Marvellaland

Essays on memoir, music, and more from Beatrice M. Hogg

Archive for the category “Family”

Sixty (and Two) – A Father’s Day Tribute

Daddy in Uniform croppedWhen my father was sixty, I was two. I never really thought about what that meant until I turned sixty a few months ago. Thanks to a private adoption two years earlier, my father entered his sixth decade with an active toddler in his house. As a single woman who never had any desire to nurture, I can only cringe when I think of what my father must have gone through.

My adopted mother was a warm, loving, smother mother, never missing an opportunity to tell me that she loved me and give me a hug. But Daddy, not so much. He was a tough, Kentucky-bred coal miner who never learned to read or write. When he was in his fifties, a few years away from retirement, I’m sure that he had been making plans on how to spend his leisure years. Those plans didn’t include me. But when the opportunity came to give my mother the child that she had dreamed about, he acquiesced and accepted the change to his lifestyle. Was he mad? If I had been in his position, I would have been pretty pissed. Maybe he tried to talk her out of it. Maybe he reminded her that by the time this baby was a teenager, both of them would be over seventy. Maybe she threatened to leave him if she couldn’t adopt this baby. Or maybe he remembered his own extra-marital peccadilloes and kept his mouth shut. Unfortunately, everyone that was present when the decision was made is gone now, so I will never know the true story.

But the truth is that when my father was sixty, I was two. I don’t remember being two. My earliest memory is of the time that my father had to take me to the bathroom because my mother was busy. I might have been at the ripe old age of three then. As he pulled down my red corduroy pants, he tore the contrasting plaid pocket on the front. I remember screaming when I saw the damage to my favorite pants, unaware that this would become a lifelong trait. I still hate any damage to my clothes and accessories. My mother came running into the bathroom, expecting the worse, like I had hit my head or peed on the bathroom floor. My father couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. I think he left the room in frustration as soon as my mother showed up. Now at sixty, I can see the incident from his point of view. He got me to the bathroom before I ruined my clothes. So what if he tore a pocket? What did a three-year-old put in a pocket anyway? It’s not like I had keys or money. I have never changed a diaper or taken a toddler to the bathroom, so I commend my father for his paternal assistance in spite of my wardrobe malfunction.

In 1962, when I was five, my father retired from the mine. I was in first grade, so he was able to enjoy his day until at least 3 PM. After that, the quiet, restful retirement that he anticipated was shattered. He was subjected to a chatty brat who had to share everything that she had learned at school that day. Why did she spread her dolls and stuffed animals all over the living room floor while he was watching his Westerns when she had a separate play area in the next room? Why did she think that she could teach him to read? Poor Daddy. He had to live in a world of paper dolls, assorted pets, and way too many books.

I knew that my father had something called Black Lung. I knew that he coughed and wheezed a lot. But that didn’t stop him from teaching me how to ride a bike. Or pushing me on my swing set. Or fixing broken toys. Or picking me up from grade school in his Cadillac.

One day, when I was seventeen and he was seventy-four, he said in anger, “We should have left you in North Carolina.” By then, Momma had been dead for four years and I had become a challenging teenager. I was shocked, and I cried as if he had torn my heart like a pocket on a pair of corduroy pants. But today at sixty, if I had to live with a smart mouth, smart-ass teenage girl, I would be ready to send her back where she came from too. Maybe he thought about all of the sacrifices that he had made for an ungrateful kid who talked back all of the time. Maybe he thought about what life would have been like without the encumbrance of an adopted child.

If anyone ever tried to bring a two-year-old into my home, I would run all the way to Antarctica, even though I hate snow and penguins that don’t play hockey. Daddy could have moved out and left Momma alone with a child that he probably didn’t want. Or he could have drank his troubles away and created a home full of violence and fear. He could have squandered his money and never paid the bills. But he didn’t do any of those things. He wasn’t affectionate, or quick to praise, but he was trustworthy. He was protective. He never deserted his family nor shirked his responsibilities. He didn’t take the title of Father lightly, even if he might have originally taken it with trepidation.

When Daddy was sixty, I was two. As I move through the ages that we shared, I realize the sacrifices that he made as an older father. I am humbled and grateful that he changed his plans sixty years ago to include me and to become my Daddy.

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Growing Up Republican

I still remember the day that I found out I was a Republican. It was November, and in school we were learning about the electoral process. It was very basic, so I think I was in the third grade. Mrs. Spellman told us to find out tonight whether our parents were Republican or Democrat. We would share our family affiliation in class tomorrow. Finally, I had a homework assignment that I could share with my parents. Momma only had a fourth grade education and my schoolwork was starting to get too advanced for her to assist me. Daddy couldn’t read nor write, so I never asked for his assistance. But today I could!

“Daddy, are we Republican or Democrat?” It was 1964 and Daddy had recently retired from the Montour 4 coal mine. Even though he was retired, he remained active in our small community. On Election Day, Daddy had mimeographed sheets of paper with the names of all of the registered voters in Hills Station. I had glanced at the list of my neighbors and the parents of my friends, with an “R” or a “D” after each name. I knew that my parents were on the list, but I didn’t recall which letter followed their names.

Some of the names had notes next to them, indicating the voters who needed a ride to the polling place on Georgetown Road, the main street in town. Momma wrote the notes for Daddy, her contribution to his Election Day assignment. Even though I considered Momma unconcerned with community work, I knew that she had been very active in the past. In the forties and fifties, she had been President of the local Hallie Q. Brown Club, a civic organization of African American women. She had even been featured in The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important “colored” newspapers in the country. I had also seen the clippings describing her political fundraising efforts for local candidates.

I waited for Daddy’s reply. “We are Republican; just like Abraham Lincoln,” he said proudly. I couldn’t wait to share this information with my classmates.

At school the next day, Mrs. Spellman asked for the results of her parental survey. It didn’t take me long to notice a pattern – all of the other black kids were Democrats. My heart sank. I was already adopted, left-handed and Catholic; I didn’t need another attribute to separate me from my black friends and classmates. But Momma and Daddy taught me not to lie. When my turn came, I told the truth.

“Republican.” I heard the other black students start to laugh. I wondered if I could run all of the way home after school without encountering any of them. I lived across the street, so if I could get past the schoolyard, I’d be safe.

No such luck. “Marvella, why are you a Republican? You trying to be white?”

“Why you always gotta be different?”

After a few days of teasing, the survey was forgotten, but I wanted to know more. Why were my parents Republican? Like most things in my young life, it had to do with their age. Years later I learned that after the Civil War, many emancipated African Americans registered as Republican, the party of Lincoln. To my adopted parents, who were born in the South in the1890s, Lincoln wasn’t a historical figure. He was the good President who was assassinated less than thirty years before their births. Former slaves raised both of them – my mother by her grandparents, Isaac and Amanda Harper, and my father by his mother, Sally Hogg. My parents grew up believing in the promise of the Republican Party and moved north to escape the Reconstruction backlash of white Southern Democrats. Around the time of the New Deal, the demographics and ideals of the parties switched, but my parents remained party loyalists.

My mother died during the first Nixon administration. Even though I didn’t talk much about politics with my father as a teenager, I knew that he liked Johnson, disliked Nixon and was ambivalent about Ford. He died in December 1975, so he never got a chance to vote for Carter or Ford. I wondered if he changed his party affiliation in his later years. I doubt that my strong, obstinate Daddy ever strayed from the Republican rolls, even though the Republican values strayed away from him.

I can honestly say that I have no idea who my father would have voted for in the most recent presidential election. He might have been enamored of the Republican candidate’s promise to bring coalmines back, or he might have seen through the empty rhetoric. He might have been disgusted at the ways of a noted philanderer or he might have overlooked them, having made a few indiscretions in his own marriage. He might have agreed with the ideas of the Democratic candidate, but his misogynist beliefs might have deterred him from voting for a woman Commander-in-Chief.

But I’m proud that my parents were active in their community. Besides his Election Day activities, Daddy was also a volunteer fireman and auxiliary policeman. In her church, Momma had been a Worthy Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star. Even though I registered as a Democrat, I wouldn’t have become an involved, aware, and civic-minded person without the guidance, love, and support of two Republicans.

Who’s That Guy?

Daddy and Caddy It’s Father’s Day, and Facebook is flooded with photos of friends with their fathers. I don’t have any photos with my father. In my house, Daddy took the pictures, and no one was allowed to touch his Polaroid camera without his permission. I have a photo of my father with his Cadillac, taken on the day that he granted me the privilege of using his camera. But I don’t think that Momma ever touched it and there wasn’t anyone else around, so no family photos.

When I look at photos of my father, I find it hard to think of him as a person – with good qualities and bad, idiosyncrasies and habits. He was 57 when I entered his life, so he had many years of backstory before I showed up. He was taciturn and quiet, not the kind of person who volunteered much information about his past. I have so many questions that will never be answered.

Why did he have a motorcycle jacket? For most of my childhood, there was a black motorcycle jacket hidden in the back of his closet. Did he ride a motorcycle when he was younger? It’s hard to imagine my Daddy on a bike. Maybe he cruised the dirt roads around his hometown of Hazard, Kentucky. When he died, I gave the jacket to one of my cousins, but I wish that I still had it.

Baseball DaddyDaddy loved baseball. I have a photo of him in a baseball uniform taken during the 1920’s or 1930’s. What position did he play? I still own his Louisville Slugger, which is in Pennsylvania with my best friend, who keeps it near her bed for protection. It still sports the black tape that he wrapped around it. Daddy went to Pirate games at Forbes Field with his friends Pete Jones and Steve Patnesky and when he couldn’t be there in person, he followed the team on the radio and television.

 

He also went out on Saturday nights with his friends. Where did they go? What kind of adventures did they have? I only remember him coming home drunk once. It was New Year’s Eve and he went to his room, he passed out on the floor. I remember four-foot-nine Momma and I trying in vain to pick him up. Since I slept with her, we left him on the floor and went to our room. Even though he was known to hold a grudge for decades, he had a lot of friends. He hung out with the other firemen at the Fire Hall; he sat in front of Babe’s Bar with the other retired miners; he met his Improved Benevolent brothers at the Elks Club (IBPOE) on Sunday afternoons; and he went to the SNPJ Hall for union meetings, never failing to pay his UMWA dues.

I heard rumors that in his heyday, he was a ladies’ man. I only knew of one indiscretion, which he was forced to tell me about when a strange lady came to visit him when I was sixteen, three years after Momma’s death. He told me that her daughter was also supposed to be his daughter. I was shocked, but I didn’t ask any questions. There isn’t an easy way to ask your father if he used to be a player. Where did he meet these ladies? How many were there over the years? How much did Momma know about it? I assumed that she knew, since I found out from my cousin in North Carolina after Daddy died. That explains why I wasn’t allowed to date in high school. Daddy always said, “Boys are only after one thing.” I guess he knew this from personal experience.

Daddy always loved music. I don’t think that he played an instrument, anything, but he loved play his 45s and 78s. In our house, there was a radio in every room and a stereo in the living room. He had an old reel-to-reel tape machine – a heavy monstrosity that looked like a brown suitcase when closed – filled with tapes of old blues songs. Whenever he would go to Canonsburg, the nearest town, he would always stop at Goody’s Records for the latest singles. A few months after Momma died, Daddy bought me a present – the new “Jackson 5 Third Album.” The following July, he allowed me to go to see the Jackson 5 at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena, my first concert, accompanied by Mr. Jones’ wife. He bought me a piano and paid for weekly lessons for several years. During my late teens, we shared a love of funk music, especially Graham Central Station and the Ohio Players. Even though he didn’t like rock and roll, he never stopped me from enjoying the music that made me happy. I don’t remember if I ever saw him dance, but I bet he could “cut a rug” with the best of them back in the day.

Daddy has been gone for forty years now. Sometimes I wonder what he would think of today’s world. What would he think of my motorcycle jackets and Harley tees? He would probably tell me to dress like a lady. I think he would hate today’s finless Cadillacs and SUVs. Would he like PNC Park, or would he miss Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium? Would he be shocked that at 59, I have never been to a baseball game? What would he think of CDs and music streaming? He would probably hate the sound quality and stick to vinyl. He would be pissed that in spite of the money he spent, I still can’t play the piano. Sometimes, when I see a restored vintage car or hear an old blues song, I think, “Daddy would have liked that.”

But I will never know the secrets of the young man that he was. I can only guess at his life in the decades before I was born. But all of those years of adventure and experience, mistakes and triumphs, made him the man that I was proud to call Father

A Day in the Life – December 31

Diaries It amazes me that I have kept a diary for 45 years. I’ve never had a romantic relationship that lasted longer than five years or a job that lasted longer than seven years, but somehow I have been disciplined enough to chronicle my life for over four decades. Most of the diaries are the little rectangular books with tiny locks, but for the last five years, I used a letter-sized journal. Next year, I will return to a smaller format, with a 6 ½ by 3 ½ bound book that cost $25. I also hope to be able to splurge on a fireproof box to store them in, as by now, they are the only connections I have to my former self.

I always joke that the diaries will be enjoyable fiction if I develop dementia or Alzheimer’s someday. But even now, they are a fascinating narrative of who I used to be, the people I used to know, and my changing priorities and interests. They can be fun reading or they can make me cry. Sometimes I have both reactions, when I read about good times and realize that all of the people who shared those times are gone or out of my life. But as long as I am lucid, I will continue to record the day’s events in five lines.

Sometimes, I like to pick out a date and review what happened on that date. I will check out today, New Year’s Eve. I dig into the back of the closet for the metal box that contains my stories. I’ll select five entries, one for each decade.

December 31, 1975 – Cousin Mag, Cousin Rose, Cousin Joe, Bobby, Dickie, and Carolyn came for the funeral and left. It rained practically all day.

My father’s funeral was on this date. A few hours after the funeral, everyone left. My cousins from Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland and Harrisburg wanted to get back to their homes before the New Year. As I sat alone waiting for 1976 to begin, I remembered the year before, when my father said that I might be at a party this year. But instead, Daddy was gone and I was an orphan. I wondered if the loneliness that I felt would ever dissipate.

December 31, 1987 – I got two Christmas cards from Linda. I called Mary and she is going to see Whitesnake and Great White on February 3. I got another tape player. Get it straight in ’88!

I spent New Years Eve in a flatlet in the Victoria section of London. At midnight, someone on the other side of Eccleston Square serenaded the New Year with a saxophone solo. I had no home, just a return ticket to Pittsburgh and a round trip ticket to San Francisco, where I would start a new life on February 2. The New Year held unlimited promises.

December 31, 1999 – I watched the Year 2000 celebrations from around the world. Lorraine called. Mary called also. I got a birthday card from Brenda. Be a hero in ’00!

Of course, everyone over the age of around seventeen probably remembers the changing of the millennium, even though technically it didn’t start until a year later. But like everyone, I wondered if my computer would continue to work or if some global catastrophe would happen. I had a good life. I had a job that I enjoyed, where I got the week between Christmas and New Year’s off with pay, a two-bedroom condo, a funky 1988 Toyota MR2, and two loving cats that hid when I threw confetti later that night.

December 31, 2007 – I went to Loehmann’s and got a leopard knit jacket for $15. I got a pizza. Mary Lou sent me a birthday card and $30. Cindy called and we talked about an hour. Get a date in 2008!

Little did I suspect that this NYE would be my last one as a full-time employee. Changes would be occurring soon, but getting a date was not one of them. In four days, I would be flying to Las Vegas to meet a friend and celebrate my birthday. There was a big storm that day, the first of many upheavals to come.

December 31, 2010 – It cost $30 to get a taxi to the hotel. The show was good. Don looked good with long hair. I tried to get some pictures of him for Mary. Sean sat in with Y and T. Chuck Billy sang “Ace of Spades.” A member of the Y and T Forum died at the hotel of a heart attack after the show. Turn in up to 2011!

For the first time in my life, I went out for NYE, attending a benefit concert by Y and T for this bassist Phil Kennemore. A week later, he would lose his battle with cancer. But it was a wonderful night, in spite of the death after the show. A year later, I would be homeless, but on this night, I was surrounded by friends and enjoying the music that I loved.

I often wonder how I should dispose of my diaries. Would any of my friends want them? Is there some national archive of the lives of boring, regular people that would want to preserve them for future generations? I’m sure that who ever finds them after my demise will just throw them in the trash and it will be like I was never even here. But regardless, I’ll continue to write…tomorrow is a New Year, a new book, and the start of new adventures.

Happy New Year! Thank you for visiting Marvellaland!

Breakfast Bowls and Poultry Dazes

DocImage000000009August 12, 2013 will be the 17th anniversary of the day I adopted my cat Ozzy. He died on April 20, 2013. This essay is part of a long narrative I am writing about our 16+ years together. And don’t forget that August 17 is Black Cat Appreciation Day.

            I finished eating the breakfast bowl and stared at the container. Ozzy loved Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowls. After eating, I used to leave a morsel of sausage in the bottom of the plastic bowl and give it to him. He would eat the sausage and then lick up all of the gravy and sausage, moving the bowl around with his nose. Sometimes when he was done, a spot of gravy remained on the tip of his nose. It always made me laugh. He would look at me with a quizzical gaze – what was so funny? In his last days, he could no longer groom himself, so I would have to wipe his nose and mouth. I think I will have to give up breakfast bowls. I don’t enjoy eating them by myself.

When I first got Ozzy, I didn’t know that he would become a human food connoisseur. My only house cat experience was with Smokey, who only ate cat food, unless it was in the hands of his lord and master, my ex-boyfriend. He would eat shredded wheat and milk from his bowl, but was not interested in my breakfast dishes. In fact, Smokey was not interested in me at all. I was the person who interfered with his time with his Person. But other than the occasional cereal and the mesmerizing CHICKEN (more about that later), Smokey wasn’t interested in food that wasn’t in his bowl. But Ozzy was, I was proud to learn, a fiercely loyal cat, and wasn’t interested in the eating habits of this other feline.

On one of our first mornings together, I was sitting on the sofa in my office (how I miss having that office), eating my breakfast. The smell of eggs and sausage caused Ozzy to follow me into the room. He sat and watched intently as I ate, moving his eyes from the plate to my mouth. He waited patiently for a morsel to fall on the floor, but it wasn’t happening. But when I speared the last link on my fork, he decided to take action. He jumped on my lap, hitting the fork and the plate, causing both to flip backwards from my hands onto the floor. He grabbed the link, breaking it in half and eating the pieces. After my initial shock, I started laughing. Then he turned his attention to the eggs, scooping them up until nothing was left but a few orts of yellow. The commotion caused Smokey to come into the room. He looked at Ozzy, sniffed at the egg crumbs and walked away. Ozzy licked his lips in satisfaction. From that point on, breakfast was a meal that was shared.

Now, all bets were off when chicken was concerned. Whether I bought it at a restaurant or baked it in the oven, chicken was the one human food that both Ozzy and Smokey loved. I don’t know if love is the appropriate word for their reaction to poultry. When I sat down in my lounger with a plate of chicken in my hand, I was immediately surrounded. Ozzy jumped on the left arm of the chair. I guess he figured that since I was left-handed, access to my fork or fingers was more readily accomplished from that side. Smokey got on the right arm and leaned toward my face, hoping that his stance would give him an advantage. Both of them got glazed looks in their eyes, as if the aroma of chicken had altered their consciousness. Neither of my cats ever responded to catnip, but chicken seemed to turn them into drooling furry addicts.

Once they were in their respective positions, I knew that I would not be consuming much chicken. But I tried to make things fair. I would put the plate in my lap, hoping that Ozzy didn’t make a dive onto it; tear a long strip of white meat from their favorite part, the breast; divide the strip in half; and dangle one piece in front of Ozzy. As he snatched the strip, Smokey would lunge forward, sometimes falling on the floor. I would take the other piece and hold it in front of Smokey’s face, careful that my fingers were far enough from the end to not be included when he bit into the morsel. While they were hurriedly eating their pieces, I tried to get at least one piece into my own mouth. But before I finished chewing, each cat would be back on the chair, waiting for his next bite.

Even though what should have been a quick meal took hours with my two chicken fiends, I wouldn’t have dreamed of having chicken without them. They had the same reaction to turkey. For Thanksgiving, I would pick up a meal at Boston Market, with extra turkey, of course. If I went to a friend’s home for dinner on Turkey Day, I would always return home with a “Kitty Bag.” Thanksgiving was definitely their favorite holiday.

After Smokey died in 2010, Ozzy and I still shared chicken and turkey dinners. Since he no longer had competition, he would sit on the floor and wait for his portion. It was always a bonding experience, the one food that we both enjoyed.

The day before I took Ozzy to his last vet visit, I went to Boston Market and got extra turkey with gravy. That night and the next morning, he savored his favorite meal. It makes me happy that he went to the Great Kitty Beyond with a stomach full of turkey.

Poultry will never be as much fun again.

Beatrice Means Making Happy

Momma and Me ColorMy mother died on July 19, 1970. A longer version of this letter was published in Celebrations: Notes to My Mother in 2003.

Dear Momma,

We only had thirteen years together, but those precious years made me the woman that I am today. Your kindness, your humor, your pride, and your love are your lasting legacy. Thanks to you, I can declare to the world that I was “raised right.”

You adopted me when I was a baby, bringing me from North Carolina to your home in Pennsylvania. After years of being president of the Hallie Q. Brown Club and the Worthy Matron of the Eastern Stars, you were ready to be a mother. You brought me home on the train, a tiny five-pound baby who was “no bigger than a bread box,” as you liked to say. You brought me home to Lawrence, a small town where Daddy worked in the Montour 4 coal mine.

I always loved to hear your voice. Your studied, clipped speech was sometimes punctuated with a glimpse of that western North Carolina drawl that you tried to hide. You were very concerned with speech, always correcting Daddy and me when we said “ain’t” or mumbled. Proper English was very important to you.

And you loved to talk. You were always telling me stories about your life as a little girl in Lenoir. I wish that I could remember more of your stories, those tales that you told me each night at bedtime. Your grandparents, the Rev, Isaac Harper and his wife Amanda, raised you. Isaac had been a preacher during slavery and preached under a barrel to muffle the sound so that the masters never heard.

I learned that your mother, Rose, died during your birth. You never really knew your father, a Catholic mulatto, but you admired his Catholic faith. You grew up with your big sister Joyce and your beloved brother Frank and your youthful aunts and uncles But you were always the different one, the lighter one, the one who took Rose away from the family. Your stories of how you survived inspired me when I faced my own childhood ridicule.

I was laughed at for being funny looking, for being adopted, for being the only black Catholic in town. Other black kids said that I was trying to be white when I got good grades. White kids couldn’t understand why I didn’t do well in sports like the other black kids. There was nowhere that I could fit in. But once I was home, everything was fine. I knew that you would praise my grades, give me a big hug and kiss, and tell me that I was just fine the way that I was. You told me that I was special, that you knew when you adopted me as a baby that I would be special. Then you would tickle me until I couldn’t help but smile again.

Even though you only had a fourth grade education, you encouraged me to read and learn about the world. You convinced Daddy to let me subscribe to Highlights, My Weekly Reader, and the Happy Hollister Book Club. I collected books on geography, science and history, and I shared each page with you. You and Daddy attended every open house and school event, and sometimes you were the only black parents in attendance. Your smiling faces showed the world that you loved me.

You had a magic way with plants and flowers, and neighbors marveled at your talent for bringing them back to life. A walk through the woods or a visit to a friend’s house always ended with a new seedling or plant. Our house was filled with growing things, plants that flourished with your love and care. I knew that I was just like those plants, lucky to be nourished by your love and affection.

After your beloved brother died in 1968, you were never the same. A small stroke and dementia took away most of your memories, and sometimes you couldn’t even remember me. In 1969, you and Daddy celebrated fifty years of life together and we made our last family trip to North Carolina. Somewhere between Greensboro and Lenoir, I got my first period. Thankfully, you were lucid and we were able to share this final rite of passage together.

In July 1970, you went to the hospital and lapsed into a coma. On the morning of July 19, at the start of a bright, sunny summer day, Daddy and I came to the hospital to say goodbye. That morning was the first and last time that I ever saw Daddy cry. His body shook with great, heaving sobs that frightened me. I realized how much he had loved you.

You used to say, “When I die, I want to be covered in flowers.” Your coffin was covered in blossoms and your friends and family crowded the funeral home. No one had a bad word to say about Miss Bea.

I know that you are still with me, Momma. I have made many mistakes in my life, but I know that in spite of everything, I have your love in my heart. I know that you are watching over me, giving me the strength to go on.

The name “Beatrice” means “making happy.” You have made me happy all of my life. I’m glad that you picked me to be your daughter.

Your daughter,

Little Bee

Gypped

Beatrice&Tree

At Christmastime, almost everyone is preoccupied with holiday gifts. Beginning even before Thanksgiving, newspaper and television ads are devoted to finding that perfect present. But in spite of all of this “gifting,” those of us born between the middle of December and the first week of January usually get gypped.

With all of the emphasis on Christmas gifts, holiday birthday celebrants often get shortchanged. It is worse when you are a child, as Christmas and birthdays are the main times that you get gifts and spend quality time with friends and family members. Kids with summer birthdays may get a birthday picnic or pool party. But for those of us with Yuletide birthdays, our party may be combined with a Christmas party and our presents are encased in Christmas wrapping paper. That is if we even get a birthday present. Many times, we get one gift that is for both Christmas and our birthday. But this compound gift is rarely the equivalent of two separate gifts.

It’s just not fair. Even if I weren’t overly materialistic, I would still rant about this injustice. It’s not our fault that our parents were frisky and fertile in March or April. We didn’t pick our holiday birthdays, so why do we get overlooked and undergifted?

I was born on January 4, ten days after Christmas. As a child, I got gypped in several ways. Many times, my birthday fell on the day that I returned to school after Christmas vacation. So of course, no one at school remembered that it was my birthday. The teacher hadn’t even put up the new year’s calendar yet, so my birthday wasn’t even designated with a star by its date. Also, I usually didn’t get any presents. I grew up in a Pennsylvania working-class coal-mining town. The refrain I got was, “I’m still broke. Your birthday is too close to Christmas.” As a child, I didn’t realize that most working grown-ups probably hadn’t even completed a post-Christmas pay period yet. Worse of all, it usually snowed on my birthday, not enough for a snow day off from school, but enough to ruin any birthday plans.

As an adult, I have tried to be more grown-up about this holiday birthday situation, but to no avail. Just as Christmas turns adults into wide-eyed children, getting gypped on my birthday turns me into a spoiled little brat. I love to get presents ― the bigger and more personal the better. The sight of a mound of boxes and cards all with my name on them is my idea of nirvana. In fact, the idea of two sets of presents is the only good reason that I can think of to get married. But since I have no husband, lover, or child, and nor am I a boss, Christmas and my birthday are the only opportunities that I have to satisfy my need for greed, I lament in my finest whine.

But I am not alone. For years, I have been querying friends, acquaintances and clients on this subject. Almost everyone who was born between December 15 and January 10 has a story to tell. And they ain’t pretty. They all remember getting upstaged by Santa Claus, Rudolph, and Ebenezer Scrooge. Bah, humbug!

So this year, create a happy ending for the holiday birthday boy or girl in your midst. Be generous. Buy that nice birthday wrapping paper, even if it isn’t on sale like the holiday paper is. Do not put a red or green bow on the box though, because we know where those come from. Most importantly, do not regift. We want our own personalized, well thought out present, not some gift that you didn’t like from the office gift exchange or from some hated relative. And last, but not least, do not forget us! Amid all of the holiday hubbub, please remember that it is our birthday, our special day, and treat it as such. Don’t gyp us any more.

The Color Wheel

You can order this card from Zazzle.com

You can order this card from Zazzle.com

This is an excerpt from “Merry Christmas, Baby,” a 4,500-word essay about Christmas in Hills Station. This is one of my favorite sections of the essay. Merry Christmas to Marvellaland followers and to everyone else who enjoys this essay! (Sorry it is so long!)

 

In the sixties, when I was growing up in Hills Station, Pennsylvania, I loved Christmas. Until I was five, we had a live Christmas tree. But after Daddy retired from Montour 4 mine, it was difficult for him to carry a real tree, as black lung disease made it hard for him to breathe. He went to Pete’s Dairy Bar, the local store that everyone called “Angeline’s,” and bought an artificial tree. Angeline, the owner of the store, could get anything and everything that her customers needed. If she didn’t have an item in stock, she was glad to make a special order, for a special price, of course. This included Christmas trees.

One December afternoon, Daddy came home with a large white box. On the front of the box was a picture of a Christmas tree.

“What’s in the box, Daddy?”

He smiled, showing the gold cap on one of his front teeth. “It’s our new Christmas tree. Now every year, we’ll just take this one out of the box and put it up, instead of going out lookin’ for a tree.”

I frowned, because that didn’t sound like a good idea to me. I liked live trees, with their pine scent filling the house. I kept staring at the box. It wasn’t a very big box. How could it hold a Christmas tree?

“Let’s set it up.” He headed toward my playroom, the room where we always placed the tree. “You carry the other box,” he added over his shoulder.

There was little white box on the floor. It read, “Amazing Color Wheel.” What was a color wheel? The picture on the box showed was a round wheel next to a tree. The box was lightweight and the contents rattled. Was it broke?

I picked up the box and gingerly carried it into the playroom. Daddy had already opened the tree box. It was filled with red paper tubes, which looked like giant versions of the tubes that Daddy rolled up change in. A piece of something silver stuck out from each tube. Daddy was twisting together two long wooden sticks that were painted silver. Each stick had lots of little holes in it. I didn’t see anything that looked like a tree. I put the box down and sat on the floor to watch Daddy. Momma stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips.

I picked up one of the tubes. It was even lighter than the color wheel box. “What are they?”

“Those are the branches of the Christmas tree. This is the trunk and those three metal things will be the base. Once I finish putting the base together, we’ll put on the branches.”

“But they’re silver. Christmas trees are supposed to be green.” I was worried that Angeline had taken advantage of my father and sold him a defective tree, just because she knew that he couldn’t read.

He looked up and nodded toward the little box. “That’s what the color wheel is for.”

“Huh?”

Three lines formed on his forehead when he looked over at me. “The color wheel will turn the tree different colors. Just wait and see, you’ll like it.”

I looked up at Momma.

“Your Daddy knows what he is doing.” She turned toward the kitchen. “Let me know when it is all set up.”

I wanted to leave too, but I knew that Daddy expected me to help with this tree. We used to put lights and popcorn balls and even apples on the heavy branches of the big green trees that we used to get. What could we put on this flimsy thing?

Once Daddy had the trunk set up, he picked up one of the tubes and pulled off the wrapper. The branch in his hand looked liked cut-up pieces of aluminum foil attached to a metal stick. He stuck the branch in the hole at the top of the trunk. He stood back to look at it. “The branches go into those little holes.”

I assumed that was my cue to help. I picked up a tube and pulled. The branch was even thinner than aluminum foil. Would we be able to even put ornaments on this tree? I found a hole and inserted the metal stick at an angle.

I added the bottom branches while Daddy took care of the top ones. I could see my reflection multiplied in the tiny strips. It didn’t take long to fill the tiny holes with shiny bristles.

Daddy and I looked at the tree. “Don’t it look nice?”

I didn’t like it. It didn’t look like a real Christmas tree. It looked like something that I would have made in art class with pipe cleaners. But I nodded anyway. “Uh-huh.”

While Daddy went upstairs to get the ornaments, I sat on the floor looking at this contraption that would be my holiday tree from now on. I missed the smell of pine. This aluminum tree had no scent. It was cold, shiny, and foreign.

When Daddy returned, we started taking the ornaments out of the box and tying them onto the branches with string. The branches reflected the colors of the bulbs―gold, green, and red―turning them into rainbows.

Momma came back into the room to check on the progress. “It looks nice.”

Soon all of the branches were filled with ornaments. The tree looked pretty, but I still wasn’t convinced.

Daddy opened the color wheel box. Inside were four colored pieces of plastic that looked like sections of a pie with a bite taken out of the small end. Besides the plastic pieces, there was a round black lamp with a circle attached to its big round face. Daddy attached the pieces to the circle with metal clips, turning the pieces into a even larger circle. As he plugged in the lamp and switched it on, the circle started to rotate.

The room changed colors as each plastic piece passed in front of the light. Cool blue room. Now warm yellow room. Soothing green room. Hot red room. Entranced, I watched the tree as it changed colors too.

Daddy smiled. “See, I told you that it would be nice.”

I sat in a chair across from the tree so I could watch the display. I had to grudgingly admit that the color wheel was nice and the tree was okay.

Putting up the aluminum artificial tree became one of our Christmas rituals. After a few years, I could hardly remember ever having a real green tree. And I grew to love the color wheel.

It All Started at Pitt

This weekend is Homecoming at the University of Pittsburgh. I sent in this essay to commemorate the 225th Anniversary of Pitt’s establishment, but it wasn’t used. Go Pitt!

The first time I stayed away from home by myself was when I went to the freshman orientation in Oakland in 1974.  Even though Pitt was only about twenty-five miles from my coal-mining hometown in Washington County, it seemed light-years away to me. I was a sheltered seventeen-year-old, living alone with my illiterate seventy-five-year-old adopted father, who couldn’t understand why a girl needed an education.

Pitt was like a dream to me, a dream of liberation. Even though I was a voracious reader, I had never had a library card before. I would spend hours browsing the stacks at Hillman Library, marveling at the thousands of books available to me. My father would shake his head in bewilderment when I would come home laden with notebooks and textbooks and spend the evenings typing out term papers on my trusty Royal typewriter or reading with a highlighter attached to one hand. There was nothing better than being a student.

During the winter break of 1975, my father died of black lung disease, leaving me orphaned a week before my nineteenth birthday. But it never crossed my mind not to return to Pitt. I carried on, filling the lonely hours with more books and papers. In 1976, I was accepted into the School of Social Work. As a junior, I found that I liked to write even if it wasn’t for a class. Some of my poems were published in the Black Action Society newspaper. Most of my final term was spent doing Independent Study, writing papers about social problems and issues that interested and intrigued me. One day, Dr. Anne Jones asked me if I had ever thought about becoming a writer. Such an idea had never crossed my mind. Writers were those esteemed individuals who filled the stacks at Hillman Library or the impassioned professors that conducted my elective literature classes. As a freshman, one of my Black Studies literature teachers had told me that I could not write about my “black experience” because I grew in an integrated coal mining camp of 500 people. What would I write about?

But I never forgot her comment. I spent almost twenty years working in social services, even after moving to Northern California ten years after graduation. In California, I started to write book and concert reviews and op-ed pieces, even getting some of them published.  I liked seeing my byline, which even appeared in Astronomy. For four years I was the Communications Coordinator for the National Association of Social Workers, California Chapter, combining my loves of writing and social work. In 2004, I received a MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. My final manuscript was a 150-page collection of essays about growing up in a coal mining town in western Pennsylvania, embracing the heritage that was deemed to be “not black enough” in 1974.

In April 2011, Dr. Jones died at the age of 89. Even though I only saw her once after my 1978 graduation, her words have stayed with me for over thirty years. I often wonder if I would have become a writer if she had never asked me that question. In August 2012, my first novel, Three Chords One Song, was published as an eBook. In the final chapter, one of the characters donates a large sum of money to the University of Pittsburgh, doing fictionally what I will never be able to do in real life. I still proudly wear my Pitt class ring, which has been on my finger since I received it in 1977. I will never be able to repay what Pitt gave to me – the chance to learn, to dream, and the confidence to write it all down.

Cous (In Memory of Darrell T. Davis – September 9, 1959- March 22, 2009)

Today would have been my cousin Darrell’s 53rd Birthday. This is a shortened version of a 2,600-word essay I wrote to honor him. I don’t have a photo with me to include, but I’ll try to get one from my storage unit to add later in the week.  Don’t forget to tell your cousins that you love them. They won’t be around forever.

Growing up, I never had a brother or a sister, but I had a Cous. Darrell Tyrone Davis lived down the street from me, with my Cousin Kat and her husband Cousin Bill. Like a lot of African American families, the actual configuration of the family tree was unclear, but family was family. Since I was adopted, none of my relatives were related to me by blood anyway, but that never mattered. Cousins were cousins, no matter where they came from or how they got there.

Darrell entered my life when he was three years old. I couldn’t believe my luck — a little cousin to play with! But he was half my age. What was I going to do with a three-year-old? It was hard to accept that Darrell was a lot cuter than I was. With his light skin and curly hair, everyone loved him. In the color-conscious days of the early sixties, he found favor for his looks. By the time he started grade school, every little girl in town had had a crush on him.

To say that I grew up as a spoiled only child was an understatement. I lived in an eight-room house with my mother and father and I had a playroom filled with toys. But Darrell was twice as spoiled as I was. Sometimes he shared his toys and I shared my house, but not always willingly. As a child, I never had a babysitter. If my parents were going somewhere without me, I stayed with Cousin Kat. The reverse was true too. So Darrell and I, two spoiled brats with lots of toys and plenty of attitude, were thrown together whenever our parents needed some alone time. When we were little, I had to make sure Darrell understood the hierarchy – no matter how cute he was, I was the Big Cousin and he was the little cousin.

As he got older, I wasn’t needed to keep him company. By then, he had a lot of friends. I didn’t. At times, I was jealous of my good-looking cousin, who always had a thriving social life and lots of attention from the opposite sex. He remained spoiled, too. His parents bought him whatever he wanted, whether it was new clothes or a new car. By January 1976, both of my parents were deceased and I lived all alone in the house where we played house years earlier. We didn’t hang out as much, but we were there for important events in each other’s lives. I attended his graduation from high school, cheering when he received his diploma. In January 1978, he took me to see Earth, Wind and Fire on the day before my 21st birthday. A few months later, he attended my University of Pittsburgh graduation and the subsequent party.  But as we moved through adulthood, our paths rarely crossed.

After I moved to California, I tried to talk to him on the phone at least once a year, usually on his birthday. The last time I saw him was in the early nineties, before Cousin Kat died of Alzheimer’s. A year later, Cousin Bill died of a broken heart and I lost touch with Darrell. Sometimes, I would ask my other cousins about his life.

In February 2009, I found out that he was on Classmates.com. There was a picture of him sitting in a bedroom playing with a dog. My heart warmed at the picture of my little cousin. I wrote him a short note, giving him my e-mail address, as I didn’t have the money to get an upgraded account on Classmates to be able to read messages on the site. But he wrote back to me on Classmates anyway.

On March 22, 2009, my cousin Darrell died, a few months shy of his 50th birthday. Before I went to work one morning, I got e-mail from another cousin informing me of Darrell’s death a month earlier from cancer. When I got to work, I couldn’t see my computer screen through the tears in my eyes. I never got the chance to see and respond to his Classmates message. Part of my childhood was gone, as there was no one left to corroborate the times we shared together, just two spoiled brats with vivid imaginations.

In May 2010, I collected some mementos I had left with my best friend in Pittsburgh. Along with my report cards and scrapbook was Darrell’s senior picture from Canon-McMillan Senior High. I looked at the picture of the young man with the large Afro, huge glasses, gray suit and wide black tie and read the inscription.

Marv,

To my loving cousin. May we always be very close. I want and wish only the very best for you always. God bless you. Stay cool Cous. P.S. Thanks for all the help.

            Love,

            Darrell “77”

I ran my hand over the blue ink, which was more than thirty years old. Even though we didn’t stay close, I would like to think that Darrell always knew that I loved him. How could I not? He was family. Cousins were cousins, no matter where they came from or how they got there. But I will never forget the one who called me “Cous.”

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