Far Apple, Part 5 – Brick Wall

A bare bulb illuminated the dark corner of my mother’s basement where leftovers from my childhood were kept. I dug through the stacked boxes of old toys I could never bear to get rid of, baby clothes my mother had saved, and tacky art projects from years of public school. Heat from the furnace warmed the smell of cement and dryer lint, almost masking the faint scent of my step-father’s cigarettes. I pulled what I needed from the stacks and turned off the bulb overhead, leaving only the soft light that came through a tiny ground level window. Palms grimy with dust, I hefted two boxes of photos up the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the living room.

My mother cozied on the love seat next to me as one by one I opened each tattered envelope, exposing the memories to daylight. She oohed and aahed over the still glossy baby pictures of my much younger sister, cooed over the thicker, more faded ones of me.

Looking at old photos makes me emotional; a strange mix of sweet and sad, like longing to hug and kiss someone but only being able to see them distantly through a window. I resisted being drawn into the memories. I wasn’t there to reminisce. I was looking for the newspaper clipping my mother had given me long ago. Over a year of internet searches, staring at the screen until my eyes burned, had not revealed my father to me. If the name of the newspaper was on there, maybe I could find a record that would give more information.

I excavated to the bottom of both boxes and the piles of photos grew around me like a nest. No clipping. I looked underneath the folds of cardboard but there were only torn bits of paper and a dried out, flattened spider. I had kept that clipping since I was a child. So many times I had looked at the small, grainy image of my father and his bandmates – he was the tallest of the three. I had so little of him. My heart palpitated as I looked at the empty boxes and I felt a shaky, hollowness in my chest. I had lost the one thing that could have helped me find him.

The loss made me feel desperate so I turned on my mother. “Did he tell you anything about his family?” I asked, hoping for some forgotten detail that would advance my search. She paused just a moment to consider, and answered “No…” but I kept on.“What about his friends?” They were simple questions but the energy of my need to have them answered was heavy and she could feel it. Still holding photos, her hands dropped to her lap. Her body shifted subtly, weight moving from one hip to the other. She didn’t like talking about this part of her past.

“No… I’m sorry…” she said. “Do you know where he lived?” I kept prying her. “Anything…?” She looked nervous. Maybe she hoped for release from my questions that were pointed and searing. “I’m sorry sweetheart… It wasn’t love, it was the 70’s,” she said as if it explained everything. “I’m so sorry,” she said again, each apology more intent. She was apologizing for her lack of answers but also for the underlying accusation; How could you think I wouldn’t need a father?!

“It’s fine.” I said, but my voice was tight and hard. I wanted her to stop looking at me – to stop apologizing. I was too angry to deal with her need for forgiveness. I felt trapped and suffocated in the over-stuffed love seat. We were close enough to touch but I made sure we didn’t. Her need to release the tension, to connect with me, felt like an invasion. I was stonefaced, rage just below the surface. I could literally feel it radiating off my skin like a burning aura and it repelled her. “I’m so sorry,” she said again, but this time her voice was quiet and strained, almost saying it to herself, her face closing up as if she wanted to shrink and disappear. I had to get out of there. “It’s fine.” I snapped, and turned away to pile the photos back in their boxes. It was my only escape route.

Far Apple, Part 4 – The Kit

Kimbal pushed open the heavy wooden door of our favorite Indian restaurant. I walked in to see tables arranged end to end for my suprise birthday party – all empty. Everyone was late. Kimbal stood bewildered while I went straight to the buffet and poured a cup of Chai to hide my disappointment and insecurity. As friends and family began to trickle in with hugs and happy birthday wishes, I smiled, but inside I wanted to tell them they were assholes.

As mimosas were served, the party livened and my mood began to improve. Gifts were set between plates of Korma and Tikka Masala that soothed my inner smoulder. Kimbal leaned in between conversation that flowed around us and handed me an unwrapped, padded envolope. “The gift that keeps on giving” he clichéd purposefully. The return address was from a DNA testing company. I received a few other things; a vintage jacket, some antique books, fancy soap, but the DNA kit sat in my lap, hidden under the white tablecloth, and dominated my mood – now somewhere between pensive and curious.

I had often been asked why I never looked for my father. Kimbal nudged me about it early on in our relationship. He would talk about genealogy and DNA and I would bristle. It was a can of worms I didn’t want to open – adamant that I already had a family and didn’t need more. I was also afraid. My father, and the family I assumed he had, knew nothing of me. I didn’t want to be blamed for the hell I imagined would break loose if I found him. However, there is another reason for my reluctance; one so subtle I never even formed the thought completely until now.

Since childhood, my father had always appeared the same in my imagination. He was slightly skinny with a paunch and a comb-over and lived in a dated sub-division. At best, he had a boring family and job he had done for years after he stopped playing music. At worst, he was a burnt-out loser who lived by himself and drank in front of the TV when he wasn’t in bars. This is not who I wanted for a father. I don’t know why my mind created such an unflattering image of him, maybe because it was easier to reject something than to long for it. Or maybe I was just projecting the shame of not knowing who I was.

My grandfather Antonio was my father figure – it’s telling that I needed to assign the role to someone, but he was ideal. He played old school Salsa at family Christmas parties and taught me to dance. He took me on early morning walks in Tampa Bay, stopping by the Cuban bakery for coffee and bread where I listened to him banter in Spanish. He was wonderfully cosmopolitan and debonair – a talented artist and musician that I attributed my musical talent to.

I was proud of my mother’s side of the family and our interesting history. I clung to my Venezuelan roots because they were all I had – self conscious that I looked so different from my dark skinned family. I speak better Spanish than any of my cousins, I know more about our family history than anyone, but I am not Venezuelan. My known roots had been stretched and diluted since my mother came here in 1958.

In the solitude of home, I opened the DNA kit and placed the items in front of me like some kind of ritual ceremony. I was an initiate in a magic rite of passage, requesting ancient, hidden knowledge. I read the directions carefully. Afraid of doing it wrong, I counted the seconds as I scraped inside my cheeks with the plastic toothbrushy wands. I secretly hoped I was Scottish. I’ve always loved the music from that part of the world and what it became when they brought it here. There is something about the scratchy twang of Appalachian song that jogs some deep part of me.

I drove my sample to the post office, pulled open the creaking jaw of the mailbox, and dropped it in. I heard it land softly in the bed of letters below, ready for its journey. The jaw clanged shut as I let go. I tried to put it out of my mind, but as the weeks passed, it quietly needled me. The holidays came and went, then finally around mid-January, I received an email that my results were in. I typed my password, and clicked on the box that said “My Origins”. What I felt was deeper than curiosity or excitement. For the first time in my life, I was able to see who I was. The chart showed my supposed genetic make-up in percentages. I knew what came from my mother’s side; the African and Native American DNA undetectable in my olive, Italian-ish complexion. I found it interesting but not suprising. I was more curious about what I didn’t already know. The chart showed that 33% of my European DNA was in the British Isles (maybe there was some Scottish blood in there!) but there were other genetic populations that hadn’t occurred to me. Finnish? Vikings I supposed, but where did Ashknenazi and Iranian come from? It was fascinating and I was overcome with a deep sense of connection to history. I had 32 pages of DNA matches – people who had also taken the test and were my distant cousins. We were all the result of thousands of years of migration across continents, of civilizations built and destroyed; thousands of years of love stories, hate stories, survival.

I had taken the test only wanting to know my ethnicity, but something changed when I saw the long list of people I was genetically related to – they coaxed a curiosity I had supressed for years. I knew these English surnamed people must be on my father’s side. Campbell, Spradlin, Johnson, Davis, were all threads in a story I had never had access to. They were clues that could fill in my lopsided, half empty family tree.

For months, I scoured the information of my DNA cousins; searching for anything that might illuminate a path. My desire for answers grew more powerful as a new, uncontrived idea of myself began to emerge. I wondered what my name would have been if my father had raised me; what my life would have been like. As I looked into the family histories of my distant cousins, the unflattering image of my father faded away. Their middle-American stories were fascinating and I wanted to know mine.

Far Apple, Part 3 – Generations of Broken

 

  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.

Far Apple, Part 2 – 1970 Something

 

  Sunday parties at the home of Murf and Ellen were a gleeful summer escape. In my memory, theirs was a nearly endless property with an orchard and woods, but everything seems so much larger when you’re small. We children of the party-goers could disappear for hours. Sweaty and dirty we played under the heavy mid-western canopy thick with cricket drone, liberated from the eyes of parents having too much fun to bother with us.

Between the orchard and the backyard was a volleyball court and picnic area where hotdogs and burgers hissed on a brick hearth, and in-season corn roasted in the coals with the husk on until it blackened. Occasionally we’d get hungry enough to stop and stuff our faces with meat filled buns and buttery, sooty corn, and those moments when I lingered at the picnic table are the only times I would notice what the grown ups were doing. I hold flashes in my mind of them hanging around drinking cheap beer and talking; chubby middle-aged Ellen sitting in a folding chair under the electric bug zapper, black haired Henry telling a joke and my step-father who listened, always with a cigarette between his fingers and a slight squint that served as a smoke shield. Others I remember out on the volleyball court and I can still see the way my mother’s poofy, kinky hair, not quite an afro, would bounce all as one piece when she ran up to the net. This picture of her assertiveness and joy on the sandy court contrasts with the idea I’ve always held of her as someone much more timid.

I don’t remember interacting with the adults much, only this one time that’s etched in my memory. Night had fallen with the party in full swing. Bugs flew frantic flight paths beneath the bright volleyball court lights, and the loud voices and gesturing of drinking grown-ups animated what should have been quiet darkness. I had to ask my step-father for something – a momentary interruption in our escape from each other – but instead of calling him by name as I had always done, I called him “Dad”. He paused and looked at me for a moment from behind his wire rimmed glasses. There was an awkwardness because that was not who we were – we didn’t share that kind of sentiment for each other. To this day, I’m not sure why I said it. It could be that part of me wanted to feel like the other kids; to feel normal, and those normal kids all had fathers. It could be that I had heard them say the word so much, it just slipped out, unbidden. It might have provoked something in him, but his only comment was that I just wanted to be like the other kids. It’s telling that he didn’t assume it was from any desire to be closer to him, which was correct. We walked away from each other that night without saying another word about it, and I never called him by anything other than his name again.

***

  The first time I remember asking about my father, I was around twelve or thirteen. We had left our town in Ohio, a place where there were just as many black kids as white, where the air was heavy with moisture, and grass grew without the aid of sprinklers. We moved to a small farm town in Idaho, where the only black kid for miles was my friend Troy, the first boy I ever kissed. This place was arid, and the only thing that grew without aid was sagebrush. Maybe being uprooted from my home to this alien and sterile place provoked the need to know where I came from. I don’t know.

“Who is my father?” I asked my mother who was sitting next to me on my twin bed. Though her face is hazy in the memory, the feel of the green shag carpet under our feet is still vivid. Smelling of dust and decaying fibers, it was an eyesore and so out of place in my girly room. Scott was the name she gave, and that he was a musician from Tennessee. It was all she could tell me. She had saved a newspaper clipping of the band he was in when they met, and a photo, cut from a poster she took from the hotel where they played. I think maybe she told me he was a nice person but I don’t remember anything else, and I didn’t ask her about him again. For years, I just kept the idea of him tucked away somewhere.

Far Apple, Part 1 – The Magic Window

 

  “Oh my god” I say, without meaning to. I drag the two photos side by side to compare. One is a copy of the photo my mother gave me – labeled ‘bio.dad’ on my computer. The other is the college graduation photo I’ve just found. Both were probably taken within a year of each other, and both are of the same man – or at least I think they are. Doubt still clings to me as I examine the identical eyes, lips, and chin of both photos. Did that really just happen? Did I actually just find my father? After 43 years of mystery, my brain is struggling with this massive shift.

I call downstairs to Kimbal but the house is silent. He must be in his office with a client so I send him an urgent text. My mind is whirling and I’m walking in circles by the time he comes up the stairs. I need him to confirm I’m not crazy – that this really is him. He hunches over, and peers into the soft blue glow of the computer screen, but my excitement turns to annoyance as soon as he begins speaking. He’s decided to be helpful by blathering on and on about military style facial identification, oblivious to my irritation. So you see here… look at the ear, and the way it curves around, blah blah blah…

“Are you kidding me??!! I don’t need to be wowed by your expertise right now!!! Just tell me it looks like him before I lose my fucking mind!!!”

I’m only screaming on the inside. In reality, I form a more polite request and get the confirmation I need. He hugs me sweetly, but is strangely non-chalante – it’s one of his quirks. I know he’s happy for me, but he rarely shows excitement about anything. It’s maddening – especially at Christmas. But this is the same man who bought the DNA test in the first place, because he knew it was what I needed to heal and grow. He’s known all along what a big deal it would be, even when I didn’t.

He has to return to his work and I’m left alone, freaking out more with each passing minute. Still pacing around the room, I text my oldest daughter and tell her I’ve found her grandfather. Of course she wonders what the hell I’m on about. She already has a grandfather on her Dad’s side and knows exactly where he is. Her response is just as unsatisfying as Kimbal’s. As I try to clear the confusion with frantic fingers jabbing the telephone, my middle child calls from a friend’s house where she’s spent the night. I breathlessly answer and tell her the news. The most excitable of my three children, she explodes with teenage glee as she relays the information to her friend. Both their voices ring in gratifying enthusiasm on the other end of the line.

I need to tell my siblings (or half siblings, as other people would call them). But most of all, I need to tell to my brother. He was given up for adoption before I was born and I didn’t meet him until I was 19. He’s the only one who will understand what this means to me. I open the chat box, type in the news, then haunt Facebook impatiently until my brother’s response appears. He’s skeptical. “How can you be sure?”, he asks. I attach the two photos and click ENTER. This response is immediate. “OMG. You found him”.

I tell him my father is a musician just like me, and that I look like my grandmother. He reminisces about when we met for the first time, and the chat box trail grows long with our excited back and forth. Of course he wants to know if I’m going to contact my father – it’s what everyone is asking. “No, I’m not ready for that”, I say. But the truth is, I’m dying to know him.

My youngest daughter wakes and I tell her the news. My two younger children lost their father when they were little, and I watch her reaction closely as we look through my father’s Facebook page together. She’s now seeing all the photos I’ve already pored over. She clicks on a video, and for 47 seconds we’re transported through this little magic window. We see him play with his dogs, laugh with his wife, and hear how he speaks. We are spellbound. He doesn’t know his daughter and grand-daughter are watching him. He doesn’t even know we exist. My daughter looks up at me, eyes wide and face lit with awe – still trying to process all this. “Oh my god mom…” she says. “That’s your DAD!”