For Better or Worse
When my uncle Claude eventually passes away, he’ll leave behind an estate of remarkable wealth. He’s the only one of my father’s siblings that was able to retire before becoming eligible for AARP citizenship. It’s remarkable for me to think that for most of my life I’ve known my uncle as a shady real estate investor rather than the cheerful supervisor at the Palo Alto Main Post Office.
I recall that nearly 29 years ago, at Uncle Claude’s retirement party, my cousin Jennifer danced at his throne-like seat. At 10 years old, I had no concept of what interpretive dance meant. I only had some cursory knowledge of the structure of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. I had seen it as a passing background flotsam on PBS. I assumed Jennifer’s choice of flowing beige clothing meant “high art.” It didn’t seem to have the structure of what I saw on television. I noticed other older cousins grimacing if not stifling laughter under hands held over mouths. I remember Jennifer fixing a smile to her face the whole time, sometimes her eyes strained to keep up the expression of gratitude. My memory is foggy without a VHS tape of the performance and my interpretation of the meaning may be off.
“Thanks, Dad, for the nepotism that got me a well paying job at the Post Office!
Thank you for the finances to purchase my first home!
Thank you for making survival in this system a lot less bitter in its minute details!”
Money can’t buy happiness, but it can reduce the stress brought by worrying about the rent.
As far as I know, and to the chagrin of my two cousins and their children, Uncle Claude’s current wife, 20 years younger than him and a Chinese immigrant, stands to inherit his wealth. All of it. Our family talks around this subject seeing as we’re not very direct people. We’re Catholic and we love a good projection. We exchange whispers about how he traded a white Mormon wife aging in parity with him for someone that is his junior. Some snickered at his seemingly pragmatic decision to exploit a person he could leverage, extracting low-cost end-of-life care from her, and the stereotypes foisted upon Asian women by members of my American family make me cringe.
“Where’s the love in that?” my dad posed quizzically in that familiar and indirect way a few moments ago over the phone.
I didn’t know exactly what to say other than that’s who his older brother is. A Taurus that sees everything through a lens of a value quotient. Someone who used his racial ambiguity and ability to pass as non-Black to his strategic advantage. He has done this in a universal way, be it to address his professional, financial, personal or sexual concerns. Whatever it takes to be comfortable until the end, Uncle Claude will do it.
When I hear the conflicts that arise between my uncle and his wife, I circle back to his singular pursuit of having power over everyone and anyone. I listen as daily conversations drift into discussing how his failing body increases his dependence on others. He’s no longer able to bathe himself or choose his own food. He’s unable to have private conversations with relatives. He owns a Cadillac in his signature choice of Crimson that he’s never had the joy of driving. There’s nothing anyone outside of the marriage can do and I have little to no sympathy given the exploitative path that led to this situation.
“Well, you married her Claude,” my dad told his brother on a park bench 2 years ago after he threatened to divorce his wife for depositing him, dirty diapers and all, at a convalescent home.
My father is 10 ½ years younger than Claude. Due to a life of insecurity and stress, nevermind not accumulating the same level of wealth, he’s aging faster, becoming infirm at a quicker pace. Nonetheless, for the bulk of his life, my father has admired, if not blatantly been supported by, my uncle’s ability to exploit the cracks in the capitalist caste system. That narrative was so ingrained that it was odd for me to hear my dad break ranks this afternoon.
For once, my father chose some concept of love.
As I let my hair dry, my stomach growled. A window of opportunity presented itself but I refused it. I could’ve asked my father what he meant about “love.” I don’t think he’s ever told me what he thinks “love” is. In the shorthand that we develop with people over years, I assumed that in this case he meant mutual understanding, the reality of being seen where you are in life. Such virtues never have and never will anchor my uncle Claude’s (assumed to be) last marriage. Perhaps my dad meant that there’s no lust or sexuality there either. I haven’t seen much joy, recreation or humor in the marriage myself. The only joy I’ve heard of from my Uncle Claude over the last few months is that he was elated that my Cousin Monica made him a German Chocolate Cake for his 83rd birthday. Even then, it took a $50 bribe for her to do it. All of us are so annoyed by the bickering about their portfolio of rental properties that none of us that are vaccinated bothered to join him for a slice.
Cameras shot two albums’ worth of photos at my parents’ wedding. Some photos are Polaroids while others are more formal, probably shot on my godfather’s Pentax or some sort of SLR. An embroidered album holds the “professional” photography. The fashions, the cars taking up yards of concrete in the background, the hilarious wigs, it all looks as if the entire decade puked one sun drenched day in November of 1979, clearing the collective gut for soon-to-be 1980. One constant is that the autumn sun in this neck of California never fails to make the season and everyone trudging through it look good.
Those images represent a joy I rarely saw and somehow, I’m the belated result of this crescendo. The album filled with the “unprofessional” photography contains a Bic pen note to my father from my mother. It’s written in her instantly recognizable combination print and cursive handwriting. My handwriting is very similar to hers.
Mr. & Mrs Larry Jones
November 10, 1979
Reception: Kelly Park
From: Your “Joy”
My mother met my father while working at a part-time after-school job at Raychem when she was 17. My father was 30 years old. He had been at Raychem since 1969. A production supervisor, he oversaw calendaring and allocation. My mother served as a clerk in another department. She brought him printouts for calendaring.
There are plenty of times that I’ve been bothered by age differences in romantic relationships. I flatly refuse to date anyone more than seven years on either side of my calendar age. A “Saturn Square” functions as a boundary that I refuse to cross. There have been plenty of times that I’ve mock-barfed at relationships that started in the workplace, most likely because I’m the radioactive byproduct of both of these dynamics.
I probably didn’t push further about my father’s definition of love because I didn’t want to turn my stomach while hungry. Last week, I had to remind him that for years, my mother was a victim of sexual assault perpetrated by her step-grandfather Walter. My dad knew this information then but still has to be reminded that it’s a critical part of his ex-wife’s personal fabric now.
I get that 42 years ago, no one, especially marginalized people, openly dealt with the aftermath of assaults. There were enough assaults on one’s personage surviving in the segregated, oppressive society just outside your front door. The best my mother got was a therapist who prescribed her valium to ease her anxieties and nightmares. The same religion that provided her comfort also built the church where Walter served as deacon.
No wall separates horror from one’s day of rest when perpetrators occupy positions of power every waking Sunday. Worse yet is when they continue to sleep down the hall from you. My great grandmother didn’t divorce Walter, in part because what would she have done financially as a Black woman with an 8th grade education in her 50s? The other half would have to guiltily admit that she let the harm happen again and again.
My grandmother Anne also married at 18, pregnant with my mother, for the exact same reasons. Instead of rectifying the situation in 1961 by creating a boundary, she drank away any awareness that history was repeating itself. I look at how uneasy my grandmother was in those photos, all too knowing of cycles. I notice that the only moment when my mother looks uneasy is when she’s being walked down the aisle by Walter. My mom was on the track team in high school and in those 4 photos she leans forward, ready to sprint to the altar as if maybe, on the other side, life will get better.
“I thought I could fix it, I thought that I could protect her. But I didn’t stand up for her”
My dad spoke these words in an almost comical tone, one that evoked the hubris of a knight in shining armor riding in on a white horse. If he were more me, the statement would’ve been followed by a mocking rendition of Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time.” He’s still a heterosexual(ish) man tho. He doesn’t ride the same rail of gallows humor that I do. Nonetheless, I laugh-cringe at my father’s physicality, especially in 1979, as he’s pictured looking off in the distance, imagining himself a superhero spreading love-will-heal-all-wounds via the sacrament of marriage.
150lbs soaking wet
“Your dad looks like the Mr. Bean of Sammy Davis Juniors.”
I remind myself that he barely dated in the aftermath of his divorce nearly 30 years later. What experience does he truly have? Little did he know the power of vulnerability until his own body started to fail, until the walls and possessions he gathered in admiration of his brother became obstacles to his survival. He didn’t procure enough money and property to enslave someone through the institution of marriage. He’s been made vulnerable enough to be given sponge baths by male nurses, a duty for which his brother acquired an overwhelmed wife who’s already caring for her own aging and mentally ill family. He’s had to accept that I can function as a team of support, but not the be be-all-end-all of his care.
He’s found joy in reconnecting with neighbors’ children who help to mow the lawn. Found that comfort of a full stomach. An older aunt in-law still spry enough to fry chicken dinners and simmer greens on Sundays brings him over a plate. He still worries about me, pushing 40, finding someone. Fewer millennials are choosing marriage. He finds that troubling. I tell him that marriage equality didn’t solve societal inequities specific to queers, reminding him it’s not as “straightforward” for me.
It’ll be a long time before I discuss with him the headaches of dating cis-men with egos more inflated than his or Uncle Claude’s but with even fewer life skills. He knows how to do laundry. He can still scramble his own eggs in a pinch. There’s plenty of time as In The Heat of The Night plays in the background. While I do his weekly meal prep, we can talk about how I’ll have my pick of the couples that split after the year-long forced cohabitation has proven just how many relationships were past their sell-by date.
I don’t have to ask him what he meant about “Where’s the love in that?” since he’s been forced to deal with the finite boundaries of life. He’s learning to embrace that this phase of survival takes communication and boundaries. I just have to be observant in order to understand, finally, what he means by love. I listen to him describe who and what he loves. He’s learning, perhaps for the first time, that it takes a village to find the love all around you.
Time Capsule or actual human being, who knows. Laurence Jones has been sifting through ephemera of the past seemingly forever, spinning vinyl for you, taking film photography and entertaining you with instagram posts of the decrepit old cars they own. You can find previous writing by them at djlarsupreme.com and medium.com