Making the Heart Grow Fonder

When I have conversations about quarantine — which is, unsurprisingly, all the damn time — there is always a moment where I mention that I haven’t visited my family since February. (Presidents’ Day weekend, to be exact.) Whoever is in the conversation expresses some level of sympathy, and the conversation moves on.

I realized the other day that saying I haven’t visited my mother, brother, and sister since February doesn’t mean anything. I said it in April, said it in June … But some of the people I talk to maybe visit their families once a year, so my lament doesn’t hold any weight in their understanding, while it’s huge for me.

For the last several years, I’ve been visiting my family once a month. I’ve missed a month here and there, but generally, I’ve held my schedule. I visit because I love them and they are a few states away from me, and I miss them. I also visit because they love me and my being in the same place with them eases some of the tension in the air there. It gives us a chance to have conversations we don’t have over phone or email, let’s us do the regular maintenance requires on those ties that bind, gives us opportunities to laugh at foolish inside jokes, to look at old photos … and just be alive in the same space, together.

And I haven’t been to visit in five months. It’s starting to feel like a year. And the virus is still rampaging, and my job is staying virtual for the fall semester, so it might really be a year.

In these five months apart, I’ve missed each of their birthdays: first my sister’s early in lockdown, when we thought it might not last too long, then my mother’s, and just over a week ago, my brother’s. In about 6 weeks, my own birthday will be coming up. It’s on a Friday this year, so I would definitely have been spending it with them. My mother turned 84 last month.

Yes, I sound whiny. I am whiny. I know that I’m incredibly lucky. I am safe and healthy and working from home. My family is safe and healthy — even though my brother and sister are both officially “essential” and still have to leave the house and work. Our broader circle of immediate family are mostly safe and healthy (our Texas family is in the hot-zone with the virus creeping closer every day). I’m lucky. But that doesn’t mean I’m unscathed. I don’t make a lot of noise about what COVID is stealing from me, about the ways my life has changed since the start of lockdown, but that doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it.

Absence is purported to make the heart grow fonder. I suppose. But I’m already supremely fond of my family. All this absence is adding up to sadness and frustration.

I need one of my mother’s hugs.

Think of the Children

Last night, I had the great good fortune to read at Big Words, one of my favorite reading series. I really love the two young women who created the series and host the readings. Stacey and Jess are smart, funny, kind, caring, and beautifully supportive of writers. Big Words is always a great experience.

The theme for last night’s reading was “Side Effects.” As always, I struggled to find something to read or to write something new that related to the topic. In the end, I wrote something during my work day yesterday, typed it up fast, and headed to 61 Local, the bar Big Words calls home. Here’s what I read:

Think of the Children

My mother was told to reconsider marrying my father because, with him as a husband, she risked having dark, ugly children. (The fact that I know this points to a lot of issues in my upbringing, to be sure. Why tell me that my father was considered ugly? Why tell me that the prospect of being dark-skinned was undesirable? Why tell me any of this as if it constituted a funny story? So many issues.)

Despite the well-meaning advice thrown her way, my mother went ahead and married my father. She rolled the dice and wound up with three dark-skinned children, none of whom look like her, none of whom look like my dad, all of whom – yes, I’m going to say it – are pretty in the face.

Whew! Thank God for that, right? Imagine if we’d all been hideous and she’d found herself saddled with raising a passel of homely, dark-skinned pickaninnies. Clearly dodged a bullet there. I do understand thinking about what your baby will look like. Who doesn’t want a cute baby? But the toxic run-off that is Internalized Racial Inferiority shouldn’t dictate what you consider “cute.”

*

Yesterday was my birthday, so of course I’m thinking about my storyline – how I came to be here, what about me is anything like my mother, my father, all the family before me on both sides. I’ve just hit 56 years, which means I’ve lived plenty long enough to have been influenced by where and how I’ve lived and can’t honestly attribute all the truths about myself to nature over nurture, but it’s also true that I’ve inherited plenty from my family, from that risky mixing of my mother’s and father’s gene pools.

One result of my mother’s gamble is that I get to be tall. My brother, sister, and I, we’re none of us as tall as my father’s side, but having that height in our blood pulled us up from the tininess of my mother’s people. My mother (who I will generously describe as not-quite five-seven) is a giant in her family, while my father’s family had true giants like his Uncle Ambrose who was nearly seven feet tall.

Here I’ll digress and say that I have lived my life obsessed with being tall. I coveted the regal height of my father’s cousin Pam, who was six-two. Both my sister and I dreamed of reaching her stature. I still dream about it, I won’t lie. I mean, can you imagine if I were six-two? I would, quite simply, have achieved godhood, would already have taken over the world, legions of minions and cabana boys behind me. (You know this is true, but let’s get back on track.)

*

I am the daughter of southern parents who met after choosing to make their lives in the north. Is that why I grew up a northern snob, wanting to turn my back on the worlds they’d chosen to leave behind … but also the reason I crave southern dishes when I need the reassurance of comfort food?

I used to look for connections most particularly with my mother’s family. As if my father’s didn’t exist somehow, as if everything I was I took from only one branch of the tree. This is foolish because … biology … but also because I just have to look at myself to see my father’s family. My large, long-fingered hands are entirely my grandmother’s hands. My face is entirely her face. This funny little bridgeless nose that no one in my immediate family has is from my grandmother’s mother’s side of the family.

When my mother was warned about the dangers of marrying my father, the folks issuing the warning were caught up on surface things – what would the children look like? And maybe the fact that so much of my physical appearance comes from my father shows they were right to be worried. But did they give any thought to the beneath-the-surface bits?

What you get when you mix two families together is a crap shoot, of course. Some things, like my Pipkin nose, are visible from the start. Others, like my facility for learning languages, reveal themselves over time. Many of these beneath-the-surface bits that are true about me seem common in both of my families, while some very clearly come from one side or the other. There is lots of good that’s come down to me: the language learning thing, my ability to be charming and diplomatic, my voice, my creativity, my silver-instead-of-grey hair.

But it’s not all cute noses and French vocabulary. There’s the list of good, but an equally long list of less-pleasing things, too: crushing self-doubt, heart disease, a history of cancer. And there’s the list that waits in the wings, always ready to take the stage and become part of who I am – alcoholism, mental illness, vengeful grudge-holding. These are things to hope I haven’t inherited, but which I know could be lying dormant, landmines buried at conception.

*

I got a birthday text from my niece, who is my god-daughter, my role model, and one of my favorite people in the world. She thanked me for being a guiding presence in her life, for inspiring her to stay true and be proud of who she is (and yes, I promptly melted). My father’s detractors would have been pleased with my niece. She is a beautiful young woman who would ace their paper bag test. I am more impressed by the smart, strong, thoughtful woman she is growing up to be. And I am thrilled that some of that is because of what makes me me, because of what my brother passed down from our parents, our grandparents, from everyone who came before, because my mother threw caution to the wind and married my tall, dark-skinned, ambitious, intellectually curious, deeply flawed father.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Out like a … ram.

It’s the 31st of March, birthday of my wonderful Aries sister, Fox (Aries, the ram, hence this post’s title). She is my best-beloved, baby sister, my forever best friend, my voice-of-reason sounding board, and my cheering section. I have known her for her whole life and all but a short five and a half years of mine.

We don’t live close, which is still hard for me despite the fact that it’s been true for more than 20 years. She is always a call, email, or text away, but it’s not the same as having her in the next room. Not the same as meeting her early-early on Saturday mornings for a long walk in Prospect Park. Not the same as going with her to parties and concerts. Alas.

But we’re together for this weekend, and that’s all the way fantastic! We have laughed and shared stories and silliness, and we have a whole other day together tomorrow. So happy birthday to one of my most favorite people in the multiverse!!


It’s the final day of the 11th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! As the badge below proclaims, I am an original slicer. This challenge and my blog started the same year. My first blog post was January 28, 2008, and somehow I found Two Writing Teachers in time to sign on for Slice of Life only a few weeks later. And for all the time I don’t spend posting here during the year, I always come back for March. Always. Hope to see the slicing community grow even larger next year!

Y is for: Yoctosecond

Say what now? Yes, Yoctosecond. A yoctosecond is one septillionth of a second. That’s right, a unit of time equaling 10-24 seconds. Apparently, “yocto” is a prefix that attaches to a bunch of things, things like “newton,” “volt,” and “watt.”

I chose it because not only does it sounds silly and I am a fan of silly-sounding things, but also because yesterday I met a family member for the first time, and a yoctosecond was about as long as it took for me to know how much I was going to love her.

I have a small family. Painfully small. Various issues and estrangements on both sides have left us with precious few connections. We’re tight as can be with the few of us there are, but that wider circle decoupled a long time ago, and for pretty much my whole life, we’ve been our small unit. My mom has reconnected with some of her cousins, and I met the granddaughter of one of the cousins. And I’m so happy I did.

It’s definitely not a given that I would adore any family member I got to meet. There was a reunion of sorts when I was in my 20s, and those folks were kind of awful. My cousin is from a different branch of the family tree, so I wasn’t worried she’d be like those cranky, classist, petty folks I’d bumped up against 30 years ago, but still. You don’t know what you’re going to get until you get it.

And what I got was a lovely, smart, funny young woman with whom it turns out I have a lot in common.

Feels nice to stretch out a little, make room for more family in our tiny circle.

Our tiny circle —
mother, brother, sister, me.
Small, smaller, smallest.
The shrinking net around us
now stretching open,
now stretching wider, wider
welcoming new ties,
our whole makes a greater sum.
We are expanding,
spreading our arms, embracing,
opening our hearts to love.

__________

Only one more day of writing chōka left! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to the end of this challenge, but I’d also be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed this month. I’ve really liked exploring this form. I might just have to continue chōka-writing after April’s done. I’ll take that fun offline, though, and certainly won’t be aiming for a poem a day! It’s time to turn my attention back to the #52essays2017 challenge, start playing catch up with all these missed weeks that are glaring at me from my calendar.

____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



Travels with PJ

PJ, aka my mom, was my travel partner on my little jaunt to New Orleans.  She is, in fact, the reason I went.  She called to say she’d booked a double queen room for the conference she’d be attending and why didn’t I just get a ticket and join her … so I did.

I haven’t traveled much with my mother as an adult.  We had many, many family vacations, sure, but as a grown up I’ve only had two trips with her before this one.  The first was a whole-family vacation to Ireland ten years ago.  And it was wonderful, but it was also a little overwhelming — so much family, so much to do, so little down time.  And then last year she came to Jamaica with me for a week.  That trip was heavenly.  Not only because going to Jamaica is always soul-filling for me, but because it was the first time I’d gotten to just hang out with my mother and relax in that way.  To be in that beautiful setting, to have nothing to do but whatever we wanted to do, to have gorgeous weather and lovely people around us and lots. of. time.  As I said: heavenly.

I knew the New Orleans trip wouldn’t be the same.  She was there to work, after all.  But we had every evening and morning together, and it was great. My mother, for someone who is actually quite finicky and particular, is also easy going. I’m not surprised to know this because I’ve known her a long time and all, but it bears saying as it makes her an easy person to travel with. As long as she’s treated well and folks don’t try to cheat her, she’s up for anything.

We didn’t do anything crazy in our few days, mostly just walked around and found places to eat. But like our Jamaica trip, it was the hanging out that had value (of course, the amazing jambalaya, fried chicken livers with pepper jelly, shrimp creole and chicken andouille gumbo had plenty of value, too). Such a luxury: night after night of talking and talking and talking with my mom. Again with the”heavenly.”

Her job, though responsible for bringing us to town, really got in the way. There were many things I would have wanted to do with her that were daytime-only things. And, too, staying out till all hours wasn’t an option when she had to be at the conference first thing in the morning.

And that tells me we need to look at planning more travel together, real vacations rather than me tagging along on her business trip. Why did it take me so long to realize how nice it would be to travel with my mom? I’m traditionally a solo traveler, and that’s surely part of it. I don’t really think about traveling with anyone. And I’m not saying I never want to travel alone again. Of course not, but how silly that this wouldn’t have occurred to me. I can see us going anywhere.

Stay tuned. This post might turn out to be “Travels with PJ, Part I” …