This past Mothers’ Day, we did something very un-motherish. We took our boys to a train museum and on train ride. The museum holds special events each spring, and this year, the event landed on Mothers’ Day. So I decided to indulge my kids’ desires rather than my own (wow, that never happens!) and we did the train thing instead of the restaurant and nap thing, which truly I would have preferred. (The nap would have been for me.) I did like seeing them happy, though. My youngest in particular is truly enchanted by trains, and it is one of life’s greatest pleasures to see one’s kids discovering and enjoying what they love.
Anyway, my mom came along, too, since the day was supposed to be about her, too. She was a trooper, but we both agreed that we could live without trains for a while. At one point in the museum, I saw something I thought she’d like and I called out to her to take a look: “Mom,” I said in a slightly raised voice, “check this out!”. I noticed, right away, something I’ve seen 100 times in my life: everyone around us staring, trying to figure out how this old white woman could possibly be my mom. You could almost see the gears turning in their minds, the slight discomfort, the jarring reality of being challenged out of a paradigm.
People are getting used to seeing mixed race younger families, both because of transracial adoptions and biracial marriages. But the world has seen few 80 year old women with black children. And many in my mother’s generation in particular, can’t wrap their minds around it at all.
About a year ago, our neighborhood had a community cook-out and I invited mom along. One of my older neighbors asked her point blank, “How is Nicole your daughter?” My mother’s response was a little snarky, “Because in 1962, when it was still illegal in many states, I married a black man.” My neighbor looked constipated and changed the subject.
Yes, my parents married in Colorado Springs in 1962. My mom had moved there and my Harlem-born dad was stationed in the Army there. When my mom was visibly pregnant with my sister, my parents started receiving death threats in the mail. One was a newspaper clipping of a horrible story where a woman burned to death in her home. Someone had scrawled, “This will happen to you in if you don’t get your N—ger family out of here.” At first, my dad just gave my mom a gun. And then when my dad was honorably discharged and couldn’t find a job (Colorado Springs wasn’t ready for a biracial family and businesses certainly weren’t ready to hire my very dark dad), my family moved to Brooklyn, which is where I was born.
I love Brooklyn. There are few places on earth that house as many different kinds of people as that town. My life is richer solely from growing up there. However, even there, as my mom pushed me in a stroller and my sister skipped along beside, people often stopped her and asked if we were adopted. One time, she and my dad were out on a date, holding hands, and a gay couple stopped, starred and one hissed, “Oh, I just can’t SEE that!” Yes, even gays can be racist.
My mom’s mom lived in Florida at the time and contracted cancer; it was clear that she wasn’t going to live long. My mom talked to her on the phone and expressed a desire to come to see her. For some reason, my mom wanted our whole family to go and not just her. (Perhaps I was still nursing?). My grandmother, however, discouraged us from coming. She feared for our safety. Florida would not have been kind to our family. And so she died, without seeing her only child and grandchildren. I wish she lived a little longer so that I could remember her. She, too, was a maverick of sorts. Even while aunts and uncles shunned my mom for her choice in husbands, my grandmother came to really like my dad – and she loved me and my sister!
It took a certain personality to do what my mother did. Even today, when I take my boys to visit her in her senior housing community, I feel the discomfort of some of her friends. Jane has black grandchildren. Wow! Most have become very nice, but I can still see the struggle, especially when my husband comes. He’s even darker than my dad was. His profession ameliorates some of the anxiety. But not all of it. (A black man with a PhD in physics pushes the boundaries of their minds and you can feel the tension and frustration of confronted stereotypes.)
Growing up, my mom was the only lanky brunette in a Pennsylvania town full of stocky, German blondes, the only girl to excel in math, and later, the only female computer programmer in her company. And she was certainly the only one from her hometown to end up with a family like ours. A conformist could have never done what she did. Though I don’t condone rebelling against Scripture, some social rules are quite worthy to be rebelled against. Jesus did it all the time, and it is so refreshing when His followers follow suit.