Thursday, December 29, 2011

Family Values

Hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. I had a lovely Christmas with my family and stayed far from the computer, hence the lapse in my posts. Here is a second excerpt from my essay, Mother Mother.
Wishing all my readers a prosperous, healthy and happy New Year!
(Excerpt from essay Mother Mother)
Dad was a traditional father who provided for us and was not at all involved in rearing us. He did, however, take us to church every Sunday. Ma was a converted Catholic and had nothing good to say about the Church. “Christians on Sunday, heathens the rest of the week,” she said of Catholics in general and Dad, his family, and, as his progeny, us, specifically. She stepped inside the Church three times in my memory, when Andy got baptized, when my oldest brother got married, and for my father’s funeral. She was not present at her own memorial service. We cremated her just as she had requested in the months after Dad died.
I only remember a few tender moments between Dad and me. The most memorable one was when, at about four years old, I fell down the cellar stairs and my neck lay in the crook at the bottom where the rail post met the stairway. Dad carefully untangled me, my head in his hand, and cradled me against his chest. I knew from that moment on, despite his no-nonsense approach and explosive outbursts of anger during which curse words sprayed the room like buckshot, that he had a soft spot for his children.
Ma did, too, and I see those times it was expressed more clearly now: the way she sat and played Scrabble with me for hours, our bone china tea cups beside the playing board; how, when I finally learned to read, she let me take any book off her bookshelf stashed in the narrow hallway; how we watched old movies made in the 1930s through 1950s together, before color TVs, VCRs and DVD players. Andy and I became movie aficionados. Andy could name every actor and actress as if it were for a school exam. These were the times I felt wanted instead of resented.
They are the things I did with my daughters. Even though Cara and Mackenzie are grown women, we still talk about getting together to watch movies – a girls’ night.
But I fretted as a mother. In the age of intensive mothering that began in the 1980s when my daughters were born, I felt my inadequacy. Sharon Hays describes the onset of intensive mothering in her book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood.  She says:
What Every Baby Knows is the title of a child-rearing manual by the pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton. In many ways this title epitomizes current notions of appropriate parenting. Child rearing today is, more than ever before, child-centered – it follows not from what every parent knows (needs or wants) but what every baby knows (needs or wants). This, as we have seen, is the approach that has come to be called permissive. And this…is also the approach found in most of today’s top-selling child-rearing manuals.
I read T. Berry Brazelton’s book and watched his show. I wanted to be a better mother than Ma but I didn’t know what every baby knows or every mother, for that matter. Most women of my generation didn’t have role models, even those who had loving mothers, because we would enter the workforce in numbers not seen since World War II when Rosie the Riveter dropped her children off at a government sponsored day care center on the way to the factory. Unlike our mothers, we had the innate sense to know that we needed more than childrearing to give us purpose and identity, but our guilt drove us to over-mother.
Quality time became the goal. Even if it was five minutes, if we were completely child-centered, it was more effective than the mother who spent the day at home with her child but spent it cleaning or doing other things while her child played in proximity. I came to question this in later years, but as a new mother, it weighed on me.
When I discovered I was having twins, I spoke to my husband about how long I would stay out of work. “Three months,” I said.
He nodded but said nothing. After I brought Cara and Mackenzie home from the hospital, suffered my own bout of post-partum depression, and discovered how much work it was to take care of two babies at once, feeding on demand and trying to log that all-important quality time, singly and together, I realized I would not feel comfortable leaving them with anyone else.
“I need to extend my leave,” I said to Ronald.
“I know,” he said. “I figured you’d come to that conclusion.”
I stayed home for nearly eighteen months, feeling guilty for not earning a salary when we needed a house. The apartment super kept asking us when we were going to move. Our apartment building housed mostly single professionals or childless couples. Two babies crying and then, later, two toddlers running back and forth in stiff-soled shoes were more than most of our neighbors could tolerate. Notes were slipped under our door or taped to our mailbox: Please keep your children quiet or If you would keep your voice down, maybe they would be quiet.
Did they know what it felt like when one baby went one way and the other the other way? How helpless and paralyzed I felt standing too far from either to do anything? Or how I felt when both were crying and I could not figure out if they were hungry, colicky, tired, or wet? It took time to change two babies and fix the source of the tears. Mackenzie howled as if death were upon her when she was hungry, and Cara nightly cried herself to sleep while I sat crying in the living room. I realized early on that holding her only made her scream and fuss more, her body stiff and recoiling from my touch. She was already over stimulated and sometimes she would cry for as long as forty-five minutes before she would abruptly drop off to sleep. But, even as I knew I was right to let her expend her tremendous energy until there was nothing left but to go to sleep, it still made me feel like a bad mother, judged by others. When Mackenzie, who was born with Metatarsus Abductus, a C-shaped foot (crooked like Ma’s had been), had to wear a cast at five months old, people glared at me when I took her out in public.
“What happened to your baby?” strangers felt comfortable asking in a judgmental tone. Each time I carefully explained that she was born that way and we were getting her foot fixed. Just as I calmly explained to people that yes, they were twins, fraternal not identical, or that their father is black. That was a frequent question, “what is their father?”

Monday, December 19, 2011

Black Lie, White Hope

The GOP continues its quest for the Great White Hope. What about Herman Cain, you remind me. He was a straw dog. Charismatic? How about that wealthy Mormon, Mitt? Self-righteous Christian? Here’s Perry. How about the man that suggested a cure for obesity? No-more-food-stamps Santorum. Militant conservative? How about Michele “abolish minimum wage” Bachmann? Short-term memory? Here’s Newt “I took the marriage pledge” Gingrich. Best GOP candidate since GW. He cavalierly suggested that poor children ought to work as janitors in their schools.
In many ways it doesn’t matter who the GOP selects as their candidate. They want to ensure the wealthy keep their wealth and grow wealthier. They want to ensure President Obama doesn’t get re-elected. Some call him the worst president in the history of our country.
President Obama saved us from an economic depression. He defeated Osama Bin Laden. He ended the ten-year war in Iraq. He has worked diligently to preserve the middle class. What makes him the worst president in the history of our country? It’s the color of his skin. No one wants to articulate it quite that way. The moral compass of the collective society would balk at such blatant honesty. Most people would rather deny their racist assessment and pin their dislike on anything else that might appear rational. But their arguments aren’t rational. They are lies: lies that protect the liar from having to face his own prejudices; lies that smartly cover up what no one wants to say aloud; lies that make it seem as if we live in a post-racial society; lies that make everyone who harbors racist feelings feel smug and righteous.
I can’t just point fingers at the GOP or Christian conservatives who believe God is on their side and are bonded by hate and moral superiority. The 99%, a predominately white organization, is also bashing our president. I wouldn’t mind, except that their demands are unrealistic. The president can’t force change. If one has not personally experienced the tremendous backlash against everything the President is trying to push through, one cannot imagine the difficulty he is up against. To the 99% who are warming the benches while others are out on the playing field, consider a future in politics if you want to initiate change and learn to work within a system that is not only immovable but also difficult to negotiate. Then you’ll have earned your right to complain.
In the meantime I won’t encourage you to look at a third party solution. You’ll just waste precious votes needed to ensure that the GOP doesn’t get elected to the highest office in the land and take us all down by blurring the lines between church and state, destroying the middle class, and bolstering the power and wealth of the 1%.
We will live in a world where religious zealots create the law of the land based on the Old Testament. Apparently they missed the Good News. In this new world homosexuals are criminals; fetuses have more rights than children; women are submissive; poor people die for lack of basic necessities; whites are armed and dangerous to anyone that threatens their way of life; minorities are assigned non-American status; and slavery is re-instituted. The vision is extreme, yes, but possible given the extreme rhetoric of Tea Partiers and Christian conservatives.
Have you noticed that President Obama’s enemies have not found even one skeleton in his closet? They tried with the birther conspiracy. They tried to tie him to unsavory characters and Illinois political corruption. They tried to deny his Christianity, as if not being Christian would disqualify him from office. They have accused him of the character flaw of humanitarianism, if one can call that a flaw. I don’t. The only truth that no one wants to speak is that his African heritage is a flaw in the eyes of many.
We need President Obama for four more years. We need to fight the good fight right beside him.
(Excerpt from essay Keep Hope Alive: Post-Racialism in America)
Everyone in the bleachers kept craning their necks around to see behind us. We all knew Senator Obama would enter the square from the rear of the bleachers. The number of men in black suits with earphones made it obvious.
Suddenly the men in suits gathered together, and my sight rested on Senator Obama in the middle of them: tall, handsome, a spring in his step despite the grueling schedule he kept. He wore a pressed, bright-white shirt, the sleeves casually rolled up, and a blue, white and silver tie. As he stepped up to the podium amidst the cheers, he appeared confident, smart, and presidential.
“Yes we can! Yes we can!” the crowd chanted. I wanted to believe them.
“Our destiny is not written for us, it is written by us,” Obama told the crowd. We cheered louder.
“We can rewrite our destiny,” I thought. “We can change our destiny in my lifetime.”
“Yes we can! Yes we can!”
Obama stopped in the middle of his speech and asked for people to attend to a woman who was weak from the heat and press of the crowd. Volunteers ripped into plastic flats filled with bottled water and started passing them back through the crowd. From our perch on the bleachers, the thousands of water bottles being handed high above heads from black hand to white hand to brown hand, looked like bubbles floating over the crowd.
Ronald assisted citizens and saved their lives and property for twenty-five years as a firefighter, but sometimes they did not want his help. One man said he would not let Ronald resuscitate his dying wife. Another citizen, his house on fire, said he did not want black people in his house. Disregarding Ronald’s lieutenant stripes and his command over the scene, another citizen called him a nigger. Could hatred be that strong? Yes it can.
Obama finished his speech, and he walked around the circle of people closest to the podium, shaking their hands, speaking to them. I watched him, and I watched them, some of them wiping tears away after he had moved on to the next person. I knew he would exit beside the bleachers just as he had entered. Some people were already standing and headed off the other side of the bleachers, maybe trying to beat the dispersing crowd. I went in the opposite direction and crouched at the edge of the bleachers three or four people back. I could see Obama nearing us. I stuck my hand through the crowd of legs, and he grabbed it and firmly shook it. His hand was dry and warm.
I stood from the crouched position I had taken to reach him and turned around. I was crying.
“You did it,” Cara said. “You shook his hand.”
“Yes, I did.”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

You Can't Do What They Do

Ronald’s dad often told him when he was growing up that, “you can’t do what they do.” He meant that as a black boy, he could not do what he saw the white boys in his neighborhood doing, or behave in the same manner they did, or speak as they did. It would get him in trouble. Individual freedom of action and expression are different for different groups of people in America.
We told our daughters the same thing as they were growing up, especially when they moved from their Northeastern urban high school with a socio-economically diverse population that was about fifty percent ethnic minority to the Southeastern arts conservatory with a predominately affluent, white student population and almost all white faculty.
I thought about that expression, you can’t do what they do, this week as Ronald and I watched a documentary on Pearl Harbor on the History Channel. As Americans prepared to enter the war, Japanese Americans were being rounded up and placed in internment camps. True to the racist slant of the times, it was believed they might be more loyal to their country of origin than to the country they lived in, many for generations. Most were U.S. citizens. Most had never even visited Japan. Why didn’t the government sanction the internment of all Americans of German or Italian heredity?
When my father was drafted and ordered to report to duty, he changed his first name from Francesco to Francis. His brothers, except for Rocco, did the same. Were they worried they didn’t sound American enough? American citizens of ethnic minority heredity, you can’t do what they do.
Herman Cain announced this past week that he was suspending his campaign to run for president. I predicted his demise back in my October 23rd blog, Am I My Brother’s Keeper? So I wasn’t surprised when the allegations of sexual misconduct arose in the press. Herman, you can’t do what they do.
A few weeks ago an airline pilot managed to lock himself in the bathroom of the plane. He asked a passenger to go to the cockpit with a special password to let the co-pilot know of his plight. The co-pilot considered the pilot’s disappearance and the passenger’s thick accent to be indicative that the plane was under terrorist attack. It precipitated an emergency landing. If the passenger had spoken with an American dialect, would everyone have had a good laugh and the plane made its ETA without a blip? Foreign sounding passenger, you can’t do what they do.
A young interracial couple was banned from the woman’s church of worship in rural Kentucky a couple of weeks ago. After all the attention in the media, the pastor was replaced and the church rescinded its vote. Interracial couple wishing to worship, you can’t do what they do.
President Obama, did your mother ever tell you, you can’t do what they do? If she didn’t, it’s okay, she might not have known or understood it. I know it because I have witnessed it for thirty-six years. I’m sensitized to it. If you aren’t white, if you aren’t affluent, if you don’t view the world through the “white” American cultural context, you can’t do what they do.
(Excerpt from Chapter 8, Watch Our Show, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
In the spring of 2006 I asked Ronald to drive to Albany for the day. I wanted him to go to the New York State Retirement Office and get the numbers worked up for his pension. He did not trust the administration at the Syracuse Fire Department to do it properly. He agreed to at least listen to what the retirement office had to say, still telling me he figured he would put in three more years. He worried the number of black firefighters was dropping – most of the black men who came on with him in the class of 1981 had retired at twenty years or they had signed off earlier, losing full pension rights. More than a few had told him they retired early or left because they could not take the daily abuse: the constant questioning from white firefighters about their competence; the racist jokes; the suspiciously numerous disciplinary write-ups from white superiors. Ronald knew what they were talking about. “You can’t do what they do,” his dad had told him about the white boys when they moved to the eastside, and it was true as an adult, too.
One of the new black recruits came to him for advice. His lieutenant had given him poor probation evaluations. One of his station mates had lied when he had asked him a question about calculating oxygen pressure. When his lieutenant asked him for the calculation and he responded using the answer given to him by his station mate, he was evaluated poorly again. His lieutenant was pressuring him to sign off and resign before his probation ended. The stress had caused him to become violent when he and his girlfriend had gotten into an argument, and now he feared the relationship might end as well.
Ronald counseled him not to take it out on his girlfriend, who, he told him, could not understand what he went through at the job. He told him he would help him learn what he needed to know. He would go downtown to the Fire Department Offices on his behalf. He told him he could get through it if he wanted to and that he was not on his own. He said, “Every white firefighter comes to work every day and gets to enjoy being a firefighter. They don’t want that for us. They want us to hate coming here. We have a right to enjoy firefighting as much as they do.”
The next day Ronald talked to one of the district chiefs and told him that something wasn’t right with the evaluations of the young recruit. He told him he had worked with him on overtime duty, and he thought he did a fine job and wanted to do well. He talked to the black firefighters’ group FOCUS (Firefighters of Color United in Syracuse) that he helped found years before, and told the group officers they ought to intervene. Still the young recruit signed off and resigned a week later.
“They want us off the force,” he said, relating the story to me. “They want it to look like we can’t perform the job – a self-fulfilling prophecy. They can’t wait to catch us failing, and they find ways to make it happen.”
The NYS retirement officer pushed a paper across the desk. It contained Ronald’s pension details. I watched Ronald’s eyes light up.
He picked up the pen the officer laid next to the paper and signed it. He would retire on June 30, 2006.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Beauty Booby Trap

Courtney Stodden, the seventeen-year-old who married fifty-one-year-old, B-list actor Doug Hutchinson, may very well be the poster child for the decline of women’s equality, rights and self-actualization. She was just sixteen when she began an Internet relationship with Hutchinson and her mother both encouraged and signed consent for her to marry him. Still underage, she is often photographed in provocative poses. One has her in a T-shirt on which Yes, they are real is printed across her enormous breasts. But they aren’t real – photos taken just a year or two earlier show a different girl. She is a regular teen with regular sized breasts, no stripper makeup, no hair extensions, and no pouty mouth.
A strip club owner in Seattle has just offered her $5000 to appear on her eighteenth birthday to perform two strip shows. She hasn’t accepted his invitation, but why not? She’s been stripping on camera for a year now. Maybe it’s not enough money. Maybe her price (or her mother’s and husband’s price) is more like the pay one gets to appear in Playboy. Wait until she is eighteen or maybe not, if someone can figure out how to get around the little problem of her being underage.
I didn’t want to write about her. I’ve avoided it for months. Why take part in her prostitution? She is a child. Her mother, her husband, and the media are exploiting and objectifying her. As many adolescent girls would, she relishes the attention while not recognizing the consequences.
Younger and younger girls are dressing provocatively, sharing intimate photos, sexting, engaging in sex. They also suffer from eating and body dysmorphic disorders. Do they understand exploitation and objectification? What have they been taught about beauty by the media, the Internet, boys and men, other girls and women, and their own pursuits of beauty, popularity and celebrity?
I struggle with the concept of beauty and how it is defined culturally, sexually, emotionally, intellectually and personally. Even in middle age, even as a feminist, I still want to feel beautiful. I see how that renders me less than: less than men, less than other women, less than my own potential. At what price is beauty?

(Excerpt from essay Staying on It: Beauty and Aging)
One of my favorite actresses, Vivien Leigh, played an aging but refined southern English teacher, Blanche DuBois, who is fired from her position for her penchant for alcohol and young men in Streetcar Named Desire.
Blanche gives her perspective on beauty and aging when she says:
"A cultivated woman, a woman of breeding and intelligence, can enrich a man's life immeasurably.  I have those things to offer and time doesn't take them away.  Physical beauty is a passing transitory possession but beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart, I have all those things."
But the quintessential movie on aging females is Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Swanson, aged fifty, played Norma Desmond, also fifty. Swanson’s declining career closely mirrored that of Desmond’s, only the outcome was different – Miss Swanson had her comeback.
Fran Hortop of Bint Magazine said this of Swanson’s portrayal:
Swanson gives a grotesque, cruel and powerful performance, more than likely the best of her career. She teeters on the edge of the ridiculous: Norma is much larger than life and lives in the black-and-white movie realms of melodrama where every stylised gesture counts for a thousand words. She’s all taloned fingers and bulging eyes, dressed like a psychotic goddess in elaborate turbans and jewels - a brave parody of the kind of über-actress Swanson was herself.
After the film, Swanson was offered other similar roles, but she declined them, saying in her memoir, “I could obviously go on playing [Norma Desmond] in its many variations for decades to come, until at last I became some sort of creepy parody of myself, or rather, of Norma Desmond – a shadow of a shadow.”  She was in two more films after Sunset, but chose to pursue other business and artistic pursuits including sculpting until her death in 1983.

Ronald documented the changes in my face, body, and hair over the last thirty-five years in photos, not consciously, but there they all are. He always made me feel beautiful, even as we both mourn my loss of youth. Though I am always shy in front of the camera, he has managed to capture what he sees and avers.
He took one black-and-white photo in 1977 at the record store on Marshall Street near Syracuse University. My hair is cut to the tops of my shoulders with full bangs. I remember the hairdresser had told me, as he cut and styled it, that I looked like a china doll with my porcelain skin, large eyes and shiny, straight, dark hair. My skin is dusted with tiny freckles left over from the summer, and my small downturned mouth is parted so that just my two front teeth show. I stare at the camera, looking hesitant. I remember feeling embarrassed that Ronald was snapping photos in front the other shoppers in the store.
Back then I only wore a little blush, undereye concealer and mascara. I didn’t need anything else. 
Ronald saw all the photo albums spread out on the bed, after Cara and I had been through them, so I asked him to select his favorite photo from the many he had taken of me that first year. I didn’t like the one he picked: my eyes cast downward, a shy smile that might have been a grimace, my hand running through my hair.
He laughed when he saw me flipping through the pages of the albums a short time later, looking for one I liked. “Why did you ask me?”
There is another photo taken in 2011. It’s a close-up of my face. I’m looking at and smiling into the camera, having just graduated with my MFA degree.
The lines on my forehead and between my eyebrows are apparent, as are the crow’s feet running away from the outer corners of my eyes. My nose appears longer at the tip than it did in the photo taken in 1977, and it could be a result of age or camera angle. My dimples, doubled on the right side of my mouth, are etched deeply. My teeth, off-center due to only having one adult canine, are bright white. My eyes, crinkled in joy, are vibrant and warm. They are framed by my long lashes and the cocoa and white eyeliners. There is a hint of white at my hairline. I like this photo so much I copy it to the digital photo frame that sits in the dining room. Ronald often points out photos of me to guests, as they flash on the digitized screen.
“See that?” he asks, pointing out a photo where I stand between Cara and Mackenzie, both clutching single carnations, both smiling with lips squeezed shut because they are growing in front teeth. The photo was taken at the end of one of their piano recitals. I am in my mid-thirties. Permed hair frames my face and touches my shoulders, large, nineties-style glasses sit below arched brows, and a slight smile activates my right-side dimples. I wear a blue violet dress, the belt cinching my still-small waist. “She captivated me,” he says.
He tells me one day recently that he has been showing a photo of me to the guys at the golf range.
 “Not a college photo!” I respond. That would be false advertising.
“No, this one,” he says, and he pulls out a 5x7 photo taken at work for my ID card picture. I had given it to him several years ago and forgotten about it. “They all said how pretty you are.”
 I think he must be speaking about my inner beauty: the beauty of my mind, the richness of my spirit, and the tenderness of my heart. Maybe they were qualities I always possessed but didn’t recognize when I viewed myself through Ma’s eyes.
Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof felt the power of her beauty and sexuality when her husband Brick, played by Paul Newman, asked her, “What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?”
“Just staying on it, I guess,” she tells him, “long as she can.”

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Staying on It

(Excerpt from essay Staying on It: Beauty and Aging)
I don’t look much like my mother did at this age. Her hair, caught between blond and brunet, was gray at her temples and looked as if she had had it professionally frosted. Her eyes were the color of rain, a cold gray. My hair, thanks to monthly visits to my hairdresser, is still brunet, and my eyes are amber. Ma was tall, almost 5’7”, and I must stand straight and proud to nearly reach 5’3”. She was buxom, a D cup; I was barely A up until I got pregnant at age twenty-six. Yet I see her in my hands, the way my thumb joint is curling toward my palm and in the crepe of my forearms and décolletage.  I see it in the bunions that frustrate me away from the heels I so adored wearing because they made me look leggy. I see it in the depressions around my eyes, so unlike hers in shape and color, but now resting more deeply into my face just as hers did at this age.
Ma and I, when we weren’t feuding, sat and watched old movies together when I was a child, with bone china cups of tea and buttered English muffins on paper plates. It was from the movies of the 1940s and 1950s that I developed my vision of beauty. It was Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; or Marilyn Monroe as Sugar in Some Like It Hot; or Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday; or Sophia Loren as Cinzia in Houseboat.
It wasn’t their skin color or ethnicity that made them each beautiful; it was the way they carried themselves, off-handed, sensual, and appreciative of the differences between men and women.
I am a feminist. I didn’t want to be like Ma, a stay-at-home wife who didn’t know how to drive or pay a bill. I wanted to pursue higher education. I expected to work after graduating college, to pay my own way. I expected a career. I expected equal pay for equal work. I thought I could have it all: spouse, children and career. I did, but I didn’t forget how different my inside felt compared to my outside.
I raised my twin daughters to trust what came naturally to them, and I also made sure they knew I thought they were beautiful. I didn’t want them to experience the inner turmoil I felt as a child and a young woman. I didn’t want them to wonder, because they are interracial, whether or not they fit a specific standard of beauty, a standard that holds Eurocentric features as superior.
One of my white work associates, back when Cara and Mackenzie were around eight, exclaimed, as she looked at photos, how lucky they were. She explained her statement by saying, “They have the beautiful dark skin but none of the ugly African-American features.”
I was incensed. “They look like me, but they look like Ronald, too,” I said in response.
Cara and I looked at old photos as I was writing this essay. There were many featuring all the ways I used to style their long, curly hair: half-backs, French braids, herring-bone braids, pigtails, buns, and multiple ponytails that began at the forehead and graduated every couple of inches, gathering more hair, until the last one placed at the nape.
“Oh, I loved your hair like that,” I said of one photo that showed them with their hair down, falling below their shoulder blades, brushed out and full. I remember the arguments I had with Ronald about the oil he recommended we use in their hair so it wouldn’t become brittle and break off. It was the same oil his mother and sisters used when they straightened their hair with the hot comb, a metal instrument they heated in the flame of a gas stove burner. The heavy weight oil made Cara and Mackenzie look like drowned cats. I resisted until Ronald’s ex sister-in-law suggested a brand of lightweight oil. She had an interracial child who was African-American and Puerto Rican.
“Mom, you don’t brush hair like ours,” Cara said, laughing. “I used to try to tell you that.”
“But it was so pretty,” I said, remembering how mine was fine, straight, and tangled at that age.
I don’t want them to experience the uncertainty I feel now as I watch my body change and push against me, this time from the outside in.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Mother Mother

(This is an excerpt from a new essay Mother Mother)

I didn't want to be born. You didn't want me to be born. It's been a calamity on both sides.
~ Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale to her mother in Now, Voyager

Ruth Alison Elliott stands in the center of her four siblings in a black and white photo, circa 1926, taken soon after her father died from respiratory complications due to mustard gas exposure in World War I. Her mother Peg-o sits on the far left in a dark dress with a dropped waistline, perhaps mourning clothes. She is a petite, young widow with thick dark hair pulled back in a bun. Her ankles, in dark stockings, are crossed. One hand is a fist in her lap, the other, held like a claw, touches her youngest child’s leg, but as an afterthought, the back of her hand touching by proximity. George, just a toddler, his light curls a halo around his head, sits on a stool next to Peg-o. Clary, the first-born son, stands behind George in a wool suit and tie, gangly and all ears. The oldest child, Beatrice, a good head taller than Clary, stands at his side, sporting a flapper’s bob. Her arm rests along the back of the chair where Joan, the middle child, sits with one leg tucked beneath her, her expression angelic. Ruth stands next to Joan, in front of Beatrice, in the center of all of them. Her hair is cut to just below her ears with short bangs that slant by the unsteady hand that wielded the scissors. Her chin is tipped down just slightly, and her eyes look up at the camera, as if she just got caught in a lie.
My mother’s lot in life, captured in this photo, made her rebellious, angry, misunderstood, and unlovable. She lost her father at a young age, but also she was not as beautiful as her sister Joan who had black hair that fell in sausage curls to her shoulders and brilliant blue eyes. In contrast, Ruth’s hair was thin and straight, caught between blond and brunet, and her eyes were a dreary gray. Her feet were crooked, and she had to wear ugly high-topped shoes that were buttoned using a crochet hook until she turned seven years old.  She ran with the young blokes in the neighborhood, boldly taking on all their dares. One time she bit a fat, white grub in half. Another time she played with cherry bombs after her mother warned her away from them, and one went off in her hand. Then she fell on her forearm while playing and the bone poked through the skin. She was left-handed but would learn to write with her right hand while her arm mended, and continued using it to write for the rest of her life.
I suffered the same privation of circumstance as my mother. Just as Ruth was the fourth of Peg-o’s five children, I was the fourth of Ruth’s five children.  I, too, was born left-handed and we were both born under the sign of Gemini, the twins. Further, she named me Dianne, the French variation of Diana, Apollo’s twin sister. If one believes in the power of the Zodiac, we were destined to communicate our agitations and fears loudly and often at one another while appearing vivacious, engaging and humorous communicators to the outside world. We spent our short twenty-five years together seeing the flaws of the other and never quite figured out they existed in both of us as if we were mirror twins, female versions of Castor and Pollux.
One day she screamed at me in a fit of anger, “Thank God you weren’t twins. The world wouldn’t have survived.”
I had my own set of twins just a year after she died and it felt an odd retribution because I was both triumphant and sad.

My sister Peggy, the oldest of the five Liuzzi children, recounted recently how my mother seemed disinterested when I was brought home from the hospital. Five months shy of turning ten, Peggy took on my feeding and diaper changing. She continued to care for me on and off until she left home for college. I admit to showing little appreciation for her effort, and remember, once, while lying on our ¾ bed together, perhaps just after she had finished reading to me from The Grimm Fairytales, I scratched her face and left a dollop of blood on the tip of her nose. The rich crimson fascinated me and smugness filled my heart for my perfect retaliation against a loveless world.
I called my mother Ma, not Mum, as she wanted us to. After all, that was what good children called their mothers and I was not good.  I was hateful, a banshee, as she once called me, haunting her with my wail and disrupting her day when she could have spent it otherwise, reading a good novel or serving coffee, while she drank tea, to the milkman, the insurance agent and neighbors.
The month before I turned four my youngest brother was born. His arrival lead to piles of clean, unfolded diapers heaped on the couch. While the three older siblings went off to school, I sat on the floor watching TV, in front of the playpen where Andy lay with a bottle propped in his mouth. His constant bottle sucking resulted in his baby teeth rotting, and he was hospitalized at age five to have them all removed.
Not many people spoke about post-partum depression back in the 1950s and 1960s when Ma was trying to raise five children on the meager weekly earnings Dad brought home. As a mother of twins, I felt overwhelmed at different times while raising them, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Ma. She was in a new country with in-laws who didn’t approve of her, in a tiny house with five children, and she had a quick mind that needed much more stimulation than dirty diapers and squabbling children. It drove her to drink.
In many ways, Ma’s neglectful rearing of her two youngest children, Andy and me, was the result of a cultural shift initiated in part by the famous childcare expert, Dr. Spock. Where parents had been encouraged to mold their children into moral and responsible adults and citizens through supervision and discipline in the past, the era we were raised in supported hands-off childrearing. Shari L. Turner, in her book titled The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother says, “The goal of childcare was no longer to stymie the natural inclinations of the infant, but to give them free rein. Gone were the wicked urges or bad habits that mothers sought assiduously to tame…Now, the child’s spontaneous impulses were viewed as good, expectable, and sensible, and the child, instead of being a tabula rasa, actually knew, in some sense what was right for itself.”
This along with the fact that women were still having a lot of children but most of them survived unlike in earlier times when losing a child was common, put an incredible burden on women I only began to empathize with when I became a mother. Through my child eyes, I saw unfairness, rejection and abandonment.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


One of my good friends copied me this week on an email that she forwarded to a group of friends. The anonymous email said President Obama changed the décor of the Oval Office. It went on to claim the “Office is now stripped of the traditional red, white, and blue, and replaced with [Middle Eastern] wallpaper, drapes, and décor.”
The author also asks, “What is missing from Barack Hussein Obama’s press conference?” A photo is displayed showing the President at the podium, no American flag in sight.
“And I don’t believe it was just an accident! It is intentional,” the author goes on to write. “So I ask, why is it intentional? He told you he would change America, didn’t he?”
I emailed her back and told her the email was a lie, as verified on the Snopes website. I told her people who lie like that incite anger and violence and they should be prosecuted for endangering the President. I figured she might not like my response.
We are political opposites. I’m the “bleeding heart liberal,” and she is the “southern conservative.” We’ve managed, quite successfully, to look beyond one another’s worldview and political affiliation. We’ve discovered other common ground for our friendship. We’ve even learned to listen to one another on volatile topics, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by her response.
She copied everyone she’d sent it to and apologized.
That’s what friends do. But more than that, that’s what responsible people do when they’ve discovered a wrong and their possible complicity in it.
She might have agreed with the sentiment. She might have believed the story to be true, even against all rational explanations. But when she discovered the ruse, she corrected her action.
It reminds me of a situation at John McCain’s town meeting a few weeks before the election in 2008. A woman claimed, despite all evidence, that Obama was an Arab. John McCain did something that day that still earns my highest regard. He took the microphone from the woman and said, "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab]."
Of course, I might have added, “and even if he were an Arab, he is an American and has the right to run for our highest office.” But I might have done the same thing in such a situation, taken aback by the blatant ignorance and hatred of a seemingly benign middle-aged white woman, wondering how things could have sunk to such a low point and how I might have been complicit in allowing this talk to go on for much of the campaign and how dangerous such lies had become. 
I remember McCain’s face and his body language, deflated with recognition. His response contributed to his losing the election, but he retained his ethical stance and his humanity.
I wish the politicians who are trying to keep the birther conspiracy alive felt that way, too. I don’t care if they disagree with Obama’s policies, but I care that they want to dismantle him piece by piece, the way the soldiers destroyed the Sadam Hussein statue in Iraq. I care that they believe his inadequacies stem from his being black, even if they don’t say so. I care that they’ve made Obama into a straw dog – representing how certain Americans will lose their country and heritage if certain people are made leaders and given power, even as they’ve selected their own straw dog – Herman Cain – to serve as their token black man. Just as Sarah Palin served as their token woman. She was the antithesis of Hillary Clinton. Cain is the antithesis of Obama – not educated, not measured in his communications, not in control, a loose cannon who will initiate his own demise, a self-fulfilled prophecy.
Somehow all this fighting among Americans is manifesting itself in a kind of Schadenfreude. A collective voice expresses moral superiority and gleeful hatred of minorities, the poor, non-Christians, gays, the unemployed and those without health coverage. They did it to themselves, why should we help them?  the collective seems to say, if only to believe it can’t happen to the rest of us, that the mighty will never be victims. The liberals are a part of it, too, hoping for personal hardship for the religious and conservative right, at their own doing. But the problem with that is that it can happen to all of us, every single one of us, and it already has. We are victims of our prejudices, our fears, our wants, and our needs. No one is exempt, and that is why the rich hide behind their wealth and lots of others hide behind rhetoric, guns and God. You can’t say God doesn’t approve of this sin or that sin and think yourself sinless. You can’t yell murder and kill in the name of all that’s good and right. You can’t claim lies but lie yourself. We’ve created our own little hell in America and across the world. It’s is time for change. Now it’s up to us to stop, to take responsibility, and to apologize for being complicit in allowing the wrong to grow deep and strong.
(Excerpt from essay What’s Race Got to Do with It?)
My upbringing made me aware that every person deserves to be considered as an individual and not lumped into a pile of faceless people based on physical attributes. In a way, growing up in an alcoholic, dysfunctional, and interethnic environment assured my belief that I was no better than anyone else. I hoped that people would treat me with the same suspended judgment as I treated them. But what I experienced with my parents is something that Chita Childs refers to as “a progressive trend in white racial attitudes to advocate for integration and equality and against discrimination on a broad theoretical level while maintaining opposition to implementing practices that require day-to-day interaction or close proximity in their social circle to African-Americans.” My parents valued the concepts of integration and had a diverse group of friends, but they could not move beyond their own interethnic failure and racial barriers when it came to my relationship with Ronald.
I saw how often other people pre-judged us, too, based on what they thought about interracial relationships and race. But I knew some people would react negatively – my shyness caused me to be cautionary around all strangers.
When our twin daughters were babies, I worked a few hours a week at a department store. One of my colleagues was a college student. She frequently asked to see photographs of Cara and Mackenzie and remarked how cute she thought they were. One evening, she asked if she could have a ride to her car because she had had to park in the outer lot and was afraid to walk alone all that way in the dark. I said yes and told her she would get to meet Ronald and the babies. Ronald pulled up to the door of the store, and I slid into the back seat between the two infant carriers holding Cara and Mackenzie. I introduced my associate to Ronald as she sat in the front passenger seat and told her which baby was which. She smiled and chatted on the way over to her car.
The next morning I was bathing Cara and Mackenzie when the phone rang. I quickly picked it up and tucked it between my ear and shoulder. “Hello,” I said breathlessly.
 “How dare you not tell me that your husband is black,” the voice on the other end of the line said with anger and disgust. It was my colleague.
“What?” I said clutching the towel I had wrapped around Mackenzie.
“You never told me your husband was black,” she said, her voice accusatory.
“You’ve seen pictures of the girls,” I said defensively.  “Besides, I never asked you what color your fiancé is. Why does it matter?”
“It matters,” she said.
So when should I bring it up? Like a disease or an affliction that must be revealed before one gets too involved in a relationship, I have often been left wondering if the other person will be able to handle my interracial relationship and if I can handle their inability to do so.
Do I shake someone’s hand and say, “I’m Dianne, and I’m interracially married.”
Or do I wait until the other person says something that I find offensive?
“I can’t stand waiting on black people,” another white sales colleague said one day. I felt my scalp prickle and my face warm. She continued by saying, “They smell bad and they never spend a lot of money.”
I wanted to slap her face. I wanted to call her ignorant. I wanted to quit my part-time job that suddenly felt like a danger to my family.
“Really?” I said, staring at her. “That’s not my experience.”
“It’s what I think,” she said.
“My husband isn’t like that.”
“What? Your husband is black?”
“You should have told me,” she said.
“Why, so you could watch what you say around me?”
“You tricked me,” she said.
I am a spy among white people. I am the fly on the wall. I am sensitized to the racial polarization of our country, and I’ve learned to listen for it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

What Would Jesus Do?

I read in the paper yesterday that the CEO of Duke Energy made $8.8 million this past year. Duke Energy is applying to increase utility bills in a state that has ten percent unemployment, with many people cycling off the unemployment rolls when they’ve exhausted extensions and have become the chronically unemployed. The Duke Energy’s CEO’s salary is miniscule in comparison to the salary and perks of some of the CEOs at the major financial institutions and fortune 500 companies where the going rate is in the tens of millions.
Alabama is trying to legislate immigrant laws similar to Arizona, a throwback to the slavery days where free people of color navigated through the country carrying their freedom papers. Now anyone who looks like an illegal alien, that will mean anyone with Hispanic heritage, has to produce proof of legal immigration.
Conservatives are pushing to raise college tuition costs and slice financial aid, effectively creating an elite environment where only the wealthy can afford college. Public schools budgets are being slashed and the voucher and privatized schools supporters are pushing their way to the forefront again.
Obama’s health care reform bill has been stagnated by the details, taken to court and deemed unconstitutional, and in the meantime, people are cut off from preventative health care. They can’t afford to be healthy or take care of health issues before they become catastrophic.
All these movements are creating an ever-growing underclass in America, and the conservatives and religious right support these movements, even as our collective quality of life deteriorates, our salaries stagnate and our houses lose value. The 99% are trying to organize and protest, but is it too little, too late?
I’d like to ask the religious conservatives, those people who are more interested in legislating morality than in the equality of our humanity, what would Jesus do? Would he step on the downtrodden because they are not worthy? Would he increase pain and suffering when there is already enough in this life? Would he deny the lowliest human being comfort and compassion? Would he judge certain people more worthy than others? Would he give a hand up to heterosexuals but not homosexuals, or Christians but not Jews or Muslims, or people with white skin and not brown skin, or those who are wealthy not poor? Tell me the answers, because I need to know how Jesus would act in the world you are creating: one in which children go hungry because they have chosen to be poor or they are homeless because they aren’t worthy of shelter; where the poor would stay poor because they aren’t worthy of education and improvement of their circumstances; where people who are different from a very narrow definition of who is worthy would suffer their fallacies; where people are told that if they work hard they will be part of the one percent, but it’s a lie. Would Jesus lie?
I think not a single child should go hungry, without shelter, without the education to reach his potential. Every American should be free of worry about access to proper healthcare. Every American should have a job that pays a living wage, a wage where a family can afford a safe place to live, food, clothing, an education and transportation. And if a person is unable to work due to physical, emotional or mental challenges, he will be provided a living benefit so that he does not live in poverty. Why would Jesus deny anyone that? He wouldn’t.
Stop lying. Stop using Jesus’ name to spread your brand of hatred and your vision of a world of haves and have-nots. And guess what? In my vision of the world, you are just as worthy as the homosexual couple who wants to marry, the atheist who believes there is no after life, the Muslim who prays to Allah several times daily, the young woman who wants to go to college and become a lawyer, the child who aspires to be an artist, the terminally ill patient who wants to spend her last days pain-free and with the people she loves, or the man who was born a woman and wants to make his outside match his inside. You will receive the same compassion they do, no matter your ethnic heritage, the color of your skin or your gender. You will be worthy of all that humans are worthy of, and you will not be judged.

(Excerpt from Chapter 2, Bloody Mick, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Ma was always ready to tell a good story when I was growing up, about her childhood or her days before and just after marrying Dad. Her words slipped easily into bawdiness and sailor’s curses, her humor biting, tart. 
Her stories were often served as dessert with hot tea – coffee for the men – after a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs or her favorite boiled dinner of ham and cabbage –mashed, fried in butter, and served over toast the following day for breakfast.
“Bloody this and bloody that” they always seemed to go, her cigarette slicing the air for emphasis and her face emotionless except for her gray eyes, crinkled ever so slightly with wry cunning. Ma’s stories made me laugh, and they still play like scenes from an old movie in my head. Perhaps I saw in Ronald a bit of Ma’s storytelling prowess.
Dad, on the other hand, was quiet until his temper exploded, never revealing much, but he worked with his hands: scraping old paint; patching holes; applying new paint with brushes and a roller, fashioning a hat out of newspaper; tinkering under the hood of his car; fixing leaky faucets; mowing the lawn and planting marigolds and petunias; dropping two or three dollars into the collection plate during Mass each Sunday, even when the mortgage was due and we would eat hotdogs, hash and Spam for the week; holding the newspaper up in front of him in both hands to read, or folded in quarters to do the crossword; helping his best friend Harold to renovate the old house Harold inherited out in Middleburg. “Mashooze,” Dad used to say, his hands clasped behind his back when he walked.
“What about your shoes?” I asked him almost every time.
“Mashooze escalappa,” he answered, rocking back on his heels. I never knew if it was an Italian phrase he recalled from childhood or something he made up because he liked the sound of it. I liked the sound of it, too, and the constancy.
Dad, born Francesco Liuzzi, was the second of seven children for Maria Mancini and Rocco Liuzzi.  Rocco arrived at Ellis Island in 1906 and returned to Montemurro, Potenza, Italy in 1909 to bring back Maria and settle in Albany.
Ma said Dad never had a childhood, and I believed her, even when Dad and his siblings argued about how things were when they were little, voices getting louder to drown out the others; even after Aunt Josephine had an old black and white photograph duplicated for everyone – a photo taken before she was born: Grandpa in a dark suit standing behind my seated grandmother in a full length printed skirt, a blouse with a watch pendant pinned over her left breast. He looks defeated; she looks like the Queen of Hearts from the Disney Alice in Wonderland cartoon, her bottom lip drawn in as she bites down on the right side of it. They both stare stoically at the camera; the children – four boys (Rocco also not born yet), hair plastered in olive oil to tame it into a side part, and one girl with a large, white bow in her hair, who would die of pneumonia soon after the photo was taken – all stand solemnly, dark eyes brooding at the camera.
As a child Dad sold newspapers on the downtown corner of Clinton Avenue and Broadway. Each week he turned his earnings over to his mother, but not before he stashed a nickel in his sock to spend at the theater. On a cold day in 1919 while out hawking papers with just a sweater on and no hat or gloves, Dad, seven years old, heard someone behind him.
“Hey, boy, aren’t you cold?”
He turned to see a tall, slender, colored man, early twenties, with a wool scarf wrapped around his neck.
“Yeah, I’m cold.”
“Well, follow me, boy.” The man led him to the kitchen entrance of the Grand Hotel on Broadway. He worked as a short order cook there. He pointed to a chair in the corner and left him. Dad looked around and wondered if he should leave, then the man returned with a cup of hot cocoa.
“Drink this and warm your bones.”
Dad, his eyes intense and dark, his hair shiny from the olive oil, looked up at the man with the kind smile, took the cup from him, and sipped the warm, sweet liquid. Dad and Harold would become friends after that day, the relationship lasting fifty-two years.
Dad attended St. Anthony’s Catholic School. The Italian-Americans called it “St. Ant’nees.” He dropped out after eighth grade. “My mother wouldn’t let me wear long pants, so I dropped out of school and got a job,” he often told us. As soon as he got a license, he secured a union job driving a truck for Hamilton News.
World War II came along after Dad had worked quite a few years. Dad became an older draftee. He legally changed his name from Francesco to Francis after he got drafted. He was stationed at the American base outside Sydney in Ryde, New South Wales, Australia. A Staff Sergeant, Tech 5, he “drove truck.” Dressed in army khakis in Australia, Dad was short of stature, but he had a full head of thick dark brown, almost black, hair, alluring deep brown eyes, and olive toned skin. He spotted my buxom Irish mother standing outside after a church meeting one evening.
“Hey,” Dad said as he swaggered over to her, “I thought they pulled in the sidewalks for little girls like you at this time of night.”
Ma ran away from him, but when she glanced over her shoulder, she always said with a wink, she noticed how short he was and let him catch her.
Ma found his exotic look exciting but was even more excited by his last name – Liuzzi. Just a few months before, an American soldier, Edward Leonski, had been arrested for murdering three “sheilas” –Aussie women – in Melbourne. My mother loved the stir she created by dating an American with a similar name. I felt that same stir when Ronald and I started dating.
Dad picked up Ma, a stacked size twelve (Marilyn Monroe’s size, she told me more than once), in his truck and let her ride around with him while he was on his rounds. If any MP jeeps were spotted, he pushed Ma down into the well of the seat. She was giddy with the secrecy and scandal of it all.
Ma also believed that an American could save her from a life of poverty. Her father fought in World War I at Gallipoli with the other Aussies, many of whom were slain as they ran toward the enemy. In a photo taken by a war correspondent, my 6’4” grandfather Clary Elliott carries a wounded comrade over his left shoulder. He stands colossal on barren rock, a crooked grin on his face, and though the photograph is black and white, I can sense his angry red hair peeking from under the slouch hat crushed down at an angle on his head. This rough-hewn giant returned home to his wife and children. A few years later he died from mustard gas exposure-induced pneumonia when Ma was four, leaving her mother Peg-o to raise five children on her own.
Ma, the fourth of five children like me, was born with crooked feet and had to wear button top shoes for the first seven years of her life. Her hair was too dark to be blond and too light to be brunet, and her eyes were a dreary gray like autumn rain. Next to her sister Joan who had jet-black hair and azure blue eyes, Ma felt plain and dull. She made up for it by taking on dares from the local blokes like the time she bit the three-inch long, fat, white grub in half. She dropped out of school when she was fourteen so she could work in a cut glass factory to help out her mother who made money doing other people’s laundry and taking in boarders. Ma spent many of her work hours being chased around the factory by her lecherous boss.
“Bloody Mick,” she called him, telling him to “Keep your diddle in your trousers.”
She accepted Dad’s marriage proposal just before he shipped back to the states.
Then Dad returned to Australia in 1946 to marry Ma and find work there. The thought of growing up in Australia instead of America makes me wonder how our lives would have differed. But Dad had trouble finding good paying work in Australia, so when the union sent him a letter from the States telling him they had a position waiting for him at Hamilton News, he brought Ma home to Albany, NY. He was thirty-four and she was twenty-four. They stayed at Dad’s parents’ house and Ma studied and converted to Catholicism so they could exchange new vows in the Catholic Church while Dad searched for a home. Peggy was born before he found one.
Dad’s parents called Ma a foreigner, demanded her marriage license every time she entered the house, and only spoke Italian in her presence, not that they ever learned to speak much English. My grandmother said an Italian curse at Ma every time she spoke to her. She offered Ma one thousand dollars to annul the marriage. Ma refused and asked a new friend, Millie, who became my older siblings’ godmother, what the Italian curse meant. The translation was I hope you burst.
Ma never felt comfortable with the Liuzzis who were not very affectionate with one another but who silently demanded loyalty and shunned outsiders. Grandpa had been scammed as a young father. A gypsy woman told him to bury three thousand dollars wrapped in a rag in a designated spot. She promised the money would grow into a fortune. When my grandmother found out what Grandpa had done, she sent him back to dig up the money, but it was already gone, and so was any trust in strangers.
Ma stood at the edge of the parlor one day as my grandmother spoke rapidly and angrily at Dad. Ma never knew what the argument was about; Dad refused to talk about it later, but suddenly my grandmother pounced like a cat on a rodent and slapped Dad across the face. Ma boiled with anger as she watched Dad drop his eyes to the floor.
The next time my 4’10”grandmother looked up at my 5’7” mother, narrowed her eyes, and growled the curse at her, Ma stared down into her eyes and said in her Aussie accent, “And I hope you burst, too, all over your goddamned new carpet.” 
My grandmother passed away in 1952 at the age of sixty-nine after tripping on that carpet and falling to the floor dead. Her death certificate stated cause of death as brain aneurysm.
Ma remarried in the Catholic Church, but she did not step foot in it again except for each of our baptisms and, later, Dad’s funeral. Dad took care of getting us to church.
 “Christians on Sunday; heathens the rest of the week,” Ma said of her in-laws and my father, “My grandfather is spinning in his grave because I married a goddamn Catholic.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Potential GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain immediately elicits in my mind the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. The sons of Adam and Eve each brought an offering to God. God accepted Abel’s gift of firstborn stock but denied Cain’s gift of produce. In anger, Cain slew Abel. When God asked him where Abel was, Cain responded, “I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Does Herman Cain have an obligation to his African-American sisters and brothers? He said, “I am an American. Black. Conservative. I don't use African-American, because I'm American, I'm black and I'm conservative. I don't like people trying to label me. African- American is socially acceptable for some people, but I am not some people.”
Yet many blacks and other ethnic minorities don’t get to enjoy being American. They are labeled, not as proud Americans from diverse descendents, but by other people with derogatory terms. They are stereotyped, denied their individuality, denied opportunity and a level playing field, and condemned to fail more often than not. They aren’t given a choice. If it were as easy as announcing that one is American, we wouldn’t experience this insidious, pervasive racism in America. We would not have class warfare, the gap between classes growing wider. And when I say class warfare, I believe it is the wealthy wielding power and waging war, taking all they can take, and leaving many Americans in destitution.
Did Cain sell himself out? Yes. Yet I struggle to accept such a singular and harsh judgment. Was it through his wealth? There are many wealthy ethnic minorities in our country. Or was it his denial of racism? There are many people, black and white, who consider themselves colorblind. They believe we are in a post-racial time in our society. I think they are delusional but I find myself arguing that an individual has a right to believe what they believe and to process one’s experiences and interpret them in the way that makes sense to that individual. It’s what I expect for myself, so why not for everyone?
When Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court, I was shocked by his conservatism and his alleged sexism. I could not wrap my brain around the thought of a black man who agreed with conservative tenets that considered blacks as less human than whites. I didn’t get it. Then I remembered that there is no white face that represents all whites and no black face that represents all blacks. Why couldn’t a black man support conservatism without being labeled a misfit? Yet I feel uncomfortable when I hear of a conservative black man who agrees with Tea Party politics. I wonder how Cain could have reached that line of thinking. Could he willingly adopt the thinking of an oppressive majority?
Cain was also quoted as saying, “African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open minded, not even considering a conservative point of view. I have received some of that same vitriol simply because I am running for the Republican nomination as a conservative. So it's just brainwashing and people not being open minded, pure and simple.”
But the very definition of liberal is to be open-minded and tolerant. It’s a paradox that conservatives are demanding open-mindedness to the acceptance of traditional values that preclude open thinking and exclude some to the benefit of others.
Sometimes I think giving Herman Cain voice and credibility is a ruse played out by the GOP, in the same way that I think Sarah Palin was a ruse. Only that backfired. Will Herman Cain backfire on them, too?
What of the founding principle of religious freedom? Cain said, “I would have to have people totally committed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of this United States. And many of the Muslims, they are not totally dedicated to this country. They are not dedicated to our Constitution. Many of them are trying to force Sharia law on the people of this country.”
Really? I’ve felt more pressure to succumb to evangelical dogma. I’ve worried more that Christian religious conservatives will demand law that makes moral choices for our citizens. They want to legislate the mixing of church and state, school curriculum, women’s rights to make decisions about their bodies, and whom we can marry. Is it so farfetched to believe that if they could pass federal legislation saying marriage is between a man and a woman that they would not go on to legislate that the man and woman must be of the same race, faith, even socio-economic class?
Is Herman Cain his brother’s keeper? I say yes, because I think we are each our brother’s keeper. We have to take care of one another, and that means not judging who is or who isn’t worthy – we are all worthy by virtue of our humanity.  But in the same breath and thought, I cannot fault or condemn someone for thinking he is not.
Do I like Herman Cain? No. I think he is a pompous, wealthy man who thinks very highly of himself and who thinks he has moved from being less than to being more than, based on his personal wealth and influence. Do I hate him? No. If I believe there is room for all of us, and if I believe in tolerance and open-mindedness, I have to mean it, and I mean it. I am my brother’s keeper.
I promised my brother I would post an excerpt from my memoir about him. Here it is.

(Excerpt from Chapter 4, The Ghetto Will Follow You, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)

In August, just weeks before school would be back in session, and Ronald and I would be back together, Ronald sat in his kitchen eating a hotdog inside a folded slice of bread slathered in mustard. He drank Coke from a bottle and wiped his mouth on the corner of the paper towel he had wrapped around the bread.
“Ronnie, I think someone is outside for you,” said his dad.
Ronald got up and went to the screen door. There was a large, overweight boy with brown hair down to his shoulders, a cigarette pinched between his right thumb and forefinger, and his left hand in his jeans pocket. He stared at the house. Ronald tells me he saw the resemblance in the shape of his eyes, the way his nose sat on his face, and his mouth turned down at the corners. It was my fifteen-year-old brother Andy.
Andy has told me this same story, but only recently, chatting with me on the computer, asking if I heard it before, typing LMFAO, and telling me he stole the infamous line from Dad. He had come to Syracuse to stay a few days at Rocco’s apartment where he smoked pot and drank Southern Comfort until his mind was a dull wash of nothingness. Then one day he went and stood outside the Hagans’ house and waited until Ronald came out.
Ronald stepped outside. “Do I know you?” he asked.
“You better. I’m Dianne’s brother.”
Ronald’s oldest brother Sylvester Jr. pulled up to the curb in his burgundy Grand Prix. He got out of the car. I imagine him dressed in jeans pressed with creases at the dry cleaners and a black tee that fitted his slender body like a second skin. His hair was hot-ironed straight and combed back with a small pompadour in front. He surveyed the scene. I think Andy must have looked overgrown and older than fifteen, a stubbly beard darkening his pale skin; Ronald must have looked small in comparison, with a few soft hairs growing above his top lip, years younger than his chronological age.
“Who’s this?” Sylvester Jr. asked.
“Dianne’s brother,” Ronald said.
“What’s he doing here?”
“I think he has something to say to me,” Ronald said.
“That’s right,” Andy said, pinching his cigarette and pointing it at Ronald, postured to say the line as if creating a scene on a movie set, “If I find out you’re using my sister as a fucking trampoline, I’m going to kill you.”
“I’ll hold him down for you,” said Sylvester Jr., smiling.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


One of my twin daughters asked me to write about something happy. She’s convinced it will increase my blog readership, and her intuition is hardly ever wrong. So, dear readers, here’s my happy blog.
My husband and I had a lovely adventure yesterday, driving in the G37S down to Charlotte and a golf equipment show. Part of our motivation was to take a drive to see the leaves – a great show of gold, burgundy, and red. We saw horses, hawks and wild turkeys along the way, too.
At the golf course, Ronald tried out some drivers and almost won a free pair of shoes in a wedge-hitting contest. “I still feel good,” he had said after his attempt to hit a ball into a painted red circle 100 yards out on the driving range to claim his free shoes. His ball hit inside the circle but took a jump and was at exactly 9:00 less than a foot outside the red line. Then he won the hourly putting contest, sinking five putts in a row. The crowd around him chanted each number with growing excitement. He received a nice pair of sports sunglasses for his effort.
“Don’t you golf?” one of the vendors asked me.
“Not me,” I said, smiling. My excitement was in watching Ronald enjoy himself.
We headed north and stopped in Concord for a late lunch at Razoo’s, stopping first at Bass Pro Shops so we could admire the boats and point out the one each of us liked best and imagined purchasing one day.  After a relaxed meal filled with conversation, andouille sausage, red beans and rice for me and ribs and French fries for him, we wandered over to the movie theater and saw the third remake of The Thing. It wasn’t the greatest movie we’ve ever seen (I might have liked the 1982 make, starring Kurt Russell, better, but all three are forgettable), but it had its moments that elicited gasps, screams, squeezed hands, and jumps.  Then we headed home, both sated.
Lots of times it isn’t what we are doing, but that we are together doing it. And we don’t do a lot of things together. Some couples do, but both of us need space just for thinking and creating, and, in spite of the fact that I work at home, I still crave solitude, maybe a reaction to growing up with four siblings and an array of animals in a house that measured less than 1000 sq.ft. Sometimes the bathroom was the only place to grab some alone time. Ronald craves the same, since he was raised in similar circumstances, but his idea of solitude is a book and a soda at a crowded bar, the activity and noise swirling around him. He also enjoys spontaneous conversations with strangers he may or may not ever run across again. That’s out of my comfort zone, though I can handle it on occasion.
When we do spend time together, like eating dinner together every night, that time remains special and doesn’t sink into the category of other mediocre daily occurrences. I think mediocrity can kill a relationship if a couple is not attentive.
Ronald and I have been together for almost thirty-six years, married almost twenty-nine years. We’ve beat divorce statistics three or four times over, and when we have faced hard times and conflict, as any couple who has spent more than three months together, we always find ourselves again. Part of our secret is that we love each other, sometimes unnervingly so to other people. A psychologist might determine we are enmeshed and co-dependent. She would be right, but what might be contraindicated for other couples, works for us. It’s negotiating and knowing what works that can keep a couple together.
The second part of our secret is the respect we have for one another. We were raised in different racial, cultural and ethnic environments, and that causes us to see and interpret the world in different and sometimes divergent ways, but we embrace our differences and respect them. Maybe our differences are what attracted us and the combination of our differences and likenesses gives us the gift of longevity.
I think the most important thing I’ve learned in our thirty-six years together is that there is no normal, no average and no absolute when it comes to people. We are too complex for that. Those concepts are just the middle ground in the great continuum of human experience. Each of us fits somewhere along the continuum, and it is long, maybe even infinite.   We can beat the odds of hatred and divisiveness if we understand that each of us is different but we still share likenesses, commonality, through our humanity. We can beat the odds if we learn to respect our differences and acknowledge them in the continuum of our thoughts, beliefs, actions and feelings. Not a one of us is average or normal. We are who we are. And I love that about myself, about Ronald, about my daughters and about all the people who make their way into my life. It doesn’t mean there is no conflict, because I think humankind is destined for that, but it does mean that we can make room for a bigger concept of who we are, and maybe that will minimize some of the conflict we now experience.
(excerpt from Chapter 1 Who Bee’s You? Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)

I was unaware what the future would hold for us when we met freshman year at Syracuse University in January 1976, just back from Christmas break.  With new work-study hours to accommodate my new class schedule, I was working my first Friday, payday, at the Copy Center in Bird Library when Ronald walked in and stood at the counter.
He wore an over-sized green army jacket and a knit stocking cap with a long tail. A girl’s fuzzy pink mitten covered his right hand only to the bottom joint of his thumb.  In that hand he carried a large, black leather artist’s portfolio. He kept his other hand pocketed against the sub-zero temperature outside. His large deep brown eyes, the corners creased with interest and humor, roamed up and down me as I approached the counter.
“May I help you?” I inquired, clasping my hands and placing them on the counter in front of me, my eyes meeting his.
“I want money,” he said, and he smiled like he had just eaten something indescribably delicious, his teeth gleaming in contrast to his skin.
I turned to my supervisor Maxine and called her name. Maxine, man-sized with a perfectly coifed Afro that made her yet another six or seven inches taller, looked up from the microform reader/printer she was operating and said, “Ronnie, leave that girl alone. She’s too good for you.”
“Okay,” he said, shrugging, his smile mischievous, “I just came in for my check.”
“Oh, okay, what’s your name?” I asked as I turned to the register to pull out his check. I pressed the “no sale” button.
“Ronnie Hagan or ‘The Ron’.  Who bees you?” he said, smiling at his own joke.
“Dianne,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, nodding in recognition, “the Dianne with two ‘n’s’. I’ve seen your time card.”
I pulled his check from the pile and handed it to him. A thought entered my mind at that moment as I looked at his eyes, his smile, and his ungloved hand now released from his pocket, soft and clean, with long graceful fingers: This is the man I’m going to marry.  It made me smile and remember that Ma warned me repeatedly to never marry an Italian like Dad, and Ronald Hagan was not Italian; he was Afro-American.
“Your eyes make my heart skip beats,” he said. 
I want to imagine what Ronald saw when he looked at me back then, and I wish he could still see me that way. I pull out the old photos, many of which Ronald took of me during college for his photography classes. My eyes are the focal point of most of them and draw me into each photo, and I can see the loving way he looked at me through the camera lens and the way I looked back at him. The discovery is both surprising and amusing as I flip through one photo after the other.  My eyes are large and round, with long dark lashes and high dark brows over them. I look distinctly Italian after my father, despite my amber eyes and my fine, straight, dark hair, but I have the porcelain skin, clear and unblemished, of my Irish mother. In several photos taken during the warm months, tiny, nearly invisible freckles sprinkle my nose and cheeks.
The contrast between my dark hair and pale skin caused Ronald to skip afternoon classes, he told me later. He had heard about porcelain skin, he said, but never understood what it really looked like until he saw me.
The day I met Ronald Hagan, The Ron, I wore a rust colored gauze shirt, purposely shrunk in the dryer so it became form-fitted to my slender torso; the buttons open from the collar to just below my breasts, a tube top peeking out the opening.  I wore denim hip-hugger bellbottoms that fit snugly over my hips, buttocks and thighs. The bells covered my platform clogs completely and were so long the bottoms were frayed and worn. 
I did not know back then that I was alluring. I know now when I study the old photos; or when Cara and Mackenzie look at the photos and tell me how beautiful I am; or when I look at Cara and Mackenzie and see younger versions of myself and think how beautiful they are; or when Ronald, his arms drawing me into an embrace, says, “You look very Dianne today.”  That is when I know he can still see me the way I was back then, not the Dianne who is aging with crepe lines framing my round eyes and stretch marks and permanent freckles marring the once flawless skin.
I understood in a rational way back then that I attracted male attention – in fact a fellow student had only told me a few days before I met Ronald, perhaps as an unsuccessful ploy to get into my pants, that I exuded a certain “delicious sensuality,” but for me, the allure was just dress up and role-play. 
I still see the lonely child when I look in the mirror: dirty, hair knotted, sad eyes, and dressed in hand-me-downs. I did not know then that Ronald saw his own sad image when he looked at me the day we met. His smile and laughing eyes belied his thoughts.

I display photographs in a digital photo frame. There is a picture of me when I am about eight standing in the center of our cluttered parlor: a birdcage to my left; the buffet directly behind me stacked with magazines, two table lamps on either end, handed down to us by neighbors, with seagull silhouettes on both their shades and bodies, and red tapered candles right beside them as if we had lovely formal dinners awaiting us; my youngest brother’s portrait hangs above the buffet; a photo album open to a page of black and white photos lays to one side; the hand and pink jumper of the blond, blue-eyed baby doll given to me that Christmas lying on top of other items. The dolls never looked like me.
Dark, straight hair touches the tops of my shoulders and turns this way and that, the bangs mussed across my forehead. My nose overshadows my pointy chin and two large front teeth fill my tiny, downturned mouth. My eyes are too large for my face, sit in dark crevasses, and stare tentatively at the camera, pleading acceptance.
My skin nearly matches the white sweater I wear. The sweater is crumpled, the sleeves too long, but it is buttoned perfectly from top to bottom, something I find surprising, because I remember many occasions catching my buttons mismatched after I had already arrived at school and my peers had taken notice. I can only see a slash of navy beneath the sweater, but I remember that it is a navy pleated skirt that never lost its shape, and for this I am thankful, as my clothes were never ironed until I began ironing them myself at age nine. I can only see the tops of my hands but they are clasped in front of my skirt.
This is the child I recall – the one who is burdened with the possibility that she may get lost in the clutter and no one will come look for her.
There is another photo taken when I was four. I stand in front of the Christmas tree in a dress with a black velvet top, a lacy empire waist, and a white chiffon skirt, covered with black and white velvet spots, falling well above my knees. My skin is vibrant as I stand bare-armed and bare-legged, my right knee turned in and pushed straight while my left leg bends slightly, all in an effort to stay standing in my black high-heeled shoes with elastic straps. My arms hang at my sides, my hands hidden in the flounces of the skirt, my left one holding the strap of a small white purse. My hair is short, a pixie cut; the only way Ma could keep the knots out of it. I face the camera squarely: my eyebrows are raised in disbelief, my eyes are defiant, and my mouth is wide open, screaming for attention.
This is the child who will not allow anyone to forget her or wrong her. This is the child who, even when dressed in fancy duds, gets ugly if she has to. Though my overall temperament is shy and quiet, I have relied on her often in the years since Ronald and I met whenever I had to fight for my right to love him. And now, at this time in our lives when our stories are no longer protecting us, this fierce little girl rises within me.

Ronald saw me through artistic eyes the day we met. Years later he told me he used to comfort himself by drawing the shape of my eyes over and over or visualizing my slender fingers with long oval nails or the perfect clarity of my skin.
He stayed the afternoon at the Copy Center, standing on the other side of the counter, talking, staring at me, my shyness making me blush under his stare. He told me he had watched my time card last semester, I imagine looking for clues, and was attracted to my handwriting. He said it was visually interesting like hieroglyphics, my letters printed but looking like symbols instead of actual letters.
            “How do you say your last name?” he asked.
            “Lee-YUT-zee,” I pronounced carefully.
            “And how do you spell it?”
            “That’s a nice name. You ought to put it on a t-shirt.”
            I had never been told that before. Mostly I spent a lot of time spelling my last name over and over and correcting the pronunciation of it. But within a month of meeting The Ron, he had bought me a black, fitted t-shirt with Liuzzi printed in rainbow colored capital letters across my chest.
Maxine intervened every once in a while with her own opinions. “Ronnie, I told you she’s too good for you. Go to class.”
Maybe her words were meant as a warning. Maybe her reaction was the first instance of someone wanting our relationship to break apart before it even started. Maybe she knew what I did not know back then, perhaps because I had been too young or because, in a child’s eyes, it did not seem to have the same significance as the Civil Rights Act of 1964: nine years before I met Ronald, in June 1967, the Supreme Court had struck down anti-miscegenation laws in a landmark case, Loving vs. Virginia. The decision caused fifteen other states to remove similar laws from their books. Two states, South Carolina and Alabama, kept laws banning interracial marriage up until 1998 and 2000, respectively. In spite of the Supreme Court decision, many people still believed interracial marriage was an abomination. I would come to hate the expression “birds of a feather flock together” because I would hear it in the coming years as the reason why interracial relationships were wrong.
But on the day I met Ronald, I did not know the Supreme Court had intervened on behalf of an interracial couple, arrested while asleep in their bed in Virginia, nor had I ever heard the expression about birds used as a justification for racist beliefs.
Besides I could see Maxine was fond of Ronald, the way she lowered her head and looked up at him, like she was a much smaller and younger woman. She had fallen for his charm and flirtations, too.
I liked Ronald – he was after all the man I would marry – and I gave him the phone number to the campus only phone at the end of the hall on my dorm floor.