Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for March, 2019

Racist

I loved Lillie-Mae.  She was my second mother and owned a very special place in my psyche.  She didn’t act crazy and made the best liver and onions in the world.  When we talked she would look at my face, her eyes going deep, trading intelligence with mine.  She must have understood how eyes speak to each other.

 

She nursed me through measles, back before there was a vaccine, piling the covers deep and waiting for the sweat.  Months later, spying the forbidden gloss on my mouth, she handed me a Kleenex and warned me to “take off that color before your Aunt Judy gets home.”  I could tell her anything and could trust her to keep my secret.

 

It was Lillie-Mae who advised Aunt Judy it was time to buy me a training bra, when new and tender nipples responded to all that starch in my blouses.  I’m remembering a time when she loved me well enough to iron pretty ruffled blouses for me to wear, so I could head for school, all that starch and cotton announcing to the world, “Somebody special loves this girl.  Pay attention to her.  No matter what you think, she is worth something.”

 

It’s no wonder that the world wobbled when one day Aunt Judy announced, “Lillie–Mae says you think you are better than she is.”

 

“But I’m not,” I squawked.  “I’ve never said anything like that.  It’s not true.”

 

Judy explained that it was because of my attitude toward her.  “She can tell from the way you talk to her, as if you know more that she does.”

 

Lillie-Mae doesn’t love me anymore, was all I could think.  I must be a monster.

 

I never asked Lillie-Mae what made her decide I wasn’t her sweet girl any more.  It was too much to face.  I just kind of hid inside myself and waited—for what I don’t know.  When would it be safe to come out and ask what I had done that was wrong?

 

In 2012 Cincinnati I attended a meeting designed to heal racial differences.  It seemed simple, merely a scholarly update, especially for me, a person who loved black people just on principle, having so adored the Lillie-Mae of my youth.

 

The meeting leader announced that all white people are racist.  When I corrected her, she insisted that just because I loved my childhood nanny and liked “The Help,” I wasn’t pure of heart.  She said that I appreciated that movie because it reminded me of my days of privilege as a daughter of the south.  I walked out of the meeting—seething.  So much pain.  How could—how can—we live with it all?

 

Last week my Episcopal church worldwide began a year-long journey of addressing our country’s original sin—slavery.  I find myself asking some new and difficult questions:  If our congregation becomes truly diverse, how much will we have to change?  Can I enjoy worship in a style different from what I have always treasured?  Why does it seem that I like black people as long as they behave as if they are white?  Does that make me a racist?  Our country has elected a black president—twice.  The Anglican Communion has chosen a black leader, the Most Reverend Michael J. Curry, and I—I must face my Lillie-Mae quandary.

 

Somewhere in that place where loved ones wait quiet upon the wind, Lillie-Mae wonders when I’ll say, “I’m sorry.”  She has a big hug waiting—just for me.  We are sure to share a good talk, and an even better listen.  Maybe I’ll finally be a big enough girl to hear her own dear story, and give her the hug she has earned, and waited both our lifetimes to wrap her arms around.

Read Full Post »

Original Sin

The original sin of our species is and always has been gender bifurcation.  The subtleties of Darwinian selection fashioned two disparate living entities, male and female, each specialized in support of biological imperatives that ultimately defined their genders.  All that evolution required was to perpetuate an extant species through facilitation of ribonucleic acid reproduction.  It ought to be a simple story, but it is unspeakably complex.

 

The natural urge of intelligent creatures is to relate to and love others, especially prominent for mammalia who second-thoughtedly return to their mothers for sustenance beyond once hospitable wombs.  We are hard-wired to reach to others for comfort.  That makes us a lovely, as well as lively, species.  The ways we reach for each other are different, often disparate, creating conflict within and without.  Addressing these mechanisms of thought, speech, titillation, and exchange of fluids could and should fill a book.

 

Like incipiently fertile bird species, human females yearn to build nests.  The hormones that dictate gathering twigs and grass are similar to the ones that suggest a search of www.rent.com.  While the elegant crest of the male Cardinal can be seen feathering a hopeful nest, and it is presumed the human groom will be picking up the U-Haul, while the human mother-to-be pines over lists of infant-togs and day-dreams cuddling baby-at-breast.  For her a nest is where she settles in to make her dreams become the future; For him a nest is what he creates and protects with everything that he is and can become.  Both are equally noble, testament to homo-sapiens survival to this very day.  While the joined goal is the same, there are subtle differences that can lead to strangeness of execution.  Given the inherent complexities of both genders, it’s no wonder that the whole concept of sex is fraught.

 

People are definitely weird about sex.  I need to look no further than my own puberty to illustrate.  When I was twelve, my guardian Aunt Judy arranged at considerable inconvenience to have my cousin Jeanne, eight years my senior, come and officially talk to me about something called birds and bees while my Aunt and Uncle made dishwashing noises in the kitchen.  That was awkward.

 

Jeanne made much of getting seated right next to me on the living room couch, pencil and paper at the ready.  After a flurry of nasty diagrams, she told me that babies get made when the daddy puts his “thing” inside the mommy.  Then nine months later a baby comes out.  I was embarrassed, not about the making of babies, but about everybody thinking I didn’t know.  I knew, but I didn’t want them to know I knew.  Piqued, I played their silly game, acting dumb but in actuality shaping only my own discomfiture.  When she asked if I had any questions, I demanded to know how his “thing” got through the mommy’s nightgown.  Jeanne blushed and whispered, “I guess she can pull it up.”

 

Judy must have been listening, because at that point she charged out of the kitchen to the rescue.  With a smile that was way too wide, she queried, “How’s it going, y’all?  Ready for some fresh lemonade?”

 

“Gotta do my homework” I mumbled, mostly at my feet, sidestepping and shillyshallying toward my room, shaking my head.  Why did Judy go to so much trouble to feed me information about babies, and why didn’t she just tell me herself?  I already had guessed that stuff Jeanne told me—just knew—from visits to Grandpa’s farm.  Kids at school made jokes I didn’t understand, but I didn’t know any of the girls well enough to compare assumptions.

 

So much for “the big lesson.”  Jeanne piled into Uncle C.J.’s Buick and began the tedious drive all the way from Oak Cliff’s Kessler Park, through downtown Dallas, past the old book depository, where Kennedy was shot, then on to Highland Park.  I was left to wonder, but not dare to ask, what was going on.

 

I knew about the yucky pink thing that Wesson dangled below his shorts while he made morning coffee.  It made me feel nauseous, not that it had anything whatsoever to do with me, but that he knew I saw it and wanted me to see it.  Everything Wesson did had some evil intent.  He despised me because Judy pictured me as the daughter she had always wanted, a pure affection that Wesson could never emulate, nor did he try.  His kind of lovemaking with Judy must surely have been a one-dimensional affair, selfish, crude, and hurtful.  Inexplicable to my childish understanding, Judy enjoyed Wesson’s attentions.  She would put on a slinky ruffled teddy, pottering about the house on weekends, affecting a “little woman” domesticity while Wesson mowed the lawn, trimmed hedges, and made much ado of his manly chores.  He would come in occasionally to get a fresh beer and snuggle up against Judy’s backside while she peeled veggies.  He would slip his hand inside the loose silk while Judy giggled and shrugged him away.  Judy was not the giggling type; she better expressed her statuesque elegant nature dressed for a day of professional commerce in an exquisitely tailored suit, silk blouse, leather shoulder bag and suave up-do.

 

This remembered scene of Judy costumed for the boudoir, a grotesquerie of enticement, had a watercolor quality to it, a Monet camouflaged in its own reticulated light, a softening of truth to something remotely safe to envision.  Even in memory, I cringe.  She would shoo him out of the kitchen, clucking, “Don’t do that in front of the child,” the child” being me.  Didn’t she know it was me, watching, seeing, feeling?  She surely felt the same as me inside, where the tight pull of belly strings told me all I needed to know about womanliness.  That’s what she must have been feeling.  Wesson was showing off for me, bragging wordlessly about what I was missing, what I would never enjoy no matter how much Judy loved my sweet little girl self.  His favorite diatribe when he could catch me alone began, “Mommy’s sweet little thing.  You think you’re so special.  Your crazy mother is the only one who thinks you’re worth anything.”

 

If Judy didn’t want him to do that to her, she wouldn’t have put on that pretty pin-up outfit.  She did want his hand inside the silk, touching her skin, making her smile.  Why could she want his affection, when she knew sometime soon he would again break bones and make ugly bruises on that same tender skin?  I was awash with questions never to be asked.

 

***

 

Soon I was fifteen and spent weekends helping my voice teacher’s lazy daughter complete her last year of high school by writing term papers as payment for my singing lessons.  Sexual feelings continued to be something that I didn’t talk about.  My teacher lived in Darien, Connecticut.  She was well situated to host week-end parties inviting musical young people from the area for salon performance and socializing.  I typically got paired up with Alvin, a pretty decent violinist, nice and good-looking to boot.  He was sixteen, with an old jalopy and a new driver’s license.  We rode around or went to the movies or the Soda Shoppe and then returned to the teacher’s house before my curfew.  Before escorting me inside, Alvin always kissed me goodnight.  It was something I looked forward to all evening.  I didn’t care all that much about the movie or the sodas or the pizza; I just wanted to go back to the house and feel his soft lips on mine.

 

Finally, requisite social group activity completed, we headed home.  Outside, we cuddled while the car idled, holding back the winter chill.  Then he pulled me close and gently covered my mouth with the soft warmth of his own.  Hesitant, my tongue traced the slit.  The center of my belly lurched.  The world dropped, and I hung weightless.  Then I slapped him and ran for the house.

 

This inexplicable pattern of behavior repeated itself several times, until one day Alvin finally asked me, “Why the slaps?”

 

I gulped, and began; “I saw a movie with Claudette Colbert and Jimmie Stewart.  That’s what she did when he kissed her.  Wouldn’t you think I’m fast if I liked it?”

 

“But you do like it?” he asked, taking my hand, his violin sensitive fingers tracing its outline, softly circling my palm.

 

I dropped my eyes and whispered, “Yes.”

 

Fingertip lifting my chin, he looked me straight in the eyes and pronounced, “Good.”  That bit of truth negotiated, we puckered up for a real kiss, imagined, actualized, enjoyed, and discussed in the immediacy of the present.  We laughed, cranked open the sun-roof, and headed for the front door.

 

Alvin and I had an understanding, maybe even a gentle friendship.  We enjoyed our occasional date smooches until I took off for Carnegie Tech to study physics, where my virginity remained resolutely intact.  I was singularly unimpressed by engineering freshmen, whose idea of scholarly competition was to compare whose slide-rule was the longest.  I was out of the running, having chosen a round rule which is quicker and arguably more accurate.

 

I only slapped one of those silly boys, only a single time, and that was when he pinched my bottom in General Chemistry lab while I was setting up a distillation.  My instincts were pure, completely bypassing interval reaction time.  He pinched; I slapped.  The cavernous room rang with the impact.  I didn’t miss a beat, continuing with my procedure while the other students grinned and whispered behind their hands.

 

Later, while settling into the pleasurable realities of marriage, I still retained my reticence about kissing and telling.  I insisted, for instance, to my mother-in-law, that nothing had “happened” between James and me, until a swelling belly proved otherwise.  I hadn’t sworn James to secrecy, so it still isn’t clear why, when he was presented with the fact of his impending paternity, he declared it must have been somebody else’s doing, swearing he had done nothing, absolutely nothing.

 

Why are people so conflicted about sex?  Why did it take Freud so long to realize he was onto something, and for the rest of us to catch on?  The biology and mechanics are easy; it’s the psychology that’s hard—and hopefully the member.  All this would be much simpler if we were a parthenogenic species, but not nearly so much fun.

Read Full Post »