The Naked TruthYoung, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive
AmistadCopyright © 2008 Marvelyn Brown
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-06-156239-6
As a child, I adored my mother, but I was definitely a daddy's girl. I used to love to just sit and watch my father play his favorite game of all time: Pac-Man. As the little yellow man whisked across the screen, my daddy would go from happy to overexcited to sad to angry-all in a matter of seconds. I would patiently wait for Inky, Pinky, Blinky, or Clyde to eat him up. Then he would yell and curse at the screen, and I would laugh until my stomach hurt.
Unlike so many other black fathers, who disappeared as fast as Pac-Man, my dad, Marvin, was the present parent in those early days. He would take my sister, Mone't, and me to kids' movies, even the ones he hated watching, and nap until the credits rolled, at which point he would clap enthusiastically as if he had been awake for the whole thing.
I loved going to the grocery store with my dad because he would always buy me yummy treats, even if it was right before dinner. We would sneak and eat candy, disposing of all the wrappers before we got home so my mom, Marilyn, wouldn't find out. My father and I would walk into the house with a secret, shared smirk on our faces. Those smirks disappeared when I went to the dentist and our cover was blown. I had eight cavities. That night my father slept on the couch and I was on grocery-store suspension.
Back then I didn't sense the tension between my parents, though I could tell that my mom-an engineer and a labor organizer-was far more on top of things than my dad, who fixed copy machines for Xerox. Neither of my parents came from money. This was the South, after all. My parents' was really the first generation of southern blacks that had a chance at a decent life. My mom wanted us to be a "successful" family, which in her mind meant all work and no play.
My mom was the two S's, strict and serious. She was so driven that I don't remember her ever letting her hair down. She was always nagging my dad about this or that, scolding Mone't, or me (more often me) for not acting the way she wanted us to, or ordering us around. It seemed like we could never do right, never be enough for her.
From the time I could walk and talk, I was involved in a million activities-dance, modeling, swimming, track. If my mom saw a sign-up list, you'd better believe my name was first on it. She didn't care what it was. She just wanted me busy, busy, busy. It wasn't just that she thought it would keep us out of trouble. She also thought it would help us achieve later on in life. And that's pretty much all my mom cared about: success.
My dad and I were sitting on the couch hanging out one afternoon when my mom came home from work and brought a dark cloud of unhappiness with her. I was only five, but I was already a master at picking up on my mom's emotions. I can still remember the visceral feeling I had when she was fed up.
"Marvelyn, your dad and I need to talk. Get in the other room."
I scurried away, hearing that she meant business, and she closed the door behind me. I remember just looking at that closed door, wishing I could understand how to make the problems between my mom and dad all better. I got down on my knees and put my ear to the door, hoping to hear, then wishing I hadn't. My mom was yelling at my dad, calling him "no good," ordering him to leave. I began to shake, then I broke down crying. I couldn't believe this was happening. Why weren't any of us ever good enough for my mom? Why did my dad's fun-loving nature make her so mad? Why did she feel so worried about us "making it" all the time?
I know now that my mom was dealing with a whole lot of drama I didn't have the first clue about. For starters, my dad was addicted to drugs. I didn't know this at the time. Hell, I didn't know it until a couple of years ago when I finally asked. Those kinds of things often get covered up in families-especially in southern families. We don't like to air our dirty laundry.
As it turned out, there was a lot of it. Not only was my dad addicted to gambling, drugs, and alcohol, but he had other kids. Years later I would ask my mom, "Why did you marry Dad if he had other kids?"
She shot back, sounding characteristically stern, "You think I would have married him if I'd known about those kids? Please, Marvelyn, I didn't have a clue." Of course, I realized-that would have ruined her image of the perfect "successful" family.
No matter how much my mom tried to keep it together, the image was shattered anyway. My parents got a divorce, and my mom gained full custody of my younger sister and me, along with the house and cars. Our family went from the ideal, middle-class picture to a single-parent household where the mom is trying to hold it down and the dad just makes cameo appearances. From then on I heard from my dad a few times a year at most, usually around the holidays and my birthday. One day when arriving home from school I realized that the answering machine was blinking with a message. I ran over to press play and heard my dad wishing me a happy birthday. I was so excited to hear from him and get the birthday wishes that I hardly noted that he was five days late.
Once my dad left, my mom's focus on Mone't and me got even sharper. Even though she was working all the time, she managed to be highly involved at our schools. She was one of the only nonwhite mothers on the PTA, and she made sure to handpick our teachers every year. My classmates thought my mom was so cool because a lot of their mothers were not as active, but I felt like it was an invasion of my privacy and just added to the pressure I felt.
We were her works-in-progress. I hated how much she pushed me, and even more, I hated that she had sent my daddy away. I didn't understand why she made him leave and was sure that his continued absence was mostly her fault. Through a child's eyes, I saw only a loss of fun, play, love. The drugs were invisible.
Money troubles were concealed from me too. In fact, my mom was struggling. With the loss of my dad's income, she was forced to work outrageous twelve-hour night shifts to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. It seemed like she was either at work, asleep, or ordering us around; she often joked that she'd just had kids so they could do the work around the house. Sometimes I wasn't sure she was joking.