a short story of a southern family trying to escape their roots.
The sadness became me. I could wear it draped across my body as one wore a warm terry cloth robe. It hugged in just the right places and obscured the areas no one wanted to see. It cushioned the bruised areas I no longer wanted to feel. The difficulty arose when I finally felt the need to remove it. It had to be done in sections. First, I had to remove the belt of shame, then part the blanket of guilt and pull my arms from the leaden sleeves of complicity. Each step hurt and each was replaced by an anger I ultimately hurled against the mirrored wall of my bedroom in the form of a worthless family heirloom. The crashing glass, which took mere moments to cease, filled me with an emotional release I hadn’t felt since childhood.
As I think about it now, the choice of the lamp wasn’t accidental or merely serendipitous. It was too perfect for that. My mom had insisted I take that lamp as a constant reminder of her, and it was. Now it was shattered on the floor, mixed with the glass from the mirror, and all reflecting an uncomfortable reality buried in my past.
I should go back to the beginning. I was born into that obsolete society of southern aristocracy; a euphemistic name for former plantation owners who had managed to hold onto some wealth when our slave-driven community lay destroyed after the Civil War amid the absence of slaves who had fled north. Ultimately it lay in ashes after the Civil Rights Movement freed the rest, then freed everybody else. The only people left enslaved in the south were White small-minded people like my mother, and consequently my sister and me.
If you asked my mom, she would say she moved us north so my sister and I could have a better life. The real reason is that my mom refused to accept that her much older husband had an entire second family on the other side of town headed by a Black woman and two mulatto sons who were married and had children of their own; children the same ages as my sister and myself. They were destined to inherit everything she felt rightfully belonged to her.
The circumstances surrounding my father’s untimely death are surely known to a few. Fortunately or not, I’m not one of them. In any case, soon after his funeral and the reading of the will, his business, the house and all its contents were auctioned off for an undisclosed amount and we were off to New York, of all places. We couldn’t even take our help with us. Not that any of them wanted to work for my mother in the absence of my tempering father. She wasn’t particularly nice when he wasn’t around and life revolving around her calendar was particularly challenging.
My mother, in her bid to squeeze every penny, moved us into a fourth floor walk-up on the lower East Side; a neighborhood filled to the brim with people we weren’t allowed to know or associate with. Quite a fall for southern aristocracy, but a widowed southern white woman could only do so much in the north, especially if she didn’t have any skills beyond throwing elaborate parties. Who knew she would create a thriving business from that and then move us to the Upper East Side? Mom swears she knew, but I’m not so sure. I caught her occasionally returning the attentions of admiring prospective suitors who were clearly and obviously married to the women on their arms.
I was young and the true beauty of youth, besides the ability to “go with the flow” was an equally attractive ability to forget. I’d soon made a whole bevy of friends and couldn’t imagine life other than as it was then. My sister Pearl, who was 2 years older, had a harder time, few friends, and few emotions other than grumpy and ill-tempered. Her disposition didn’t change appreciably until after she’d been mandated to attend one of my mother’s elaborate springtime events. She came back completely changed. I even heard her giggle, in spite of herself. She was embarrassingly infatuated with some boy she had met. I was just glad that dark cloud had lifted. She’d truly sucked all joy from the environment before that.
Imagine my surprise when I met this boy upon my return from school one day. I had been out of the south a few years, but even I knew a boy with black blood in him when I saw him. Pearl and my mom were obviously unaware, as this was a young man we weren’t supposed to associate with, and yet, here he was invited into the parlor. I snickered and very shyly said hello to Antoine as I hurried up to my room. When I came back down, he was gone, and my sister and mother were discussing him in earnest; how wealthy his southern family was, when they’d moved up north, and on and on it went.
About a year later, I came home and found a nervous Antoine sitting alone in the parlor. His parents were in the study with my mother and Pearl was apparently detained on some errand of great importance. I felt obliged to keep Antoine amused, after all, I was southern, and we lived for obligation. It didn’t take much effort and soon, he and I talked like old friends. I actually felt a quick fondness for him, more akin to a sibling than a mere acquaintance. When our parents came out of the parlor, they found Antoine and me laughing to the point of tears. We hadn’t noticed my sister at all. She stood right inside the door and had that old familiar ill-tempered expression. I saw it, though she quickly caught herself and returned to the “happy” face.
For my fourteenth birthday, my mom threw me a birthday party. In reality, she threw a party to further display her party skills and I was invited as the guest of honor. I got to invite some of my best friends, so naturally we were on display as well. We had our obligatory “dates” but most of the time, it was just “us girls” on one wall and “the boys” clustered on the other.
An hour or so into the party, the parents withdrew to another space, and the real party began, ushered in with a dramatic change in the music. All of a sudden, it was dance time and I was being asked to dance, by Antoine. It was so much fun. I didn’t even know he could dance, but we literally spent the rest of the evening dancing and laughing. I wanted to learn every single dance step and so did my friends. Even the boys joined in. It turned into the best party, ever! As the evening ended, I made Antoine promise to tell me where he learned all those dances.
The day after my party, my girlfriend Shirl needed an alibi escort to the library to study. Apparently, she’d been caught with evidence of an alternate locale seemingly permanently tattooed to her neck and she was no longer allowed to go out alone. Since I was a straight A student with a respectable mother, I was an acceptable escort. Our plan was to study together for an hour, then Shirl could go and do what she needed to do and come back to get me. I would give her a plausible run-down of what happened during her absence; namely what did happen during my solo hour at the library. It’s easier to lie when there’s an element of truth involved. We were barely into our hour when her boyfriend arrived with his escort; his older brother Antoine. Apparently, I wasn’t to spend that hour alone after all.
Antoine and I laughed with knowing smiles as they left, shaking our heads side to side. I reminded Antoine of his promise and saw a return of that nervous young man I’d first met in our parlor over a year ago. As he began to talk and see that I didn’t run screaming from the library, I saw him visibly relax. This was the beginning of our life-long friendship.
In the dead of winter, my mom looked at her calendar and announced the engagement of Pearl and Antoine, with a planned wedding in June; since there was serious planning to do. Pearl looked around the room expectantly and Antoine looked at me. I’m not sure if I detected horror or surprise on his face, maybe both.
Their wedding was to be the event of the summer and there was a lot of competition. I ran over to congratulate Pearl and Antoine and hugged both of them intently. Doing something helped to quell the anxiety rising in my chest. My face absolutely ached from smiling, but I’m a southern girl, and that’s what we do. We also stop seeing our sister’s fiancé for weekly chats at the library. I felt I’d lost a friend, but I was determined to see it through. Seeing him would appear unseemly. I whispered in Antoine’s ear that I treasured our friendship and Pearl whispered in my ear, “Don’t ruin this for me.” The “ill-tempered one” flashed across her face, repelling me a few feet. I withdrew into the background as well-wishers approached. My mother stood watching this with the oddest look on her face. It was the same smug look she had when she announced my Dad’s other family. I didn’t realize I still remembered it.
Two nights before their wedding, my sister had her formal bachelorette party. I went, of course. I was looking forward to the wedding and the end of this horrible chapter in between formal engagement and marriage. There was so much going on and I never felt more alone. I stole a bottle of champagne and escaped to the kitchen in back of the banquet hall to have a glass. I planned on a single glass knowing that my tenuous reality required constant attention to detail and focus. Being the daughter of a party host, I easily opened the bottle without spilling a single drop and had just found a box to sit on when the door opened and in walked Antoine. He wasn’t drunk, but he’d had more than one drink. He wasn’t even supposed to be here and I couldn’t begin to figure out how he’d gotten in and found me.
He looked so distraught that all I could do was hug him. He told me he had just told his parents that he couldn’t marry Pearl. He’d also told them why. They canceled his cancellation and told him the marriage would proceed as planned; end of discussion. He’d stormed out to find me; the only person he could talk to. I don’t know how long we’d been talking, but it was obviously too long. The door opened and we were discovered, fully dressed and fully decent, but the look on my mom’s face said everything. It was a scandal. She ordered the few people in attendance out of the kitchen and announced full-throated that the wedding was off. Antoine tried to say that nothing had happened, but my mom wouldn’t here it and started to claw at his face, screaming all men were alike. Antoine broke free and ran from the kitchen, taking one last look apologetically at me. I told him I was fine, but I dreaded the coming onslaught.
As it started, I suddenly had such clarity. I told my mom to shut up. I told her to announce that she discovered Antoine was part Black and she couldn’t have her daughter marrying someone like that. No one had to know her real reasons. No one really cared. She was stunned. I brushed past her and my speechless older sister, secure in the thought that being known as a racist was an easier lie for my mother than trying to sell a future son-in-law carrying on with the sixteen year old younger sister of the bride-to-be.
The next day, I heard that Antoine was being shipped off to a military academy and his parents were busy denying rumors of mixed marriages and the like. His dad had pulled some strings and got Antoine admitted to the upcoming July class. He was visiting his grandparents in the south for the rest of the month.
Pearl returned to being the ill-tempered one and I just stayed in my room. Rather than being a new bride, my sister went to an all girls’ college in the fall and rarely returned home. I occasionally got letters from Antoine through our mutual friend Shirl. They were the highlight of my day. I’d send letters through his brother and was amazed how quickly the two years passed. I graduated class valedictorian and gleefully I was off to college in California.
My sister got married rather than graduate from college. She married some horrible man and sent my mom a postcard from the Jersey shore during their honeymoon. I think that was the first time he beat her. She’d end up in the hospital several times a year; generally once for a delivery and the other times to cast fractures. He ended up dying three years later following an altercation with a state trooper when stopped for a busted tail-light. He was also drunk. My sister and their three kids were in the car. His death probably saved their lives, but you couldn’t tell my sister that now that she was the widow of a saint. My mom told her as much; not that she could ever hold her tongue. Mom was told not to return to New Jersey.
During my freshman year at Stanford where I was a dance major, I was casually walking around Palo Alto when, out of nowhere, I ran into Antoine. He was visiting Jason, a friend who went to Stanford Law. It didn’t take a genius to see they were more than friends. The other shoe had finally fallen and I was so happy for him. The three of us hung out together the whole week he was there. We promised to keep in touch.
During one of my obligatory Christmas breaks in New York during my junior year, my sister drove over with the kids. Mom wasn’t doing so well and we weren’t sure if this was one of her last Christmases, so we tried to occupy the same residence for a few days. My sister and I tried to steer clear of one another and probably would have succeeded if not for the children. In spite of her coldness, the children were adorable and incredibly affectionate. My sister was fine with the two girls, but the older boy was obviously not treated the same. I believe he looked like his dad, Jack senior. Pearl was really hard on him and dismissive of his need for affection or attention. Annoyingly to her, he turned to my mom and me. My mom had always wanted a boy, and me, well I just have this weakness for them. This little boy was like low calorie pudding to me. We were together the whole time.
A day or so after Christmas, I was coming out of my room and saw my sister at the top of the stairs shaking little Jack and then slapping him across the face. I was stunned and yelled at her to stop, as I rushed toward them. As I leaned over to pick Jack up, Pearl pushed me away. I went tumbling down the steps, with little Jack following closely behind me. Luckily the stairs were curved and carpeted. I sustained a hairline fracture of my leg, but Jack was left unscathed as he crashed quite simply into me; a little human softness.
My mom took control. I actually witnessed her coming back to life as she called an ambulance to pick me up while at the same time telling me what I would say, and what I wouldn’t. I looked at my sister, but instead of seeing remorse and possibly fear, all I saw was disappointment. I think she truly wanted me injured or, more hopefully, dead. She didn’t even look over at her son. The poor little boy was horrified as he looked at my now swollen leg. I motioned him over and pulled him up to my face, telling him I would be fine, and this was an accident. I told him I was so glad he wasn’t hurt and hugged him close to me.
Then I took over. I told my Mom I would go along, but only if she took care of Jack. It was probably the second time I ever saw tears in my mom’s eyes. My sister tried to object, but she was silenced by a mere look from Mom. Pearlie, the matriarch, would be keeping Jack, and if my sister protested another word, she’d take the girls too. Then she looked back at me. It was as though we saw one another for the first time.
The break wasn’t too bad, but it did end dance as a future career. When I got back to college, I changed my major to pre-law. Someone had to defend those who couldn’t defend themselves. Who knew my first big client would be my sister who now lived in Atlanta and was accused of murdering her wealthy, abusive, and philandering husband, by of all things, pushing him down the stairs? His children by his first wife were witnesses against her. She’d confessed the whole thing to me and I’m sure she felt justified. I just had to prove it wasn't all her fault, even if it meant putting her entire life on trial.