THE TEACHERS, PART II, THE DAUGHTER.
Christmas at the Jones’s home had a special allure. It has evolved as an eclectic mix of piety and secularism. But most of all it carried a unique sentimental value because husband and wife had their first date just a few days before Christmas in year one of their longstanding love affair. One could describe it as Valentine’s Day inside a religious holiday. Best of Sunday clothes to attend an early-rise service and then home, gathering for a daylong feast. Aromatic, drool-provoking scents wafting the air, competing with recorded caroling intermixed with spontaneous group singing suffusing all in unison for festive atmosphere making. Coffee, hot chocolate brewing in the morning; pancake, eggs, bacon, grits, fruits made for a splashy breakfast. Eggnog all day was part of the lore. Pork, steak, mac and cheese, green beans, sweet potato pie, were to be had any time after noon. And let’s not forget about the flowers. Roses, poinsettias, were everywhere. Exchanging gifts galore but mostly, repeated “I love you,” accompanied by big hugs were par for the course. The ever-special meaning of Christmas could be found at the dinner table with family conversation meant to strengthen the bonds, a sacred wont. It was forbidden to have negative interactions such as arguments. Unfortunately, that rule was broken two years in a row by Edith Jones, the only daughter.
The first time was as a senior in high school when she stated she would not celebrate Christmas because she was a Buddhist! The sky literally had fallen on the Jones’s residence. This was preceded the month before by her decision not to attend an HBCU (historically black college or university) as her parents did. She had lobbed the ultimate insult, “I do not want to limit my intellectual capacity to ghetto-influenced mindset.” The next Christmas, as a freshman, she had announced she had joined the Young Republicans on campus at Yale and proceeded to have a very animated argument. Ordinarily she would enjoy defending any position she took. That day, even by her standards, she was way out of line. It was so peculiar because of the forcefulness that her parents forcibly had to take her to the emergency room, and she ended up being admitted at the mental wing of the hospital. Psychiatrist made diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
This day of December 15, her parents had become concerned because they hadn’t heard from her despite calling her several times. While in her dorm, Edith Jones was in the throes of a hangover. She was vomiting, had cramps in the abdomen that made her period that much more of a misery. Her menses normally came with the unpleasant sensation of significant pain. This made a bad situation intolerable. The night before, she had binged on alcohol and she wasn’t certain how many lithium pills she had taken for her disorder. An African-American male student on his way home, noticed the noise of her repeated retching and he knocked on her door and at her site looking so sick, he called 911. When her family did receive a call, it was from the hospital ER informing them of her illness and admission due to lithium toxicity.
A week later, Edith Jones was sitting quietly in the back of the family’s car as they were riding home. She was at a crossroads. She began to worry as she had become weary of feeling wary of her environment. She was always a rebel, one to bend the norm, always ready to push the envelope. As a young girl, she reveled in the role of a tomboy. She eschewed dolls for playing peewee football with the boys. When her parents adopted her father’s nephew, John, she bonded with him like glue and insisted on being part of his male circle. Later on, as a member of Jack and Jill, she had carved herself the reputation of a wannabe, a remarkable feat for a group known for its cluster of such pretentious individuals at times. She was into interracial dating and that didn’t sit well with quite a few members. She further raised eyebrows by bringing a Caucasian male to the cotillion. Her fling with the Young Republicans had ended in a disaster and had caused her some significant upheaval. It started after she had just come from a journey to South America, the summer after freshman year and had visited the vaunted Machu Picchu. She had spent the time in Peru with an NGO working in rural areas. It was an eye-opener. She was teaching English and, of course, math and along the way, she learned Spanish. The reality there conflicted with her espoused right-wing ideology and she began to have some serious doubts. When she returned on campus she celebrated with her friends, the white ones, that is. What should have been a happy get together turned out to be spoiled by one comment made on the fly by a drunken one, “Let’s lift a toast to the best Oreo cookie this side of the Mississippi.”
Although shushed by the others present, this off-handed remark stated the obvious, painful truth. In plain effigy one can see the daughter of an iconic symbol of liberalism, fighter for civil rights, that had broken the mold to become member of the Young Republicans on campus at Yale. The split from the group occurred after publication of an op-ed where she talked about her experience in South America and voiced the opinion of the necessity for government intervention for the general welfare. The group ostracized her; her then boyfriend, a member of the group did the same. She had no friends left. She had sided with the right-wingers and ignored her African-American classmates, and she went into a depression and began to drink. She was thinking over all of this during her ride home. She also realized that though she had always acted in me-first-and-others-be-damned-mode, as a social animal, relationships do matter in life. She did learn that an African- American student did help her, and that information kept percolating in her mind. All sorts of ideas were plying in her head. One of them was the pleasure she derived from teaching.
She shared her mom’s family trait of smarts. Her brother, on the other hand, was an average student whom she delighted in helping with math. In fact, it came natural to her to teach and impart understanding of a subject matter, no matter how arcane it could be. She knew that even when her family members hated a lot of her opinions, they loved her all the same. Their support during this illness was great proof of it and that warmed her heart’s cockles.
Many a time, her parents had questioned the wisdom of sending her to a private school with Caucasian majority. The reason was simple. They wanted a rigorous academic environment free of the social ills found at minorities-majority public schools such as gangs, peer pressure for academic underperformance. Her brother, unlike her, who was attending the same school wasn’t experiencing the same drama. In Edith’s case, the social price was steep, in parallel to the actual financial one. This is a dilemma of many African-American middle-class parents.
Her parents on the way home were having thoughts of their own. Upmost was the apprehension of another spoiled Christmas Day. They didn’t know what to expect. John, her brother, did his best during the ride to make small talk, reassure her and even had her rest her head on his shoulder.
That image of brother consoling sister was reassuring to the parents. They couldn’t help but reminisce about her slow, subtle but always eventual metamorphosis over the years. From tomboy, she had laid claims to her feminine side and had mastered effete ways of life; she became her mom’s makeup artist and shopping buddy. She grew to enjoy picking her dad’s wardrobe, especially his ties and shoes and always had to be the one to choose his outfit for church on Sundays. In a bind, she could double as a barber and give a mean haircut to brother and father. She was a joy to be around and a pain to have a head-to-head discussion with as deadest as she could be once she makes up her mind. Her habit of always winning an argument as a birthright grated on the family and friends alike. Her diagnosis came with great relief because under treatment, she was far more pleasant to be around. Until then, it had come to a point that no one bothered to convince her otherwise and just got along with any statement and or any decision she made. Always unstated was the hope for the day to come to make her see the light and bring about the sure-to-come metamorphosis.
Edith began to think about this natural gift she had that she enjoyed, one she didn’t pay too much attention to as a profession but one that kept coming back to the fore invariably. For that Christmas Day, she spent quite a bit of it in bed in a morose mood. Her family did everything possible to cheer her up. At least she didn’t spoil the holiday. She didn’t quarrel with anyone and she even mentioned the fact that her previous flings were part of her Bohemia. She wanted to find out about this student that helped save her. She did and it wasn’t long before they had become close friends.
They both traveled together to his country, Haiti, for the summer with the same NGO to do work in rural areas. As before, she taught English and math and learned the native tongue, Kreyol. She enjoyed teaching so much she decided it was her calling. She enjoyed her companion, Joël, so much she decided he would be her life companion.
The following Christmas of her junior year, she was most gracious. Her boyfriend, Joël, a constant companion, did drop by on Christmas Day. It was clear to all that he served the dual purpose of a ballast to keep her center of gravity low and a pulley to direct and facilitate her energy expenditure. The net result was a timely and welcome calming influence on her. A very noticeable improvement in her behavior was her tendency to listen and be more tolerant of others’ opinion. Another subtle metamorphosis was the evolution of her discourse from argumentative for its own sake to astute, wise and yet polemical. She became the shrewd debater one enjoys listening to. She surprised no one by announcing she would pursue a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics because she had become impressed with the idea of micro loans to the poor and the prospect for economic betterment.
Edith, the intellectually gifted, broke no new ground by graduating summa cum laude. Her grandfather and mother had done the same. She broke new ground by refusing a Rhodes scholarship the following year on the ground that Cecil Rhodes, its founder was at heart a racist for the exploitation of black Africans and a misogynist for the exclusion of women with the establishment of the scholarship initially. She was proud to make this announcement at the dinner table on Christmas Day during her senior year. Such music to the ears had a sweet sound of profound social commitment, the type her mom was known for, the type that made her so proud of the progeny that she nurtured in her womb for nine gracious months. Her parents couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas gift. Her days of Bohemia had long receded into the dustbin of history. The ultimate metamorphosis in full display was Edith’s ability to turn Christmas from the dregs littered by her caprice to the venue of seminal milestones, anticipated but pleasing surprises, bestowed by her maturity.
Surprise of surprises, for Christmas Day of her senior year, Joël came to the house and asked for her hand in marriage to her father. That made it two generations in a row having a sentimental attachment to Christmas. A few years later, she arrived from London on Christmas Eve decided to surprise her family even more.
So, for this particular Christmas, the last one before securing her doctorate, everyone was a bit curious, not knowing what would be in store. Guessing the surprise Edith had devised had become a sleuth’s errand. One searched for clues in her body language, demeanor, conversation. She was just as adept at disguising it all in an impish mode. For one thing Christmas now had a special pull on her to splay the surprise on her kinfolk. She was the first to awaken and she made a big pot of coffee. As a clarion call, she started playing Nat King Cole’s legendary Christmas Songs album. There was a special mood in the air even by the usual Jones’s standard. Alma had detected but not publicly commented on the protuberance of Edith’s belly despite her careful choice of clothing to hide her real anatomy. Edith had two previous miscarriages. She had wedded Joël the summer after starting graduate school. They had a transcontinental marriage that was working for both because he was attending med school in the US while she was studying abroad. At the breakfast table, Edith broke the news: she was into a second trimester pregnancy, with her husband Joël beaming with pride. She had wanted to make sure she reached this milestone before sharing it due to her previous bad luck. Her mother whose health was beginning to falter and was despairing of seeing a grandchild from Edith before departing this life received a royal gift. On this particular day, her family had included her brother, parents, husband and his parents.
All fortuitously were present for the dinner, an unprecedented gastronomic event. Her in-laws had brought lots of homemade dishes. Her expected childbirth was the main topic. It was a present well appreciated by grandparents of both sides.
Almost as an afterthought, she announced she would hold a dual position at the Economics Department of an HBCU and Ivy League school after graduation. She had come full circle. It only proves the point that going from A to B needs not be a straight line. Edith will always remember that Christmas was her day of engagement and the beginning of her blissful life. She would cling to this celebration just like her mom. An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
REYNALD ALTEMA, MD