Comfort Laps: Writing Challenge

Our reminiscences are important parts of who we are. As we stitch them into narratives they connect us to our ancestors, sometimes in unexpected ways. I urge my readers to not shy away from writing about uncomfortable and challenging topics.

My mother, for reasons that remain somewhat of a mystery, did not like to be touched. Whether she was mildly autistic or physically or sexually abused or some combination, we never knew for sure ( and it wasn’t for lack of asking). However, I was programed to seek and need human touch. Yes, an extraordinary bad combination. I can remember as a very young child trying to climb up into Mom’s lap and being rebuffed. And yet my mother delighted in repeating a story of how I climbed into the lap of a black woman as we were waiting in a Kaiser hospital waiting room in Richmond.

Mom would recount this as evidence of the lack of racism with which I was raised. I always felt it was so much more. This would not be the first time I would seek comfort in a lap of a black woman. For a short period of time we had a housekeeper named Sylvia. She had deep ebony skin, and a powerful personality and how she could clean. Even my mother bent to her will. Before long our house which had looked like an episode of the television show Hoarders, now sparkled. It was Sylvia who taught me how to iron, beginning first with my Dad’s handkerchiefs. (Yes there was a time when they had to be ironed!) It was Sylvia’s hugs which enveloped me in warmth. It was Sylvia who had the house clean enough to open the drapes and “let the sunshine in!” When she left, the darkness returned. I thought of Sylvia when I read the novel Yellow Crocus by Lalia Ibrahim. The story is about Mattie an enslaved wet nurse who takes care of Lizbeth, a white woman’s infant, while forced to relinquish her own son. Why am I drawn to black women’s stories?

This is a photo of my first birthday party. I am the one being held up by my mother—I always felt this photo (and the ones taken along with it) is particularly unnerving. My mother is not holding me like Ruth is her son, of about the same age. Maybe I am being too sensitive or critical—but it does speak to me even now. Is she just playing the part of a mother? It sometimes felt that way.

Kelly being held up by her Mom

Half way through my high school career I opted to attend the majority “black” high school rather than the “white” high school I had been attending. And perhaps it would shock you to know I felt very comfortable there. A page from my yearbook:

Kelly Lower Left

And then back in 2011, as I have mentioned before, I was browsing books at my library’s book sale and came across Pearl’s Secret: A Black Man’s Search for his White Family by Neil Henry. It was to be a foreshadowing of things to come. (Although mine was in reverse.) A few weeks later my autosomal results revealed that I had two African segments. I was surprised, but not disappointed. And ever since I have been looking to discover who was my African ancestress. I suspect it was a female that was the first who had African heritage in my tree. I go back to her a thousand times and wonder if these yearnings are some how callings from my DNA. It’s not much in percentages (depending on the DNA company .6%-2.8%) but likely a 3rd or 4th great grandparent.

The part of my tree where the secret resides

Was it Eleanor BROOKS born about 1731, Elizabeth wife of Thomas SPARKS born about 1689 or Agnes wife of John BARNES born in 1737? A few hundred years ago and my ancestry takes a different path. I know she comes from this part of my tree because of who matches these segments and how I match them. It may well be on the SPARKS line as I have pedigree collapse here and matches indicate a HENAGER with SPARKS ancestry which matches the SPARKS here. To date I have not a single African match on these segments, but it does not keep me from hoping I will find her someday. We talk of the rainbow bridge for our deceased pets. For me the rainbow bridge includes—-a yearning for a long lost great grandmother’s lap. Perhaps a strange sort of yearning for a mostly white woman, but it has been with me for a very long time. A feeling of connection in an unexpected place.

It was my paternal aunt who confirmed that there were rumors about my grandmother having mixed race ancestry. My DNA bears that out. When I first got my atDNA results I corresponded with an African American woman in her 70’s. She told me in high school she took German. Her friends couldn’t understand why. She was attracted to all things German and when her husband was stationed in Germany she sang in a German choir. It wasn’t until she tested her DNA she realized she had German ancestry. It always makes me feel as if our ancestors have a pull on us whether we are aware of it or not. And so it goes.

WRITING CHALLENGE

  • Pick a vivid memory, that speaks to you
  • What echoes can you identify that memory with?
  • Could be a book someone read, a movie you saw, or an incident
  • Flesh out whatever you can whether it makes any sense or not
  • Wait a few days or weeks and let it percolate
  • Revisit and see what comes up

Sometimes it is only in the writing that the pieces knit into place. Its okay to have lots of little vignettes like the one above. Not quite a full story—more of a question.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Rainer Maria Rilke


Kelly Wheaton © 2022 All Rights Reserved.

3 Comments on “Comfort Laps: Writing Challenge”

  1. As an adoptee, I grew up generally confused about who I was, what my interests were etc. but one thing I was really sure of was that I liked the sound of bluegrass music … fiddles and banjos in particular. What I know now is that part of my paternal heritage is in Tennessee. When I went there (2015), I felt like it had been calling me for a long time. Jane Chapman

  2. I have no doubt. Our baby girl who we adopted in 1992 had so many of her young mothers features. I mean at newborn, my husband and I would look at her and stop and look at each other. “Did you see that”? So distinct. We spent 5 months with her and knew her better than she knew her own self. My grandmother Moser (nee Smith) was a rascal. No other way to describe. When she was trying to pull the wool over on one of us her eyes twinkled like diamonds. My Katherine’s birth mother was identical.

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