Oliver’s Twist

10 02 2010

Black Heritage is my heritage–embodied in the history of my family.

Excerpted from Fried Chicken and Sympathy, Chapter 2:  Oliver’s Twist: The Father I Barely Knew

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“People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a snare, people are often caught by sudden tragedy.”

Ecclesiastes 9:12

I only have two memories of my father: The first one was in life, the second in death. The first was of a family trip to Brookfield Zoo in 1969. I consider June the unofficial family historian, and even she is surprised that I remember it so well. After the nine of us had spent our day at the zoo, we ambled single-file through the parking lot, to get into our lovely green four-door Oldsmobile with the chrome bumpers and the white-green interior, and head back to Cabrini-Green.

I was a vision of two-year-old cuteness, in a sky-blue pinafore with little embroidered flowers, blue socks with frilly borders, and braids that were contacting Mars; to this day my hair still has a life of its own. I distinctly remember Oliver (as most people, including us kids, called him) swooped me up with one large hand, and tucked me in his arm, holding me in the crook, while he used his other hand to retrieve the car keys from his pocket and open the door for the rest of the family. Oliver was stylish, in his button-down shirt, suspenders and tweed slacks. He had on one of his classic wide-brimmed hats, and I attempted to grab it off his head—an attempt which amazingly he dodged—seeing that his arms and hands were full.

He whispered something in my ear, but at that age I didn’t understand or care about words. All I cared about was his arm around me, holding me close, and the feeling of contentment it gave me.

My second memory of him is not really about him, but about his funeral. We were at Burr Oak Cemetery in Worth, Illinois on July 12, 1970. By today’s standards it’s a ghetto cemetery, but back then, it was one of the few options for people of color. Grandpa Joe and Grandma Annie had been laid to rest there, so it was in keeping with tradition.

So there we were, all seven of us kids standing around the gravesite in the rain, like strong little soldiers in black. I was holding onto Bay’s black-gloved hand, and something struck me so suddenly that I began to urgently tug on her arm. She looked down at me, her head wrapped in a black scarf, eyes shielded by the dark glasses she wore.

“Is Oliver coming back?” I asked. I didn’t get an answer. Just silence, with all eyes plastered on the hole in the ground. My first lesson in family dynamics. When faced with a hard question, pretend it was never asked.

I still have a knack for asking hard questions that have no answers.

I felt about as confused, and cheated as I sometimes feel now. At the age of three, I was not mature enough to wrap my heart around death’s finality. The little girl now buried within the adult still doesn’t.

It puzzles me how you can ache and long for someone you didn’t really know. I’m still that little girl in the blue dress at the zoo—except now, I long for my daddy’s arms instead of enjoying being in them. It’s a gaping hole—no matter how hard you try to fill it, it remains a bottomless pit. I pinpoint a lot of my emotional problems to the fact that my father was stolen from me. The depression I struggle with, my choosing emotionally-, and physically-unavailable men, and the subsequent lack of trust which has resulted from all those dead-end relationships.

As part of my own therapy to get a handle on the past, I’ve attempted to piece together Oliver’s life, like shards of a shattered plate. A delicate and painful exercise, with the end result being bloodied hands, and a piece that lacks the beauty, function and worth of the original. To some, it might serve little use except as a reminder of what used to be; but, painstakingly, I continue with the task. With each piece that comes together, and every little bit of new knowledge I acquire about him, I get a sense that I’m doing something significant and important—even if it’s for no one else but me.

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