Transracial family finds acceptance far from home turf
I recently bought a cabin in Humboldt County to use as a vacation home. It’s surrounded by tall trees, and soft brown pine needles blanket the ground.
I decided to take my kids there for their spring break. Julian, 12, is white like me and is my biological son. Deja, 5, whom I adopted last year, is black. It would be their first time to the cabin.
The drive north took us through hilly pastures with cows and horses, and in southern Humboldt the trees suddenly seemed taller than everywhere else. My kids were unexpectedly civil to each other during the five-hour drive, but Julian complained about the tapes I played.
“Mom, who even listens to Bob Dylan anymore besides you?” he said. “Aren’t there any decent radio stations? Let’s listen to some rap.” He popped out the tape and fiddled with the dial.
“Let’s listen to Britney Spears,” Deja suggested.
I was a little nervous about how people we met in the country would react to us. Even in the liberal Bay Area, I’ve experienced disapproval of my mixed family. Once a woman I barely knew filed a complaint against me with the foster care agency that had placed Deja in my home. The false allegations were later dismissed, but my sense of trust was shaken when I surmised that the complaint was predicated on the belief that white parents shouldn’t adopt black children.
On other occasions I’ve tried to shield my daughter from disdainful glances from strangers, or made light of ignorant comments.
On my last trip north, when I drove up and found the cabin, almost everyone I saw was white. Since Humboldt County’s residents have a reputation for being either hippie pot growers or rednecks, I wasn’t sure who we’d encounter.
My cabin was once occupied by a logging family. Some time ago, it and all the other logging cabins around it on their 20-acre parcel was formed into a corporation. The cabins were sold for vacations or retreats, but a few “year- rounders” keep an eye on the other places. I didn’t think we’d run into many people, but I wanted to make a favorable impression on those we did.
I unlocked the front door and the smell of mildew hit me in the face. The cabin hadn’t been occupied in a long time, though its interior had been painted recently. The kids raced in to find their rooms. I’d already drawn them the floor plan. Through my real estate agent, I had bought the cabin “as is” from a guy named Sam. That meant that he left all the furnishings — beds, more kitchen stuff than I have at home in Berkeley, a radio that picked up some stations in Eureka, a Formica table and a comfy couch.
The walk to the river took less than a minute and the view was breathtaking.
Next to a rocky beach with a small sand area perfect for picnics, the Van Duzen river flowed steadily. In early April, the water was cold.
Around the third day, at dusk, I was sweeping the floor, and my kids were throwing stones into a hole they’d dug outside. I heard a rhythmic pounding and went out to investigate. A form stood on a ladder about 30 yards away, nailing a board to the back of a cabin.
A neighbor to meet, I thought. So far we’d just briefly met our retired next-door neighbors. Julian was off looking for more stones. I called Deja over, and feeling shy, said, “You want to go say hi to that guy?” Deja, who is outgoing, walked the short distance and I followed. “Hi,” she said. The man turned and looked down, and I was surprised to see that he was black.
“How do you do, young lady, what’s your name?” “Deja,” she told him. “Well, Deja, I have my grandson inside watching cartoons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s just your age.” Then, raising his voice, he called, “Hey, Troy, come on out; there’s someone I want you to meet.”
At that point I walked out from the shadows, and before I could say anything, the man spoke. “And you must be Deja’s mother.” He climbed down from the ladder and shook my hand. A dark-skinned boy about my daughter’s size was walking eagerly toward us. The man, a retired cop from Los Angeles, told me his name was William. (I have changed his name for this story.)
He’d come up to do some work on the cabin in order to sell it. He’s owned it a dozen years but never gets a chance to use it anymore, he said, though for a long time he’d been flying up from Southern California in a small plane he owned. We talked long into the night while Troy, Julian and Deja horsed around under the darkening sky.
“Wasn’t it pretty intense being an L.A. cop?” I asked. William leaned against his barn-red cabin. The trees were so tall and dense that it was hard to see the stars as they appeared in the night sky.
“Annie, I spent four years in ‘Nam,” he told me. “That prepared me for just about anything. Being a cop in L.A. was nothin’ after that. After a while I even became a sergeant.” As we talked, the kids wrestled in the dark, laughing.
“How did you know right away that I was Deja’s mom, when she’s black and I’m white?” I asked William.
“Well, you just look like you go together,” he said matter-of-factly. “The braids, for one thing.”
For the past year I’ve been getting my hair braided by Yamata, an African hair-braider in Oakland. She adds long extensions so my brown braids swing down past my waist, and Deja’s braids, which I do myself, fall past her shoulders. I’m Yamata’s only white customer.
I told William that Deja had been placed in foster care with me after she was abandoned by her mother at the age of 2; I explained how Julian and I fell in love with her and of how strongly my only son advocated for her adoption. I said that I only knew a handful of other transracial families like mine.
I spoke of the closeness that Julian and Deja share, in spite of the inevitable bickering that became especially wearing on me during our week at the cabin. I told him about other foster children I’d cared for; mostly but not all black.
The next morning, William and his grandson walked over to bid us a heartfelt goodbye; they were driving back to L.A. Chances are we’ll never see them again.
Yet how I wish William wasn’t selling his barn-red cabin. I fantasize the soft-spoken, retired black cop becoming my country lover. I wish Troy and Julian and Deja could tumble together like puppies time and time again under the restful, rustling trees, oblivious of ignorance and racism.
Annie Kassof is a Berkeley writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.