment will mean for Sky, Rose, and Satchel, our little Maple Street caramels. They are darker and curlier, and because of that, they will have painful moments of doubt about whether they can ever truly belong. But they will just as surely have moments when they feel, even among the llamma farms and lily-white panoramas, that this land belongs to them as much it does to anyone else. Maybe even more.

 

 

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