Friday, February 24, 2017

Failure to appear

The 2012 Buckley School graduation at Disney Hall
There are these big holes in my childhood memories.  Marguerita Koutsis, my beloved former therapist (see my blog post "Mother's Day") has informed me that "memory-holes" such as the ones I experience, are usually the result of trauma.  But however these holes came about, the fact that I can't remember certain times or events in my life has always been a deep source of shame for me.  The way I have coped with all of this, the lack of memory-ability and the shame that accompanies it, was to avoid any discussion involving these "blank" time periods or, (if pressed) to simply "fill in the holes" with a plausible story of my choosing.

In order words, since I was a kid, whenever my memory faltered - I lied.

In recovery, the first principle that is suggested to practice as a way of life, is HONESTY.  On July 14, 2008, I took my first step toward honesty when I acknowledged that I had a problem that was too big for me to solve by myself.  For those of you who know me well, you know that this was a very painful admission for me.  I spent that first year of recovery swimming in a sea of shame, humiliation and vulnerability.  Telling the "absolute truth" about everything, all of the time, left me feeling over-exposed and under-protected.  Our recovery literature states that there some people who are "constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves."  I believed myself to be one of these "constitutionally incapable" people during my early recovery. But slowly and agonizingly, I began to admit that all of the "filling in" that I had done was not only dishonest, but my covering up for my faulty memory had created a groundswell of fear and shame in my day-to-day life.  Now, I take every opportunity to tell the truth about whatever, no matter how painful it may be.  But sometimes these "opportunities" to be honest take me by surprise...

*   *   *

"Sorry for the second, call," she said.  "But I need to order the robes for graduation."
I looked at the calendar on my computer.  
It's already graduation time again?
"Okay," I said.  "My order will be the same as last year."
She was new at the school.  I, on the other hand, had been a trustee at The Buckley School for 6-years.  A Buckley graduation is a big deal ceremony.  At that time, it was held at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles. All of us trustees sat in the front row as the Head of School and the Board Chair handed out diplomas to each graduating senior.  It is the ultimate in pomp and circumstance.  I was always conscious that it was an honor and a privilege to be asked to participate in such a solemn and dignified event.

"I don't have last year's orders," she said.  Her voice was crisp and mono-toned.  
"Um, what do you need to know?" 
"What degrees do you have?" She asked.   Suddenly all I could hear was the sound of her chewing gum.  My stomach lurched.
I knew why she was asking.  Buckley orders a corresponding "hood" for each trustee's black, graduation robe (i.e., someone who graduated with a doctoral degree from Cornell would wear a green hood with black velvet trim and green lining.  Someone who graduated from Harvard Law School would wear a long, black gown with a crow's feet emblem near the yoke made from flat braid — no velvet trim).
Tell her you have a degree from FAU  No one will ever check!
"No degrees," I said quietly.
"No degrees," I repeated in a slightly louder voice.
"No master's degree?" She sounded incredulous.
"Oh, okay.  Well, where did you get your bachelor's?"
I felt my face getting red.  Suddenly I was too warm for the old, fuzzy cardigan I always wear in my office.
"I, I don't have a bachelor's degree either." 
"What do you have? An associate degree?"
She sounded as though she were actually curious now.  I could picture her sitting up and looking at the phone in her hand with interest.
"Um, no,"  I let out a small, nervous laugh.  "No associate degree either."
"Well, that's okay," she said.  Her voice was kinder now.  "What high school did you graduate from? We can use those colors."
Well, you can't tell her the truth here.  She'll tell everyone.  Maybe they'll decide that it isn't ethical for you to be a trustee of an educational institution when you don't possess either a degree or a diploma. Just say you went to Berkeley High School - don't tell her you didn't graduate!
"I, um," I stammered.  "I went to Berkeley High School."
Good girl!
"Oh!" she said brightly.  "Up in the bay area?"  
"Yes, the bay area," I said sucking in my breath.  
I closed my eyes and blurted out, "but I didn't graduate."
Huh?!? Idiot! Now you've done it!
She paused, the gum chewing stopped abruptly.
"From there or from anywhere?"
"From anywhere.  I didn't graduate from high school or college."
Oh God.  I've actually said it out loud.
"Well..." she said.  It seemed like a full minute passed before she spoke again.  "Well, that's fine. I'll just order the Buckley colors for your hood."
Good, she sounds like business as usual.
"Thank you," my voice was small again.  "Thank you."
"See you in June, Laura!" She said.

*   *   *

"You didn't graduate from high school?" My friend, Nicole was genuinely surprised.  I turned the radio down and waited for my hands-free to pick her up before I answered. I had called her to talk about Miles's "senior night" and somehow the fact that I have never myself finished high school came up.
Oh no! She didn't know! Quick!  Change the subject! Ask her about her new place.
"No," I said after I heard the static hiss that meant we were connected.  "It's funny because it almost never comes up.  People just assume that I did — graduate, I mean."
"Yeah..." her voice had a tone of wonderment. "I would never have guessed!"
"Yup," I shrugged (even though she couldn't see me).
"How come?" She ventured.
I quieted my breath and became conscious of inflating my lungs as I inhaled.
How come?  What's the story I usually tell here? Just make something up!
"I'm not sure," I said.  I looked down at my button-down flannel shirt.  I could see my heart beating through the thin, soft material.
Just tell her that things were "complicated" at home.  It sounds crazy to say that you can't remember what happened.
"To be honest, I have these big holes in my memories," I continued.
"I just told everyone that I went to college because everyone assumed that I had and I thought it was easier than telling the truth.  And of course, most people then surmised, because I'd graduated from college, that I'd graduated from high school as well."
"That's really -- surprising," I could tell that she was choosing her words carefully.  "It doesn't sound like you."
That's because it's the "me" that I've hiding for all of these years.
"The really weird part was that I still went to school every day for a long time, but I just stopped going to classes sometime in the 10th grade. When it came to my report card it wasn't just that my grades were bad (but they were really awful!) it was also that my teachers wanted to know what had happen to me.  It less about an assessment of my work (or lack of) and more of a noting of my  'failure to appear.'"
"Wow! The 10th grade?! What did your parents say?"
"I think by the time they found out it was kind of a done deal.  The way I remember it, I was given a choice to get a job or go back and re-take the grade.  I don't really remember exactly what my thought-process was, but in the end, I decided to get a job."
All at once my breath seemed to return to normal.  I relaxed my shoulders without realizing it.
Okay, maybe saying this out loud isn't the end of the world.
"And that was it?  The end of your education?"
"No, not really.  I went to junior college in Oakland for a year or two and then when I moved to Florida I went to community college there.  I had every intention of graduating and then getting a four-year degree.  But what I hadn't learned in school proved to be insurmountable.  Algebra and geometry were always elusive subjects for me, plus I'd never really developed any study habits, so I kept hitting these walls.  I had enough credits to graduate, but I couldn't pass all of the required classes to earn a degree."
"That sucks," she said.  "Have you ever thought about going back now?"
Everyone always asks that when they find out.
I shook my head, "No, I can't say that I'm really motivated to go back to school — now anyway.  Maybe one day, but honestly, I don't really feel the lack of my formal education in my daily life.  You know, I was that proverbial 'bookworm kid'.  I read every book I could get my hands on for years and years.  At 8-year's old, I made fast friends with Francie Nolan from 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'.  And Pecola Breedlove from 'The Bluest Eye,' was my junior high school 'buddy.' When I was a publicist in my twenties, my boss, Prudence Baird, had me read every major newspaper and magazine every day.  It was a great habit.  I still read the paper every week and a lot of magazines (mostly fashion)! The way I see it, that was my education."
"I would never have guessed!" She said.
She's still processing the fact that I don't have a diploma.
"I mean, I would have never known..."

*  *  *

"Relax, Laura," he smiled.  "This isn't an ambush, it's just your exit interview."
I was seated in front of the Assistant Head of School and my DMI Co-chair in his office.  In two short months I would don my black robe with the red-trimmed hood for my final Buckley graduation as a member of the board of trustees.  
"Okay," I smiled back.  But I felt unsettled.  I had been conducting exit interviews on behalf of the board for the past nine years.  I didn't expect that it would be so emotional to sit on the other side of that interview-desk.
"Okay, I'm ready," I smiled widely and looked from one kind face to the next.
"To begin with," he began. "I just want you to know how valued you are here and that your contributions to the board have been tremendous and commendable.  And on a personal note, I have really enjoyed your presence and I think your voice on the board, especially when it comes to issues of inclusion, has been one of the strongest."
Tears sprung into my eyes as he spoke.  I resisted the urge to dab my fingertips under the corner of each eye.
"Thank you," I said nodding my head.
I folded my hands in my lap.
"Now," he said.  He looked down at the exit-interview sheet which I had filled-out the night before. "You've said that you've seen a lot of change in the past nine years?"
I smiled at him and nodded again.  
"I can say that the actual complexion of our school has changed dramatically over the past five or six years.   And yes, I am proud of that."
We talked like that for a while, me giving my opinions and observations about my time as a parent at Buckley and as a board member.  All too quickly we came to the end of the interview.
"Do you have any final thoughts?"
I closed my eyes for a moment and paused.
"Yes," I said.  "I do.  As you've just been here for a couple of years, I don't know if you know much about my background -- but I never completed high school or college." 
I looked down at my hands and waited for their collective gasp.  When none came I looked back up and continued.
"I was raised by a single mom who did the best she could with what little money we had.  My mom and dad both did everything they could to make sure I went to independent schools.  Sometimes I was the only "poor" one in school, sometimes I was the only Black one (sometimes I was both).  For almost ten years I was an only child. So I'm used to being the "only" one in a room.  But when I was asked to join this prestigious board, where the majority of the members are these professional, multi-degreed people from the worlds of law and finance, I then became the only Buckley board member with no formal education.  I had all of these moments of self-doubt, but the truth is I have felt valued and heard since my first day on the board.  For the past nine years, it has been an honor and a privilege to contribute toward the evolvement of this amazing educational institution.  I missed a lot by not completing school, but in a very real way,  serving on this board has satiated that desire I've always had to be part of an educational process.   The school administrators and this board have shown me over and over again that my opinion and my experience are both valuable.  Our Head of School has told me repeatedly how important my voice is on this board.  It has meant everything to me.  In fact, if I'm given the opportunity, I would like to stay on my committee and continue to champion its efforts."

He stood up and walked over to me with his hand extended.  "That," he said shaking my hand with a smile, "is exactly what we were hoping for.  We'd like to have you continue on your committee as long as you're willing to serve. We're lucky to have you."

Friday, February 17, 2017


When I was a little girl, I wore my hair in two braids.  When it was loose from the braids it formed a huge, woolly, semicircle "halo" around my face like those portraits of medieval saints. 

I wasn't a fan of the halo.  In fact, I would spend hours in the mirror trying to figure out how to get "it" to lay down flat like my classmate, Eliza Mains's hair.  Eliza had clear, green eyes and a chin-length, poker-straight, blond, blunt-cut that she was fond of tucking behind her ears.  I was fascinated by how every single strand of her golden hair moved independently from the other. A flick of her hand would send all of that "blond-ness" cascading from one side of her head to the other like a waterfall.  I would practice flicking my braids from one side to the other (sometimes whacking myself in the face in the process).  But my braids were too thick to tuck behind my ears, and I couldn't, no matter how hard I tried, make them cascade like a waterfall. 

So I switched tactics.  I began to search everywhere for people to admire who had hair like mine.  I wanted to see singers, models and actresses - FAMOUS people, who had the "woolly halo" too. The message I got from TV was that I was nice-looking enough to be acceptable, but my hair...  

My hair was another matter entirely.  My hair wasn't silky or long.  You could NOT run your fingers through it — my hair didn't SWING.  In fact, whether I "fluffed" my hair to make it bigger or patted it down to make it smaller, it pretty much stayed put all day (picture cotton candy). 

*    *     *

It was a 20-minute bus ride down Shattuck Avenue to the Ashby BART station.  Thirty minutes later, clutching my shoulder bag with both hands, I stepped off the train in Oakland.   As I bounced down the stairs to the "Mac Arthur Blvd" exit, I stopped on a landing to make sure I still had everything; my house key, my dog-eared copy of "The Good Earth" and the crisp, new $50.00 bill that my mother had given me for this occasion.   I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that all three were safe in the  zippered, side compartment.  

The sign for the "SaHAIRa" salon was so small that I missed it twice as I walked up and down the block.

2922, 2928...?  Where's 2926?

When I finally found it,  It was 5-minutes past my appointment time.   I rushed in breathlessly and interrupted the small, blond woman at the receptionist desk.
"I'm here for a relaxer!"
Immediately I was engulfed by the sharp, acrid smell of ammonia.  It felt like my sinuses were being singed.
What is that smell?!?
I looked around and saw that the woman at the station next to me was getting white goo painted on to the roots of her hair.
I gasped audibly and covered my nose with my hand.
The receptionist eyed me suspiciously and held up a finger while she finished her call.  
"You have an appointment?" She said finally.
"Um, yeah.  Dana Alexander made an appointment for me?"

I said it like a question.  I was nervous.  Dana had told me the relaxer might hurt a little at first, but it would make my hair lay down straight.  The week before while we were "hanging out" at my house, she told me that when I walked out of SaHAIRa, my hair would swing "like a White girls".

"You know how they turn their heads and their hair comes swinging over the sides of their faces?" She said. She parted her lips sexily and turned her head from left to right in slow motion.
I nodded, fascinated.  We had been dancing around my bedroom with t-shirts on our heads mimicking Lindsay Wagner, The Bionic Woman.
"That's how your hair will be when you walk out!  Girl!  You'll be swingin'!!"
She walked dramatically over to the window,  my Florida oranges t-shirt hanging from the back of her head, swinging from side to side between her shoulder blades.
"I can't wait!" I realized that I had been holding my breath.  
It's too good to be true!  I can finally have the hair that I've always wanted?! Why doesn't everyone get relaxers? 
"But..." I ventured.
"But what?" She took her t-shirt off and ruffled her hair with her free hand. She looked irritated that there was a "but."
"But Dana, how come your hair doesn't do that?"
"Do what?"
She is irritated!
Dana was short and curvy and her nut-brown eyes were the exact same color as her skin.  She was infamous in the ninth grade for her quick temper.  I, on the other hand, was not infamous (or famous) for anything. In fact, most people didn't know my name at all.  I was pretty much only known as "the skinny girl with the afro."
("Who are you talking about?  Laura? Who's that?!? Oh, you mean that skinny girl with the afro??")
"You know -- swing?" I looked at her pleadingly.  My voice was barely audible.  
She looked angry for a moment, then her face softened.  She turned to face my mirror and patted her short, brown, stiff, helmet-like hair back into a mushroom shape.
"Aw girl, it only gets like this when I wait too long to get a touch up.  It will be swingin' again as soon as I get my allowance next week!"

"Miss?  Is it under Laura Cathcart?"
I snapped back to reality and found my smile.
"Follow me please,"  she smiled at me and walked me to a small closet in the back of the salon.  She took my standard blue, North Face down jacket and hung it on a hook and handed me a slick, black cape to fasten around my shoulders.
"Virgin perm," she said with a knowing look to the young Black woman who'd come over to us.
The woman smiled and looked me up and down.  She had startling blue contacts which gave her eyes a "science fiction-ey" glow.  Her hair was up in a sculpted, finger-waved bun. She smelled like the cosmetics counter at JC Penney.
"What's your name, Sugar?"
"Laura," I said.  I was trying not to stare at her eyes, so I fixed my gaze on the bun on top of her head.  The bun was silky and dark black like Indian or Asian hair.  The rest of her coarse, stiff, finger-waved hair was a reddish brown.
"All right, Miss Laura," she sing-songed, tilting her gaze to capture my eyes with hers.  
"Have a seat," she guided to me to her station.
"Ready, Sugar?"

The thick, white paste she painted on to my roots with a brush seared my scalp like wildfire.  
I yelped and turned around, looking for a blow torch or some other fire-producing device.
Oh HELL NO! This sh*# HURTS!
She held my shoulder firmly with her left hand while she continued to paint with her right.
"Shhhh, shhh.  It just hurts for a minute, 'cause your head isn't to it.  Jus' let me finish. I'll be real quick, I promise."

My silky, swingy, hair hit my shoulders and bounced as I walked to the bus stop the next morning. But I winced in pain as the breeze hit the oozy, green mess that was my scalp.  I had never before felt the wind on my scalp (it had always been protected by my halo).  I didn't like it at all.  It felt like something was missing.
Two weeks later, when the pus finally formed into a solid scab (which pulled my scalp tight like a skull cap) my hair stopped swinging and formed into a dry, brittle, mushroom-shaped helmet like Dana's.  
Three week's later, chunks of my crisped, tortured scalp fell like ash onto the shoulders of whatever sweater or t-shirt I was wearing.  Crazily enough, I went back to SaHairA two more times for "touch-ups" before talking my friend Emily into giving me a home Jeri Curl ON TOP of my relaxer (the smell it left in her downstairs bathroom got her into so much trouble that I was afraid to go back to her house for months).  Finally, I cut off my hair and started from scratch.  By the time I was in my 20's, I was no longer chasing that straight, swingy, White girl hair -- I had my sights set on something more realistic.  I had decided that I couldn't want White girl hair, it wasn't becoming of a strong, Black woman like me.  
Instead, I determined that I needed (and frankly, deserved) silky, curly "mixed girl" hair.  I turned my covetous eye away from TV stars like, Farrah Fawcett and Lisa Whechel and toward bi-racial actresses like, Jennifer Beals, Halle Berry and Troy Beyer.  I spent hours tried to "will" my hair in to looking like Alex Owen's perfect curls in Flashdance.  After each failed attempt, I became more and more discouraged.  One hairdresser tried a "texturizer,"  another a Keratin treatment.  As each one failed to yield the results I was hoping for, I tried really hard not to hate my stiff, dry, over-processed hair.  The truth was, processed or not, I was bitter about the hair that grew out of my head.  In my later 20's and early 30's, I wore it up all the time because it was tolerable that way, and I could disguise it to look more like that hair I wished I were born with.

Who knew the Brazilian Blow-out was the very thing I'd been waiting for?  The moment I stepped out of Maria's salon-chair (after she'd preformed her Brazilian "magic" on my hair),  I knew that I had found my answer. It was like the sun suddenly burst through the clouds and shone brightly on my head for the first time ever.  Never mind that I was already 46-years old.  It could never be too late to have the perfect hair.  I was dazzled by this new hair of mine.  With the Brazilian, my hair SWUNG back and forth when I walked!  The Brazilian Blowout gave my hair weight.  It fell over my shoulders and fanned out across my back.  
My hair had never been past my shoulders before, y'all! 

Now, suddenly it grew like a weed, long and healthy down past my bra strap.  Friends that hadn't seen me in while would eye me suspiciously before asking,
"Is that ALL yours?"
Each time, I could hardly contain my giddiness, "YES!"
I could blow dry it myself and get it silky straight.  I could use a curling iron and my curls looked loose and natural.  It was finally the hair I DESERVED.  I no longer hated the hair that grew out of my head.  I got it trimmed every 5-weeks to keep its shape and it kept growing back healthier and stronger.  I LOVED my hair.  I knew that I had earned this hair.  I had waited all of my life for this hair.

Scottie, who loved me BB (before Brazilian) loved my new and improved hair.  He would run his fingers through it and it would cascade back in to place.  I loved my hair after a work out.  I loved my hair in a high, swingy pony when I played tennis!  I loved my hair on vacation!  It would get a slight "tropical" wave, but still stayed long and silky. I couldn't WAIT to get to my roots done every three months.  Each time was like magic, I came out with longer, stronger hair. I loved my hairdresser. I LOVED my Brazilian Blow out.

Three years ago, I was packing boxes in my closet after the kids had gone to sleep (to move into our current home) when I saw the bald spot.  I was kneeling down between two mirrored walls, putting some shoes in a box, when I glimpsed something skin-colored on the back of my head.

What the F#@# is that....???

I ran into the bathroom and got a hand mirror and held it up.  I bit my lip to keep from crying out when I saw it up close.  There it was, this exposed, quarter-sized spot of pale scalp on my left side.  I hurriedly covered it with my hair, but it wouldn't spread evenly.  
My hair is thinner and grassier in this spot!  How did I not notice this before?!
I went carefully through the rest of my hair and found two more smaller bald patches and discovered that all the hair on top of my head was thinner than the hair on the sides and in the back.  I sank to the floor of the bathroom and held my head in my hands.  I allowed the tears to fall directly on to my bare feet, which were curled beneath me.  I wanted to hide my thinning hair.  I went back in to my closet and found the box with my hats and pulled out a baseball cap and jammed it on over my ears.  I felt slightly better just knowing that the ugliness was covered up.  

"We'll just do a scalp biopsy okay?  I'm sure it's just the stress of moving."
Dr. Pearl moved like a geisha around the exam room on her tiny, graceful feet.  I thought I felt faint, so I focused my eyes on the ever-present strand of pearls that she wore around her neck.
"A biopsy?"
"Yes, just to check for things like female pattern baldness, alopecia, etc," her voice drifted off.
"But like I said, it's probably just stress.  All the same, better hold off on that Brazilian Blow-out for the time being."
I felt as though my heart stopped beating in my chest.  I pulled air in through my nose with terrific effort.
"But if it's stress, what does the Brazilian have to do with it?"
"Maybe nothing," she said matter of factly.  "But just in case it does, like I said.  Better not do it anymore."
Whoa!  Not do it anymore or hold off for the time being??
"For now," I corrected her.  "Right?"
She tilted her head to the side as she looked at me.  "I'm suggesting no more — ever.  It can't be good for your hair.  Why take a chance?"
I left her office with a promise of lab results in two weeks and heart heavy with grief.  
My Brazilian!  I have to say goodbye to my Brazilian?!? 

The two weeks seemed to take two months to go by.  I knew it was bad news when she refused to give me the results over the phone when I called her.  Dr. Pearl sat me down in her office when I arrived and looked at my chart silently before speaking.
"Do your parents have thinning hair?  Any baldness?"
I felt the floor rushing up toward me.  I closed my eyes for a second to steady myself before looking at her.
Oh my God.  I'm going bald...
"What does it say, Dr. Pearl?"
"I'm very surprised," she said.  "I really thought it was stress.  But apparently your hair is thinning in a pattern."
My eyes filled with hot, instant tears.  I pictured myself with a two-inch wide center part and wispy, thin hair like all of the women that I'd seen on the Internet (of course, I had been Googling "female thinning hair" obsessively since I first found the bald spot).
"What does that mean?  What do I do?"
"We have lots of things we can do," she said in a comforting voice as she walked over to me.  She put her hand on my shoulder and placed her index finger under my chin.  "Hey," she said.  "Don't worry, we'll get your hair back."
"But no Brazilian?" I said timidly.
"No Brazilian!" her voice scaled up.  "I'm putting you on a strict regimen and treatment plan."

My natural hair felt like it was struggling to break free of my scalp,  like it was pushing the Brazilian off of my head.  Day after I day, I took my supplements and month after month, each time I saw Maria, she cut off more and more of the Brazilian.  When I regarded my woolly, tightly curled roots, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of defeat.

Okay halo hair.  I guess you win...

But Dr. Pearl was right, I did everything she said to do and my hair started to fill in again.  After a few months, the bald spots were harder and harder to see.  But that wasn't all.  Soon, another amazing thing started happening.  I started to get mad compliments.  Suddenly it seemed as though everywhere I went, people were excited to talk to me about my hair.

"I really LOVE your hair like this!"

I regarded each of these compliments with suspicion.  It seemed to me that people felt sorry for me and thought they SHOULD say something about my hair, so they feigned enthusiasm for my natural hair to make me feel better.  
One day a friend of mine sat me down and looked me in the eye and said,
"I just have to tell you, this is SO much better than your straight hair.  Really.  It looks healthy and youthful.  This is the right shape for your face.  I really love it, Laura.  I'm really, really glad you stopped the Brazilian."


After that sincere compliment, suddenly I could hear all of the other compliments differently. I would spend hours in front of the mirror trying to convince myself that it was true.  

This is your best hair ever.

Scottie loves my hair.  But he doesn't "diss" the Brazilian ("I really like your hair both ways").
Scottie loves to bury his face in my curls.  He strokes my "halo" away from my face when I'm laying on his chest while we're watching TV.  It's an automatic, loving gesture.  He loves the spring of my hair. He loves the way my hair looks on vacation, full, vibrant curls.  He loves the way I can wear it to the side or have full bangs.

"Your hair looks great, Hon."

I created a hair vision board with women who had hair like mine; curly, natural halos.  
Everything helps.  Every compliment helps.  Every "good" hair day helps.  But the truth is that regardless of what I wanted or thought I deserved, this is my hair.  And I really am so grateful that Dr. Pearl was able to retard the thinning and allow this thick, woolly-ness to grow out of my head again.  And I think I've finally accepted the fact that the hair I was born with is a gift.

Only lately, have I been able to look at myself in the mirror and think, "All right now, girl.  Your hair is looking good."

Friday, February 10, 2017

Valentine's Day PDI (Public Displays of Indifference)

(photo NOT taken on Valentine's Day!)

"So, just to be clear," said Scottie.  "We're NOT celebrating Valentine's Day right?"
I laughed and lay my head against his chest, "no, Honey."
"I'm not going to get in trouble because I'm not buying you a gift or making a dinner reservation?"
"No, Honey," I smiled.  "No Valentine's Day plans."
"Phew," he said turning to look at me. "I love that you hate Valentine's Day. It makes my life a lot easier."
"Hate is such a strong word," I protested.  "It's just when it comes to Valentine's Day, I'd rather not."
"I'm with you, Honey," he smiled.  "You know it's always been my personal belief that more people break-up around Valentine's Day than get together. The relationships just can't survive the expectations society puts on that day."
"Exactly, I said, kissing him.
That -- is why I love you so much...
"What?" He said pulling back so he could look at me better.  "What's that look for?"
"Nothing, just loving on you."
"Awww..." he blushed and kissed me back. "You love me because we both...'would rather not' celebrate Valentine's Day?"
Scottie leaned over and fluffed the heads of our two black, short-haired labradoodles, Venus and Serena.  He spoke to them in the high voice that he reserves for them.
"Girls, you hear that?  We're don't celebrate Valentine's Day!"
The girls stared at him expectantly and wagged their tales in unison.
Moments later, he took out his phone and started to text someone. Then he stopped and looked back at me.
"You're SURE that you're not going to want even just a little something?  Some chocolate or flowers or something?"
I sat up and pointed my index finger at him.
"Don't you walk in here with flowers for me on Valentine's Day, Mr. Slaughter!"
He pretended to look scared and laughed. "Okay, as long as you're sure, I have to check, you know."
"Positive," I assured him, putting my arms around his shoulders.  "I have everything I want."

Later on that day,  I ran into the Fashion Square mall (is it still called that?) to grab some moisturizer from Bloomingdales and almost smacked in to the quarter-mile line of people waiting to order their See's Candies.
Ugh, The February See's Candies cattle call!  I'm so glad that Scottie and I don't do that.
As I was scooting around a short woman with two large See's bags, I caught a whiff of the rich, sweet, smell of chocolate and it stopped me cold.  I found myself changing course mid-step and rounding the corner into the store, bypassing all of the people in line.
Maybe there's an express line?  I'm sure they're all getting big boxes of chocolates.   Maybe I could just get a piece of brittle or an orange cream...
50 or so impatient, frustrated faces turned all at once to look at me as I tried to approach the counter.  I turned around and left quickly, shaking my head as if to clear it of my temporary madness.
Girl, get out of here and go get your face cream! You can't even be seen trying to participate in this fake, holiday craziness!
All at once, I recalled  a conversation I'd with one of my good friends the day before.

*  *  *

"What are you guys doing tomorrow?"
Immediately, I felt my insides begin to tighten up.  I fought the urge not to just hang up in her face (which, I totally get is a completely disproportionate response.)
"Um, nothing."  My tone made it clear that the subject was closed.
"No Valentine's Day plans?  I'm surprised!  You guys are so in-loooove!"
"I'm not a fan of Valentine's Day."
"Oh? Is this another one of your 'Laura-isms'?" She made her voice higher to imitate me like a munchkin from The Wizard of Oz, "I hate baby showers, I hate bachelorette parties, I hate all holidays!'"
My smile had a sound like a laugh, "Okay, Okay, very funny, you got me."
I inhaled sharply and then closed my mouth abruptly.  I really wanted to change the subject.
She grew silent too.  I sensed that she was waiting for a further explanation.
"It's just that Valentine's Day has never really been my jam," I said finally.
"How come?" Her voice seemed full of genuine concern.
I took a deep breath.
She's asking.  But I know she doesn't really want the answer.  She wants to fix it for me.
"Okay," I started.  "But this may be more than you wanted to know."
She laughed, "What happened?  Did you get you get dumped on Valentine's Day or something?"
"No," I smiled.  "Not dumped."
"To begin with, it always seemed like a 'Hallmark holiday' to me. You know, just an arbitrary day  designed to make people spend money unnecessarily, feel bad if they're not in a relationship and create competition among those who are."
She laughed again, "At least you're not bitter."
I laughed with her, "Okay, but really, that's how I've always felt.  In all of my previous relationships, I dreaded February 1st, because I knew that I would have to start thinking of some 'GREAT' present to get him and at the same time, brace myself for the disappointment of receiving some the lame piece jewelry or a fussy, 3-course prefix dinner that I would have to feign excitement about."
"Okay, knowing you, I can see that," she said.  "But at least they were trying.  You've got to appreciate that."
"I tried to tell myself that," I said.  "I really tried to be like:
Just go along with it.  You should be grateful that someone cares enough to go through all of that trouble."
"Right!" she sounded as though I had just driven her point home.  "That's what I'm saying!"
I shot the phone a side glance.
"But that kind of thing is precisely what got me into so much trouble in my marriage."
"What?" (she said it like "say what???")
"Maybe you remember, I really didn't know how to be married.  I looked to all of my other friends who were either already married or getting married. I watched how they did things.  They all seemed to be so in sync all of time and that seemed to make the marriage happy."
"We hated those couples!" she giggled.
"Right," I said. "And everyone told me, 'A relationship is compromise.'"
"Well, that's true," she said.
"Yeah but, I thought compromise looked like: 'I'll try and like whatever you like and I'll try and hate whatever you hate.'"
Serena came over to me and placed her furry head under my free hand.  I started to pet her absentmindedly.
"Whenever I was my authentic self and it didn't go over well, I just shelved that part of me.  Eventually, I had put so much of who I was on the  shelf that I didn't know what was me and what was the newly 'compromised' Laura.  Suddenly, I was someone who was planning those elaborate Valentine's Day events.  Suddenly I was booking the 3-course prefix meals at expensive restaurants and squealing over the jewelry I received but would never really want to wear."
"Yeah, you don't really wear jewelry."
"Wow, it's was really like that, huh?."
"Yes girl, it was like that..." my voice drifted off.
"And it wasn't until after my divorce that I learned that there is a difference between 'compromise' and 'compromising myself'."
"Phew!" She whistled.  "I heard that!"
I let her understanding of that concept "settle in" for a moment before I spoke again.
"But back to the dumping," I said finally.   "No, I never got dumped on Valentine's Day, but you know it was about eight years ago this month, February, that Brian and I decided to end our marriage."
"Oh, damn girl.  That's right."
"And the fact that we were constantly surrounded by ads for Robbins Bros. Jewelers and See's Candies didn't help.  Everything around us, in fact, seemed to exacerbate the fact that we were failing at love in a month when everyone else seemed to be celebrating falling in love. To me, it seemed like the whole month was basically designated to promote public displays of affection."
"I remember that," she said softly.  "We barely saw you then.  And when we did see you, it was so tense.  You guys both looked so torn up."
"We were torn up," I said.  "It was hard enough making the decision to end our marriage in private, but it was the public part that was excruciating. Now, I'm grateful for how we did it then.  If we had tried to 'hang in there' longer, we might not be as good of friends and co-parents as we are now.  But then, it was just a terrible fog of grief and pain."
"Yeah, I can't imagine," she said.
"It was awful, that whole time,  he and I were still processing what we were doing and how it would impact everyone in our lives, especially our children.  And at the same time, we still had to plan Miles's 10th birthday party and go to all of their travel league, basketball play-off games together.  We might have even had one last, forced, Valentine's Day meal, I really don't remember. "
"How did I not know all of this?" Her voice was brimming with compassion.
"It was private, I guess.  Just between he and I.  We needed to sort it out together first before we went to anyone."
"I can understand that.  But you must have felt so alone."
"I did..." I paused and placed my phone between my shoulder and my ear so that I could pet Venus with my other hand.
"Websters defines 'indifference' as the opposite of love.  And that February, he and I had a lot of public displays of indifference.  It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I was so full of shame and resentment.  It was like going outside without my skin."

*  *  *

I got back from the mall early that evening and put my bags down (of course, I ended up getting way more stuff than just the face cream I needed).  I spied Scottie's car in the driveway as I scurried through the kitchen into the bedroom with two bags of clothes.
It's after 6:00? Where is he?
As I was unpacking the first bag, (stopping to admire the striped cashmere sweater that I'd "scored" on sale), I spied a little white paper bag with black writing on my pillow.
What's that?
I walked over and saw that it was See's Candies bag.  I could smell the chocolate inside even before I picked it up.  The paper crinkled loudly as I unfolded the bag.  I took another look around to see if he were hiding somewhere.
Inside were 3 pieces of California Brittle, 3 butter creams and 3 chocolate-covered cherries.  I felt my eyes growing warm as I popped a piece of brittle in my mouth.  Immediately my senses were filled with the salty crunch of the toffee, surrounded by perfect, velvety, dark chocolate smoothness.
Scottie!  He stood in that horrible line today!
"Is that okay, Hon?" He came noiselessly into the bedroom from the hallway.  He wore a sheepish expression. "You're not mad, are you?"
I walked over to him and hugged him without speaking.  He cupped my face gently and sniffed around my mouth.
"Are you already eating them?!"
I knew I was flashing him a mouth full of partially chewed chocolate when I laughed.
"Yes! Honey! I really almost went in See's today!  I really wanted some chocolate!  But that line was so ridiculous!  I can't believe you waited in that line!!  I love you, Honey."
"I love you too," he said smiling at me.  "Now, let me have one of those cherries."

Friday, February 3, 2017

SFAM (Sister From Another Mister)

"Hey Laura."
Yay! I needed a call from my Daddy!
"How are you feeling?"
"Pregnant," I paused as I shoved the remainder of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my mouth.  "My belly feels like it's been stretched to the limit, Daddy.  And I've had this dull headache for about two weeks..."
"Are you drinking enough water?"
"Probably not," I laughed.  "You know I hate water."
"Hate water?!" he laughed.  "Laura, you can't hate water."
I laughed with him, "okay, Daddy.  I'll try and drink more."
Suddenly his tone became confidential. "Hey, listen, Laura.  I need to tell you about something."
"It's about a girl."
Another girlfriend?
"Yeah Dad? "You mean Barbara?"
Is that that her name?
He cleared his throat, "No, not a girlfriend.   A girl.  A young girl."
A young girl? What was he talking about?
"A girl that might be your sister."
 I opened my mouth to let more air in.  I felt my face getting warm. Miles shifted in my abdomen, his elbow poking underneath my ribcage.
"She's only about 11-year's old," he continued quickly.  "I've only just met her myself."
You're telling me that I have an 11-year old sister that you've just met?
"Might be my sister!?" my tone was incredulous.
"Yeah," there was a laugh at the edge of his throat. I heard him swallow it with a gulp.
"Wow, Daddy.  I don't know what to say."
"Would you like to call her?"
Call her? Call her?! I have no interest in calling her.  
"I don't think so," I said stiffly.
"Well, would it be okay if she called you?  She knows all about you.  She's really excited about you."
He's been talking to her about me?
My voice sounded like an autobot.  I was still processing the fact that I was no longer his only daughter. I felt self-righteous, self pity infusing itself into my blood stream.
"She doesn't even know me.  What's she excited about me for?"
He met my resistance with silence.  I felt my stomach lurch.
Don't be like that.  This must be hard for him to tell me. 
"Sure, I guess it would be okay for to her call me. I'll have a conversation with her."
I guarantee you she won't be excited about me for long....

"Hey Sis!" her voice rang out over the din of children talking and yelling.  I heard what sounded like a car door slamming shut.
Where is she, at school?  The mall? Why is she calling me again so soon? I don't have anything new to say to her.
I looked at the phone in my hand.  It was early in LA, but I knew it was mid-morning for her.
"Hey...?" I hoped that my tone conveyed both annoyance and disinterest.
"What's up sis?"
I hated the way she always called me "Sis."  I was annoyed that this child felt like she was entitled to my time simply because she thought we shared the same father.
"What's going on?" my tone was crisp.
"Nothing much, what's going on with you?" Her voice was light and full of curiosity.  I could tell that she wanted to "phone-visit".
Something for you to note, little "Sis."  I have a real adult life.  I do NOT have time to phone visit.
"Umm, listen, it's early here...."
I don't remember the rest of the conversation.  In fact, I really can't recall the details of any of our conversations.

The truth was I should have said "no," when he asked if it were okay if she called me.
Because very quickly it became less and less okay.  It was barely tolerable when I entered my ninth month and it was decidedly NOT okay after Miles was born.
I remember catching the phone on the first ring for fear it would wake the house.
"Hey Sis!"
"Hey, the baby is asleep."
Miles rarely fell in to a deep sleep until it was near morning.  We all tip-toed around the house because as soon as he woke up, he screamed bloody murder until I nursed him.  I was a bleary-eyed, sleep deprived newlywed.
But Verhonda seemed undaunted.
And the truth was that I was not okay with her.  I couldn't comprehend her over-the-top, youthful, enthusiasm about finding me.  I did not (at all) share in her "instant sibling" joy.  I was not amused by her early morning and late night calls for advice from her "big sis."

In fact, mostly what I remember about those calls is that I couldn't wait to get off the phone.  Eventually, I answered less often, staring at the phone while it rang until the display changed to:
"Missed call."
When will she get the hint?
And then one night, I crossed a line.  I really don't remember what I said, but the pit in my stomach told me that I'd hurt her.  I think I knew she'd never call me again.

Some 20 year's later, When my brother Jordan contacted me (see my Blog post "It's a Family Affair") it took a long time for me to work through my initial resistance to meeting him (and his brother, Jay - correction, our brother, Jay) but I took suggestion and direction and he and I ended up seeing each other not once but three times that year.  It was really quite epic.

But I digress, the part I left out of that post was that when I met Jay and Jordan for the first time at The Fountainblue Hotel, after hugging, pictures and swimming, someone mentioned casually mentioned Verhonda.
"Oh really?" I tried to keep my voice light.  It had sounded as though they said she was on her way.
"Yeah," said Kofi, wrapping a towel around his narrow waist.  "She'll be here in a little while."
Suddenly, despite the 100 percent humidity, my mouth and throat were so dry I had to cough to clear a path for my voice.
"Oh? I didn't know she was coming."
Jay looked up at me, he was sitting on the pool ledge, wearing his swim suit and had his towel wrapped around his long "locks" like a turban.  He squinted one eye shut, blocking the sun with an outstretched hand.
"Yup.  Her and her kids.  Her husband too, I think. They just got married."

I had seen a Facebook post of hers the year before (on Kofi's page), "calling on" my brother Kofi and Jay and Jordan to join her in the Bahamas for an event.  It was hard to really tell what she looked like.  She and I weren't friends (Facebook friends that is). Although, Facebook seemed to be befuddled by this, as she regularly appeared at the top of my "People You May Know."  It actually had started to feel a little hostile.  Like maybe Facebook was mocking me:

"You MAY know your sister, Vee, Laura.  She's listed as family on your dad and your brother's pages.

Most of the pictures she posted seemed to be of other people.  I wish that I'd paid more attention to her posts when they appeared on Kofi's Facebook page.

That "event" in the Bahamas must have been her wedding.
She has kids?
How old could she be? 29?30?
They're ALL coming here?

I was a bundle of nerves when Kofi answered his phone and bounded down to the lobby to get her.  I went in to the bedroom of our suite to fold laundry and compose myself. When I spied three, young women walking in with a man a few minutes later I was confused.  Jay and Jordan got up and hugged the brown-skinned one in the long, beige and cream striped dress. I came out of the bedroom with what I hoped was a welcoming look on my face.
Jesus! Is that her? She's just a baby!  The other ones must be her daughters!
Honestly, they all could have been the same age, no exaggeration.  I did a quick calculation in my head,
What am I? 20-year's older than her? I'm old enough be here mother!
My dad broke into a smile when he saw them.  She hugged him and then came over to me.  She had some sort of book tucked under her arm, which she handed to Kofi with a deep smile, while she kept walking.
"My wedding album," she said with a wink, then she turned her attention to me.
"Hello Sis," she held her arms out for a hug, but the look on her face was unreadable.  Her smile wasn't as full as it had been for the others.
Or am I imagining that?
I bent down to embrace her.  She was short, maybe coming up to my collar bone.  She felt soft and warm in my arms.
"Hey Vee," I said using her Facebook name.
She introduced Miles, Justin and I to her daughters.  We all sat around the living room of our suite while we talked and passed the photo album around.  I was keenly aware of where she was in the room at all times.  All at once, I was terribly grateful for the large group in our hotel room.  All of my brothers seemed to be entirely at ease.  Miles and Justin were curious and asked a lot of questions. Close to 11:00 pm, she and her family went home, leaving my boys and I to pack for our 6:30am flight home.

After that trip, I decided to have my "new" brothers, Jay and Jordan, join my Dad, Kofi and my step-brother, Chris, for their annual trip to see us in Los Angeles.  As you can imagine, the trip requires quite a bit of advance-planning, use of mileage and the procurement of quite a few "blow-up beds."  I started planning the trip in September and come February 2016, the five of them were all set to visit me and my boys for 3-days.

I don't remember if Verhonda texted or called me to tell me "the good news" that she could come and that she had purchased her ticket with mileage.

"What do I do?" I asked Beverly.
I had asked her to meet me at our favorite spot, Le Pain Quotiden. I opened my notebook on the table and ordered my usual, camomile, mint tea with an orange slice.
"This is happening whether I want it to or not.  How do I get my head right for this?"
"This woman is your sister," she stated.
I was thrown off.  It wasn't a question.
"Yes..." I said, trying not to sound frustrated.
She's my sister.  That's the only reason we're talking about her!
"What you know about her?"
"Not much," I admitted.  Jordan, my brother, told me that she's a lawyer.  She has two daughters that are almost the same ages as Miles and Justin. She lives in West Palm Beach, I think."  I shrugged and started to study the unused pen in my hand with focused curiosity. "I really don't know anything about her."
"So if you don't really know her or know anything about her, then what are the stories that you've told yourself that make you think that this will be a negative experience?"
My eyes flashed with indignation.  I closed my notebook and made a space on the table for my tea as the waiter set the pot down.  The smell of fresh mint wafted up and acted as a tranquilizer. I softened the tone of my voice.
"I'm not telling myself stories.  I've had actual experience with her. She wouldn't stop calling me.  She couldn't take a hint."
"When she was a child?"
"Yes..." I looked up slowly and met her gaze.  "She was a kid."
"Well, maybe use these three days to get to try and know this woman - your sister.
 Then, if you don't want to continue to explore that relationship, at least you'll have current information on which to base your decision."
I felt stubbornness solidifying in my gut, like water turning to ice.
"I could," I said through gritted teeth.
"You can always go back to your stories," she said cheerfully.
 I unlocked my jaw and tried it again.
"Okay, you're right.  Thank you for that. I'll try and stay open."

The visit was a whirlwind.  I didn't feel like I had much time for bonding with anyone (It's a lot of work hosting 6 people for three days!).
To be perfectly honest, I was just happy to have my house back when they left.  Instead of feeling filled up as I had with earlier visits,  this time I felt depleted.
I realized that once again, I was the victim of my own expectations, but I didn't care. I felt bitterness settling in for a long stay.
I did it.  I tried it.  And now as far as I'm concerned, it's a wrap.
There were a flurry of group texts from each of them as they landed in their respective cities later that day.
"On the ground!"
I'm driving home now..."
"I made it..."
"Just landed in ATL..."

When Verhonda landed she sent a text, just to me.

"I just want to thank you and Scottie for everything you did.  You may not know how much I really needed that trip, but I did.  I know how hard you worked to make it nice for all of us.  Thank you, Sis. Love you."

I was surprised by the rush of tears that stung the back of my eyes.  I texted her back right away.

"You're welcome.  Love you too... Sis."

And just like that, something unlocked in my heart. The ice in my chest began to melt.

*       *      *

"I've got to tell you something, Sis.  I found my father."
She and I were on the phone going over the first chapter of her memoir.  She had asked me to read it and tell her what I thought.
Honestly, I was completely blown away by her life.  She had both her daughters while she was still in high school, survived what can most kindly be described as an "unstable" childhood and managed to put herself through law school and become a working attorney.
I put my pear and arugula salad down and swiveled away from the computer in my editor's chair.
"You what?"
"Yeah, I found him.  He looks like me."
"Wow," I said.  "I didn't know you were looking for anyone."
Dad's not her father?!
"I've known in my heart for a while now.  But now I know for sure.  And I have a sister too.  She looks just like me!  We could be twins."
 She's not my sister.  
"That's amazing, Vee." I said trying not to sound overly enthusiastic. I wanted to see how she felt about it first.  That's really amazing."
"I can't believe it," she said.  "It's like having so many questions answered."
"Did you tell Dad?"
"He knows," she said.  "I think he's known from the beginning."
"How do you feel about it?"
"I'm glad to know," she said.  "I'm looking forward to getting to know him."

"Well, I guess that was it!" I laughed to Scottie later in bed after telling him the whole story.  "After all of that, 20-years of kicking and screaming and I don't have a sister anymore!"
"That's a crazy story!" He grinned as he rolled over to face me, placing his head on my pillow.
"I know," I said.  "But the craziest thing is I had just, finally "leaned in" to the fact that she is my sister."
"I know," he smiled. "So now what?"
I sat up to adjust the covers. The bedroom was bathed in blue light from the muted TV.
"I don't know, you've been helping her with her book.  She's always the first person to read and comment on your blog."
"I know!" I settled in the pillow facing him.  "She was the last one I'd thought I would really like and connect with, but she's the one I've ended up being the most connected to."
"So like I said.  Now what?"
"But she's found her real sister now," I went on as though I hadn't heard him.  "I saw a picture of them on Facebook.  They really do look like they could be twins."
"Okay, but your family has really kind of adopted her, right?  She's part of your family regardless, right?"
I looked at the TV across from our bed for a moment.  Hillary Clinton's face was plastered on the screen.
Now that she's not my actual sister do I want her in my life?
"You're right," I said reaching for his hand and intertwining our fingers.  "This doesn't have to change anything."