THIS AFTERNOON I found myself getting all teary eyed. I was playing the 1988 Dianne Reeves song “Better Days” for my two and a half year old son Julien. It’s the song that begins”
“Silver gray hair neatly combed in place.
There were four generations of love on her face.
She was so wise, no surprise passed her eyes…”
Sometimes referred to as “The Grandma Song,” this tune about her grandmother’s last years is way too sentimental for my tastes, but somehow Reeves sings the sappiness right out of the joint. Or at any rate, she sings it so well that I don’t care anymore, and I let loose with exactly the sort of feeling the song means to convey. In other words, listening to “Better Days” almost always gets me teary eyed—or worse; and halfway through the song this afternoon I was about to take that emotional turn for the worse.
Just a little earlier, Julien and I had left Maggie and Heather at the Royal Horseshoe Farm over on Morgan Ford Road toward the edge of Front Royal, the small town where we live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Maggie—Heather’s and my nine-year old daughter—was there for her classmate Annalee’s birthday, and I was considering staying at the party with her and Heather. Which, I must say, was kind of odd.
We’ve been to some of Annalee’s previous parties, and though her parents have always been friendly, a good number of their friends and relatives were another story. Unlike Annalee’s parents, they weren’t the sort to extend their southern hospitality to strangers – especially not a mixed couple like Heather and me.
At the last party, many of them refused even to acknowledge us the entire time. I recognized one young woman as the clerk behind the counter the one time I took Maggie to the local ice cream shop. It was one of the situations where I open the front door of a place, everyone’s smiling and laughing until they take a look at me, standing in the entrance looking, to them, like an uppity foreigner, an illegal alien, or maybe even a terrorist. Whatever it was they saw in Maggie and me, it made them turn completely silent.
Sometimes it’s hard to decide which is worse—when they refuse to look at you because they don’t want to acknowledge your existence, your presence, in what they believe is a world that should belong only to them; or when they do look at you, and look at you with the purpose of sending the message that you don’t belong here and that you’re an intruder who better watch his fucking step. One might think, at first, that invisibility is always preferable, because it precludes the possibility that acts of violence may be taken against you.
But there’s a part of me that prefers for them to see me, even if it’s just to glare at me, to give me the look that says You ain’t one of us, motherfucker. Because even though there’s real danger here—these are people who believe in their guns and who think violence is a good thing—there’s something less existentially distressing in being threatened than in being invisible, which just occurred again to me recently.
It was a morning that began pleasantly enough, walking with Julien in his stroller through the farmer’s market at the gazebo down on Main Street when this older woman with white hair saw me and greeted me. “Jose,” she said, “I know you don’t remember me, but I know you from one of the poetry readings you did here a while back.” It had been a few years since Heather and I had done any readings here in town, but still I was impressed that this older woman had a better memory than me.
She led me into a stall selling fruits and vegetables—exactly what I was looking for. Maggie was having some friends over later that day for a sleepover celebrating her tenth birthday, and besides the usual birthday cake, she wanted a few healthier things as well.
Julien and I stood before the vendor’s table as the white-haired woman introduced me to the vendor, a slightly younger woman. “This is Jose Padua,” the white-haired woman said. “He’s a local poet.” Then she introduced the vendor to me saying, “This is Celia – she’s one of those organic farmers.” The entire time the white-haired woman tried to introduce us, Celia, the vendor, never once looked at me.
After a moment, she finally lifted her hand in greeting. I lifted my hand in turn and said, “Hello.” She wasn’t waving at me though, but at a woman on the grass outside the stall behind me. I was standing in front of her, yet the vendor hurried this other person in and started helping her. I remained there before Celia, the vendor, and she continued to blatantly – dare I say, even aggressively – ignore me. The white-haired lady turned silent. A puzzled, embarrassed look came over her face. I turned Julien’s stroller around and headed straight out of the farmer’s market.
This happens in one way or another any time I go out here in my town, with its vestiges of the old South. It’s why, sometimes, I choose not to go out. There are days when, in the evening, I realize all I’ve done is take Maggie to school and pick her up again; days when I realize that I haven’t really stepped out of the house and interacted with the community around me (which is what I’d do everyday without giving it a thought when I lived in the city). At the end of these days, I think, “Oh, maybe I should go out for a walk.” But so much of the time I don’t because it isn’t fun, it isn’t relaxing, and it isn’t worth the sick feeling I get—and have never gotten used to—even though I’ve felt it so many times. And, I refuse to get used to it.
And though it’s true that with invisibility there’s no single cataclysmic act perpetrated against you—no goon with a gun “standing his ground” in your face—what you do experience over the course of time are hundreds and hundreds of tiny deaths, each of which begs this distressing question: “Yes, I am alive—but do I exist?” I know that there’s a difference between feeling dead and actually being dead—but these tiny deaths do their own kind of damage. Who’s to say that, like smoking cigarettes for instance, they don’t also shave a few years off of one’s life?
The last time we went to one of Annalee’s birthday parties a couple years ago, I did an experiment: I tried to make myself visible (and to have a little fun in the middle of a stressful social situation). A young, good-ole-boy sort in a Confederate flag t-shirt at the party had been sitting back, looking relaxed and comfortable—the opposite of how Heather and I felt—holding his cup of punch. He turned his head to follow a conversation on the other side of the room, and I caught his eye – and smiled. Not a pose or a smirk, but a genuine smile and nod that was meant to say something along the lines of, Hey, it’s cool. But, he just tensed up and turned away silently, though it looked as if had this not been a children’s party, he’d have kept my eye contact just to say, “What the fuck are you looking at, asshole?”
I imagine what killed his mood was my presence reminding him that, no, he wasn’t living in a world like that of the Confederacy celebrated on his t-shirt. A world where anyone who wasn’t white was either invisible or taking orders. A world where privilege belonged to him and people like him and nobody else. I imagined that because, well, am I actually supposed to buy that line about displaying the Confederate Flag simply celebrates some shared heritage? Because no, more than anything, it celebrates something they don’t want to share. They don’t want to include me – or my family.
I tried again with a few of the other guests, but no one else at that party made the same mistake the Confederate t-shirt guy did of acknowledging my presence with the least bit of eye contact. Still, despite the way that last birthday party went, I’d intended to stay today. Annalee’s parents are actually kind of funny, and at the end of one of those weeks when I’d been inside most of the time, I was ready to get out of the house. The Royal Horseshoe Farm, where the party was, has two pool tables and a decent sized swimming pool, plus a few other parents from Maggie’s school who I knew were okay were there. Julien, though, looked like he’d be a little hard to control. He kept grabbing pool balls, and I could picture him flinging one at the wrong person, after which there’d be shouting and grimacing and the turning of heads to go along with the sort of acknowledging of my presence I wasn’t prepared for. So, I took Julien home and left Heather and Maggie.
One problem, though, was that a fierce thunderstorm had just begun. We waited for it to ease up and dashed for the car. Back home, we were listening to the Dianne Reeves song, and Heather called to see if we made it back all right. But, she also was calling because Maggie had heard some fire trucks near the bridge and worried Julien and me might have been in danger. She’d insisted Heather call. It’s this neurotic, obsessive worrying I have in my genes that I passed on to Maggie, along with her status as a smart, beautiful half-breed girl.
Afterwards I started thinking about the low-water bridge we’d crossed on Morgan Ford Road. It seems that at least once a year someone perishes trying to cross it during a flood – someone who’s in a hurry or someone, who, in the dark, can’t see how treacherous the water is. The farm is just a mile south of it, and it occurred to me that one of the things I’d never gotten around to showing my dad here in the valley was a low water bridge – the narrow one-lane concrete bridges we have around here that are lined with gaping potholes and just barely rise above the waters of the Shenandoah. The first time we saw one we weren’t sure that we could actually drive across it.
I must have been glancing at the family portrait in our dining room—the last family portrait we had done while my dad was alive – as “Better Days” was playing. I started to think how rather than being afraid of the bridge like me and Heather, he’d actually have gotten a kick out of it. If you can forget about the possibility that a low-water bridge may or may not be well tended or of sound structure, driving across one can be almost exhilarating. If you can ignore the bumps in the ride from the potholes, you can actually imagine that you’re sailing, smoothly, across the Shenandoah itself. And, I can imagine that, driving my Dad across, he would have looked out the window at the water, all around us and just a couple of feet below us, and let out a laugh – the sort of laugh he let out from time to time that was half surprise and half joy. It’s a laugh I wish I could have seen here, on the river.
After a couple of hours, Julien and I went back to pick up Heather and Maggie. I waited in the parking lot and called from the car; Annalee was still opening presents, but they’d be out in a little while. As we were waiting, a man who’d parked next to us walked up to his car and opened the door. After getting something from inside, he shut the door, but this time he locked it.
When Heather and Maggie came out, I asked them what they wanted to do – go home, or head the other way and get some dinner. After some thought, we decided it was late, and we’d better just grab something cheap on the north side of town. So, instead of heading south on Morgan Ford Road, we went north, toward the low-water bridge.
This is a photograph of the bridge from around 7:30 that evening, when the river was a Confederate flag, and we sailed over it, like brigands from the Northern provinces, telling stories about the old days.