(The IMPACT series will be a non-fictional retelling of the people and events that have made a mark on my life)
I saw a picture of my Uncle John, looking “sharp” in his tuxedo, posted on Facebook. Call it my propensity for melancholy but when I see pictures, my mind plays a black-and-white reel or virtual dreamscape of the person and events that I recall best about them. That emotion was stirred when I saw the picture of my Uncle John but no memory of him is complete without my Aunt Desiree because as my daughter would say, they are a “battery pack”.
John and Desiree had this “deluxe apartment in the sky-y-y “on Ocean Avenue that was fancy. They were child free and pretty much living the life that married people without children should be living. All these years later, I theorize this as part of their success as a married couple—they enjoyed their lives together before bringing on the natural stress of parenting together. They ultimately went on to have two children that they dote on to this day. Both of their children have “D” names because my Aunt Des is a diva and my Uncle John loves her—at least that’s what I thought in my younger years because I wondered why and rather than ask them I assumed this was the answer, and I liked it, but I digress, back to the apartment.
This apartment was fly, a testament of the yuppie, professional life that most blacks couldn’t realize back then, unless they moved to a progressive, northern city. There was furniture that was coordinated but comfortable throughout. I can still picture it: glass tables with sharp corners not built for toddling children, a large, color floor-model television with all of the cable channels, including HBO—big time in the 80’s, and a clear pane shower that I dreaded using because I’d watched Psycho one evening at their house when I should have been asleep. Top it all off with a pristine kitchen of glossy white counter tops teaming with sugary cereals and candy dishes overflowing with M&M’s and you might as well have given me Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, this was living!
My Uncle John had tennis rackets. He did. He had tennis rackets, he watched McEnroe and Connors and he tuned into CBS to watch a game that wasn’t exciting to my eight year old self because I didn’t understand it. He had tennis rackets that seemed out of place in the city of Brooklyn because I didn’t know any one that played outside of those privileged white guys in tiny white shorts on television. His jeans were pocket pleated, neatly creased and belted at the waist (work with me, it was on trend). His beard, closely trimmed and meticulously groomed, unlike the current Rick Ross nightmare beard that guys are sporting now and he had a wife that he was happy with. They were happy. And symbolic.
His partner, Aunt Desiree, was a fluffy Fashionista without peer, in my book. Her perfect shade of red lipstick was flawless and always on, her hair wrapped or set every night (before most chicks even knew what a wrap was), and her closet demonstrated that curvy and fierce was a must, not a maybe. I recall her gliding around the apartment on weekend mornings in a black velvet dressing robe that seemed so drag fabulous in a “lady of the manor” type of way that was neither pretentious nor practiced, it was just Desiree. Manicured talons, wide smile, boisterous laugh, mischievous sparkle in her eye and an outspoken way about her, there was no doubt why she was my Uncle’s chosen partner.
Desiree to me was substance and style. Symbolic. Even then, I understood that she knew what quality was on all levels. (I tell people that she is to blame for my Coach obsession, since she presented me with my first high end purse complete with dust cover, proper packaging and registration number–no Canal Street gifts from that chick.) More than just personality and interesting to me in a way that many adults were not, I loved when she was around because she was simply her. When she laughed at things I didn’t understand, loudly and with abandon, I wondered what my grandmother thought of this force of life. My calm, smooth, preacher’s wife of a grandmother with her southern gentility that the gritty city and D (or Q) service never did change was the opposite of this boisterous young woman but seemed to lover her none the less. Symbolic.
John and Dee had the type of relationship that the kid of divorced parents could only dream of. It was a fairytale. Symbolic. Young, hip, married people driving off to the Poconos for the weekend, hosting parties at their home, and working for well-known corporate entities. Sounds as good in 2013 as it did in 1985.
Why did all of this flood my mind when I saw the picture of my Uncle standing there in his tuxedo, being picked on by his son for his crooked bow tie? It reminded me of the understated ability of presence. Symbolic. Character without being a caricature. Symbolic. The importance of giving love and being loved in return. Symbolic. The power of demonstrated love. Symbolic
It reminded me that while black men have often been portrayed as thugs, the embodiment of menace II Society, lacking in character and restraint, this was far from the picture that I was being given as a kid. Sure, I knew drug dealers and the typical “bad seeds” of the neighborhood, but whom from Brooklyn doesn’t? What was more important was that I knew then and now, men of character.
It was symbolic that my life is inundated with parents who love their children, a far cry from the fatherless children and welfare mothers held up as the symbol of black life by politicians and card-carrying “real Americans” that feel more comfortable perpetuating this as the norm.
And while children today are being shown the limited scope of black family life: baby daddies, absentee fathers or mothers that are attempting to be the male and female figurehead in the home, I had a family unit that consisted of amazing representations of love. We had our own versions of Heathcliff & Claire Huxtable, many of which I will write about in the future, and our own successful versions of single parenthood when necessary.
Aunt Desiree’s example as an independent professional woman reminded me that Dr. Laura and the pundits have it wrong when they paint working mothers as the downfall of American society. She did all of this without the emasculation effect that many would leave you to believe a strong woman has on her husband.
When John & Desiree became parents, I saw a different side of them. I saw their phenomenal ability to connect with me when they were childless, transferred to their capacity to connect with and understand their own progeny. My Uncle John’s quiet strength and serious nature was necessary with my younger cousin Desmond who was ALWAYS “doing something” (he turned out just fine) and my Aunt Desiree’s self-assured, personal confidence allowed her to transfer a sense of power to my cousin Deandra, a necessity for any girl looking to lean in to today’s world. I often see my cousins posts—the only way to keep up with family that is now states away–and think, “what a great thing to have parents that have taught you that you are wonderfully able to be exactly who you were born to be, no apologies necessary.”
I am symbolically reminded me of two people who unconsciously gifted me with life lessons that would help me later on–although I was not theirs to be responsible for. They made me believe that it’s okay to seek the love that puts you first. They made me recall that you can create your own version of perfection without feeling selfish. I believed that they liked me when I felt unlikable and they never made me feel as though I should be “grateful” that people wanted me around. They were symbolic.
One picture of a man in a tuxedo with a smile on his face created this.
Soundtrack: The Show by Lenka