Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Kissing Kin 1

NaNoWriMo time, my dudes -- posting a few days late, but I think I'll be able to make up my word count. This year it's #Fallmark meets... well, you tell me. I hate this title, but it kept sticking in my head. 

***

A stranger came to town. That’s the end of one story, and the beginning of another.

1934. The stranger broke from the darkness of the surrounding buildings and stumbled up the steps of the convent, cradling a small bundle under his coat. He pounded the door twice and sank down on the stoop. The bundle whimpered and gave a small shake. With his head bent low, the stranger whispered soft words.

The door opened, and a nun peered into the evening gloom at the hatted stranger. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“Sir.” The man’s laugh had the short, sharp tang of bitterness. “That got a real high sound.” He thrust the bundle at the nun. “You care for him.”

“But sir, who is he? Where’s his mother?” The nun’s pale hands adjusted the blanket around the baby’s wizened new face. He mumbled and stirred and turned toward her finger on his cheek.

The man too reached to touch the baby’s face, then pulled his hand away from the soft glow from the open door. “His mother is a white woman.”

“Is she alive?”

“Not much longer.”

“Does he have a father?”

“Not much longer.”

“Sir,” said the nun for the third time. “At least tell me the child’s name. Tell me where he’s from.”

“What does it matter?”

“It will to him, one day.”

The man hesitated, twisting his hands in a spasm of indecision. “What does it matter now? He was born in the mountains.”

“And his name?”

Again, broken words wrenched from an unwilling throat. “Call him Aaron Moore.”

With that the man turned abruptly and strode down the street, not bothering with the safety of shadows. He was going back into the mountains, to the end of the story.

2019. A man learned that he himself was the stranger. That’s the beginning of the story.

When he was 85, Aaron Moore — orphan, boot-strapper, entrepreneur, networker — decided to give himself the one thing he could not make for himself: the gift of a past. He had grown up in an orphanage in Roanoke, Virginia, under the strict care of the Sisters of Charity. He had married well and raised his daughter Linda with the same rigid expectations the nuns had instilled in him. He had a granddaughter of whom he was inordinately proud, and a fine retirement cottage in Blacksburg. But he had no parents, no background, no heritage to pass on, and lately he had begun to feel the weight of time compressing his days.

The granddaughter: that’s me. Erin Moore Ramirez, 22. Not an orphan, not a boot-strapper, not an entrepreneur, not a networker. My parents are both professors at Virginia Tech, and I’m their tenure baby. I attended good private schools and matriculated at my parents’ college (on a family discount, natch). The only thing I’ve ever had to do for myself is buy my own car. My mother wouldn’t hear of coddling me in that way.

“My father never bought me a car,” said the woman who had selected my outfits, decorated my room, taken me on Disney cruises. “I had to work for any extras I wanted.” And I knew better than to retort that she hadn’t done too badly out of her father’s hard work.

When Grandpa wanted to try one of those DNA services to find his family, it wasn’t Mom he asked for help. When the results came back, it wasn’t his daughter he wanted by his side. It was me, his namesake. And together we discovered that grandpa’s mother was of Scots-Irish descent, and that his father had a significant proportion of DNA from West Africa.

I had never saw my grandfather cry until the day he discovered proof that he had a father. “My father is black,” he said. “I’m black.”

Aaron Moore grew up in what my mom calls “an era of casual racism”, in which his difficult path out of the orphanage and through the world was eased only by the fact that his skin was lighter than some of the other men competing with him for jobs. He may have been swarthy, but he was White. Perhaps this was knowledge that he’d buried deep inside himself: that no matter what he looked like, the fact of his societal whiteness was a gift that had been given to him.

All his life Grandpa had sustained himself with visions and dreams of his family. He shuffled through one story after another in his mind, trying to work out who they had been and why they had left him. Now there was a concrete fact, something alien to his entire image of himself: his father was black and his mother was white. It made him a stranger to himself. It broke him a bit. His joy at finding his family was unalloyed with strength.

Perhaps in this time of high emotion he might have expected support from my mom, but compassion was not one of the lessons he’d pounded into her in her formative years. The shock of discovery takes people different ways. For Mom, it brought old grudges to the fore.

“What did you expect, that you were hidden royalty or something?” she snapped. “You’ve always been so much better than everyone else. You worked so much harder. You demanded more. Come to find out you’re just another person whose parents screwed up. Maybe now racism doesn’t look so funny, now that’s it’s you.”

“You are out of line,” Grandpa said, but with only a fraction of his life-long authority. “You see racism everywhere.”

“Oh yeah?” Mom was not screaming, but she was getting pitchy. “Have you ever really reconciled with the fact that my last name is now Ramirez? When I brought home John, you called him Juan from the first time you met him. You make cracks about the border wall and Mexicans. This is my family, Dad, my husband, my daughter! But now that you’re suddenly black, it’s different.”

“You’ve never had some immigrant take the job you needed to survive!” Grandpa wasn’t screaming, but only because his voice doesn’t reach that high. “When did you last starve because you couldn’t find work? Let me tell you that when I was a young man…”

I love both my grandpa and my mom, but they deserve each other sometimes. While Aaron Moore, raised white, and Linda Ramirez, Hispanic by marriage, settled into a political argument about who had stronger racial bona fides, I, Erin Moore Ramirez, half Hispanic from birth, darker than both of them and well aware of it, delved into the weeds of Grandpa’s DNA results. There were not any connections from his father’s side, but the maternal line was more promising. I parsed out the closest connection.

“Grandpa, did you see this?” I interrupted. “There’s a lady here who’s connected to you through your mother? Or your maternal grandparents?”

Grandpa and Mom shelved their argument and peered at the screen. Grandpa’s three closest relatives all shared the same last name and were connected to him in descending degrees. Grandpa’s fingers hovered over the keyboard as he stared at what he could see of the profile of his closest match, a woman named Kay with whom he shared about 6.25% of his DNA.

“It says she could be a cousin once removed,” he murmured. “What does that even mean?”

“Contact her and ask, Dad.”

Still he hesitated. “Maybe I should leave it alone,” he said. “What if it stirs up trouble? Maybe there’s some good reason they gave me away.”

“Oh my god,” said my mother, throwing up her hands in the finest telenovela tradition and stalking out of the room.

I reached over and clicked the button to connect. “Grandpa, maybe they've been looking for you all this time.”

Next.

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