Mixed Family Drama

Police dramas, hospital dramas and family dramas are what makes (and has made) for some of the best TV shows around aren’t they? And I bet some of us lead lives wherein situations either of our own making, or those inflicted on us, would bring in some pretty high ratings if they were put to scripts and dramatized.

That brings me to the awkward, even queasy part of my marriage, my mother. I generally avoid talking about her too much, because in my mind, people have much bigger problems than whether or not I get along with her. And I’ve refrained from talking about my mother on this blog because I’ve already done that with a therapist last summer and I didn’t want to conjure up old ghosts. Well folks, Hubby and I have been married for almost 4 1/2 years, and for half that time, my mother and I haven’t had a decent conversation. I only call at Christmas — maybe Easter, too. Mommy is usually aloof, offering almost nothing beyond formalities and customary pleasantries. I didn’t even tell her I was pregnant until I was well into my seventh month, and it was well-meaning family pressured me to. I meant to tell her in March, but the timing coincided with her decision to send a nasty birthday card to my 15-year-old sister, who as a result of a fallout with Mommy, lives with us. The card was so mean and icy that I’m pretty sure just opening it sent up an Arctic blast that should correct the whole global warming problem any minute now. Hubby and I couldn’t just let it slide. At the end of a tense exchange between the three adults, Hubby and I drew the line yet again with Mommy: We want you to be part of this family, but you must be civil. Mommy pretty much let us know that she wasn’t interested in our lives if it meant treating Little Sister with respect. And so the estrangement continues.

Now that Baby is due next month, I find myself fighting fiercely to keep this woman out of my head. It doesn’t help that the expectations are high for me to mend fences. How should I handle the news about the baby? Do I tell my mother when I go into delivery or wait until after the baby is born? Would she come to see the baby and to the christening? Do I do what’s right for me and stay away from her, or listen to the entreaties of family and keep her in my life? Considering that nothing I do or say will stop my mother from behaving in vicious, damaging ways, why should I give in? Something is wrong with this picture. In a perfect world (at least according to magazine pictures and based on my friends’ stories about their moms), she would be helping me decorate the nursery and I’d be getting the spare room ready for her to visit after the birth, right?

This is a tough situation, because my mother is an unforgettable woman. She is tall and has those high cheekbones and regal beauty that remind a lot of people of Phylicia Rashad.  She’s affluent, usually well put together and a talented singer, organist and pianist. She is such a great cook that when I brought Hubby (then possible fiance) home to meet her and my little sister, Hubby gave this assessment a few days later: “Your mom is exactly the person I’ve been looking for my whole life!” Hubby is a devout gourmand.

On the other hand, Mommy and me have never quite seen eye to eye on anything worthwhile. It’s safe to say we’re almost opposites in temperament. But I didn’t expect her to ignore me during our wedding weekend in Jamaica, dress up like the wife of the sun god and outshine me, yet behave as cold as ice and aloof toward Hubby and the in-laws. She barely socialized with any of us, did not stay at our hotel or tell us where she was staying (I asked her a million times), never had a meal with us, did not send Little Sister to the wedding rehearsal like I asked her to, and did not sit with us during the rehearsal dinner.

More than one family member has asked me privately whether Mommy disliked the fact that I married outside my race. It never occurred to me that she didn’t want a white son-in-law. I just thought she was being an extreme version of her usual button-down, circumspect self. If she did not think I should have married this man, I reasoned that it must have had something to do with her (formerly mine, too) staunch religion, social class or culture. I won’t accuse her of racial bias, because I think I’ve said previously on this blog that Jamaicans are used to intermarrying, and she must be used to that sort of thing by now, right? But the thing is that Mommy is one of those stoic, insular Jamaican women. She is religiously conservative and very opinionated about everything. During the last presidential election, she drove her luxury SUV out of her gated community to her polling place and voted … Republican!!! Hubby is kind of like a leftist New York intellectual, so if my mother has any kind of aversion to Hubby, it might stem from their different politics.

This situation is so complicated that it’s hard to guess how things will turn out. But now that she has emphatically let me know that she is no longer interested in me or my life, then what am I supposed to do? I know that babies are magical, and when they come into the world, they have a tendency to melt people’s hearts and make the way for reconciliation. But whether she’s in her glory or her disgrace, my mother is a force of nature, as anyone can judge from the clip below. I think the reason she left Florida several years ago was that she was tired of competing with the hurricanes to leave destruction in her wake, and I’m not too thrilled about passing the family madness to another generation.



She’s Pretty … For a Black Girl

It was like a modern-day version of the famous Clark doll test from the 1940s. Back in the early 1990s, several of my cousins, a friend Melinda and I were hanging out in my aunt’s kitchen looking at a Victoria’s Secret catalog. That’s what women sometimes do: we page through catalogs of beautifully nipped, tucked, underfed and airbrushed women, and then we judge ourselves harshly by an impossible beauty standard. Or we decide we’re being silly and share a pint of ice cream. That afternoon, though, the conversation took a heated and serious turn.We stopped at a picture of a woman wearing a dark suit (with a low-cut neck line of course, because it was a Victoria’s Secret suit). She had a dark olive complexion, hazel eyes and highlights in her brown hair. The overall effect was that she looked like she was from North African descent, or her parents were from Somalia or Ethiopia, or at least she was of mixed heritage. While we checked out the rest of the picture and read the product information, Melinda blurted out: “She’s pretty, for a black girl.”

Of course, the whole room erupted into chaos. Pretty for a black girl? Ugh! There were so many things wrong with that statement, we didn’t know how to begin upbraiding her. But we did our best!

“So, black women are not normally pretty?”

“That’s the reason black women feel bad about themselves!”

“Whitey did a good job on you!”

Poor Melinda. I’m sure that in her mind, she only meant to pay that model a compliment, but it was clear that there was something in her thinking, and by extension our generation’s thinking, that needed to change. The Clark test said as much about our parents’ generation. In a study that shored up the case for outlawing segregation in American public schools, psychologists Kenneth Bancroft Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark used identical black and white dolls to gather compelling evidence that “prejudice, discrimination and segregation” (Library of Congress) caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hate.

One would think that black people had ditched those attitudes back in the 1940s. Yet here we were, supposedly modern black women, facing similar issues. How did Melinda learn to measure attractiveness in dark-skinned women, and why was the possession of light skin a prerequisite of their beauty? That model wasn’t even dark-skinned, but in Melinda’s mind, she wasn’t light enough to be considered pretty outright. Sadly, the prevailing attitude in a lot of cultures around the world, such as India, Latin America and the Caribbean, is that pretty women must have light skin, and if at all possible, narrow noses and straight hair. Sometimes that line of thinking takes a dangerous turn, as people from those cultures treat give darker skinned folks a hard time while revering the light-skin standard. I don’t know if Melinda changed her attitudes in the intervening years after that tumultuous afternoon catalog flipping, because we fell out of touch as we took different paths in life. If I saw her today and introduced her to Hubby, born in Wisconsin to parent of Scottish and German backgrounds, would she venture to remark about the ‘pretty’ children we would have one day — that is, pretty as far as black and biracial goes? Who knows? Maybe she has grown past all that by now.

At this point in my life, I am sure of one thing. I’ll do everyone a favor and steer my future sons, and especially my daughters, away from people who harbor those kinds of attitudes.