Finding The Right Words
ByMarlen Elliot Harrison
I stand in herliving room, a field of pink carpet with a dainty pink and white stripedVictorian sofa and matching antique chairs. It is late evening and so Joanholds a cocktail in hand. She swirls the ice cube in its crystal glass beforemodestly sipping. Bambi sits in her lap, tongue hanging from mouth, earspointed, eyes staring directly at me. Having worked with my mother as a teachersome 20 years earlier, Joan has only been in my life for a couple of years nowbut she is like a grandmother to me – both a protector and friend. Our mutualpassion for classical music quickly cemented the bond between Joan and I; we’relike family now.
I’m eighteen andhave been living away from home for about a year. I’m an only child, used tolong stretches of solitude, so the transition hasn’t been extraordinarilydifficult for me. In fact, I can’t say I’ve ever really experiencedhomesickness. I’m working at the university auditorium as a box officeassistant, a job I’ve held since moving to Boone,North Carolina, and a job that allows me towatch the touring companies of jazz musicians, orchestras, and dance troupesthat come to the Blue Ridge each year at this time.In the evenings, after the patrons have all taken their seats and the curtainspart, I can find an empty row in the back of the auditorium and enjoy theperformances. During the day, printing tickets, ushering artists, and answeringphones keeps me entertained, a useful distraction from the corridors of opendoors in my mind.
Tonight, I am pacing in front of thefireplace at Joan’s, emphatically yelling and complaining about my parents, enteringan emotional space that to my 18-year-old mind represented cruel and harshwrongdoings. “And another thing,” I continue. So much anger, so much thatI need to get out of my head, only words and emotion will do. But, please,only one open door at a time.
Joan sips again, righthand swirling the remaining liquid in the tumbler and left hand massagingBambi, before replying to my accusations. I hear her, and yet I don’t hear her.The words are there but they do not carry any meaning just yet. I look at her,the volume of my voice now lowered as I ask for an explanation, not quite sureI understand what she’s getting at. She tells me “No, it’s not my story totell.”
I ask again. She sips,gives in, and tells me more, “Your mother really wanted you.”
I think about what Joan says,the words not entirely making sense at first, my mind a rushing locomotiveracing full speed ahead, unable to stop for anything. A rolodex flips andspins, I’m searching for the card with the correct information. Where is it?Spinning. Spinning. Stop.
“What do you mean?”
Joan stares at me with a dawningrealization that she had assumed wrongly, no one had ever told me this story.Her words are only slightly slurred, she’s on her way towards evening, but sheknows that even at my young age, I understand the twilight.
The lights are on in thekitchen, the television is chatting away. I can see the scene as if I’m sittingin an audience, eyes upon the stage, my evening routine resumed. There’s a disbelievinglook on my face as if to say “No way!”
I stop talking and stareat her for a moment, the television the only sound now. Headlights from outsideenter the far window of the living room and move across the cream-coloredwalls. Someone is parking a car, someone has arrived no doubt eager to enterhis home and take refuge from the impending summer storm outside. I can smellthe rain. I look down and then look over once again at Joan, wanting to reply.Though my mouth moves, I just can’t find anything to say.
* * * *
Myfather is a dark-skinned man. Years of beaches and boats, working in the yard,and taking care of the house have colored him. Dark eyes, dark hair, dark skin.My mother, on the other hand, is fair with red hair. She burns easily and soavoids the sun. At age five I sit in the backseat of the family station wagon,air vent blowing directly at me, a large head of red curls the only thing I cansee over the velvety brown seat in front of me. In between Barry Manilow songson the 8-track, I ask my mother questions: “Why don’t dogs speak?” “Why is Nanain the hospital?” “Mommy, why did you marry a black man?”
Thislast one catches my mother off guard. A surprised “What?” comes from the frontof the car and she turns around to look at me. She laughs for a moment beforeasking why I would think Daddy is black. I’m confused by her question so Irepeat my own. “Daddy’s black, you’re white. Why did you marry a black man?”
“Daddy’snot black,” she replies.
“Whaton…why would you think Daddy’s black?”
“Youthink your father looks black?”
“Andhe sings just like Hairy Elephanty,” I add, referring to chorus after chorus ofDay-o’s and Daylight Comes that had become the standard car-time theme song.The look of shock quickly turns into a giggle. She struggles with covering upher laughter and tries to evaluate my question seriously. She’s turning herhead back and forth, looking out the window in front of her, and looking backat my curious face.
“HarryBelafonte, you mean. Anyhow, your father is Jewish, Mitchell. He’s white. Hejust has dark skin. But he isn’t black,” she explains.
Ismile. “Oh,” I reply.
That settles it. She says he’s white…so he is.
* * * *
They’re not speakingagain. But rarely does Mommy speak, she prefers to yell instead. Everything isyelled these days. I’m 7 and we are living in a new house. Typical of South Florida homes, there is a pool in our backyard – onweekends, Daddy and I splash around together. He tells me that my diving iscoming along well, “Practice makes perfect.” Sometimes we ride our bikes toMcDonalds for breakfast. We love riding our bikes. He’s the one who taught me,you know. I wasn’t good those first few months, but soon his two hands becameone, and the one hand became a reach until I didn’t need any help at all.
This morning Mommy isyelling again. It fascinates me. I stand hidden in a doorway listening to thearguments. Don’t they know I can hear them? Aunt Rose is in town from New Jersey and should bereturning from her walk any minute; she brings me things from Bloomingdales whenshe visits and she smells like powder. The front door opens, the voices stop. Thenone more sound – “Jerk!” Mommy mutters before walking away.
Later that morningwhen Aunt Rose and Mommy have gone shopping for the day, Daddy asks me if Iwant to take a bike ride. We can get McDonald’s pancakes with syrup, or if it’slate enough, Chicken McNuggets. I excitedly agree, put on my sneakers, and headto the garage to get my bike. “Go to the bathroom first,” he tells me. I do sobut I’d rather be already on my bike. I want to go to McDonalds and I want togo now.
After a lunch ofchicken and French fries, we decide to go exploring. We peddle down a streetI’ve never seen before, the one behind my school. It’s a place that I neverknew existed, far beyond the chartered territory on the map in my mind. If ithadn’t been for Daddy, I might never have thought to go this way. We peddle andpeddle. Daddy speeds up. I do too. My left shoelace is untied. Long and droopy,it rubs against the frame of my bike until it suddenly catches the peddle,snags, and forces me to stop. Daddy, in his own world, just keeps on peddlingin front of me.
I’m frustrated. He is moving farther andfarther away from me. I yell to him to stop, but he cannot hear me. I yellagain, still nothing. A third time and he turns his head to discover mystanding there, looking at him. Our eyes meet for a moment; he turns his bikearound and pedals over to me. He’s puzzled. I’m upset.
“Jerk”, I yell.
He’s coming towards me. A large, tanned handreaches towards me and with a snap, quickly brushes my face. He almost never hitsme, so his hand is unexpected. I fall to the side unable to support myselfbecause my left foot is stuck to the pedal. I turn the handlebars and catchmyself, shifting my weight. Again, our eyes meet. I look at him. I do not cry.He says nothing. I want to yell that he didn’t help me. He had gone too farahead. He had forgotten about me. He should have prevented this.
“You better watch that mouth, boy,” is hisonly response.
I lean down and unravel my shoelace and heonce again turns his bike around and starts off for home, humming while hepedals.
I think I hate him. Sometimes I tell him so,but he never has any response. I can’t say those words to Mommy – “I hate you”- because her hands would reach towardsme repeatedly, though her words would cause the most pain.
* * * *
I am celebrating my twelfth birthday this July,in a few weeks we’ll be in the Blue Ridgeagain. My grandmother and her new husband are spending the summer with us atour home in the mountains. This is the first year of sleep-away camp for me ata small university in Western North Carolina.
I’ve decided to go with my mother to herstore today; it’s Saturday and we need to go shopping for a trunk and a fan.I’ll have to pack for a month of living in a college dormitory, a buildingwithout the luxury of air conditioning. I spend the day with my mother becausewe’ll go to Sears after she finishes work and because I like spending time atmy mother’s store. Since my father had back surgery last year we hardly everride our bikes together. I no longer play soccer, so he is no longer assistantto the coach. Thank God – that was torture: The kids used to make fun of theold man limping around the goal post. I thought they knew the old man was myfather, but his being a good 15 years older than most of the other dads oftenconfused people. Their comments mortified me, but what could I say? As forsoccer, I knew I had only needed to wait out the season and then soccerpractice would end. That last season I scored zero goals and was hit in thehead with a soccer ball twice. I don’t think they were accidents.
My mother is angry at my father. I’m notentirely sure why, but she regrets having married him. She tells me this andtells me that he cannot do anything right. She tells me stories about the timethey went to a divorce attorney before I was born. My father had pleaded withher not to go through with it and she gave in, the two of them disappearingfrom the office where they had been waiting, fleeing via the fire escape. Shehad clearly made a mistake. She mentions his other children and adds, “They aretruly their father’s kids.” I don’t actually know them that well. My motherwants nothing to do with them. I saw Linda, my oldest stepsister, onlysporadically when I was younger. Now our only communication is through theHallmark cards she sends me every year on my birthday or when I answer herphone calls to my dad.
A week later, the anger grows more intense. Mymother tells me that Dad is not a good provider and that he lies. She followsthis comment with another about the sorrow of being a person who believes hisown lies.
The situation becomes worse when sheschedules an outpatient surgery and he doesn’t make himself available to helpher through the process. It is clear that they don’t like each other. I thinkabout the kids at school that I don’t like and imagine how difficult it must beto have to spend time with someone who makes the other person feel such anger.Clearly, they should not be together.
The strange thing is that my father nevertalks to me. He neither defends himself, possibly because he doesn’t knowwhat’s being said, nor does he ever talk about my mother. His presence isalmost ghostlike; he lives at the borders. He sits outside on the patio andsmokes. He spends his evenings in the game room on the other side of the houseplaying with the dog. He takes long business trips out of the state. I thinkabout what my mother tells me and begin to feel angry at him that she should beleft feeling so hurt. I feel a little angry at him for being so quiet. It’ssuspicious.
On the way to Sears, my mother tells me thatshe would like to file for divorce. She asks me how I feel about that. I thinkof Lisa Shapiro at school, her parents are getting divorced. People talk aboutit as if this is a great tragedy for Lisa and her sister. The premise thatparents should stay together for their children is often discussed. If herparents are anything like mine, I reason, they would probably be a lot betteroff to go their own ways and to leave each other alone. I wonder if Beth feelsthat way, too. My mother asks me who I would rather live with after the divorceif finalized.
What should I say?
* * * *
Life sucks, it’s official. Nana’s just died, I hate school, my parentsare total nutjobs and I’d truly like to disappear. Fifteen is not fun and Idon’t think sixteen will be any better. Dad’s sleeping in the guest room now,the room next to my own. Sometimes, early in the mornings, I can hear himsnoring. “Shut the Hell up,” I think to myself. I hate him. He’s such a loser.I can’t wait for Mom to finally divorce him, then I can get away from him forgood. These days, Mom and I have formed an alliance. We’re “Anti-Dad”.
Strangely enough, Dad has recently joinedthe parent’s organization for my high school chorus. My mother questions hismotives pointing out that he doesn’t do this because he cares about me, he doesthis because it’s an easy way to meet potential clients for his insurancebusiness. That sentiment stings a little; I’m not sure I want to believe it.But I’ve heard so many stories by now that I’m dedicated to the truths of mystoryteller.
Not that my mother is a saint. On thecontrary. We spend so much time together that we’ve become experts at passiveaggression. We try to be nice, but it’s not always easy to cover up what we’rereally thinking. Sometimes I think I can’t stand to be around her. It’s notuncommon, really. A lot of my friends hate their parents. But my mother saysthings to me that make me long to grasp her by the throat.
Dad is no longer her companion. Nana isgone. I now play the role of Mother, Husband, Child, and Servant.
“Who would I have if it weren’t for you?”she sighs.
Five minutes later we’ll get into anargument about…what…who remembers, and she’ll tell me that I’m just like myfather. This pisses me off.
“But you hate him,” I think to myself.
Her newest phrase is a shrill shriek ofanger followed by, “I can’t believe I have such an idiot for a son.” It’smelodramatic, I know, but it doesn’t make me feel any less hurt. To that kindof accusation, what can I say?
* * * *
I’m not much better at being 16 than I wasat being 15, but things somehow feel lighter now. Maybe because I hardly eversee my father nowadays. He’s always somewhere other than home and so that meansthere’s less arguing going on in the house. Well, between him and my mother,anyhow. Aunt Rose is on the phone, she wants to talk with me. “Oh lord, not heragain,” I think. I dread speaking to her. A few summers ago upon visiting mymother and I in North Carolinashe tried to insist that I spend too much time with Mom and asked why I don’thave any of my own friends. Bitch. Our conversation goes something like this:
“Hello Aunt Rose.”
“Hi dear, how’s school?”
The small talk continues for a few momentsbefore she offers advice. She always offers advice.
“Listen, I hear that you aren’t talking toyour father.”
“That’s not good.”
“What’s the problem?”
“No, I don’t know. Why don’t you explain itto me?”
“He’s your father and it’s important to talkwith him.”
“You just said that you didn’t talk.”
“I mean, whatever, we talk, but you know howhe is, what he’s like. Mom said even you don’t like him.”
“I never said that. I may not like specificthings he’s done. But we’re talking about you and your father. Don’t you thinkit hurts him that you won’t talk to him?”
I really don’t want to hear this lastcomment. It pushes a button. I feel upset and would like to hang up the phone.
“We talk, okay? We talk.”
“I want you to really talk with him. Ormaybe you can just listen. Could you try that?”
“Whatever,” I reply, and then think tomyself, “Bitch.”
“After you listen, then you can talk if youfeel like it.”
“Fine! Whatever. What do you think I shouldsay?”
* * * *
The next day, my father is sitting on mybed, he wants to talk to me. “Oh no,” I think. His voice is gentle and we sitnot quite facing each other. He tells me that he feels we have a problem. I saynothing. He tells me that he loves me and that he is unsure about what ishappening between he and I. I say nothing; I stare at the stripes of color inmy bedspread. He tells me that no matter what happens between he and my mother,that he will always love me and that their problems have nothing to do with me.I hear him, hear the words, feel the sincerity, and I say nothing. I feel guiltyall of a sudden.
The air conditioning clicks on, the vent isdirectly over my bed, and the cool air descends upon us. I hear my mothertalking on the phone in her bedroom. Dad smiles warmly. He looks as if he mightcry. He does. He reaches to hug me. I’m both disgusted and relieved. Mostly I’mconfused. He tells me that he knows my mother has been talking with me about myparents’ relationship. He tells me to remember and focus on the relationshipbetween he and I. He tells me that he’s disappointed in my mother, but thathe’ll never say anything bad about her. He doesn’t need to. He asks me to dohim a favor. He asks to let time speak for him. He tells me that I will come tomy own conclusions in the future, and that he’ll never have to say anything tome. I nod and feel a tear on my own cheek. He embraces me again. Other thingsare said that I cannot remember. I think about Aunt Rose’ phone conversationfrom yesterday. I look at my father and I can think of nothing to say.
* * * *
I could make a list of the ways in which myfather has raised me. Only now that I am in my 30’s do I see how lucky I havebeen in that not only have my parents loved me, but that despite the confusionof struggle that characterizes family relationships, I know that they haveloved me. I’ve written those words before, but I truly feel them now.
My father was right, I’ve been able to cometo my own conclusions. He’s been right about a lot of things, actually. He’llmake comments that he thinks employment is eminent at a specific university,nods to himself while clearing his throat announcing that he always feltteaching would be a good profession for me, encourages me by noting that Europewould be the best place for me. And he’s right. I got the job, I love teachingat the college, and Europe is on the horizon.
My mother, on the other hand, while alwayssupportive heads for high drama by stating that I could be president of theuniversity. Why think small when one can think big, that’s her way. It may notbe exactly what I want, but who couldn’t use some wishing on a grandscale?
It’s funny because all of those years I feltrepelled by my father and strangely drawn to and thereby trapped with my mother,have come to an end. Vacation after vacation during my 20’s resulted with myfleeing from my mother’s home into the more neutral setting of my father’s –sometimes a little silence is nice. He’s finally provided me with that refuge Ineeded so long ago. I feel safe with my father. I feel I can trust him. Mom isstill Mom, angry, in pain, and loud. Not always, mind you, but it’s funny howold roles have reversed. Dad has a lot to say nowadays, and finally, so do I. Ican look at him and state firmly, “I love you, Dad.” Isn’t that just thesappiest thing you’ve ever heard?
I know what you’re thinking…you’re wonderinghow I could be so quick to dislike my father one day, and build him a pedestalthe next…
* * * *
The summer rain has begun to fall and Bambibarks at the distant thunder. Joan hesitantly resumes her story.
“What do you mean exactly, Joan,” I pausefor a moment, “that I’m adopted?”
“Oh…I,” she’s clearly re-thinking thisconversation, “I…promised your mother I wouldn’t say anything.” She looks downinto her lap.
“Joan!” I yell. “You’ve already said a lot.Tell me the rest!”
“Oh…,” she starts, but I interrupt.
“What do you mean my mother ‘really wantedme’?”
“You just don’t know what your parents hadto go through to have you, and here you are yelling about how terrible they areas parents.” A slap in the face.
“What do you mean ‘go through’?” I continuemy questioning. “Joan, say something!”
She looks at me for a moment. She looks alittle sad, the crystal tumbler is empty. Bambi has laid her head down andclosed her eyes, trying to shut out the storm. “You were the product ofartificial insemination. Your father couldn’t have any children and your poormother used to cry every time she got her period. I remember those days. She sowanted a child.”
I’m stunned. I’m waiting for an audience tosuddenly appear, a curtain to part, and Oprah to appear on set. Again, my mouthmoves and I can think of nothing to say.
“And when you were born, your parents wereso happy. Those first days after your birth, when your mother was ill, your fatherbrought you home from the hospital and took care of you himself.”
Not letting this news settle, my mindinstead jumps to a new place. “Kids and dogs,” I think to myself. His whole lifehas been about taking care of kids and dogs.
“You were so wanted, Mitchell,” Joanfinishes. She raises herself up from the couch. Bambi jumps to the floor. “Nowwhat have you got to say, eh?”
Joan kisses me good night and goes to bed. Shestops at the entrance to her room and turns to look at me. I haven’t moved. Shesays something to me but my mind is still turning cartwheels and so I simplynod and go to the guest room to call my friend, Patty. The phone rings. Ahoarse voice answers, “Hello?”
“Patty? Patty, it’s Mitchell.”
“Mitchell, what…it’s a little late. It’safter 12.”
“Patty, I need to talk to you for a moment.”
“Are you alright?”
“Patty, a friend of my mother’s just told methat my father is not my father.”
“A friend of my mother’s,” I repeat, “hasjust –“
“- yes, I heard that.” She pauses. “What doyou mean?”
“My father is not my father.”
I tell her the story. I tell her what Joanhas told me. And Patty listens through her yawns. Though sleepy, she takes mythoughts as if they were puzzle pieces and arranges them into place, “We shouldtalk more tomorrow. I’ve got to get to sleep and you’ve got a lot to thinkabout. Just remember this: There’s only been one man that raised you.”
“Ughhh,” I sigh.
I hang up the phone. I’m still in shock. Ithink about what Patty has said to me, a little ashamed I hadn’t come to thesame conclusion myself. “What does this mean?” I wonder.
The television has been turned off, thelights in the living room have dimmed. The rain has stopped falling, and thereis no sound. I lay down on the soft bedroom carpet, feeling the fibers againstmy skin. I close my eyes and fall in and out of sleep right there on the floor.
My dreams are progressions of years. Darkskin and boats. Harry Belafonte and humming. Bicycle trips to McDonalds, dogs,and diving lessons. Races down sidewalks and hillsides. Soccer and choruspractice. Air conditioners and cigarettes. Talking and not talking. At the endof one brief period of lucidity I find myself staring at the ceiling and considerjust whether or not I should let my parents know that I’ve learned this story.
I look at the clock, and see that morninghas arrived. The events of the previous night still seem surreal. I close myeyes for a moment, and try to imagine an answer to my question, “What exactlywould I say to Dad about -”
And then it suddenly comes to me. A drumbeat begins. It both slaps me in the face and yells, “DAAAY-O! Day-ay-ay-o.”
I would say this: “I stand in herliving room, a field of pink carpet with a dainty pink and white stripedVictorian sofa and matching antique chairs. It is late evening and so Joanholds a cocktail in hand. She swirls the ice cube in its crystal glass beforemodestly sipping. Bambi sits in her lap, tongue hanging from mouth, earspointed, eyes staring directly at me….”