Traveling to East Oakland.

When my parents got married in 1967, the bakery they originally chose to make their wedding cake refused to give them figurines of a white woman and a black man to use as toppers.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 2.36.42 PM

Needless to say, my parents chose another bakery.

Turns out that my parents weren’t right for each other anyway. They got divorced when I was four. My younger brother Chad and I didn’t spend a lot of time with my dad, but he always had us for most of the day on Christmas, through the holiday meal. He would pick us up and drive us out to East Oakland, where all of his relatives lived. If you don’t already know: East Oakland is kind of like Compton in Los Angeles or the South Bronx in New York.

My dad comes from a huge family – he’s the youngest of ten. So we had literally dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles that we would see exactly once a year. Dinner was always at my Aunt Betty’s house. Although everyone tried to put us at ease, my brother and I always felt out-of-place and awkward. We stood shoulder to shoulder, smiling nervously and answering questions about school and our mom.

Occasionally we wouldn’t be able to understand someone because of their East Oakland accent. “Excuse me?” we would ask, politely, wincing as the room would explode with good natured laughter.

Sometimes our cousins would try to teach us how to pronounce words like they did. “You know that story called Jack and the Beanstalk?” my cousin Kelly might ask. “Fee fi foe fum? Well, you say ‘four,’ and we say ‘foe.’ Like fee fi foe fum. Get it?”

“Foe,” we would repeat. “Foe.”

Dinner was different, too. We came from a Berkeley Hippie household, where comfort food was brown rice, tofu, and bok choy. So when we encountered ambrosia salad (with marshmallows!) and sweet potato pie, we couldn’t get enough. Some things we wouldn’t eat, like chit’lins or okra. Other things we learned to love, like collard greens.

Once, my cousin Laurence drove us home. We were simultaneously thrilled and mortified to ride in his car. As we rolled through the streets, the entire car boomed and shook with bass. We tried to act nonchalant, but we were electrified with excitement.

East Oakland car

When we pulled up in our driveway on our quiet steet in Berkeley, neighbors drifted outside to see what was going on. My cousin just laughed and shook his head. Then he stepped out of the car, gave my mom a big hug, and roared off, Grandmaster Flash booming.

We knew the drill: as soon as we walked in the house, we had to strip off our clothes and put them directly into the wash. Then we each had to get in the shower. My mom would wave her hands in the air in front of us. “You reek of cigarette smoke!” she would say ruefully. As if we had a choice. Everyone smoked in East Oakland.

My two youngest brothers were always waiting for us. “What was it like?” they would ask. “What did you do?” We recounted every detail, and they hung on every word. Sometimes they didn’t believe things we told them, tales of our cousins who ate marshmallows for dinner and said “foe.”

But of course it was all true. Every word.

One year, we stopped going. It must have been the year that I was an exchange student in France. Maybe Chad and my father went out for lunch instead that year. Maybe they skipped it. I don’t know. But I do know that those memories are strong.

When I look back on it, it was like traveling to a different country, one where I knew the language but was still a foreigner; a place where they did things a little differently, where they were just as curious about me as I was about them, but maybe were scared to ask. Just like me.

It was 20 minutes away, but it was also almost unreachable. My dad moved to Africa fifteen years ago, and I don’t really see much of his brothers and sisters, or my cousins, anymore.

Maybe it’s time for a trip.

Comments

  1. Incredible story. I felt like your siblings (hanging on your every word). Thanks for sharing. A blend of both cultures is who you are so enjoy your possible future visit.

  2. That was such a delightful story mixed with many emotions. Thank you for sharing it. It was an honor reading it!

  3. Great story – you have a very entertaining writing style

  4. You have a gift for writing stories.

  5. Points Pixie says:

    Everyone – Thank you for the compliments. I’m so glad you liked reading the story. My fantasy is to write for a living, so it means a lot to me that you enjoyed what I wrote.

  6. Beautifully written and deeply human. Sometimes large journeys come from small distances! Thank you for sharing!

  7. loved this (and your story telling abilities)!! especially how you tied it together at the end with traveling.

  8. What a great story!! I was hanging on every word – not sure what was coming next. LOL. I have missed reading your posts!!!

  9. 🙂

  10. I’m late to the party … but what a beautiful glimpse into another part of your world! Love the car, by the way.

  11. pinkisnice says:

    Love this!

  12. Marva - Betty's Daughter says:

    Hi Kendra, I was excited to see that you mentioned my mother’s name in your story to East Oakland but I only have a couple pet peeves regarding your story. We don’t have a cousin name “kelly” or “laurence” (maybe you are protecting the innocent). And as far as my family i.e. (my brothers and I) went to private schools and we did not talk like that. Now we did throw down in the kitchen, sweet potato pie, cornbread dressing, collard greens etc.

    I do remember that your parents wedding reception was held at my parents house and we live on the border line of Oakland and San Leandro, CA.

    I think that it was your father who smoke because at the time we were to young to smoke and even drive. Otherwise it was good story.

    Love your cousin,

    PS..I am still waiting for you go camping with us or stop by when we have our family get together during the holidays.

    • Points Pixie says:

      Marva – I love that you found this story! Yes, I usually change a few identifying details in every story I write to protect the innocent.

      Of course all of us kids were way to young to smoke, but the adults definitely made up for it…including my dad.

      You are right – it is time for a visit. Time to make up for lost time.

      xoxo

  13. I was born in Louisiana where many Oakland residents migrated from to escape Jim Crow, so, your story was a delight to read. My parents moved to Michigan and my visits back to Louisiana had like stories, i.e., my relatives would encourage us to talk because we “spoke proper”, everyone smoked/chewed. Thank you for reviving those pleasant memories. Several of my relatives moved to OAK, sadly, I loss contact!

  14. Points Pixie says:

    Leslee – Your story definitely sounds similar to mine. I always wonder if this is still going on, out there in the world. Maybe we were the last generation where this happened?

Speak Your Mind

*