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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Happy Loving Day

A lot of times, when I get that not-so-post-racial feeling around town — when my presence at the local ice cream store curls the faces around me into question marks; when a stranger stops me, tells me how cute my kids are and then asks where their mother is — I think of another interracial couple who made their way in small-town America: the Lovings.

In 1958, when she was 18, Mildred Dolores “Bean” Jeter married the man she loved, a bricklayer and family friend from her Virginia hometown, Richard Perry Loving. A month after their out-of-state wedding, the newlyweds were roused from their beds in the dead of night by police. They were arrested, jailed and, for all intents and purposes, banished from the state for violating the Racial Integrity Act. In facing the charges against them, Mildred and Richard pleaded guilty in court, because they were guilty: Their marriage certificate, which hung on their bedroom wall, was no good, just like their mixed-race union.

Clearly, Virginia wasn’t always for lovers. But on June 12, 1967, 44 years ago today, the US Supreme Court unanimously rejected the state’s argument that keeping the races from marrying was part of God’s plan. The couple’s convictions were overturned and, after 25 years in exile in Washington, D.C., they returned to the only place they had ever wanted to be, Caroline County, Va. Now every year on this day, Loving Day, those who walk in the Loving’s footsteps celebrate the love that started between a boy and a girl, and that eventually dismantled anti-miscegenation laws in more than a dozen states.

Like me, Mildred Loving had three children. Her husband was proudly blue-collar, like mine. But while I sometimes experience our biracial outpost like some kind of frontier pilgrim in the rural depths, Maple Street is a racial utopia compared to what the Lovings endured. When I started to feel frustrated, I called a web developer and created a blog. When Mildred Loving felt frustrated, she called then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and created a racial firestorm. I can’t comprehend how shunned they felt, and I can hardly believe what they sacrificed — their own safety, the safety of their children, the much easier road of staying with their own kind. But I am so grateful.

Mildred and Richard Loving, 1967

Francie and Brian Comiskey, 2011

The Wheels on the Bus

Last week we took the kids to California Pizza Kitchen. We took the back roads — which are basically the only roads you’ll find around here.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I named this blog Caramels on Maple Street, this is the kind of moment, and existence, I was trying to capture. If only I had started churning out babies sooner. Then we could have had the Brady Bunch version of this in a minivan. (Brian, I know what you’re thinking; don’t get any ideas.

The No Worries Palace

Whenever anything changes — in a room, in the fridge, in my hair length — Sky notices it immediately.  He cried for days when my husband got a new work truck. He stomped in protest when we started redoing the kids’ bathroom — then, like a squatter being forced out of a neighborhood mid-gentrification, he begged us to please, please just keep the 70s-era vanity bar light over the sink where he brushes his teeth. Please! Someone around here has a flair for drama.

So I shouldn’t have been that surprised last week when, the second I flipped open my laptop, I became the subject of a brutal interrogation. “What happened to your desktop? What happened to that other wallpaper you had? What happened to the No-Worries Palace, Mama????

The No-Worries Palace is the Palais Sans-Souci, near Haiti’s mountainous northern city of Cap Haitiën. (The term “sans souci” is more often translated as “carefree.”) It was built between 1810-1813, the royal residence of Haiti’s only king, the tyrannical and more-than-a-little-paranoid Henri Christophe. Modeled after the Sanssouci Palace in Pottsdam, Germany, it is a ruin and a miracle, long dubbed an eighth Wonder of the World. And when Sky saw it on my desktop for the first time, something about it — the ghosts of dukes and barons, the majesty of those skeletal columns — pulled him in completely. “What is that?” he said softly. “Who lived in it? Can we go there?”


I could call myself brilliant, but actually, this was an absolute fluke. These days, if a story about a fortress doesn’t involve Han Solo or an escape pod, it’s a nonstarter. And it’s hard to compete with 3D books about young Jedis you can buy with one click on Amazon. But somehow, without my having planned it, Sky was spontaneously connecting with a place I barely remember myself.

Legend has it that King Henri was a drummer boy in the American Revolution, serving in a black regiment of the French military in the siege of Savannah. A slave turned mason (turned waiter turned billiard maker), he did a lot more than bang drums when revolution came to his own country; he helped lead Haiti to independence in 1804, the only successful slave revolt in history.

From there, it gets a little less age-appropriate: despotic rule; the deaths of thousands who labored to build that palace and the massive, even more majestic Citadelle fortress nearby; suicide by a silver bullet. Stuff like that. But the 6-year-old version is cool. Not quite as cool as Star Wars, but plenty cool enough.

Tender. Headed.

If the word ‘tender-headed’ makes your neck tight and sends a chill down your spine, you probably could write this post as easily as you’re reading it. On the other hand, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, read on.

The other night I was doing one of the things I hate the most about being a mother. I was combing my kids’ hair. This was triple hair night: Sky, Rose and Satchel all fresh out of the bath; Scooby Doo on TV in the bedroom, serving as both bait and bribery. Bait and bribery have become necessary, because for a while now, my kids have taken to screaming and occasionally running away before I’ve even touched their heads. The mere sight of a comb in their mother’s hand strikes them with terror. And as I once again wrangled one of them to the bed and slathered on leave-in conditioner, all I could think about was how many times I had sworn to myself that this little domestic tableau of black life would never unfold when I had children. If I ever have children, I vowed, I will not traumatize them while detangling their hair! And yet, here I am.

My earliest memory of childhood isn’t a place or a toy or a favorite bedtime story. My earliest childhood memory is a comb. Actually, two combs. One was a wide-tooth in tortoise-shell plastic. It always felt slippery, probably from the waxy hair cream my mother would apply to my scalp. (I have no idea how she stumbled on this European formula way back when, but after traveling back in time on the Internet, I discovered that the makers of Stilbépan Haarcrème haven’t changed their look in 35 years. You can still buy it in a squeeze tube with a black-and-orange wave design — but only from online drugstores in Germany.) The other was a black fine-tooth comb with a tail that looked like an ice pick. From age 3 to 13, those two combs were the instruments of torture I faced every morning, sitting between the locked knees of my mother, babysitter, or visiting aunt as they literally battled my hair, raking out every uncooperative bushy knot until my head was sufficiently tamed. And every morning, my piercing, hysterical screams fell on deaf ears. More than anyone walking this earth, Haitian women know real suffering; they had no sympathy for the wails of a girl whose biggest problem was getting her hair wrestled into a gumdrop ponytail holder.

There wasn’t a lot of English spoken in my house, but one night at a sleepover with some black friends, I learned there was a name for this condition: I was tender-headed. And that meant a few things. It meant that I had a sensitive scalp, of course. But more importantly, it meant that any relative or minder taking a comb to my head should ignore my sobs and pleas outright. My tears were not to be taken seriously; I was weak, puny, a little too fragile. Tender-headed. If calling your child lactose-intolerant is an informational alert, letting people know to be careful when offering food, calling your child tender-headed is more like an indictment. Somewhere in there, there’s a suggestion that she is not prepared for life in a cold, hard world, and that somebody who loves her better start preparing her, starting with the sting and yank of a hair-combing session.

My kids may not appreciate it, but generationally speaking, there’s been progress. As a daughter, my hair care regimen was akin to tyranny. As a mother, the hair sessions on Maple Street are more like multilateral peace summits. Can we watch Dora? Okay. Can I have some gum? Yes you can have gum. Anything that will blunt the pain, short of not combing their hair at all, I will do. But as sick as it may sound, when I see the extreme lengths to which parents these days go to shield our kids from — well, from everything really: bacteria, rain puddles, a skinned knee, a bushy knot, bad news of any kind, and above all, failure — the wisdom of every woman who locked me between her legs and rained holy hell down on my head becomes more clear. I’ve spent hours online trying to find the magic products that will not just manage my kids’ curls, but transform these moments into the loving, bonding bedtime routine that I wish it was. I think I’m doing the right thing. But sometimes, I see the mothers and grandmothers and older cousins of my youth like a Greek chorus. And they’re telling me, Scooby-Doo? Apa pito! (Very loosely translated from Haitian Creole: “Over my dead body.”)  I’ll give them a Scooby Doo they’ll remember for a long time! Give me that comb, and go get me the Stilbépan!

A Mommy Slave Makes a Baby Slave

When our son Sky was 2, he started to obsess about a place in the Irish Sea called the Island of Sodor. To some of you parents out there, the singsong name of this fairytale land may sound familiar: It’s the place where Thomas the Tank Engine, that relentlessly sunny train with the slightly creepy eyebrows, rides the rails all day long.

For two-and-a-half solid years, Thomas ruled our world. There were interactive DVDs, books with sound buttons simulating 11 variations on the train whistle, pilgrimages to the local railroad village about an hour’s drive from here whenever Thomas came to town. And of course, there were countless, countless trains. Wooden and metal and plastic trains and train accessories that represented, if one website is to be believed, about 140 locomotive friends chugging cheekily across the isle. At the height of our railway frenzy, Sky could name every single solitary one without hesitating. If I had a toddler’s memory banks as a college freshman in organic chemistry, I’d be a neurosurgeon by now.

As desperate as I was to be liberated from Thomas’ reign, it taught a fundamental lesson of childhood: Boys love trains. Which makes for a tricky and sad situation when, a few years later, your son bounces in the room asking what the Underground Railroad is, where its tracks run, and whether we can go visit it sometime. The night that happened, I learned a fundamental lesson of parenthood: There is no sugarcoating the story of slavery. Even if you’re armed with a gorgeous picture book filled with dream-like visions of children flying over Canada, even if Harriet Tubman appears in a candy-cane petticoat telling you she never lost a passenger, at some point, the surreal savagery of the subject matter is bound to burst in on your bedtime routine.


I’m sure other parents have had this feeling. As I turned the pages, and the tale of a brown-skinned girl crouching in a cemetery to escape white bounty hunters unfolded, I felt insecure. Do I keep going? Do I close the book and pull a tried-and-true Star Wars distraction? Am I about to tear Sky’s Thomas-and-friends love of trains to shreds? And if I shut down this particular railway line tonight, do I wait for a well-meaning but not fully culturally competent teacher to re-open it later, with his or her own ideas of what it means to be the conductor?

I don’t remember when or how I learned about the Underground Railroad. But I do know the lasting impression it left on me: that it involved mostly enlightened white people, plus one or two black heroes sprinkled in, rescuing helpless black slaves. I continued to believe that until recently, when I got an assignment to write about the history of slavery in New England. At which point I discovered that the story of white saviors and black victims is just that: a story, a myth. It’s a myth that emerged from mostly white accounts of that period, and one that speaks to the North’s deep desire to be on the right side of the race question. But in reality, scholars have found, the Underground Railroad was a complex network of interracial cooperation in which free blacks played a major role.

Since the night I broke out the book, Sky hasn’t asked for it again, although he has developed a tendency to blurt out slavery references at strange moments. That’s a story that will have to wait for another blog post, but for example, here’s one recent, two-part question I have yet to address to his satisfaction: “Mama, if a mommy slave and a daddy slave had a baby, was the baby a slave too? And how old did a baby slave have to be before they made him do baby slave work?”

The Color of Rose

Complexion is fascinating.

I’m about as dark as Michelle Obama. My husband, who is Irish- and German-American, tans well in the summer, but basically has the complexion of a movie extra from The Town. (Don’t ask me to produce  his long-form birth certificate unless you want to see me get pissed.)

Our two boys are moods of mocha; look at them side by side and you can almost see their parents’ gene pools swirling. Then, there’s Rose. I used to wonder what happened to the coffee in her cream, but then I realized: She loves bacon, sardines, guacamole and the crispy skin on baked buttermilk chicken.

In short, she is my daughter.

Black Kanga

People sometimes ask us if we live on a farm. We don’t, but we do have some of the things people on farms have. For example, we have chickens and guinea hens and a shed where the chickens and guinea hens live. We almost always have fresh eggs, whose yolks aren’t so much yellow as they are blood orange, and they’re spectacular. The chickens were my husband’s idea. He brought them home one night in the dead of winter, crowded in a shoebox as little chicks. I was deeply skeptical about this back-to-the-land plan; in Haiti, where my family is from, animals are often associated with disease, and as soon as Brian mentioned chickens, the first thought that popped into my head was chicken shit. But he was right: On a regular basis, I get to watch three exuberant little bodies hunting around for eggs in our backyard, and now I associate that blood-orange color with pure joy.

For a while we had a rooster, a birthday present from a close friend to Sky on his 5th birthday. (If you care about sleeping past 4:45 a.m. on a regular basis, roosters aren’t for you). After some thought, Sky named the rooster Bing Bing Silly. We’re not sure what happened to him, but we suspect he got taken out by a coyote. In order to avoid any more talk about death (see blog post below), we tell Sky that Bing Bing Silly went exploring and will be back someday.

And then, there are the goats. We have two of them, which my husband inherited from an uncle in the next town over after he passed away. Incredibly, and somewhat appropriately for us here on Maple Street, one goat is jet black and the other is snowy white. Kanga and Charlotte.

We learned a few things about these goats soon after they arrived. Charlotte is the friendly goat that kids who come over are encouraged to pet and play with. Kanga, as it turns out, is the mean goat that children and adults get warned not to get too close to. Sky pretty much knows that the way to deal with Kanga is with a loud voice and a large stick, letting him know at all times who is boss. Ever since Kanga up and tried to escape through the back field a couple years ago, Sky has exercised that show of force with even more gusto.

Well. Can anybody see where I’m going with this? I realize it’s 2011. I realize that we have a black president (and in Massachusetts, a black governor). But there’s something weird about telling people who come over for the first time to stay away from the black goat because he’s dangerous. And there’s something even weirder about watching your biracial son treat a white goat like a fluffy storybook farm animal, and then turn into a pint-sized plantation overseer with the tragic black Kanga. Maybe it has something to do with living in a town where farm animals far outnumber people of color. It’s a daily, lived experience of color consciousness almost nobody coming and going around me has ever felt or tried to imagine — although you can get some idea of what it might entail when you think about an ordinarily sensible, well-adjusted woman starting to identify with a goat trying to scale the fences.

Sometimes I watch Kanga and Charlotte go about their business — eating grass, locking horns, crossing the stream that runs through the back field — and I feel a deep sense of envy. If people were goats, we would know what it felt like to be black and aggressive, or white and nonthreatening, and have it be completely empty of meaning. Unfortunately, people are a lot weirder than goats. At a family gathering a number of years ago, I watched my father-in-law twist himself into a pretzel to avoid referring to a coffee mug he wanted brought over to him by its most obvious feature: its black color. He avoided calling it black because I was standing there.

For years after that, I mocked him behind his back. But then I started having children, and developed an eerily similar tendency. Sure, I can point to a black mug and call it black. But my husband and I rarely ever use the words ‘black’ or ‘white’ to refer to people in front of our children. In our house, those words get spelled out, a lot. It’s a trick we won’t be able to get away with for much longer, now that Sky is starting to spell and read. But I find myself clinging to it almost desperately. I want to keep them in a world where skin color is as straightforward and unburdened as goat hair. I want to keep them there for as long as possible, and at the same time, I want to be the one to walk them out of that world and into reality. I want to be there holding their hand when they become aware for the first time that their skin color has meaning, and a deeply painful history, so that when they meet it in the outside world, they can stand their ground and not feel any need to run. 

Children Ask Why

Lately, my 3-year-old daughter has been asking the same question over and over. I thought I’d run clean out of answers when she was 2, and she would ask, “Mama, why?” Now, I’ve got real problems, because here’s what my little girl wants to know: “Mama, why did Martin Luther King die?”

What does a 3-year-old know about dying or a man named King? Absolutely nothing. But she knows a lot about mimicking her older brother. And ever since January, when my 6-year-old son celebrated his first real Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday at his elementary school, that question has been at the forefront of his kindergarten mind.

Sky, our first-born, can’t yet read a clock or a calendar. But he had figured out a few things about this particular birthday celebration. He knew that the man people called Doctor had dark skin like his mother. And he knew that King’s killer — “the guy with three names” — had light skin like his father, my husband Brian. But this wasn’t just a question of race. And it also wasn’t just about finding the right way to answer the question for a child of mixed race. This was about any number of bubbles parents build to shield their kids from reality, and realizing we had reached the point when we would have a hand in popping one of those bubbles open.

Up until recently, Brian and I had our son convinced that people die only after they get old and really, really sick. Seeing King’s face, hearing his electrified voice, Sky knew instantly that mommy and daddy had been playing tricks. People could die young. And they could die in other ways besides getting sick. They could die by meeting a bullet.


I have no idea how much of the rapid-fire interrogations going on in our house have to do with little minds trying to grasp death, or little minds trying to grasp that someone would have to die — whatever dying means — over skin color. One seems almost as incomprehensible as the other. But here on Maple Street, we always try to answer the question that is asked. And today (and yesterday, and very likely tomorrow), the question is not why do people die. The question is, why did he die?

Because some people don’t like change, we say.
Because some people are really mean.
Because some people’s brains are just messed up.
Because some people weren’t hugged enough by their parents.
Because back then, some people were afraid of people with dark skin going to the same school or sitting next to them at a lunch counter.

Which people were afraid?

People with light skin.

People like daddy?

Yes, buddy. People like daddy.

Why?

Because dark-skinned and light-skinned people couldn’t really know each other back then. And sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t know.
Does that make sense?

Yea. But why did Martin Luther King have to die?

After a while, my husband got worried about the message we were sending – not with any particular explanation, but with the constant effort to answer the question every single time it was asked. We may have been confusing Sky or we may have been clearing up confusion. But either way, we were making the focus of Martin Luther King’s life about his death. And we knew we didn’t want that.

Figuring out exactly what we do want to say, and how to say it, is another matter, one that will require ongoing reflection, action, and cutting ourselves some slack. Six-year-olds are pretty smart; with a 3-year-old, it’s a little easier. (It’s definitely the chicken way out, and usually involves a lollipop or going upstairs to try on a new fuscia tutu.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., died on April 4, 1968. Why did he die? For a lot of reasons, including this one: so my husband and I could meet, marry, and make babies who would make us think hard about the meaning of this question.
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