Poison

We decided that Uncle Harry’s would be a great place to celebrate our daughter Rosa’s 27th birthday.  It’s a hideaway bar on the Milwaukee River with a big rustic patio. On summer nights, large, gleaming white yachts are tied up alongside Harry’s and smaller power boats sit in slips waiting for their owners to finish their beers. Now and then, a barge will come floating past. Sometimes, sailboats motor by on their way to the Milwaukee Harbor and then on to Lake Michigan.

We like Uncle Harry’s picnic tables, the napkins and menus stuffed in little metal pails, the burgers and fries in baskets. It suits our frequent mood of being homesick for the low-rent part of the Florida Keys where our family vacationed for years. It reminds us of being carefree and loose and so it seemed a sweet place to be with our girl on her birthday.

We picked up her brother, Ted, from his job at the Lake Michigan ferry. He still wore his second steward’s uniform, white shirt and black pants, with epaulets on his shoulders signifying his rank. Sometimes people think he is a captain, his outfit is that impressive.  We tease him about it a lot. He’s used to being teased – about being short, about having hair that looks like Elvis, and about being a Nicaraguan adopted into an Anglo family, a situation he shared with his sister. The two of them could have been twins but they weren’t.

Rosa was waiting for us in the parking lot. She wore a long, sleeveless, flowered dress with a white wrap around her shoulders and she was lovely. She was always lovely, with her black hair and dark eyes, red lipstick, and big silver hoop earrings. She had a way of shining, well, they both did. We had children who were more good looking that we probably deserved.

We all hugged in the parking lot and walked to the outdoor entrance of Uncle Harry’s where we waited in line while people in front of us were being seated. When it was our turn, the hostess pointed us to a picnic table right along the river. It couldn’t have been a better spot. We’d scored the perfect table for Rosa’s birthday. My husband led the way and I followed.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I turned around to see who had asked the question and of whom.

“With them,” Rosa answered, gesturing to her dad and me just a few yards away. In that second, her back stiffened and what was loose and happy became wound tight. She grabbed one end of her wrap, flicked it around her shoulder and walked after us. Her brother, held up by the same question, just quietly shook his head. We all sat down at the picnic table. Not trusting my own hearing, I asked her to tell me what the hostess had said. “She said, Mother, she said, WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?” People at other tables turned to look.

It wasn’t the first time that someone failed to connect us as a family. It had happened from the beginning. We kept a big file of stories starting with women at a Florida beach loudly worrying that our brown toddlers had been left alone while we were sitting within a few yards of them to teachers at school assuming I was their social worker instead of their mother. We laughed about those things, people making honest mistakes that we felt came from their not seeing very many families like ours. We tried not to take offense or to teach our kids to be offended at every turn. There were a lot of turns in their growing up; they couldn’t all be greeted with outrage.

But this was different. I mulled it over. If she thought Ted and Rosa weren’t with us, why couldn’t the hostess have said, “Can I help you?” Or “I’ll find you a table right away.” Why did she have to spit out, “Where do you think you’re going?” like they were sloppy drunks in bathing suits crashing a black-tie wedding? I looked over at the hostess, sitting on a stool talking to Harry, the owner, the king of laid-back, our town’s Jimmy Buffett.

Looking at them both joking and laughing, I couldn’t imagine walking over to lodge a complaint. They’d stop and stare at me, the hostess would deny it, my daughter would come over to argue, my husband and son would roll their eyes. It would go nowhere good. And it occurred to me, conveniently, that it wasn’t my complaint to make. After all, my kids were adults, I told myself. If they wanted to take it up with management, he was sitting in clear view. “It’s fine, Mom. It happens all the time. I’m used to it,” Rosa said. Ted nodded. “I just let it roll off my back,” he waved his hand. “You can’t get upset about everything that happens like that. Most of the time, I just pretend I don’t hear it.”

“Everything that happens like that?” How many dozens or hundreds of times had this happened to him that he had developed this reaction? It wasn’t the mistaking us as separate, it was the hostility that followed when the hostess thought they were there on their own. Somehow, apparently with a lot practice, my son had learned to shrug off such things, or so he said.

When the waiter came to take our orders, I heard the sharp edge in Rosa’s voice. She questioned him about the menu, what came with what, frowning at each answer. Finally, she settled on her order, her manner like that of royalty forced to dine at a Kansas truck stop. She examined each French fry before breaking it apart and eating it in small pieces, almost as if any bite might poison her. It seemed that years of practice had had a different effect on her.

She didn’t brighten until the end of dinner, after she put on her new earrings and we posed for pictures on the boardwalk next to a sparkling yacht. Looking at the four of us, the sun setting behind us, the light glittering on the water, you’d never know we’d been roiled by this casual insult. Now when I look at the photograph, I don’t remember how warm the night was or how happy we were to be together on Rosa’s birthday. I remember what the hostess said and I wish I had complained. I wish I had let myself be offended, not on her behalf, but on my own.

Where did she think she was going? She was going with us. We were together.

__________

Photo: Mike Giles

13 thoughts on “Poison

  1. A powerful post. I believe you should really write the manager of the restaurant to inform him of your experience. By not reacting it, you leave open the possibility it will happen again to someone else. You were traumatized by this as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I might but it happened a few years ago.It did really make me aware of how often we just went to ‘white’ places, never really thinking about the implications and not every really being conscious of the implicit bias that I know my kids felt. Life is one enormous, very long learning curve.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Jan. It helped me understand something I have no experience with. I abhor when people are treated badly – and am angry when people have to experience it over a lifetime. You raised very strong children.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They are all pretty tough cookies, that’s true. But I really wish they didn’t have to think about this stuff in their lives. It’s amazing how effortless it is to be white in America.

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  3. My son and DIL adopted 2 children, ‘N’ will be 10 next month, she’s an African American with Albinism, ‘W’ will be 8 in the fall, he’s African American. So far, the main thing I’ve observed is the LOOKS that have been coming since they were babies. My dread is what’s coming as they become teenagers and adults, especially now with the current people in power giving their supporters the go ahead for overt hatred of those who are different. Your story reinforces my dread. There is no way to protect our children or grandchildren from this hatred and that’s a heart crusher.

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    1. And I’m not sure how to prepare them except to talk about it. And we did talk about the regular stuff – but my kids went to a very diverse school, had diverse friends, etc. so they were pretty sheltered and then they became adults and things really changed. I think talking about it very honestly and openly and as a ‘team’ really helps. Good luck with your beautiful crew.

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  4. Paula lucey

    The about this is that it did not have to be your kids. It could have been that Ted and Rosa were the newly weds next door out to dinner with their neighbors, or co workers or any other combination. Milwaukee has a long way to go!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I deal with this all the time with my kids. There is a battle internally whether to be momma bear and make a statement or let it be. Both kids do not want me fighting the good fight. They are embarrassed and do not want to stand out even more in their books. I have to hold back tremendously not to say anything. It takes every fiber of my being to do so. But as the kids are adults I must relent to some degree to comply with their wishes. It’s hard being me then…

    Liked by 3 people

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