Day 29: the night of your 21st birthday

That was a LONG time ago. I’m surprised by how dim a memory it is. I’m amazed by how the events of adulthood — marriage, children, career — can blur the memory of the very beginning of that adulthood. I don’t remember most of my birthdays, really.

I do remember some of the circumstances surrounding this event, though.

I turned 21 in 1989. That day in early June, the Ayatollah Khomeini died. That day was also the beginning of the the brutal enforcement of martial law in Beijing. Within a year after my 21st birthday, the Berlin Wall fell (11/9/89) and Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years (2/11/90). The world as I’d always known it was changing. As I was turning 21, I entered a new phase of life in a world that was brand new in so many ways. It was a time of infinite possibilities.

Seven months before my 21st birthday, I got engaged to my beloved husband, John. It was just after I’d voted in my very first Presidential election. It was 1988 and I’d cast my vote for Michael Dukakis. We all know what happened…

So, I approached a milestone birthday as an engaged woman in turbulent times. I’d just finished my 3rd year of college at Oberlin and I was looking forward to spending the summer at Meadowmount Music School in (far) upstate New York.

There’s a little more to the story.

John was not the first man to ask me to marry him. That distinction went to someone I’d met and fallen for — hard — the summer between high school and college. That relationship had changed me in really important ways, and I was sad when it and the summer ended. The following summer, we met again and the relationship resumed. It wasn’t the first time I’d been in love, but this relationship was intense and passionate. He was two years older than me, and much less of a wandering spirit than I was. For him, life was simple: go to school, meet a girl, fall in love, get married, get a job, live happily ever after. At the end of the summer, I had to return to school and he was staying put. I didn’t know how to merge the life I had at college with the life I had with him, but I tried to hang on despite the distance. We talked almost every day.

Then, one day he asked me to marry him. He had already turned 21. I was only just 19. I completely freaked out, and I stopped calling him. I dodged his calls. I just couldn’t say what I knew I had to. I knew it would break his heart. So, in the boneheaded play of the century, I started dating someone else. That was how I ended the relationship. I was young, stupid, and scared out of my mind. I ran rather than talk about it.

I came to find out that just a few weeks later he met someone else. They started dating and it became serious. When I screwed up the courage to finally call and apologize, I got the cold shoulder. When I saw him for lunch a couple of months later, I got two shocks: he was joining the army and he had asked her to marry him — the night before. I deserved every bit of the pain that news caused me. He threw it all in my face and then rubbed it in. I had never known him to be cold or cruel, but he was both that day. I couldn’t be angry with him for it. This was his response to what I’d done and I’d earned his wrath. So I took it.

John and I were engaged less than six months later.

Fast forward to the spring of 1989. Within a few weeks, I received two things in the mail that rocked me back on my heels: an invitation to his wedding, and a letter from him sent from boot camp. I had assumed that the wedding invite was the final fuck you flourish meant to hurt me. The letter told a different story.

He was lonely and scared. He was worried that he was making a mistake by getting married. He wanted to talk to me.

He wanted to see me.

My heart was beating like a drum and my head was exploding. There was no way I could see him again. I couldn’t do that to myself, to him, to her, or to John. If we saw each other, everything would be an enormous emotional mess. No, I couldn’t do it. No. No matter how much I may have wanted to reach out to him, I knew it was dangerous and foolish.

I never answered the letter. I put it and him away, presumably forever. There was only one thing left for me to do. I had to survive his wedding day. I wasn’t going, of course, but the day would be a difficult one. It was exactly one week after my birthday. We had spent his 21st birthday together, as well as my 19th. I spent my 21st birthday doing stuff I don’t remember now. I’m sure it was a lovely day, and I suspect that I spent it with John. There were other things on my mind and my life had gone on. I had moved on.

The day he got married, it was clear to me that I had not moved on. I spent that day alone in my room, crying like a baby. In my mind that part of my life had been over for a long time, but the last piece of my heart broke for him that day. It was over and there was no going back.

I cried all day and then I was done. It was over.

John and I married almost three years later, ten days before I turned 24. We’ve been married nearly half our lives.

About 21 years after I ended that relationship, we got back in touch through an odd set of circumstances. I had tried to find him over the years. I needed to apologize. I finally got my chance. I am forever grateful for that. I did not want to carry that around with me for the rest of my life. It was generous of him to listen to me and allow me to set that burden down. It was even more generous of him to forgive me. What a blessing that was.

Looking back, I can see how much I didn’t know at 21. I was smart in an academic sense, but I was so innocent and naive in the ways of the world. I did so many stupid things. I used to have many regrets from that time. I have learned to let regret go. I have learned to forgive 21 year old Lisa as I can clearly see her now through my 47 year old eyes. My life was all ahead of me then, and I had no idea what that meant. I wish I could talk to young Lisa and help her understand how much life would mold and shape her over the years. I wish I could hold her close and kiss her tears away. She had so much to learn.

None of that was on my radar at 21. It was just a birthday that told me I was adult now. It was so important then. It seems so silly now. Perspective is a wonderful thing.




Day 26: things you’d say to an ex

Whoa. This is some heavy shit. I have a few exes, and I’d say something different to each of them. I’m still friends with quite a few of them, which shows that both parties involved grew up at least a little bit.

So, what would I say? I don’t want to go all Adele on them, if you feel me, but there’s still some pain and anger lingering in a couple situations. I’m almost 50 and I’ve been married — to one of my exes, actually — for almost half my life. What’s left to say?

I don’t want to name names or kiss and tell, but here are some thoughts.

  • I loved you once, with all my heart.
  • You broke my heart, but I forgive you.
  • I knew you were gay, but I didn’t care.
  • I still think about you sometimes, and always with a smile.
  • You taught me a lot about myself.
  • You made me so mad I wanted to kill you.
  • That was some really mindlessly awesome sex.
  • That was some really pathetically lousy sex.
  • Remind me again how drunk I was?
  • I should’ve called the police after the first time you hit me.
  • You’re a rotten bastard and I hope you rot in hell.
  • You raped me.
  • I can’t believe you tried to kill me.
  • How did it come to this?
  • Do you even remember our relationship?
  • We split and you started dating that cow?
  • You don’t marry your rebound, honey.
  • That was the sweetest summer of my life.
  • You made me feel like a princess and I always remembered that.
  • What were we thinking?
  • Love is some complicated shit.
  • You chased me and then you dumped me, then it was somehow MY fault?
  • What took you so long? What were we waiting for?
  • I could barely keep my hands off of you.
  • I’ve never felt that way before, or since.
  • What can I say? The first cut is the deepest.
  • We were so young.
  • Oh my God, I was so stupid.
  • I’ve always wondered what you saw in me.
  • I only remember the good times.

The most important thing of all is what I’d say to the most important of my exes:

  • I’m so glad you didn’t give up on us.
  • You have the patience of Job. I can’t believe you waited this long.
  • You were there when I finally landed. Thank you.
  • You had a vision of you and me that I couldn’t see at first. I see it now, and it’s beautiful.
  • I’m sorry it took me so long.
  • I’m sorry I hurt you.
  • I’ve loved you so long I can’t remember when I didn’t.
  • Thank you for asking me to marry you. I’m glad I said yes.
  • I can’t imagine life without you.
  • I’m so happy that we get to grow old together.
  • Thank you for the life we’ve made together.

And I’ve never loved anyone more than I love you.

Day 4: 10 (Interesting) Things About Me


I’m going to cheat a bit on this one…

Nearly seven years ago, back when publishing notes on Facebook was a thing, I responded to the request from a friend to post 25 Random Things About Me.  I was surprised that I had 26 things to post, even though I probably could’ve condensed a few of them into a single item.  So, in the interest of conservation (reduce, reuse, recycle), I’m going to use some of that list here.

I put interesting in parentheses in the title because I’m not sure everyone will find these 10 things interesting.  Here’s hoping!

  1. I found out that I was adopted when I was nearly 30 years old and my firstborn was about 4 weeks old.  My “Aunt Cheryl” is really my mom.  Needless to say, this was some pretty earth-shaking news, especially in my hormonally challenged state.  Two years later, John helped me find my birth father.  So now I have four parents (though one is deceased), and my kids have six grandparents.  I’m also now no longer the only child I thought I was.  I have 5 brothers and sisters (again, one is deceased).  In the end, finding all this out was a tremendous blessing.
  2. I met my husband in 8th grade.  We sat across from each other in home room.  He thought I was cute.  I thought he was weird.  In 9th grade, I dated his best friend (who turned out to be gay — just my luck…).  We did eventually begin to date, right before he moved to Vermont.  I broke up with him on Valentine’s Day.  It took nearly two years and the kissing of MANY frogs to get me to see the mistake I’d made in dumping him.  We’ve been together since 1988 and married since 1992.
  3. Our daughter was born in the back seat of a 1997 Lincoln Town Car at the corner of 104th Street and Riverside Drive in NYC.  John delivered her.  This was the first of several diva moments she’s had in her nearly 18 years of life.  Giving birth to her was a life-changing experience for me.  I’ve never been the same since.
  4. Singing was my first musical expression.  I first remember “being caught” singing by my mother when I was 3.  We had just recently gone to a wedding, and the two musicians sang the song “September” from The Fantastiks.  That’s what I was singing to myself in my room as I played with my blocks.  Mom thought it was the radio.  When she figured out it was me, she carried me to her bedroom and made me sing it again for my dad.  I still remember the look on their faces; they looked at me as if I were some kind of freak.  That has, unfortunately, followed me since.
  5. I am a violist today, and have been since I was 16, but I started off playing violin.  Violin wasn’t even my first choice of instrument.  I wanted to play French Horn like my Aunt Mary Ann, but my parents didn’t want me to do ANYTHING  Mary Ann did.  So I talked them into letting me play violin.  They never really supported my love of music, often telling me that Black folks didn’t play stringed instruments or play Classical music.  Again, they made me feel like a freak for loving music and wanting to do it professionally.  They never have understood what I do.  This had been one of the saddest things in my life for many years.
  6. I wore braces on my teeth from the age of 22 to 25.  I still had on my bottom braces on my wedding day.  While it really sucked at the time, the investment in my smile was worth the pain.
  7. I love to practice and perform solo Bach more than any other music in the entire world.  It is the purest expression of who I am as a musician.
  8. Beethoven is my favorite composer.  When I was in Germany, I took the train from Cologne to Bonn to visit the Beethovenhaus Museum.  On the top floor, there is the room where he was born.  I remember standing in the doorway and crying like a baby at the thought of such greatness coming into the world in such a tiny space.  I also cry every time I hear or play the third movement of his Ninth Symphony.  I’ve been a musician for decades and I’ve heard and played a lot of music, but I’ve never heard anything more lovely and moving than that.
  9. I had an out of body experience the only time I ever performed the Shostakovich Viola Sonata.  I dedicated that particular performance to a friend of mine who had just died of AIDS.  While playing, I burst into tears during the climax of the last movement.  For many years, I remembered every note.  It was a really powerful experience.
  10. My son’s autism has been the biggest challenge for me.  Every view I ever had on raising children, education, and the way the world views the differently abled has been challenged, tested, and reevaluated.  There have been times when I literally thought I couldn’t raise him and that God had given him the wrong mother.  However, I have come to see that his triumphs outnumber his defeats and that he does benefit from my presence in his life.  Sometimes I think he’s raising me because he’s taught me so much.  He’s a beautiful boy and I love him so much.  It’s hard to watch the world misunderstand him, or to see his peers going on to do things he’s not ready to tackle.  All I can do is pray and do everything I can to make him as strong and capable as possible.  No one will limit this child as long as I’m alive.  Only the sky is his limit, no matter what anyone else may think.  I will never give up on him.  He is my sweet young man.

So, there are the 10 things I chose to share/disclose.  Interesting?  Perhaps.  Good for me?  As an exercise, this was absolutely perfect for me, especially on New Year’s Eve.  Tomorrow is a new day and a new year.  Maybe I’ll have a whole new list to share next December 31.

Mary, Michael, and Edith

Last night, I did not do a blog entry because I was completely exhausted and in desperate need of sleep. An email I got late last night kept me from getting that sleep, unfortunately. I’m not sure this entry will be in English or gibberish, but I’ll give it a shot.

This is what I would have written last night:

Today (11/5/14) is my aunt Mary Ann’s birthday. Even though I call her my aunt, Mary Ann and I have always been more like sisters than aunt and niece. My grandmother (who isn’t even biologically my grandmother, but that’s a REALLY big and complicated story!) adopted Mary Ann when she was a baby. Mary Ann was the child of my grandmother’s niece (confused yet?) who was unable to care for a baby at the time. So, Mary Ann joined the family as younger sister to my dad (20 years older) and my uncle Vincent (9 years older). I asked her once when I was about 4 or so if I should call her “aunt”. At 13, she shut me down pretty quickly. Mary Ann was an aunt, but not an aunt — a relative, but not a relative. Despite what the relationship looked like “on paper”, we maintained a really close bond that is still going strong.

As a small child, I thought that Mary Ann was the most beautiful girl in the world. Anyone from a black (yeah, I still say black, because African American is so awkward sometimes) family knows that there are often issues surrounding color that have their roots in slavery’s “house nigger” and “field nigger” divide. (N.B. If you are bothered by the word nigger, please understand that its use is not the same for blacks and non-blacks. That is a conversation for another time, but it is a word that will appear within a certain context in my writings from time to time. It is not meant to shock or cause debate. Please read everything rather than being repulsed by a single word.) I was a light skinned kid which brought with it the taunts of so-called friends and family alike: lite brite, high yellow, uppity, etc. Mary Ann is the most luscious shade of dark chocolate. I wanted that gorgeous dark skin! My family, on the other hand, made sure to remind her every day that she was ugly and unworthy because she was dark. Light skin and “good” hair (holy shit, I HATE that term!) made me the favored child. Mary Ann, by all rights, should have hated my guts. Instead, she loved and cherished me like no one else in our family did. We shared a bond no one else understood, and there was a lot of time and energy put into breaking it.

Epic. Fail.

I once alluded to the fact that I saw more violence in a day than Law & Order showed in an entire season. It’s true. A lot of that violence was right in my own home. I’d rather not share too much about that out of respect for my relatives, but I will say that an inordinately high percentage of that violence was directed toward Mary Ann. I used to cry when I heard, or sometimes saw, Mary Ann get her ass beat. Even after it was over, I was an inconsolable mess. How could anyone want to hurt my beautiful beloved Mary Ann? What could possibly deserve such a beating?

So, even after being beaten half to death, Mary Ann would come and comfort me. She would do the funniest (I mean, really damn funny!) impression of Lily Tomlin’s character Edith Adams (I’m showing my age now… who remembers Edith Adams?). She would start in on that impression and slowly my tears would fade into peals of laughter. Without fail. No one made me laugh like Mary Ann. I wanted to be just like her.

My family did NOT want me to be anything like her. She was demonized by them for reasons I really can’t understand, even 40 years later. This is the kind of sick family pathology that psychologists get their PhDs on. I wish someone would explain this crap to me.

Some of my absolute favorite memories of Mary Ann involve music and dancing. She had an amazing singing voice and she could dance like someone on the Soul Train line (OMG, Soul Train… a moment of silence for the late great Don Cornelius, please). My Uncle Vincent was also an amazing dancer. If I can dance at all (which lots of folks say I can), it’s because I spent hours in rapt awe watching these two tear up the dance floor. They were amazing and inspiring, and these were the bright spots in a very scary and unsure childhood. These are the moments I hang on to.

I remember when Michael Jackson (another moment of silence, please) released his first solo album, Off the Wall. Mary Ann ran out to get a copy. She loved Michael Jackson! They were only about a year apart in age, so she was convinced they’d be married one day (no snide comments, okay…?). I ran downstairs to join her in the living room at my grandma’s house. There was a big old stereo console in one corner, more furniture than sound equipment as we think of it these days. I remember the album cover. I remember the centerfold. I remember the socks! I remember the sound as the needle touched the vinyl for the very first time and my life and hers were never the same. C’mon, y’all. Don’t act like you don’t know what I mean. You remember what the first track on that album is…

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough! The force has got a lot of power. It makes me feel like… OOH!

To this day, I can’t hear that song without remembering the ecstatic dance Mary Ann did that very first time she heard it. I have always maintained that there are a few absolutely perfect songs in the world: Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Shout, Flashlight (y’all feel me, right?). Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough is at the top of that list. Michael’s vocals and Quincy Jones’ production? Shut the front door! That shit is relevant, funky, and fabulous to this day — almost 40 years later. I dare you to find better arrangements than Quincy’s on that album and the two he did with Michael after that.

Go ahead. I’ll wait…

I didn’t think so.

So, flash forward to June 2009 when Michael’s great talent faded into his untimely death (I still get choked up thinking about that day). The very minute I heard the news, who did I call? Yep, you can probably guess that my Mary Ann got the first call. We shared that tragedy together and reminisced about all those dance sessions in Grandma’s living room, where we really did wear a groove in the floor. We talked about the late 70s and what life was like before Mary Ann had my cousin Vincent and moved out of my Grandma’s house. Once she was gone, life was harder for me. There was no longer that bright beacon of love and hope. My Mary Ann had moved on, gotten married to her husband James (an amazing man who loves her down to the ground), and had begun a family of her own.

Lots of life has happened since then. “Little Vincent”, who my husband once carried on his back across Tappan Square here in Oberlin, is now nearly 36 years old and big and strong enough to almost carry my husband! My cousin Melissa is nearly 30. I’ve been married close to 23 years and my kids are inching up on 17 and 12. Grandma’s gone now. So’s my dad. Mary Ann and her family are pretty much my last connections to my childhood home in North Philly. Little Lisa is little no more. I’m about to celebrate my 25th college reunion.

Time has flown. I’m edging up on 50 and Mary Ann on 60. Where did those years go?

No matter where they went or what happened in between then and now, Mary Ann still makes me laugh like no one else. I still think she is one of the most beautiful women in the world. Period. She’s built like an African fertility goddess, for crying out loud! And that skin is still the deepest, darkest chocolate. She still looks the same after all these years, and she says I do too (black don’t crack, honey…). We are still like sisters, and she’ll still do her Edith Adams impression for me if I ask her to.

On your birthday, my most marvelous Mary Ann, I want to wish you many more years of happiness and joy, and in the words of Mr. Don Cornelius himself — peace, love, and SOUL. I hope we grow old and keep keeping it real together for a long time to come. I will always love you. Always.

Why Mama Cries

Dear Baby Girl and Little Man,

Mama loves you so much.  I remember the two days I gave birth with great joy and happiness.  You two are my greatest works of art, my greatest moments of collaboration with God.  How else could I have created such amazing people!  What blessings you are!

Yes, I love you and I marvel at how you grow and change every day.  You are both so big now that it is almost impossible to imagine that you both began your lives inside my body.  It is so wonderful to see you spreading your wings and going out into the world, to see you develop your talents and interests.  I am so proud of both of you.

So, you may ask, why does Mama cry?

I cry because I will have no more babies.  That time is finished for me.  I loved having the two of you and I had hoped for more babies, but it was not to be.  As you grow and become your own people, I know that you will eventually leave our house to make your own way in the world.  As I was for you in the very beginning, I hope you will always know that I am your home, your comfort, and your refuge.  I am so glad that both of you still love to cuddle up on the sofa with me, and I hope you will for a long time to come.

I cry because you are going through challenges in life and I can’t take away the pain you feel.  Every tear you cry in anguish rips my heart out.  I want to stop whatever it is that’s hurting you, and I know that I can’t.  I’m powerless to help you with so many things, things you must go through to become strong adults.  I want to tell you that things will not always be this way and that you are tough and will survive.  I can see in your eyes the disbelief and skepticism.  Trust me, my loves, I have been where you are and I have cried those same tears of pain and anguish.  Life changes, and with those changes come new challenges that will make these seem small in comparison.  I hope that you know, deep in your hearts, that I will love you and be here for you no matter what may come — no matter what mistakes you make, or failures you face.  Your friends may come and go, but Mama will never leave you.  Mama never, ever let you fall.

I cry because I’m proud of you.  I cry because you are both so beautiful, inside and out.  I cry when you achieve things you’ve worked hard for.  I cry for you, my Little Man, because I was told by doctors and specialists that you would never do so many things.  I never believed it.  They did not know you like I do.  I know the secret hearts of both of my children.  I know your bright lights and darkest corners.  I know your fears and your dreams.  I know you may feel like you will crumble under the weight of the world, but I know you are fighters — and champions!  Every day you step out into the world and give your best effort, you win.  The only way to lose is not to play.

I cry because I miss the little things you used to do.  I cry because I know the things you do now will pass.  I cry because sometimes I am overwhelmed by the beauty of what you are and the promise of what you’ll become.  I cry tears of joy and tears of pain, tears of sacrifice and tears of selfless giving, tears of understanding and tears of frustration — and I wouldn’t trade a tear for a life without you both.  No matter what challenges you’ve brought to my life, I cannot imagine life without you.  The two of you made your Daddy and me a family, and you made our house a home.  I would not be the woman I am today if I weren’t your Mama.

Ever since you first spoke that simple word, Baby Girl, Mama has been the most beautiful word in the world to me.  It is the sweetest music to my ears.  Being your Mama is the one thing in the world I’m most proud of.  I can fail at everything else, but I will have lived a meaningful life if I succeed at loving you and raising you the best way I can.  I have no greater gift or more important job.  Everything else is a bonus.

If you see me cry again, don’t ask why.  Just know that I love you more than life itself, and that I look forward to crying at your graduations, weddings, etc. — and I look forward to the day you have kids of your own and can truly understand why I cry.  Then we can cry together because we share the secret joys and sorrows of parenthood.  I can’t wait for that day, but don’t hurry.  There’s plenty of time for that.

My babies, I love you so much.  You are worth every tear.

All my love,