By: Mira Martin-Parker
My grandmother cooked stews and left the bones in them. She prepared an excellent leg of lamb at Easter, and once at Thanksgiving she got mad and threw the turkey out the window. She was Italian and Irish, with pale skin, thick red hair, and dark brown eyes. She married a wasp, and because she was Catholic and beautiful, his family pretended she didn’t exist. She had six daughters, but what she really wanted was a son, so over the years she spent more and more time in her bedroom. With the door closed. Not to be disturbed. A bottle of vodka and some pills nearby for comfort.
When my mother was a teenager, my grandmother pulled her out of Catholic school, where she was doing well, and sent her public school, where she immediately began to do poorly. On her way home after class one day, mother walked by a V.W. bus with its side door open and burning incense wafting out onto the sidewalk. Inside there was a cute hippie guy with a long mustache and beard selling handmade leather goods. My mother stopped to admire a beaded purse and the two of them began talking.
The following Saturday night my mother and the cute hippie were caught together in an old sleeping bag on the floor of my grandmother’s garage. She bent over and slowly walked around them, undoing the zipper as she went. Two months later, my mother confessed that she was pregnant. Grandmother ordered her to give the baby up for adoption when it was born. But my mother refused, and insisted they got married.
She gave birth to a chubby blond haired boy and my grandmother was immensely pleased. Finally she had her son.
You Are a Very Lucky Girl
My parents didn’t officially name me when I was born. They just referred to me as Lulu, since that’s what my older brother called me. A month later they left for India with their Sufi order to attend Baba’s last darshan. My dad’s ex-girlfriend took care of me while they were away. (An aunt on my mother’s side took care of my brother.) While in India they asked Baba’s companion, Mehera, what they should name their new baby girl. She said to name me Layla, after the Persian love story Layla and Majnun.“You are a very lucky girl,” my dad used to say to me when I was little. “You were named by Mehera.”
But everyone continued to call me Lulu, even him.
My brother was much luckier than me. He got my mother’s light hair and features, as well as a relatively Western sounding name. He was also a boy, so her side of the family welcomed him. They needed boys. As far as that side of the family was concerned, I was just a scrappy dark-eyed girl with an ethnic name (Lulu, Lala, Layla, whatever).
I Will Not Be Happy!
He smiled at me with his Don’t Worry, Be Happy smile. It wasn’t advice; it was an order. We have a duty to be happy. Be happy! Meher Baba was happy. Baba was always smiling and happy. At least he was in most of the photographs and films I’ve seen of him. In them he’s always sitting in his chair, giving out his blessings, and smiling away. He even smiled as he washed and kissed the dust-covered feet of India’s poor. I’ve always loved Baba. It’s easy to love that smile.
But after my parents divorced, I was angry. “I hate God,” I said one day, looking hard the old black and white photo I had of him. “I hate God,” I repeated as I scratched at his picture with my five-year-old fingers. I understood the power of God and I held Baba directly responsible for taking away my happiness. He had sold our house, sent my father out of the country, and left me with my mother, a mother who made it very clear she would leave me in a basket on someone’s front porch if I made things difficult for her.
“I will not be happy,” I said over and over again to this picture. “I hate God. I hate life. And I will not be happy!”
Happy Birthday to You!
I had a silver cross in my ear. I was wearing a plaid thrift shop vest over a white men’s cotton shirt, and my hair was spiked with hand soap. My brother’s hair was bleached white and also up in spikes. He was sitting at a dining room table and there was a small chocolate cake covered in pink roses in front of him. He had a mischievous smile on his face, like he had just cracked a joke at someone else’s expense. I am standing next to him and leaning over to be included in the photo. On the back it reads: Lulu’s birthday, 1983. I have just turned 14. Next to the cake there is a present the size of a package of stickers wrapped in silver paper. My aunt and my mother must have just carried out the cake and sang happy birthday. Apparently no one noticed that the birthday girl was standing up, while her older brother sat down in front of her cake. I probably even sang Happy Birthday to him. Happy birthday to you! Happy happy birthday!
Come, let’s drop in on my mother and me once more. You remember, me. I’m the dumb girl. The one with the dark eyeliner and bright red lipstick. The one with the pointed vintage heals on. You remember me, don’t you? My mother is pretty and white and from an upper middle-class background. But she is also slumming it at present, slumming it along with me, her little dumb imp of a girl. Come along, let’s fall into a scene with the two of us together. Hmm, what’s happening here?
I am fifteen and my mother and I are in an apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco. We are visiting from Los Angeles, having taken the AmTrack together through the Central Valley. My older brother is also at the apartment, along with my five aunts. The place is full of them; white educated women. I haven’t seen these aunts for a while and they are surprised at my appearance. I have become a young woman and I look much more like my mother now, except my hair is dark and so are my eyes.
My older brother is in the kitchen discussing European travel with my aunts. All of them travelled to Europe after completing college. Now my brother is planning a trip to Spain and France, and they are all offering lots of advice about rail systems and youth hostels. Suddenly I feel strange. Left out. Suddenly I notice no one is talking to me. Suddenly I notice that they have a lot of things to say to my brother, but nothing at all to say to me. I notice that when they do look over at me, there’s an odd expression on their face. Is it revulsion? Disgust?
Then my mother comes into the room and asks me if I want to go outside for a cigarette. I nod and the two of us sneak out the back door of the flat. It’s an old Victorian, with rickety wooden steps leading down to the garden below. We sit side-by-side on the stairway and light up a couple of cloves. It’s the blue hour and the fog has already come in, but I can still see all the way to downtown. Looking out at the city makes me happy. And sitting alone with my mother, away from my aunts, makes me happy. At least my mother talks to me. At least she doesn’t make me feel dirty and weird.
My mother is drinking a beer, and she passes it over to me. I take a sip and pass it back. Then I look out at the city again. One day I will have my very own apartment, I think. One day, I will have lots of money and I will travel to Europe. Then they will talk to me. Then they will have lots of nice things to say.
Suddenly one of my aunts calls out to us from inside. “What are you two doing out there? If you’re drinking and smoking, my neighbors are going to think I’m having a bunch of punks over for a party.”