of significance to no one but me
1977. Jimmy Carter was president of the United States, Queen Elizabeth II was entering her twenty-fifth year as monarch of England, and the Cold War wouldn’t end for another eleven years. And in a small Oklahoma town, a sixteen-year-old girl ran away from home for the first time.
I don’t know where she went. Maybe she fled to the house of the man she’d lost her virginity to when she was fourteen, who turned out to be gay. Maybe she hitched a ride to Tulsa, and wandered the city streets, thinking through her next move.
After several of these incidents, with the girl sometimes disappearing for days at a time, she was labeled “impossible.” Her parents sent her to live with her aunt and uncle and their two children on the Army base in Fort Benning, Georgia. I don’t know how she got to Georgia, by plane, train, or bus. How many hours or days it took her to reach her new home and new family.
How did she feel on the cross-country trip, this sixteen-year-old girl, shipped out by her parents like an unwanted parcel? Scared? Happy? Relieved? Confused? Maybe she didn’t even know why she was being sent away. Maybe she didn’t care. If nothing else, her destination represented a new beginning, an opportunity—either to start over, or continue her waywardness.
It seems she chose to do the latter, and my mother gave birth to me on September 16, 1978, two months before her seventeenth birthday.
My mother lived at Fort Benning with her aunt and uncle, Sandy and John Christianson, and their two children, Jada and Johnny. She babysat for families on the base for spending money. Sometimes this money was squandered on cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. One family she babysat for was the Rodriguez’s. The father’s nickname was “Chief.” He was Native American and Mexican; the mother was Puerto Rican.
Mom went to high school with Eddie, the Rodriguez’s fifteen-year-old son. Before long they started dating, my mother’s first monogamous relationship. Mom told me that my father was quiet, shy, and had dimples and blue eyes. They went for long walks behind the woods where they lived and just talked, often spending hours laying on a large, flat rock along their favorite path. He wanted to get an engineering degree and return to his mother’s native Puerto Rico, to help the people there. While she listened to him weave fantasies about his future, my mother ran her fingers through my father’s long, wavy hair.
But unlike my mother, who had received a book from my Grandmother Connie at twelve called Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, Eddie was naïve. When my mother seduced him, how could a fifteen-year-old boy refuse?
My mother says neither Eddie nor his parents knew about the pregnancy. If they did, she said she was positive his Roman Catholic parents would have forced them to marry. However, my Grandmother Connie told me that Chief and his wife did know. And that the Rodriguez’s offered their home to my mother, to raise me as one of their own.
At the time, Sandy was planning the Christianson’s move to Fort Hood, Texas. She gave my mother the choice of staying with the Rodriguez’s or going to Texas with them. Mom did neither. She moved back to Oklahoma to live with Grandmother Connie, her husband Merle, and their five-year-old daughter, my Aunt Edith. My mother kept her baby a secret until she got sick and had to visit the doctor.
Grandma Connie was outraged when the doctor asked her if she knew her daughter was pregnant. Grandma may have been frustrated that her attempts to make her daughter a responsible young adult had failed, or perhaps at thirty-six-years-old, she wasn’t ready to be called “grandma.” Grandmother Connie and the doctor both suggested that my mother have an abortion, but she refused. Mom’s Christian faith taught her that life began at conception, and she trusted that God had a plan for both her and her unborn child.
After I was born, Great-grandmother Millie asked Mom what she planned to name me. Without knowing if her child was male or female, Mom hadn’t picked out a name in advance. Great-grandmother Millie told my mother to name me after her, Amanda Caroline. Grandma Connie said, “Well, you’ve never let any of your children name their children after you. Why the hell should we name a nigger baby after you?”
Great-grandma Millie said, “To be blunt, the baby’s got ten fingers and ten toes, beautiful hair, and Amanda Caroline suits her!” Challenged by the family’s matriarch, Grandma Connie stormed out of the room.
Mom stayed with my grandparents until November. Apparently, Grandma Connie was still upset. To her, there were only two races—black and white. My mother worried that she might try to put me up for adoption. Not only this, but my grandparents wouldn’t help her take care of me. Perhaps Mom had expected to have less responsibility.
So my mother moved in with the Christiansons again when I was three months old. By this time John had returned from Germany and been discharged from the service due to bypass surgery. Sandy took over my upbringing, and my mother was a carefree teenager once again.