Thursday, September 24, 2015

Today is my Grandmother's Birthday

 “Grandma, tell us a story,” my cousins begged in perfect unison. We all knew that if we had been well behaved that day we would be rewarded with one of my grandmother’s in depth and extremely detailed bedtime stories. My cousins, brothers, and I looked at her with bright eyes hoping we earned one of our favorite rewards. Some of the smaller cousins wiggled with anticipation inside their sleeping bags that were sporadically spaced across the living room floor of my grandparent’s house.

  “Which story would you like to hear, my little angels?” She knew we all wanted to hear about the secret garden that could only be accessed through a secret passage in an old castle back in a magical place called Ireland, as that was the only story we ever requested. But she always asked us anyway.

  “Grandma, can you tell us the story about the garden? The secret one?” My eldest cousin, Samantha, was always willing to ask for things. I always struggled with expressing myself because I felt like a burden, but she had no fear of burdening others. My grandmother started her story with immense detail. She would describe the castle, the stairs, the door, the flowers, the vines, the weather; almost to the point that it wasn’t a story at all.

That night, after she finished her long detailed narrative, I looked around the living room at all of the children that she lulled to sleep with her visions and voice, and I felt like I had disrespected her by not falling asleep to her story. I looked up at her and told her I was sorry I didn’t fall asleep. She smiled at me and said, “Oh, my Sweet Leilani, don’t apologize. Let me tell you another story, this one is shorter, but I think it can be our secret.”

  I listened to her soft voice as it began to paint a picture, one that just she and I would share. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t as detailed as the tale she had shared moments ago with me and a handful of her other grandchildren. She started by sharing details about her mother, Polly, and her mother’s only sister, Fern. She talked about how they were the best of friends and the worst of enemies. She told me that their favorite thing to do was tease each other. Fern would sing, “Polish it in the corner” and Polly would reply with, “Furnish it in the corner.” I snuggled down and smiled as I drifted off to sleep enjoying the sound of my grandmother’s voice sweetly reciting our secret story. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand exactly what the story meant at the time, though once I was old enough to know what curse words were, it did finally dawn on me. The only thing that ever seemed to matter when I was with my grandmother was how much she loved me.

  Many children grow up living in their grandparent’s home, so it wasn’t unusual to me being raised there for almost my entire childhood. Our situation was a little different because my parents lived there too. My maternal grandparents owned a five bedroom house on the corner of North Cashew Avenue in a city named Brea, in California. It had a fenced yard and a tree swing, as well as a two story fort my grandfather built for his grandchildren in the backyard. One thing that made our situation peculiar is that we often had other people living with us. Sometimes one of my grandparents other eight children and their spouse and children would move in with us. I would share my bedroom with various female cousins, and my brothers would make room for our male cousins in each of their rooms. My parents lived in the finished garage, so my aunt and uncle would move into the extra bedrooms upstairs, near the children and my grandparent’s master bedroom. Other times my grandparents would rent out the extra bedroom, either to missionaries, or strangers, or even church members. Growing up with the rotating door that was my grandparent’s home was oftentimes a strange experience.

            Out of everyone who lived with us through the years, my grandmother was my favorite. She had a way of loving that could never be doubted. I loved her more than I loved my mother, and for good reason, my mother was often mean and cruel. My grandmother would sing to me as a young child and tell me those detailed bedtime stories that she kept filed away in her memories. I remember her hands vividly; at times I am convinced I remember her hands better than I can remember her face. I recall the topography of her hands, the way puffy veins created mountain ranges and how the valleys were the place where her liver spots gathered. I know they weren’t always so wrinkly and shaky, but that is how I remember them. I remember how it felt for her hand to hold mine and I remember how my hand transitioned from feeling so small in hers, to hers feeling so small in mine. I remember how gentle she was when she did my waist length hair; my mother wouldn’t allow it to be cut and was always rushed when she braided it. I remember searching my grandmother out in the mornings, hoping she would have time to braid it before my mother got a hold of me.

  I hated having long hair. It was the bane of my childhood existence. It reached down slightly past my waist, just long enough to be in my way every time I sat down. I went through the morning torture of my mother braiding it for school, and the same ritual every night for bed. She would rip the brush through the tangles, as though having to brush it at all was burdening her beyond my young understanding. I would look for my grandmother some mornings, hoping that she hadn’t left to run errands, or decided to sleep in, so that I could have her put my hair up. My mother didn’t like the sloppiness of my grandmother’s arthritic hands. And I definitely couldn’t do it myself for multiple made up reasons, but mostly because I would have pulled it loosely back at the nape of my neck, which always upset my mother.

  My mother would start by putting my mane in a tight, gelled down pony tail. So tight that there were days that I felt my eyeballs were on the brink of popping out. Then she would jerk my head about as she braided over two feet of hair. The last step required a can of AquaNet as she sprayed my bangs to the point of immobility. I do not believe there are words to describe how much I hated it. I would ask daily to have it cut. She always had a boy-based answer to shatter my wish. Her favorite was that boys liked girls with long hair, and the second place answer was that she didn’t want people thinking I was a boy. No matter her reason, the answer was always no. That is, until one morning before school when I was in 4th grade. I was trying my best to stand still during the morning pain session when I asked her if I would be able to get a haircut. She snapped. Before I realized what was happening, my mother was standing behind me with the kitchen shears. She asked me over and over if I was certain that this was what I wanted and I can remember staring in the mirror at my long locks, which were happily nodding along with my head in the affirmative.

  I can still see my mother shaking her head in disappointment. I remember the feeling of her pulling my hair back in one clump and the sound it made as she cut through it with one hard slice of the scissors. She pulled her hand away, holding a symbol of multiple years of pain and headache up for me to see in the mirror. I waited for her to straighten the haphazardness out, but then I slowly realized that she had no intention of helping my new haircut look cute. She was smiling at me in the mirror, still holding the tail of hair, looking very proud of herself for teaching me a lesson. I stared at her for a little too long and realized that she was rewarded by the tears forming in my eyes. I quickly looked back at myself, at the haircut I knew some of the kids at school were going to laugh at, and I realized something. I was never going to be able to be the daughter my mother wanted me to be. My new haircut wasn’t perfect, but it was too short for a ponytail and braid. That second realization caused the corners of my mouth to begin to turn upward. I really wish my mother saw the beginning of my smile, but she had already tossed the hair into the bathroom trash can and stomped away victoriously.

            By the time my grandmother picked me up from school that day, my best friend and I had already evened out my hair the best we could in the girls’ restroom during our first recess. My grandmother didn’t say anything about my hair. I wasn’t sure if she was as disappointed in me as my mother was, or if she didn’t know what to say to console me. I was so relieved that my grandmother picked me up that day; I don’t think I could have stomached sitting in such close quarters with my mother. I looked over at my grandmother as she drove the winding way home and whispered that I loved her so softly I almost wished she hadn’t heard me. She took her eyes off the road, which she was known to do for extended periods of time, and smiled at me. She put her hand on the nape of my neck and tussled my hair. Her soft, wrinkled, arthritic hand in my hair caused my heart to warm my chest and the tears to start to roll down my cheeks.

  My grandmother would often drive me home, humming a song from her childhood, always ready to fling her arm across my chest if she stepped on the brakes suddenly. I remember watching her twiddle her thumbs at stoplights. I remember watching her hands roll out pie crust, or knead bread dough. I remember how her hands felt on mine as she showed me how to whip eggs into merengue and how to create clothing using her sewing machine. The smell of fabric and warm oil still causes my brain to recall memories of her and how she became more and more dependent upon me threading the machine for her. My favorite thing to watch her hands do was play the piano; it was the highlight of my week. I can still see her hands gliding up and down the keys, her voice traveling through the house like a lost opera singer looking for the stage. I tried to mimic the way she effortlessly made beautiful music sing from the belly of the piano, her hands never seeming to stay on a single ivory or ebony key for too long. I remember the way I felt when she told me I was old enough to learn as my hands could easily span over half an octave. I couldn’t hold my giddiness inside, I was swinging my legs back and forth on the piano bench, like the young child that I was, ready to learn the majestic piece “Mary had a Little Lamb”. She numbered the five ivory keys starting with middle C up to the first G above middle C, with 1 2 3 4 5. She sang 3 2 1 2, 3 3 3, 2 2 2, 3, 5 5. And I followed her voice to make my own music bellow out of the gorgeous instrument that I slowly learned how to play without the masking tape.

  The year I turned twelve my grandparents moved out of their house on North Cashew Avenue and I desperately wanted to go with them. They had purchased a new house in Apple Valley, California. I begged my mother to let me go. Her answer was absolutely no; I was absolutely shattered. I remember helping my grandparents pack their belongings, sorting through years of memories that I wasn’t alive for, wishing that each thing I touched could stay with me. Standing out by the moving van I saw movement from the corner of my eye, a mound of blue blankets taped together and moving on wheels; it was my grandmother’s piano. I became hyperaware of my entire body in that moment, all the emotions I had been fighting back all week became ripples on the placid surface of my expression. As my grandfather, uncles, and father struggled to get the piano on the lift gate, I struggled to hold back the beads of tears that streamed down my face. I felt someone come up beside me and I turned to see my mother looking at me with her brow furrowed together. She angrily said, “Stop being so melodramatic,” and stomped into the house.

        In late 2009 my grandmother died. She died quietly on the morning of her first born daughter’s 54th birthday. She died in peace in the hospital alone, after begging my sleep deprived grandfather to head home to get some sleep, assuring him that she would be fine. I wasn’t there; no one told me she had passed away until the day of her funeral and by the time my mother told me, there was no way to make it to California in time. But I can imagine her hands, resting across her chest with her spots, and mountains, and valleys, and it breaks my heart that I will never learn from them again. I see glimpses of her in my children. Though they only met her briefly while they were very young, a part of her lives on in them. I see her hands in my own hands, as I grow and age I see mountains start to form and my freckles gather like spots in the valleys, wrinkles magically appear that weren’t there before and I know that because of my grandmother, my hands are able to do things that they wouldn’t have ever done otherwise. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sometimes I Wonder

I was born to an unwed mother in July 1980.

My parents married in Las Vegas in July of 1981. Granted, the man my mother married would not be my adoptive father until a few years later, but since he is the man who raised me, I always refer to him as my dad.

My first half brother was due in April of 1982, but was two weeks late and was born in May.

In August of 1983 my father adopted me, and that same year in October my brother and I were sealed to my parents in a temple ritual.

My second half brother was born in December 1983.

My last half brother was born in April of 1985 and shortly after that my mother under went many surgeries trying to stop cancer from taking her life. She was in and out of the hospital dozens of times between 1985 and 1993.

In 1994 my parents separated, then divorced.

In 1996 they remarried.

In 1998 they divorced.

In 2001 the remarried.

In 2006 they prepared for another divorce, but decided to stay together.

After they divorced in 1998, my mother decided it would be best to tell me that the man I always knew as my biological father wasn't my real dad.

She reached this decision after one of their many fights. That night I had spent time with my dad and brothers at Disneyland. We were annual passholders and it wasn't uncommon for us to visit for a few hours here and there when we knew the park wouldn't be too busy.

It was my dad's weekend, but being a full grown 18 year old adult, I preferred to sleep in my own bed than on the floor of my dad's apartment. So after we decided to call it a night, my dad drove me home and dropped me off.

I walked in the house, let her know I was home, then headed to my bedroom. She called to me and told me there was something important she wanted to tell me.

I plopped down on the couch and she told me that my dad wasn't my real dad, that my brothers were only half brothers, that she was raped and that is how I came to be, and that I had older half siblings, but she wasn't sure. I stared blankly at her for a short while, then she said that I couldn't tell my brothers because they didn't know.

I was dumbstruck. I didn't know how to process the information. I borrowed her car and drove to my boyfriends house. He held me as I cried and tried to help me process some of the emotions I was experiencing. He asked me if she could be lying to try to hurt me, and even though it wouldn't have surprised me, I knew she had told me something true.

My dad was Italian. 100% full blooded Italian. I had always had a sense of pride knowing that I was 50% Italian. It gave me a sense of belonging. I loved watching my Italian grandmother cook and I wanted to visit Italy one day. That was all taken from me in an instant. I could still go to Italy and I could still find joy with my grandmother, but I felt like a piece of me was confiscated. A piece that I realized never truly belonged to me, but something that I identified with and found pride in.

When my dad found out how she told me he was furious. He felt that he should have been present when I was told the truth and that they should have done it as a team. My mom felt that I was more her daughter than his and since I 'aged out' of child support, he no longer had a say.

My world was shattered. My two younger brothers who were closest in age found out almost immediately after I was told. It was important to me that the lies stopped. My mother begged me not to tell my youngest brother. He was delayed due to the medications my mother was on during pregnancy, and she didn't know how he would handle it. I decided to respect her wishes, as I didn't want to upset the already frail balance of the household.

That didn't last long, my youngest brother struggled with boundaries and walked into my bedroom a few nights later when I was talking to my boyfriend about it.  He overheard enough to understand that I wasn't is 'real' sister. It broke my heart trying to explain it to him and I could tell that he was equally as hurt.

As time went by I started to wonder why she kept me. If she was raped, and knew her attacker well enough to know that I had older half siblings, why did she choose to keep me? I understand why an abortion probably wasn't high on her list of choices, but why didn't she give me up for adoption?

I decided to ask her to tell me more about my biological father. She said his name was Michael Craig Hobbs and he was a customer that she spoke to every so often when he would come into the convenience store she worked at. She knew he was married, but they became quick friends. One night after she got off work, he stopped by and asked her to come over to his place for some dinner.

That is when he raped her.

She said that it was brutal enough that she had dark bruising for months afterwards and when she realized she was pregnant, she panicked. She hadn't told anyone about the incident and now that she was pregnant, she knew she had to.

She said they called the police, he was arrested, she pressed charges and took him to court. But before the trial started she decided it was too painful. And canceled the court hearings.

Three years later when my dad wanted to adopt me, she said she drove me out to meet Michael for the first and last time and he signed away his custody.

I felt bad for her. She was only 19 when she had me. I know working at a convenience store wasn't the most glamorous job, but because of what happened that Autumn night in 1979 she lost a lot of her choices for her future.

It wasn't until a decade later, when I was 28, when I decided I wanted to look for Michael because my genetic history had become important after my first child was born. As I searched, I found there weren't any arrest records for him in either Orange or Riverside County. I looked for court records, I looked for marriage certificates, and it was almost like he never existed. I went down to the Family Court in Orange County to try to find something, anything, that would lead me in the right direction. I came up empty handed.

Because I was adopted by my dad, my records were sealed in the State of California. I didn't have access to anything. If I wanted to find out anything, I would have to ask my mother and trust that what she told me was the truth.

That didn't go well. She immediately became the victim. How dare I try to hurt her like this. How dare I viciously attack the man who raised me by wanting to know about her rapist. How could I be so selfish and so shallow.

After talking to her a bit more, I started to doubt there was a man named Michael. I started to wonder about if she really did know my biological dad, but they were both Mormon, if she had to lie in order to be able to stay in her parents home. I wonder if he was going to be leaving for his mission and if she had been honest, it would have ruined his life too. I wonder if she loved him and would have married him if she didn't get knocked up. I wondered if her life would have been better without me. I think there is a very good chance it would have been.

Friday, September 11, 2015

When the Towers Fell

Today, I hate religion.

Every September 11th, I hate religion.

Ask me any other day and I will be willing to admit that there may be a limited amount of beneficial things in regards to organized beliefs. But not today.

I was still a Mormon when the planes stuck the Twin Towers. A Jack-Mormon - one who doesn't follow the letter of the law though they believe in the religion - but still a Mormon.

I wasn't at home when the towers fell.

My mother kicked me out in March 2001. My mother had decided that I was a bad influence on my three younger brothers because she caught me talking about condoms with my (boy)friend who I met on AOL in November of the previous year. These are all horrible things.

My choices were simple:
I could be homeless,
or try to impede upon relatives to whom I was not close,
or move across country with a complete stranger that I had met on the internet in November 2000.

After asking around to try to secure a couch until my mother 'forgave' me, I realized that I was going to be homeless. This had been the third time my mother had kicked me out of the house for trivial things that any good parent would have coached their child through.

I decided enough was enough.

The first time she kicked me out was in September 1999 because I called letting her know that I was going to be 5 minutes late for curfew. I was with my Mormon boyfriend on a typical dinner-and-a-movie date, and I called her to let her know the movie got out later than we had thought it would.

She told me not to bother coming home if I couldn't make it home before midnight. So I slept on his couch that night. I went to church the next day and went home afterward. She told me because I didn't come home that night, that I needed to find another place to live. I moved in with my best friend Tina and her mom.

A few weeks later, my mother called Tina's mom and asked her to ask me to move back home because my brothers missed me. So I did.

About midway through October of that same year, she kicked me out again. This happened shortly after her noticing that I didn't take the sacrament (body and blood of Christ) one Sunday. This was a personal decision and one that I was meeting with the Bishop about at the time. Because she didn't ask, and I wasn't about to tell, she assumed the worst. She leaned over and "whispered" rather loudly, "Why didn't you take the sacrament? You're not a virgin anymore, are you?" She stood up and left. As in, she stomped out of the quietest part of the Sunday service and went home and left me and my three younger brothers at church. Her voice almost echoed, so I knew everyone heard what she said.

The four of us walked home from church that day because she never came back to pick us up. When I walked in the door she said that I was being a horrible influence on my brothers and asked me to leave. I once again moved in with Tina and her mom.

A few days before Thanksgiving, my mother asked me to move back in so we could be together during the holidays. So I did.

She and I never got along from that point forward. I never forgave her for embarrassing me in front of the entire congregation, and she never apologized. I tried to act like nothing happened, but she had made her mind up about the reasons why I had stayed out that one night in September and she made it very clear that she thought I had lost my virginity to a young man who still went on his mission. It's as though she believed that I single-handedly sent him to hell.

I want to put this out there. Jeremy and I never had sex. Even after he came home early from his mission. Even when I slept in his apartment that September night. Even though I really wanted to and so did he. Not once, not almost, not ever. But it didn't matter. And she never bothered to ask.

A year and a few months passed with me spending most of my time at work and school. I had filled my days to be away from home as much as possible. I worked overnight sleeping at the homes of elderly folk to make sure they had someone with them. If I wasn't in class during the day, I was working at my full time receptionist job. And if I then found myself with time, I was with Tina.

But that didn't stop the inevitable. She picked up the phone line one night in February 2001 and decided to listen to a conversation that I was having with a boy that I had spent many nights speaking with about life, love, dreams, poetry, and sex. Had she picked up the phone 10 minutes earlier she would have heard a conversation about Disneyland. But, of course not, she picked up the phone, quietly, with the intent of listening to a conversation her daughter was having with a boy. And she heard me asking questions about condoms. Because of course she did.

She didn't wait for the conversation to be over and talk to me about things one on one later that night. She didn't call my father for advice on what to do. No, she started yelling into the phone that she wanted me out of her house tonight and I was never welcome back. Terrell stayed on the line, through all of her berating and slut-shaming and name calling to make sure I knew that if I couldn't find anywhere else to go, I could live with him.

So I moved to Georgia a few days later, to live in a dorm, with a boy I had never met in real life, because I felt like I had nowhere else to go.

I packed up my car and drove across country. I called Tina every night to let her know I was safe, but she was the only person who cared.

When the towers fell.

I arrived in Georgia with Terrell in early March 2001. I got a job at Dave and Buster's in April and we moved into a small apartment in July. No one from my family had been in contact with me since I moved out of California.

I was sleeping with the first plane hit the first tower. I often worked late, so Terrell would wake up and go to class at Georgia State University in the morning and many times I would sleep in until 9 a.m.

I was awoken by our phone ringing. We were beyond 'college poor' and had a phone without caller ID. I thought it may be Terrell calling from school as he drove an older Camaro that wasn't without its problems.

It was my mother.

She was in a panic. She was speaking really fast and it didn't make sense to my half asleep brain. She was stumbling over her words as she explained that something was happening and she just wanted to make sure I was alive. She told me to turn on the news. I flipped on the television and saw grey smoke coming out of the first tower.

I explained that I was fine and that I wasn't living in a big city with tall buildings. Then my thoughts went to Terrell, he was in Atlanta at school. I started to panic. He didn't have a cell phone, we couldn't afford one, so there was no way for me to contact him.

After my mother's curiosity and concern had been placated, she went back to working and let me off the phone.

I watched the second plane fly into the second tower and I felt tears start to fall down my face. I didn't know if Terrell was safe, if Atlanta was part of the plan for this horrible event. They were talking about grounding all planes. The news people who didn't know if it was intentional a half hour earlier were now claiming that this all had to have been done with intent.

It seemed like forever waiting for Terrell to get home from school. His parents called a little after my mother got off the phone asking about his safety. I told them when he got home, I would have him call. When he came home we both sat watching the television for most of the afternoon, trying to understand what had truly just happened and how.

I cannot imagine how it felt for those who waited and waited only to find out that their loved one would never come home.

I was scheduled to work from 4 p.m. until midnight. I was working the front door that night checking IDs and maintaining the entry way. When I showed up to work, it was empty. Our manager decided to close early that night. The only people who came in were the family of a girl who had planned to celebrate her 21st birthday that night, but most businesses were already closed.

My mother didn't contact me again during the time I lived in Georgia. My dad would call every so often to check up on me. But I didn't speak to my mother again until May 2003 when I moved back to California.

Imagine No Religion

All religion seems to do is separate us. Someone has to be the heathens or the infidels or the sinners. It paints a group or many groups of people into 'lesser thans' and it gives permission for horrible atrocities to take place.

When we label people as different than ourselves, it makes it easier to no longer see them as people. It makes it easier to hate them for pointless and trivial reasons. It makes it easier for people to fly planes into buildings and for others to refuse to give people marriage licenses.