thinking about contactJanuary 4, 2013
In thinking about contact and what my obligations are to Mara’s family, my first priority has always been in keeping her connected to her siblings. (Even that is not entirely true, since the only other of her dad’s kids she knows is her one full sibling, but I hear from her mom that her dad’s older children are aware of her and want to meet her soon, which would be great.) I like both her parents and appreciate having them be a part of her life, but ultimately the choice of whether to be there or not is up to them. Her young siblings, though, didn’t get to choose to be separated from their sister and I feel like I have an extra strong obligation to make sure they don’t lose contact with her. (Obviously this is on my mind even more now that none of them are with the aunt with whom I’d cultivated a good relationship, though the great-aunt they’re with now was so lovely to me at Mara’s grandmother’s funeral and made a point to tell me to pass on the family’s love to my “wifey” too.)
And since I parenthetically brought up Grandma Joyce’s death before I meant to, I’ll say that some of my thoughts about family contact stem from all the emotions her death brought out in me. I’d only known her nine months and we were just starting to figure out what the dynamic between the two of us was, though we clearly respected each other’s love for Mara. So losing her meant not only losing that relationship but realizing how close I’d come to never having a chance to help Mara get to know her at all. Mara took her grandma’s death hard, and has been commenting on it every day for the last few months. Earlier this week, and partly in preparation Grace’s memorial service today, I took Mara to the cemetery where her grandma is buried, as is the sibling who died before she was born. We tramped through the snow and Mara looked at the dirt and we talked about how Grandma Joyce’s body was in that dirt and that’s why she can’t “be back alive” or come to dinner or any of the other things Mara has asked for. Then the whole way home, Mara and Nia peppered me with questions about death and the specifics of Grandma Joyce’s death and burial. Mara had a weepy meltdown later that evening, but since then she’s seemed better with the idea and doesn’t spend as much time talking about being sad about her Grandma.
She does still say, if she’s sad or thoughtful, “I miss my Grandma Joyce.” Before that, it was “I miss my Lulu Veronica” and before that “I miss my Daddy.” As each of those pieces has been filled in for her, she’s stopped (mostly) using those as catch-all terms for her sadness or discomfort or whatever it is she’s expressing. Before any of those, though, she used to talk sometimes about missing “My Papa who Lives in the Forest.” That was back when Lee and I had no contact with her family at all yet, and so we didn’t know if Papa and Daddy were the same person or what was going on. But at Mara’s great-aunt’s house at the family get-together right after Grandma Joyce died, Mara’s mom Veronica walked Lee a few blocks away to the big house where Mara’s paternal grandfather lives, where trees run down to the river. When Mara was a baby and before her parents separated, they lived for a while with this grandfather. I get the feeling Mara and her mom might have stayed there even after her dad was gone, but I rarely get much of a timeline from anyone on when things happened. So now we know where Mara’s Papa’s forest is.
But Mara’s dad has been clear that his dad doesn’t want to know Mara. Mara’s mom reiterated that too. I’ve googled him, though, and found a lot of interesting things. He’s the guy to talk to in our area if you’re interested in local black history, which I am. I found an article mentioning a black church where the stained glass windows were paid for and then dedicated in memory of parishioners, including an ancestor of his (and thus Mara’s). I believe that Mara was named for his mother, though she had the more traditional pronunciation and maybe spelling of the name. He’s been active in reaching out to other people in the community, but he’s cut his son off and they haven’t seen each other in quite a while, maybe years. Knowing that Mara and Lee would be gone for a few days, I brought home a dvd from the library that I know includes an interview with him. Tonight or tomorrow, once Nia is in bed, I’ll sit down and finally see Mara’s Papa for myself.
So the question is whether to contact him when I’ve been asked not to do so. Lee is inclined to say that if Mara’s dad says he doesn’t want to be in touch with Mara, we respect that. Me, I have a hard time believing that a man who cares so much about the children who attended the first black school in our town before our 110-year-old house was even built would probably also want to know his own granddaughter, or should at least be given the chance to make that choice himself. I want to send him a letter and a few pictures. Honestly, I’m not going to defer to Mara’s parents’ wishes on this, though I am waiting until Lee feels ready to do it. If he doesn’t want to know Mara, well, nothing will change on our end. But if he said something he didn’t really mean in a moment of bluster when he was sad about losing his granddaughter and angry with the parents who were failing her, I don’t want him to have that stand as his final decision about his role in Mara’s life.
And in all of this, as I talk about what I owe to the various people involved, the person who truly has my allegiance is Mara. She’s made it clear she wants to see her Papa again, which tells me I should get on the ball in contacting him, which is why I brought this movie home and will let Lee look at him (which she really wants to do) and hear him talk and see if that makes him real in a way that makes her want to contact him even if that’s not what his son thinks he wants. I don’t want to see an obituary and know that we missed our chance, though I also don’t spend all my waking moments hunting down the relatives we don’t know.
So I guess I do have a certain amount of clarity about this. In the last six months when Mara’s mom has complained about some of the things her sisters were doing or not doing, I made it clear that I wasn’t going to get in the middle of it. I didn’t get in the middle when one of the aunts was angry with Grandma Joyce and venting to me, and I understand why Odelia has talked to me about her frustrations with the kids’ mom because she knows that I’m raising one of Veronica’s other children and it will make sense to me even though I’m also not going to have the same exact frustrations because Veronica and I don’t have the same history. It’s been very clear that there are a lot of different versions of the truth running around that people tell themselves in order to feel okay about whatever they’ve done, and I include myself in that group. I don’t need to judge the veracity of the pieces when what I’m doing now is holding onto all of them for Mara so she can patch together her own understanding someday. I hope she’ll be able to do it not only based on what she hears but on what she knows and has experienced growing up in contact with her family. But I hope, too, that someday she’ll see those pieces of stained glass that are part of her heritage and maybe that she’ll see them with her Papa. She has so much love to share and I’m delighted that Lee’s family is finally getting to experience that in person, but I want that to keep expanding along all the branches of her family. I guess we’ll see how that goes.