An Unwanted Treasure: Part 2

So here is the second part of the entry that I posted on Sept. 24, 2010.

Little Sister has lived with us for almost five years. I could write chapters on how difficult it is to deal with an emotionally complex teenager. But I won’t do that on this blog. My mother’s ability to compartmentalize is amazing. While the whole conflict was unfolding, she swore off all of us in the most verbally abusive, brawling, caustic way you can imagine. Every now and then something sets Mommy off, and she sends me a spiteful email or letter, in which she gleefully conveys vicious, scathing gossip about me and attributes it to others, rather transparently. She never identifies these cattier-than-thou women outright, but she usually stirs the pot by claiming that it is someone close to me, who is pretending to be my friend, but really thinks I’m the worst daughter ever to walk the earth. If she’s trying to bait me into checking out who these “traitors” might be, she’ll be disappointed. I don’t believe much of what she attributes to other people, because I know that she’s just trying to wear me down until I cave in and let her walk out on her responsibilities to the child she adopted. I certainly don’t devote much time wondering why a woman who claims to be a Christian makes a hobby of maligning her own daughter, all for very self-serving purposes.

When I was pregnant with Baby, I didn’t tell Mommy about it until my eighth month, because I knew she would start to lay a lot of emotional claims on Baby. I knew she would find a way to make herself the focus of the pregnancy. Sure enough, now that Baby is here and growing up nicely, she is trying to take credit for the baby’s good looks, sweet nature and anything else she can think of. She’s trying to move in on my daughter’s life, while pushing everyone—including me—off to the side. It amazes me that she thinks it’s acceptable to deride Little Sister and me, mock and badmouth us both to whoever will listen, and then expect me to allow her to form a bond with my child. It is beyond presumptuous and damned near diagnosable. Does she think I was brought into this world specifically to be her patsy, then navigate all the complexities of a high-risk pregnancy, all for her greater glory? Moving on.

Mommy is contemptuous toward Little Sister and the more callous family members who worship Mommy and have taken sides with her are just as cold. Little Sister gets ignored on major occasions like birthdays and holidays. She rarely gets cards, and never receives gifts or phone calls. Meanwhile, Mommy will go out of her way to send money and little packages for Baby. Also, Mommy only checks in to get Little Sister’s grades. Mind you, she doesn’t ask whether she is involved in sports or clubs. She just wants the grades. I am suspicious about this, because she seems to be fishing for fodder to berate Little Sister with, and argue that we shouldn’t be sending her to a private school.

That is daily life for us now. We live out a cycle of seeing her lash out in some way, admonishing her to be civil, receiving backlash for our admonishment, and getting the iceberg treatment for several months. Sometimes I wonder what Hubby must be thinking, with several clusters of his wife’s Jamaican family taking sides on the issue, from the island throughout the diaspora. Aside from the ones here in New Jersey and maybe outside of London, who are not as harsh and strident as their more insular kin, my family’s response has been disgraceful. They expected me to turn a blind eye to everything that was going on, and to pardon Mommy’s destructive actions.

Heaven help me if my family ever gets wind of this blog, and its contents. Because here is the other expectation from my clan and culture: Never publicize your family woes. Even if your parents and family elders are being deliberately cruel and oppressive, take the passive, submissive role and suck it up. The unwritten doctrine of parental infallibility says that as long as they put up with you long enough to clothe, feed and shelter you, they can say and do whatever they like.  The son or daughter’s role is to be meek and pray that God will supply a wellspring peace to withstand everything that is thrown his or her way. But THAT is the part of my upbringing that I utterly reject, because I’ve learned that my mother had developed a recent habit of blatantly throwing people away. She got away with a lot of it because of her beauty, talent and general longstanding popularity.

I personally have very little hope that Mommy will restore her relationships with me, or with Little Sister, even if she grudgingly grumbles that she “went too far” by dumping Little Sister abroad. Mommy is a very unforgiving person, who believes that Little Sister compromised her health and finances, and deserves whatever suffering comes her way. She tells herself—and several others from our tight-knit community—that the only reason I helped Little Sister was to get revenge on her for what she says was some totally innocuous and completely unavoidable slight on her part. Even others have been swept up in this ridiculous mania and written to me, begging, “for God’s sake” to come clean about  whatever so-called grudge I supposedly have against my mother, wipe the slate clean and quit persecuting her. Sometimes I wonder if a mass dose of mood stabilizers is not in order for this crowd.

I hope that woman in Tennessee feels contrite about what she’s done and finds a way to make up for her actions. And I wish the same for Mommy. Both women still have a couple of choices before them. They can either redeem themselves, or use up the rest of their lives in denial about the cruelty and recklessness of their actions. I think my mother should drop her hopes for unconditional sympathy and rebuild her family life as best as she can. Judging by the backlash to that Tennessee woman’s decision, the general public has no sympathy for someone who says they’ve adopted a child, but when they decide that it’s not what they want, just tosses that person away like an old piece of luggage.

If my guess is correct, there are more people in our family who actually crave the old fellowship that we all had in the 1970s and 1980s, and would readily embrace Mommy again if she abandoned her belligerent and hurtful ways. Her future well being, then, is really up to her.

An Unwanted Treasure: Part 1

I originally wrote this post in April, but didn’t feel like revising and re-posting it until Friday, Sept. 24, 2010. It’s a rare look into my untidy, emotional family melodrama. Some blogs work best when the writer is concise and snappy, I’m told. Well, this is not a concise, snappy situation, as you’ll see, which is why I split this post two parts.

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When I read the story about a Tennessee woman who sent her adopted Russian son back to his native country on a plane, all alone, I didn’t feel the same sense of outrage as the rest of the country. My family has been living in the wake of a similar situation that unfolded four years ago, after Mommy did something similar to Little Sister.  I looked at this from the perspective of someone who had already passed  through several phases of a crisis and had become reconciled to how seriously troubled some people, even mothers, can be.

The long and short of it is that my mother adopted Little Sister, then mismanaged her, which probably caused Little Sister to rebel. Her behavior got so out of hand that Mommy eventually got fed up, flew Little Sister back to her native country and left her unexpectedly with her birth mother. Then Mommy walked away and never looked back. She never checked in on Little Sister, never made arrangements for her schooling and financial support, and months later she said she didn’t want anything to do with the girl anymore. Little Sister was almost 13 years old when that happened.

Can you imagine how rejection by two mothers would devastate someone emotionally? Even in the best of times, 13-year-old girls are full of angst and self-consciousness, but to be basically thrown away, and by two mothers?

While all of this was happening, Hubby and I had been married less than two years, and we were settling into a new house. Despite everything that was going on with me personally, I could not pursue my own interests in working, traveling, writing, decorating the house while Little Sister lived a life of deprivation and possible abuse overseas. We were getting unsettling information about her living situation. Little Sister’s biological mother did not want to keep her, and strenuously reminded me of that several times. “This is not my child,” she would say sometimes. “I gave her up for adoption, and this is not my child.” So I, along with Hubby, had to doggedly pursue Mommy to give us the child’s passport and other critical documents, so that we could pull her out of that situation and bring her to live with us.

The process of getting Little Sister to live with us was horrendous, because my mother was firmly set against it. She wanted to wash her hands of Little Sister, leave her in Jamaica and never look back. For four months, she was belligerent, dishonest, uncooperative, and she subjected Hubby and me to a series of ferocious tirades. It was exhausting.

We eventually took in Little Sister, filed for custody and eventually made Mommy contribute financially to Little Sister’s upkeep. That last part, about  financial support, sent Mommy over the edge of civility and elevated the conflict to the point where it opened up a chasm in the family. Some people allied themselves squarely with Mommy, and strenuously tried to impress on me just how fundamentally messed up they thought Little Sister. They either defended Mommy’s decision to desert her or came up with weak rationalizations for her actions. (“So what if she overreacted?” on aunt wrote in an obnoxious letter, which I’ve since shredded.) The names and analogies that some of my cousins thoughtlessly used to describe Little Sister should not be repeated. From what I can gather, the people who think ill of me believe I should have left Little Sister to rot in that third-world country where my mother returned her. But what would we say to people who would ask, who must ask: “What happened to the little girl that your mother adopted?”

While we were preparing to take in Little Sister, Mommy quietly moved from Florida to South Carolina. She left us no forwarding information at all. She didn’t even program her phone to inform callers that the number had been disconnected. There I was, calling the house in Florida over and over, not realizing I had been brushed off—again. (I should have suspected, after a long period of being on the receiving end of those sorts of tactics.) When I became suspicious about the phone line, I asked my aunt if she knew what was going on. She said, “Your mother moved to South Carolina, about two weeks ago.” It became very clear, after several months, that Mommy wanted to wash her hands of me, Little Sister and anyone else who stood up to her for making potentially destructive choices with her life. Mommy might have wanted to forget she ever had two daughters and start fresh, but as she—and I—quickly realized, clean breaks are hard to accomplish when little concerns like morals and ethics get involved.

Wake Up Call

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a high school friend, Amanda, who wanted to catch up with me after we had been out of touch for several years. We talked about her teenage son and tween-aged daughter, her divorce and my growing toddler. Another life altering, sobering topic came up: our school friend Tisha had passed away in the spring of complications from chronic heart disease, apparently. She was probably 38 years old.

In school, we always knew Tisha had heart problems. She rarely took gym, played no sports, and had a huge scar on her thorax from a surgery to correct the problem. Despite being cursed with a faulty heart, she lived much longer than her doctors expected, and I think she had a couple of children. She certainly had more heart than me, because in high school, Tisha, who was African-American, also had a white boyfriend. He was a Jewish kid named Seth, who seemed to be a couple of years older than her. That relationship aligned with her mature, free-spirited outlook on life. He might have even been a freshman at college when they started “going together.” They didn’t seem to date like ordinary teenagers in our town; instead, they took these urbane bohemian outings to New York City. I envied her on this point, on having the nerve and the know-how to navigate the Big Apple and find her niche there. Talking about cafes, parks and mishaps on the subways gave Tisha an aura of sophistication, and I actually enjoyed hearing more about that stuff than how her relationship with Seth was progressing. She once related a funny story about a conversation between her and Seth. Although he was born Jewish, he believed in Jesus Christ, apparently. He said to her: “We’re waiting for a guy who already came and left!” Just think about the level of conversations they must have had about religion, culture, etc!

It didn’t surprise me that Tisha had a white boyfriend. It seemed like everything about Tisha was matter-of-fact, daring and defied the image of a frail, sickly girl. During a disagreement with our French teacher one day, Tisha abruptly asked her if she had ever read Human Relations. During Fantasy Day one year, our version of dressing up for Halloween, Tisha showed up dressed as a bride—on the wedding night. There was Tisha, marching down the halls in her white lingerie, garter belt and spiky heels. She wore spiky heels a lot, sometimes with black fishnet pantyhose. She told the most hilarious stories about her sisters, too. One of them always had a backup dress for formal occasions because the first dress always seemed to meet disaster, and another had a knack for committing accidental double entendres that came across as suggestive.

Tisha deserved a much, much longer life than her Creator permitted. We all went to a performing arts high school in Paterson, New Jersey, and ours was the first graduating class. We were full of more than our share of teenage bravado and supreme self-confidence. Local newspapers wrote occasional stories about us from our first day of school through graduation. People asked us if we were like the kids on “Fame,” doing Broadway-scale numbers in the school cafeteria. Tisha and I were writing majors, but her vivacity led her to try drama and music, too. She never complained about her illness, was extremely intelligent, savvy beyond her years about the interesting nuances in life that made her writing and her music really interesting. I’ve often thought about Tisha over the years. I expected someone so special, attuned to human nature, and devoted to savoring the delights of life and love, to be a novelist or director or something big.

Want to know the weirdest part about this news? Amanda told me that when she heard the news about Tisha, speculation soon ensued about who might be next. Whose life would be shortened because their body had finally given out from a lifelong struggle with illness? My name came up. Eeeek!

Well, I might not make it to old age—none of us knows when our time is up—but there are a few things I need to do while I’m here. People expect me to do more with my wit and insight into people’s behavior.  I share a lot of laughs with one of my neighborhood friends, and after a tear-filled, rib tickling session of picking apart the foibles of our fellow city folk, she will ask, “where is that book? I want to see chapters!” My brother, who has cut several reggae albums independently, says I should push myself to do more, and not settle for being an employee that cranks out words for my magazine and Web site. Maybe I’ll take their advice one day.

It’s really too bad that Tisha and I never kept in touch all those years after high school. I know she might have made a wonderful guest blogger for the Latte Café!

Of Gardens & Guns

When Hubby and I took the family on vacation last week in the mountains of north Georgia, we stayed a week with his parents at their house in the Big Canoe private community, located in the Blue Ridge mountains there. I brought my September issue of Vanity Fair for poolside reading. I also like to get a sense of local news, politics and lifestyle cues when I travel, so I decided to get a local publication. While we stopped at the IGA supermarket just off of Steve Tate Road in Pickens County, to pick up supplies, I saw something at the newsstand that stopped me cold. There is a magazine there called Garden & Gun.

I had to have a copy. Not only is the name a trip, but the cover also teased an article by Rick Bragg, a very talented writer that I like to follow from time to time. Upscale Southern culture is what Garden & Gun appears to be about. That figures. Nobody wants to see Southerners offensively rendered as ignorant, Confederate flag waving, hayseed Appalachian dwellers, who only aspire to own a full set of teeth. What comes to your mind when you say “the South?” Thanks to popular movies and miniseries like Roots and North & South, I think of shooting, heat, bugs, and snakes. But I also know that the South is very diverse, and there is a lot more to appreciate than good cooking. Garden & Gun did not let me down. It had impressive features on land preservation, a profile on Lexington, Kentucky, plus great articles music and the who’s who among Southern designers. And yes, there were a couple of articles about gun culture, mainly write-ups involving high-end hunting rifles. Garden & Gun reinforced what I already knew about the region after having written about real estate development for several years. There is money in the American South. It drives the region’s higher-tiered architecture, fashion and music, and goes a long way toward supporting its underappreciated artisan culture.

Hubby’s parents live in a private community that defies a lot of those common perceptions about Southerners. High in the Blue Ridge mountains of north Georgia, their community attracts permanent families from all over the U.S. I met retirees who once lived in swanky towns near my hometown in North Jersey, and we ran across several British families who had swapped homes with Americans for their vacations. Almost everyone is educated, well-traveled and seem to be fairly open-minded and friendly people.  Many of them are older Americans whose adult sons and daughters have married outside their culture or are gay and partnered. Whether we are splashing around in Big Canoe’s private pool, lakes and beaches, or out in the local towns, no one gives Hubby, Baby and me daggers. I like to think it’s because everyone is open-minded about our situation, but let’s be honest. Unless these folks strike up a friendly conversation about a recent trip up to Cape May and their son or daughter-in-law from another culture, they probably aren’t interested in being progressive. They’re just minding their Ps and Qs to avoid an unnecessary scrap.

It’s just as well. I’d rather talk about local history. For instance, The Tate family owned the land that makes up Big Canoe today and then some. Stephen Tate, the marble mining industrialist, is probably the best known of the family, because he started the mining that brought attention to that area of Georgia. There is even a 19,000-square-foot mansion called the Pink Marble Mansion, because it uses a lot of pink marble mined from the area.

My father-in-law treated the eight of us to a relaxing afternoon lunch at a restaurant in Monteluce, a new neighborhood built around a vineyard in Dahlonega, Ga. All of the buildings there are rendered in Old World Tuscan architecture. But this is America, where we have a lot of space and we like things big, so a lot of the “cottages” actually looked like Tuscan McMansions. Anyway, Monteluce is another one of those unexpected treats that seem up pop up out of nowhere in Georgia. They serve high-end Bistro style food with Southern touches. I had the shrimp and grits, John had a yummy looking ham and cheese creation, and even Baby took a few nibbles of the pizza they made for her.

My mother-in-law took me shopping at a baby and children’s clothing store in Jasper, called Taylor’s. It’s inside a very unassuming, simple building off of the main road near the high school. But after we went in, I didn’t want to leave. The yummy, dresses, shoes and hair clips were absolutely charming. And I’m going to score Baby one ( or two or three) of those dolls, mark my word.

We took a nature walk in the wilder parts of Big Canoe. We made our way through miles of beautiful woods and ended up at a pretty waterfall. Along the way, some fellow hikers warned us about a nest of Copperhead snakes right near the falls. Those creatures fill me with dread and loathing. When my father-in-law accidentally grazed my heel with his walking stick I shrieked loud enough for all of Big Canoe to hear me, from McElroy to Wet to Sanderlin mountains, and I bet the county patrol down on Steve Tate Road picked it up, too. If I were younger, I would have probably taken off running and not stopped for many yards. But I stayed calm and took a few pictures in front of the waterfall with Hubby and Baby. Even if I were terrified, I couldn’t leave my flesh and blood behind!

I’ve spent time in Louisville, Ky., North Carolina, Florida, New Orleans and I enjoy myself every time I travel to the region. The painful history that Black Americans have had in the South with slavery, the Civil War, the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement can’t be forgotten, but if I, and other interracially married women didn’t take those things in stride, we wouldn’t have our families now. Doubtless, there are loathsome creatures creeping amidst all that is beautiful about the South, just like that nest of Copperheads near the waterfalls on our nature walk. But I lay all those things aside and focus on getting to know people one by one. I’m always willing to believe that most people are just as curious about me as I am about them.