My in-laws live almost 900 miles away from New Jersey, tucked in a two-story log cabin-style house in the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range, the part that touches the Deep South. We see them twice a year, yet my daughter has always known their faces and been familiar with them, thanks to the miracle of Skype. Hubby would carry her over to his desk when she was just weeks old, and hold her up to the camera while he chatted with his family.
This weekly Skype ritual is an extension of my in-laws’ already well-established habit of calling each other every week, to talk about … whatever. OK, it’s mostly their sharply opposing political views. (Sometimes the arguing gets to the point where I wish this family would just take up sports.)
Now it is my family’s turn to reach out and touch someone. I placed a Skype call to my mother the other day, mainly so that Baby could get an up close visual of the maternal grandmother that she doesn’t know, and whom she has been asking about lately. After Baby broke the ice in her usual manner of parading her favorite stuffed animals, they settled in for an hour to talk about school, church and extra-curricular activities. Baby even tried to show her grandmother a few of her acrobatic moves.
It was a nice little video call, and there might be many more. What my mother doesn’t know is that we already semi-regularly call my father in Canada. My daughter and Hubby get on the phone with him, and it’s a funny thing to hear this gruff-voiced Jamaican man patiently draw his shy grand-daughter into conversation.
The Skype call with my mother was a relief. I really started to feel that my daughter was losing her connection with her Jamaican and Black heritage. As it is, she doesn’t identify as Black, and barely has a concept of what it means to be mixed. She’s probably thinking, ‘Mixed with what?’ Most of the time she sees her white relatives, and I’m the exception in the mix, the one likely explanation for her tightly curly hair and dark coloring. I’ve explained over and over that her ‘Black’ grandparents are from Jamaica, but I think that without personal contact, it’s all just abstract in her mind. I do have loving and supporting cousins who live about an hour’s drive from us, and we make efforts to get together and stay in touch. In the back of my mind I always hope that Baby knows she belongs as much with them as she does with me. I think it’s important for her to understand all of she is, with careful emphasis on her Black heritage. In these United States, where the dominant culture doesn’t always celebrate her type of beauty or see as much value in her as it would her white cousins, it can be disheartening after a while. She might be tempted to respond in ways that won’t ultimately have a healthy outcome. Maybe she’ll want to change her appearance, in an attempt to go along and get along. I want her to have positive things to hold onto from my side, so that no one can make her feel less than.
All this keeping in touch is a novelty for my family. My mother, father and I have never been a family unit in any sense of the word. My parents never married and went their separate ways right after I was born. I’ve met the guy twice in my life, the first was during a long weekend, when I was seven and my mother brought me to Toronto to see him. He sat me on his lap and held my hands in his as he steered the car. He had a smooth voice back then, and maybe a short afro. The second meeting happened when I was seven months pregnant with my daughter. I rode the Amtrak for 12 hours from New York to Toronto. While the passengers disembarked the train, I noticed him right away on the crowded platform. It wasn’t because I remembered his face. He was the handsome older man smiling broadly and practically stepping over other people to get to me.
There was an opportunity, when I was pre-school aged and living in Jamaica, for me to get acquainted with my oldest half brother. But my family snuffed out that idea rather quickly.
All this distance is symbolic of the ongoing estrangement from both my parents: In my father’s case, I barely know him, because my family kept him away when I was growing up. As for my mother, it is because we have a relationship that I would call touch and go. I know that as time passes people get more and more set in their ways.
So here is to important baby steps in bridging chasms and repairing breaches. I just hope that for the sake of helping my child develop a solid sense of her identity, my parents can get over their hangups and keep making those important connections.