1. The first thing I say to anybody who asks what my childhood was like is “did you ever see “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka?” They invariably say “no,” and I have to try to explain a scene where a dashiki-wearing black activist hauls out his white wife (played by Eve Plumb, no less!) and her impossibly blonde children and makes the kids read from their book report about how Abraham Lincoln was a “white capitalist swine”. I always lamely finish, “because, see, that’s so much what our family was like,” and the listener is confused.
It isn’t exactly true that life with my stepfather and his kids was like this – but it’s only a slight exaggeration. My stepfather was an extremely intelligent, charismatic, and complex human being, who deeply cared about the plight of his fellow African-Americans. He also was a dashiki-wearing, occasionally bombastic activist who tried to counter white racism with some seriously twisted rhetoric, which could be very confusing to a little Caucasian child who had hardly known that people were of different “races” before she got to know him. Case in point:
2. The second example I usually use to humourously encapsulate life with my stepfather is the Toilet Paper Incident. I’m not sure what instigated it, but one day he started exclaiming with frustration and called me and, I think, my two youngest stepsisters into the bathroom.
“Let me show you something,” he said, plucking the roll of paper from the holder as we all tried to cram in between the pink-tiled wall and the sink. “Do you know what the difference is between the African-American way of hanging toilet paper and the European-American way?”
Was this a trick question? We all looked at each other for a moment. At an age still in the single digits, even the term “European-American” was confusing to me. I somehow got it into my head that European must apply to toilets actually in Europe - then the land of knights and fairies and fauns that came our of wardrobes - and images of gold-and-velvet royal Victorian loos and fancy hotel ladies’ lounges danced in my head – not that I’d ever been across the Atlantic.
My stepfather, seeing our blank stares, began to rotate the roll in his hands in illustration.
“The European-American way is to hang it backwards, with the loose end hanging down the back, like this. They think this looks better, but what happens is the paper gets caught there and it bunches up, or you can’t get a good amount because it gets all stuck. It’s fancy, but it’s stingy, and it makes a mess. It doesn’t make sense.”
He reversed the roll and brandished it, putting it into the holder.
“The African-American way is to hang the paper like this, hanging off the front. This way, you can get as much paper as you want at anytime, without it getting stuck. Now, you don’t go pulling and pulling and get too much,” – here he yanked on the roll to allow several sheets to puddle on the floor – “you use your head. But I think you now know the right way to hang the toilet paper, and how to use it so you don’t make a mess.”
I have to say, this whole speech stands out in my mind as one of the most nonsensical and unintentionally silly monologues I’ve ever heard in my life, but he was dead serious. I never did buy that there was an “African-American” way of hanging the toilet paper, although it was illuminating to discover that even the direction of a paper roll could be used as a tool of oppression. Still, I also have to say I never forgot to hang the toilet paper the “right” way again.
3. To go back to dashikis, they will always be emblematic of my stepfather to me. Although I think they were fairly popular in the 1960s and early 70s, by the time I was of an age to notice, my stepfather seemed to be the only person I ever saw wearing them regularly. In fact, the only times he ever wore anything else were doing farm or yard work, which usually involved changing to denim overalls, or at his oldest daughter’s wedding, just shortly before he died, where he deferred to her wishes and actually wore a tuxedo. Everyone who knew him was slightly agog – and fairly delighted – to see him looking so dapper in that tux, especially since it had been a real possibility that the side effects of his cancer would keep him from the wedding altogether.
As for the dashikis, my mother made every single one. I remember long afternoons at the fabric store with her, rooting through piles and rolls, looking for busy, African-looking or vaguely exotic patterns for his daily or semi-formal wear. It makes a strange, oddly romantic picture thinking of her, a white woman in the racially charged 70s, up at the attic sewing machine, cutting and lovingly sewing the fabric she’d chosen for him, imagining how it would look on him as a completed “African” shirt.
4. In addition to being an activist, my stepfather was an educator. When he and his former wife had found out that their son was in the lowest reading group in his elementary school class, they decided to do something about it. They ended up creating a phonics-based reading program for children that used tape recording of their own voices, along with drawings, games and crafts materials, to teach him to read – and it worked. Within a few months he was in the highest reading group, and they knew they were onto something.
That home-made program became my stepfather’s life work, as he adapted it for use by parents and schools and did his best to get it sold or donated to every child struggling with reading. Although it got picked up briefly by Encyclopaedia Brittanica, creative differences with my stepfather and his dissatisfaction with their marketing and distribution made that union short-lived. In truth, the program probably never got beyond the tri-state area of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, with strong emphases on the poorer sections of New York and Philly, but the difference it probably made is mind-blowing. To this day I wonder how many children learned to read with the help of my stepfather’s program, which was extremely effective. Although I was halfway to learning to read on my own by kindergarten (and fully convinced that I could read and write properly, a bit of an over-reach, if you look at the little “books” I made), by the time I finished taking the program I was reading everything I could get my hands on fluently, including adult fiction and the newspaper.
Although the effects of his work as an educator bettered my life as well as many other children’s, there were some down sides. For one thing, he was not a good marketer – he was intimidating and stubborn – and although a good many people found him charismatic, others found him overbearing. This meant his dedication to selling his program his way not only limited its distribution, but it kept those of us who lived with him in a fairly constant state of financial anxiety. It was bad enough living through the 70s recession, with my dad struggling to maintain a decent job and lines forming at the gas stations. With my stepfather, although he dreamed of being wealthy and that one day he would be vindicated, sticking to a strict vision of marketing for a product as unsexy as a reading program meant that growing vegetables, hunting and fishing were not just pastoral pursuits for us, but insurance that we’d have something to eat.
Then there was the time I, as a child, was made to appear on national television, in my blue velour shirt and with a giant rat’s nest sticking out of my hair, to semi-embarrassedly intone the opening monologue of Our Town in an incongruous New England accent. This was meant to display the efficacy of his reading program, somehow. The less said of that, the better.
It wasn’t until a short while after he died that “Hooked on Phonics” became a big deal. Although I think he’d be glad to see people learning, I’m glad he was gone before that happened. It was just too unfair.
5. Besides teaching us to read, my stepfather was always teaching us something. Having grown up black in a poor, rural area in the depression, he’d become quite handy, and found it important to pass down all sorts of skills, whether we wanted to learn them or not. He taught us how to grow and can fruits and vegetables and tend a garden, hunt and fish, drive, do various car repairs, chop wood and build a fire, install drywall and numerous other practical tasks, and not all of them had a particular “African-American” method.
He also would, frequently out of financial necessity, teach us how to deal with being in situations where neither the electricity or water worked, it was below freezing outside and, say, there was a family of mice trying to take shelter in our beds. Although at times it was fairly miserable, a warm brick at your feet can be a great comfort in times of trial, and I always really liked mice, anyway.
Although at times his manner was stern and we’d get tired of being taught, preached at, worked and subjected to roughing it, (a common mantra when garden-weeding time came was that they’d only had us children to use as slaves), many of these lessons came quite in handy later. Even if I can’t always remember exactly how to do the things he taught us, I have, at least, always had it in the back of my mind that if I am in a scrape, I can use my ingenuity and some of the basic skills he taught us to get out of it. I, for one, spent several days alone in a roach-infested studio apartment in the East Village (right behind the Hell's Angels' house) with no water or heat and a collapsed bathroom wall during my sophomore year in college, and, rather than running home to mommy, was able to cope with a laugh. How many Americans don’t even know how to change a tire on their car for God’s sake?
6. He also taught us about music. Having toured Europe as an operatic concert singer in his youth, with his then-wife as his accompanist, my stepfather had a great love for music. As a consequence, not only did he sing around the house, but he encouraged us all to listen to music – mainly the disco, funk and r&b of the time – and even perform it. Frequently at his farm in upstate NY we would have mini-talent show nights, with all of his kids (and the occasional addition of me and/or my brother and sister, who were more shy and easily intimidated by the others’ uncanny abilities to mimic The Sylvers) demonstrating dance moves, acting out improv scenes or singing pieces from The Wiz.
These performances carried over into how we amused ourselves. Since the reading program used a tape recorder and drawing materials, we were encouraged to create radio plays and record them, or draw our own board games and comic books. (This segued into my best friend/youngest stepsister and I making anatomically correct paper dolls, but I digress.) Although I enjoy sitting in front of a computer or television as much as the next person, I will forever hold up some of those standards for creativity as prerequisites for a well-formed childhood.
7. Art and writing were also important, and while I was a bit older, I remember accompanying my stepfather on a visit to the studio of Romare Bearden. In truth, I didn’t know anything about the artist, much less that he was famous – just as I didn’t know Dick Gregory, a friend of my stepfather’s, was a well-known comedian. I just could tell that my stepfather’s bond with him went far beyond being two artistic, light-skinned black men of a certain setting and era – that he really respected the artist’s work. We had some signed prints of his around the house from then on. I don’t know what happened to them – perhaps they went to his children.
He was also friends with Audre Lorde, particularly later in his life, when they were both struggling against cancer. I remember at the time that my older stepsiblings had been whispering some kind of rumour that she was his mistress, which at the time did not strike me as implausible, even though I knew that it was likely wishful thinking due to their lingering resentment of my mother. It was only when I got to college and started doing some reading on lesbian feminism that I realized the full hilarity of this plot. It also made me realize that my stepfather was perhaps more liberal than I thought, and he might have accepted my homosexuality, had he lived long enough for me to come out to him.
8. Along with my stepfather, of course, came my stepsiblings: five stepsisters and one stepbrother, ranging from three months to ten years older than me. Although we knew each other before our parents connected romantically – we lived a few blocks from each other, and my mother worked with him to put together an alternative school for the older kids, because the local schools were so bad – it did not follow that we would be closest of friends once that happened. Indeed, their father left their mother for mine, and my mother left my father for theirs, leading mostly to a lot of pain and resentment among us.
Much like their father, most of his kids could be clever, intimidating and quick-tempered. Although I wanted to fit in with them, I feared all of the siblings except the youngest, who eventually became my best friend. Before that happened, I distinctly remember one of the most torturous afternoons of my life, as she and her Lucy-Van-Pelt-ish older sister paraded home from elementary school calling me “Spooky the Spooky Ghost,” a lá Casper, and refusing to explain why or answer me with more than insults. Typical people-pleaser that I was, I followed them hither and yon beseeching them to tell me why they were doing that and what I’d done wrong. Years later, of course, they had no answer but “it seemed like fun at the time.” This was to be indicative of most of my relationships to come, at least through my twenties.
9. We did, however, have our pleasurable interludes, and often these occurred while fishing. My stepfather loved to fish, and he would frequently take us to local stocked ponds or the nearby lake. Before I came up against a sudden squeamishness at puberty that took away my ability to skewer a worm or kill a fish sans remorse, I greatly enjoyed fishing. I was actually fairly good at it, and, compared to weeding the garden, pruning the vineyard or pushing for deer, it was relaxing and fun. I particularly remember our delight at the times when we’d get store-bought crayfish, or “crawdads,” as my stepfather called them, as bait instead of compost-heap dug earthworms. Besides not being slimy, the crayfish were fascinating, wriggly, slightly threatening little creatures who popped on the hooks with a satisfying crunch when their time came – a fair comeuppance for threatening us with their tiny claws, we children thought.
Beyond the usual sunnies and bass, sometimes he would wake us in the dark of the early morning to rush to a local creek for the running of the smelt. Smelt are fish that grow to be a maximum of about six inches long, and run in huge schools on certain days in certain seasons. There is nothing like stepping into an icy cold, rushing river, with the deep dark of the night punctuated by fishermen’s flashlights, and trying to spread a net while thousands of tiny fish zip around and carom off one’s legs. Then, when you get home, dip them whole in batter and fry ‘em up for breakfast. Them’s good eatin’.
The most memorable fishing experiences, however, have to be the few times we went blue fishing on the ocean. Because they were expensive, these trips were rare, and one of them I spent mostly seasick, but I have always loved being on the ocean, and the accomplishment of hooking, wrestling with and hauling in a fish nearly as large as I was thrilled me.
Sometimes I wish I hadn’t had sudden onset sympathy, and could still fish with relish. I do appreciate the times that I did, though.
10. I would be remiss if I did not mention one major facet of living with my stepfather, as it has influenced my lifestyle (and waistline) to this day. The obsession with food.
Growing up, as I mentioned, poor in the depression, my stepfather’s family frequently lacked food when he was a child. At one point, it became his job to make the rounds of the local restaurants and dumpster-dive for edible refuse. Because of this, as well as his culture, food never ceased to be an imperative symbol of caring and nurturance for him, and the skill of preparing it thriftily was highly prized, as well.
As a consequence, although he introduced us to such raptures as bouillabaisse and Indian food (an introduction that scared me away from it for years, actually, as he ordered the spiciest vindaloo in the restaurant, which I couldn’t stomach normally, much less while being nervous that the Vice President of a major television network was dining with us and I thought I saw Nick Rhodes out the window – but again, I digress), he also insisted that we eat his many variations on “garbage soup”, which usually contained, well, anything he could find, plus copious amounts of hot peppers – enough to make us cry. Many was the time I’d be pouting, my bowl turning cold, as my stepsister sobbed that she just couldn’t eat it, and he insisted that we’d never leave the table as long as we didn’t finish our damn dinner.
But that wasn’t the end of it. As I said, he liked to fish and hunt, and he also liked to trade. He was not picky. He’d trade vegetables for the disturbingly beautiful and bloodied pheasant I came across in the kitchen sink one day. He’d pick up a deer on the roadside that recently been hit by a car and butcher it – one time filling the entire house with a sickening stench when the deer’s intestines had burst in its abdomen. He’d sit on the porch swing with his feet up on the railing, a beer in one hand and his rifle in the other and watch over the garden, until- BAM! Rabbit for dinner! I can even say that I am among those unfortunate few who have eaten raccoon, and let me tell you – they are waaay cuter than they are edible, and how.
That said, he cooked some things excellently, and everything in large amounts. Cornbread and fried chicken were specialties of the house. And there was always dessert afterwards – cake, ice cream, strawberry shortcake with biscuits or “paradise pudding,” a mixture of fruit, Jell-O and whipped cream that we’d all spoon up from bowls bigger than our heads. Yes, if he loved you, my stepfather gave you lots of food, and it was frequently delicious, and always fattening. It is somewhat ironic that I was of a normal weight until some time after his death.
11. My stepfather loved to make a fire, especially since the farmhouse was surrounded by woods, and heated mostly by the potbelly stove and the large fireplace he’d built. He was exacting about getting it just right, and would instruct us on the finer points, until he got inebriated, and would begin just chucking shit in to make the flames higher, brighter, multicoloured. Sometimes I’m glad that we didn’t have explosives around the house.
I will say that, unfortunate discovery of multi-flavoured marshmallows for roasting aside (charred lime marshmallows? Oog.), I have fond memories of sitting by these fires. Whether on the rocky shore by the lake, roasting hot dogs and singing campfire stories, or settling down on the carpet with a book in front of the main fireplace, I found a deep contentment, for a while. I’m sure he did, too.
12. Unfortunately, alongside of all this, life with my stepfather was life with a chauvinistic alcoholic. Sometimes, his preferred drinks of bourbon and cheap beer would mellow him, and he’d get friendly, wanting to laugh and give everyone a hug.
Other times, it was sleepiness that would set in. This was particularly the case when we were making the 5-to-6 hour trip (longer, if there’d been a blizzard, which wasn’t infrequent) to the farm. Round about hour three or so, a beer in his lap, his head would start dipping, and frequently he’d fall asleep for seconds at a time while driving, before snapping awake. Being chauvinistic, he would often take my mother’s requests to let her drive as an affront, and insist he was fine, remaining alert for some time thereafter, but eventually nodding again until I was repeating prayers to myself in the back of the station wagon (usually pressed up against the rear wheel well, while the other eight or so children sprawled out asleep over the back seat and the suitcases in the “wayback”). To his credit, however, although he scared the bejebus out of me, I don’t think we ever got into an accident.
However, when the belligerence came out, it was another problem altogether. There was the time he was actually pulled over – he said for no reason – and after refusing to comply with the police officer he was arrested while us youngest children huddled in the back seat. I still remember him pressed against the side window while being cuffed, exhorting us to watch what was happening carefully, because this was how the police were treating a black man who had done nothing wrong – evidence of the bigotry rampant in the system. He may have been right – but having had a few beers and refusing to exit the car did not work in his favour.
And he would get mean and disoriented. My mother doesn’t remember him falling asleep at the wheel, or the time they had a screaming argument upstairs in the middle of the night, where she yelled at him for hitting her with a stick. I do. I wish I could forget the times he stumbled down the stairs to the main floor at night, only to not make it to the bathroom, and piss in the hallway. I wish I could forget the constant second-guessing and self-defensive analysis of another person’s possibly dangerous moods that go along with being a child of an alcoholic and an enabler. But as much as my stepfather taught me, unfortunately, that will always be one of the most haunting of lessons.
13. Sadly, any remembrance of life with my stepfather has to include his illness and death. I have blogged about this before, and I could say more about how terrible it is to see a proud and vital man become weak and vulnerable. I could talk more about the panicked flights he took to Germany in search of some miracle cure, the guilty revulsion I felt at the constant presence of colonic equipment in the bathroom, the anger and sadness I feel at knowing more could have come to him, that he, finally sober, could have grown, and that I could have better resolved my relationship with this aggravating, frightening, yet smart and caring man.
But I think the thing that strikes me most is that I constantly dream about him, and in my dreams he is always alive. Sometimes I am reliving childhood angst around him, sometimes he is merely matter-of-factly there, and part of my current life. But though his personality is always there and vivid, it is often more understanding than I felt it was in life. It is as if, in my adulthood, I understand and forgive him more, and thus can see him as accepting of me, as well. Some might say that he was even communicating with me in spirit. Whatever the case, it is in this way that life with my stepfather continues, even though his life does not.