when i was seven my dad moved out. what proceeded over the next year was your basic divorce. in my little mind it seemed amicable and surprisingly pleasant. i never felt torn or scared, almost as if my child likeness was a blessing. my brother, 15 at the time left to go live with my dad in a small apartment on the other side of town, while my mom and i stayed in the "big house" until it sold. because the big house demanded a bigger mortgage my mom began to entertain the idea of having a roommate to help cover the expense. it seemed logical, we lived close to cal poly and the house was plenty big enough for us and another person. she put an ad up, and we quickly began to get responses. because i was young, i obviously didn't have any say in the matter, and before i knew it my mom introduced me to john carter. looking back i wonder if i was in her shoes would i have allowed a college age man to live with me and lily? would i have felt safe and confident that he would act responsible and upstanding around myself, but more importantly my daughter? its hard to say, but looking back it is so clear that john carter was undoubtedly sent by god. the impact he had on our lives is so vivid and relevant in my life today.
when john began moving his things in, our neighbors began to talk in hushed whispers. ironically, to the left and across the street from us were devout mormons. growing up with them, it mattered little that i wasn't mormon, or even remotely religious (that came way later). i spent countless hours playing across the street with leslee keep- with our birthdays 1 week apart- we were destined to be friends. i loved her family, and they were such a source of stability for me as my parent's marriage began to unravel. when barb, leslee's mom confronted my mom about john, my mom simply said that she felt totally confident in her decision.
why the fuss? john carter was african american.
sometimes i wonder how my mom managed to not only secure a man to live with us, but a black man- demographically speaking the odds were entirely unlikely (less than 1% at cal poly). john lived with us while we lived in the big house, and after it sold, he packed up alongside us and moved into a little 3 bdrm house on pismo st. the front room johns, the middle moms, and the last mine. in tow came oscar- the dachshund- my consolation prize for losing my dad. the funny thing about oscar is he never got used to john, though he was also brown- he was more racist than any of us- barking incessantly at john any time he came through the door.
john lived with us his entire college career- 5 years. At the end he graduated the first black man magna cum laude in math. those were formative years for me. i have so many memories of life with him and my mom...
i remember he used to spend a lot of time in his room. i only went in there a handful of times, he was protective of his privacy. the times i did i wanted so bad to look through his books, and inspect his prized watch, instead i just stared and imagined sneaking in when he left (i never did). john studied a lot. i never once saw him drink alcohol and his beautiful girlfriend, erica never spent the night. he went to church every sunday... and a few times managed to drag us along.
john cooked a lot. our house was really old, so when he'd get going in the kitchen, the smell could be so intense. i used to feel embarrassed about all those smells- from the "exotic" foods, to the creams and lotions he used for his skin and hair- i knew my house didn't smell like my neighbors and friends. sometimes i'd wish so much that we could be normal- that my mom would cook and it would smell of fresh baked bread or chocolate chip cookies- not leftover hushpuppies and black eyed peas...
i'll never forget the time i was playing in the creek (it was literally our backyard)
and i somehow managed to fall in a bush and get probably 50 little briar balls all ratted up in my hair. when i came up to the house, my mom was so overwhelmed, she got a brush and was using it and her hands to try to get them out. john came home, and seeing my mom's frustration, immediately got a bottle of conditioner and got to work. he spent an hour and half getting all the briars out and getting my hair combed. talk about a labor of love... and patience!
sometimes my mom would ask john to tutor me in math. i remember being so frustrated that he made me figure out the answer- he'd never just show me the formula, or give me the answer, he'd always make me work for it!
i can also remember walking into the kitchen and seeing my mom near tears talking to john. i always steered clear, but she's since told me that he was such a huge support to her as she went through the divorce and navigated her way through life with a pre-teen daughter. my mom told me that john told her when he moved out that she was the most beautiful woman inside and out that he had ever met... my mom savors that.. i would too.
having a black man live with us quickly became something we didn't even think about. rarely even behind closed doors did we talk about what it might look like. in fact john never brought up race. in retrospect, i know that he felt strongly tied to his african american roots. i remember talking about martin luther king, and he kept correcting me to say, Dr. King. i would ask him crazy questions, like, "what if dr. king was white, wouldn't that have been better- then people might not have killed him right?" and john would just look at me and say, "why does it matter what color he was?"
the one time i remember john being really upset was when he came home from gottschalks. obviously not a place he frequented, he went there one evening to find a birthday gift for his mom. he said the moment he walked in the door, till the time he left, a security guard followed him. he never went to gottschalks again.
this morning while i was running with oz in the stroller my thoughts kept meandering to the election. i passed many yard signs, about half for obama and half for mccain (i was in the burbs of LO). my mind wandered to john, i wondered what he thought of all this, and if he was voted for obama. i began to think about where he is now. i found myself wishing he still lived here. wishing that i could have his kids babysit mine, that we could have him over for dinner and chat vigorously about raising kids, the economy, price of homes, and of course politics and religion. i crave culture, i long for more diversity. but then i realize that for him, living here would likely make him 1 of 5 black families in los osos, and all that culture i long for could be oppressed if felt he had to subdue it. i imagine he's happier in mississippi- i picture him married to erica with five or six little kids running around. i like to think of him with lots of aunts and uncles and cousins around, going to church on sunday, teaching math at the local uni, making egg pie and grits... as i lost myself in john's current life i couldn't believe my eyes, i looked up and right there walking down pecho avenue was a black man. at first glance i thought maybe it was just a guy wearing a black beanie, but as i quickened my pace i caught up and sure enough walking by was an attractive black man probably in his late twenties, walking down the street with the cutest little five month old in a baby bjorn. seeing as how i'd never seen him before in los osos, let alone my little neighborhood, it took everything in me not to stop and try to talk to him. with restraint, i instead ran on by imagining what smells were being conjured up in his kitchen tonight, and wonder if he ever got the opportunity to live with a divorcee white woman and her pre-teen daughter?
so this is for you john... wherever you are. i wish you could know how much you shaped and defined who i am. i am eternally indebted.