Alright, the song goes "Late December back in '63". Bear with me here - its all relevant!
Sometimes, we find ourselves connected to the strangest things – not getting rid of an old piece of junk, that you know is junk, that you know should be thrown out, but still, you keep it, time after time when cleaning out the basement or attic.
Funny how these things sometimes defy logic. But mind doesn’t always win over heart and a small token someone gave you can hold a treasure trove of emotions.
Some of us do indeed separate from things – others, rest on a scale somewhere between “saver” and “out of control hoarder” (hopefully, not one ready for a prime-time TV show). My mom was an extreme saver; I think an elementary hoarder as well because some of the things she became attached to and kept made absolutely no sense to me.
Cleaning out her house, I found a crayon drawing I made of our family when I was in kindergarten, many old pictures, two identical pink glass sugar bowls (replacements for the one we used, should it break), and a box marked “Janie’s Baby Clothes from Angel Guardian”. Inside, cleaned, pristine and kept as if it was Princess Diana’s wedding gown were the “onesie”, a slip, the dress and yes, even the shoes I came home from my first home, Angel Guardian, in Brooklyn. My father always talked about putting me in the car seat and my foot resting on the steering wheel. My mother’s “best day in her life” and for me, a day in transit with my little stuffed rabbit.
And while 2020 has been a year of distance, missed celebrations, illnesses and loss for so many of us, the year of the pandemic has made the connections I have had with family be a longed-for-continued-next-year occurrence, I have built my business during this year, making connections with some amazing people and companies and I have made connections I never thought possible.
Say what you will about our governor here in New York, but I will forever be in debt to Andrew Cuomo. You see, on January 15th of this year, he signed legislation that unsealed all the adoption records here in the state. So off my application and $15 check to the Office of Vital Records went and I waited patiently. I would finally have the piece of paper that everyone else has – no more “Certification of Birth” – an honest to goodness Birth Certificate. The name given to me at birth; the time I was born; what hospital I was born in.
So many answered questions. And the answer to one I had never thought possible – the name of the parents I never knew.
A month later, the envelope was in the mailbox.
As a StartingBloc Fellow, I sat in sessions less than one year ago and heard how the racism, marginalization, and outright criminal behavior of some members of our communities who were initially trusted to serve and protect went horribly wrong.
As a person who has an ambiguous look to them, I have been on the receiving end of hearing how “privileged I am as a white woman in this country” and also been asked as I stood in the store I co-owned holding a broom, “Can you tell me if the owner is in?”. I have had a person of color tell me I was racist because we put the wrong date on a printed ribbon and could not move fast enough for her when we said we would redo all 30 favors.
I have been in a McDonald’s when someone has randomly said that the white people standing there were the cause of the latest attack on a person of color, only to walk out of that store and be stared down by the police sitting in a patrol car outside the place.
When I was in high school, I was told by an NYPD officer that if I ever dared to walk away from one, I would be “shot in the back”. Just the thing that would leave an impression on a 15-year-old – one who was terrified of everything and just walked where you were not supposed to.
Yet, I took the Entrance Exam for the NYPD ten years after that incident. I was told by the officer proctoring the test that day that this was not the job for me after he grabbed my hand and read the side of my school ring – “MS?”, he asked. “What the hell do you want to this job for?” His question made me want to do it even more, but my life had gone in a different direction by the time I was called.
I am Italian, Spanish, British, and Scottish – adopted and raised in a family of all that mixed. I have come to learn that my birth family includes Lithuanian, German, Syrian, and Armenian citizenry and a mix of Guatemalan and Honduran as well. I feel like the United Nations, but people see what they wish to see.
I am frightened for my niece who rides an ambulance each day during these violent clashes. I worry as much for the other children in my family, some of whom were also adopted and some who were not and are people of color. I hear news anchors say that they do not know how to have conversations about what is going on in our country with co-workers because they are so afraid to say the wrong thing. I think back to conversations I have had with women who say they had trouble telling their Hispanic families that they were dating a person of color – a person not the same color as they were. I remember one of my first friends in kindergarten who I was friends with pure and simple – I had no idea there was a difference in the color of our skin.
Over the last few months, I have been told that I am overtly political by people who are not of the thinking that I am. I have been called a “liberal”, a “Democrat” – as if those words were profanity in and of themselves. The disdain and vitriol those words carry for the people using them, absolutely amazes me. But when I ask for factual data or statements backed by data, those same people seemingly change the subject or deflect to a different line or phrase because they cannot back their claims up. While the whole world is on lock-down, I hear some of those same people saying it is a hoax, a scam, and we are all being led like sheep.
The plain and simple truth is this. George Floyd died. All the medical examiners agreed it was a homicide. There should have been no waiting – ALL the officers involved should have been fired AND arrested immediately. If it were you or I perpetrating the same crime on a street in Anywhere, USA, we would all be locked up. The saddest part is that no one is realizing just how many people each of us knows that could have been the man on that pavement. Why it may even have been YOU!
Our police departments are simply a microcosm of society – there are countless good cops who do good things, who sacrifice their lives to protect ours. Just like in society, there are bad cops who do bad things. The system has to change, training has to change, laws have to change. But the biggest change must come in MINDSET. However, when you go against the “accepted”, the “norm”, you are fighting a losing battle unless the change is drastic, pervasive, and equal.
I see posts on social media that have Dr. Martin Luther King pictured, which say “Looted nothing; Burned nothing; Attacked no one. Changed the World”
Has it really changed?
It is fifty plus years from HIS death at the hands of a maniac with a rifle. We still have that scenario playing out, but the victims now are children in school buildings. We still have oppressors with no good reason other than THEY CAN, committing the same senseless crimes against unarmed people – people of color. Data shows more white people are killed by police – according to my detractors – but those statistics do not state whether they are killed when handcuffed over suspicion of passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. Proportionally, there are more white people in this country so until you give me a more broken-down statistic where everything is equal, I will not accept that as an argument.
I worry about everyone I met in StartingBloc – regardless of color, race, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, or any other classification needed to make us different. I worry because this group of people struck me as so young and so determined to change the world. I pray that they do not get jaded – I pray that they have the energy to continue the work that needs to be done in their communities all around the world.
I hope that each person on this planet would truly take a walk in another person’s shoes. In another time, another place – with one slight change in how the universe operates, all of this could be very different. The oppressors could have been oppressed; the privileged could have been without. Living for yourself gets lonely – living for each other brings focus and meaning into life.
I have always taken inspiration from the women in my life.
From when I was a very young child, I always noted how people interacted with each other. I knew what my mom meant and she didn’t have to say much, to me, my father or anyone else in the family. My aunts conveyed love in different ways – one did it with brownies, the other, with challenges to me, her children, and my cousins.
I had cousins who were very influential and more relatives in an extended family who led without ever letting anyone know that they were being led. Women who did what was expected, did a bit covertly to get what was needed for the sitjation, some who achieved just by believing in the power of support.
This past week, for me, was the end of an era. I had said goodbye to my mother’s sister, my uncle’s wife. And although I still have the gift of many of my mother’s friends from younger years (some from her childhood), on Sunday, we lost the last of my wife’s aunts.
So why are you writing this post, you ask….
I write this post, along with the others I have written here for my Aunt Flo, Mother Theresa, and my own mother. I write this post with the title “How fortunate were we” because her name reflected that – Fortunata; we all called Fay, Aunt Fay, even Uncle Fay (my brother-in-law’s pet name for her).
A long and winding history with Aunt Fay and her family, I had known her for at least the last thirty years of my life. She went from being my friend’s aunt to a welcoming hostess, to a business advisor and confidante, to one of the best friends a person could have. And although we were quite different in age, I looked to Aunt Fay because she embodied so much of what women of her generation were never supposed to achieve.
She was the second child of three, born to immigrant parents in Brooklyn. She lived through The Great Depression, World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, 9/11, and plenty of global issues, good and bad; technology, transportation, and communication innovations along with the change empowerment, education, and expectations for everyone. She wanted to go to college and did, with her parents’ blessings and encouragement. She changed majors and found a life-long love for numbers and business.
She was Valedictorian for her graduating class; she earned her CPA license in 1961, which she held until a few years ago. She served on the Board of Directors of a prominent hospital and volunteered at many school functions. Along with her husband, she ran one of the most successful dealerships in the Northeast for decades. A mother to five children, grandmother of seven, and great-grandmother of two.
Her faith was always one of the most prominent things in her life. She drove to Mass every day until a few years ago. She took great joy in celebrating with her family, her extended family and was always ready to reminisce about the “good ol’ days”.
But here’s why I have to write about Fortunata, Aunt Fay…
She welcomed me into her family from day one. She didn’t question why she simply said “Grab a plate and help yourself!” And as our friendship grew over the years, Aunt Fay would sit with me for hours and talk about my business, her business, and where things were headed in the world of business. We usually had our conversations over a nice glass of wine or a long after-dinner drink. We often went for dinner with our “Gang” – Age, Mother Theresa, Rae, Grandma – and although our group got smaller as the years went by, we always raised a glass to toast the ones who were no longer with us.
Welcoming was one thing Aunt Fay did so well. The other, for me, was supporting. She supported me like my own mother. She always had words of encouragement for me. When I graduated from the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program, she came to the ceremony and told me that she was so proud of me and my accomplishment. We spoke the language of business, the language of women who were ofttimes marginalized, and understood how important it was to have a sounding board, a mentor.
So here’s to my friend, my “drinking buddy”, my Aunt Fay. She was the last of a long line of characters in my wife’s family whom I can say I had the honor of meeting, the pleasure of knowing and the gratefulness of their friendship. When I saw her for what would be the last time a few days before she passed, I said to her “Aunt Fay, we have to go for a drink soon, right?”, she perked up, smiled and said “Absolutely!”
Cheers to my friend who brought me nothing but Buona Fortuna in knowing her.
Mother’s Day usually led to a conversation I had with my mom almost every year. The language of adoption. Some famous person who had adopted a child would pass away and the reporter would usually state something like “Her children, John and Mary and her adopted son, Fred” and my mom and I would be unnerved that there would be a differentiation made.
In 1965, a young woman, no more than 19 years old, gave birth to me. I do not know the circumstances surrounding her decision to give me up for adoption but that was to be part of my story. Adoption and acceptance have always been important to me. My parents always told me I was special and I knew from the very beginning that I was adopted.
But that is where it stayed. It was part of my story that differentiated me from friends, classmates and even cousins. A closed adoption made final in 1967, my parents were Mary and Ernie Parmel – my parents. No “adoptive” – I was not referred to as “adopted”. And to the days after my parents both left this earth, I was their daughter.
Laws may change, new information may be garnered, even sealed records can be opened. That doesn’t change the fact that my mom raised me to be the person I am today – as her own. A friend who was also adopted once said to me that we didn’t grow under their heart but in it.
One thing I know for sure, my mom (and dad too!) is up there watching out for me, shaking her head at the crazy things I get myself involved in, wringing her hands with the things I do that she would have told me not to. On Mother’s Day, I realize that she was right 99.9% of the time, she worried about me more than she needed to, and I know that “paper is thicker than blood”, a phrase we laughed at.
And one more thing on this Mother’s Day…
Mostly all the people in my life, over all these years have told me that today we celebrate women who are mothers, who wish to be mothers, women who have lost children, who have chosen not to have children and those who did not have the gift of their own children in their lives. Faces, names, known or unknown, women that have given up a gift of a child, conceived in any circumstance should also be celebrated for their ultimate sacrifice – so that someone may have a better life – the child and the family they are given to. I thank the woman who gave me life – I hope that one day, I can thank her in person.
But I have come across a few people that believe that if you do not have children or if you are not their mother, they shouldn’t wish you a Happy Mother’s Day; those people choosing to walk past someone while acknowledging another just steps ahead or behind them. Just stop and think sometimes if you are guilty of marginalizing someone like that – you don’t know how deep the hurt you cause can go. May those who do that never find themselves in the same position – or maybe it would give them pause for thought. After all, some of the deepest hurts are caused by three little words not being said. It is always three little words, right?
Happy Mother’s Day to everyone!
And I mean EVERYONE!!
“Women who have mothered, guided, supported, and loved people that they didn’t give birth to (and yes, pets are absolutely included in that). Having a family isn’t a right; it’s a privilege. Sometimes sharing DNA with someone makes you family, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s about how you treat people. You can have a mother figure in your life, a best friend that’s more like a sister, or a boss who’s mentored you from day one, and that woman is just as important (and for some, more so) as the one who did or didn’t raise you.”
The quote above was from an online article entitled “Why You Should Celebrate All Women on Mother’s Day” by Jenna Whitecar. This article caught my attention for many reasons.
The debate rages on about Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and surely, other holidays. I have heard how Hallmark created holidays which led all us Americans to celebrate “fake holidays” – fine that they were “inspired”, I will not call them “fake”.
I was raised to respect everyone and understand their positions in life. Some people become parents, by nature or by choice; some people lead lives single, some marry; some are loners while some long for a familial embrace. I have led a life filled with the embrace of many family members and I have watched as family numbers have dwindled. I have seen the same things happen with extended family. And although I am admittedly not the best person when it comes to holidays, birthdays, card-sending and all, I do believe that when it comes to holidays, well wishes for the day should be unlimited.
For those of you that don’t know my background, I was adopted. The woman who I called my mother, Mary Parmel, did not give birth to me. But she and my father saved my life at the ripe old age of five months. No, I am not implying that the circumstances surrounding my birth were dire – I am simply stating that the two people who went through years of meetings, interviews, home checks and more, provided for me a life I would not change. My parents gave me home, shelter, love and family; they gave me the gift of knowing that extended family comes in all forms – all my parents’ childhood friends from Queensbridge Projects became my Aunts and Uncles – and are to this day, alive or passed, all due the respect for their lives, stories and place in my life.
To know that some people place limits on relationships truly resonates with me on Mother’s Day especially. My mother was famous for her “expectations” – she could be quite critical when those expectations were not met by anyone she thought should – and she would let you know that as well. But the one thing she made sure I knew UNEQUIVOCABLY was this – respect was paramount.
To this day, I still address all my Aunts and Uncles by their titles and names. It is something that I feel shows respect and honors what my father and mother taught me – it may be an old way of thinking, but respect is tantamount to fostering those special relationships.
On a day like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, the debate rages on whether or not you should wish someone who does not have children, well wishes for the day.
“Women who have mothered, guided, supported, and loved people that they didn’t give birth to (and yes, pets are absolutely included in that).” I have taught hundreds of students (some who have liked me, some who have hated me and some who still call me “Miss Parmel”); I have employed over 65 people who have called me by “Jane” (and probably a few other names I cannot publish in an otherwise ‘G-rated’ blog post), who call me to this day, asking for guidance, answers and support for themselves and their new ventures; and I even had a puppy who showed that I can actually take care of a living creature!
“Having a family isn’t a right; it’s a privilege.”
My mother and father believed this whole-heartedly; the rest of their families did as well, creating their families through adoption many times over.
“You can have a mother figure in your life, a best friend that’s more like a sister, or a boss who’s mentored you from day one, and that woman is just as important (and for some, more so) as the one who did or didn’t raise you.”
Marie, Marie-Ange, Liz, Rae, Janet, Lucille, Margie, Suzy, Peggy, Aunt Mary D., Auntie Lil, Barbara, Theresa, Pina, Lella, Elina, Susan; Aunt Flo, Aunt Marie, Marvy, Carmen. Just some of the names that have filled “family” over the last half-century.
So debate if you want, ignore the nurturing, ignore the value of community, negate another’s journey. It’s entirely up to you. Acknowledging what position someone has had in your life and the place you hold them in your hearts should never be up for debate. Wish them a happy whatever the day is.
“Sometimes sharing DNA with someone makes you family, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s about how you treat people.”