I grew up in the Wykagyl area of New Rochelle, New York. There was a tennis club, a country club, a mini-mall, two lakes, and a few small parks all within our neighborhood. It was only missing a grocery store, a dry cleaners, and a bank. Wykagyl was the kind of neighborhood where people didn’t lock their cars at night.
Our backyard was large enough for my father to build my mother a cottage for her art. She created in paint, charcoal, and clay. My mother hung her art on the walls of the cottage along with pieces by her favorite artists: Basquiat, Keith Haring, Willem de Kooning, and Gordon Parks. Along with her art on the walls, stood her clay pieces in every room of the cottage. Some were bowls, some were abstract and some were figures.
Mrs. Francis used my mother’s charcoal and color pictures to create greeting cards she sold at boutiques and specialty stores around Westchester County. My mother said the money she made did not make her rich, but it was enough for her own bank account and to live a bohemian lifestyle.
When I was a kid, I didn’t know what bohemian meant and when I asked my mother she was so happy to pass on her knowledge.
“The bohemian lifestyle means I can be who I want to be without worrying that people are saying mean things about me.” She glanced at me, then back to the road.
“You think I don’t hear what the neighbors say about me,” as she jerked her head towards her window. We were pulling into our driveway. She turned off the car and turned to me.
“You know why you and I walk the neighborhood barefoot sometimes?”
I shook my head hanging on to her every word.
“Because I want you to understand those words they say about me are just words. When you are bohemian, you are free, and when you are free, you decide who you are.”
She stared at me for a few seconds and then said, “Did you know that the women in our family have had their own money for four generations?”
I shook my head at her again. Then she said,
“They were bohemians too.” I giggled at what she said because she was tickling me. She told me she never wanted me to change who I was because people didn’t like me. She wanted me to be bohemian. I tried to live that every day.
My father, although not the complete opposite of my mother, was not a Hippie Brown (My father’s nickname for my mother). He was an engineer at NYU and a professor and researcher at Iona College. My father wore a suit to work every day, didn’t own a pair of jeans, but he did have plenty of shoes. Although my father seemed embarrassed sometimes of my mother’s bohemian lifestyle, he also seemed to love the way she interacted with the world and complemented who he was.
My father was tall and muscular. His skin was a dark rich brown, and he had these light brown eyes that belonged to me. When he walked into a room, no one noticed him, but when you realized he was in the room, you could not believe you missed him. My mother was shorter, thicker, and the color of sand. Her eyes were dark, bright, and alive. You fell into them every time you talked to her. I didn’t realize until I was an adult the contrast I saw in my parents was not just their appearance, but their personalities. Disparity was love to me.
When you are a child, concepts do not always make sense to you or you do not realize what they are until you get older. When I watched my parents dancing in our living room to the Spinners, Van McCoy, the Four Tops, or Chic, I saw my parents being goofy and putting on a show for me and my brothers. We would all laugh and sing along to the songs.
When I was older, I remembered their dancing differently. My mother looked at my father with a smile that she never gave to me or my brothers. My father held my mother tight enough so she would not get away, and loose enough that she could move. Both memories allowed me to feel what they were to each other more than hear or see their love. I will always be grateful for that.
My parents and their love were my foundation, but they were not my house. That was my brothers. When my brothers were together, it would take people a minute for their brains to register what their eyes were seeing. Davis is five years older than me and looks exactly like my father, but his skin tone came from my mother. Keenan is four years older than me, also looks exactly like my father, but has my father’s skin tone. Both of them had my mother’s eyes. I’ve seen girls beat the shit out of each other over those eyes.
Davis was the smartest out of the three of us. Keenan and I had good grades, but Davis didn’t have to study like we did. Keenan was the athlete. He played baseball and basketball. Davis tried out but he wasn’t very good at baseball or basketball. He was a pretty good volleyball player though.
They were both my protectors, but Davis was the leader of us. Keenan was definitely his second and I was just a soldier. Both my brothers wanted to be teachers; Davis a professor and Keenan an elementary school teacher, but they loved cars. When they were both teenagers they worked in my uncle's auto shop during the summers. Seeing them work together, you would think they always loved each other as they do now. My parents suspected their similarities were the reason for the fighting.
My mom told me my brothers used to fight like strangers before I was born. My father said it could be the littlest thing that would set them off. My parents said they tried everything to stop them from fighting: they punished them, lectured them on the importance of family, spanked them. Nothing worked. She said after my birth, it was like they had signed a peace treaty. They still fought, but there were no physical fights. She said what she remembered most was not the lack of bloodshed between my brothers after I arrived, but the connection between the three of us.
“I remember the first time I realized what you and your brothers were to each other,” my mother said. “It was Spring break for your brothers. A lot of kids left town for the break so your brothers were home. I had not heard a sound from the three of you in about a ½ an hour. I knew something was wrong. There is always noise in this house. I thought maybe the three of you were in the backyard but you weren’t, I didn’t hear any movement upstairs, and the three of you wouldn’t leave without asking me. I walked into the playroom downstairs and I saw my babies sitting on the couch watching TV. You were about three years old, Davis had just turned eight, and Kennan was seven. Davis was on your left, holding your hand. You were in the middle sucking on that damn pacifier I couldn’t get you to give up. Your head was leaning on Kennan, who was on your right. You sat on the couch holding each other for an hour, watching TV, and laughing at cartoons. I would find the three of you sitting like that a lot. You didn’t do it all the time, but it was enough I knew it was something. I asked the boys about it, and they couldn’t tell me why they do it, they told me they just do.”
I don’t remember that day, but I do remember we were always together. Until I was about nine or 10 the three of us slept in the same room most nights. Now that I am older, I don’t know what my brothers were thinking. I can’t believe they didn’t want some privacy from their sister and each other.
Davis and Keenan were where I got my information, my comfort, shared my joy and my pain. They were my protectors, my confidants, and my teachers. They were my first love.
The five of us were not the extent of our family tree. My mother grew up in Chicago with four sisters, and my father grew up in Atlanta with five brothers. They were both the youngest child.
My maternal grandmother was a teacher, and my grandfather worked in a factory after his honorable discharge from the army. Their parents came from down South to Chicago after gaining their freedom. My paternal grandmother worked in a small dress shop in Atlanta, and my grandfather was a pilot in the air force. Their parents were slaves.
My maternal grandfather died soon after I was born. My grandmother used to tell me that he lived just long enough to see me and whisper things in my ear. After he died, my grandmother moved to Larchmont to be closer to us. My paternal grandparents never left Atlanta.
My grandparents were the head of our family and Nunu was the head of our house. The traveling my paternal grandparents did, you would think they were not in their 70’s and 80’s.
My maternal grandmother and my father had a running argument for years about how she lived. She had a home of her own in Larchmont, but she spent most of her time at our house. My father tried to convince her to move in with us and give up her house. She refused, and it always turned into an argument that my father always lost. Then when I was 10, she moved in with us. I never knew why.
My grandmother did not have favorites. Everyone thought I was her favorite, but that really was not the case. I am sure they thought I was the favorite because I helped my grandmother when she lost her sight. I was her closed caption for the world. But, my grandmother loved children and she treated each of her grandkids the same. She would spend weeks just visiting the grandkids on the East Coast. She would take my brothers out to lunch and I was not allowed to go. I did spend a lot of time with my grandmother and she was always asking for me, but it was not because I was her favorite. It was the pictures.
My grandmother and I looked at old pictures, and she would tell me these wonderful stories about her, her brothers, and her sisters. Every so often, while reminiscing, she would call me Holly. My mom told me that Nunu cried when she saw me for the first time and just kept saying Holly’s name, over and over again. Holly was dark brown with light brown eyes and long plaited braids. I looked so much like her, I remember thinking maybe these were not my father’s eyes.
Our house was where everyone came to meet up. Somehow most of my aunts and uncles lived on the East Coast. With aunts, uncles, children, husbands, wives, and great aunts and uncles and their children, we were 50 or 60 deep for the really big occasions and the family reunion. And they were all a part of me.
Each member of my family helped to create the outline for who I would become. That outline was strong and confident and there is no way I would be the woman I am now without any of them. They gave me the ability to open myself up. But, so many others filled me in. My real journey into my discovery started when I met her.