“Alan, come zip my dress, please!” I holler to my husband from our first-floor bedroom. The room is spotless, just like the rest of the house, for the party later.
“And see if you can find my phone! I’ve got to call Rosa to confirm her being here to meet the caterers.” I am talking too fast and too loud. I am panicking.
“Heath? Gwyneth? Are you ready to go?” I have not seen my kids yet, as they were upstairs in their rooms presumably getting ready to go to the ceremony. I want to make sure they are dressed appropriately, so I am a bit worried.
“I want to get a decent parking space so I don’t have to walk for miles in these shoes. Alan, are you sure you want to wear that plaid shirt? It’s kind of boring. C’mon guys, this is important to me.”
I know I am nagging, but I can’t help it.
“God Almighty this is gonna be a clusterfuck”, I whine.
I am in full panic mode, but in a mostly good way, if that makes sense. My oldest daughter, Alana, is graduating high school this evening, June 14, 2014. After the ceremony at the large coliseum, which I’m dreading because of the chaos, we’re all coming back to my house for a graduation party. And that will be the potentially awkward and uncomfortable part of the evening’s events. Among the guests there will be eight people—all of the parents and stepparents I’ve had in my life—who are all going to be in the same room together for the first time, and there is a distinct possibility that the whole night might go straight to hell.
“Is everyone ready to go?” I said.
“Alana, did you give all the grandparents their tickets or are we supposed to find them? Do we have a meeting place? Alana? Hello?” I said, panic continuing to rise in my voice by the moment.
“Alana has already gone ahead honey”, Alan said. “Don’t you remember she had to be there early? Just try to relax, it’s all going to be fine. Everyone will find the meeting place and they all have their tickets. I know you’re stressed but it’s all going to be okay.”
Once we are all downstairs ready to go, I examine my family. They are dressed relatively appropriately. Heath, aged 16, his six foot tall frame, dark hair recently trimmed appropriately for the occasion, including his emerging mustache and beard (of which he was most proud), in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, Gwyneth, aged 13, her 5’4” stature, in her standard “I hate dressing up so I’m wearing the only dress I own” which is drab and frankly, unflattering. Sad, too, because she is stunningly beautiful with long blonde hair, beautiful eyes and plump lips. Her curvy figure is just starting to take shape and she is gorgeous. Alan, who is 6’3”, with a full head of black hair, just barely graying at the temples, is also in his standard fare of khaki slacks and an okay-ish plaid button down shirt, no tie. He, too, is extremely handsome and cleans up well. We are rather an odd looking family, with Gwyneth and myself both short and blonde, and Alana, also blonde and beautiful, and Heath, are both very tall and thin. I wear a lovely floral dress with high heels and I feel very attractive this evening. I am 52 years old and still feel pretty good about my looks.
“Oh hell and damn it all then. Let’s just go and get this over with” I concede.
The four of us pile into our blue Honda Pilot SUV and head down our long gravel driveway to the road that we live on, Clapp Farms Road, named after Alan’s extended family. It is a two mile stretch of farms and dotted with about twenty dwellings, from a few very nice houses, to a number of ranch-style homes to the ever attractive mobile homes. Also included is the migrant farm workers temporary housing. Alan’s dad and brother own one of the farms and other forks of the family tree owns the additional farms. Alan does not farm; he is a soil scientist for the Orange County, NC Health Department and I work part time from home as an accounting paraprofessional. Our house, a two-story brick house, looks lovely on our 3 acres of land, set about 300 feet back from the road with several trees, a long winding gravel driveway and a forest of trees on each side. You cannot see the house from the road so it’s a nice private place. It is considered to be the 3rd nicest house on our road.
We head towards Interstate 40W/85S which is just a few turns from our house and we merge into the traffic which is pretty heavy as everyone seems to be driving to the godforsaken Greensboro Coliseum Complex where the graduation is being held. Traffic on this stretch of highway between Greensboro and Burlington is always bad but it is certainly worse due to the comings and goings of all the graduation traffic.
I dial Rosa’s cell phone, “Rosa, we’ve just left the house. Are you all set to meet the caterers at 7:00? And then if you would, please set up everything buffet style in the kitchen like we planned and if you have time before anybody arrives do a final sweeping of the downstairs where the party is going to be.”
“Jes, I be there with everyting ready,” she said in her broken English.
”I set everyting up and I sweep floors.”
Rosa, a sweet 42 year old Hispanic woman who was all of 5’ tall, if even, and shaped like a beach ball, is my closest friend who also cleans and manages my house every week. I know she has everything under control. Of course she does! When has she not?
“If any of our guests arrive early could you please let them in and offer them a drink? It’s possible that Alan’s aunt Lib and uncle Eddie will be there as well as Andy and Lisa, Alan’s brother and sister in law, and a few other friends that we’ve invited to the party that are not coming to the graduation. I’ve told them to arrive around 8 o’clock so that should be plenty of time for us to get back from the graduation ceremony.” I replied.
“Jes, I have everyting ready and will let people in,” she confirmed.
I thank her profusely as I always do and we end the call. I am still a ball of nervous energy, trying to think of anything I might have forgotten to do or ask Rosa to do. Following the graduation ceremony, we are having a party at our house. We are expecting about 25 people total, including some other friends, three of my four siblings, Alan’s aunt, uncle, brother and sister-in-law and of course my dear Rosa, and her son, Edgar, who grew up with Heath. We are serving a taco bar, catered by Moe’s, wine, beer, soft drinks, and a graduation cake specially made for Alana. The decorations are done: We have the requisite CONGRATULATIONS banner, streamers, and lovely flowers on the table. My final decorative touch was taking every 8×10 school picture of Alana throughout her life, including a few baby pictures, and taping them to the kitchen cabinets in our U-shaped kitchen in age order, except for the picture of her graduation from preschool in which they dressed them in cap and gowns; this one I hung above her current graduation cap and gown picture. It is a fun idea and I think it will go over well.
It took us about 20 minutes to drive to the venue and upon arrival we could see that the parking situation was dire and I was not happy because I knew that I would be walking a long way in my heels. There are traffic police directing us where to park and we disembark from our car and start our trek towards the entrance to the Coliseum. Alan is holding my hand both for moral support and so I won’t fall right off my high heels.
The Greensboro Coliseum Complex is its own special nightmare with its multiple venues for different sized events, no decent signage or directions on where to go and of all things, a long uphill ramp to navigate. Every year, there are 26 high schools in Guilford County, NC, graduating back to back over a period of three days, all at this monolithic Coliseum. We finally make it up the ramp and walk towards the entrance where I see that the previous graduation ceremony is just letting out and they are all taking pictures in a sea of red and white caps and gowns along with hundreds of attendees dressed up, dressed down, and some just dressed downright inappropriately.
Meanwhile we push through the crowd of the previous graduates and their families and we make our way to the place we had agreed to meet our family members, the grandparents. This was near the ticket booth at the entrance. I could see from afar that all eight of them are there including my mother, my father, my biological father, and my ex-stepmother, and their respective spouses, my current stepparents. That’s right, four sets of maternal grandparents. This whole time I’m thinking to myself that I’m excited about the novelty of it all and I’m proud to show off my beautiful graduate and my two other children, but I’m also nervous and ambivalent. I feel like I’m a teenager again, trying to impress these various parental figures, hoping they’ll be proud of me, presenting them with all this perfection I’m trying to create. Maybe they’ll accept me finally; maybe they’ll see that I’m not so awful after all, considering they all abandoned and neglected me at some point in my youth. Basically, I’m a nervous wreck over the whole thing. Still, the novelty is the highlight: my Mom, Rima, and her third husband Bill, my adopted Dad, Gary (Mom’s second husband) and his third wife Sandy, my biological Father, Bill, who left my Mom when I was six months old (and who was also pregnant with my brother when he walked out on her), and his fourth wife Nancy, who is just nine years my senior, and finally, my ex-stepmother, Debbie, eight years my senior, formerly married to my adopted Dad, Gary, and currently married to her second husband, Dennis. All eight of these adults claim grandparent status with my kids, even though they all relinquished me to an ever circling cycle of parental units from the age of six months until age 15, when I was sent packing for the final time from Columbus, Ohio to Chapel Hill, NC, to live with my maternal grandmother, now deceased. Clusterfuck indeed. Each of these individuals represented 19 marriages, albeit some to each other, but 19 separate marriage ceremonies, (four of which I attended), among the eight people. Fucking ridiculous. I was most nervous about my Dad, Gary, and my ex-stepmother, Debbie, seeing each other as they’d had an ugly and contentious divorce in 1990 after 15 years of marriage.
As we approach them we all say our hellos and commence with the proper hugging and greeting. My mom just generally annoys me, with her narcissistic all-about-her attitude, my adopted dad is stoic and proper but I recognize underneath that demeanor that he can snap in a second into meanness as he has in the past. My birth father is ever cheerful and feeling festive, and my ex-stepmother seems a bit trepidatious at being in my adopted dad’s company. This meet and greet seems to go on forever and I am overwhelmed inside my head upon seeing them all, given our sad history, but outwardly, I am quite upbeat and cheerful. I, ever in full hostess mode, make sure that our eight guests all knew and/or remembered each other from previous events that they have attended. Having them all together, however, is really intense. I wonder how they felt?
Even though this is my first child graduating, I’ve attended other high school graduations, and it’s a nightmare of pomp and circumstance with all the yelling parents, whooping students, picture taking, no one following directions…… I am already hating every minute of it. The crowd is getting larger as the previous graduates are still milling about and the family and friends of the next graduates are arriving.
Meanwhile, we’d gotten 12 tickets, the maximum allowed, which were to be doled out as follows: Alan, Heath, Gwyneth, myself, and then the ridiculous array of four sets of grandparents, this merry set of misfits.
Tickets in hands, we snake our way through the crowd and head towards the main area where we are to be seated in bleachers. The graduates themselves will be seated on the main floor. We walk in and try to find a row of bleachers where we could all sit together which ends up being close to the very top of the bleacher section. I lead our group up the rickety, metal bleachers. The uneven steps are difficult to traverse in our dress clothes and shoes. Once again, thank God for Alan guiding me all the way up lest I tumble, which I am lately wont to do more often than usual. I can see that my days of wearing high heels are numbered.
Once we are all seated I lean over to Alan and whisper, “Alan, look at this!” I exclaimed.
“Can you believe that all these people are here together in one place? It’s all so weird. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all, I have to be honest. I’m trying to be festive on what should be all about Alana’s day, but my thoughts are racing with all of them here and bringing forward painful memories that I don’t want to deal with”.
I look at each of them all sitting together in our aisle: All of them highly educated with college degrees, some had master’s degrees, one, a law degree, and three ordained ministers. All very smart people intellectually but pretty much not a clue as to how to raise their collective nine children.
Mom, who is a short, plump, dark-haired woman, to whom I resemble not at all, her current husband Bill C., an average looking guy, bearded and dressed straight out of the 1970’s; Bill W., my biological father whom I didn’t meet until I was 16 years old, a tall balding grayish-blonde man who is professional and dapper and the parent I look most like, and his wife Nancy, a young tiny spirited gal with short red cropped hair, dressed in her flowy Chico’s style that she always seems to favor; my adopted Dad, Gary, hair completely gray now, which is in stark contrast to his formerly black hair back in the day, is of average height and struggles with his weight and a few medical issues, his wife Sandy, who is difficult to describe because she is quiet as a mouse, but is very smart and completely devoted to Dad; and finally Debbie, a short woman, with short blonde hair, proportionately plump and dressed very nicely, along with her husband, the always smiling, good natured and good looking Dennis. It is such an aberration, seeing all these couples now comfortably settled into their presumably final marriages, and I couldn’t help comparing their current spouses to the ones they were previously married to, and all with whom I lived with at one point in my childhood. Essentially, prior to moving in with my grandmother, I’d lived among four different family units in my youth, one of which I had no biological relationship to.
“Honey, just try not to think about the past right now; think about the fact that they all wanted to be here and celebrate our Alana,” Alan replied.
“But I’m struggling with the idea of ‘how dare they think they can swoop in and claim grandparent status’ after each and every one of them abandoned and neglected me from the age of six months. I still have complicated relationships with each of them and it’s exhausting for me to make nice and share pleasantries with all of them and their current spouses, most of with whom I barely have any investment in, at the same time when I can barely tolerate any of them in just the smallest of doses” I said.
“Honey, let’s just see how it goes, okay? I will be with you the whole time and I promise you nothing bad is going to happen. It’s Alana’s day and that’s why we’re all here,” Alan said, always the voice of positivity and reason.
That helps a little but the night is still young and the variety of combustive personalities, my own included, has the potential makings of plenty of drama. Having suffered from clinical depression my whole life, although not officially diagnosed and properly medicated until age 28, I am really feeling out of sorts and experiencing a great deal of anxiety.
The graduation ceremony itself is predictably tedious with all the introductions of school board members, special guests, and then the boring speeches, followed by over 200 graduates called up by name in alphabetical order to cross the stage and receive their diplomas. As mind numbing as it is, I must admit that it was thrilling to watch the graduates file in to their seats with the traditional pomp and circumstance music, and then to hear Alana Clapp’s name and watch her glide across that stage like the statuesque model she is meant to be. This is the biggest day in her young life so far and she is walking on air. I scramble down the bleachers, surprisingly without falling, and take a couple of good, close up pictures of her as she descends the stage. It really is exhilarating. Interestingly, I never experienced my own graduation ceremony as I was able to graduate early due to my excellent academics and the different requirements from Ohio to NC, so there had been no fanfare for me. I suspect there wouldn’t have been regardless, as by that time, at age 16, I was estranged from most of my family and was working full time, couch surfing, until I slunk away and moved to another town, virtually unnoticed as soon as I turned 17 in July of 1979.
Once the ceremony is over, the graduates are dismissed and then the friends and family are instructed to leave. This is the final graduation of the day, so the crowd isn’t too bad, and we are able to spot Alana fairly quickly.
I grab her and hug her tall frame tightly. “Honey, I’m so proud of you! You look stunning and full of joy! I can’t believe my baby has graduated from high school. This is wonderful!” I said.
“Thanks Mom. This is all so crazy isn’t it?” she replied.
“Yes, sweetie, it is. So have you seen all the grandparents yet?” I ask.
“Yes, they’re all over there waiting to take pictures,” she pointed.
We all gather together to take pictures and it is chaos on steroids. I am ready to go home and get this strangely bizarre party started. I attempt to speed things up, promising plenty of picture opportunities at the party. Alana needs extra time to take pictures with her friends so the 12 of us left to head back to the house.
The drive home seems quicker and I am getting excited, yet still flustered and nervous. So far, so good, but the night is young. Anything could happen. When we arrive home, I see a couple of cars parked in the grassy area next to the driveway so I knew that some guests had arrived. Of course Rosa has everything done up beautifully and she is acting as hostess as well. God Bless that woman.
Once the festivities begin in our home, the crowd of 25 or so is mainly hanging out in the kitchen getting food and drinks. The buffet includes Mexican fare of chicken, beef, lettuce, salsa, sour cream, guacamole and soft taco shells. We also serve Mexican rice and black beans, and for beverages I have a big copper bin filled with ice, soft drinks, beer and wine. The caterers provided all the paper products so we were in business and ready to start eating and drinking. Everyone is looking and marveling at the pictures I’d hung on the cabinet doors in the kitchen as they move through the buffet line and then one by one begin slowly moving into the living room, sunroom and parlor, all on the first floor of our house, to visit, commiserate and take pictures. Alana arrived not long after we did, as did the remainder of invited guests. I am feeling much more relaxed by this time. Things seem to be going smoothly and everyone is civilized, festive and on their best behavior. There is the inevitable awkwardness of introducing all these grandparents to the other party guests, especially those from Alan’s family, because how do I explain that this or that couple got married, got divorced, remarried this person and that one is my biological father whom I call by his given name, Bill, while this one is my adopted father whom I call Dad, and this one is the ex-stepmother, etc. and here’s how I’m related to them, and oh, by the way, I lived with all of them at one point in my life, but was ultimately invited to move on to the next family unit in fairly short order.
“Mom? Can you and Bill take a picture with me?” I ask. “I’d like to have one with just the three of us since we’ve never had an opportunity to do that.”
“Yes, of course,” they both replied, seeming somewhat distracted by this interruption.
I rush around trying to find someone to take this epic snapshot that I could never have imagined would exist. I feel very childlike in my excitement of having this particular photo captured. Maybe this photograph will give me some validation. Each of my biological parents had abandoned me in my childhood, but are now here willing to be photographed with me. It sounds rather pathetic and I guess it really is. Of all the novelty that this graduation party brings, it is so important to me to have my picture taken with my biological parents-just the three of us. Only one such photograph exists and it was taken in 1962 shortly after my birth. Many people are lucky enough to take such a thing for granted, but there were periods in my childhood when I lived with no blood relative, and for some reason, having this picture taken is profoundly important to me.
I stand between my biological parents with our arms around each other and it is surreal. After the photo is taken, I feel a rush of emotion about it, but at the same time, I wasn’t surprised when Mom and Bill seemed very nonchalant, like it was no big deal. They move along back into the crowd, and it made me feel like it meant nothing to them.
The party itself was a grand success, lasting a couple of hours, and I feel success as a welcoming hostess. I am grateful there is no drama except what I am feeling internally. Despite my internal struggles, I manage. Alana is, of course, the center of attention and Alan and I are so proud of her. She leaves towards the end of the party to visit her house bound grandfather, Alan’s dad, and then she is taking off for the beach with her crew of best friends for a post graduation celebration. I am so happy for her and extremely proud.
Once my parents and their spouses depart, I felt a sense of relief but also a sad sense of disappointment. These people hurt me; they abandoned me, they neglected me. I desperately wanted to feel better about my lingering childhood pain but it stays with me, this childhood trauma. Whatever expectations I had for any validation or penance (not that this was the time or place for it), were dashed and frankly I was just glad it was over. I have so many feelings right now: relief, exhaustion, sadness, curiosity, heartache……I’d once thought that time would heal, but I feel now for the first time that it may never happen. I will forever seek acceptance, love, validation, even as I know that no matter what I’m told, I’ll never really believe anything different than how I lived my entire childhood and young adult years—neglected, abandoned, ignored, cast aside. I’ve never known any different, but I broke that vicious cycle with Alan and my children, and I am ever grateful for that.