Sometimes the personal is the political. What I’ve learned about belonging and not belonging over my lifetime, especially the last few weeks, helps me understand international sanity and insanity–so instead of turning to my journal, here I go.
Some of us are born into loving families. I wasn’t. I was excluded from birth from my mother’s tribe. I understand why–she was was a German Jew, stripped of her name and statehood by the Nazis. At birth, though, she had been excluded from her mother’s love too, for the crime of resembling an unloved father in an arranged marriage. When the Nazis took power, for her the personal became the political as she opened the door to the Gestapo who took her father away to a camp.
My father’s tribe welcomed me with open arms and hearts. In fact, I owe my life to my paternal Oma, who talked my mother out of an abortion. But my parents left their Dominican refuge for the United States, and I was alone with my mother for the first time. And she with me. That first year must have been hell for both of us. She had to learn English, and had no back up child care. People would later tell me she had invited them over to help her give me a bath. Where was my father? Working hard, like all Mad Men in the Fifties.
I don’t know when it started, but Saturdays with my father, sitting on the couch with his arm around me, as we listened to the records he brought home, was my first inclusion into love. World music, American pop, gave me a joy I still evoke when I sing or listen to beautiful music.
When we moved to the Compton house on Water Street, I gained two new tribes. The Comptons–mustached Mr. Compton, straight laced Mrs., bohemian Gwen loved their Inky (and tried to teach me good manners) and next door were the Leitners. Karen, age 4, was six months old than me. “Karen’s mommy”, as I would first call her, had the same name as my mother, Doris. What a perfect substitute. Karen’s tribe included her older brother Ajax (AJ for Anthony Joseph, and two grandmothers. I practically moved in whenever they were home. Aunt Doris taught me how to eat chicken, ham and other things besides my mom’s nightly hamburger, rice and salad. She threw me into the bathtub with Karen, and tucked us in at night for our sweet sleepovers. I became one half of karenandingrid. Or, “girls”. I remember looking at my home next door, and feeling a chill as I thought of returning.
Karen started school a year before me, so I again became an only child for a year. When I started school, my best friend and sister was always a year ahead of me. The Jewish girls in my class sometimes had me over, but I was not part of the inner clan until eighth grade, when I started first grade in Hebrew so I could be confirmed with them. But by then, I’d made a new close friend, Cathy, who was part of the Catholic tribe.
Did I mention that my father and beloved Oma were fallen Catholics?
to be continued….