I was conceived the third night of my parents’ honeymoon on the smallest, quietest island in Hawaii.
My father thought it clever.
My name, not my conception.
He would have rather remained childless for the foreseeable future. Obviously, my mother had other plans.
Much like my name, my life has been an island. A rather deserted one. Once the jewel of my small family, I was eventually left to share space with my only living relative who despised me for a perceived crime I did not commit.
Sins of my grandmother.
My Great Aunt Hanna’s story is that my Nana stole “her Edward.” According to everyone else, my grandparents’ love was a fairytale. Complete with a romantic courtship, April church wedding and garden reception. The faded photographs of that beautiful day show smiling faces and loving embraces.
All except for the ones of Aunt Hanna’s blue eyes and weeping soul.
My Grandpa was an only child. A strong man with a booming voice and infectious humor. Everyone loved him. And he loved my Nana until the day that she died. It was devastating for all of us. But when my Grandpa died a month to the day of my Nana’s funeral, my mother was heartsick, inconsolable. She’d always been a daddy’s girl.
At his funeral, her tears were endless. I held my mother’s hand as we listened to the eulogy, that small gesture bringing a smile to her sad face. She leaned over and kissed my cheek, whispered to me that Nana and Grandpa were together in heaven. That she always knew he could never live without her.
I wondered what they were doing up there.
Along with Grandpa’s death went Aunt Hanna’s selfish hopes. She’d waited years for her one-sided dream to come true, only to be left with nothing. No husband, no children. No family of her own. Just my mother and my father.
The girl who reminded her too much of the younger sister who had stolen her life.
We took great care of Aunt Hanna despite the permanent scowl she carried on her wrinkled, old face. We were all she had, and Mama always said you never abandon family despite the financial burden. Aunt Hanna had no other siblings, and our distant cousins had all “gone on to glory.” My parents were only children as well, so family never quite meant the same to me as it did to most.
So I became the meaning of my name.
Until the day I discovered I wouldn’t be alone anymore.
My mother had tricked my father again.
Only this time, he made other plans.
I was standing in front of the chalk board at school doing long division the very moment my father jumped to his death from the Lakewood Freeway bridge on Interstate 75-85 during his lunch break from work. 1:36pm on a Wednesday. Hump day. He had been cheery that morning. Pulled one of my pigtails before he left for work and gave me a kiss on my right cheek. Said he would see me real soon. Smiled and told me, “today is a good day, baby girl.”
My father hadn’t had one of those kind of days in years.
The airline industry never fully recovered after that tragic morning in September. When they started handing out golden parachutes, my father dug in his heels, said he had nowhere else to go. Those next two years were hard, his salary only half of what it used to be. My mother did her best, but she contributed very little with only a high school diploma. She’d wanted to start a family first and believed school would always be waiting for her.
I waited for her that day. In front of the school in my usual spot. Ready to go home. I left with my teacher instead. Climbing into Mrs. Dunbar’s SUV, I thought to myself how bizarre it was for her to be dropping me off at my neighbors’ house. I sat peering out the window of those strangers’ living room, my back turned to the pretty news reporter on television who was detailing the tragic events of the day.
Then I heard the reporter say my father’s name.
After that, I tuned everything else out.
I wondered if my mother was all right. I bet my little sister was kicking her belly. I had already named her Pumpkin 2. Grandpa crowned me Pumpkin 1 shortly after I’d been born.
I wanted to tell my little sister what the pretty reporter said happened to our father.
So I took the strangers’ cordless phone without permission and called my mother so she could come rescue me from the strangers’ home and take me to my own. We did not know these people. We only spoke from the driveway.
I let the phone ring nine times, wanting desperately to tell them both what I’d heard but she did not answer. My mother always answered when I called.
I curled into a ball and closed my eyes on that strange sofa in that strange house on that strange day only to wake hours later and learn that my mother was not coming to get me.
She and my sister were on their way to the morgue.
My father’s suicide became my mother’s accident, a six-car collision underneath the Lakewood Freeway bridge that claimed her life instantly.
I wondered how she had the accident. Wondered if she took her eyes off the road, watching Daddy fall. I wondered if Pumpkin 2 kicked her one last time.
I guess my mother couldn’t live without my father either. Just like Grandpa.
She always was her father’s child.
And now I was no one’s.
An island once more.
Until the courts delivered me to Great Aunt Hanna, our recessive blue-eye gene the only thing left to connect us.
* * * * *
Though the remainder of my childhood was lonely, my tween and teen years were mostly spent with my best friend, Kalesha. The two of us were inseparable; she was the only person I trusted in the world. Nothing could come between us…or so I thought.
I guess I should have seen it coming.
Ramona always said I thought I was “cute.” She told Kalesha countless times that I thought I was “better” than everybody. A week didn’t go by without Ramona rolling her eyes at me, saying I thought I was “something special” for one reason or another…
Because I skipped fourth grade…
Because when I met her that year, I became her favorite cousin Kalesha’s BFF…
Because we all blossomed differently in middle school, mostly in my favor…
Because all the boys within a twenty-mile radius of our high school seemed to think I was worth fantasizing about even though Aunt Hanna never let me leave home showing more than my face and hands…
Because our high school class liked to nominate me for grade queen every year and I won every time…
Because rumor had it that her boyfriend, Ronnie, was the first to sample my goodies.
All true…except the Ronnie thing. But Ramona and Kalesha chose to believe it all. And Ramona’s sucker punch to my face in Kalesha’s bedroom during a game of truth or dare at a Friday night sleepover confirmed what I’d known for years.
Ramona didn’t like me very much.
And blood is always thicker than water.
Kalesha couldn’t believe I would betray her cousin that way. I couldn’t believe Kalesha didn’t try to help me while her cousin was beating my ass.
I was hurt. Packed my overnight bag to their “ho-tramp-bitch” chorus and walked the rainy six miles back to Aunt Hanna’s. Eased through the front door dripping wet at 11:07 that night, straight into a heavy, open hand that landed viciously, repeatedly against my damp face.
Rumors sure spread fast.
“I knew it!” Aunt Hanna spat as she scowled at me, the same way she used to scowl at my Nana. A million painful memories behind her blue eyes.
I wondered if she could see the lifetime of sadness behind mine.
Ramona’s false reports and accusations led to my wrongful conviction that lasted the remainder of the year, in and out of school. The hate was vicious. Ramona made sure of it. Kalesha remained indifferent.
So much for eight years of friendship…
I completely shut down after that. Not that I’d ever been as social as either of them. I usually kept to myself, so it was natural to simply fade into obscurity. No football games, no extracurriculars. Just home room, six periods, then home to my bedroom. No dates, no parties. Sure I knew people, but I had no real friends. At least not anymore.
So it was just me and my books.
When graduation came, I felt relieved. But on the brink of freedom, Aunt Hanna became ill. I wanted to leave, but I didn’t. Couldn’t. Mama would rotate in her grave if she found out I’d abandoned family. So I ended up foregoing my scholarship to UCLA and remained in Atlanta.
So much for running away…
College was nowhere close to A Different World for me. It was more like indentured servitude. I worked two jobs my freshman year in spite of my full scholarship and full course load just so I could hire a decent nurse. One after another, Aunt Hanna ran them all away. She was a dreadful patient; existing only to torment me.
Miraculously, I graduated magna cum laude five years later with a dual degree in Physics and Comparative Literature.
Aunt Hanna rewarded me that day with her death.
It was the best gift I’d ever received.
Until I found myself in an attorney’s office three weeks later.
I sat in stunned silence as I listened to the stoic Mr. Rothwell speak of Aunt Hanna’s secret. An ectopic pregnancy that nearly claimed her life at the tender age of twenty-two. There was no record of the father of Aunt Hanna’s baby, only the official settlement from her botched hysterectomy. The courts insisted that she’d cheated death twice in one day, against all odds and an incompetent surgeon. I scanned the documents and found a date: April 3, 1938. Three weeks before my grandparents’ blessed union.
Numb, I heard Mr. Rothwell mention how he’d met my deceased aunt, how she’d invested wisely over the years. He spoke highly of her diligent efforts and the unrelenting power of compound interest.
It made me ill.
Misinterpreting my woe, Mr. Rothwell patted my hand. Expressed his sorrow for my great loss. Silently, he slid a slightly torn manila folder over to me, stuffed full of legal documentation and signatures that basically came to one shocking conclusion.
Aunt Hanna had been a millionaire.
And in the final hours of her demise, I learned that she’d called Mr. Rothwell and spoke my name…that all that was hers had become mine that day.
I thought of the hand-me-down clothing from my middle school years. Remembered how I was never allowed to go shopping or eat out. How “new” movies were relegated to what was on network television…except for when Kalesha and Ramona would let me tag along with them to the theaters with the big screens and stadium seating. I was the poor girl who they took pity on. “You’re too pretty to be looking so rough, girl,” Kalesha would say. We shared clothes and jewelry. Kalesha always washed and styled my hair. Every week.
I wondered if Kalesha ever became the beautician she always dreamed of being. Wondered how differently my life would have been if Aunt Hanna hadn’t been such a hateful, rancorous bitch. Wondered if my parents and little sister might still be alive and happy if she had just died twice that day in April. Wondered if this was all some kind of sick and twisted joke.
I sat quietly, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Nothing in my life had ever been good. I had no reason to expect otherwise.
A financial windfall of that magnitude never happened to black people.
It couldn’t be real.
But the seven zeros on the certified check resting in my hands confirmed it truly was.
So I tucked away the pain of my past, gathered my things, thanked Mr. Rothwell…
And finally ran away.