Dear Home, I miss you. I miss what you used to give me: shelter, warmth, and security. I miss running up and down your steps—taking the stairs two at a time and always jumping down from three up (much to … Continue reading →
Home smelled like love. It smelled of the milk my parents would warm for my breakfast cereal—peeling off the taut skin first because they knew I didn’t like it. Home smelled like early morning wakeups without the help of an … Continue reading →
In conjuring up my earliest Christmas memories, I’m taken back to when there was just mom, dad, and me. We were living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And I was still eager to point out that my birth had transformed my … Continue reading →
So often sadness is simply the opposite side of joy. It is our feelings of affection that make for tearful goodbyes. We feel loss because we loved. We shed tears for what we’ve treasured. The hardest part about visiting my … Continue reading →
Family trips are a rarity in my family. When I was a young child, my parents would send me to Grenada for a month. Sometimes one or both of them would join me for a week or so. After my … Continue reading →
As a little girl, Easter Sunday was all about the dress. And as a girl who felt fiercely loyal to the conventions of her gender, buying that dress was an opportunity to assert every aspect of my juvenile femininity. I wanted pastels, frills, flowers—and the dress had to pass the twirl test. The look I was going for could best be described as Southern belle, debutante, ballerina, flower girl, fairy tale princess.
It was rare that my parents became consumers due to the commercialized sentiments of a holiday. Christmas wasn’t focused on presents. We didn’t buy Halloween or Easter candy. I remember just a few seasonal shopping rituals: Every fall dad would take me to buy a new pair of sneakers (always the same brand, always the same color). I’d also get a new pair of dress shoes for school. And every spring, as Easter approached, mom would take me to the same store to buy a new dress of my choosing.
In our family, a holiday was a day that brought and kept us all home. There were no jobs, schools, or extracurricular activities—no parties or events—we had to go to. It was a day to be under the same roof—a day of rest and family togetherness.
Easter Sunday was also about the family meal. With our divergent schedules, it was a rarity that all five of us sat at the same table at the same time to eat. Family meals were a gift. I cherished those times. They reminded me of how much I liked and loved my family.
Liking my family is different from loving them. Familial love often flows from biology, chemistry, and conditioning. I love my family because they are my family. But I like them because of who they are—regardless of any relationship to me.
Usually family meals would become a vehicle for us to make each other laugh. We’d reminisce, make jokes, and tease. We’d recount stories of our individual and common life experiences. Food was the centerpiece, but love and laughter were the point. To this day, few sounds make me happier than that of my family’s laughter. Few sights swell my heart more than the broad smile of a family member.
My family has changed. I’ve lost and I’ve gained. Sadly, the five became four when my mother died. And now I have new family on my husband’s side. Easter Sundays (and the like) look different now. My husband and I rarely get to recreate the stay-at-home holidays I cherished as a child. I see my biological family less often, but that only makes the meals we do share more special.
Especially in light of how much we’ve lost and how weighed down we’ve been by sadness in the past, all I want most holidays is to share a leisurely meal with my family and hear them all laugh.
I am often in awe of immigrants, especially the trailblazers—the ones who are first to leap into a new and unknown land and language without anything familiar or anyone familial or friendly waiting to catch them. What an exercise of audacious bravery. Moving isn’t easy. It takes courage and flexibility to build a life somewhere foreign—whether it’s a new country or a new city.
Though they didn’t have to hurdle a language barrier, I think about what it must have taken for my parents to leave their families behind—to board a plane and set off for a country full of streets, foods, and customs that were new them. Even the weather was foreign—new phenomena like winter’s snow, cold, and the changing leaves of autumn.
They both left an island so small that almost everyone there knew them, and they came to a country so big they must have felt invisible by comparison.
Were they afraid? Did they hesitate? Did they ever feel so homesick they thought they’d made a mistake? What kept them from going back? Was it confidence? Was it faith?
What enables a person to move so far away from father, mother, and motherland that visiting home becomes impossible or, at best, infrequent? When you move to a new place, how long does it take to stop feeling lost where you live? How long before the foreign feels familiar? And what if you’re met with discrimination because of your color, customs, accent, or origins?
It takes courage to move. It takes great bravery to go somewhere or try something new. There are no guarantees in the unknown. Sometimes foreign lands are unwelcoming lands too. And so I am in awe of those who leave country and culture—friends and family—the comfortable and the familiar and move somewhere foreign. I marvel most at those who must live surrounded by a foreign language as well as a new country, but all moves are impressive to me.
I have two buttons that, when pushed, elicit a strong emotional response. I hate being interrupted (or talked over) and I detest being shushed. At the base of these pet peeves (or emotional allergies) is a common root: I have a need to be heard. When I’m speaking, I want to feel listened to.
Being shushed brings me back to my childhood. As a kid who loved and respected her parents like they were celebrities or gurus, feeling as though I’d disappointed either of them crushed me. I didn’t require spankings or time in a “time out.” A look of displeasure or disappointment from my parents (or a teacher) left me in a tailspin of remorse and shame (albeit a temporary one). In the moment, I wasn’t always able to separate their distaste for my actions from an aversion to me. In the moment, I became convinced that I’d lost their affection and would need to re-earn it.
Much like my mother was, I am an exuberant speaker. As my passion for whatever I’m talking about increases, so does my voice’s volume. The school I attended trained me to speak up to be heard—to make certain I got credit for my thoughts and words.
My father, on the other hand, is a soft-spoken man. I’ve heard him be stern, but in thirty-five years I’ve never (never!) heard him yell—not in pain, not in celebration, not in anger, not even for a taxi. His name, Clement, does mean temperate. I suppose in naming him his parents were a bit prophetic. I don’t know how he manages it or where his anger goes, but his temper is uniformly clement. He’s always in control.
Perhaps he doesn’t have to raise his voice because he grew to be so tall. Perhaps he can speak softly because he’s too big to be ignored.
I’m short. I have to try to be heard. And every now and again, when I was a child, my father would shush me. Now while I imagine he was simply trying to teach me to act in consideration of my surroundings (and to stop me from disturbing him or others) a “shush” from him was a devastating blow—emotionally, it hit me hard.
Being shushed by my father made me feel as though he’d caught me doing something wrong—found me wild, uncivilized, and out of control. I felt sure I’d disappointed him by being too raucous to be his good little girl. His shush saddened me because I thought it carried his disapproval. It stung like a slap. It reeked like rejection. I felt emotionally disowned or abandoned—as though the sound of the “shush” stood for the distance he wanted to put between us.
As I got older, I learned that a parent’s love is more indelible than that—it’s permanent, in fact. I’ve learned that anyone who truly loves me will continue to love me even if they dislike some of my actions. But, to this day, my first response to being shushed is a regurgitation of the shame my childhood reprimands brought up. It’s an emotional smack that gives my sensibilities a jolt. It causes a number of my old insecurities to resurface.
When puberty developed my body, it also made me insecure. Already an introvert by nature, I got quieter. But that could only last so long. Athletics and academics wouldn’t let me stay silent. I wanted to be a good sport (and team captain). That meant cheering on my teammates and being vocal when I was playing. I was a perfectionist as a student, and class participation mattered. If I wanted the A, I needed to speak up. So I rediscovered my voice in the classroom and on the volleyball court.
While it doesn’t affect me as deeply as being shushed, I also have a strong aversion to being cut off. I assume you’re not listening when you ignore or interrupt. For me, being heard is akin to being seen. When I don’t feel listened to, I feel invisible—or like I’m being erased. All I hear in your interruption is, “Your words and thoughts don’t matter as much as this.” It’s as though you see me as small or you’re trying to shrink me down. I feel like a lost child going against the current of commuters at rush hour.
Here’s the thing though: I’m such a hypocrite. Even though I hate when it’s done to me, I interrupt others relentlessly. One of the academic survival skills I developed was how to cut someone off like an assassin. Whether consciously or not, I’ll identify points of verbal weakness in my target (be it classmate, teacher, or companion). That pause to collect his or her thoughts, or that beat to take a breath—stop speaking for just a moment, and I’ll start shooting my words in. I occupy conversations and stake my claim on every silence. And I rarely retreat until my words are acknowledged. And if someone tries to cut me off, I’ll raise my voice until I’ve silenced him or her.
I’m working on it (really), but I’ll cut you off verbally in a heartbeat. Say something that excites me or inspires an idea or memory and, more times than not, words will come spilling out of me. I also have this horrible habit of finishing other people’s sentences. In my excitement (or impatience) I’ll jump in and try to predict your thoughts like I’m a Wheel of Fortune contestant. And I’m a complete jerk about it too. So much so that I once found myself interrupting a girl with a stutter. I was mortified, but I still couldn’t (or didn’t) stop myself. (My belated and heartfelt apologies to her.)
Given how much I like to talk and my deep desire to be heard, it puzzles me when I don’t speak up—when I hold my tongue. On more than one occasion, I have been a silent victim. I have been pressed body to body with strangers on a crowded subway train and then felt something hard pressing into me. (What is that? Why is it moving?) Silence. (Is that someone’s penis!?) Silence. (No, it can’t be.) Silence. (Quit your denial and say something!) Silence. (Yell! Scream!). Silence.
I felt trapped and muzzled in my violation. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t see who it was. I could barely turn around. (Should I turn around? Or will that only make it worse?)
I still don’t fully understand why, but the few times this form of sexual harassment happened to me, I held my tongue and suffered silently. I’d slide my bag down to create a barrier, but not once did I say anything to the offender.
Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I speak up? Or, better yet, why didn’t I take “matters” into my own hands (with a forceful twist or pull)? Instead of suffering in silence, I should have made those perverts yell.
My father makes the best scrambled eggs. He uses just the right amount of butter. He can cook almost anything, actually. He’s quite comfortable in the kitchen, having learned well from his mother.
My father taught me that failure is temporary so long as you persist—that you continue to approach success until you stop trying. He showed me the value of honesty and hard work. He was strict and compassionate. He made sure I knew that my best was enough. I could go to him with my tears and my triumphs.
My father could be a bit overprotective. But I knew it was just an extension of his love. He wouldn’t let me use the stove, sharp knives, or even plug in an electrical appliance for the longest time. Even now (and I’m in my mid-thirties), he doesn’t like to know I’m out on the city streets riding my bike.
My father is generous and humble. Every now and again this has embarrassed me. Once, when I was in high school, we were walking to the subway station together. Noticing that my shoelace had become undone, he promptly knelt down to tie it for me.
Unfortunately I didn’t manage to inherit my father’s height, but he did give me his long legs and some of his athleticism. I also got his big, flat feet, long fingers, squinty eyes, and veiny arms.
When I was in grade school, most mornings my father made my breakfast. He’d warm the milk for my cereal and peal off the skin (which I found unappetizing). Then he’d encourage me to add a bit of sugar to it. As I got older, it became egg and cheese sandwiches on Caribbean hard dough bread—wrapped in aluminum foil and two paper napkins so I could eat it on the train.
My father has an acute sweet tooth. This is a man who will drink condensed milk (essentially liquid sugar) straight from the can before pouring some more in his tea or on his ice cream. On the days when he picked me up from school, he almost always bought me a toffee. When he picked me up from ballet lessons, we always stopped at Carvel. He is the one that got me into the habit of having my red Jell-O covered in bananas and vanilla ice cream. He is a sugar fiend.
My father works hard. He was in law school and had two jobs when I was in kindergarten. For much of my childhood he worked a minimum of six days a week on top of studying. When I used to pull all-nighters in high school, he was also usually up working. I never felt compelled to complain about having too much homework or needing to stay up late.
My father’s laugh is so pure and complete that it fulfills me. He gives generously without hesitating. I’ve never heard him raise his voice. When he found out I needed quarters to do laundry at college, he stopped spending them. Every time I came home, he’d hand me film canisters full of the quarters he’d saved. My siblings and I would return from boarding school or college to find he had stocked the fridge with all of our favorite things. He was always trying to anticipate our wants and needs.
My father is exceedingly easy to love—like breathing or blinking loving him is done without thinking—and I must. Like any man, he has his flaws. Even as a kid I knew he wasn’t perfect, although I wanted him to think I thought he was. I have not always understood him or his decisions, but I have always had infinite confidence in his love.
When I was a child, I was horrified by my father’s insistence that the family not make a big fuss over his birthday. As a kid, I wanted my birthday announced from the top of every mountain. I wanted banners in the streets. I wanted to wear a crown or Miss-America-type sash alerting all who encountered me that this day was the day of my birth. I wanted everyone to take notice and treat me with extra kindness. A citywide parade would have been fine by me.
When I was a kid, any misfortune suffered on my birthday was amplified by its contrast to the “happy” state I was trying to maintain. Any unkindness launched in my direction hurt me more deeply (even if the assailant was ignorant to the significance of the day). Having a happy birthday meant having nothing bad happen—I should not have to endure even the tiniest discomfort. It was to be a day full of good things—presents, parties, successes, favorite foods, and cake.
When I was a child, birthdays were a big deal. You were extra special on your birthday, and people had to treat you as such. So it perplexed (and worried) me that my father could let his birthday pass with so little pomp or ceremony. Didn’t he want mountains of presents? Didn’t he want everyone to know the significance of this day for him? How could he be satisfied with a simple cake and ice cream after dinner? How could he accept an inaccurate number of candles atop his cake!? Didn’t he want a huge party? I didn’t understand how he could make so little of his big day.
I get it now that I’m an adult. My grownup birthdays don’t hinge on presents and parties. This particular day is no longer a vehicle for getting the things I want. I don’t want things anymore—at least not the way I did as a kid. I have all the things I need. If I want anything now, it isn’t something that will fit in a box. I want to accomplish things, travel to see things, and experience things. I want to enjoy the relationships that are like gifts to me and cut the tether to those relationships that unnecessarily weigh me down. Gone are my days of wanting a new frilly-twirly dress or Barbie doll.
I no longer expect my birthday to be perfect or free of discomforts. Even on my birthday there is work to be done. The dishes in the sink still need to be washed. The cats still need to be fed and refuse to clean their own litter box. On this particular birthday I’m sick. As a child I would have considered being ill on my birthday nothing less than a punishment from God. I would have worried that He had thus afflicted me because I’d offended Him in some way. Now, I’m just trying to decide whether working out is a gift I should give myself, or an unnecessary chore, on my birthday.
Ever since I left my twenties behind, birthdays have felt less momentous. Some days I can’t remember how old I am—I have to do the math. Milestones don’t make me feel closer to being grown up any more. I know I’m grown; I have bills to pay. The amount of anticipation I felt approaching 10 (double digits), 13 (teenager), 18 (legal), and 21 (more legal) doesn’t overtake me anymore. I used to count down the days to my birthday. I used to measure my age in years and fractions. Now each year just feels like a mile marker in an ambiguous marathon I’m walking instead of running. I’m happy to have lived another year (walked another mile), but I worry about my pace. Not that I think life is a race. I see the value in the journey and the incremental destinations. But there’s what I’ve accomplished, and then there’s what I would like to have accomplished by now. And every year (especially every birthday) the disparity between those two (the reality and the dream) grows more prominent. Every year I find myself weighing who and what I was hoping to be against who and what I’ve actually become.
When I was a child, I didn’t evaluate my accomplishments to date; I wondered what I was getting. I wanted my birthdays to be perfect. They were days on which I expected only good things to happen to me. Now that I’m an adult, it’s mostly just another day, and I’m fine with that. Some people I love will call, text, or e-mail to wish me well. And that will be lovely. I’ll even get one or two physical cards through the mail (so far one from my godmother in England).
Today is my birthday and I am sick. My throat is sore and dry. I cough for no good reason. My lungs continue to produce a colorful array of phlegm and mucous—the unwanted gift that keeps on giving. I have work and chores waiting for me. But I’m not unhappy. I like my life, and I’m happy to have lived another year of it. Bad things can and will happen on my birthday. I’m okay with that. The fact that I’m still here, alive, loved, and healthy (aside from this current cold or other manner of pernicious, long-lasting infection) is gift enough.
My father enjoyed modest birthday celebrations, and I understand that now. I don’t need fuss or fanfare. I’m an introvert—I don’t want a parade or a cheering crowd. I’m content to enjoy a good meal in good company and cap it off with something milk-chocolaty. It’s just an ordinary day, really, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Just because my grownup birthdays aren’t spectacles of celebration, doesn’t mean they aren’t very happy .