Secrets and Lies

The following is an excerpt from White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Identity.


In 1995 when I discovered my mother’s black heritage, she made me promise never to tell her secret until she died. I kept her secret for 17 years. Nine months after her death in 2015, I appeared on PBS’s Genealogy Roadshow and revealed to 1.5 million people that my mother had passed for white. Three days later the family she never knew found me. “Secrets and Lies” recounts the stories my mother told me about her life in New Orleans before she came north to marry my father. After I uncovered her racial secret, I realized her stories held clues to her racial identity and the hardships she endured as a mixed race woman in Jim Crow south.


Parma, Ohio

When I was a young girl my mother would tell me about her life in New Orleans before she came north to Ohio to marry my father. Each story so carefully fashioned, so artfully told I never questioned their validity. It was one of the rare times I’d be allowed to sit on my parents’ double bed in the cramped downstairs bedroom that faced the street, its north window inches from the neighbor’s driveway where a dog barked sometimes into the night.

The room was pristine with its satiny floral bedspread, crisscrossed white lacy curtains and fringed shades. Area rugs surrounded the bed like islands of color over the amber shag carpet. A large dresser held my mother’s perfumes neatly arranged on a mirrored tray. An assortment of tiny prayer books rested on a side table beside a rosary. Over the bed was a painting of a street scene that could be Paris or New Orleans, colorful and dreamy. A similar painting hung in the living room.

It wasn’t until I married and left home that my father was banished to the other first floor smaller bedroom, even then he was an interloper in this feminine domain. His clothes were exiled to the front hall closet where he kept his rifle. On story days the room was a mother-daughter cove of confidences where my mother came as close as she ever would to telling me who she was, dropping clues like breadcrumbs that would take me decades to decipher. As I grew older, she confided intimacies of her marital life best shared with a mother or a sister. I was the substitute for the family left behind in New Orleans.

In its orderliness, the bedroom was a microcosm of the entire 1,800 square foot suburban tract house where I grew up. A house she cleaned every day as if it were a jewel that would quickly tarnish if not polished and treasured. Her housekeeping so meticulous, to this day I can see her kneeling in the kitchen like a raven-haired Cinderella, her head bowed as she pinched dirt from the green linoleum floor, dirt even the broom couldn’t pick up. That only she could remove. In this small house, my mother finally found what she imagined was her haven, her safe place—small and tidy as the life she desired and sacrificed so much to have.

To me her stories were magical and transformative. They’d begin with the white jasmine flowers she wore in her black hair as a young woman, illustrated in the black and white studio portrait photograph she kept in our living room on a faux marble-topped table as a reminder of that exotic southern belle she once was. “This was who I used to be in New Orleans before I married your father and came north,” the photograph seemed to say.

2828743679_83cce14105_b

Sometimes her story would veer and we’d be in the French Quarter. The Vieux Carre, she called it, the French words as exotic as she was. She’d describe the iron lacework and the old brick buildings that she said were French. If she felt adventuresome that day, she’d tell the story of the Vieux Carre painter, a story that as a child made me uncomfortable.

“I answered a newspaper ad for a live model. I was nineteen.”

I didn’t know it then but later I’d understand the circumstances of her decision. She was a young woman with meager skills, poor and adrift with no one to advise her, looking for work, using the gift of her beauty.

“He told me to take off my clothes.” She laughed as if she were searching for the humor in her story. “I told him I didn’t do that.”

“‘That’s what live model means,’ he said, looking me over, studying my face. I started to leave. But he stopped me and said, ‘If you want to sit for portraits, I’ll give you the name of another painter.’ He must have taken pity on me.”

“Did you sit for that other painter?” I asked, heat rushing through me at the thought of my mother, posing nude for a strange man.

“Oh, yes. You know what the other painter said? He told me he saw these colors in my skin, greens and yellows and peach.”

I studied her face the way that painter must have, trying to see what he saw. I couldn’t see those colors. Only her warm olive skin, dark brown eyes, her deep dimples and Roman nose. And though all children think their mothers are beautiful, mine was. She never took a bad photo.

Sometimes she’d open the tall dark dresser with the ribbed edges that I liked to run my fingers up and down, and take out her long white gloves with the pearl buttons, carefully wrapped in thin tissue paper, followed by my favorite—the tiny white beaded evening bag with the tarnished clasp and a matchbook inside as if waiting for her to resume her glamorous single life in New Orleans or across the river in Algiers.

Each story contained a lesson at its core. The long white gloves and beaded evening bag were about chastity and being a lady at all times no matter the temptation, no matter the man’s promises or his handsomeness. “Gail, men only want one thing. That’s just how they are.”

The nude modeling story was about maintaining moral standards, knowing your worth, not selling yourself for money, no matter how poor you were.

Sometimes the stories of supper clubs and jazz music, Lake Pontchartrain and The Safari Club would shift as if she were moving closer to the real story that beat under her skin like another self. There would be the way the rain fell only on one side of the street while on the other the sun would beat down relentlessly, a confusion of weather. If I didn’t respond with enough awe, she’d tell it again. It was a story she never tired of telling me about a place where the weather was as unpredictable and quixotic as her childhood.

On other days when I sensed a sadness in her, she’d tell me about the old black woman on Canal Street, limping home from her job as a domestic, burdened with groceries, the deep lines of a hard life etched into her dark face.

My mother called the sidewalk a banquette. “Banquette,” she repeated the word so I would know the language of the city where she was born and raised, so I would understand how she left that language behind to make a new life in Ohio, and yet it lingered with her like a favorite song she couldn’t quite get out of her head, its lilting melody a relic of home. My ear keen to catch traces of her New Orleans accent that sometimes slipped out despite her vigilance. The soft drawl she couldn’t totally erase, always there.

“I remember this old black woman walking on Canal Street carrying all these packages. She looked so tired and worn out. This white man was walking toward her and when she didn’t move off the banquette, he shoved her off, shouting at her in a nasty voice. ‘Get out of my way,’ my mother paused, and then added. “He called her a terrible word. You know what I mean.”

I did know.

I never forgot that story or the way she sat on the bed her hands folded in her lap, her voice full of indignation tinged with sadness, her dark eyes fierce.

“That wasn’t right,” she said. “But that’s how it was in New Orleans back then.” She shook her head as if she needed to dislodge the image of the old black woman shoved off the banquette to make way for a white man who called her that word.

“That poor old black woman fell down, her packages everywhere, and that white man kept walking,” she said.

It wouldn’t be until after I appeared on Genealogy Roadshow that I understood the full significance of that story and why she told it to me.

But even as a child, I knew the story held a special meaning for her and a message for me. This is what it’s like to be a black person in the south. Who would want to endure that?

Only later, much later would I understand she was seeding my life with these clues, hinting at her hidden self or maybe preparing me to accept that part of her she’d left behind in New Orleans and her reason for doing that. Or maybe she was only telling me a story about prejudice and cruelty, teaching me right from wrong as any mother would do.

Once I asked her, “Why don’t you have a picture of your father Azemar?”

“I just don’t.” Her abruptness was a signal to me that the subject was not to be pursued.

She had a scattering of photos of her mother Camille, her sister Shirley and a few cousins. But in the family photo department, she was bereft. It was as if when she left New Orleans, she left all her family archives, if she had any, behind—a clean start free of family and memories.

“Why don’t we visit New Orleans,” I’d sometimes ask, wanting to see for myself where she grew up, see the scrolled ironwork of the Vieux Carre, walk the banquettes, hear the jazz music of her city and meet her relatives.

“Because it depresses me to go home.”

There was no way to bridge the finality of my mother’s reason, a woman prone to fits of depression so acute that for a time she saw a Cleveland psychiatrist. I didn’t want to make her sadder and so I stopped asking.

But I didn’t stop wondering. There was something about the unknown that I couldn’t let rest.

Looking back on her stories of her life growing up in New Orleans, I realize now that she wove a past for me that left out the most important part—her black heritage and what she’d done to hide it.

Photo courtesy of supercereal on Flickr licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

100_0391Gail Lukasik, Ph.D. writes the Leigh Girard mystery series (Five Star Mystery in hardcover and Harlequin in paperback) and is the author of Homeless, In My Own Words: True Stories of Homeless Mothers. She’s been published in The American Journal of Nursing, The Writer, and Ars Medica. Because her story resonated with viewers, she was asked to appear again on Genealogy Roadshow’s special episode (June 2016) “Our Favorite Stories.”


 

Get the Ms. Blog in your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter.

Comments

  1. What a beautiful rendition. Your mother sounds like a lovely woman.
    Good luck and God’s blessings.
    PamT

  2. Silvia Foti says:

    So beautiful and poetically rendered. I can just picture your mother, her strange, mysterious anguish, and you, so curious to learn more about her, which of course means to learn more about you.
    Silvia

  3. Sonia Schoenfield says:

    Wonderfully written, I want to read more! Bravo to Gail for such a sensitive portrayal of her mother’s hidden life.

  4. I would like to read this book. Is it out yet?

  5. Annie Chernow says:

    I’m so proud to call Gail my friend. This is such a moving and beautifully written portrayal of her mother’s secret life and origins. I’m so anxious to read the rest of this compelling memoir.

  6. Jeanne and Abby (Mere-Fille) says:

    She was a heroine. Always know that. Cheers!

  7. Linda R Andrews says:

    After seeing your initial appearance on “Genealogy Roadshow,” I remember thinking: “This lady definitely has a story to tell!” I’m happy you’ve chosen to share that story, which, after all, is your late mother’s story, the one she couldn’t bring herself to tell. It’s fascinating to see how much she shared with you, but also where she drew the curtains over her past. But it’s also sad to think about the price she paid for doing so — not just with you, but with the family she left behind. You honor them all by telling this story.

  8. Larry Szaraniec says:

    Wow, so very personal and clearly stated. Congratulations Gail.

  9. Patricia Skalka says:

    Very moving, Gail. I can hear your voice telling this very poignant story. What a lovely tribute to your mother, and what a sad commentary on our society. Thank you for sharing this with the world.

  10. Kristin says:

    Can’t wait for the book! I’m hooked!

  11. Linda Rubel says:

    I watched the Genealogy Roadshow and looked forward to hearing more about your story. Gail, having grown up with you in the city we did, I understand your Mom’s need to keep this secret. Looking forward to reading your book. You are a wonderful author, proud to have gone to grade school and high school with you.

  12. Nini Lustig says:

    Such a brilliant and courageous writer!
    When will the book be available? I’m fascinated and curious to read more…

  13. Ellen Jennings says:

    Beautifully rendered description of your mother and her stories and carefully hidden secrets. I cannot wait to read this book!

  14. Sherri Young says:

    I would imagine my great parents went through the exact situation as Gail’s mother, only they did not leave New Orleans. They just married light skinned immigrants who hadn’t a clue about their history and their children were never questioned. Twenty years ago, when I relayed the information to my mother that we had black ancestors, she was shocked, but after thinking about it, she said it answered so many questions about her family. Why so much information was missing….

  15. Betty Schatz says:

    I loved it, Gail. Can’t wait to read the rest of it and to see you on the Roadshow again.

  16. Linda Landis Andrews says:

    Gail Lukasik has captured eloquently the basic human search for identity. With unflinching courage she faced her mother’s long-kept secret and honored her mother’s request to keep her mixed-race secret until she died. Reading Gail’s story allows each of us to examine our attitude about race and heritage, subjects that continue to challenge every aspect of American society. Her search mirrors us.

    Linda Landis Andrews

  17. What a poignant and powerful story! That the dividing lines of race kept her from telling you about her true self is sad, but glad that she was able to tell you enough to imbue you with some of the magic of Louisiana and your heritage. Thank you for writing about it!

  18. Thank you so much for sharing your story!! I cannot wait to read the rest of your book!! My family also has their “secrets and lies” and I can relate to your discovery

  19. Faith Curtis says:

    Kudos to you Gail for sharing your mother’s story with the world and giving voice to her life and her secrets. Like a caged bird being released to fly! And, the life lessons here are so relevant to all of us.
    I too am glad to know that you are my friend – how proud I am of your courage, your honesty and your talent!

  20. Mia Mason says:

    This is a beautifully rendered story, Gail. I could feel the heat of New Orleans and the smell the clean scent of your home so lovingly scrubbed by your mother. I can’t wait to read “the rest of the story.” You are a magical writer, my friend.

  21. Rebecca Hankin says:

    What a masterful telling of your mother-daughter story. The details and imagery evoke both physical settings—New Orleans and your Ohio home—but also capture with precision the pain your mother experienced and the love she held for you. Brava!

  22. Mary Gauntner says:

    Beautifully written and a compelling personal story. I want to read the whole book. Congratulations, Gail!

  23. Nessia Chase says:

    The kind and loving way you have found to tell your mother’s life story is so touching and heartwarming. My curiosity is captured and I can’t wait to read the book.
    Thank you, Gail!

  24. Amy Maras says:

    I can picture it all in my mind; Gail as a child looking up to her mother who holds an air of mystery.

  25. Sharon Fiffer says:

    Moving and evocative! When is the book available?

  26. Nancy R.Cirillo says:

    a moving, important piece at this point in our history; Gail Lukasik captures the pride and the anguish of being part of this often hidden part of our national past. Her elegant, vivid handling of her mother’s story brings the reader into the middle of the most burning question of the day: what is race?

  27. Laurette Ferraresi says:

    Such brave and brilliant writing. All of that hard work and research has clearly paid off. I am looking forward to reading this story in its entirely. Great job, Gail!

  28. Beautiful piece, Gail. Powerful. I need to read the whole book now!

  29. I would love to see a picture of this beautiful woman and find out more about her.

  30. Beautiful. Your mother endured much. She had to be a strong woman. Love your portrayal of her in your writing.

  31. This piece is very well-written and evocative. I loved the details. I look forward to reading the book!

  32. Marcia Lee says:

    Dear Gail, I’m looking forword to reading your book as it sounds so similar to my grandmother on my father’s side of our family. Like my grannie your mother sounds like a very brave, strong woman who did what she could in a time when being a person of color who could pass for white meant leaving behind your family and always hiding the truth from outsiders & even members of your white side of the family. My grannie came from south Mississippi just close to the Louisiana line & had relatives in New Orleans also. She was married very young to a white man from Alabama who was living in her mother’s boarding house as he was working in a nearby lumber mill. They had two children, a boy my father, & his sister. They moved around with his work in the mills. In the early 1920s something happened in the marriage & they separated & the beginning of the family secrets began. Living in the deep south & passing for white, my grannie knew she needed to remarry to take care of herself & her children & she was determined to marry white again. She must have been desperate as she made the decision to give up her young daughter who could not pass as she & her son could. She gave my aunt at the time about age five, away to another member of her family to raise as their own child. She then met & took up with a much older white man who would raise her son as his & as she later said saw to it that she never wanted for anything. In the meantime her first husband had moved to Florida & also began a new family. Those days people just didn’t seem to bother with divorce. Time passed & she & her new husband & son moved to Florida about hundred miles from her first thought no one knew how close they were to each other. My mother came down from up north to visit her sister, met my father & they married. To shorten things my step grandfather died & my grannie came to live with us & began as you said dropping bread crumbs along the way & telling us somewhat altered truth about her side of the family. There were very few photos of her people & we never got to meet them though grannie would go by train to New Orleans to visit sometimes. We were young adults when we began to meet suddenly cousins who were about our age & who looked no different than us (i.e. white).The girls would sometimes stay a few days & grannie would always praise good, straight hair & staying out of the sun (no suntans for her) Well in the past few years we all got our DNA checked & dived deeply into our genealogy & found more family photos & info from our lost side of the family. The truth was that they were what in Louisiana were called people of color. So today we call ourselves tri-racial. I wish everyone could do their family histories,I think it would make more people think hard before make any remarks about others. Those others just might be them & they don’t know it.

Speak Your Mind

*

Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!