February 15, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
The theme for WordSprout’s February’s Story Slam – which I did not perform at – was “Spill the Beans.” This is the story I would have performed had I been up for the occasion, which for a variety of reasons, I was not. An earlier version appeared on my first blog, Ordinary Time. With gratitude to Cheri Register, my teacher at the Loft, may her memory be a blessing, who unpacked more of the meaning of this story than I understood when it had happened.
In 1971, at the age of 15, I joined the church youth group –a sort of local Up with People! called Celebrate Life.
We sang at St. Mary’s 12:30 folk Mass every week. Most of us were awkward and out of place with our peers for one reason or another, but in Celebrate Life, we were all a family. For us the peace could last 20 minutes, we were so hug-starved.
At the end of Mass we would always sing the same song, ‘Let there be peace on Earth / and let it begin with me,” our arms around each others shoulders, swaying back and forth like an ocean of love. Celebrate Life had no tryouts, and we weren’t very good, but peace could roll off us in waves.
I had my first boyfriend in Celebrate Life.
His name was Kevin, and he was a dork. Kevin was small and sallow, with short tight curls and crooked granny glasses covered with fingerprints. He had a caterpillar of fuzz on his upper lip. It did not make him look cool. His arms dangled out of his shirt sleeves; he was jointed like a marionette. But there was one exotic and interesting thing about Kevin: he was adopted. Did I tell you I grew up in a very small town?
My father and I were butting heads a lot, because teenagers think they know everything.
“Don’t let it get too serious. You don’t know what stock he’s from,” he said.
“He’s light-skinned, but you just don’t know.”
We were all light skinned. “Know what?”
He looked uncomfortable, in a way I’d never seen before. “He might be… he might be part Negro.”
God. “It’s not Negro, it’s black. They like black.” I knew this. I watched the Mod Squad.
“I’m sure he’s a nice kid, Paula.” His eyes pleaded with me. “But you can’t be too careful. You don’t want to get a reputation. This is a small town. People talk.”
Well, after that I started paying more attention to Kevin.
I let him put his arm around me once in awhile. Served my father right. But Kevin was no Linc Hayes. He still told the same fart jokes, and laughed at them himself. He never said “solid.” And he kept trying to take our relationship to The Next Level, which seemed to involve his tongue, and a lot of saliva. I had no idea why anyone though the French kiss was an erotic experience.
Eventually he asked me to go steady. Now I had a real problem. I couldn’t tell Kevin he was a dork. That would be cruel. But I didn’t really think I liked Kevin that much. On the other side of going steady was the French kiss. And I knew I didn’t like Kevin that much. What was I supposed to do?
Then it hit me: I could play the parent card.
“I can’t,” I said. “My dad won’t let me. He thinks you’re black or something.”
Kevin gave me a strange look. “I’m not black,” he stammered. “I’m Italian. My mom told me. I’m Italian.”
“It wouldn’t matter to me,” I said. “I’m not prejudiced. It’s my dad.”
“I’m Italian,” Kevin said . “My mom told me.”
After that, Kevin didn’t even want to talk to me, let alone go steady.
Eventually, he stopped coming to Celebrate Life. I saw his mother once, picking him up after school. And she saw me. She stared at me hard through the car window, till I had to drop my own eyes. But not before I saw, behind the judgment and anger, that same pleading look my father had worn. This is a small town. What was I supposed to do? People talk.
Although I dislike much about today’s world and nostalge about past decades a lot, it’s good how some prejudices have faded – and you learned a valuable lesson, ie that French kissing is gross unless it’s with someone you fancy!!!!! The small town thing still exists today, though, in England, as I discovered when I moved to one in 2000. I’m guessing it still does in America. Incidentally, my idols in 1971 were Rod Stewart and Marc Bolan. I was only 12, tho, and not of a Christian persuasion!
Terry – I’m sorry it took me so long to get to my own blog comments! The day job is really taking its toll. Plus there was someone I fancied. ;-) I loved Rod Stewart myself; I used to sing Maggie May to my own Maggie when she was a little girl, which was a little weird, given the content. I have to say the “uppies” weren’t idols in quiet the same way. It was more about wanting to be on stage myself. Interestingly, there’s been some recent exposure of the conservative connection Up with People had with the American corporate military complex in a documentary called Smile Till It Hurts. One I’m going to have to get my hands on. You can read a bit about it here: http://disinfo.com/2011/09/the-hidden-story-of-the-up-with-people-singers/
Beautifully honest piece, as usual, Paula. We all have prejudices, and those smalltown ones can be quite disturbing, but it’s helpful to acknowledge where they’ve come from and how we can challenge them for ourselves and move on.
And thanks for the reminder of that hymn. I always liked it!
Thanks, Anne. It is a nice hymn, but sometimes the way we sang it I’d get seesick…
I really like how you tell the story, it let’s me experience a bit of a world I have never seen. Having grown up in a country were pretty much everyone were white, I never really experienced or seen similar situations (there has been a bit of class-difference issue when making friends, but it never came across that strong). Maybe that’s why I don’t fully grasp what was the boy’s mother pleading for.
Melfka: It was not until much later, when I was taking a memoir class at the Loft from a woman who had adopted two Korean children and wrote very compellingly about the issues involved, that I understood myself what the story was. At the time Kevin was adopted, more unwed mothers had begun keeping their children – that is, except for the mothers of mixed-race children, who were still very strongly stigmatized. So mixed-race babies were often more easily available, but because of this stigma there was hesitancy to adopt them. In Catholic families who were adopting, parish priests used to actually counsel couples to tell their adopted children they were Italian. There were a lot of Italian Catholics, and it was thought this way the child would “pass.”
Unfortunately these sorts of incidents happen in large towns as well…. My grandmother was a staunch Lutheran who didn’t want me to associate with Catholics!
Yup. After my Catholic grandfather gave away my mother at her wedding to a Protestant (a wedding my father’s father, as a Protestant minister, presided over), he was so chewed out by his own parish priest that when his son married a Methodist he didn’t even dare attend the wedding. Prejudice knows no demographic boundaries, it seems.
I loved this story, Paula. My high school sweetheart (who I spoke about on my blog today) was Filipino. I still remember when I brought him to Philly to meet my Daddy C (he and my mother were no longer married). My Daddy C was big time and Italian. His loud voice and honesty suited his unforgettable demeanor.
At first, he was against me dating my high school sweetheart. He even asked him if he was Hawaiian! I was so embarrassed. Eventually, he give my ex a chance. Sadly enough, two years later, my dad passed away. Thankfully, my ex was there to hold me while I cried for months.
And then he died.
I am so behind in reading my blog comments, Gina that I did not get to this until today. But I am assuming that this is the post you are referring to? I need to get ready for my son’s birthday dinner, but hope to read it and leave a comment when I return. http://ginastoneheart.blogspot.com/2015/02/friday-feature-and-thoughts-on-meaning.html?spref=tw
I found this almost painful, it was so honest. And so true to how young people think. And their parents. Great piece.
Really enjoyed this piece. Reminded me of my own youth, honestly, of the time when my mother struck my best friend from my guest list for a birthday party because she was black, and because it would “make my grandparents uncomfortable.” Now my brother is planning on marrying his longterm girlfriend (who happens to be black). My grandmother still questions whether they should have kids. Racism is still alive, folks, even if a lot of times we see it as nostalgia.
You are such a brilliant writer. You could tell what you read on the back of a cereal box and make it fascinating. This piece is touching. It’s funny how much some things change and others – just don’t.
Thanks, Anita. That’s good to know, because tomorrow’s post might just be about Wheetabix …
Do you think he was really Italian?
Keisha: No. As I explained in a comment above to Melfka (I’m so behind this week! it just got done), I learned long after it happened that this was a standard way of protecting an adopted mixed race child from stigma at the time, particularly in Catholic homes, and the parents thought they were doing right by their son in perpetuating that deception. I suspect you have your own thoughts on that practice.
Paula, this made me squirm. There was no way not to hurt the guy in this one. Prejudice, I just don’t dig you, or I hate your slimy tongue. Which would do the most damage?
Makes me remember how bad things were in my Missouri youth.
As Linc Hayes would say: solid.
Hit post too soon… “Solid” story. I experienced something similar when I was a kid because I’m hispanic.
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Good old Linc. Hispanic and adopted? And do i recall you’re in upstate New York as well?
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Not adopted but had a girl who’s father had concerns because I was Hispanic. Ended our potential to date after a few dances. Yes on NY near your old college but I grew up in Arizona along the border.