“I’ll have a fish sandwich please.”
On a hot day in July 1985, I was met with a blast of cool air as I passed through the door out of the blazing streets of Harlem into a world of fish and ice. Tables were piled high with an array of snapper, eel, shrimp, crab and other fresh sea food I found hard to name. The concrete floors were wet with melting run-off as workers in long aprons and boots called to one another in Korean. I craved a whiting sandwich, white fish rolled in cornmeal, deep fried, doused with ketchup and slapped between two slices of white bread. Heaven. You could wait for it to be served up sizzling from the fry basket at the front counter.
As a twenty-something Italian-American in a Korean fish market in Harlem, I was a bit out of place. But I had found Jesus in a Black Church on 7th Avenue, and this community was now my home and had come to accept my presence. I watched the man behind the counter as young women do, taking note of his smooth skin, dark eyes and straight, black hair. He was my age and spoke with a heavy accent. Periodically, he cast his gaze my way and I realized, he was watching me. What did he see? I, of course, was not the epitome of Asian beauty. What did he like? My long, dark blond locks? My big, brown eyes? Small waist? Full hips? I certainly didn’t mind the attention. He bagged my sandwich and as he handed it to me, our eyes met.
“You…..hab mustache,” he said in the best steamy English he could muster.
I raised an eyebrow. I did indeed, have a mustache. As many Mediterranean women do. I was a bit put out by his comment. What was this? An accurate observation but to what point? Where could this possibly go?
“I do,” I said. “And?” I refrained from sucking my teeth.
“Oh. Um……thank you?”
I was stunned. Speechless. This was not what I expected. Not knowing how to react I paid my bill, flashed my best bewhiskered smile, and left, skipping all the way home. My facial hair? Of all things, he liked my facial hair? How bizarre. But, how nice.
Weeks later, I wandered into a different fish market, with different Korean men, and waited at a different counter for another fish sandwich. I chuckled, thinking about that comical previous encounter as I watched the cook. Waiting for the fryer to finish, this man decided to make small talk as he wiped the counter directly in front of me.
Quietly, so only I could hear, he said, “You…..hab mustache.”
I raised an eyebrow, again.
“Yes. I do. And?”
For real? Again? Again I’m hearing this! Of all things he could find sexy, it’s my mustache? I was hearing it from yet another Korean man. Asian men are so smooth skinned with little body hair. Italian women are often known for theirs. Why was facial hair considered alluring? Perhaps because people could be attracted to standards of beauty that are different from their own? I would never look at Korean men again without a smile crossing my lips. Through their eyes, I was learning to see myself as beautiful.
As I lived and moved along the streets of upper Manhattan, my understanding of beauty continued to be shaped by the people around me. It was common at the time for Black women in the neighborhood and my church to not shave their legs. How freeing for me! One less thing to have to do. I gladly followed suit, and left my legs bare and bushy, or in panty hose and heels in my Sunday best. I fit right in, albeit perhaps a bit furrier than my Black sisters.
One day, walking down the street with my legs flashing in sun dress and sandals, I passed two young Black men going the opposite direction. They had not gotten far behind me when one said to the other,
“Did you see that? A big-legged hairy Caucasian.”
I had to hold back from belly-laughing out loud. Ha-ho, that would never be considered a compliment in the community where I used to live. Yet here in Harlem, it was flattery. A standard I was heretofore unaware of, was deemed desirable. I began to look with new eyes at the men and women in the circles in which I moved. With greater and greater appreciation, I embraced the distinctions, including the loveliness of body shape, hair style, facial feature, and skin tone, which also included an increasing acceptance of my own body image. (Though I have since discovered the wonders of electrolysis and now happily live life sans mustache.)
In Revelation 7:9-10, the Apostle John says:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
I have no desire to be colorblind, to go backwards and minimize the artistry in how God made each of us unique. Revelation shows us a diverse multitude with distinctive people groups that will stand before God and worship Him in unison. If God saw fit to include His notice of our differences in His Word, then let us not fail to delight in His handiwork and treasure the variety in our fellow humans. There is no need to be blind to color. There is a need to see with new eyes, and love one another, exactly as God created us.
Opening my essential oils, I poured frankincense and rubbed it into my mother’s hands. How much longer did I have to feel them warm when touched? I cupped my hands around her face and drew my fingers through her hair to surround her with the calming scent.
On Saturday, she was still able to do this herself, slowly drawing her hands up to her face to smell the musky fragrance in numerous short sniffs. “Mmm…mmm….mmm…” Soft murmurs of contentment emitted from her throat. Small pleasures so important in these moments. I had lifted the blankets from her legs, a long scar etched vertically across each knee. Her legs were now permanently contracted as post-polio played out its ravages on limbs that could no longer support her weight. I rubbed drops of lemongrass into her bulbous knees and atrophied calves. The perfume filled the room and drove out the stale nursing home odors. I ran my thumbs down her arches, gently kneaded the ball of each foot, and pulled my thumb and finger up each toe. She smiled. “Mmmmm…..” Such precious time left, to make my mother smile.
But that was two days ago.
The nurse switched on the light as she entered the room, abrupt and intrusive, forcing me to surface from sleep.
“Here Barbara,” she whispered, leaning over my mother. “Here’s some medicine for you.”
She slipped the syringe under Mom’s tongue and administered the morphine, her gentleness countering my defensiveness to guard my mother’s comfort.
Our two air mattresses took up the rest of that small room. Air mattresses were for sleep overs and camping. Not nursing homes. Well, I guess now, for nursing homes. Bridget stirred next to me. Dee turned over in the other corner of the room. I could see Mom, the head of her hospital bed elevated so she would not choke on the build up of fluid she could not expel. She was listing to the left, no longer able to right herself.
“Ohhhh Mom……” I whispered. My stomach tightened.
With every breath her body surged up and down, her lungs struggling to expand against gravity. I got up to have the nurse help me re-position her as we’d done repeatedly the past 3 days. The congestion in her chest gurgled as loud as the humidifier on the oxygen tank next to her. Once again, her skin was too warm.
“Can you get a temperature for me? And O2 sats?”
I waited for information I knew was coming.
The nurse looked at me with understanding eyes. “Her temperature is 103. And her O2 is…….56.”
How long can the brain function with oxygen that low? How long will a body fight to live? Okay. She is not aware of this. But I am.
With those numbers my sisters jumped up. One ran warm water in a basin and the other grabbed washcloths, while I removed the blankets. We worked in silence in actions that had now become routine. Dipping the wash cloths in. Wringing the water out. Laying them on my mother’s arms and legs.
“Is this fever due to an infection?” I’d asked the head nurse.
“No honey. This is what happens when organs start to shut down. Not for everyone. Just for some. Our job now is to make her comfortable.” When a nurse puts her arms around you, it gives a hug whole new meaning. She eases the pain of the living, and the dying. Morphine in human form.
For the next hour, we worked to bring down Mom’s temperature. We stroked her face, kissed her and whispered in her ears.
“Mom. You don’t have to stay you know. We’re here. You can go. Whenever you’re ready. We’ll be okay. I love you, Mom. You don’t have to stay.”
We took turns lying next to her, putting arms around her, re-configuring her pillows and moistening her lips. I bent down to listen to her heart. The time was coming when I would no longer be able to hear life beating in her chest. Women, taking care of a woman. Touching this one who was the source of all three of us, and once carried us into life. It was our turn to carry her now, and see her birthed through death, into new life.
“Hey, look at her eyes. They’re different,” said Bridget. “Something’s changed.”
For all of Monday and into Tuesday, Mom’s eyes had been mere slits, barely open in a coma-like state. Now, they were wide open. Wide open. Looking straight up. I could see the full beauty of her green eyes again. Fixed. On what?
Suddenly her mouth filled with the fluid she had long been fighting to cough up. We suctioned it out and cleaned her face. Recognition hit us.
“This is it,” said Bridget. “Don’t miss this.”
Then, as the muscles relaxed and death began to descend, with no ability to take in air, the weight of the atmosphere bore down on her tired lungs. All the congestion she had been drowning in, came pouring out. Free of it. Finally. We wiped it away. I suctioned her mouth again, knowing what was next.
We stood there. Silent. Watching. One huge gasp. Exhale. Wait. Another huge gasp. Exhale.
It was finished.
“Go Mom!” Our sister voices filled the room! “Yay! Yay, yay, yay! Go Mom. Go, go, go! Good-bye Mom! I love you! I love you Mom! Good-bye Mom! You’re done with this old body! You don’t need it anymore! You’re free. Fly away Mom! Fly away! Fly away!”
Immediately, her body changed. The wrinkles left her face. The furrows left her brow. The color left her skin. The warmth left her hands, and the light left her eyes. Mom was gone. Only her shell remained.
It was strange to feel elation in such a moment. It was not what I’d expected to feel. The animation that the spirit gives the body is a compelling force. To see the void left when the spirit withdraws is startling. Surprising. I kept looking up to the ceiling, then back to the bed, wondering what my mother was seeing from her new vantage point above as her daughters danced around a body in which she no longer dwelt. So why should I stare down at her form? I looked up. I reached up. And smiled.
Good-bye Mom. I love you. I’ll see you soon.
October 10,2017 saw the passing of the woman who raised me. I will never again in this life, call someone "mother". If this had been my husband or my child, I'm sure I would have felt differently, but she had lived for 87 years and was ready to go. Through Christ, we triumph over death. If we stand fast in our faith, we can peer into the infinite and have nothing to fear. Witnessing her death was a brush with divinity. It was a sacred moment to behold the departure of a human soul, and its glorious arrival in eternity.
"For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O grave, is your sting?” - 1 Corinthians 15: 53-55
For the day of his funeral, July 14, 2017 – by Susan Parlato Revels
“Vinnie,” I heard my mom say, “Susan is not breathing any better.” From under the towel with my head over a bowl of steaming water, I listened to my parents, Vinnie and Barb Parlato, discuss my condition.
“I think I need to take her into the hospital,” said Dad. Once again, my lungs were the seat of some infection that constricted the bronchi. This time, the midnight steaming didn’t break up the phlegm. At 12 years old, on a bitter night in the dead of March, the only thing I wanted was to crawl back into my warm bed. Instead, I was bundled in a parka and into the truck, nightgown and all, and Dad and I headed out into the darkness.
It was one of those nights where the sky was cloudless and any heat the earth had gathered from the day was shunted off into space. It left the air crisp to the resistant membranes of my lungs. My fevered body withdrew deeper into the parka. The truck rumbled along to the sound of the tires muffled on snow packed pavement, and my wheezing. We wound through deserted streets and came to a stop at Oneida City Hospital on Main.
I followed my dad through the astringent air towards the entrance. What I didn’t know was how that air was causing a break up of mucus in my chest. As we walked through the doors into the vacant reception room, some congested plug deep in my lungs broke loose and completely blocked the passages. All breathing ceased. I dropped to the floor. Without air flow, I couldn’t shout out to tell my father something was wrong. I watched as Dad walked toward the nurse at the reception desk, unaware of the emergency unfolding behind him. How could I get his attention? I flattened my palms and began smacking them against the tiles, hoping he would hear the slaps. The nurse pointed at me. “Your daughter! Your daughter!” Dad turned to see me, and ran.
He scooped me up and carried me down a hallway, busting through the doors into the emergency unit.
“My daughter can’t breathe,” he screamed. Staff whisked me into an exam room pulling off my parka and beating my back. Up onto an exam table. Lights. Shouting. Beating. Faces. Hands. One nurse had just pulled off my night gown when suddenly, the beating loosened the plug and with one wretching movement I vomited a great volume of green mucus into the hands of the nurse standing in front of me right into my nightgown. I looked with consternation at what had just exited my lungs.
“Wow,” I thought. “I am sick.”
I could breathe again, with strident whistles. They admitted me that night and put me in an oxygen tent. A tracheotomy tray stood at the ready if needed. Dad saw me settled in. He went home. I went to sleep. Years later, reflecting on that whole incident, I never thought I would die, nor was I afraid. Why would I be. Everything would be okay because, my Dad was there.
I remember being small and carried in the muscled arms of my father. The world looked different at 6’3”. We crawled on his broad back when he’d lay on the floor to read the funny papers which sometimes descended into tickles and laughter. On occasion, we’d watch fleas jump across the outspread paper. “Barbara! We have to bomb the living room!” The animals would all get new flea collars.
Dad always found extra work to supplement his day job as in industrial arts teacher at Canastota High School. There was Ackerman Construction in the summers. Carl’s Drug Store at night. From our beds, we’d hear him return home from his night job. Did he bring ice cream this time? He’d come to the bottom of the stairs and shout, “WHO WANTS A MILKSHAKE?!” Five voices shouted, “I do!” and ten feet would stampede down the stairs. In his forties he decided to learn the horseshoeing trade, and that was his second job for the next 15 years.
Music often filled the house on Lake Road. When Clair de Lune was played, Dad would sit for the length of it with eyes closed. Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, The Glenn Miller Orchestra were regular fare. Mom and Dad would dance in synchrony around the family room. As a child, I’d stand on his construction boot toes and have him whirl me around in a fox trot. As I grew older, I learned the steps myself, and how to follow his lead.
On summer mornings when teenagers want to sleep in, Dad would stand at the bottom of the stairs and yell, “Everybody up! We have work to do!” No stampede to these words. Weeding the very large garden with 90 tomato plants alone. Canning and freezing vegetables. Grooming horses. Cleaning the barn. During hay bailing season, my brother would drive the tractor. Two sisters would be up on the hay wagon. I wanted to be with my father, walking alongside and throwing bales up to my sisters, hayseed weaseling down inside my overalls. At the end of a long day, he’d plop down in his arm chair and put up his feet. “Can you pull my boots off please?” One of us would bend to untie his boots. Once the second one came off he’d reach out to try to touch us with his sweaty toes, laughing. “Ew Dad, Ewwww!” Seasons came and went. The leaves changing color - always a time of wonder for my father. And when geese filled the skies for their southern migration, Dad would shout, “Geese! The geese are flying!” and we’d pour out the door to stand, watch, and listen with him.
Life threw its share of wrenches into the works. Jamie, my baby brother, died. My mom got sick. Our family was in trauma and as a teenager, for the first time I saw my father cry. When he leaned over to rest his head on my shoulder and weep, I felt inadequate. How could I, one so insignificant compared to this mountain of a man, be strong enough to support him in his need? I wished I could have been bigger for him.
Time brought the children leaving Lake Road bound for college or the military. One winter I returned for an 8-month period while seeking my next job opportunity. After work, while sitting in the sunroom reading, I’d feel the room shake as Dad made his way to sit in a chair near me, just to talk. This became a pattern between us for many months. I eventually found a job that would take me far away, to New Mexico. I could hear the dread in his voice as the day for my departure drew near. That day, he helped me pack my life into a car to drive 2000 miles across the country, alone.
“I want you to call me, every night, when you’ve gotten into a motel.”
“It’ll have to be collect calls, Dad.”
“I don’t care. Call me. Every night.” He hugged and kissed me goodbye, then walked back into the house choking back tears. He couldn’t watch me drive away.
But their visits to New Mexico brought adventure. Their first time out I didn’t know what my parents would do just hanging around my house, so I planned a road trip. How would it be traveling in the car with them for 7 whole days? But the first day out, a half hour into the journey, Dad said, “Geez every time you turn a corner here, there’s something new to look at!” His appreciation for the grandeur of nature became more and more apparent to me. We found potsherds at Chaco Canyon and went camping in the Kaibab Forest of the Grand Canyon. Sitting around the evening campfire surrounded by darkened forests, he kept the machete close at hand. “I don’t know about this,” he said smiling. “I feel naked without my gun.”
Over the years, we would talk of God and the future. “Look Dad. Isaiah says that God will create a new heavens and a new earth, and they will be so spectacular, we won’t even remember the old ones. Can you imagine? And Dad. Isaiah says, ‘They shall build houses, and inhabit them, they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall long enjoy the work of their hands.’ Dad, we’ll be working with our hands in heaven, planting, and eating the harvest.” He listened.
He resisted scripture at first. But as years went by, and life became more burdensome, Dad began to see God’s hand more clearly. A cane became a walker. A walker became a wheelchair. He began to see God everywhere. At first, it was in the parking lot at Walmart.
“Sooz, I’ll be driving up to Walmart praying about how I’m gonna get in the door. And when I drive up, a handicapped parking spot opens, or someone’s coming out with a scooter!”
“Yeah Dad. Isn’t that amazing? And remember, God is more than just a parking lot god. He wants you to trust him with the big things, as well as your parking space.”
Dad began to speak to God outright and acknowledge Him day to day. He turned to contemplate his life, and eventually came to recognize all along where God had stepped in to set a different course. He saw that nowhere more so than when as a young soldier, he was on his way to Korea, and Providence intervened to change his deployment to Japan instead, and he survived the war. As his days grew difficult, he would call on Jesus to help him stand to his walker. “Help me Jesus. Help me Jesus.” Watching my father decline in strength and ability was grueling to witness. But hearing his whispered pleas to Jesus gave me that peace that goes beyond all understanding.
My father could be opinionated and stubborn, as well as loving and loyal. But he instilled in us, his children, a fierce work ethic, and galloping independence. A respect for higher education, and an appreciation of nature. We are all highly opinionated, stubborn, loving and loyal….in our own ways. Although, we do get rid of a lot more things than he did.
Job, the most ancient book in the Bible, is about a man who lived well before the Law was given to Moses. Job knew that God was his Redeemer. He was tested beyond strength, yet in his testing he said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though after my skin, worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh - shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.” Job believed in the resurrection, and when God returned to stand upon this earth, Job would be there, in his very flesh, to see God with his own eyes. My father will be there too. And so will I. Until then, Clair de Lune will always move me to tears, and hearing the mournful call of geese flying overhead will stop me in my tracks.
One day, I will see my Father again. But he will be different. No gray hair. No weakened muscles. He will no longer have need a of a walker. And he will run. He will run to me and whirl me around in his arms and say, “Sooz I’ve missed you!” and then show me around Paradise. We will dig rows in the soil and cover over the seeds with our hands. And I’m sure, we will each reach for a sun-kissed tomato from his 90 tomato plants, pull them fresh from the vine, rub them against our shirts, and bite into their sweet warm flesh, again and again, and again.
My name is Susan Parlato Revels, Vincent’s daughter. Thank you for coming out to remember my father today. Thank you for listening to my stories. At the reception, I hope to hear some of yours.
My father sat in the cardiologist’s waiting room as the nurse took my mom back for a stress test. It would be awhile. Dad thumbed through magazines and people-watched to pass the time.
“Mr. Revels,” called the nurse.
Dad looked up when he heard the name. Revels, he thought. An older Black gentleman stood to follow the nurse. My father watched him cross the room and wondered if he could be related to my husband. Revels was not a common name. This was upstate NY, and I Iived 2000 miles west in Albuquerque. There couldn’t possibly be a connection, he mused. But he waited, and watched the door for Mr. Revels.
Dad was Italian, and growing up Italian in the 1930s and 40s meant that like many other first generation immigrants trying to assimilate, there were challenges. If your last name carried a vowel at the end, you were closed out of some circles of society. The dark-skinned Sicilians especially were targets of mistrust and contempt. In the south, they were sometimes listed as “black” on census forms, and some became victims of lynching. As they vied for social mobility in direct competition with those in the Black community, schisms formed between the two cultures and Italians worked to distinguish themselves from their rivals. My dad tried to teach his children to do the same. He taught me his tricks. His fears. His angst. His wheeling, dealing way of bargaining through life.
I grew up hearing the Italian words that communicated contempt for Black people. When my sister dated a mixed-race young man in high school, Dad bit his lip. “She’ll grow out of it,” he said. When I started dating Black men in college, Dad disallowed my youngest sister from attending the same university out of concern for my influence on her. “I don’t want another daughter dating tsootsoons”.
But time and contact with my circle of friends began showing my father a new way to connect with Black people. He slowly started to disengage from the assumptions of his past. It was a feat then for him, years later, to say yes to my husband Scott, who is Black, and Scott’s request for permission to marry me. My father was adding to his repertoire of tools for engaging the world.
Dad watched the door for Mr. Revels to emerge, hoping it would happen before my mom was done. His mind ticked off the questions he might ask this man, if he had the chance.
The door opened.
“Excuse me,” said Dad. He stood and approached the gentleman. “Did I hear your name was Revels?”
“Yes,” said the man.
Dad said he had a puzzled look on his face as Dad came near. “My daughter married a Revels. Scott Revels. They live in New Mexico. Do you happen to be of any relation to Scott?”
“Scottie? In Albuquerque? ” said the man. “Yes! That’s Jim’s son! With his other two boys, John and Jim! And daughter, Andrea. Yes those are my cousin's children!”
“Wow,” said Dad. “He’s my daughter’s husband. This is unbelievable. What a small world we live in. I’m Vinnie Parlato. So nice to meet you.” He held out his hand in greeting.
“Nice to meet you,” said the gentleman. His look of puzzlement bloomed into a smile as he took my father's hand. “I’m Thomas Revels. So Scottie is your son-in-law?”
They traded details about their lives and this odd discovery of having a familial connection with a total stranger. They lived a mere 30 miles apart. Dad pulled out his wallet and together they stood in the waiting room flipping through photos of my son and daughter - children that they were both related to by blood.
“This is my grandson, Cole. And my granddaughter Gianina,” said Dad.
“Scottie’s children,” said Thomas, shaking his head. “Wow. Those are Scottie’s children.”
Dad called me immediately upon returning home that afternoon, excited to tell me about this chance encounter. He had reached a point in life where he was beginning to recognize God’s hand in orchestrating such strange occurrences. I was fascinated to hear him reiterate this story, and felt my heart skip a beat or two. You could hear the smile in his voice and his wonder at the impossibility of such a confluence of circumstances. I imagined them standing there, these two older men who had never met before - one Black, one White - as they perused pictures of two small children, their shared kin. It warmed me to know that my father carried around the photos of my son and daughter, and shared them with pride that they were his grandchildren. His brown grandchildren, whom he loved. The “old dog”. He had learned some new tricks. What a different man than the one I grew up with. Neither he nor I could have imagined this was even possible, fifty years ago.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
"Geez," said the barber as he looked at the pile of severed braids in my hand. "She bold alright. She bold. "
He watched as Lisa, his fellow stylist and the shop's owner, ran clippers through what hair was left on my daughter's head. She has the thickest hair I have ever seen on anyone. Beautiful, but dense hair that took hours for me to wash, comb, condition and style when she was little. As Gianina grew older and took on the responsibility for her own tresses, the laborious care became overbearing. Recently, she decided she'd had enough and was ready to go ahead with getting "The Big Chop". Yes, she is bold.
Lisa the owner giving Gianina "The Big Chop" at Hair Studio L-M in Albuquerque. Check them out on Facebook at Hairstudio LM.
"The Big Chop is the process of cutting off the relaxed or permed ends of one's hair when she is transitioning from chemically processed hair to natural hair. Timing the big chop is a big decision for many napptural women who have decided they want to wear their hair natural. " That's what they say at NaturallyCurly.com
My daughter never had a perm. Her hair was occasionally straightened. Often braided or twisted. Black friends and even strangers frequently remarked on how much hair she had and how healthy it was. Recently, two African-American women selling flat irons at a mall kiosk wanted to sell her one.
"Oh honey you have such beautiful hair. Let us just straighten one little piece to show you how it looks."
"Well," said Gianina, "the iron might work nicely but I'm getting it all cut off on Saturday."
"Whaaat? Why? All cut off? But it's so pretty!" They could not fathom her desire to lop off all that length.
There has historically been a strong association between femininity, beauty and a copious mane. This is true in most cultures, but especially so in the Black community, which has in turn spawned an industry well supplied with wigs, extensions and weaves. Additionally, finding the right products for moisturizing, de-tangling, deep conditioning, de-frizzing, and curl-activating among the thousands on the market, can be daunting. Black hair is a demanding task-master for both time and purse if you're going to wear it long. Yet for decades, there has been an inter-generational dialog about how "good" hair in the Black community was too closely aligned to the idea of having long, straight hair as represented in a White standard of beauty. In the past few years, more Black women have begun to question that standard and have looked towards embracing the ease and beauty of wearing their hair short and natural.
Enter my daughter, Gianina, and her discovery on youtube. One just has to google "big chop" and up pops a myriad of videos of Black women documenting their journey to natural. Many said that too often with their hair styled longer, people only saw their hair and stopped there. With the short do, their faces shine through, and their real beauty can be seen. They stand taller, and even walk differently. Several days of viewing caused Gianina to come to me and ask if she could get a TWA a.k.a. Teeny Weeny Afro. I smiled. My baby girl, so dauntless and daring at sixteen years old. I wanted her to feel empowered by her decision.
"It's your hair. It will always grow back if you don't like it," I said. "You do with it whatever makes you happy."
What resonated the most with her from the videos was the word "freedom." She was reaching to recapture the time her hair demanded of her, giving her the breathing space to do other things.
Thank you, Black women everywhere, for being such role models for my daughter, and for sharing your bravery and your knowledge. We made the appointment.
"Okay, are you ready?" asked Lisa, scissors poised at the first braid.
"Yes," said Gianina. No hesitation. That bold grin radiated across her face.
One down. Ten to go.
Eliza with her baby running to freedom.
Two separate immigrants arrived at Ellis Island in the early 1900s. One came from Glasgow, Scotland. The other from Valledolmo, Sicily. I am their granddaughter.
Immigrants in our country have all experienced their share of prejudice as they assimilated into the American mainstream. I was reminded of this recently, when someone told me we should be having a dialog about all the discrimination that exists in our country. This person said that Blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, Italians, Muslims, etc. have all been subjected to intolerance, so the discussion about these issues should not be separated but be had as a whole. Dividing the dialog will continue to divide us as Americans. I disagree.
It is staggering to me to think that my grandfathers came to the U.S. a mere 40-50 years after the Civil War. That's hard for me to wrap my head around. But the prominence of the Civil War and even the existence of Civil War veterans in the daily lives of my grandparents is extraordinary to contemplate. Include in their midst, the presence of people who had been born into slavery. All these influences in my grandparents' lives have a direct line of connection to me. Their very own post-Civil War prejudices rang in the ears of my childhood. Those influences are only a mere two generations removed from some of us today, and only three generations removed from my teenagers. Slavery was a significantly different institution than standard immigration, and its impact ripples through time to the present, because I am still alive.
Have you ever read Uncle Tom's Cabin? It is an absolutely compelling read for several reasons. Harriet Beecher Stowe captures the politics and culture of our country at that time, like no other writer. She lived in it. Her writing is wrenching and merciless in dealing with the subject matter in all its madness. And periodically throughout the novel, she steps out of the story, as the author, and addresses the country as a whole as to why slavery was a barbarity. She challenged Americans about how they could stay unmoved by this institution and let it continue to exist. It is no wonder the book had such an impact on the Civil War.
Also, the book is an absolute witness of the Gospel of Christ. That, I didn't expect. Uncle Tom was not the kowtowing character as he is often depicted by those who don't know the story. He was smart, and he was literate. His heart was to preach the Gospel to any who would listen, as he was sold and carried away down through the deep South to the final plantation of a heartless slave master. Uncle Tom was someone to look up to, and Stowe utilized his content of character to convict a nation.
It's one of the most powerful books I've ever read, and it convicted me to the core of the wound left on our society. A wound like no other. A lesion that left it's prejudiced mark on my own grandfathers and rendered me a bigot, until I was willing to challenge my own racist thinking. As difficult as my grandfathers' lives were, they pale in comparison to the scars left by slavery. It's not that the struggles of our immigrant forebears were insignificant. They were, and do merit discourse as needed. But they are a different discussion. Slavery, Civil Rights, and race relations between Black and White Americans today, deserve their own platform for dialog. At least that's where my heart is, if we are ever to see the damage healed.
I just got back from a morning walk, which took me past a bike lane underpass. Two young homeless men were camped out there with a spread of tents, shopping carts, and a dog. They were out working on their stuff. One was shirtless. I stopped briefly, said hello, exchanged beautiful weather comments, said, "Be safe", and went on my way.
Walking back home and past them again, I hollered, "Don't get a sunburn!"
"I already got one!" the shirtless man said, grinning back.
"Ach. Okay. Well take care of yourselves!" They waved back. 10 seconds later I hear footsteps running up behind me.
"Excuse me ma'am!"
I stopped and faced the shirtless one as he approached, thinking he was going to ask me for something.
He has something in his hand. "Most people are rude. So......"
Then he handed me this watch - the one on the right. He wanted to GIVE me something, out of his treasure.
"Oh! Thank you!" I said. And hugged him. And put it on.
"Oh," he said. "And it's not stolen. I found it."
"Well, I didn't go there," I said."
"Well, some things just have to be said," he assured me.
It's a cheapy little thing without a crystal. But how precious. The treasure is not in the value of the object. The treasure is in a heart that was touched, simply by words spoken, human to human. I'll wear it because I need to remember this young man, and the response of the human heart, no matter the race, creed or color, to respect and simple kindness.
Vincent F. Parlato - early 1980s - my father
The garbage truck roared it's way towards our house. My sister, Lisa, and I, jumped up from the couch to peek out the window. This was before the days of automated sanitation trucks that lift your plastic trash bin with a mechanical arm. Back in the day, it took real men all sweaty and muscled to hoist your trashcan by hand and dump it in the back of the truck. Men with youth, and vigor, ripped abs and brawny biceps in jeans and t-shirts clingy with perspiration. For two teen-aged country girls living in rural upstate New York, the weekly arrival of the garbage truck was a Junior Chippendales event.
My father, "Vinnie", chuckled at our gawking, amused with his oldest daughters and their newfound interest in the masculine form.
"Who's out there today?" he said.
Dad walked up to gawk out the window too. The truck halted at our driveway and two young men emerged and descended upon our trashcans. One was Black. One was White.
"Hey, the moolie's here! " he cracked, laughing.
"Daaaaad! Stop it!" my sister and I both said.
Moolie. Short for "moulinyan", an Italian word meaning "eggplant". It is a derogatory term that refers to a Black person akin to using the "N" word in English. It was difficult to hear my father say this. Harder still to stop him from saying it. Some internal force tightened in my stomach.
My dad was a first generation immigrant. His father emigrated from Sicily, landing at Ellis Island in the early 1900s during "The Great Arrival", an influx of southern Italians seeking a new life in America. Grandpa settled in Buffalo, New York. What I didn't know until years later was he entered into a society that, as it has been for decades, placed a value on how light your skin was. At that time, Italians, especially the dark, swarthy Sicilians, were viewed with malice and suspicion. In the South for many years they were labeled as "black" on census records, and even became the victims of lynching. The closer to "white" you were, the better your chance of obtaining employment, safety and acceptance. Italians and Blacks were in direct competition for jobs and upward mobility, so Italians made every effort to differentiate themselves from their African American counterparts. This was the atmosphere into which my father was born in 1932. There he assimilated all the contempt and condescension towards a people he considered to be his rivals in school, in society, and in life.
I loved my dad. 6'3" with massive arms and legs like tree trunks. He was big and hairy and loud in language and laughter. His presence filled a room. I was safe with him, and I was sure he knew everything. I remember the day I found out he did wrong things sometimes. I was in first grade, sitting with my little girl friends around a cafeteria lunch table. Amid glass milk bottles and the crinkle of the wax paper around our sandwiches, we complained about boys, and Rodney in particular.
"I don't like Rodney," said Nancy.
"I don't like him either. He's mean," said Faith.
"Me neither, " I chimed. "He's a real bastard."
"Uh ohhhhh!" said Shirley. " You said a swear word!"
"No I didn't." I knew I hadn't.
"Yes you did," said Janice. "That's a swear word!"
"No it's not. My dad says it all the time." I sucked my teeth. What did they know!
I was sure my dad would never swear. Until I went home and asked my mom.
"Mom, is bastard a swear word?"
"Yes, Susan, it is. You should never say it."
Wow. My dad - swears. I was so crushed and confused. My dad is good. Why does he do this bad thing?
As I grew older I eventually learned about slavery in America, the Triangular Trade, the Civil War and the tragic history of my country. As a New Yorker, I self-identified with the abolitionist leanings of "The North", wanting to disassociate myself from this brutal past. I was glad my genetic roots hailed from somewhere outside the US. I learned in school that oppression of Black people was identified as something immoral and destructive. But here in my own home, was this father I loved, who spoke so disparagingly about Black people. A father that said and thought "bad things." And then there was my mother, who taught me to never use the "N" word. How could my parents be so different? How could I reconcile all this in my heart?
Young adulthood would bring further division, and further challenges to the contradictory beliefs in my head vying for definition. Enter the age of cognitive dissonance and it’s crucible of discovery.
"Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for
what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome."
- Rosa Parks
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