Ah, the northeast in March – warm, rainy, cold, snowy, sunny, breezy, dank, and howling – all within a couple of days. I could hardly keep up: umbrella, mittens, boots, no coat, or wool coat. My brain ping-pongs like that, too, and I wonder if I am a product of my environment, having lived my first fifty years there. But then rolling my suitcase out to the sidewalk last night, to wait for Ronald to pull up in the car, reminded me how much I like the steady warmth that sits under the air in North Carolina. I like the birds, too, red and blue, rust and fawn, gray and black, their songs and movement, flitting or riding the wind currents, marking my days at the computer as I work next to the window where I have a good view. I found myself comparing them to the raggedy but persistent grackles that drifted and dove through wet, lake effect snow and nested in the steam plant pipes across from my office window in the north. Or perhaps it is the difference in the blue of the sky, one with a purple undertone, the other pure cyan.
I’ve always enjoyed my windows: plates of glass that allow me to experience the world while remaining safe behind them. I remember watching the most spectacular storms rolling in from the northwest through my office window, the lightening cutting the sky in jagged, leviathan flashes. I’d sit mesmerized, and then I’d burst into applause, as if nature were putting on a performance just for me. Sometimes I showed my appreciation with a standing ovation. Here the storms are just as interesting but different. Each rain front moves through like an army of millions, an epic deluge that beats the earth into torrents of red water that rush and choke the storm sewers. The fronts pass quickly and the next follows after a brief respite, then all is warmed and dried by the sun. Sometimes I wonder if I just had a dream, because there is no sign of the rain that just passed through, not even wet pavement.
I experience life as if looking through a window as well. I like to see it like a parade marching down Main, and I can hear its drone through the safe glass. Or I watch it through another’s eyes: Ronald’s or Cara’s or Mackenzie’s. They seem braver than I but I know they don’t always feel that way.
Then life shatters my window, and I find myself right in the muddle, no longer protected, and I’m okay about it. That’s the good thing, I suppose. I’m not as fearful as I think I am or want to believe I am. I’ve got that perseverance I worked hard to instill in Cara and Mackenzie, the thing that got me through watching my mother disintegrate into alcoholism and my father lose his Italian bravado. It’s gotten me through the times that startled my sensibilities, like when people threatened harm to my family or me, because we are interracial. It’s helping me through the aging process, a witness to my own decline, my husband’s, and my in-laws’. It even helped when I lost the chance to watch my parents grow old, because they died too soon.
Life is about what there is and what there isn’t and accepting that the two exist in tandem and in everything. One can’t know happiness without experiencing sadness or peace without chaos. Let it be.
(Excerpt from Chapter 3 Guinea Bastard, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Then the deli closed unexpectedly. One day Ma was working and the next day the doors were locked. Maybe the businessmen felt they weren’t turning a large enough profit to continue the venture. But it left Ma swirling in loneliness after all the attention and bitter about returning to life in the house, her world shrinking around her. She started drinking again, more than ever.
I began to sleep less, listening to see if she had turned the TV off before the station had signed off for the night. I listened for her snoring so I could locate her whereabouts – either she was sleeping in her chair, her snores and Dad’s playing in cacophonous stereo, or she was in bed with Dad, their snores melded into an eerie rumble.
I paced my bedroom floor, back and forth for hours, over and over, rhythmic and monotonous, staring trancelike. Or I sat cross-legged in front of the stereo Rocco and I bought with Christmas money – the cheapest one we could find – and rocked back and forth, back and forth, again in a trance-like repose, while the same song played over and over. During these years I was stricken with terrible canker sores running the length of my gums, top and bottom, or along the fleshy part of my mouth, large white ulcers on pink flesh. They were so painful, I nearly lost consciousness, feeling that moment of loss of control and the weightlessness caused by the drop in blood pressure, when one was touched with a piece of food, or my tongue, or scraped against my teeth.
I often got up at 4:30 a.m. to do my homework as sometimes the fighting between Ma and Dad lasted the evening and was so disruptive that all I wanted to do was read a book or watch TV and stuff myself full of chips and chocolate. Walking out to the darkened parlor before sunrise, I would count how many beer bottles cluttered the table and be able to tell if Ma would hear the whistle of the tea kettle Frank put on the stove before he left for college classes, like an alarm clock to wake her up, or if she would just turn over, more than once letting the bottom of the kettle burn out over the flame. I would shake her and get her up and try to get out the door on time.
Dad worked more and more overtime. We needed the money, but I believe he also wanted to get out of the house. He worked double shifts, or came home from work, ate dinner, slept for a few hours and got up to do the graveyard shift. His face was lined and weary. Ma accused him of having an affair because he was always gone. One day he came home with a band-aid on his forehead and said he got into a fight with one of the other guys. “Mafioso,” he called the bunch of them and said, “They only help each other get ahead.” I wonder if he felt ostracized by his Italian-American co-workers because he had married Ma.
That night Ma started in after dinner. She yelled over the running water in the kitchen sink to Dad in the parlor reading the paper. “Goddamned little, beady, brown-eyed Guinea bastard,” she said. “Your ignorant mother moved her bowels, didn’t know any better, slapped a bonnet on it, and named it Francesco!”
Dad shook the sports section he held up in two hands and kept on reading. When he didn’t respond, Ma continued.
“You have a woman on the side, don’t you? You don’t care about me. I’m fat and old,” she said. Then she threw one of her precious bone china cups across the kitchen and it smashed against the cellar door. I knew that in short order Dad would explode with anger and frustration. I headed to my bedroom and turned on my transistor radio. I sat on the floor, my legs folded under me, and rocked back and forth, my eyes staring straight ahead, my mind pulling me to daydreams far from home.
The daydreams had me dressed in glittery gowns on the red carpet outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater with crowds of adoring fans asking for autographs. Men lined up to ask for my hand, leaning toward me like the men on the front covers of Ma’s romance novels. Sometimes I saved the town by dragging large dinosaur bones (amazingly still in one piece in the large, hulking shape of the T-Rex) into the town square where the attention of the media and tourists stopped the town from closing down and blowing away in the dessert dust.
Dad reached ignition. “Jesus H. Christ! “ he yelled, and I knew he had thrown the paper to the floor and jumped on it.
“Can’t a man sit down and enjoy his paper after a day’s work? I can’t afford to have a goddamned woman on the side,” he said.
“Your eyes are brown because you’re full of shit! My mother warned me the first time she saw you sucking raw eggs on her front porch. You’re a barbarian. Your children are barbarians. All Italians are barbarians. I left my mother for this!”
“There’s no rest for the wicked,” Dad said, “I work hard. I put food on the table. The house is a mess. You’re all a bunch of prima donnas.”
“Nothing works! I burn my hands at the sink every time I wash dishes.”
“I ought to get a room at the Y and get some peace and quiet,” Dad said.
“I’ve bloody well had it. I’m going to kill myself; I’m going to slit my wrists,” Ma screamed, and I heard the bathroom door slam shut and the lock click. It was not the first time she had said this, nor the last, but each time felt fresh and raw. I raced out of my bedroom to the bathroom door. Andy had beaten me there. We banged on the door. We were both crying.
“Please, Ma, don’t do it!” we screamed in seeming unison. My fists ached from hitting the door over and over and my breath was ragged with terror.
I could hear her jagged sobs. Soon the door opened and she pushed past us into her bedroom. She took a suitcase out of the closet, put it on the bed, threw a few housedresses into it, then slammed the lid shut and lifted it by the handle.
“I’m leaving,” she announced, brushing past us again.
“No, Ma, please,” I wailed, “I’ll try harder to be good.”
Andy grabbed the hem of her housedress, but Ma pressed on. She went out the front door, and we watched her walk down the driveway and out into the street.
Dad went into their bedroom. He shut the door, and Andy and I were without parents at that moment. Suddenly I felt flat and tired. I turned without a word, went into my bedroom and shut my door.