I was born in Kentucky on an unusually warm November 16th. When my mother discovered she was pregnant she left Ohio to live with her sister in Berea, and didn’t tell her parents why – she didn’t tell my father either. The weekend of Valentine’s Day 1971, she went out dancing with a friend. In the glitzy Dayton hotel lounge a band called Sounds of Love played Classic Rock. My father was the bassist – a friendly Southerner my mother got to know and said goodbye to all in one night. After their brief intimacy she doubted she would ever see him again. Sometimes I’m angry she never told my father about me, but life is complicated – and my story is just one in generations of disjointed family.
My mother was born in Caracas in 1949, two months after a military coup gave birth to brutal dictatorship in Venezuela. They lived next to my grandfather’s sister, whose home held secret meetings, and a fake wall where written evidence of their political opposition was hidden. She recruited my grandfather, a barber at the time, to give haircuts to friends in hiding. Though the children didn’t know it, all their lives were at risk, and this was the pervading tension coursing through the adults that raised them.
My mother still remembers all the neighbors of their little enclosed backstreet barrio; the weirdo they knew to avoid, the Portuguese family who left one dictatorship for another – my mother adored the doting matriarch who always spoke in her native tongue. But sadly, only a single memory of her own mother remains; and in it, she was arguing with my grandfather in the dining room at her own birthday party.
I have a photo of my mother as a little girl at my grandfather’s second marriage. She is a fragile looking little thing, surrounded by a crowd of jubilant people. Her wiry black curls are slicked back and topped with a big floppy bow. Skinny brown arms contrast with her shiny white satin dress, and in her hands is a little bouquet of flowers. She stands solemnly behind her father, whose face is animated. His arm links him to his new wife – the American missionary now charged with the six children whose mother left. My mom isn’t smiling – she looks overwhelmed. Her eyes are of one who’s mother has vanished, and whose father looms large.
When my grandfather and the woman I grew up knowing as Grandma decided to leave Venezuela, the country was in shambles along with the crumbled dictatorship. They thought it best to raise the children in the prosperous United States. My mother and siblings were torn from the place of their ancestors, and deposited in a rural Ohio farm town. They were the only dark skinned people there in 1958. They also left behind a mother who unbeknownst to them, pined for her children even as she gave birth to seven more.
I learned that just like me, my grandmother’s father, Leopoldo, was born out of wedlock. The story is that he was the nephew of Venezuela’s most famous painter, Arturo Michelena. It’s a sad tale despite my family’s pride in our celebrated ancestor. Leopoldo was raised by another family because his father was Michelena’s adulterous brother. His mother was a black “servant”. I’ve often wondered about her, and wish I knew her name. In my imagination she’s a young and beautiful plantation worker, back when Venezuela was mostly jungle. Was she a willing participant in her child’s conception? Was she given the choice to keep him? We’ll never know.
I think of that distant grandmother as I conjure an image of my mother, age 19, and pregnant with my older brother. I loved my grandfather. Antonio Ines – the kind of man who wouldn’t dare be seen in the same suit two weeks in a row at church – he was prideful. He was also product of a time when there was only one acceptable kind of family. His own divorce was a mortifying scandal, so with one scar already on his reputation, and under the influence of his minister, reaction to my mother’s pregnancy was unforgiving.
Adoption protocol in 1969 was to take the baby away immediately, but my mother cried so much the kind hearted nurse let her hold him for a few minutes, and gave her a photo. Six weeks later she sat alone on a hard bench outside a courtroom. When her name was called she walked in, stood before the judge, and gave up her legal rights as a mother.
She never talked about my brother growing up. The first time I heard about the day he was born, we were sitting in the thinly padded seats of the airport lobby, waiting impatiently to meet him for the first time. She didn’t cry as she described the heart wrenching moment he was taken from her – she was too excited about the imminent reunion – but my throat clenches every time I think about her in that lonely, sterile hospital room, watching helplessly as her tiny baby is carried away. It traumatized her. By the time I came along, she did what she needed for herself. I can’t blame her for that… but sometimes, I do.