Rhapsody & Remorse Part 1
So what’s an African American woman to do? In the US, if a woman is not married by age 25, she’s considered an old maid. Yet our chances for marriage are slim, because black men prefer white women. Our only recourse is to get pregnant in high school, to prove we are desirable. Also, that way we can at least collect welfare if we’re not successful career wise. But that’s not the Christian thing to do. Women are supposed to be virgins when they marry (that rule isn’t as strict for men). But if a woman doesn’t put out, no man will give her the time of day, and society will assume something is wrong with her because she is unwanted.
If only my childhood home had been a Christian teen hangout, like Merci’s. Except that doesn’t explain why she’s still unmarried…
Hitched or Ditched
“This is it,” announced Merci. “This is the year it’s either going to happen, or it won’t. If Phil doesn’t propose to me by December 31st, I’m dumping him.”
It was New Year’s Day. Merci and I were having brunch at the University Creamery, the only funky restaurant in super chic downtown Palo Alto. We had been pen pals for 12 years, nearly half our lives. Merci lived in Fremont, which was only 20 miles away from my hometown of Palo Alto, but this was 1986, before flat-rate cell phone calls, FaceBook and Skype, so we rarely got to see each other.
I met Merci one night at a rally held by Salt Shaker, a contemporary Christian ministry in Livermore geared towards high school and college-aged kids. My older brother Jacob had discovered Salt Shaker. He and I had been put in a foster home when we were 8 and 10 years old, and removed 4 years later when I kept experiencing excessive violence at my junior high. We lived with our father and his girlfriend in the cowboy town Livermore for a few months until another foster home could be found for us. Jacob took it hard; here he was, one of the few African Americans among a group of mostly white kids, and though they were friendly, any day he would be taken away from them and sent back to “Niggersville” (Oakland) to live with strangers. His grades plummeted; he almost became a truant and a runaway, until he stumbled across a group of Christians at Livermore High School. He became an active participant in Salt Shaker with the help of Jerry DeCou, who was one of the best friends he’s ever had. After we were moved to our new foster home, he continued to keep in touch with the Salt Shaker crowd, attending the rallies whenever he could. Sometimes I would join him, though I was a bit young to do so.
I met Merci there, in May 1974. We had all enjoyed great folk Christian music, even dancing. Pastor Calvin, who wasn’t much older than the kids, gave a speech about how crazy our world is (a siren went off right when he said that!), and he told the story about Moses and the Burning Bush. A Mexican girl was sitting next to me, and after the rally was over, we talked a short while, and exchanged addresses. She gave me a hug before leaving with her family. I was surprised; back then, hugs were not standard greetings.
I was even more surprised when she wrote. It was a charming 4 page letter, describing herself; she was Lutheran, the second oldest of 5 kids, and fourteen, a year older than I was. She said she had felt discouraged that night, but seeing my happy face cheered her up. I was quite flattered, though I thought that was strange for her to say, because I didn’t think most people saw me as a very happy person, but I wasn’t about to argue that!
I managed to visit Merci a few times, over the next 4 years. She lived in a tract home in Livermore, which was constantly in the process of being renovated. It had a swimming pool in the back, and a large den with a couch double bed, stereo, jukebox, pinball machines, even a gum machine. The jukebox and gum machine accepted coins, which were saved to donate to their church. There was an eternal crowd of teenagers there, which was interesting because her father was a policeman.
Merci had problems getting a boyfriend, just like me. She never won any of the crushes she got in high school. She even got on the Prom committee during her senior year, but still had no date. She wound up not going to the Prom. Years later, she was still hurting over that.
She met Phil on her 18th birthday. She likes to recall it as a lucky incident; the date was 7/7/77. They’ve been dating ever since. I had yet to meet Phil, but according to her, he is immature, and his parents didn’t like her.
So what brought on this ultimatum? Last month, one of Merci’s co-workers commented that eight years was a long time to date someone without a ring to show for it. She simply told him to mind his own business, but apparently the comment really stung.
“I’m tired of him trying to get me to move to L.A. with him and offering no commitment,” she told me. “So he’d better either marry, or at least propose to me, by the end of this year. If he doesn’t, I’m going to dump him.”
“Hitched or ditched,” I answered her, in jest. Personally, it sounded to me like manipulation with a capital M, but since I couldn’t come up with an alternative, I didn’t know what else to say.
She didn’t laugh, or even smile. “That’s right,” she responded.
After brunch was over, we got in her brand new car, and she drove the short distance to Stanford campus. Since it was a holiday, most of it was closed, though we could explore the church. “I absolutely love this place,” I told her. “This would be my #1 choice to have my wedding. However, one of us would have to work here; either that, or be an alumni.”
“It’s nice,” she replied, in a bored voice. “But it’s not big enough to hold all my friends.” I was surprised, and just a bit irked; she seemed almost arrogant.
After awhile, she needed to return home to Fremont. She pulled into a gas station, and I started to get out to pump gas for her. “Hold it,” she said, “let the attendant do it.” After the attendant finished, she handed him a credit card. Boy, she sure was living well, wasn’t she?
She dropped me off at the boarding house where I lived, then after we hugged each other good-bye, she headed back to her apartment in Fremont.
Patricians and Peons
Perhaps you’re wondering why, at the ripe old age of 25, I have no apartment, car, or credit card. It’s one of the perils of being a foster kid. Though Jacob and I were lucky enough to be placed in only two homes, we did have a considerable succession of social workers. The last one we had – well, I’d call her a bitch, but I don’t want to insult bitches.
Trouble with Mrs. Faye started almost immediately. She came by the house one day when my best friend Anna was visiting, and she kept giving Anna hate stares. When she finally left, Anna said to me, “She gives off bad vibes; she gives me the creeps.” I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing, though I was deeply embarrassed.
A few days later, I had to get into Mrs. Faye’s car alone, because she was taking me somewhere. Soon as the door was closed, she yelled at me for being friends with Anna. Why? Because Anna is white! Never mind the fact that we met at Pinecrest two years before I started attending Golden Gate Academy, and therefore had a history in common. Never mind that her parents accepted me with absolutely no racism. Never mind the fact that she had opened up new worlds to me, loaning me her Laura Ingalls Wilder books and taking me to the Renaissance and Dickens Faire. Here was this black social worker yelling at me for no other reason than because my best friend was white! Wait a minute – I thought it was White Oppression that was the cause of racism! What’s wrong with this picture?
I wanted to scream, “Heil Hitler!” in her face, but when you’re an underage foster kid, you risk winding up streetwalking on San Pablo Ave for a living if you do that. So I was forced to sit there and take it. I find it very interesting that a few years later, when Jacob married Annalee, a white woman, she made no protest. Later, Annalee told me Mrs. Faye’s daughter had fled the household to live with an aunt, because she couldn’t stand her abuse. Therefore, I’ve since come to the conclusion that Mrs. Faye simply hates girls. Foster kids have no say in such matters, so unlike Mrs. Faye’s daughter, I just had to endure her.
Upon graduation, Jacob got a full scholarship to college from the child care agency, whereas I was out on my own soon as I turned 18. Since my birthday is in November, this gave me some time after high school to work a job, save money, and do some research regarding where to live. I chose to move to Silicon Valley, where there are plenty of jobs and opportunities to advance. Another reason I decided on it is purely sentimental; I discovered that Pico, a guy I’d had a huge crush on back in 6th grade, was attending Stanford University, majoring in Computer Science.
I moved into the boarding house (where I still live), because I couldn’t afford an apartment. Back then community colleges in California were free, so I took computer programming courses there and studied on the Stanford campus, pretending to be a student there. I often browsed his pictures in the yearbook in one of their libraries. I never actually saw him on campus, and the only pictures I could find of him were during his freshman year.
Merci had barreled through college at San Francisco State, and was now a social worker who worked with abused children, holding a well-paying job with the county of San Mateo. Jacob had graduated from college several years back, and was now attending Howard University Medical School. I plugged away, working as a secretary and data entry clerk through temporary agencies. At my current company, I had lots of free time, so I used it to do my schoolwork and practice writing computer programs. Sometimes a couple of engineers would ask me to write a program for them, and I would happily do so.
“You should be paid extra for that,” Losoya, my supervisor, told me.
“I don’t mind,” I answered her. “It’s giving me practice, so when I get an actual programming job, I’ll be ready.”
I told her about Merci’s ultimatum. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. “How do you think she should have handled it?”
“I agree with you, but I don’t know what else she could do,” she answered. “My parents were really strict with me. They hated my boyfriend, and used to lock me up in my room whenever I tried to see him.” Then she started rambling on and on about her mean parents. Losoya is in her early 40’s, though you’d never guess by the way she talks. She had married her boyfriend right after high school graduation; her parents had allowed it because they realized they couldn’t force her to see sense. Even after she found out the hard way why they disliked him, when he beat her to a pulp, she still didn’t see sense. She finally left him after nearly 20 years, and was now dating a man who didn’t beat her, but had a nasty temper and was a gun fanatic.
“Raven, did you show your ID to the office?” Bill, Losoya’s supervisor, asked me.
“Uh – why do I have to do that?”
“To prove your US citizenship. Everybody has to do that, now; it’s the new law.”
“I have to do it too,” Julia added. “And I’m the only white girl in here!” Yes, Julia is racist, but she’s only ignorant, not evil like social worker Mrs. Faye. Actually, I find Julia quite likeable.
The company I work for is multicultural. Most of the employees are Mexican. I have always envied and admired Mexicans; they have strong family values and excellent social skills. Mirtha, my best friend at work, is a major charmer, always flirting with all the guys, including a really good-looking Vietnamese named Mike. Losoya would be downright beautiful if she took care of herself; she had prominent cheekbones, large wide-set eyes, and a figure that would have been a Perfect 36 if she got into shape. She’s also quite flakey, but apparently her social skills enabled her to be in a supervisory position. Phillipa was a bit of a shrew, but that didn’t prevent her from remaining married over 10 years. I’ve noticed Mexicans experience more discrimination than blacks, yet they still don’t overwhelmingly engage in rampant violent behavior, abuse and neglect their families, and swell up the rolls of foster children. In fact, even though blacks comprise only 12% of the US population, nearly half of all foster kids are black.
My co-workers all find it strange I’m not a single parent; I explained it by telling them as a Seventh Day Adventist, my religion is against that sort of thing. As for the rest of my story, I chose to remain silent, though that probably aroused even more questions. Losoya had no idea how lucky she was to have parents who cared about her.
“I wish I were Mexican,” I sighed wistfully.
Losoya looked at me as if I’d sprouted psychedelic horns.
On November 14th, I received a birthday card from Merci. Inside it was an engagement announcement. I called her up. “Congratulations!” I told her, hiding my reservations.
“Yeah, it’s about time, isn’t it?” she said. “I have everything planned out. I wanted it in pale blue, my favorite color.
“Uh – what about his parents?” I asked carefully.
“Who cares? He’s a grown man; he can make his own decisions.” I cringed; one of my high school teachers had warned me to check out the family of your fiancé, since they’re the ones you’re really marrying. Besides, what about all that stuff she said about his being immature?
Merci rambled on about how she greatly idealized marriage, and didn’t believe in divorce. She said even if her husband beat her, she wouldn’t get one; she would just tolerate it, and if she couldn’t, she’d get a separation.
“I would love for you to sing at my wedding,” she told me. “I want you to do John Denver’s ‘Follow Me’ “.
“Sure, I’d love to! I’d be honored!” I answered.
“Great! The wedding will be next May. We haven’t decided where it’s going to be yet, but I’ll let you know.”
This Greatest Hits album contains many gems by John Denver, including "Follow Me".
While I was happy for her, I admit I felt disappointed in myself as I hung up the phone. Here I was, 26 years old, and very little to show for it. The only difference in my life since our New Year’s Day meeting was the fact that I finally managed to get a car. My father had helped me; he found a dental lab that was selling theirs because the mileage was too high for their liking. Yet, it had been well maintained, so it would be reliable.
I told my co-workers about Merci’s engagement the following workday. Losoya and Mirtha were pleased, but Phillipa displayed her usual cynicism. “She sounds like a desperate idiot,” she sneered.
“That was uncalled for,” I snapped.
“Why is it uncalled for? Isn’t she one of those church fanatics?”
How dare she put down a member of Salt Shaker like that! “It just so happens she’s privileged to live a quality life because she’s a ‘church fanatic’,” I told her, pointedly. “Her house was a Christian teen-age hangout, and no one ever made trouble there.”
“And what did her parents think about that?”
“They welcomed it!” I shot back triumphantly.
Phillipa looked surprised. “Really? What does her father do?”
“He’s a policeman.”
“A religious cop, eh?”
The whole room cracked up. Something about the way she said it made me laugh, too.
The Christmas holidays brought the usual flurry of sent and received cards. The one I got from Merci had an additional letter insert. It read that Phil had dumped her. He had said he didn’t love her, and wasn’t attracted to her. Frankly, it didn’t surprise me one bit; I would have been shocked if he had gone through with the wedding. But why be so cruel about it – especially so close to Christmas?
I made a toll call to Merci. She didn’t seem the least bit upset. “I’m attending Coupled Christians Church now,” she told me. “It’s a Singles Ministry. You ought to check it out sometime. I’ve already met someone new there; his name is Kevin. He's a gringo.”
Boy, she sure didn’t let grass grow under her feet, did she?
“We really want things to work out,” she went on. “Kevin’s pushing 30. His father is dying of cancer, and he’s divorcing his mother so he can have one last fling before he dies.”
Once again, I remembered my high school teacher’s warning about checking out the family. “Uh – aren’t you rushing things a bit?” I ventured.
“All my friends are saying that. I really resent it. I’ve waited long enough, and so has Kevin.”
“Well – it’s just one of my high school teachers said…”
“Do you have any ideas for a honeymoon?” she interrupted. Talk about rushing things! They hadn’t known each other a month, and she’s already planning their honeymoon!
“Uh – I don’t know…” Actually due to reading several travel books and articles, I knew some great places, but felt guilty telling them to her.
“We’ll probably stay in Mendocino. Kevin loves it up there.”
“Yeah, Mendocino’s nice.”
The next several months were busy ones for me. I had lots of overtime at my job, so I took full advantage of it and saved all the money I could. Merci and I continued to write. She kept trying to get me to attend Christian Couples, but I was perfectly happy with my Adventist church on Saturday and Stanford on Sunday, and besides, something about the idea didn’t set well with me.
I made a toll call to her on her birthday the following July. She happily informed me the wedding would be in November, though she still hadn’t decided exactly when. She said nothing about me singing at her wedding; I decided to ask her about it after she had set the date.
It was a perfectly pleasant conversation. It left me totally unprepared for what followed.
What followed? To find out, please visit this link:
© 2015 Yoleen Lucas