Friday, May 31, 2013

Living history

Last weekend Earbaby, my husband and I traveled to my hometown to surprise her grandmother, my mother, for a 90th birthday celebration. Much of my mother's extended family in town would be there, including cousins and second cousins EB had never met, but I grew up with. It was a chance to connect and reconnect with the side of  her family that she rarely sees, simply because of geography.

When I moved to the East Coast, many, many years ago, it was as a single woman looking to upgrade both her job and her living situation. I managed to accomplish both. But no matter how many years I live here, and maybe even if I die here, when the plane touches down in the midwest, I'm home. Ironically, I'm starting to feel that way both going and coming.

But EB feels she has two homes also, the one she was born in, and the one where her mother's family lives. And she misses that one most acutely. As my mother ages, EB knows she needs to grab that part of her life before her own mother becomes a middle-aged orphan.

"I need to see Grandma," she will tell me several times a year. "She's just so cute and adorable."

This last trip was fun, satisfying, and as always for her and me, too short. She didn't really get any one-on-one time with her grandmother, and as she gets older, she wants more of that than time and circumstances can promise. Her friends see their grandparents all the time, she says, some of them every day. But she doesn't get that luxury, so this trip was special, and she's already asking when we'll pass this way again.

However, her summer is already filling up with plans of summer camps and dance classes, and obligations of summer reading and dialectical journals. I'm also wondering if I should think about preparing her for freshman math by continuing the services of her tutor. It might be a good preemptive strike, and she also just might rebel.

I want her to have some down time too, so a summer concert, baseball game, and a trip to California are also planned. Yet, she needs to spend more time with Grandma, who although healthy despite having lost her sight to glaucoma and cataracts, still has more years behind her than in front of her.

So this weekend was most important in celebrating her time on this earth thus far. My other sister and her husband flew in from their newly relocated home in Florida, my mother's last living sibling, her "baby" brother and his wife came in from Oregon, and other relatives, including a grandniece from New Jersey, all came together.

My mother is a shy woman, and as I reflect, probably painfully so. She never made many friends on the block where she has lived for 50 years, and the two closest ones have died. Her family members are the only  people close to her.

But this trip, although about my mother, was about EB too. As a biracial child, she has two sides of her family who look distinctly different. And although she spends almost all her holidays with her father's side of the family, as she gets older, she notices and is hurt by things surrounding the cousins she's closest to in age.

"We're Republicans," her cousins tell her proudly. "My dad says your mother is a Democrat, which I guess is O...Kay ..." And the "but" is implied. Or their friends ask how can she be their cousin, since she's not also white, is she adopted? The hurt is there, although I can only partly understand it, and her father dismisses it entirely. He's not being insensitive so much as incredibly obtuse. When you grow up as part of the majority, marrying a person of color doesn't necessarily increase awareness. Where I'm ready and willing to address it, both as a mama bear and as a person of color, my husband sees it as unnecessary to acknowledge at all. It makes both EB and I frustrated.

But they also are her battles to fight sometimes. When some kids across the street from my mother's called out to her, "hey white girl, I like your hair," I was ready to walk across the street and talk to them. My husband didn't hear it and didn't want to say anything, and EB was hurt, "they're giving me dirty looks," but didn't want me to go all scary black woman on them either. Still, coming to her mother's home is a different kind of comfort to her. No one asks if she's adopted, and she has first cousins who are also biracial. Plus the way we interact as a family is totally different. "I feel more black when I come here," she tells me. She also sees the way my speech pattern changes, relaxes, and becomes, as she says, "more black." I explain that I'm more myself, and it's not a conscious change, this dialect switch, just a natural part of being with and among one's own people.

And that's the part of living history, being a part of it, and living through it. She has the history of her 90-year-old grandmother, who grew up in a little southern town you couldn't find on a map, without indoor plumbing, who was the valedictorian of her high school, who can still do word puzzles and math in her head, but was too afraid of surgery to go for the laser procedure that could have saved her sight. It was the saddest thing to hear her say she wishes she could see, as she felt how tall her youngest grandchild has gotten. That was the cautionary tale of history. The decisions you make could change when it's too late. She'll never see how beautiful all her grandchildren have become, from the oldest who is nearing 30, to the youngest who is nearing high school.

I hope my mother lives to hear her youngest grandchild graduate high school. Graduations are big deals in our family, one that grew up with the expectation of higher education because we were taught at an early age that education was one thing that couldn't be taken from you with all other things being unequal. It may not happen, but here's hoping.

And I hope EB learns the beauty of the phone, not just for texting, but for talking. My mother is a wealth of information of decades gone by. She lived through the depression as a young girl, EB should know about that. She worked taking care of kids before she left her mother's house to go to the big city (alone) to go to school. EB should know about that too, as well as the value of hard work, living with racial and gender discrimination and persevering. She should know that not making a decision about anything, health, school, anything, is a decision in itself.

Earbaby should learn about the beauty and value of extended family, and then the beauty and value of making friends to ease your way. She should know that even as an only child, she has siblings of cousins, second cousins, family friends and many others who will make sure she will never be alone.

She should know that her own life story, her history, comes from all over the country, not just all over the East Coast. That she is a citizen of the world and she makes her own destiny. EB should know that her grandparents on both sides live within her and through her.

And their legacies will give her the strength and courage to make some history of her own.

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