Center of the Universe (59)
Letter from a Sinkhole
Dear Rev. Kang,
I know you don’t like it when we go away. And, once again, I forgot to write. Not even a creepy Victorian holiday card! So belated happy new year to you and Maria. Let me catch you up on our recent sojourn in the Sunshine State.
Yes, mother’s fine, at almost 97. Thanks for asking. Still talking, still walking —and proudly so. Even demonstrated (in heels, no less) how she can bend at the waist, knees straight, and pluck a stray button from the carpet. All her ambulatory trepidation, she assured us, with a note of defiance, is not about physical prowess, but visual acuity. She has macular degeneration, the incurable kind, same that turned Molloy’s mother Rina blind many years ago. So she walks with a cane and a high degree of caution, fumbling for the next handrail, chair back, car door or wall because she’s afraid of being upended by some unseen bump, pothole or slick. All of which is understandable, even pitiable, even amazing — at almost 97.
And she’s allowed to feel nervous about walking when she’s almost blind. And we’re allowed — I’m allowed—to feel sorry. It’s normal and healthy and right. And we’re allowed — me, too—to feel sorry that, without her hearing aids (and sometimes with them — don’t get her going on that South Asian ear quack), she’s pretty much deaf. And I do. I do feel sorry, gratefully so, as I embrace the opportunity to experience sympathy for the woman who bore me and paid housemaids to raise me and who seems to strive so hard to elicit the opposite. Deaf and blind is one thing. Vicious and cruel another. And for those eager to ascribe the latter to her being almost 97, I’m here to tell you that all that hissing and growling has little to do with arteriosclerosis or the irrefutably depressing prospects of going fully eye- and earless — nor, for that matter, with the Fox News that, since she canceled the Times for “picking on Trump,” has provided the terrifying arrow-slit view of the umber hordes she always knew were coming — because she was exactly the same at almost 37 and almost 47 and almost 67. And it’s that meanness, not her geriatric infirmities, makes me — unmasking perhaps a mean streak of my own — want to go upside her umber coif with a silver pheasant.
Her father, my grandfather, a lifelong student of the War Between the States, had a big silver-plated pheasant, and after he was laid to rest among the steel gray defenders of bondage in Memphis’s foremost Confederate graveyard (now overlooked by a black neighborhood), the pheasant came to live in the middle of mother’s dining room table. And this visit, just as our first-born was passing a dish, the bird keeled over. Our daughter, who’d vowed to skip this year’s Florida festivities after last year’s troubling hijinks (which followed, quite naturally, on the conflagrations of the year before and year before that) and who flew in from LA only after much guiltifying that her lone surviving grandmother was almost 97, swears she didn’t touch the thing. Point is: mother didn’t freak. Granted, she hadn’t yet noticed (thanks to the macular) the substantial divot in the high-gloss oak table. Still, there was no temper tantrum, and that was a merciful surprise.
But what you have to remember, Rev. Kang, is there are few straightaways in the neurosystem of a Southern Belle (original recipe). And this one’s psychology acts more like an international spy trying to shake a tail, jumping in and out of taxis, hurtling down crooked side-streets and over half-opened drawbridges, ducking into an alley while the tailing car zooms past and then cooly pulling out in the opposite direction until — with the coast finally clear — it disappears on foot into a bustling souk. Then again, sometimes when there’s no explosion, it just means a grievance is being stockpiled for a bigger, future explosion. Or maybe it’s bogged down in the neuro-gridlock of a thousand-and-one bitter pills. In any case, passive-aggressive doesn’t begin to describe mother’s approach. And vigilance is the order of the day.
Which makes for long days.
That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Rev. Kang. We’re not in “Mayberry on Acid” anymore — unless it’s bad acid, Woodstock’s “brown dot.” Things are different down here in the sinkhole. Sure enough, after browbeating her oldest grandchild into mute rage over, let’s call it, a relationship issue, mother leans over to ask me if I think my daughter’s gone quiet because she knocked over the pheasant. Which, in case you weren’t paying attention, is really two digs in one — a reproach of the grandchild’s social skills couched in seignorial forgiveness for her faulty table manners. Later, having failed to get enough of a rise, she allows that, actually, it’s more than that: my daughter, she announces, is “on something.”
The other thing about mother’s psychology is that, even beyond the dizzying stealth, it’s a damn good spy. Sometimes I suspect she’s just playing up the blindness, deafness and, these days, the forgetfulness to get us to lower our guards. Because you can still be sure that the one thing you don’t want her to notice or know is precisely what she does or will. When my brother and I were kids in our room jumping on the bed, mother would holler through the wall: “Don’t jump on the bed!” We’d ask her how she could possibly know, and she’d tell us she had x-ray eyes. It impressed me so much that decades later I wrote a song. Well, now those x-ray eyes, somehow undimmed by the macular, have penetrated that her granddaughter’s boyfriend is not lily-white.
Did I mention mother is from Memphis?
In the South, she will argue, whites have loved their “colored,” and treated them better, than any sanctimonious Yankee ever could or would. And that’s especially true in Memphis (where they killed MLK with kindness?). But mixing? That’s not right. “After all, you have to think of the kids.” That was one of the things she kept harping on through this year’s visit. You might say it was the week’s official theme, as if selected in advance by a prom committee. “Think of the Kids! Class of 2018!” — and above the gym stage an eight-foot-high cardboard cutout of a sweaty-browed stork, outlined in glitter, flapping away from a mob of gingerbread men chucking phalluses.
She wasn’t only worried about the clan’s skin. She was also worried about its noses. Bad enough that one member of the family (she seemed to forget it was me) had married into the Tribe. Now another was threatening. And she commenced to rave about the exorbitant nasal dimensions of a comely lad of, in fact, moderate schnoz, but impeccable Hebrew lineage. Never did she utter the “Jew” word (just as she never said the “N” one), and never did she have to. Hers is the pig-Latin of racial coding. Barely pretending.
You also have to think of the kids when you think of our family’s non-straight members, banished from the birthday celebration for the Prince of Peace-and-Love (or any other celebrations) as long as they persist in flouting convention and squandering God-given reproductive powers. Anyway, mother has lived in this town more than fifty years and will not have those silly girls — now an upstanding married couple, past 30 — flouncing around humiliating her.
And when our daughter clarified that her Brown-eyed Handsome, a New Yorker, was also of Caribbean extraction, grandma was quick to note: “New Yorkers don’t like Puerto Ricans.” Which, compared to most of the matriarch’s supremacist assertions, came off as a little flimsy. So a few hours later, she added some signature oomph, inquiring if I didn’t worry the Puerto Rican would murder my daughter. Delivered sotto voce, through gritted teeth, at the big Christmas dinner, more than familiar racist chit-chat, it was a call-to-arms. Daring me to stand up and be a man, to show my love, prove my mettle and defend my stock — like a decent dad would — from a hot-blooded, stiletto-packing Latino cartoon.
It’s been a lifetime of this. And it’s taken me a lifetime to find my footing. When I was young, such assumptions were my entire universe, center and periphery alike — nothing to believe or disbelieve, they just were. Like gravity. Or Jesus. Even when they seemed to go against everything we were learning in Catholic school (well, except the part where they told us to shun other religions), lessons about a God of love and a nation of equality, as well as against the history-in-the-making I was seeing on our black-and-white TV and cultural upheaval blasting from my transistor, and even though my mother’s pronouncements sometimes struck me, prima facie, as mean and hateful, I just thought it was me, that I was naive, immature, ridiculous — as mother assured me I was — about the wicked ways of a mean, old world. And I thought those things — on and off, more or less, consciously and unconsciously — a tad too far into adulthood. But when people of color insist that racism still runs deep and wide or Jews that anti-Semitism is rife, where I might once have dismissed it as cant or exaggeration or whining, today the claim lands like a gut-punch. Sorrow mixed with profound private shame. Because I know full well that shit was in there.
Still is, I’m sure, all compressed and crusted and covered in hair, like a petrified stillbirth. But I know better now. I know that, as with most formulaized hate, there’s a part that goes beyond the political, traversing the spaghetti pathways of psychology back to — way back to, in the case of my near-centenarian ma — a frosty père and besotted mère in an era that frustrated the development of smart, strong women, even as it offered racial fantasy as one framework for venting that frustration. And as, year after year, I am baited into engaging with her, to trying one more time to make it better, I know things will never change. I know that, down in the sinkhole, there will be no Christmas Miracles. “It’s a Wonderful Life” won’t happen. Nobody’s eyes will be opened, let alone their hearts. More likely, a cheek will be slapped or, as in one long-ago Season of Peace, a carving knife thrust toward a ribcage.
I honestly don’t know what she’d do with a North Korean like you. I don’t think she’s ever encountered such a creature. Safe to say, what she’s heard on Fox has not been in the slightest reassuring.
I might also explain, Rev. Kang, that she doesn’t have reliable internet (after she got mad at high-speed Comcast and switched to low-speed AT&T), which makes it technically hard to communicate, and her demands, judgments and surveillance are constant throughout the day, wherever you might attempt to hide (especially after she got mad at a houseguest who’d accidentally locked herself in the bathroom, and having summoned the handyman — a forbearing immigrant named Gerardo — to rescue the offending damsel, she ordered him to disable the house’s interior locks, every last one). I might even say the whole situation is humiliating, for many reasons, and, present evidence excluded, I don’t like to talk about it. Don’t really know why I brought it up. To get revenge on an almost 97-year-old? Prove I can be just as cruel?
I suppose the truth, Rev. Kang, is I didn’t so much forget to write as I was too busy counting the days until our next dinner — you, me, Roni, Maria, Gary, Val, George, Flo, Jacquie, Heather, Sonia, Soy, John, Steve, Wendy and the gang — at home.
Love and peace,