Tag Archives: family

“So, were your parents racist too?”

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Yesterday, when I was walking around the office in a dither after learning my niece was staying home from school to protest Obama’s education speech, I wandered by Thelma’s office.  Thelma is a sweet, older black woman whom I am only now getting to know as she was out on medical leave for the past eight months battling cancer.  As I walked by her office she saw me and greeted me warmly in her slight Southern accent.

“And how are you today, Miss LB?”   It sounded like she really cared about the answer.

“Do you really want to know?” I said with a sigh.

“Oh no, what’s wrong” she asked with some concern and waved me into her office.

I proceeded to regale her with my anger and frustration at my niece for falling for the right wing propaganda that she no doubt hears from my brother and his wife.  She kindly let me rant for quite a while.  The pictures of Obama on her walls assured me I was in sympathetic company.   The conversation came around to how what a child learns at home has such a huge impact on their later beliefs.  “So,” she asked me “were your parents racists too?”

The question took me aback.  While I believe my brother to be pretty far on the right, and certainly no fan of Obama, I don’t know if I am quite prepared, or even know him well enough these days to say he’s a racist.  Yet, don’t I throw the same accusations of racism at other conservatives who openly disdain Obama?  But, still, to hear someone assume my brother is a racist was more than a bit jarring.  I offered myself a chair and got comfortable as I started to mull her question about my parents.

“No . . . no, I don’t think so.  I mean, I don’t remember anything like that.”   I said slowly, hesitantly.

My memory of my childhood is pretty foggy, but I’m sure I would have remembered if my parents were racist.  The truth of the matter, is that growing up in Burbank in the 60’s and 70’s, I rarely, if ever encountered any black people.  It was not part of our day-to -day reality.  When there was a black kid in our school, he wasn’t African-American, but someone from Africa here as an exchange student.  At home, the only blacks we saw were on TV, and even then I don’t recall hearing  any disparaging comments.

With the exception of Hispanics, Burbank was not chock-o-block with a lot of minorities.  Growing up, besides the lack of African-Americans, there was also maybe only a handful of Asians in our school – one of whom was one of my closest friends for all 12 years of my time in the Burbank schools.  And again, even though my father had fought in the Pacific in WWII, never did I hear a bad word about my Japanese best friend nor her family.

We did have a lot of contact with Hispanics, as my dad was the maintenance manager at a large recreation center, so he hired and supervised a crew of primarily workers from Mexico.  He was close friends with his assistant, Jose, who helped him with the hiring and translating.  I remember Jose’s family was one of the rare visitors to our house, and most of my hand-me-down clothes went to Jose’s daughters.  My father even eventually sold our house to Jose for way under market value.

So, after going through my mental files, I concluded that when came to matters of race, while my brother and I were not explicitly taught acceptance, we certainly weren’t  taught to fear or hate people of other races.

Thelma watched me quietly as I reminisced, trying to find clues as to how why my brother and I have turned out so differently.

“Ya know, Thelma, I think we just reacted completely differently to that lack of contact when we were younger.  For my brother, he developed fear of the unknown.  He has opted to live his life among people who look and believe as he does.  But, for me that lack of contact  when I was younger made me really curious and eager to know and understand people with different backgrounds.”

Thelma laughed, “well, you certainly are in a good place for that, girl” acknowledging the wild mix of sexual orientation and identity, race and ethnicity that surrounded us in the area where we worked.

I could have sat and chatted with Thelma for a  lot longer.  Earlier she had started to touch upon her childhood in the deep South and how she was taught to view white people.  I wanted to know more about that. But, unfortunately, she had a client waiting, so that conversation will have to wait until some other time.

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Shattered fantasy

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I know, I know, they’re just kids.  But, they’re not little kids, they’re in their mid-teens.  The impulse to rebel, to reject their parents’ values should be kicking in by now, right?   Or maybe they’re just late bloomers.  Maybe when they get to college and are exposed to people who don’t look or believe just like them, maybe then they’ll start to question their parent’s beliefs.  Or maybe they have been fully and completed indoctrinated into the narrow social and political set of beliefs that my brother and his wife believe so fervently.

Right now, I’m angry.  I don’t know exactly who I’m angry at, but I’m angry, dammit.  I’ve been fuming ever since I saw my niece’s post on Facebook bragging how she was staying home from school “to protest Obama’s speech.” I want to try and reason with her.  I want her to see that her argument hasn’t a speck of reason behind it.  I want her to see that she doesn’t really know what she is talking about and that she is merely parroting her parents.  Yet, I can’t.  As it is, our relationship is so tenuous, so new, that to question her about such a fraught topic as politics would surely frighten her away, or cause her mother to intervene.

I’ve always held on to this fantasy that one day my nieces would see their crazy Auntie LB as a kind of refuge – a safe place to escape to when they could no longer stand the close-mindedness and conservatism of their parents’ lives.  I could expose them to a new world of people and beliefs.  We could talk honestly about their fears and their doubts.  They would be able to talk to me about stuff they could never talk to their parents about.   I suppose it could still happen, but I’m losing hope.

They’re sweet kids, the nieces.  I saw them a couple of times last year after having not seen them for about a decade due to a now-forgotten feud my brother and I were having.  They seemed younger than their years.  Naive, even.  And I guess that’s why I’m so mad. I hate it that their minds are getting polluted by all this hateful, right-wing, racist rhetoric.  I hate it that that is all they are allowed to know.   And I hate it that my fantasy of having a real relationship with my only nieces will probably never come to pass.

Shared strands of DNA

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The other day I was killing time on Facebook – which I find myself doing a lot these days.  I found my curser sitting in the search box, but I forgot who I was going to search for.  And while it wasn’t my original idea, I ended up typing my mother’s maiden name, which is highly unique and quite amusingly German. Let’s say it’s Swackenstrudel just for the hell of it.  When I find someone with the last name Swackenstrudel I know they are probably sort some of cousin – not too terribly distant, yet definitely not close   And the search results rendered two Swackenstrudels, both of whom I had heard of before.  I knew we were cousins of some sort.  I contemplated trying to befriend them and then decided not to.  I mean, just because we share a few strands of DNA, does it really gives us grounds to be friends – even by the very loose  Facebook standards?

Years ago, back before the Google founders hit puberty, back when Mosaic was the only browser commercially available, I did a similar search.  The fact that you could search phone books nationwide back then was a big fucking deal.  At the time I was looking for the only cousin I had ever had a relationship with, Vicki.  We had lost touch when my uncle/her father died back when I was 15 or so.  She was older and was already living in New York City working for Time Magazine back then.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find her when I typed in Swackenstrudel, but I did find one other Swackenstrudel in Colorado.  I vaguely remember my mother saying she had some family in Colorado, so I decided to write a letter to this fellow.  I don’t recall what I said, but I identified myself as a fellow Swackenstrudel and was wondering if he or any of his family remembered my mother.

I was deep in therapy back in those days, and with my therapist as my accomplice I was on a search to discover who my mother really was.  No, I was not adopted, nor did I lose her as a wee child.  My mother died when I was 22, which, while young, not so young that I shouldn’t know some family stories.  But there were none.  With the exception of her brother, my uncle, I knew nothing of her family.  She never spoke of it.  I never asked.  It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that was kind of weird.  My father was the same way.  I knew that on his side we had Aunts Lee, Bea and Glee in Colorado who sent us Christmas cards, but that was about it. So, after my father died, and the subsequent estrangement from my only brother, I guess there was a part of me who was looking to find some semblance of family connection.

With that handwritten letter sent to a Swackenstrudel in Colorado, I hit pay dirt.  While the fellow I wrote to never knew my mother, his mother, my mother’s cousin, did. He passed my letter along to her.  She enthusiastically wrote me back, thrilled to have reconnected with our rotting branch on the family tree.  Fortunately for me, her hobby was genealogy.

One day I received a small binder in the mail.  It was from my mother’s cousin.  She had compiled a notebook for me with pictures of my relatives going back to my great-great-grandfather.  She had handwritten a family tree for me, so I could understand how all these strangers were related to me.

I remember sitting there for a long time with that binder, trying on words like “my grandmother”, “my great-grandfather” and finding they didn’t fit.  It was fascinating, no doubt.  But these were just dead people in old black and white photos.  They meant nothing to me.  Even the color photos of my mother’s cousin’s living family that she included didn’t resonate.  I mean, they were lovely people, but again, I felt no connection.

I took that binder into my next therapy visit, hoping that perhaps in sharing it with someone who was invested in my search, might bring something out of me.  Nope.  I kept referring to the people in the pictures as my mother’s mother, my mother’s grandfather, etc. Joe, my therapist gently tried to get me to explore how I felt about seeing a picture of my grandmother for the first time.  Again, I resorted to calling her my “mother’s mother”.   There was nothing there.  They were family, but with none of my own memories attached to them.   So, if there is no relationship with your relations, it’s simply shared strands DNA, which doesn’t interest me all that much.

For the next few years my mother’s cousin sent me a Christmas card, complete with the annual family letter.  I would read it  some bewilderment. Anyone who was even vaguely related to her merited a mention.  The year I connected with her, I even got a mention.  She died about three years ago, and her husband, after one year, dropped me from the Christmas card list.  And that was OK, without my mother’s cousin who had shown me such kindness, the connection with her family was lost.

These days I’m OK with my very small and rather distant family circle.  My brother and I can now conduct civil discourse, and I’m Facebook friends with his kids who are really quite sweet (though a bit too goody-two-shoes-I-love-Jesus for my taste).  I even eventually found my cousin Vicki and have even visited her in New York.   It’s all good.

Fill in the blanks

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When I came into my office today, I found a sheet of paper with a very basic drawing of a woman in my in-box. It was just an outline really, but with a short cropped hair-do and big ol’ blunt bangs. I figured this was Miss Patricia’s doing (the previous day I came in to be greeted by half a dozen squeezy bananas that she  stuck in and around my door).  If the first words out of my mouth are “what the fuck?” chances are, Miss Patricia has something to do with it.

Once I opened my email, I found Patricia’s proclamation that our area was going to have a drawing contest in honor of Mother’s Day. We were invited, nay,  required, to do some kind of representation of our mother. It could be realistic or symbolic. It could be drawn, or collage, or made out of macaroni noodles. It didn’t matter. It only mattered that you played along, lest you incur the wrath of Miss Patricia.

Some people immediately took to the task, and the results were uh, interesting.  Either I work in a place where everyone’s mother is a big ol’ glamor girl, (or a drag queen) or people are engaged in wishful thinking.  Miss Patricia pressed me all day about what I was going to do for my drawing.  “I dunno, a big ol’ puddle of tears, or perhaps I’ll put her behind prison bars.”  “Oooooooooooo, I’m tellin’ your mama what you said!”  Miss Patricia chided me.  “What?  You said we could be symbolic.  My mother was a depressive agoraphobic.  She gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘stay at home mom'” Conveniently, Miss Patricia had a client waiting, so the conversation ended there.

I want to play along and do a drawing, but I’m at a loss.  My mother has been dead for 28 years now. I was 22 when she died. I don’t have bad memories of my mother, nor do I have particular good ones.  Truth is I never missed her all that much because we were never particular close.   Is that a horrible thing to say?  But, it’s not like I’m angry at her.  She was mentally ill, and back in those days there was still a lot of stigma around mental illness.  So, she stayed trapped in our shitty little house in a marriage that was completely devoid of affection.  It does make me sad that she had to live like that.  She was a smart lady.  But something happened – I have no idea what – and after I was born, fear and depression overtook her life.

My brother and I turned out OK though so she must have done something right – I just can’t remember what it was.  My best guess is that both my parents knew they could offer me very little, so they gave me a lot of freedom to get my parenting from other families, or from my teachers.  And for that I am grateful.  They also gave me a lot of independence from a young age, and trusted me enough that I wouldn’t get into too much trouble.  They also fostered my love of animals, and I don’t think they ever said “no” when I brought home my newest injured or lost creature.  They were good and decent people, but were far too wrapped up in their drinking and depression to be emotionally available parents.

Even though it is going to be challenging, I’m going to play along and do some kind of representation of my mother.  Who knows?  Maybe something will get dredged loose in my psyche and some nice warm and fuzzy mommy memories will reveal themselves.  Yeah, that would be nice.

A family visit

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It was after the third time my brother’s phone disconnected on me that I started to get the hint that maybe my brother and his family were not all that excited about seeing me.

As regular readers of my blog may know, my relationship with my brother has recently been upgraded from “nearly non-existent” to “strained”. Baby steps, I guess. This upgrade came when my brother was diagnosed with cancer and I went to visit him in the hospital. While the circumstances were less than stellar, I left with the strange sensation of once again actually having people in my life that I can call family. There were promises to stay in touch, and that we would see each other in July when my teenage nieces were to compete in a regatta at a Bay Area yacht club.

Arranging our time together was not easy. There were awkward phone calls, dropped phone calls, unintelligible phone calls, and even a lack of phone calls. Finally, they were able to fit me for a few hours on Monday, and oh, by the way, the girls are really exhausted and want to get home early. Great. All the plans I had been nervously planning went out the window. I had hoped to take them to someplace cool like the Exploratorium, or the Chihuly exhibit or the East Bay Vivarium. In other words, I was looking for a lot of external stimulation in order to have something to focus our conversations on since it feels like we would have nothing in common to speak about otherwise.

They arrived an hour and a half later than I expected. So now it was really too late to really go anywhere, so ended up just sitting around my house talking, which was in my mind the worse case scenario. Both my brother and I brought along our posses; he had his wife and the two girls, and I had the boyfriend and the animals. I had rather cruelly locked Sasquatch out of his favorite hiding places so that I could use him for show and tell. A 30 lb shaved Maine Coon cat is always good for at least 15 minutes of conversation, and besides having him clinging to me with his paws on my shoulders felt very comforting and safe. I was also incredibly grateful for the boyfriend being there. Unlike me who doesn’t know anything about sailing, he used to work on boats, so he could talk boats with them. And boy, did they like talking about boats. Mostly I tried to focus my conversation on the girls who were thrilled to see the rabbit and my cats, as they are currently without pets.

I did get some time to talk to my brother when we all went out for a walk out at Point Isabel – this awesome several acre dog park on the bay. Again, when all else fails, use animals as a buffer, even when they are not your own. It was weird. We really have nothing in common, not even our shared past. He claims to have forgotten everything about our childhood. Even when I brought up a chicken we had as a pet, he claimed he didn’t remember. Sure, I can understand it with some of the other things he claims to have forgotten, but Cluck Cluck? I mean, she was a mean chicken, but hardly mean enough to bring on a case of PTSD. So, we walked and we talked, mostly about his kids. I also found it very odd how his 16 year old wanted to walk arm in arm with her dad. Their affection towards one another was . . . I found it disquieting. But, my sense is that the girls are pretty sheltered, and they are pretty scared about losing their dad, so I guess I understand it. But, there is no template in my mind for such parental/child affection, so to me it was simply weird.

Overall, I would have to say it was a pleasant visit. They are not the evil holy rollers that I had pictured in my mind for the last decade or so. They are nice people. But, they still don’t feel like family. Or at least what I think family should feel like. I don’t know. I wish I had more time with the girls on their own to see if I can make a connection there. But, every time I tried to engage one of them in conversation, their mom would answer instead. I think one of my nieces, the younger one, was at least curious about me. She and I have the animal thing in common. Unlike when the others touched Sasquatch, when she petted him I didn’t feel him tense up. She also kept leaving the group conversation to go find and pet Mr. Binkles.  Now, that’s someone I may be related to.

Who knows what the future will bring. Maybe as the girls grow up and out of the house, they’ll have some curiosity about their eccentric Aunt LB with the big cat and bunny. I hope so.

Road trip: the family

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It’s weird even writing the word.  Family.  For the last half of my life, I would tell people I didn’t have a family, despite having an estranged brother. It’s never been concept I’ve really related to.  In fact, not having family ties has become a big part of my identity.  I don’t need no stinkin’ family.  I am independent, self-sustaining, free from the ties of DNA or surname. 

Yet, now after this weekend, I kinda, sorta think I am part (albeit distantly) of a f-f-f-f-family.  And it’s screwin’ with my head, man.

It has been a decade since I have seen my brother and his wife and kids.  My personal mythology says he rejected me because of my chosen faith of Buddhism.  It’s a good story that allows me to be the innocent victim of my big, bad conservative Christian brother’s narrow-mindedness.   And it allowed me to maintain the independence that is the cornerstone of my identity.  Besides, other than DNA and our shared fucked-up childhood, what did we have in common?  It was better to let that sleeping dog lie.  Yet, I wanted to have a relationship with his kids – to be their crazy Auntie Mary who lived up north who had all the critters.  Not being able to have that made me sad. Still every year I  sent them presents at Christmas time in hopes that maybe one day they might wake up from the spell my brother cast and realize that Auntie Mary isn’t evil or uncaring, but actually kind of nice and fun. 

Every few years I would consider being the bigger person and try to break the ice that had formed around my brother’s and I’s relationship.  It’s hard when that much time has passed.  What do you say?  Pride, fear, anger and any number of conflicting emotions left me without words, so the silence won out.

With the news of my brother’s cancer, I figured it was time to stop all the nonsense.  At least we would have something to talk about.  So, before I gave myself a chance to talk myself out of it, I made the long journey south to visit my brother in the hospital.  I was nervous, to be sure.  I barely got any sleep the night before.  I attribute that to my friend’s overly soft mattress, but I’m sure a lot of it was nerves.  But, I knew I was doing the right thing.  That I never questioned.

The reunion felt a bit awkward.  The first comment out of his mouth was “so, it takes cancer to finally get you down here to see us.”  I opened my mouth to toss back an accusation at him, but I could see his kids watching me intently, trying to figure out who or what I was to my brother, to them.  But, I just smiled and told him it was good to see him.  I ended up hanging out in the room with his wife, kids and sundry colleagues and friends for about an hour or so.  Then I went out to lunch with his wife and kids . .  uh, I mean, my sister-in-law and nieces and nephew.

They’re nice kids.  They told me all about their school, their sailing and what they want to be when they grow up.  My brother and sister-in-law have done a nice job with those kids.  I look forward to getting to know them better now that is an option.

After lunch my sister-in-law dropped me back at the hospital so I could visit my brother alone.  Gulp.   He was asleep when I got there, and the urge was great just to leave a note and tippy toe out of the room.  But, then a nurse burst in with no compunction about waking him up.  For someone who had recently had a few feet of guts and other organs removed three days ago, he was doing really well.  Alert.  Good color.  They had even started him on soft foods.  He definitely didn’t look like he had been issued a death sentence.   Yet, there was still that tumor that they couldn’t remove, and that probably wouldn’t respond to chemo or radiation.  A slow growing tumor, but a malignant tumor nonetheless.

We chatted awkwardly for a while.  Then the oddest thing happened, something I totally did not expect, a miracle of sorts: he apologized for being a jerk these last few years.   So, we spoke briefly about our rift, but there was no need to belabor it.  I could tell he was uncomfortable talking about it, so I just accepted his apology and we moved on.  We left on good terms, with promises of future visits and more contact.

I’m desperately trying to come up with a way of closing this post.  Am I hopeful? Yes.  Sad?  Yes.  Confused?  Hell yes.   Yeah . . .

Prognosis: unknown

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My brother had surgery today to locate and remove the source of his cancer in his intestine. My sister-in-law called late this evening and started rattling off numbers of cancerous lesions found, the amount of intestine and colon removed, and the length of the surgery. I didn’t hear a thing. I was in a bit of a state of shock because a) I didn’t think the surgery was until Friday and b) I had no idea who I was talking to – it wasn’t until mid-conversation did I dare ask who was calling. I figured it was my sister-in-law’s younger sister since it didn’t sound like my sister-in-law at all. But, I guess exhaustion will do that to you. The bad news was that there was at least one tumor, possibly more, that was too dangerous to remove during surgery. Prognosis: unknown.

We chatted for a bit about how everyone had been doing. Apparently, my brother hasn’t been dealing with this too well, and it showed in his blood pressure, which in turn delayed his surgery date because he couldn’t go under the knife until he got his numbers down. My sister-in-law is in hunker down mode and is doing her best to hold it together and keep things as normal as possible for their three teenage kids. On the rare occasions that we talk, we talk easily as if this huge gulf between my brother and I didn’t exist. When I thanked her for letting me know in such a timely manner, she said “of course, you’re his sister.”

I’m considering driving down to San Diego to say “hello” while he is in the hospital. Make it short & sweet, and hopefully he’ll be heavily sedated so at least one of us will be at ease during the visit.

The other night I was laying in bed with my heart full of anticipatory grief. I fear for Alaska’s health, and also have my concerns about Sasquatch who has been very quiet lately. Then my mind turned to my brother. My only remaining immediate relative. Even though we are not in each other’s life, the idea of being sole survivor of my family before I even reach the age of 50 was very sad.

Tomorrow I’ll check in with my sister-in-law, ask my boss for the time off, talk to a friend who lives in LA for a place to stay and see if the boyfriend is willing to watch my menagerie so I can take a quick trip down south.