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.
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.
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.