Truth is a big deal to me. Ask my daughter. One thing I can never tolerate is being lied to. I told her whatever she ever did or got herself into we could deal with, but I could not tolerate being lied to. Of course, as most kids do, she occasionally lied, but nothing of major consequence. I managed to not kill her. She was grateful. But seriously, don’t lie to me.
As an adult now, she understands why.
My mother grew up in the deep south, in the country outside of Brookhaven, Mississippi. She grew up on a farm, doing chores like milking cows and cleaning stalls from the time she was a child. She was the only girl with five brothers, growing up in the 1930s and ’40s. Her maiden name is Calcote, and I’ve always understood that we are somehow related to anyone named Calcote–at least in Mississippi. There are still swarms of them in the area today, where my parents have returned in their later life.
Thanks to the current access to DNA, we’ve learned that Mom’s family are the descendants of slave owners and slave traders. We are also descendants of soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and on the Confederate side of the Civil War.
I never really knew my grandparents, as I came along so late and they were old by the time I arrived on the scene. Pop-Pop died when I was just four years old. I have few memories of him, but one of them is riding with him in his green pickup truck out into the watermelon patch, where he loaded up the back with watermelons. I remember sitting in a circle with uncles, aunts and cousins in my Uncle David’s front yard, eating watermelon and boiled peanuts. I loved boiled peanuts. When I was an adult and feeling nostalgic, I boiled some roasted peanuts from the store. It didn’t work. What can I say? I grew up in Jersey.
My only memories of Mom-Mom are of the time after she’d begun to get what we called “senile” back then. Most of my memories are of visiting her in the nursing home when she called me by my niece’s name. But I heard some stories about that rugged, tiny lady from my mother. Stories about a tough little woman who raised five boys and one girl and dealt with a husband who drank too much. I’ve heard about her bracing her little body against the storm cellar door during a tornado.
She passed her toughness on to her daughter. Growing up on a farm with five brothers was no small challenge, I’m sure, along with a father who was scary when he came home drunk. My mother befriended a sharecropper woman on their property, with whom she shared all the dreams and questions she couldn’t share with her own mother. Mom dreamed of becoming a missionary someday in a foreign country. She was the first in her family to go to college. She began at a local women’s college in MS, but then went on to Asbury College in Kentucky–over 600 miles from home.
My mother always had a deep, passionate faith in Christ. She nurtured that faith at her small rural New Hope Methodist Church, and out in nature, among the trees, fields and country roads of her childhood. When I was a child she told me stories of growing up on the farm, seeing life and death among the animals, doing the dirty work of a farm. Mom never shied away from physical work. She’s always been somewhat sheltered and quiet, so it must have taken quite a bit of courage and faith to go 600 miles away from home.
She tells the story of standing in line waiting to register for classes when a couple of college officials ushered in this darker skinned international student with a funny accent and took him to the front of the line. She remembers thinking, who is he that he gets special treatment? It happened to be her future husband.
My father’s pre-American life was always a mystery in our family. He never talked much about it, offering only tidbits of stories here and there. He was born and raised in an area near Bombay (now Mumbai), India. He was the youngest of 11 children, 5 of whom died in childhood. His father died at the age of 57 when my father was only 14, forcing my grandmother to go to work full-time. My father often had to stay with his older brother Trevor, and was mostly mothered by his older sister Cynthia.
Amidst the mystery, we came to understand that Rollo, my father, was a British citizen with some Indian blood in him. That’s the brief bio I went with all my life. His accent seemed British to our American ears and to that of his curious parishioners. Rollo has a perpetual tan and black hair, so it was clear to anyone who met him that he was “not from around here.” I never met Mom-Mom Michael. She came to the U.S. only once, in 1963, before I was born, and I’ve never been to India. Pictures of her show a very Indian looking woman, but according to my father, she hated all things Indian and embraced all things British.
I never really knew Rollo’s side of the family. Whereas we visited Mississippi every summer where I got to visit with aunts, uncles and cousins, I only met two of my uncles on Dad’s side, and only once or twice. The closest one lived in Canada, the rest were scattered in England and Australia. I only knew of my two cousins in Canada who came to visit us in New Jersey with their parents.
Wherever my father went, he described himself as a citizen of the British empire, an English subject. The Michael branches of our family tree were very shaded and mysterious, and after a while we stopped asking for details. However, a few years ago, my brother Stan gave Dad a DNA test. Around the same time, I discovered my cousin Peter– Uncle Trevor’s son– on Facebook, who lives with his wife Sylvia in England. They connected me with another cousin in Switzerland. Both cousins started to fill in a lot of gaps in the Michael story.
The jig was up. My grandmother Michael was a full-blooded Indian, which seemed evident to me in her pictures. Pictures of my grandfather, whose DNA is more complicated, reveals a very Indian-looking man, wearing Indian clothes. My father was not, in fact, a citizen of Great Britain, but a citizen of the Commonwealth of India. His passport was Indian. My cousin Peter told me about his father, my Uncle Trevor, and about my other aunts and uncles and cousins. Peter also grew up in the area of India near my grandmother, and Sylvia says that when he arrived in England he had an Indian accent. After spending most of his life in England, now, he sounds more British.
My father would have arrived in the United States with an Indian accent in 1949, but since he told the story that he was in fact, British, we have wondered if, while on that ship crossing the sea from India to New York, if he in fact, developed a more British sounding accent to back up his new biography? We can’t know for sure, but he would not have had a British accent in India.
It has always been important to my father NOT to be associated with “the natives.” He uses that phrase a lot when speaking of people whom he calls “sub-cultural,” who are usually rural people of any area. When he arrived in Mississippi in 1950 as Margaret Calcote’s fiance– well, dang it, they thought she’d brought home a “black man.” And in 1950-Southern Mississippi, that was not a positive thing. But my grandfather, sober by that time on his own volition, decided not to run him off. I’ve been told that was quite the miracle.
My father doesn’t claim to not have known that he had more Indian blood in his veins than he claimed for so many decades. Nor does he explain why he told us a different story all those years. However, it does disturb him to have it in an official, non-disputable report. Blood doesn’t lie. When we talk about it, he gets angry. I stopped thinking years ago, that it was in fact weird that I didn’t know what cousins I had on my father’s side. It was just part of our story. We, like we often did, adjusted to what was. When “Rollo’s nephew Mel” came to New Jersey to visit him, it never occurred to me that he was in fact my cousin, nor did anyone introduce us as cousins. He didn’t interact with me at all, as happened with the uncles and aunts that I’d met on Rollo’s side, so I got used to not being included in the equation.
It was part of my growing identity as the Invisible Girl, an observer of all that went on in and around me, without interacting a lot with it. I didn’t think of myself as part of these strange people from other countries. They were Rollo’s connections, and I didn’t always feel connected to the important man in the suit and tie, who sat on the green vinyl throne in the evenings, who delivered psychology lectures at my dinner table and picked apart my soul like a biology experiment. He was important, he was Other, he was “Dr. Michael.” I was just a little girl whose teachers wrote “too quiet, too shy” on my report cards. A little girl who couldn’t make her mother come out of the bathroom or do anything important enough to make my father notice.
I was “just a girl.” It was like being a “native.”