Posts Tagged ‘family’


August 30, 2010

I don’t know my extended family very well. Part of the reason is that I am and always have been exceptionally bad at putting names to faces, and there are probably at least 100 people in my extended family…that I know of. My mom is one of eight kids, and my dad is one of at least eight, and despite the fact that we spent many holidays and cookouts and just regular old times with them throughout my childhood, I still don’t know the names of many of my aunts and uncles and cousins.

The other reason I don’t know them very well is because I never felt like I belonged with them – especially the folks on my mom’s side, who are overwhelmingly poor, uneducated, and fighting addictions of all sorts. No woman on my mother’s side has ever graduated from college (I will be the first if I can finish), and only one man – my cousin who is an aspiring doctor – has ever earned a degree.

I didn’t feel distanced from my maternal family because of their poverty (we were just as poor), or their lack of education, or their addictions. I felt distanced because my brother and I were different – and we knew it. We were weird and sheltered and shy. We didn’t understand much of the slang. We talked “like white people.” We didn’t recognize any of the pop culture references of the day. We didn’t know anything about the musicians that created the music on the radio. We didn’t cuss even among peers, and in fact we loudly called out anyone who cussed in front of us.

I didn’t feel like I belonged to my family, because everything about them just seemed so black, and everything about me was just so white. I was continually reminded of my difference at every gathering, during every phone call, at every visit. I struggled to communicate with and understand them and they struggled to do the same with me. I never joked with them, and I had a difficult time figuring out when they were joking with me, which is a situation that too easily led to hurt feelings. They loved me, of that I have no doubt, but they didn’t understand me. And, right or wrong, that made it difficult for me to love them because all the ways we didn’t fit together made me afraid of them.

I could go into the whole problematic issue of assigning “whiteness” and “blackness” to certain qualities, something that was done to me and that I did plenty to myself throughout my life, but I won’t. This entry is not about that. This is about Spades.

My family plays Spades. Everyone played around the way. We played outside, inside, at gatherings, while watching TV. We played with our peers, with our elders, with our parents and neighbors. We played for pennies or bingo chips or sunflower seeds (though most frequently, for nothing at all). We played at the card table, on the floor, on the marble steps outside our rowhouse, in the back of my father’s corner store. We played at every cookout, every birthday party, every holiday.

There were frequent arguments. There was a lot of shit-talking. Sometimes it seemed that a fight would threaten to break out, but none really did. When you played with the older members of my family, you ran the risk of getting yelled at, cussed out, belittled (albeit jokingly, if you were still young).

The older heads played Pinochle sometimes. But the rules for that game were more complicated, and small hands had trouble holding that many cards at once. My mom tried to teach me but I never got it. Pinochle was for the older folks, but Spades was for everyone.

I’ve been playing the game for twenty years. My parents, my brother, and I played Spades every Saturday night while watching Tales from the Crypt. My mom and I were always on one team, and my dad and brother were always on the other. My brother reneged at least once every game (he was the youngest player – when I was 9 he was only 7) and their team lost about 99% of the time. My dad got frustrated with losing constantly, but we never switched up the teams.

Spades has never been a mere game to me. It is a language, the only language that I was ever able to share with my extended family. I knew the rules, I knew the slang, I knew the tricks, and I knew the strategies. When I played Spades with my family, I didn’t feel different. I didn’t feel out of place. When we moved out of the poor black neighborhood that I grew up in to the ‘burbs, I spent my time playing Spades with the black kids in the neighborhood by the same rules and using the same language of the game that I’d grown up with. They made plenty fun of me for “talking white,” but when we sat down with a deck of cards, a sheet of paper, and a pencil, we were not so different. We were equals, peers. We were black children at play.

When I played Spades, I didn’t feel white. I didn’t feel like I needed to be white. And I didn’t feel like I had to prove to anybody that I wasn’t white. I felt right in my own skin. It’s taken me years to realize it and recognize it for what it was. I loved that feeling. And I still do.

Last month my mom, my brother, his girlfriend, and I all sat down for a game. We played, we shit-talked, we cussed at each other.

It doesn’t matter who won. It never has. Either way, it feels like home.

A Bit of Rambling On Faith and Family

May 13, 2010

One of the many differences between my husband’s family and my family is that Marcus’ folks are church people. SERIOUS church people. They attend church every Sunday (and possibly more frequently than that), pray before meals, listen to sermons in the car, have shelves of books in their house all about Jesus and being a good Christian couple, etc.

My parents believe in God, but except for a yearlong stint during my childhood, our family only attended church for Easter, Christmas, and funerals. I remember having to spend one Halloween weekend on a children’s Bible retreat (the timing was not coincidental, as the church we attended was one of the many who consider Halloween a time of evil) and I, being awkward and friendless, tried to do all I could to fit in. Which meant that once during a prayer, while all of the other kids were hollering and sobbing about Jesus, I sat and thought about my beloved dog Coco who had died a couple of years earlier until I was brought to tears as well (of course I pretended that it was about Jesus). It’s not that I didn’t believe in God (back then). I just didn’t believe in him so damn hard, especially not compared to those other kids.

Fast forward to the present. My parents don’t attend church ever, even for holidays, although they are still Christians. I’m an atheist, my brother is an agnostic, and my sister (who was raised in a different household from us) is a Christian but probably the Easter-Christmas type.

On the other hand, there’s my husband’s family. Marcus was raised in an evangelical household in which he was taught that Halloween is for devil worshipers and sadists, that homosexuality is a perversion, and that sex before marriage is an affront to God. You actually wouldn’t know just by speaking to his parents that they believe all these things; in fact, the only reason I know is because Marcus has told me about his childhood and, most recently, about the conversations that his father has with him when I’m not in the room.

While we were visiting the family last weekend, his mother and aunt were talking about a family friend who is apparently not a Christian or just not their kind of Christian (which, for them, there is little difference between the two). They were talking about how best to bring him around, and I couldn’t help but wonder as I sat there if they had ever had this discussion over me. They all know that I’m an atheist because (and this is gonna sound stupid, but it’s true) his mother saw it on my Facebook profile.

Eve is still very young, so the religious pressure has been very low. Right before she was born we received a story book about Abraham that went straight to Goodwill; when she was a few weeks old, the preacher who lives next door to my parents tried to convince us to attend his church, which we politely declined; and one of my coworkers asked me last week when Eve was going to have her Christening, to which I replied, “What’s a Christening?”

As she ages, though, I expect things to get stickier. Someday she’s going to ask why my parents lower their heads before every meal – something that I have no problem explaining to her, but I don’t know how well it’s gonna go over if she repeats my explanation to my folks. Someday she’s going to wonder if what someone told her was true: that we’re all going to hell because we don’t go to church or don’t believe in God. I won’t hesitate to tell her that there is no hell, but I’m afraid that my parents (or, more likely, my in-laws) are going to take her to the side when I’m not in the room and try to scare her into believing otherwise.

Most of the faith that I have ever had throughout my life was really just fear at its core. I was afraid to die, to go to hell, or to be the odd one out amongst a sea of believers. I wanted desperately to believe because there was something that I wanted to gain from believing. I don’t want that for Eve. If she ever chooses to believe some sort of faith system, so be it, but as long as I have anything to say about it, it’s not going to be because someone else frightened her into it.