My mother never met her father. She has a black-and-white photograph of him, handsome in a white suit, and a few cherished details that her mother doled out grudgingly, one of which she told me when I was 13.
We were in the car on an overlit Florida afternoon, and I had just gotten my first dental fillings. My mouth was still numb and I was saying "plum" over and over, enjoying sounding like an 80-year-old stroke victim while I picked at the stitching on my pink, thin-wale corduroys.
My mother had a knack for telling me stories I wished she wouldn't, mostly about my own birth and the consequences of it. Stories from the generations before my arrival were generally mythic in scope and fatalistic in tone. Who knows what it was that afternoon--the events of her own doomed love life, the nostalgic slant of sunlight through her Marlboro smoke, or the simple fact that I'd added the word "purple" to my loud, plummy litany--but out of the blue my mother decided to tell me the Story of the Curse.
The first part of the story, I already knew. It went like this. After my grandmother, Margaret, was told she couldn't marry the French penpal she'd fallen for in high school, she married her neighbor Ralph. They had a son. Then she met an older married man, an Albanian Jehovah's Witness, who allegedly raped her. Nine months later, my mother was born in Reno. Margaret was divorced the next day, and Ralph took his son, my mother's half-brother, back to Maine to be raised by his family.
My mother was supposed to have been adopted by a wealthy, childless couple who lived north of Los Angeles. Lawyers had drawn up the papers, but when the nurse said, "It's a little girl," my grandmother said, "I'm keeping her." She had had one son, stillborn, and had lost another in the divorce.
On this particular afternoon, the story took an occult turn. Shortly after my mother's birth, something strange started happening. Each morning, when my grandmother rose and went to my mother's crib, there was a long, black hair on my mother's infant self. Each night, my grandmother inspected my mother's crib, and each morning, a new hair would appear, as if it had been carefully placed across my mother in the night.
My grandmother feared this hair business was the manifestation of a curse. When my mother's father's wife learned her husband had been unfaithful, she found and cursed my grandmother, her unborn child, and her unborn child's child, that we should never know love. My grandmother consulted an expert in such matters, who recommended she take the next morning's hair and burn it while saying assertive, curse-breaking things. She did as she was told, and, sure enough, the long, black hairs stopped appearing.
I fingered the tiny, gold-thread swan on my Gloria Vanderbilt cords as I listened. I knew it. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. There was a reason Tommy Shoemaker had not loved me back in the 4th grade. There was a reason my father never answered my letters. We were all cursed, my grandmother, my mother and I. The fact that my grandmother and mother were both alone seemed proof that the curse existed, not proof that they sabotaged relationships.
Years later, once I'd learned about self-fulfilling prophecies, I tried to pooh-pooh this whole curse idea, but my own botched attempts at love seemed only to confirm its existence. I flung myself from crush to idealizing crush, like a frantic love monkey swinging from vine to vine over quicksand. I only have my profound social awkardness to thank, not morals or good judgment, for saving me from becoming an object lesson in teenage promiscuity. Line up twelve men in a row and I will unerringly choose the one whose mother kicked his teeth in, or who is addicted to narcotics, or whose father shot the family pet to punish the children.
To finally break the curse, I had to let go of the vine.
i'm a white writer. in new york. original, no? i've been blogging since october 2002. this blog picks up in october 2008, when i moved from DC to NY...(and then I moved to Maine in 2012)