Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

A Short Story from a Family Memoir

By Natasha Lewis

 

I get handed a phone, without knowing who is on the other line.

Me: Hello?

Person on the other line: Hi Natasha!

Me: …..Um, hi……..

Person on the other line: My mum has told me lots about you. I here we look just alike and we share the same birthday!

Me: Huh?…(awkward look on my face)

Person on the other line: Do you know who this is?

Me: ………………..

Person on the other line: Well, I’m your Dad, Eric!

Me: Gasp!

Person on the other line: Well listen, I want you to come and visit me in London for Christmas. I’ve already bought the ticket, I just need you to get on the plane.

Me: (Thinking to myself: What the HELL! Seriously dude, we literally just met and you want me to visit? Why can’t you get on that plane and visit me!?)

Person on the other line: Are you still there?

Me: Yeah (rolling my eyes) ok, I guess.

 

 

I have never spoken, seen or met my father until I was 16 years old. I’ve always lived with a big family, so there was no time to wonder who’s missing. Everyone that I needed was right there. But normally, from time to time, every fatherless child wonders who he is and why isn’t he in their lives.  For reasons unknown, my mom never mentioned him to me.

Growing up in my family, the unspoken rule is to not ask questions. I had no clue who my dad was, but I never asked. But that was just the problem. Why keep something so important from your child? That thought quickly vanished when I realized that my mom played both “mom and dad” role to me and my three younger siblings.

It’s not that I lived in a society where all my friends had both Mom and Dad at home, but who cares? I longed for a Daddy. For those who lived in a single parent home, at least they knew who their father was. In my case, I had neither.

Of course, questions would be asked like:

Where is your dad from?

Me: “I don’t know.”

Where does he live?

Me: “I don’t know.”

Who do you look like more, your mom or dad?

Me: “My…mom??” (By default, because, also, don’t know what my Dad looks like).

By the age of thirteen, I became a pro at answering those questions.

My dad’s name is John.

He’s from New York.

He builds houses for a living.

The blanks would have different answers each time, depending on who’s asking. I’d tell them that I’m a mixture of both parents. I’d become more sad each time “those” types of conversations ended, wishing I really knew and didn’t have to pretend.

The house that I grew up in Miami was HUGE. White, beautiful, enormous backyard, eat-in-kitchen, large living and dining room. It was the house that all of my family lived in for about eight years.

All 13 of us fit into this large three bedroom ranch. More so, it was the house that kept all of my secrets. Whenever I got lonely, which was often, I’d daydream about my dad. I’d go outside and vent to my backyard, the birds, snakes, butterflies, lizards and iguanas that lived there. Sometimes, I would hear them telling me that everything was going to be just fine.

In that house, I’ll call her Big White, there was no authoritative male figure. My grandma held it down. She was the “king” of the house, and everyone was her subject. If ever we wanted to go outside and play, it was all up to her. If she said no, there was no daddy to plead and beg for him to change her mind. We were forced to either comply or sneak out at our own risk.

Mom, as we all called her, was working on getting a house in New York. So, when she left, the chaos began. The older siblings were now in charge of keeping the house in order. This caused tension because the younger ones’ philosophy was “when the cat’s away, the mice play.” Tension turned into arguments, and arguments turned into physical fights. No one was there to be the voice of reason. Nope. No father or authoritative male figure. Us younger ones quickly learned to listen to our “elders,” which meant that my uncles, who we’re only two and three years older than me were my “elders.” And being that at the time, they were ten and eleven years old, they would abuse their authority. Telling me to wash the dishes or else!

Usually, I would run to my mom to rescue me, but when she wasn’t there, I had no hope. In my anger, I would shout “I don’t hafta lissen to you–You’re not my mother or father!” to my shame they’d chuckle “Call your father. Oh that’s right–you don’t have a father!! Now do the dishes.”

When I was about 10 years old, I came home from church to a frantic house. My mom was packing and my aunts and uncles were running around with bags of clothes in their hands. I heard the echoes of questions from one sister to the next “What are we gonna do?” Suddenly, three or four white men knocked on the door of BigWhite, waiting to be let in.

Once my mom opened the door, one of the men started to take our door knob apart, another handed my aunt a slip of paper and immediately began moving our furniture and personal items to the backyard. “What’s going on?” I thought, too scared to ask my uncles and aunts, they were either mad or crying.  

Before I knew it, my mom made arrangements for me to stay by my pastor’s house, which was on the next block. No one told me what was happening. I just cried and hoped that it’ll all be over in the morning.

I wish I could be venting in my backyard, but it’s all being filled with stuff. I needed someone to hold me, to lift me up and kiss me on my forehead, and tell me that everything was going to be alright. I needed someone to protect me from the strange white men who were invading my house. I needed someone to set my uncles straight when they bothered me. “WHERE ARE YOU, FATHER???? AND WHY DON’T YOU CARE ENOUGH TO RESCUE ME!!? I began to cry, Why don’t you love me? Why don’t you ever visit me? Why doesn’t mommy tell me about you? Why are you such a mystery?” I was on a roller-coaster of emotions, as I drifted off to dreamland.

The next morning I woke up, I had breakfast with my pastors and my Mom came to pick me up. There were heavy drops of rain outside, just right for the mood, and when I got into the car, I joined my aunt, two younger sisters and my youngest cousin, Sarah. It was a tight squeeze, but I figured since we lived on the next block, the ride should only take a minute or so.

As we drove, I could see my backyard just before we’d have to make that left turn to our block. I was shocked at what I saw! All of our belongings: furniture, tons of clothes, kitchen table, and mattresses were still outside, and now soaked by the terrestrial rain!

To make matters worse, instead of making the usual left turn to go home, Mommy turned right. “Where are we going?” I asked shyly, trying not to annoy Mommy. “We’re going to Aunt Lane’s house,” she whispered, as if she was keeping a secret from Big White. In my mind, I thought we’d visit my aunt’s house in Ft. Lauderdale for a few hours then head back to clean up the mess in the backyard. But that was the very last time I saw the big, beautiful white house.

After staying by my Aunt Lane’s house for a couple of weeks, we packed up the car and headed back to Miami. We drove for about two hours and parked our car in front of this small duplex. It was so scary-looking. The grass was dry, super high and needed to be cut and treated. It looked nothing like the lawn at Big White. Her grass was always green and lustrous. From the outside of this small duplex, it looked like an abandoned place where drug dealers met and did business.

I had no clue what we were there for. Mommy took a deep breath and asked us to help unload the car and to bring our stuff into the apartment. We complied. When she opened the door to the duplex, I was terrified at how it looked. It was as if someone started to build it and then changed their mind. There was dust and rocks everywhere on the floor, spider webs, and what was supposed to be a kitchen had an old counter-less sink and a rusty-looking stove. And it didn’t have a refrigerator.

The windows around the house were foggy, the air inside was thick. I was getting sick to my stomach just standing in the doorway. This house was extremely small compared to Big White. I could see where the apartment ended just from the doorway. Mommy never told us this was going to be our new home, she never disclosed information willingly.

We just began to clean up and took it one day at a time. I resorted to daydreaming whenever I needed to escape the harsh reality. I daydreamed that this new home turned into a mansion. That one day I’ll have my own room with colors and a waterbed. We lived right across the street from a horse ranch, so I dreamed that I would own a horse and he would live in my backyard. That Daddy would come and make Mommy happy because she didn’t look happy nowadays. My daydreams were about where I wanted to live, not here in this room-sized apartment with rocks on the floor.

Mommy had no money to afford food, so she relied on my sister’s father to bring us a meal every night. Sometimes, he came through and sometimes he’d “forget.” For the first couple of months, we survived on canned foods. Sometimes mommy wouldn’t eat, just to save food for us for the next day. There were six of us living in that two small bedroom apartment: Mommy, me, my two sisters, and my uncle and aunt, which were my mom’s two younger siblings.

One day, while I was still unpacking and sorting through rubble of bags, I found a picture that would totally change my life. As I held up this picture, tears began to puzzle their way down my face. “Am I holding the answers to all my questions? Was it that easy?” I asked myself. It was a picture of three people: my Mom, some guy to the right of her, and me in the middle. The picture was in good condition, so I knew I wasn’t making this up.

I must have been around three or four years old in the picture. Honestly, I don’t remember taking it. Could this man actually be my father? I quickly flipped the photo hoping there would be a description of who he was, but it was left blank. I didn’t care ‘though, I was just freaking happy to see what my father looked like. I quickly shoved the picture in my pocket and kept it my little secret.

Fearing disappointment, I didn’t bother to confirm with mommy if the man in the picture was my father. This picture was worth everything to me. It was the proof that I had a dad and that, once upon a time, we looked like a happy family.

Finally, when my friends asked who my father was, I would have something to show them. Of course, I would still make up stories about why he wasn’t living with us and what he does for a living. But for now, the picture gave me hope. It now added a face to my daydreams. “Maybe something happened to him and mommy was too afraid to tell me? I’m glad that he actually knows me…..maybe he’d come find me again….maybe we could take another picture like the one I found, we would have to include my two younger sisters, though….I’m sure he wouldn’t mind….” as I drifted off to dreamland.

Mommy has a way of turning trash into treasure. In what seemed like a couple of months, she got a job and started to pick up where the builders left off. She began to beautify our apartment. From sheetrock to separate the living room from her room, to buying a couch, TV set, stereo system, a modern square glass kitchen table with fancy round pleather chairs, a refrigerator, and last but not least, a pair of noisy parakeets.

It was beginning to feel like a home now, still nothing like Big White, but at least I was able to invite friends over. In fact, they’d come over and rave about the decor of the apartment, the parakeets were a big attraction. No one else had exotic birds in their house, ha! That gave me a boost of confidence to now call this apartment my “new” home.

My aunt and uncle moved to New York to be with my grandmother, so that left just Mommy, me and my two younger sisters in the apartment. Mommy worked at nights, I didn’t know exactly where she worked, because again, If I didn’t ask, she didn’t tell.

I was only eleven years old at the time, but I don’t remember ever of being afraid of being alone with my sisters at night. Every night, I would routinely lock the front door after she left, get my sisters and go into her room, lock that door, and stayed there until the next morning. We would usually keep the TV and lamp on just for comfort.

In the mornings, Mommy would come home around 7:30, cook breakfast, get my sisters dressed for daycare and I’d get ready for middle school. After everyone was ready, she’d send us off.  Morning drop-offs were tough. Besides having to carry my backpack, I’d carry my two-year-old sister, Nann, on one side of my hips since she walked the slowest, along with her bookbag and lunch. Then my five-year-old sister Ella would get tired of holding her backpack, so I’d swing it on top of my free arm. Ella was still young, so I had to always hold her hand when crossing the street and often pulled her to walk up when she slowed down.

Nann’s daycare was about seven blocks away, and Ella’s was much further away. After the drop-off,  I’d had to run a couple more blocks to catch the transfer bus to school. Sometimes, I wished that my sisters’ father was more involved in their lives. He had a truck, it would’ve made life so much easier for us all. But Mommy wasn’t the one to wait on anyone to do favors for her, she’d rather do it herself, even if it killed her.

Getting through middle school was boring. Everyone had a boyfriend or a girlfriend. I was usually the third, fifth or seventh wheel. Overtime, I became very insecure about my looks. Picture this: Twelve-year-old girl, about five feet-seven inches, crooked teeth, spaghetti legs, long feet, long fingers, flat butt, iron-board chest, the list could go on but I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination. I was never the one to wear my emotions on my sleeves, so I became pretty darn good at pretending everything was “great” with me.

In my weak moments, when all of my friends were occupied with their significant others, I’d deeply yearn for someone to hold and kiss me like my friends were doing with each other. I wanted someone to chase me around at recess and sneak kisses behind the seventh grade annex. Was I wrong to want this? No one told me about boys and how to deal with them or whether I could have a boyfriend or not. I was a hormonal wreck! Although I was content with the physical picture of my father, I now needed him in my life more now than ever before. I needed direction, guidance, and discipline. I wanted to be told “Don’t let me catch you talking to boys!”

Middle School was almost over and I was looking forward to the summer. Summers were usually laid back and fun. We had comfortably settled into the neighborhood and made great friends. Playing on the train tracks was one of my favorite pastimes. It gave me the rush and thrill that was lacking in other areas of my life. My friends and I usually took the tracks home because it was faster. We would walk directly on the tracks like a gymnast walked on a tightrope. When we saw the train in the distance, we would lay down in the middle, between the two tracks, close our eyes and listen as the train drew nearer to us. When it came too close for comfort, we’d jump up and dodge the passing train, screaming at the top of our lungs from the near death experience, leaving us completely breathless. Other days, we’d sneak into an apartment complex and jump in their private pool. The manager would find us and chase us out with a bat in his hand. We ran so fast, laughing at the old man’s attempt to catch us.

During the middle of the summer, around July, Mommy came home with a new car. It was a black Toyota Camry that sparkled with silver glitter as the sun shined on it. It was way better than that old brown and beige station wagon we had sitting in our driveway.  My sisters and I usually used it to play house.

I was surprised and super happy we got a new car. As a matter of fact, it was the best looking car on our block. So, not only did we have the best interior-decorated home, now we had a car to compliment it. “Had Mommy gotten a raise from her job?” I thought.  Wow, things were looking brighter for us.

The next morning, Mommy began to start packing. She packed up all of our clothes, well, most of it. She began to go around the apartment and throwing things out. I thought “she must be catching up on spring cleaning.” She went in the refrigerator and started to empty it. I was wondering what was going on, but I never asked. We spent that whole day packing and around evening, she told me that we we’re going to New York.

I was thrilled at the news! New York, my birth place, I hadn’t been back in years, now I get a chance to revisit my home town. I ran out the house and shared the good news with my friends. They asked how long we were staying, I told them we’ll be back before school started again. I was wrong. I would never see the duplex again.

Someone once told me that when you assume, you’ll make an ass of yourself. I, my friend, was an ass to think we were going on vacation. What happened next will again, traumatize me and change my life.

“Wake up, wake up” whispered my mother as she shook me. “Let’s go, we gotta go,” she said. My sisters were already in the packed car, still asleep. We took off driving in the wee hours of the morning. Mommy behind the steering wheel, me in the passenger seat and my two sisters laid down in the back. We drove in silence for hours until we were awakened by a loud thump.

Mommy had fallen asleep while driving. We swerved and landed in a shallow ditch. My sisters flew out of the seats and unto the floor. They began to cry, but Mommy shh’d them back to sleep. Water swelled up in my eyes, but I didn’t make a sound. I wanted Daddy here. I needed him to drive us to New York safely. Mommy was too tired from packing and working, how could she do the 18 hour drive by herself?

We didn’t have money to stay in a hotel overnight, so Mommy had me feed her grapes to help her stay up. She slowly pulled out of the ditch and drove into the parking lot of a hotel. We slept in the car and continued to make our way up north.

 

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

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