“I look like a white bitch,” my daughter said when I showed her the picture I took of her in Jackson Square, sitting on a bench next to a big African American man who was playing his horn. The other musicians gathered around them with their instruments, hamming for the camera. The statue of Andrew Jackson was in the background. I’d dropped a twenty into the hat, which I thought was fair.
The new museum of African American history has opened in Washington, D.C. The Washington Monument can be seen through a window just past a display of slave shackles, one made for the neck of a child. Another object is a pillowcase embroidered with a lament.
“I threw the bloody tampon out the window and went on to fuck my ‘date,’ a guy I’d picked up at a party.”
When I read that diary entry, written in my teens, I laughed. Jesus H. Christ, what a wild child! My daughter knows the story of my abortion in college, another regarding sex with a woman, and a story of self-harm. I believe in frank talk with my kids although I haven’t told these stories to my son. He hasn’t the ability to understand and he may never.
There are some things you don’t want to tell, like an incident involving my mother’s dog. Yet here I am alluding to it loosely. And it’s going to stay that way.
Everybody doesn’t have to know everything.
The thing I liked about my father’s mother was the money. She gave me pocket money and bought me catalogue clothes, anything I wanted, like an Italian leather jacket. One day she purchased a double-breasted merino wool coat with silver buttons and a blue-velvet skirt patterned with Egyptian tomb figures. Both garments, made in Italy, cost a fortune. On another shopping venture, I made a last dash for Shiseido face powder when I knew she was faltering from all our running around. I took her last twenty to buy it. I didn’t care.
Years later in one of my father’s letters I found a note from him to her, begging her to visit me, his only child, her only grandchild. He was in a psych ward at the time and not long after took his own life. It took her 11 years after his death to do what he’d asked.
For a long time, I figured that anything she sent my way was mine, and if I wanted more I’d ask and I’d take it.
I relished calling my mother a bitch. I could list the things she didn’t do for me as a child, an adolescent, and as a young adult. After the birth of my son, I languished in bed in St. Vincent’s Hospital. I’d just passed a grapefruit-sized clot after a D&C to stop my postpartum hemorrhage. I called her on the phone. “Mama, I think I’m dying.”
“Poots, you’re being silly,” she said. “You’re carrying on.”
Now, that was true. I’d carried on for years to get her attention, but I wasn’t carrying on then. She stayed in New Orleans and didn’t come to see me or her first grandchild.
My mother’s mother, Mamoo, had four siblings, and among them they produced four children. I was the only grandchild born into that family; my great-uncle Sidney’s son adopted a son, who had kids, but they weren’t our blood. My son was the only blood-related great-grandchild my own grandmother had. I was surprised and hurt that my family-conscious mother didn’t value the fact that I had done my duty by the family, continued the bloodline.
Weeks after I left the hospital, my mother sent a series of photographs she’d had taken in front of the Jefferson Davis memorial marker in the Garden District. In one photo, she’s dressed in red, white, and blue, and wearing a cap with a Confederate pin on the brim, and holding a Confederate flag in one hand and the portrait of our Confederate ancestor in the other. Standing next to her is an African American man, a gardener who did handyman jobs, holding her white dog on a red leash.
“Fuck you, you narcissistic bitch.” I wish I could have said this to her face or even on the phone, but I couldn’t say it.
I can say it now.
In an essay in Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio kills a robin. Did he have shame revealing this, or is he simply a monster? If you’re disabled by shame, you can’t write about it. You have to tuck it away. Hide.
D’Ambrosio calls his father monstrous. The ancient family car regularly caught on fire but the dad drove high with the seven kids in it anyway; they kept a jug of water in the car to extinguish the inevitable fires. The youngest brother committed suicide, shot himself in the head in Charles’s bedroom. Sometime later another brother jumped off the Aurora Bridge but survived with serious injuries, his schizophrenia intact.
D’Ambrosio says he can’t get close to anyone, has never held a long-term job and has an inability to love. I get this. I have difficulty getting close to anyone, and in holding down a job. I was never able to love anyone until I had my daughter.
Someone said about a piece of mine, “It’s dripping with shame.” Well, no, I’m not ashamed. … Can you hear the lie? I began this piece at Zoetrope for a writing prompt. Afterwards, I couldn’t bear to look at the comments. I slunk around the house in horror. “Oh, you don’t have to publish that. Just pull it, slink away.”
I thought I had the perfect excuse—my daughter wouldn’t want to be in these pieces. My daughter tells the truth. I taught her to tell the truth regardless of what it is. No matter how horrifying these admissions, no matter how shameful, no matter how they reveal my own monstrousness, there they are.
In his memoir, Off to the Side, Jim Harrison writes that we, the white immigrants in this country, should get down on our knees at Wounded Knee and kiss the once blood-soaked earth for what we did to the Native Americans. That’s right. I believe we, the whites of this country, should do something similar to honor the African Americans we enslaved. I’m a collateral descendent of Jefferson Davis. My baptismal certificate reads Lucinda Kempe Davis Kirkpatrick. Lucinda was Jeff Davis’s favorite sister.
I inherited a Civil War sword, one given to President Davis by the Congress of the Confederate States of America. The sword went to Gettysburg with my multiple-great-grandfather, who was shot through the bowels at Peach Orchard just before battle.
Excerpt from a letter sent by him to his wife, Mary Humphries, a year before his death.
When I needed money to go to graduate school, I had to make a choice—whether to sell a valuable armoire or the sword. I chose the sword. Before I sold it, the sword had been loaned by my uncle to a museum in Mississippi run by a couple of Confederate enthusiasts. Every few years they would hold a Davis family reunion. I went to one where my great-aunt used it to cut the cake.