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.