Families pass down genetic traits, and some pass down professions. I imagine through careful teaching moments meant to infuse practical skills and activate generational talents. I can count on two hands the amount of times I saw my white Grandmother, Pauline, at the small but impressive wood cabin she and her husband built for their home. I remember the musty smell of old books and the always flat Pepsi me and my brother drank out of learned politeness. It was there I fell in love with nature as we understand it to be, open fields and hidden sand dunes just beyond the tall pines in her backyard. I remember the year swarms of ladybugs covered the windowsills and trying to explain to my Grandmother with a child’s vocabulary how I didn’t want white Barbie’s not only for their alien features, but more because the blonde hair tangled faster. I remember my Mom interrupting my displeasure with one of her famous looks.
I recently moved from my apartment in downtown Detroit to my Mom’s townhouse in Ann Arbor, MI. COVID-19 disrupted my plans to move into a new place, sure, but I also try to limit making decisions without feeling sure of why I’m doing what I’m doing, and to what end. Besides, she’s strangely thrilled to have me back home and it’s too early to blame menopause.
Me and my nearly identical sister spent yesterday rearranging things in the basement so I could have an area all my own. That’s a talent she has which we certainly do not share – while I’ve always been interested in interior design, she got all the skills. I’m not mad about it!
You don’t rearrange things in Mom’s basement without rambling a little bit, and now all of her children are old enough for this to be a non-punishable offense. I found a bra from Frederick’s of Hollywood in one box (size 40F) and put it on over my shirt to test this theory – my Mom was rather amused that I am almost big enough to fit the bras she wore in 1997!
We also found one of my paternal Grandmother’s articles that she wrote for the local newspaper in Saugatuck, MI. She had a weekly column named “Goshorn Meanderings” where she mused about the animals and plants surrounding her cabin, as well as happenings in the community. She talks about squirrels stealing her green walnuts, saying “no” to chemo when she was diagnosed with cancer, and the rest of her ageing friends who are making necessary lifestyle changes to “make the most out of the time that is left”. Ironically, my maternal Grandmother just got her hip replaced and isn’t as accepting of change.
There aren’t similarities in our writing style, but it is remarkable to me that we both write. I remember a stationary set she gave me and to this day, I still adore nice stationary, Kate Spade journals, mini notebooks for my purse, fountain pens, and colored pens. In a memory box, I found a postcard from her where she drew birdhouses all over the blank page. I don’t recall loving birdhouses, but my name is also the name of a common lark. She had a lovely fireplace and used to give me coated pine cones which changed the color of the flames. I know that she loved me.
For a very long time, I avoided incorporating my paternal family into my identity, yes, because they are white. The last conversation I had with my non-achieving, mentally-ill Father ended the possibility of us ever having a relationship since he refuses to get professional help and thus improve the condition of his life. The last time I saw my Grandmother, she was in a hospital bed and I didn’t want to go in the room to say goodbye. I was 7. Death wasn’t something I wanted to understand at the time, so I didn’t. At the funeral, I didn’t cry. But my maternal Grandma has pushed for me to hyphenate my last name with my Father’s to honor his Mother’s memory.
Part of me wishes we had more time together. I know other young Black people with white family members and the closer relationships they had with them, the less tortured they seem to be by their own identities. I wouldn’t exactly say that’s how I feel about my own identity. I don’t feel tortured by having a Black Mom and a white dad. It does make things a bit complicated for other people. It also makes me wonder what kind of life advice she would give to me as I am today.
When I see the “mixed” identity pages describing mixed identity as a sign of better times, I always comment to the contrary. To me, it’s still a dangerous narrative. 40% of recorded coronavirus deaths are among Black people. We only recently have respite from images of murdered Black bodies in the streets. Media coverage of Black people still borders the stereotypical. A French doctor recently apologized for suggesting that we test coronavirus vaccines in African countries. There are still self-hating Black men on social media degrading Black women for entertainment while praising their white female partners. I have yet to see an increase in racial equality correspondent to the increase in children of interracial partnerships. When it comes to how “mixed” identities understand wholeness, I am trying to let people be.
But for now, I’ll continue to poke around and see how much of my Grandma Pauline I can find in these old boxes. I’ll continue to write, as she did. Maybe even one day, when I’m old and awaiting eternal peace, I’ll have my own column that my Granddaughters will find randomly on the internet. Maybe they’ll wonder who I was, maybe I’ll write enough so they don’t have to wonder and can instead find a little home between the lines I leave behind.