This is my family.
When I prepare my mom’s coffee, she always reminds me, “One half a packet of equal, and two heaping spoonfuls of Coffeemate. Make sure it’s about the color of your skin.” She sleepily kisses the inside of my hand. I go to the kitchen and pour the coffee, the steam rising in small billows. I lean the bottom of my rib cage onto the counter, and carefully, carefully, open the tiny blue packet, pour half of the powdery sweet (not too much), and then heap the spoon with the dried dairy-less dairy. Twice. I twirl the spoon, once, again, over and over until the powder dissolves. I hold the back of my hand close to the lip of the mug.
I am a brown child because one minute of sun exposure results in a tan. I tan through the lighter parts of my patterned bathing suits (I once ended up with a flower burnt into my little eight year old tuchus), I tan around my watch, my socks, my sandals. Every part of my body that sees the sun is dark, and every part that I keep hidden is white. My light mother, my dark father, laying claim on my body even then.
I carry the full mug to my mom, holding it far from me as my feet whisper across the floor in slow motion. I lower the mug to meet my mom’s hands. “Thanks, Deb.” She takes the first drink. She closes her eyes, the sides of her mouth turn up, her shoulders release.
My dad was no less tender. When he would put me to bed I would always request the same book (the title of which no one seems to remember). After a month of reading me the same story he would try to change it up, insert dragons where there were none, or alter characters names. I would turn to him and say, "Daddy, that's not how it goes," before reciting the words on the current page verbatim. My dad loves to tell this story, and I have heard it so often I half-remember it. Leaning into him, his long legs crossed at the ankles, smelling of Old Spice and sweat and worn starched collars. And perhaps because I feel this now so profoundly when he comments on my various memoirs, talks me through a managerial issue, or asks me in his Dad voice, "Bub, what's wrong?" causing me to break instantly into uncontrollable tears, I remember feeling, "This is my guy."
For the first 9 years of my life, my dad worked. He would be gone before we got up in the morning, and he would come home well after school. If we were pulling into the garage around 6pm we would take bets about whether he was home, and whoever was right got to be the first one to hug him. It was never odd to me that he was gone; it was what dads did. All of the mothers in my neighborhood would rent a huge beach house in Virginia Beach for two weeks every summer. All the moms and kids would pile into our various minivans and spend 14 glorious days on the beach. The dads would always only join on the weekends. When I write this out here, now, it sounds creepily like an episode of Madmen. But this is to say I was used to Dads (my own, and so many others) existing on the outskirts.
To be honest, back then, it was fine with me. Because I cleaved to my mother, almost desperately. She says that from the moment I was conscious I was watching her, figuring out how to be a woman by analyzing her every word, expression, step. It is no surprise really that I feel wary of most men, while simultaneously leaping into deep, emotionally intimate relationships with women, and instantly connecting with any and all children.
I never wanted to sleep alone, in a box, under a canopy, it didn’t matter. I wanted to be in my parents room, as close to my mother as possible. My often overwhelming love for her might be a result of my mom breastfeeding me until I was three-and-a-half years old. I had a full set of teeth and could speak in full sentences when she explained to me, logically, that she did not want to breast feed me anymore. “Then you shouldn’t!” I exclaimed, wanting to validate her every feeling even then. “All right then,” she said, “I won’t.” I was visibly upset. “Can I at least touch them?”
My mom went back to school when I was 9, she would have to lock herself in her bedroom in order to do her homework. Sometimes I would stand at the door knocking and she would ignore me. This is also when my parents started fighting, daily, terrifying arguments that pressed through every closed door, every hand clamped over ear, into closets where I would cower and cry, convinced every argument was just a quick skip from divorce. I learned much later in my life that they were not far, that the word separation had come up many times.
When the fighting ebbed years later, I was left with more anger towards them than felt possible, which is, oddly enough, when I think I started to actually love my parents. I could tell a hundred adorable stories about betting for hugs, about cute, curly-haired green-eyed Debbie instructing her parents in the way of simple emotions, about palm kisses, and butt tans, and miffed storytelling.
But that isn’t why I love them.
When I was 16 and being particularly shitty about needing to borrow my dad’s car to return a VHS to the video store, my dad and I started screaming at each other in the parking lot of our condo. I believe I refused to return the video unless I got to drive in my dad’s (understandably much nicer) car. After yelling back and forth for 20 minutes or so, he called me a bitch, and threw the video to me. At me, would probably be more accurate.
When I was 9 we were running late for church, and I had dragged a chair in front of our aquarium to watch the fish while I brushed my hair. When my mom happened upon this scene, she screamed at the top of her lungs, “I HAVE HAD IT UP TO HERE,” gesturing to her forehead before literally just screaming, letting the frustration peel out of her high and long and loud. It was the first time I ever remember being afraid of her.
Because I grew up in the 90s, when my dad would be freaking out about this or the other dish that Allan and I used but did not put in the dishwasher, we would say, “Dad, don’t have a cow.” To which he would respond, “Don’t have a cow? I’M GONNA HAVE 20 COWS.” Before he would, with his tiny legs, attempt to kick us away from him and toward the offending bowl.
We would get into screaming fights at restaurants, have screaming “Family Meetings” which led to screaming family therapy. But somewhere around age 20 after the screaming, someone would apologize, there would a hand on the shoulder, a step towards forgiveness, quiet explanations, even quieter validations. Maybe it was because Mark died. Or maybe it was because in my mind my parents were becoming, blossoming: beautiful, dark, broken, and real.
Every time we fight, every time they frustrate me, or treat me like a child, every time their advice insists I have not grown up, or their actions prove that they have not either, I want more of them. I admit there are better parents in the world, parents who are better with money or who are more communicative or less selfish. But these are my parents. My issues are theirs, and their issues are their parents, and back and back and back. They are in my blood, pulsing through my legs and brain and heart. Coming home to them is like finding myself over and over again.
My mom and dad came to visit my first year in grad school, and took me and three of my friends out to dinner in the North End. After we had eaten, my dad was, as he tends to, dominating the conversation with his not so back door bragging. Over coffee and tiramasu, he explained, “Our family is based on one thing: L (long pause) O (long pause) V (long pause) E (longer pause). LOVE.”And strife. And communication. And needless criticism. And needed criticism. And attention. And knowledge. And honesty. And some lies. And, yes, love. L-O-V-E.