Tuesday, July 04, 2006
(old post from the myspace)
For an only child who was raised by a single mother, I sometimes have a lot of family. Last weekend I took the Greyhound to Atlanta, GA for a family reunion. It's an amazing group of people. We trace our ancestry back to the mid 1800's and one slave, we are the descendants of her children. It is over 150 years later and we are every color, work in every profession and live in every region of the country. Most of us have only met through these reunions. It is surprising what a word can do. Complete strangers assembled in the downtown Atlanta Hilton and because we said the word 'family' we fell into an ease that is normally reserved for people known for months or years. I will always be amazed by this.
However, before we all wipe a tear from our collective eye, let me remind us that this can backfire. Like when I spent the first 20 minutes of my family reunion with the wrong family. As I was checking in at the front desk, I asked several times where I might find my family.
I repeated it back to the desk clerk, "Suite 550, and I'm in 710. Right?"
"Correct" he lied.
Suite 550 did contain a family reunion of black people who ranged in tone from deep to extremely light, just like my family. They had platters of cheese, pinwheel sandwiches, and fresh fruit. I was starving from the bus ride, so before approaching the registration table I helped myself to several pieces of cantaloupe and cheddar cheese. When I finally introduced myself and discovered that I was NOT in the hospitality suite of the Mc~-G~ family reunion it was too late to put the plate back. I called the front desk from the room phone, clutched my plate of stolen snacks and smiled awkwardly at a completely random family from Austen, TX.
My family reunion suite, the one that contained my actual family, was in 750. When I got there my cousin, Mgn, spotted me and whisked me off to another room. On our way, we ran into a family of four. They were introduced to me and the youngest, a boy of about 12 stepped forward and said "What color are you?".
As a biracial woman, I can tell you that I have spent my entire life answering that question so I responded quickly. Now, if I had paused for half a second, I would have noticed that this boy and his brother were both a mid shade of brown, his father was very light, and his grandmother even lighter than me. But no, I am so used to being asked that by nearly every new acquaintance I meet, "what color are you?" that I gave him my usual response.
"I'm tan. Taupe? I don't know, you're looking at me, what color do I look like?"
He shrank back into his dad and everyone laughed. It was explained that the whole family was playing a game where we had to find the other people in the family who had the same color dot on their nametags. I hadn't received my nametag yet. Ironically, mine was pink. I found my little cousin to tell him which color I was, but for the rest of the reunion he hid whenever he saw me coming.
Later, we watched a DVD of family photos displayed to music. I have cousins who were called Mop and Bucket and Scooter. This would be the first of the five times I saw the DVD over the course of three days. My favorite part was when we would get shushed by the older cousins so that we could look at the pictures. Apparently, looking at pictures requires a complete and collective silence. By the third viewing, I was prepared and looking forward to my 'shuuuushing'. See? Family.
On the night of the family banquet, my friend, B~ came out to meet me. He had called before making the 2.5 hour drive.
"Are you having fun?" he asked.
"I am, but I'm kind of tired."
"You sound a little tired. Were you up late?"
"No, but I've spent the day being bossed around by various black women. It takes a little out of you."
He laughed longer than seemed necessary, and informed me that it takes one to know one. I resented that. I almost never boss him around. Well, not more than once an hour anyway.
He arrived after the banquet was finished and we joined some of my cousins in the lobby bar. I think this was one of my favorite moments.
For me, family is never something obvious or easy. My parents were met with opposition from both sides when they had me. Not much later, having handled the pressure of their families, they found that their real opposition wasn't race or their parents but each other. My white mother raised me with pride for my black heritage but we lived in a different state from everyone else. I didn't have much opportunity to forge my own relationships with either side of my family as I was growing up. So we are in the lobby bar in Atlanta and there is B~ to witness the moment but not direct it and there is my youngest Aunt and her youngest son who know my father. There are several other cousins ranging in age from 20 to 70 who don't know my father. We are telling stories that start earlier in the day and then ramble back as far as 50 years.
If I put the stories together, they sound like this:
What did you think of St. Bart? I loved it, but I haven't been there in a while.
I drive a truck out of Pheonix. No, it's only got ten gears, that's becoming more common.
So my friends and I, we were just going to see a movie right? And we were going to pay but then he put us against the back of the car and I spent 6 hours in jail. No, my dad didn't say too much.
You fenced? Really? Like you had a sword and everything? Listen, I could use those when the kids come into my office. Every high school principal should get a sword.
You should have seen me come out of that elevator, I looked wonderful and I knew it. People asked me if I was the mother of the bride and I said no, I was the mother of the groom.
Yes, I slipped planting a rose bush, I tell everyone it was the most expensive rose I ever planted. I love gardening.
I'm a firefighter. Most of the work I do is rescue and emergency medical. You get used to it. Where are the kids? They're in bed. What are we doing tomorrow night? Is there a jazz club?
I teach high school English but last semester I taught a drama class. I was just winging it but it went really well.
You know I don't ever have a problem with your dad, I just say Yes to pretty much what ever he says.
Your aunt did a really beautiful dance tonight, don't you think? I've never seen a praise dance before. Do you know Jason? From Seattle? No, he doesn't come to these reunions. I'm single and I like it that way. I'm retired now and I play a lot of golf.
Would you look at this museum in my purse!
Can't you get me a drink? I'll be 21 in two months.
Doesn't he know he could get served if he dressed a little older? Sagging like that he looks his age.
Good night sweetheart, I'm tired but I'm sure I'll see you tomorrow. You going to the aquarium?
Okay, good night, it was nice to meet your friend.
No, she got the whole tab for everyone!
Well good night.
We'll see you tomorrow.
Good night now.
It was nice to meet you.
You have a good night.
When I think about it I guess that's how all families might sound, if they met in the lobby of the Atlanta Hilton, more than a century after their conception from a slave woman and her slave owner. Or at least the lucky ones.