Updated: Apr 2, 2022
Clay made the best gumbo in the world. He was from New Orleans, and it was a family tradition. It had everything in it – shrimp, chicken, crab, even slimy okra. It took a whole day to cook, and whenever Clay made his gumbo, it was a special occasion.
He would stand by the stove for hours, stirring the huge old white pot, the one that’s burned black on the bottom, a jar of file gumbo in one hand. He always used the giant wooden spoon that he and Mom found on the beach in Mexico, the one with the handle half missing. “I ever tell you my shaggy dog story?” Clay always laughed when he said this even though he’d told us that story about a million times. And even though it was a little different every time he told it, it always ended the same way, with Clay singing “It’s a long waayyy… to Tipperary.” He must’ve thought that this was just hilarious because he would laugh for the next twenty minutes, no matter if anyone else was laughing or not.
I was about eight when Mom and Clay got married. Their nuptials were typically Southern California casual; Mom wore a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and sat cross legged on the grass in the park next to the beach on Ocean Park Boulevard. Clay smiled a lot and there was a big jug of red wine on the ground that the grown-ups lifted to their lips.
I didn’t love Clay right away but it wasn’t because his skin was a different color than mine. It never even occurred to me until later when someone mentioned it that Clay’s skin was called black (even though it was really a beautiful deep mahogany brown), and mine was called white (even though it was really light brown). I didn’t love Clay right away because he was not my real father. I resented him the same way I would have any man. But he was always sweet and too patient with me and my brother and sister.
In the evenings we would sit around the huge round wooden kitchen table and have ‘stuff’ for dinner. ‘Stuff’ was Mom’s concoction of left-overs and whatever she could find in the fridge. Mom and Clay laughed a lot, and we’d all roll ours eyes and groan when they started flirting with each other like mad. Mom always blushed and acted cute. Then Clay would put on Coltrane’s “Ballads” and take Mom’s hand, pulling her to her feet and towards the living room as she feigned reluctance. They’d dance slowly as my brother and sister and I laughed and pooed-pooed their silly antics.
We had a Volkswagen van, blue with a white top, the old kind with round edges. It was adorned with outdated, faded bumper stickers – “Peace” and “I Love McGov” the ones I remember best. Mom made blue and white checked curtains for the windows and it had a homey glow. We never had much money since Mom and Clay were both teachers, so our vacations were always camping trips. We went to the Grand Canyon one year – Mom, Clay, my brother and sister and I, and Clay’s two kids piled into the van. Plus our two dogs. Mom and Clay must’ve been crazy.
Another time we went up the coast towards Oregon. It was the same gang – Mom and Clay and five kids and two dogs. Flashes of the California coastline through the moving window — the Santa Monica incline, Malibu, Big Sur, Mom oohing and ahhing at the gorgeous jagged shore. In the back we were busy yelling, fighting over popsicles, and wrestling for the window seats. I don’t remember it exactly but we must’ve been bickering the entire way from Santa Monica, Mom and Clay up front, Clay getting more and more pissed, more and more silent.
For once Clay spoke up. “If you kids don’t knock it off I’m gonna turn this van right around and go home.” By this time we were four days into our trip and close to the Oregon border. We brother and sister and assorted friends looked fleetingly at the back of Clay’s head, then at each other. The silence lasted maybe ten seconds. Then my brother socked me and we started up where we’d left off. “Mom, John hit me. Stupid!” “Baby, baby, you’re a cry baby.” Before Mom could respond Clay had whipped the van into a u-turn and shoved the pedal to the floor and we headed back south. Mom looked at us with an “I told you so” expression. We were quiet all the way back to Santa Monica.
One time Mom suggested that we go to New Orleans, where Clay’s family still lived. It was the only time I heard Clay’s voice get steely. “We will – NOT – EVER – go there.” Mom didn’t say another word and we never asked about it. I know now what a grotesquery of images must’ve run through Clay’s mind, from his youth in 1940’s Louisiana where he’d seen first hand the bitter fruit of Billie’s mournful blues – to his completion of protecting his country in the navy, after which he was denied the promise of his dream of attending art school (“Negro soldiers go to trade school or nothing, boy”). Even in liberal Southern California, Clay had had to sit a ’round the clock vigil to guard his downtown L.A. house from the KKK. He never mentioned it, but I imagine Clay stoic in his rocking chair, a rifle in his lap, the sun innocently rising with the promise of a new day, a day he must’ve known would deliver the same irony he felt every day as a black man in a color coded country.
I loved horses, and the closest stable was a ritzy one with English show horses and rich little girls, both as far out of my grasp as a trip to Mars. Show horses are ridiculously expensive, and the stable yard was full of chauffeur driven Mercedes’ delivering tiny coifed girls to their steeds and then whisking them away to tennis lessons. I groomed and bathed the horses in exchange for occasional riding lessons since we couldn’t afford them. One year mom made me a stuffed horse for Christmas since I wanted one so badly. Mostly I just wanted to fit in at the stables and knew that I didn’t. When I knew Clay was coming to pick me up I would ask him to wait for me at the bottom of the road so no one would see that my dad was black and drove an old crummy VW van with a “Peace” bumper sticker. Clay always drove up the hill into the main yard anyway, and I would run into the van as fast as I could, numb, nervous, hoping no one would notice me or him or the van.
Clay was about the most patient man I ever knew. I realize now that his patience was the unwelcome kind, the kind of patience a dark skinned man must learn growing up in the United States, especially in the South. His choices were patience or death, and it was a sad kind of patience, the kind where you die a little bit each time you choose it. My brother and sister and I didn’t much welcome Clay at first, and I for one didn’t think my life would change very much when he came into it. And I didn’t expect that he would much change mine. But as I look back on it, even though I thought I kept Clay outside my inner sanctum, there was one particular experience that changed my life forever.
I was around eight and there was a boy in my class who was a little older than me since he’d been left back a few grades. He was mean and slick and crude and sexual, and even at that young age I could tell he wanted me in more than a friendly way. I was instinctively very uncomfortable around him. For a while he lived on our block and I would see his mom and dad. They looked mean too. Their house faced an alley, and his mom would stand out on the porch in her curlers and yell at people. One time his dad emerged behind her with a bottle in his hand, yelling and gesturing for the kid to get his butt in there and now. As the kid tried to slink past him, the dad raised his arm in a threatening gesture. Then all of them disappeared inside and the raggedy screen door slammed behind them.
One day at school we were running around on the huge cement yard that served as a playground and the boy was teasing me, trying to flirt. I suppose I had in my eight year old way continued to rebuff him. It was after school and he wanted me to come play spin the bottle. I didn’t know what that was but could tell from the way he said it that I wouldn’t want to do it with him. I stopped at the tetherball court and let him continue on outside the yard towards home. He was on the outside of the chain link fence, me still in the confines of the school yard. He hadn’t given up and was asking me was I sure, really sure I didn’t want to play with him? I was sure and contentedly went on with my tetherball game. He was only a foot or so away with the chain link fence between us, and when he asked me again was I sure I didn’t want to play, I stopped, looked right at him and said yes, I was sure I didn’t want to play — and with the chain link fence adding to my bravery, added, especially with him.
That was when his face changed. He eyes got smaller and his mouth went crooked and I saw his jagged teeth. We were nearly face to face when he hissed at me “You don’t know nothin’. Yer daddy’s a NIGGER!”
I didn’t know what that word meant, but I felt like a cannonball had landed in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t breathe. His small white face was inches from mine, the chain link between us, the spite and hate spurting from him. I thought he might reach out and strangle me, but he didn’t even need to because his words had burned my throat and I couldn’t speak. In that one small moment I came to know what hatred and ignorance feel like, and in my childlike naivete I tried to figure out what I had done to deserve this. What Clay had done to deserve this. Nothing, we had done nothing! But the sick feeling in my stomach felt permanent, indelible. I didn’t know the words to talk about it, but it felt like a slash across my heart that would never heal.
I stood there stunned, tetherball in hand, soul suddenly and permanently older, as the kid ran off laughing down the street. Right then, I loved Clay in a way that made me both proud and sad.
I still remember that boy’s eyes and contorted face and the nauseous feeling it evoked in me. It is one which I have felt on occasion over the years, and one which is always shocking and still makes me sick. I have sometimes wished that everyone could stand on my side of the chain link fence for a minute so they would never, ever hate anyone that way.
But mostly I remember Clay.
Today when I think of Clay – even though he and Mom haven’t been married for more than a decade – I remember his tolerance and the quietude that crossed his face when we walked down the street hand in hand, he tall and dark, me short and fair. And how, when people’s eyes would linger just a second too long on our backs, he would squeeze my hand and keep on walking.