SHE made me do it.
I certainly didn’t plan to reopen a wound I had worked assiduously for more than a decade to heal. Further, while a faint scar remained, I had strategically and effectively used the writing of two books—Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl? The Impact of Fatherlessness on Black Women and Bridges: Reuniting Daughters and Daddies—to extend my personal healing to others, particularly to women and girls I met through workshops and support circles provided by my nonprofit organization, Esther Productions Inc. After taking years to stitch close my own lacerations and gaping holes, I felt obligated to protect their recovery and restorations, ensuring they would not be emotionally stabbed afresh by my actions.
Consequently, when I saw an email from a woman in New Orleans claiming that I was her niece, and the only biological daughter of her brother, I quickly closed her message. I pushed off the computer’s power button so forcefully I nearly sent the machine crashing to the floor. I raced out of my small home office, stunning myself with my speed. Escape, I determined, was the best response for myself—and others.
Have you ever felt that way--ready to make a mad dash because instinctively you were certain things were about to change in your life dramatically? Despite its seeming imperfect nature, you liked your life just the way it was. Unready for any alteration, you buried yourself in a figurative grave or simply ran away as fast as possible.
That email felt frighteningly familiar. It was as if I were back in the late 1980s, when another woman—my mother—called. Back then, without any preamble, she asked whether I wanted to meet my father. I was confused by the question; he and I never got along. Why, I wondered aloud, would I want or need to see him at this stage in my life? “No, no,” she said, correcting my assumption. “I mean your real father.”
That last sentence arrived with typical New Orleans casualness and native speak, which is designed to give the illusion that nothing tragic or eventful has happened, when in fact, something monumental has occurred. Responding in kind, I asked, “Who is it?”
Over the next several months, I learned life-changing secrets: The man whose name appeared on my birth certificate, is not, in fact, my father. My mother had had an extramarital affair; that tidbit arrived like a hurricane, mercilessly whipping into shreds the narrative I believed was my own. There had been a subplot, hiding in plain sight—one to which my siblings had been privy, whispering among themselves about my lineage and ancestry. I attempted to dismiss them, but honestly, they bullied my self-esteem. They helped define my personal, destructive credo, and misdirected me for years. That abused sense of self led me to teen pregnancy, two marriages, two divorces, and countless episodes of unexplained rage and anger
NOW, someone calling herself my aunt was injecting herself into my life via the Internet, unsettling my perception that I had come to terms with fatherlessness. Years earlier, I had fully dismissed my father’s family, including this same aunt, who failed to keep an appointment to meet me.
I had rented a room at a hotel on St. Charles Street, one of my favorite New Orleans thoroughfares because the streetcar ran along it. As a teen, after finishing my Saturday chores, I'd often dress up and take the bus to the French Quarter, where I’d visit the antique jewelry stores and art galleries. At the end of those excursions, I’d either take a ride on the ferry from New Orleans to Algiers and back again, or board the streetcar at Canal Street. Fully satisfied with opportunities for reverie, art reviewing and people watching, I’d ride the Broad Street bus back home.
I imagined that the visit to the city that fall weekend would result in a similar satisfaction. It didn’t.
After much coordination, neither my father’s sister nor his cousins arrived at the appointed hour to meet me. I waited hours before finally accepting the fact that I had been stood up. I was devastated. It took months for me to process that experience in a way that provided me insight into my strength.
Despite his absence and then his death, my father gave me a grand gift of self-discovery and self-reconciliation. I wondered when I received the email, did I want to potentially shake all of that loose for an old woman I didn’t know?
Looking back, maybe I was simply curious. Maybe I needed to finally, and hermetically, seal away that part of my history. Maybe I wanted to give her the opportunity to apologize for the decision she made a decade earlier, leaving me lost, somewhat, inside a hotel room.
Whatever my subconscious reasons, I acquiesced to her request.
THIS time when I made the trip to my hometown, things were different. I arrived at a French Quarter hotel in the late morning and decided to take a stroll. That short walk around the facility was a ritual in which I engaged whenever I came to the city. I wanted to reconnect with the unique and elemental energy of New Orleans. I stopped at the front desk to ask a question, and found my so-called aunt asking in which room was I staying.
At my approach, she turned and offered an excited laugh, telling the concierge, “This is my niece. This is the first time I’m seeing her. She’s a journalist in Washington, DC.” She had certainly done her research on me. I had done none on her. What would there be for me to discover about an 87-year-old woman?
I probably could have learned a lot if I had asked my mother, but I didn’t want to force her to unnecessarily travel back in time to open the door to a room she had closed years earlier. As it turned out, my aunt flung open every window and looked under every bed, without permission.
I was a little annoyed by her early arrival. It denied me the opportunity to gather and properly fortify myself in a way I had not with my father. I also wasn’t sure I could trust her. She had demonstrated that she could be reckless with others’ emotions. I told her as much—more diplomatically, of course. I asked whether she wanted to have coffee at a nearby café. “No. I prepared lunch for us at my place,” she said. “I’ll bring you back in time for whatever else you are doing.”
Her car was a gas-guzzler. It was parked just across the street from the hotel. She had left her purse on the front seat, and seemed unconcerned when I mentioned that she needed to be more careful. It was, after all, the French Quarter. She eased behind the steering wheel, demonstrating a confidence lacking in most drivers her age. I was generally impressed with her demeanor. We drove to Claiborne Avenue and over the bridge into the 9th Ward below the Industrial Canal where Hurricane Katrina, and later, the federal government, had wreaked havoc. Her home—a two-bedroom rambler with a spacious front and back yard—was simple but elegant.
Sitting there in her living room, I remembered my sister telling me how, one day after church, she had gone to the home of one of its leaders. “The man’s place was so clean you could eat off the floor,” she announced. “I kept thinking he must be related to you.”
Unknowingly, my sister had made an actual link. That bishop, in fact, turned out to be my father’s cousin; he had been the only person who stayed in contact with me after that fateful day, when the silence of a hotel room turned thunderous. Surveying my aunt’s home, I privately wondered whether obsessive cleanliness could be an inherited trait.
My aunt wore her hair short. She was tall and lean with a brown complexion far deeper than my own. She and my father shared the same features. She talked that day about her only brother: “He accepted my lifestyle,” she told me. I didn’t ask her to explain; if she wanted me to know more, I assumed she would tell me.
Her parents—my grandparents--were mostly rural people from St. James Parish. My grandmother was a notable seamstress. They owned acres of land and passed it on to their children, who squandered the gift. My father found himself in debt and sold his plots. My aunt was desperately holding onto her share but had made a deal that allowed a company to lease portions of it. She brought out pictures to enhance the story. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t moved by the experience.
The next day, I met her only living child—her youngest son. Her daughters, each accomplished, died years earlier. She seemed not to have fully recovered from the death of the eldest with whom she shared an appreciation for classical music. At the time I met her, my aunt often scheduled her Saturday activities for early in the day, so she could be at home in time to listen to a certain opera program on the radio.
Her son suffered some kind of respiratory disease. Prior to his illness, he had been a senior manager in the city’s public housing agency. Two years after I met him, he would be dead.
Instead of shunning the opportunity to participate in his funeral, as I had with my father, I made an unplanned trip back to New Orleans. I sat through the Catholic funeral mass and the repast at the Zulu Social Club, which brought back memories of my musician grandfather and my childhood. I would stand on the median yelling to the people, dressed in grass skirts with faces painted in black makeup, on Mardi Gras floats, to throw me something. Once, I caught a coconut.
During that initial visit with my aunt, I realized she wanted someone to care for her in the nadir of her life. I was the person she had chosen. In return, she was prepared to deed me one of her homes. I was unwilling to commit to such an enormous responsibility, which required uprooting myself from the District of Columbia, where, during the previous 25 years, I had built a career and community of friends.
I stayed in touch, exchanging letters and phone calls. Then suddenly, I didn’t hear anything from her. I figured perhaps the shine on me had dulled and she was off to doing different things. I came to know, however, she had begun to decline.
One fall afternoon, four years after that initial visit, the telephone rang. My aunt had been found walking the streets half-naked. One of her neighbors called the police. My aunt was picked up and taken to the hospital.
Now, a medical staffer, who had been given my telephone number, was calling to receive permission from her nearest relative to treat her. I was that person. The quality of her life was now in my hands. I made my way back to New Orleans unsure how things would work out.
While there, I chose a nursing home where she could be relocated after being discharged from the hospital. I found a place for the dogs she had loved most of their lives, and cleaned out a house in total disarray—strong evidence that she had lost touch with reality but refused to call out for help. Initially, she was angry with me for placing her in a nursing home and refused to see me.
A few weeks later, we talked by telephone. “Jonetta, come and get me out of this place. I want to go home. I can hardly stand up.” A month later, she collapsed at the nursing home and went into a coma.
Once again, I returned to New Orleans, this time to give the doctor permission to take her off of life support. She was my last living connection to my father.
THAT should have been the end—except, as I had predicted, she forced me, even in death, to return to the beginning. It reopened in me the wound of fatherlessness, though at a different level. My mind filled with questions about actions I had taken or should have taken. Had I been kind to my father and aunt? Had I actually reconciled with her? Had I reconciled with myself? Had I achieved the closure I desired and needed? Is closure ever possible in life?
I have guided countless women through a similar process of exploration. I had taken them through a series of questions, designed to help them come to terms with father absence or the estrangement with some person they once loved or admired. The journey was also to help them discover or rediscover themselves, to essentially reconcile themselves with themselves.
Like me, many of them spent years, running away from the person they were inside, including the pain and trauma of father absence or familial separation, they kept hidden, masquerading for the public while knowing each night the hurt that was expressed in the form of quiet tears. The game of pretense was elaborate and lasted so long that, sometimes, they forgot where they had hidden their story, themselves.
I came to the realization of reconciliation as a powerful tool for self-discovery, for emotional and spiritual growth, for soothing, healing and strengthening the soul. Truth be told, however, I thought I found myself after my father died and I wrote my first book. I had not, however.
I was so arrogant, I was certain I knew the path home, after I wrote the second book, helping once estranged daughters and dads reconcile. In that book, Bridges: Reuniting Daughters and Dads, I introduced the template for reconciliation that I used in my own life as I work with hundreds of daughters and dads, or just daughters involved in self-discovery.
After my aunt’s death, truth punched me in the gut. I had made enormous progress from that day in the hotel when I sat waiting for others to validate me. That growth combined with needing to more deeply understand decades of events that had occurred in my life demanded another level of reconciliation.
And so, I began yet another journey. This one unflinching, more deliberate and more purposeful. This one designed to heal my soul and take me to a new level of personal development.