Today marks twenty-four years since one of the six most bizarre events in my life. It was a triple-H Sunday afternoon at Wilson Woods Park in Mount Vernon, New York. Our family was picnicking in the part of the park near the Hutchinson River, which due to the lack of rain, was little more than a dribble of a stream. My mother had gone all out, making macaroni and potato salad, grilling kosherized hot dogs and hamburger meat, barbecuing chicken leg quarters, and baking two cakes–one chocolate on buttery Duncan Hines yellow cake, the other a vanilla on lemon cake. She had laid out about half our monthly allotment of food stamps on everything from A-1 sauce to two watermelons.
Under normal circumstances this would’ve been a wonderful time to have a feast. After all, it had been a year since the last time my stepfather had tried to punch and choke me into submission. My inebriated father Jimme was providing me and my older brother Darren some much needed funds every week, giving us some of our childhood back. And even though my mother was now unemployed and on welfare and there were now three younger siblings, there was food in the house from the beginning to the end of the month for the first time in two years.
But these weren’t normal circumstances. My mother had put together this picnic to celebrate two things. One was the fact that my sister Sarai was six months old–a big deal because she had sickle cell anemia (neither my mother nor my stepfather checked with the prenatal care folks to see if they both had the trait). Two was our celebration of my stepfather’s thirty-third birthday. I wasn’t exactly happy about my sister’s birth. I’d asked my mother to have an abortion at the end of her second trimester.
To celebrate my stepfather’s birthday, though, was a slap in the face, one that went on for hours throughout that weekend as I went back and forth to the C-Town store in Pelham to buy this bounty for the fat slob. By now Maurice was well over three hundred pounds at 6’1″, with skinny frog legs and a stomach that could stop nine-millimeter bullets. I couldn’t believe my mother was still having sex with this abusive asshole, much less throwing him a party.
What was the most bizarre of it was how embarrassed those who didn’t live with us at 616 seemed while they were there. My Uncle Sam–my mother’s brother–was as pissed as I’ve ever seen him. He had the look of someone whose mouth and fists wanted to do something destructive, but couldn’t. A voracious eater himself at 6’4″ and nearly 240 pound, Uncle Sam ate next to nothing during this shameful picnic. My stepfather’s friend Dennis made small talk with all of us throughout the affair, but was obviously uncomfortable around us kufi-wearing Hebrew-Israelites. Nothing to say of the obvious tension between me and Uncle Sam and my mother and stepfather. Darren, the opportunist that he was, just stuffed his face as always, pretending not to notice the agitation that was present that afternoon and evening.
My mother’s brother left after helping with some of the clean up. I would bump into Uncle Sam at the local bookstore on Gramatan Avenue thirteen months later, but I wouldn’t see him again in a happy mood until I graduated from Mount Vernon High School in ’87. I wouldn’t see Dennis again until after my mother and stepfather divorced in ’89.
Why did she do it, why did she go out of her way to please someone whose greatest family achievement was a six-month trial separation in ’80 and early ’81? Was it an act of desperation, to prove that this was a family worth preserving, to show that despite it all, that she still loved someone undeserving of her love? Was it an attempt to save herself from potential abuse in the future–did she sense that if she didn’t throw the SOB a party that he would snap and beat her unconscious again? It was probably all of the above, especially the sense of despair that comes with a failed second marriage, welfare poverty–something my mother swore would never happen to her–and five kids. I was angry with her, but I wanted my stepfather to stuff himself until he went into a coma and died from a brain hemorrhage.
What I learned from that day on it took about six years to undo. I learned not to trust my mother, to not give much trust to authority figures unless they worked damn hard to earn it, to not even trust myself or my own ability to discern the feelings and motivations of others. I stopped being a Hebrew-Israelite that day. I wanted to believe that there was a God, one who cared about what happened to me. This God of the Lost Tribes of Israel, though, wasn’t it. If I couldn’t trust homo sapiens, at least I could find a God I could trust. I needed answers to all of these, and in the weeks that followed, I started searching for a savior, one religion at a time.