Chapter 2: Part I

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Before anyone knew about my trouble, my dad was the person I most feared facing. I was scared of how it would disgrace our family but mostly I was scared of his anger and what he would think of me because it crushed me when I got on the wrong side of Dad.

I didn’t particularly like hanging around home when I was a teen. Most kids are like that, but our house gradually took on an air of gloom after Mom got sick. She was in and out of the hospital with side effects from the drugs she took for her rheumatoid arthritis and my brother Jeff had gone away to college. Sometimes it was just me and Dad at the dinner table.  There was a code of acceptable conversation; if you had a good score on a test or got some kind of an award, that brought nods of enthusiastic approval, but if you were worried about a big paper coming up, or didn’t feel so hot, or were sad, you would hold that to yourself. I don’t think Dad’s radar picked up on emotional needs. If you accidentally steered the conversation in the direction of negative feelings, Dad’s lips would get thin and you knew you had struck a wrong note.

Dad’s emotional makeup had two extremes. On the one end he was jovial and excited– the life of the party.  If friends dropped by he would spurt with genuine exuberance and make a fuss; asking mom to set an extra place at the table, saying how good it was to see you. He had a way of swelling you up like a puff bird.

On the other end, he had a fiery temper. When something set him off, his body stiffened and his face got red and rigid. His voice could shatter glass. I never knew what was coming when his anger flared, but to me, it had the ominous potential of a hairline crack in a river dam.  When I was very small he took me over his knee and spanked my bareness. I don’t know what nasty thing I did to invoke this treatment but it might have been the time I pocketed some candy from the drug store. He didn’t hit me after I was school aged. This was the ‘spare the rod spoil the child era’ and parents thought it was their duty to give a whipping to keep us in line.  I tried desperately to refrain from invoking Dad’s anger. The best way to do that was to do what I was told.  During most of my young years I succeeded, but as a teen I veered off into combustible territory.

Mom and Dad had some bombastic fights that shook the marrow in my bones. Maybe it’s just a natural reaction or maybe I’m special, but I still quiver inside when someone around me yells or spouts anger directed at me.  My words get stuck in my throat. If I talk the tears flow, so I hold it in.  Then my silence makes me feel invisible, insignificant. This happens infrequently nowadays because most of the people around me control their anger or maybe it’s because I don’t piss them off as much.

My dad was over six feet tall and although he had a pot belly, his legs were quite thin, but you didn’t see that because he wore khaki pants that hung tight at the waist and then loose from there on down. Also, the commonly seen rounded buttocks that serves as a trouser stabilizer was absent in Dad. His body shape proved to be a hazard. I remember him working in the garage with both hands occupied when the pants would go.   Like a roller coaster rounding the top, there was no turning back.  He’d puff out, ‘sonofabitch’, stop what he was doing and with disgust, yank the khaki’s back up to cover his exposed boxers and beanpole legs. In his later life, suspenders saved Dad from this pesky embarrassment.

I found the pants falling amusing because in most areas Dad dripped with dignity and charisma. He could light up any party with his joke telling; a Pied Piper of sorts.  His charismatic skills worked for him in business, at social events, and on the lake.  He could charm a northern pike right onto his hook while others in the same boat were just swatting flies.

Chapter 2: Part II

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Dad didn’t like to leave the development of his prodigy to chance. His beatitudes were conveyed with regularity; we should strive to be business owners because, if you work for somebody else, you’ll never make any money; it’s our duty as a family to stick together because if one is down, the others can help him back up; always give careful consideration to a task and find the most efficient, time saving method, be thorough and stick to it until done.   Then there were the unwritten rules that you learned by example; “Always question authority, this sets us apart from the cows, but getting busted is a sign of stupidity; never break a law that can harm someone else; never wait in a line if you can move to the front; don’t sit in a traffic jam if you can find a way around the dumb asses that are clogging up the thorough fare.

One time, shortly after I got my license, Dad made an arrangement through his network.  When I appeared in front of Judge So N So, I would be let off the hook for my recent speeding ticket. This scared me, would I have to lie?  I stood in the courtroom and told the judge that I didn’t think I was speeding. He ruled in the cop’s favor and I got my deserved penalty.  When I returned home and gave Dad the verdict, he spouted with disgust and said he’d have to talk to his contact to find out what went wrong. I could tell though that Dad thought it was me, who blew it.

Mom and Dad hosted Sunday Dinner for his five brothers at our house while I was young. It was a festive affair, lots of business talk, gut busting jokes, and booze flowing from the bottle to the glasses. The wives usually listened or talked amongst themselves while I sat unnoticed as I moved the food on my plate with my fork, pretending I was still eating.  No one said much to me except for the occasional comment from Uncle Phil, “You oughtta eat more ‘cause if a big wind came up, you’d blow away.”  Hardy har, they thought that was funny, but it made me cry inside because I hated being skinny and took it like a defect.

I may have been skinny, but I was strong. When I was in kindergarten, Dad held Poker Club at our house once a month.  I remember when he’d give a yell upstairs to fetch me.  The air was thick with cigar smoke and martini vapors, the men gathered around green felt covered tables. They were usually sipping drinks, laughing and joking, with cards fanned out in their hefty hands when Dad would say, “Fellas, you have to take a look at Judy’s muscles. Go ahead Judy, show ’em what you got.”

On cue, I pulled up my shirt sleeve and bent my arm in a tight vee. Each time, it amazed even me, a golf ball shaped muscle popped up from under my skin. It was like a magic trick because it wasn’t something you would expect on a tender, string bean arm. I thought I was akin to Popeye, the cartoon character who gulped cans of spinach causing muscles to erupt on both his arms. Dad didn’t like the dainty, helpless, or weak type of woman, but admired strength and independence. My right bicep was unnaturally large from frequent flexing, but I was glad Dad never asked me to show the one on the left. It didn’t seem to pop up properly.

Chapter 2: Part III

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I learned at an early age that my body’s shape, hair style, or clothes were an instigator of admiration or displeasure based on Dad’s keen eye. I fell in line, brushing my teeth daily and washing behind my ears. When I had my school bag strapped over my shoulder and was ready to walk out the door, he would say, “Judy, wait just a minute.  Come over here.” Then he’d sit down on the couch and say, “Did ya wash up? Lemme take a look.”  I’d put my book bag down and walk over to him.

Then he would pin me between his legs and squint.

“Smile. Lemme see yer teeth.”

I’d bare my teeth.

“Now open up.”

I’d spread my jaws till my uvula was dangling like a flasher.

He’d put his hands on the sides of my cheeks and tilt my head back; look inside- up, down, and all around. Then he would bend my ears back and look in the crease behind. He might say, “Very good, go on to school.” Or, “There’s sleep in yer eyes, give it another once over.  I want to see that face a yers shine.” This was the routine, done in a matter of fact manner like he was doing quality control on the assembly line at his factory.

When I was very little, Dad’s complements felt like fairy dust, swirling through me and lightening my spirit. A fond memory is the day I came home from first grade with straight A’s, I thought Dad would take flight as he peered at my perfect report. I longed to repeat the performance, but the next year I got checkmarks for lacks self-control; I was prone to conversing with my neighbor.

Once I became a teen, the complements from Dad were hard to come by and unpredictable, like a slot machine. I never quite knew when I would get the payoff, but I kept pulling the handle.  I realize now that predicting how I could please Dad was a useless aspiration.   He was like a sports coach often pointing out your weaknesses so you could improve.  That was just his way of loving you and showing he cared about how you turned out. Sometimes he liked my outfit or new haircut, but I was often timid to show myself, especially when I had on my first pair of nylons or tiny high heels.  I was often uneasy to confront his reaction.

Dad was a master storyteller.  My cousins and I would gather around for an episode of the Snoose and the Snocker; “POW,” he’d yell as he pounded his fist into his other hand; or the Billy Goats Gruff, sometimes standing up to impersonate the troll under the bridge who wanted to eat the tender little billy goats in one bite. I shook with fright and delight at these stories.

There was an obvious gap in the subject matter of Dad’s stories.  That was anything pertaining to family history. When I’d ask about our roots he’d say, “Better watch out you might find out something you don’t wanna know.”  I wondered if my Great Grandpa was a thief or murderer.

As adults, we discovered Dad’s family secret. My sister Jackie had told Dad about her desire to visit New Orleans to work on our genealogy. “Don’t bother,” he said. “The courthouse burned down years ago with all the records.” Regardless of the warning, Jackie visited the Big Easy and uncovered my grandfather’s birth certificate with the race labeled  “c” ; colored for African American. We, Liautaud’s, thought we were Forever White, but with this revelation took a closer look.  Could it be true? After all we had fuller lips, curly hair, good rhythm, and darker skin that tanned and didn’t burn.

Jackie came home eager to see what Dad had to say about this revelation. Dad went off like a steam engine, sputtering and pointing his finger to the door, “Get out of my house,” he said, “and don’t you ever bring that subject up again.”  Months later, my brother Jim supplied Jackie with copies of family certificates, many stamped with the “c”, confirming our black roots.

It was Uncle Phil who eventually filled us in on the details.  In 1911, the social climate had changed for free men of color and all their rights were being taken away. As Uncle Phil said, “They were pinning crimes on us and hanging our friends.” So, when Dad was seven years old, his family bought a one way ticket north. On Friday they left their home in New Orleans, colored folk, unable to vote, ride the bus, or drink from a public fountain. On Saturday they stopped over in St. Louis, and boarded the front of the train. When they got off in Chicago, they were white and free with all the privileges of societies favored race. We were “passing” for white.

The Liautaud family made a pact to never speak of it again.  Uncle Phil told a story of Dad working as a bell boy at the same hotel as his mother who worked as a maid.  They pretended they didn’t know each other because Nana had a darker complexion and it might have compromised Dad’s status.

So when I got pregnant out of wedlock, it made perfect sense that Dad would first react with a burst of anger and then concoct a new story to protect our name. Judy would not bring shame to the Liautaud family when they had fought so hard for the rights of the privileged.

The Parade

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I sit quiet
Knees bent
Feet touching
Hands on knees
Fingers form circles

Breathe in
Breathe out
Follow the breath
And then the parade starts
Oh but a new chair in the corner
The fern from the cabin over there
How stunning.

Each display of thought
Floats into a box
That sits
Suspended in air
To my right
Save it for later

Breathe in
Breathe out
Follow the breath
Feel the calm

Drum roll
Another float
Adorned with brainstorm lilies
In the box
Save for later

Breathe in
Breathe out
Peace.

Tadum
The box goddammit
Breathe

Etcetera.

Choosing Falsetto or Truebello

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Under the nooks and cranies,
Spirit speaks to me
Singing songs of days gone by
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
The Beatles sang the song
The words forever true

Look forward Abraham tells me
Create your own reality by shaping your thoughts
Stay with the ones that feel good
Skip over the ones that are not so good
Don’t dwell in muck, just switch the minds track
Focus focus focus
Some say hocus pocus?
Words ring true– I try

Then Pema Chondron tells me
Feel the feelings,each one in the deepest part of your body
Associate their message with the gut or throat or part where they reside
Walk head on, feel the completeness of being human
Do not avoid the frighteningly horrible
Even though you think you might go off the deep end
If you do, you will come back.  The feeling lasts an instant if you attend to it.
And then it is gone, like a firefly flash.
Perhaps the feeling just wants attention, like all of us do,
Wanting to be heard so it Knows it has relayed the message.
Like the phone that rings and rings until you pick up,
I try .
When I feel with focus,
It dissipates, effortlessly.
I commiserate with my human ness.

Gently nudging  my thoughts to the positive
I look for the sunshine in my friends
Yes, that feels good
I notice a display of ego or selfishness
But I am training myself to skip across
Like a flint stone tossed on water.
For negativity is only one figment of my imagination
And simply a reflection of my own lacking,
It deserves no attention.

How do you freshen each day
When thoughts run round and round like roulettes’ silver ball.
Spinning circles as you wait for a landing on some conclusion
But the thoughts  don’t land, they just spin and spin
These are the ones I can do without
Give it a rest.
Follow the breath,
Think nothing
And out of the deep emerges – ahhh something good.
Keep it there.. hang on– add more to it
Wallow in the luck and inspire
Reside in the sweetness .

We all are made of nasty and rotten
Goodness and sweet caring
Laser beam into the goodness and life becomes good
Your thoughts pleasing
There is space for love.
Keep it there.
Feel the soothing, oozing power of love.
This feeling is our birthright — how living was meant to be
Good  feeling thoughts create a good reality for ourselves.
I reach for the good so I can waft in the sweet aroma.

Some days I wonder, can I really shape my thoughts?
If I can spend time with the people I choose,
Perhaps I can spend time with the thoughts I choose, no?
Can you build patterns in the brain?
When the route is new you easily get side tracked
But eventually , with practice, you dig a groove
And it is easier to follow the path
Like the depressions on the marble steps of the St. Paul cathedral.

I don’t want to be a polyanna.
I don’t want to be an ostrich -head in the sand.
I don’t want to be a victim.
I don’t want to be a floating leaf
falling in the autumn wind
and landing in a mud puddle.
I know what I don’t want.

I want to direct my thoughts so they create goodness in me
But yet I want to feel the full array including,
All the sorrow and deep despair of my human being
I won’t linger but it will be an education
In empathy and compassion.

When I take a moment to feel the nagging feeling,
There it goes like a dew drop evaporated in the morning sun.
Feelings come and go like a slideshow.

If thoughts precede feelings,
I nudge in the better feeling direction.

Don’t leap to conclusions like jumping jack flash.
Don’t judge em- up,  size em up, and dismiss
For you risk losing your connection to the beautiful human being
That stands in front of you.

See the brightness, the good nuggets.
The connection brings the love
The feelings flow toward the good ones.