Happy Father’s Day, Jesus!

For today’s post, I will lead you to an essay I wrote and published on Medium. Please click to read! Father’s Day has always been a tough nugget for me, and, truth be told, the one holiday that’s passed since my father passed away in late 2015 was a little easier. We’ll see how I do this year.

But, on Sunday, I head to Philadelphia for the Voices of Our Nation summer writing workshop, about which I am THRILLED. If you don’t see a blog post from me next week, it’s because I’m overwhelmed and delighted by the goings-on of the workshop. Have a great week, and Happy Father’s Day, dads!

Who the Hell Am I, Again?

I finished the first draft of my memoir just in time for my 5th wedding anniversary last week. To celebrate the latter occasion, my spouse and I headed out to Newport, RI, to get our Coastal New England on.

Rhode Island happens to be where my memoir opens. My father moved to Providence not long after I was born to go to Bible college and to work at Brown University. My mother moved me and my half-sister Kimi there in the summer of 1988, and my parents were married there. Since I was only about 3 years old at the time, I don’t remember *that* much about Rhode Island, just a few details about the house we lived in, and my parents’ wedding. We only lived there for about a year before moving back to Camden, NJ, then to North Carolina.

While we were in Newport, I called my aunt Rose (my father’s sister). She was delighted to hear that my marriage had lasted 5 years so far and was happy that I was on vacation near my father’s old stomping grounds. She said that the Young family was having reunion soon, but she wasn’t planning to go. I asked why.

She said, “I always feel a little weird going to Young events since we’re not really Youngs.”

Huh?

“Yeah, we’re not really Youngs. My mother was adopted. She was a Townsley and a Mathis. Her mother married a Young, so she became Young.”

Dear readers, I will be 32 years old in October, and I had no idea that my father’s last name wasn’t actually connected to a blood relative.

I felt two things: (1) I decided that I should probably go sit down with my Aunt Rose and write all this stuff down since Lord knows what else I don’t know, and (2) I realized that people would think it utter nonsense that I kept my last name after I got married when I’m not actually related to the family whose name I possess.

On point 1, I will definitely have to do that because it’s surely a bunch of interesting stories. On point 2, I didn’t keep my name because I felt some great affinity for my father’s family; I kept my name because I like my name and it’s who I am. The fact that my name isn’t really connected to anything but me is empowering. It makes me feel like I’m an island, creating my own family from scratch the way I want it to be, not tied down to meaningless traditions.

Aunt Rose continued that she’d spoken a while back with her brother/my uncle, who has requested that she not tell anyone where he lives or to give them his contact information.

“That’s too much,” Aunt Rose said. “Sometimes you have to let people be and love them just by praying for them.”

I agreed. I also realized that I’m not the only island. Apparently, I belong to a family of islands, a bunch of folks floating around out there on their own, creating their own destinies. We are an archipelago.

When I told my mom about it, she said, “I don’t know what anyone did to him to make him not want to be a part of the family.”

“Me, either,” I said, but I could definitely understand.

Sometimes, when you don’t feel understood, it hurts. And it’s best to keep your distance. Blood or a name is what keeps you in common, but that doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to keep the bonds, especially if they wear you down.

For now, I am happy to know that I’m a little floater, doing my own thing, out here on my own. Because I’m not actually alone. I belong to an unbreakable archipelago.

Valentine’s Day: My Tribute to Nana

Happy Valentine’s Day, all! I absolutely adore Valentine’s Day, primarily because it’s one of only two holidays that begin with the letter V and, as a kid, I had an uncontrollable love of chocolate and could satisfy it so easily on this day.

Valentine’s Day became more special for me when I was a senior in college, back in 2007. I woke up to find my college campus shimmering with a foot of snow. Excited at the prospect of a snow day curled up in bed with a book (for pleasure!) and a hot toddy, I turned on my cellphone to call the college weather hotline. I had a habit of turning my phone off at night to charge it, uninterrupted. It took its time turning on, and while it did, I decided that, in addition to reading with a hot toddy, I would have brunch with my friends in the cafeteria and invite the guy that I was sort of interested in back to my room to hang out for just a little while longer. It was going to be the best day ever, and it happened to be Valentine’s Day: the ultimate excuse to indulge oneself in chocolate and wine.

Immediately after my phone came to life, it notified me that I had a new voicemail. I listened to it right away, sensing that something must have been wrong if someone had called me between the hours of 3am and 8am.

It was my mom.

“Vonetta, it’s your mom,” she always said, as if I couldn’t recognize her voice after more than 21 years of being her child. “Call me as soon as you get this message.”

Part of me was afraid to call her; what if she had terrible news? On the other hand, I thought, what if she had really good news. Like, what if she’d just won the lottery and I no longer had $25,000 in student loan debt with no job prospects?

Barely fully conscious, I called her back.

“Hi, Vonetta,” she said, lacking the joy that belonged in her voice. After a hard childhood and two failed marriages, my mother was a survivor, and she carried that triumph with her always, even in her shy voice that she insisted was incapable of projecting.

“Hey, Mommy, what’s up?”

“I just wanted to let you know that your Nana passed away.” She’d delivered the message about my grandmother as gently as she could.

I blinked for a second as my brain pushed sleep out of its way so that it could register her words.

“No!” I said as soon as the word “Nana” hit my grey matter. “No, no, no!” I screamed and cried instantly, like someone had flipped a switch on the back of my neck that made me make sounds.

“I’m sorry, baby, I’m so sorry.” Mommy’s voice was calm, calmer than it should have been given that her mother—the only biological parent she’d ever known—had just entered eternity.

I told Mommy that I would call her back. I told my roommate what had happened, and she gave me genuine condolences in her Korean-accented English.

What I’d thought would be the best Valentine’s Day ever turned into the worst. I spent the day in bed, not reading, but crying. I saw my friends at bible study that night, and I was afraid to tell them what had happened, for fear of spoiling all the fun they’d had on their snow day. I didn’t have any chocolate, denying myself just to make sure I wouldn’t take things overboard. The next day, I had a phone interview for a job; I completely botched it, unable to make myself sound enthusiastic about anything in life, much less a potential career in finance as an English major. I remained depressed and grieving for several months. From that day forward, I have not turned off my phone at night, more willing for my sleep to be interrupted than to be rattled in the morning.

By graduation that May, my good spirits had returned as, with therapy and talking to my family somewhat frequently, I remembered that my grandmother had lived a full life. She died instantly of congestive heart failure at the age of 77. She didn’t suffer in pain for months or years. She didn’t die young. She’d had seven children and multiple grand- and even great-grandchildren who she’d lived to see and hug.

Nana represented the ultimate in love. She sacrificed a potential career to raise her children and help my grandfather sustain their family. She babysat my sister, me, and my cousins for years without pay. Although she spoke her mind when she was in the right mood, she was kind and giving. She loved the nuns at our Catholic school and always went out of her way to say, “Hi, sister,” to them if she passed them on the street. Nana idealized sacrificial love in a way that, perhaps, only those nuns, who sit at the foot of the cross for a good bit of the day, understood, and that’s why she felt a kinship with them.

For years, Valentine’s Day for me was about which boy didn’t like me and who I wouldn’t be receiving a valentine from. From that fateful Valentine’s Day ten years ago, it became about Nana and all of the love she showed me. I can only hope to emulate a sliver of it for the rest of my days.

 

Making the Most of Family Time

Thanksgiving Day. Hungry and losing patience before dinner.

This year, my spouse and I spent Thanksgiving with my mom in North Carolina. My sister Kimi and her husband and kids came to my mom’s house, as they do every year. This year, my mom was adamant about inviting my brother, Al (her ex-stepson) and his wife and kids, so the house was extra full, and it was wonderful!

The best part was that, with all of them under the same roof, I could ask them questions about things that happened when I was growing up and they could correct me if I remembered something wrong. My brother is ten years older than me (actually nine and a half, but I round up), and my sister is nine years older, so they remember things from, say, pre-1990, much better than I do.

“Do you remember that one time we went Easter shopping?” My brother asked.

I had no recollection of what he was talking about.

“Yeah, ya’ll came up from New Jersey and we all went Easter shopping,” he continued.

He and my dad were living in Rhode Island at the time (spring 1988, before my parents were married), and apparently, Mommy, Kimi, and I came to visit for the holiday. My dad was going to bible college and was really active in the church, so there was no way we weren’t going to go to church. I guess they wanted us to look extra nice.

“I remember,” Al said, “they found me this suit. It had white pants and green jacket, and I said, ‘That’s ugly! That’s something somebody in the marching band would wear. I ain’t wearin’ no marching band pants.’”

I laughed, realizing that my brother hadn’t really changed over the course of almost 30 years. I appreciated his consistency.

“That was back when you were really into that song, ‘Breakout! Don’t stop to ask…’ You’d be singing, and I would just say, ‘You sing it, Netta!’”

I laughed again. My family had told me that I loved that song when I was a toddler, but I really just don’t remember at all.

I’ve lived at least 350 miles away from my family for my whole adult life. While I enjoy having a separate life and, to be honest, don’t always look forward to going home since it sometimes fills me with dreadful memories, I love talking to my family about the past. I love knowing that, at certain times, we were actually all one unit, even if some of the members didn’t want to be there. I love knowing that they loved me enough as a kid to remember my silly actions, including how I sang and danced to a popular song that I didn’t even remember at all until someone mentioned it when I was a teenager.

I hope my family will be happy with the story that I’m telling. I want to make them, and their memories, proud.

A Special Anniversary

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. With my memoir rolling beyond page 100 now, it’s only right to use my first blog post to reflect on how I got here…

Update (October 19, 2016):

Almost immediately after I wrote this blog post, someone hugely influential in my writing life encouraged me to remove it and submit it for publishing. And it was accepted! You can now find an updated version of these thoughts as an essay on Thought Catalog: A Good Laugh with Dad.