Something a little different today. Because sometimes, we just need to reflect on who we are.
I grew up in a world of girls with freckled skin, little dots that danced upon their shoulders and noses, caressing pink flesh. My friends’ pale bodies were highlighted with fiery red hair, and eyes of sapphire that peeked beneath heavy bangs.
My skin was unlike that of my friends, a dark olive layer stretched over thin bones. With straight brown hair and chocolate eyes, I was the black lab thrown in with the pretty poodles.
On summer days, we tossed blankets across the scratchy lawn, doused our bodies in baby oil and lay down, them eager to set their fair skin aglow, and I just looking for friendship, a feeling of belonging. Soon, my friends turned pink, and in their excitement, they added more oil, waiting for a tan that never appeared. At the end of an hour, or two, their skin was crimson red and mine a dark leather, a hint of Pocahontas running through my veins. The differences in our heritages became sharp.
My friends questioned me about cocoa eyes, and skin that browned beneath a summer sky. I told them I was Swedish, my eyes adapted from relatives before me. Truth was, I didn’t know. My heritage was a secret, like another one I couldn’t reveal.
“Can’t I even tell my best friend?” I asked my mother.
“It’s private,” my mom said.
My friends were curious, persistent, too, questioning about family, relatives, and my country of origin. Classmates soon joined in.
“Are you Jewish? Indian? French?” they asked.
“No,” I replied. I would have given anything to be any of those: a strong Jewish girl with creamy black eyes; a beautiful and brave Sacagawea; or a charming and graceful French girl, like the ones I’d read about in history class. I often dreamt of faraway lands, and wondered where I had come from.
One day, I sat in the backyard with my friend. She bent over to play with little ants that crawled upon her white toes. My secrets were gnawing at me until I could no longer contain them.
“I don’t know who my father is. I’m adopted,” I blurted out.
Her eyes widened. For a second, I thought I’d lost my friend. I thought she’d run and tell others how I was born without a father, without a heritage. But she didn’t. She studied me, then shrugged her pearly shoulders.
“That explains it,” she said as she flicked an ant off her leg.
Time wore on and new children entered the school. My friend was the only one who knew my secrets, but it no longer mattered. There were now others in our class with skin darker than mine, and eyes that matched my own. I was no longer the focus of attention. Yet my classmates’ voices still echoed in my head.
In high school, I wanted to know the truth. One day as my mom bent over her mending, I approached her. “Mom, who is my real dad?”
She looked up, scrunched her thin brows together, and paused before answering. “The dad you have now has been a good provider. Why would you want to know a man who left before you were born?”
“I just wanted his name.” Her face was clouded, covered in hurt, and I stepped away. I knew then my life was, and always would be, a mystery.
Long after I had my own family, I received a letter from my mom. Tucked inside the envelope was a small card, one short phrase scribbled in black ink. “Here is the name of your real father.”
There it was, the name I had longed for, the name that meant I had a dad, a heritage, an ancestry. That meant I belonged. I wanted to ask my mother about that man, but like other parts of our lives, it would remain an unspoken secret resting in the quiet space between us.
I should have been ecstatic when I received that name. But even as I tucked the letter deep inside a file drawer, something inside me hurt. I still felt alone, and very lost.
I didn’t know what was missing, until the day my niece came to visit.
We sat out in the hot summer sun. My niece, not yet a teen, sat next to me drinking lemonade. Her golden hair cascaded over pale shoulders, much like my friends. When she spoke, her blue eyes lit like tiny Christmas bulbs.
“You’re tan,” she said.
“I am. I have olive skin that tans easily.”
She was quiet as she searched my face, skin, and eyes. I wondered if she noticed the differences the same way my friends once did. I broke the silence.
“You have beautiful hair,” I said, and I meant it. It was gorgeous.
“Do you ever wish you had blonde hair?” she asked.
Her locks glistened in the sun’s rays that streamed through the windows, her skin glowed with a healthy childish radiance, but I realized, for the first time in my life, I didn’t want any of those things. I just wanted to be me.
“No,” I said, “I like who I am.”
“That’s good,” she said.
I watched my niece and her family leave, five blonde heads bounding out the door. As I waved and walked away, a reflection caught my eye. In the mirror was a little girl, scared and alone, her dark skin lost in a sea of pale friends. She blinked. I blinked.
She began to fade, golden skin growing older, fiery eyes aging in wisdom. As I looked at her, I noticed a confidence and security I’d never seen before. I knew then what I needed to do.
I walked to the office, pulled open the old cabinet drawer, removing the letter my mom had sent me. Tattered and torn, its contents smeared with age, I carefully traced the name with my finger.
I would never see that name again. One day, it would fall from memory. As I scrunched the paper into a ball and placed it in the waste basket, I said goodbye to a man I never saw, and a heritage I would never know.
My life was still a mystery. But now it was a mystery in which I belonged.