One of the most memorable gifts I ever received came in the form of a single letter. And I don’t mean the type you pen to your pal overseas.
For my 21st birthday, my Mother gave me an “s.”
Now, this was a very special “s”...not the kind you’d expect to see peddled by some Lefty-like huckster out pushing characters on any old Sesame Street...
No, this one came attached to the end of a sibling.
But, wait... maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.
To lay out a little history (which may prove relevant, in case there’s a test later)...
The bulk of my formulative years brewed the quintessence of my persona in a tiny little sharecropper’s cottage smack dab in the middle of a central Florida orange grove, which I shared with an overworked and generally absent mother, the drunk who donated the sperm that became me, and a couple of diamonds-in-the rough with my maternal bloodline in common.
My sister and I used to laugh and play together, and were very close when I was much younger. I recall fondly our games of Tickly Tickly Under the Knee ...she did such a good job of pretending to be sad because she thought I didn’t love her when I laughed, burying her face in her hands and sobbing, until I was beside myself in desperation to prove that I really did love her. She used to push me on the tire swing, and braid my hair, and we’d make forts together, and draw, and read. She was as good a big sister slash best friend as a 5-year-old could ever hope to have. But, we didn’t stay close, unfortunately, as the circumstances of our lives took us in very different directions.
My mother worked at least two, if not three jobs, from the break of dawn until late at night, and was perfect, I was sure of that. She was always tender and gentle, she sang to me sweetly, and I could never feel anything for her but love and devotion.
My father, an over-the-road trucker, when he was around, was never sober, was half the time passed out, and, when he wasn’t, well... you just don’t wanna know.
I have very specific memories of moments in my childhood, though some of them have been twisted and reshaped by time. Some of the most vivid mental images I’ve retained from vague recollections have been half distorted by the blur of passing years and the fuzziness of childhood dreams and nightmares.
But I know there was a night that my Mother came to us and told us she was leaving. I remember her crying. I remember her telling us she would be back for us. I remember crying, too, and begging her not to go. I thought I was 5 then. I thought the next night was the dark, rainy evening that HRS showed up at our door to collect us. I do remember the dark & rainy, hot & humid, typically tepid Florida summer night that a rather large, sweet, pretty black lady named Mrs. Simms showed up at our door to take us away, with some other official type people whose names and faces have disappeared, but whose general presence I recall. I don’t remember being sad or making a fuss... they were nice people, and I was an easy-going, precocious child who generally liked and got along with everyone. I remember making them wait while I carefully packed all my prettiest dresses. I remember being excited about embarking on a new adventure.
Sometimes, though, the brain paints the picture most needed to get one through whatever is next to come, leaving out the worst details, and bridging the remaining gaps they leave behind as if they never were. That’s what my 3-year-old brain did. It simply spaced those two events together, as if they'd happened back to back, skipping over any lapse of time between, so that I wouldn’t have to believe that my Mother left us there alone to fend for ourselves for two years. It told me that all the times I remember being without Mother was simply just because she worked so much. It told me that I hadn’t been abandoned, that I was just extraordinarily self-sufficient, and every time I remember wanting Mother, she was always going to be home soon... she had always just been working, and probably came in after I was asleep. But, I didn’t find out about these little corrections in history until much later.
That night they came for us, we left the home I grew up in together, the three of us—my brother, my sister, and me. We spent that first night away in an overnight shelter with a local black family.
(We were in the part of town where pretty much everyone was black, and, if you weren’t, but lived there anyway, then, to the rest of the world, you might as well be. It took me years to figure out I was supposed to have noticed any difference between people. In my section of the world, as a child, it just never occurred to me that it should matter. For all practical matters, to me, it still doesn't.)
That was the last night I would share with my siblings as a family under one roof. I was 5 years old.
My brother and sister were older. As teenagers, they had fewer options available to them, and much less chance to be taken in by a solid family who would want to give them a good stable home filled with love. They went to a Youth Ranch in Clearwater. As an adult, I can understand that, on some level. But, even as a remarkably resilient child, losing my brother and sister, who were closer to me than any other humans I knew, was the most devastating blow of all, and losing my brother, who for all intents and purposes was the only genuine father figure I had, was a tragedy beyond any I’d yet experienced.
I spent the next few years bouncing from foster home to foster home. Florida in the 70s wasn’t exactly known to be a model of organization in the area of social services, though I’m not sure much has changed over the last few decades. By the time I was 8, I was on my 17th “placement.” It was Christmas, 1981, when a young family with three boys came to visit me at the place I was staying in Eustace. I guess I must have impressed them, because I went home with them the next day.
I was adopted by the following April.
I’m sure every teenager has general issues of growing pains and adolescent angst to be sorted out during that most volatile stretch of human development. Add to that a troubled childhood, and a new set of parents, who haven’t been broken in to either the hazards of raising girls, or the joys of bringing up brood members without blood ties, and you get an extra helping of discord in family relations. As a sensitive and judicious juvenile, both brilliant and headstrong, I had to experience that moment of “what if” for myself, firsthand, and no external influence could convince me otherwise. So, at 14, dissatisfied with my household of non-biology, I set out to rediscover my roots.
I was disillusioned, naturally.
One of the more pleasant details of my reunion with my Mother, though, was rummaging through old photos of hers, and coming across one of her on a badass motorcycle with a handsome young man decked out in black leather.
“Good night, Mother... rob the cradle much?” I chuckled. “Who is this drop-dead gorgeous young stud you’re with in this picture?”
“Uh, that’s your brother, dear.”
Whoops! When I asked about him, hoping we could look him up, and perhaps I could reunite with him, as well, she got tight-lipped. Apparently, my brother had become a model. And gay. Mother didn’t approve. They’d had a falling out. She didn’t know how to reach him, and that was all she would speak of it. I was disappointed... in some respects, it was like losing him all over again.
She had stayed in touch with my sister, though. I spent a day at my sister's apartment, got to know her fiancée, went swimming in her pool, and had an afternoon of shopping at the mall with her, sharing a bit of sister time, the way both of us never had the chance to growing up.
My visit with my natural family was short-lived, though, perhaps a bit longer than it should have been. I was stubborn, after all. My family-by-law was good enough to take me back in when everything went horribly wrong, and I contented myself to leave the unanswered questions on the path behind me for the time being.
Fast forward three quarters of a decade to me at 21. I’d been living on my own for a few years by then, and Mother and I hadn’t been communicating since I left her 7 years earlier. That is to say, I hadn’t been responsive to her attempts at communication. I just needed my own space for a while, to figure myself out, and to get over what had gone down between us. But, she was ever as diligent with her care packages of ridiculous dime store knick-knacks and gas station jewelry. She always sent a card, and a brief summary of what was going on in her life at the time. Over time, the messages started to get shorter, maybe as she started to lose faith that I would ever respond.
That year, the card read simply,
"Happy Birthday Darling. Love you. Miss you.
P.S. Your siblings are asking about you."
I stared at it for what felt like hours, but was really only a few seconds, the full weight of the message zooming into focus as if it was the only the thing in the world.
There was an s there.
An S on the end of that word sibling…
She didn’t give a name...
She didn’t say my sister...
She said siblings.
I might have waited half a breath before I scrambled to whatever part of my home I kept whatever scrap I’d saved her number on. I might have called information for it. I might have had it memorized. Or I might have gotten it from my Grandmother in New York. I really can’t say for sure... it really isn’t all that relevant. I was going to call my Mother, and I was going to find my Brother.
I don’t remember how the conversation between us went. Seven years was a long time to have passed between us, but, my Mother has always been the type to pick up as if we’d just spoken yesterday, and she never makes me feel guilty for not giving her more time when she has me, because that’s not how she wants to spend the time she has with me. I got off the phone with her equipped with the best jewel of knowledge I’d received in almost 17 years. My brother’s home address, and his phone number.
I felt about 10 years old when I called. I got a woman... I was sure she was his girlfriend, or fiancée... she could have been his wife, for all I knew (it seems that whole “gay” thing was just a temporary phase). She told me he wasn’t home, he was working. I was bursting with excitement. I wanted to tell her who I was, but I just couldn’t bring myself to spoil it... what if she told him, “Your sister called,” before I could reach him? What if he called my sister, and didn’t realize it was me? I must have called every 15 minutes for the next two hours, or however long it took him to get home. I was sure he’d be in trouble, that she’d think he was having an affair. She later told me she hadn’t thought so, that I’d sounded so young I couldn’t possibly be someone of an age to have his interest, but she was curious. To her credit, she was so sweet, and kind, I felt like I was already in love with a new member of my family, just listening to her be patient and forthcoming with me.
When he eventually did return from wherever he’d been, I spoke to my brother for the first time after an absence from him that had lasted over half my life. I don’t remember, but I’m sure I must have wept joyfully. I remember he talked to me like no time had passed, like he’d loved me just as powerfully and with as much strength as when we’d last seen each other. I remember we talked late into the night for hours on end.
My brother is a permanent part of my life now, and never won’t be again. He was a better father than the man who sired me, a more suitable role model than any man I knew, and the standard by which I judged all men, the rodstick all who encountered me had to measure up to and pass. In time, I would learn to become gently disillusioned with him, too, the way that every young woman must when she realizes her icon of strength is only human, and fallible, as he inevitably has to stumble.
But that was years of growing up away, and even the clumsiest fall from grace could never change the way I love him.
LJ Idol | Season 6 • Week 16 - Topic: BREAKING THE FAST
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