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.