Tag Archives: racism

Privilege, White and Otherwise: When your Dignity is Affirmed at the expense of Another’s.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Sunday’s Magazine section of the New York Times was an article about Alice Goffman, a young, white sociology professor. In the article, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Dr. Goffman shares a story about passing through a TSA checkpoint with a bag full of drug paraphernalia and becoming agitated—not at the thought of getting stopped—but simply because she wasn’t stopped while a man with brown skin, but nothing illegal in his possession, was apprehended. Goffman describes white privilege in this way:

“…people smiling at me, holding the door for me. You don’t think, as a white person, about how your whole day is boosted by people affirming your dignity all day long.”

Affirming your dignity. It’s such a subtle, immeasurable concept. How does any one person have the ability to affirm or deny another person’s dignity? What affirms one’s dignity in the first place? Having doors opened? Having sales people speak to you with respect? Having someone listen when you talk? Look you in the eye? Recognize that you have been waiting in line for a table? There are dozens of ways one human can show that he or she values, or does not value another. We are more or less sensitive to these positive or negative estimations, depending on subtle messages we receive from birth.

That’s not privilege, you might say. It’s it simply ordinary human treatment of other ordinary humans. But, what if an entire group of people is denied this basic respect? That’s when it becomes something out of the ordinary.

All privilege is relative. The word itself implies one who’s got it and another who is lacking—a have and a have-not.  Some tangible privileges—access to an exclusive country club, ownership of a Bentley convertible—people acquire consciously, either by invitation, gift or purchase. Others are unearned birthrights—like property, or social connections. These are conscious privileges that no one can deny.

Other privileges are unconscious—like not being followed around a store. Like never having to think about one’s ethnic, racial or gender status because it is considered mainstream. These feel like ordinary conveniences rather than true privileges. They go unnoticed—they’re only a by-product of being regular—until they are either pointed out or somehow taken away.

A few months back, I hit my head on a stone counter. Suspecting (correctly, it turned out) a concussion, I went to the local emergency room, accompanied by my husband, who happens to be white. Others waiting were people of color, like myself.

I was chatty with the receptionist at the desk who took my insurance card, self-deprecating about my mishap. I was bubbly with the nurse who took my vitals. Everyone was polite to me and seemed pleased to meet a nice, cheerful, educated woman who wasn’t bleeding, throwing up, or experiencing any devastating trauma that they had to attend to (and hence probably didn’t need to be in the ER in the first place). I was ushered through every screening in no time. The doctor (also white and about my age) lingered to schmooze with my husband and me for no particular reason, other than the appreciation of light conversation at midnight in a semi-urban emergency room. All in all, a pleasant experience, though, as we left, I noticed some of those who had been waiting when I’d arrived were still there. As we drove off, I realized that I had been on the receiving end of white-privilege-by proxy.

Fast forward: one week later. My son, then eleven, falls on an ice-skating trip and cuts his chin, requiring stitches. We wind up in the same emergency room. My (white) husband is not present. It is day time, not midnight, so the place is slightly more crowded than it was a week earlier, but not significantly. We wait longer. The receptionist and nurses are polite, but less receptive to my usual chattiness. When the attending physician arrives, she asks if I have insurance (I’d already presented my son’s card to the receptionist), then answers her own question: No, before I can respond.

Next, I ask that a plastic surgeon come to stitch up my son’s face. The doctor gives me a look and says that Medicaid won’t cover it. I am offended by her suggestion that if I have any insurance at all, it must be Medicaid, but muster my most polite (read: condescending) tone:

“That’s fine,” I say, the slightest tinge of haughtiness to my smile. “I’ll submit it to my insurance company and see what they’ll reimburse.”

The doctor gives me a dark look—I am, after all, suggesting that she is not competent to repair my son’s face—and asks to see my insurance card herself. I present it (it’s a freedom plan) and she walks off, presumably to check its validity.

When the doctor returns, she is a different person: all smiles, respectful, affirming of my dignity. A plastic surgeon appears at the snap of her fingers. (More or less.)

A year later, though you cannot see the slightest mark on my son’s chin, I am not proud of how I handled the situation. Instead of challenging racism head-on, I dodged it by falling back on my affluent-suburban-mom status. I didn’t have white privilege at my disposal, so I whipped out the class privilege card.

Change happens when people with privileges directly confront the oppression of their non-privileged counterparts. Where privilege meets discrimination—when one person’s privileges are dependent on society’s discrimination against the other—it is up to the person with the privilege to own it, acknowledge it and challenge the injustice.

For another example, as a cis-gender[1] woman, I am confident of being able to find a restroom that is designated for me, and secure in the belief that no one will challenge my presence there. By enjoying this privilege, one could argue that I am benefitting from transphobia or cis-sexism. I have the luxury of never have to consider that.

But now that I’ve written these words, I am less comfortable than I was a moment ago. I feel some guilt, some shame. Some privileges are best when you’re oblivious to them.

Think about something most people take for granted. How about legs? They’re down there beneath your hips like they were the last time you checked. Maybe you think they’re too pasty or ashy or dimpled or sticklike. But you don’t think about them when you go for a walk on a sunny day.  You have the luxury of taking them for granted—not seeing them as a privilege in any case—until you meet someone who lacks two legs. Suddenly you feel not only gratitude for your two whole, healthy legs, you also probably feel a touch of guilt for taking them for granted. As your given right.

I have the luxury not to think about my legs—unless they’re sore from a vigorous run or a ballet class—or about my gendered status if I don’t want to because I am “regular.” I have the luxury to be oblivious to the conditions of the “other” until someone brings them to my attention.

And in this way, obliviousness—to the group of people who have fewer rights, respect or resources than you—is power. If you make me aware of my own privileges, I may get defensive. I may feel shame. I may point out all the privileges I lack that you may have—all the ways in which I am not privileged. That might ease my guilt. It may not. Either way, once you have brought my privileges into the light, I will enjoy them less. At that point, I’ll have two choices: the first is to ignore them, and strive to rebuild my obliviousness. The second is to take action—to speak out against the discrimination that places me in a state of privilege in the first place.  Which might mean relinquishing them some day.

[1] Cisgender refers to the experience of identifying with the gender one was assigned at birth. Cis Is a Latin root, meaning “on this side of” as opposed to “trans” meaning, on the other side or across from.

 

Writer of Color, White YA Protagonist: Where Weightism cuts deeper than Racism

I had the idea for this post a while ago, after reading a few articles about whether white writers have the “right” to write from the perspective of a black main character–see The Confessions of Nat Turner and The Help.  Both books have been both widely admired and scathingly criticized for their respective authors handling of the “white author/black protagonist” problem.   I have also read a number of blog posts and articles encouraging authors of YA fiction to diversify their books, including characters that reflect the mosaic of our nation. Justine Larbalestier, a white author and blogger, is so committed to this purpose that none of her main characters are white.

I agree that this is important, as long as it’s organic and feels natural.  (As opposed to every non-white character being beautiful and/or noble.)  And, I agree that the world American teens live in is not monochromatic; YA authors therefore need to show diversity in their work.  As a non-white writer, I have the advantage here; white is not my default, I experience the world through a non-white lens.  So, why is the protagonist of my first YA novel white?

I think when an author is black, we expect the protagonists to be black, the story line to deal with black themes.  As a biracial author, shouldn’t I deal with racial identity somehow?

The fact is, I do and I have—in this blog, in the adult books I’ve yet to complete, as well as the adult novel I spent six years writing and three years submitting.  Birch Wood Doll, which sits in my hard drive, awaiting a big revision, a WIP I refer to as The “Eddie” story, involving a guy with dissociative identity disorder, and Big, Black Woman Mad, the one I’m determined to finish a draft of by year’s end, all have protagonists who are mixed-race.  The characters cope in various ways with being non-white in mostly white ballet companies, universities or families.  What does it mean, for example, that your white birth mother chose to parent your white half-sibling, but placed you for adoption?  These adult characters wear their races like coats that don’t quite fit.

For Second Company, however, my focus—like that of this blog—is on body image and identity, just not racial identity.   Yes, there are non-white characters in Second Company.  For example: Lynette, whose story is coming in a sequel.  She gives a few hints that she’s struggled with difference as the only black girl in NYBT II, but Lynette is fortunate to have the ideal ballet body.  She has therefore escaped the mistreatment her best friend, the novel’s female protagonist, Livia, suffers because of her weight.

Second Company started with my wish to write about the experience of being a member of an elite society—the ballet world—who barely fits in because of some difference.  This was me back in 1989, when I joined Boston Ballet II, Boston Ballet’s own “second company.”  How was I different from the rest of BB II?

*I had graduated from a four year college (I was keeping it secret, because back then, college was considered the death knell for an aspiring ballerina; ballet companies wanted you at seventeen, so they could mold you, intellectually as well as physically.)

*I was over twenty-one and lying about it. (Really, twenty-one was way too old not to be in a first company.  I claimed I was nineteen and mostly pulled it off.)

*I was black (okay—biracial, with a fairly European body type, but still, the only woman of color in BB II.  The one Greek girl who’d had a tan when the contract started had lost it by Nutcracker season.)

*I had real boobs.  (In a world where a girl with a b-cup was considered top-heavy, I was a C-D.  This disqualified me from being considered thin.  I had a petite-enough frame; most costumes fit me with no problem, but people usually expressed uncensored surprise that I could get into small sizes. At 5’3” and 101 lbs., I was considered chunky.)  Oh, I have a photograph:

Me in the center. Lying about my age, weight and cup size.

Me in the center. Lying about my age, height, weight and cup size.

So—for review—I was “old,” over-educated, dark and curvaceous.  Which of these differences do I write about now?  Well, all of them, I think—just not all at once.

My adult novel, Birch Wood Doll was swamped with too much subject matter—biracial identity, eating disorders, the clash of socioeconomic classes, the collision of the dance and academic worlds.  In Second Company, which I intend to be part of a series, I’ll take the issues one or two at a time.  Livia may be white—Irish and Italian American–but she’s short and curvy-to-zaftig in a reed-thin ballet company.  (Her twin brother Oliver, also white, is gay, dealing with homophobic Dad’s efforts to stop him from dancing.)

The ballet world isn’t—let’s face it—especially diverse.  In a corps de ballet, the girls are supposed to look fairly interchangeable on stage.  Standing out isn’t encouraged, but skin color is less likely to be held against you than weight, which is supposedly in your control. You are not judged for having dark skin (ok—we were all cautioned not to get tan before Swan Lake, and I will write a post about that one day).  But gain weight and all bets are off.

There may be racism in the ballet world, but it’s quiet—an assumption here, a hushed comment there.  Weightism, on the other hand, buttism, boobism, shortism—that stuff is expressed loudly, welcomed and condoned by those in charge.  This is the difference I chose to tackle in my first YA book.

Other Side of the Lake

My Dad and me at another lake at an earlier time. I think I'm two.

The summer I was ten, my parents and I rented a big yellow farm house which was a stone’s throw from a clear, blue lake. Everyone with a weekend house in the vicinity used the lake; it was the main attraction of the place.  It had a soft (more likely than not, man-made), sandy bank and a wooden raft anchored in the middle that you could swim or canoe out to.  People would lie out on that raft and just sun themselves for half the day.  No one worried about UV rays back in the seventies; people slathered themselves with baby oil and Ban de Soleil–sometimes held those aluminum sheets under their chins–and baked copper-brown in the sun, myself included.  (I know many people of color who were cautioned as children to stay out of the sun–to keep from getting darker.  My mother, who valued a nice tan in those days, was envious of how easily I browned.)

Our second week at the house, a group of boys arrived at a nearby estate.  There were ten of them, all about thirteen, all black, hailing from a place called “Inner City,” of which I’d never heard.  These boys had been awarded this special trip as a prize for academic excellence in a program which was basically for smart kids from rotten schools.  In addition to staying in a huge, old manor house and having access to a lake and the beautiful country, the boys were also taking enrichment classes in all the major academic areas.  Sort of like The Fresh Air Fund meets Prep for Prep.

My dad loved to observe these boys as they play-wrestled and exchanged insults involving one another’s mamas.  They were loud and wild and splashed a lot.  Most of the well-heeled regulars stayed away when the boys came out to swim—Inner-City-brand hilarity not being the vacationers’ speed.   The boys always greeted my dad with respect.  They could tell he understood them, though they didn’t know what to think about our family.  The boys seemed surprised that my mother—The White Lady—wasn’t afraid of them.  She spoke to them like a teacher would, even stepping in when their routine scuffles got out of hand.   They certainly didn’t know what to make of me.  Once the boys saw that my parents had no problem with them—didn’t clutch me and flee when they arrived, like the other parents did—they felt it was safe to approach me.  They never asked my name, but addressed me as “Little Girl,” referred to me as such amongst themselves.  As in:  “There go the Little Girl, y’all.”

The way I talked, which was nasal and squeaky with prominent r’s, amused them.

“Hey, Little Girl, you better watch out: Jaws is in the water.” (The film had been released earlier that summer.)

“No he’s not,” I’d say, not realizing they were trying to get a rise out of me.  “This lake is fresh water.  Sharks only live in salt water.”

They’d howl and slap each other’s hands as someone else would come up with a question for me, just to hear me talk.

The reason my dad got such a big kick out of these boys was that he had been one of these boys.   He had grown up in the thirties on the South Side of Chicago, part of what was referred to as “The Black Belt.”  His father—whom I never met because I was born too late—was a Pullman Porter, which meant he was always employed, even throughout the Depression.  So compared to those around them, my father’s family was not poor–my grandmother even took to leaving meals out on their front porch for those who had none.  Nevertheless, they were still black; they still struggled and faced the same kind of pervasive racism that all “colored people” faced back then, regardless of class.

It was immediately apparent to everyone that my father was a smart little boy, taking after his brother, Stan, who was eleven years his senior and clearly headed for University.  My father wore glasses from an early age, which no doubt helped people take his intellect seriously.  But it was more than that.  By seven, he was reading everything he could get his hands on; by ten, under his brother’s tutelage, he could differentiate Mozart from Beethoven from Schubert.  In Nineteen thirty-seven–seventeen years before Brown versus the Board of Education–my father was one of a very few black students who began attending a white high school, where he joined the staff of the school newspaper, ultimately becoming its chief cartoonist.

Still, his friends were the boys from his neighborhood.  They splashed around in their lake—Lake Michigan—and derided one another’s mamas just like these boys did.  Of course, the mobile sunshine delineated the white section of their beach.  If the sun moved while my father and his friends were in the water—which it invariably did—the racial divide moved.  That meant trouble.   As Dad would ultimately write:

‘No one had ever designated which sections of the beach were for white and black.  There were no signs as I had seen south … saying “white only, “ or “colored.”  But rigid segregation prevailed.  And the group of pugnacious white men and boys was always there at some arbitrary dividing line, with bats in their hands, watching us.  It was a different group every time we came to the lake, but they always looked the same.  Thin, fat, or muscular, narrowed eyes, tight little mouths and hard frowns …

If any black swimmers lost their sense of direction, or place, they would hear the shouts and curses and racial epithets.  If that didn’t do the job, into the water the group would come, eager for the attack.’[1]

Watching those boys at the lake that summer brought my father back to his beginnings: what it was like to be young, black, smart and way out of place wherever he went.   He never talked to me about those days when I was a kid, only when I found drafts of his memoirs later on and asked about them.  What stories he did tell me of black life in the 1930s on the South Side of Chicago involved a world very far removed from my own.

I spent my whole childhood without a single overt incident of racism—that I noticed.  I know I was raised in a bubble: a city where biracial was common, a private school where the black kids were no different socioeconomically from the white kids.  I had no frame of reference for relating to my father’s tales of segregation and fear.  Also, my father’s job in publishing meant later hours and more business trips than those of my mother, who was a teacher.   Mom was with me more, meaning I negotiated the world accompanied by a white, educated woman.  We may have gotten more than our share of looks when we went places together, but that was an easy trade.  No matter where we went, my mother’s race provided access.

Still, the trials my father endured as a youth, the character they built in him, paved the way for me to have a very different sort of life, in a different sort of time and place.


[1] From Untitled Memoir by Mel Williamson (The manuscript is undated, but he worked on it continuously between 1985 and 1994. ) This excerpt takes place in the summer of 1940.

When Cancer Chose Him

(This is the second of two short excerpts I’m including in this blog from my essay First to Go: A Nice Jewish Girl Survives the Love of Her Life, about my parent’s marriage.  For the first excerpt, “A Mixed Marriage in 1950,” click here.)

About 25 years before his diagnosis

I must have been a junior in high school the night my dad got mugged, because he had yet to give up smoking.  They followed him into the elevator—two young black guys—with a hey man and a what’s going on? to which my dad responded in kind.

“You got a light?”  One of them asked (a lot of people ignored the rule against smoking in the elevators—understandable, since they all still had ashtrays in them.)  My father reached into his pocket and pulled out his lighter, only to discover that it was dead.

“Too bad …” the one sighed.  “Maybe this will work …” and produced a long switchblade which he proceeded to press against my father’s neck.

While the unarmed one stopped the elevator, the one with the knife turned my dad around and shoved him face first into the corner.  He held him fast, keeping the knife to his neck, shouting, Come on, come on!  at his partner–who frantically stripped my dad of everything he had on him except for his keys (still in his hand), his wedding ring (on the same hand), and the defunct lighter.

When the men were done, they started the elevator again and got out at the next floor, leaving my father physically unharmed.

I know I woke up when he got inside our apartment on the seventeenth floor.  I heard the anxious voices of both my parents, as my father told my mother what had happened.  I don’t remember if I got out of bed then and joined them, or fell back asleep and heard the story the next morning.  In any case, my father was still badly shaken.  He kept repeating the part about the knife against his neck and how, if the mugger’s hand had been any less steady, he would have been dead.

It was the first time my father had ever seemed vulnerable to me.  My whole life, no matter what was going on, he’d always seemed in command of every situation.  Now some stranger had robbed him of all his authority in a matter of five awful minutes.  He never fully recovered it.

Dad spent a good part of the next day at the police station, going over volume after volume of mug-shot books.  Endless photographs of young, black men on the wrong side of the law. What did it mean to him, I’ve always wondered, that the muggers were black?  What did he have to grapple with as a result?  My father’s brother, Herman—one of my least bright uncles, whom I never met because he’d died long before my birth—had frequently prefaced statements with the phrase:  “If niggas would just learn to act right …” directly attributing the persistence of racism to the bad behavior of black people.   This had outraged my father.  Still—all those photographs.

Nothing had changed outwardly after the mugging, yet my father was never quite the same again.  He suddenly seemed older, smaller, more fragile.  He got sick more frequently.  It felt like he was living—writing—on borrowed time.

I’ve never been able to shake the notion that the mugging was when Cancer chose him.  I know my theory is totally unscientific, but it’s possible that the emotional trauma was extreme enough to affect his body chemistry.  My father’s doctors initially gave him just three years.  The cancer had already metastasized, so removing the prostate would have been pointless.  The best they could do was keep things in check, slow down the progress of an already slow-moving cancer.  They tried him on a new experimental treatment—a form of oral chemo—a set of pills to be taken three times a day for the rest of his life.  There were some side effects, including some weight gain and moodiness.  But for the most part, the drugs were effective and did what they were supposed to do.  He survived more than five years, remaining mostly symptom-free for the first three and a half.

Once my father died, my mother made a very conscious decision not to.   She poured herself back into life with a vengeance.  It would be another four years before she retired, but she began to travel almost immediately.  We went to London together the summer after he died, though we were both still part-numb, part-reeling from the loss.  We made ourselves to go; we had to do something to mark a new stage, where we would celebrate life the way Dad would want us to.   We had a great time in his honor.   By day we’d split up and take in different sights—museums and shoppes and parks and streets and squares whose names I recognized from so many books I’d read over the years.   In the late afternoons we’d come together again and wind around the city until we found a restaurant for dinner.  Sometimes we took the Tube, but more often we walked, talking the whole time, and all through the meal, mostly about my father.  The memories of him as he’d been in his prime—strong and whole and laughing and free of disease—began flooding back on that trip, replacing those of the last year and a half he’d spent in bed.

For my mother, the London trip had sparked a new passion for adventure.  Or maybe it wasn’t so new (she’d married my father, after all) but simply dormant.  In any case, the first thing she did when we got home was begin writing a grant for a new curriculum for her school on the journeys of Columbus and his fellow European explorers.  She got the grant, which meant a month-long, research-filled European tour for her—Spain, Portugal, Italy.   She devised the trip and booked everything on her own; she went alone.  She speaks only English, so it was a daring endeavor which basically showed everyone in her life—herself included—just what sort of stuff Lorraine Williamson was made of.   I believe it impressed everyone just how well she stood up on her own after nearly half a century of marriage.

Since her retirement, she’s taken traveling to the next level.  She’s been back to Europe several times, China twice, visited Viet Nam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Ecuador, and Africa three times—North, South, and Central.  She’s ridden camels and elephants, hiked the Himalayas, and snorkeled off the Galapagos Islands.

My mother has been busy at home, too.  She tutors; she’s a docent at the Jewish Heritage Museum, and the most loving, involved grandmother my two children could ask for.  She’s part of a book group; she goes to plays, concerts museums—everything the city has to offer.  On some level, I think she’s afraid that if she’s still for a moment—or has too quiet a weekend—age will find her and get the best of her.

When my father was dying, my mother had been part of a support group for women whose husbands were battling cancer.   Seventeen years later, a handful of the widows, my mother included, continues to meet for monthly dinners out.   They still discuss their late spouses—who brought them together after all—but these days talk centers primarily on the here and now: whose daughter is getting married, whose grandson’s bar mitzvah is coming up, and who’s finally moving to Florida.  Some of the younger ones have remarried; others, like my mom, are busy with the grandchildren their late husbands never got to meet.  The discourse flows, I imagine, from past to present and back again.

At one point during the most recent of these dinners, the conversation turned, as it frequently does, to fond reminiscences of the departed.  One of the women sighed, lamenting:  “I wish I’d been first to go.”

As the others took in the statement and gravely nodded their assent, my mother cleared her throat.   “No you don’t.” she said.

Ruth Rosen’s Black Granddaughter

My maternal grandparents, Ruth and Ben Rosen, sometime in the 1930s

I usually tell the story of my grandmother with about as much emotion as I’d have making a grocery list.  People might say, That’s so awful!  (I’ll shrug.)  How could you not be hurt?   I’ll swear I wasn’t.  How can you miss something you’ve never had?

But one day, just as an exercise, I tried to write about Ruth Rosen—my mother’s mother—and was surprised to find myself awash in angry tears.  Maybe her total failure to acknowledge me, her only black grandchild, was a bigger deal than I’d thought.  I wasn’t in denial of the rejection, only of the fact that it did—does—hurt.

Growing up as an only child, I never wanted for adult attention.  My parents surrounded themselves with a family of friends, many of whom were older and saw me as their own grandchild.  I had five Bubbies (a term of affection for a Jewish grandmother).  They knitted me things, bought me fancy dresses, came to Grandparents’ day at my school, were at our home on Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas, my dance recitals.

Three of my four actual grandparents—my dad’s parents and my mother’s father—were dead by the time I was born (sixteen years into my parents’ marriage).  As for Ruth, she met me just once, when I was a baby.

Though my grandmother was not the least bit religious—despite running a kosher restaurant and delicatessen—she sat shiva for my mother when she married my father.  It was 1950 and interracial marriage was still illegal in 30 states, though not Illinois, where they’d wed.  My mother was a nice Jewish girl who had never made a wave her whole life and now this.  Married a schvartze.  Ultimately, my mother and her mother would resume some form of a relationship—never a good one (it never had been), just enough to be on speaking terms.  So, when I was about a year old, Ruth came to visit when she knew my dad was at work.  A widow at the time, she’d brought along her latest beau, a septuagenarian named Henry.  Ruth had come to see my mother, but Henry was all over me:

“Ruth, you gotta come see.  This is a really cute baby!”

None for me thanks, approximated Ruth’s response.  She couldn’t look, let alone touch me.  It was too much.

Nevertheless, I grew up happy, without giving my grandmother much thought.  Who was she to me anyway?  But now and then it would occur to me—as the stand-in Bubbies and Zaidas took pictures at my birthday parties, applauded my impromptu puppet shows—that my grandmother was missing out on me.  If she met me, I thought, if she gave me a chance, I was sure I could win her over.  I was a cute baby, a pretty cute kid as well.  Who wouldn’t want to be my grandma?  I didn’t say this to my parents; I knew they’d start talking about racial prejudice and other things I had no interest in as a child, so I kept the idea to myself.

My grandmother died in 1987 when I was almost twenty-one.  I’d spoken to her on the telephone exactly once.  She was already dying by then and my mother had flown down to Florida to visit.  My father needed to speak with my mother one night when I was home visiting.

“You make the call,” Dad said, because he knew it wouldn’t do for Ruth to hear his voice.

I called.  My grandmother answered.  It was my mother’s voice only deeper, scratchier.  I knew it, though I’d never heard it before.

“This is Lisa.”  I said, sounding like a frightened ten year old.  “May I please speak to my mother?”  I didn’t realize I was shaking until I got off the phone.  When my father hung up, I burst into tears and then screamed at him for making me do it.

To Dad, my grandmother’s rejection of me was an extension of her rejection of him, nothing personal.  She’d never met either one of us, after all.  To my father, racism itself wasn’t personal; it was just a fact he’d known as long as he had been walking this earth.  But now, as he held his sobbing daughter, he got it.

The woman on the line with the voice like my mother’s may have been a monster, but she was still my grandmother.  All my life I’d been protected from her hatred, bathed in love and praise to compensate.  But at the same time, I’d been prevented from trying to reach her and make things right.  My parents knew it wouldn’t have worked, but I didn’t know.  Part of me still thinks I could have done it: gotten her to like me.  Of all her grandchildren, I’m the only one who took to the stage.  I was thin, occasionally glamorous, kind of crazy and a little narcissistic.  My grandmother was all of the above (except for taking to the stage).  She was even a flapper in her day: long cigarette holder, snappy Zelda Fitzgerald hair and all.  Maybe she would have liked me in spite of herself.

In any case, she’s my unfinished business, the origin of many of my hang-ups.  I am a tireless people pleaser; I am non-confrontational to a fault; I have a hard time standing up for myself and sometimes even for my children.  I’m a therapist too.  If I were my client I might surmise that these traits stem from my unresolved grandmother issues: without her elusive love, fully loving myself has been more of a challenge than it might have been otherwise.

Therapists go to therapy and I have.  It’s helped.  But writing has done more: transformed my feelings, replacing self-pity with self-knowledge.   That’s what writers do: untangle the tangles within, and hopefully do some untangling for readers along the way.