My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working at the gift-wrap counter in Davison’s downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn’t right between a man and a woman when the gift was a blade. I said that maybe it means there was a kind of trust between them. I love my mother, but we tend to see things a little bit differently. The point is that James’s marriage was never hidden from us. James is what I call him. His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she calls him Daddy, even now.
When most people think of bigamy, if they think of it at all, they imagine some primitive practice taking place on the pages of National Geographic. In Atlanta, we remember one sect of the back to Africa movement that used to run bakeries in the West End. Some people said it was a cult, others called it a cultural movement. Whatever it was, it involved four wives for each husband. The bakeries have since closed down, but sometimes we still see the women, resplendent in white, trailing six humble paces behind their mutual husband. Even in Baptist churches, ushers keep smelling salts on the ready for the new widow confronted at the wake by the other grieving widow and her stair-step kids. Undertakers and judges know that it happens all the time, and not just between religious fanatics, traveling salesmen, handsome sociopaths and desperate women.
It’s a shame that there isn’t a true name for a woman like my mother, Gwendolyn. My father, James, is a bigamist. That is what he is. Laverne is his wife. She found him first and my mother has always respected the other woman’s squatter’s rights. But was my mother his wife, too? She has legal documents and even a single Polaroid proving that she stood with James Alexander Witherspoon Junior in front of a judge just over the state line in Alabama. However, to call her his “wife” just doesn’t really explain the full complexity of her position.
There are other terms, I know, and when she is tipsy, angry or sad, Mother uses them to describe herself: concubine, whore, mistress, consort. There are just so many, and none of them are fair. And there are nasty words, too, for a person like me, the child of a person like her, but these words were not allowed in our home. “You are his daughter. End of story.” If this was ever true it was in the first four months of my life, before Chaurisse, his legitimate daughter, was born. My mother would curse at hearing me use that word, legitimate, but if she could hear the other word that formed in my head, she would close herself in her bedroom and cry. In my mind, Chaurisse is his real daughter. With wives, it only matters who gets there first. With daughters, the situation is a bit more complicated.
It matters what you called things. Surveil was my mother’s word. If he knew, James would probably say spy, but that is too sinister. We didn’t do damage to anyone but ourselves as we trailed Chaurisse and Laverne while they wound their way through their easy lives. I had always imagined that we would eventually be asked to explain ourselves, to press words forward in our own defense. On that day, my mother would be called upon to do the talking. She is gifted with language and is able to layer difficult details in such a way that the result is smooth as water. She is a magician who can make the whole world feel like a dizzy illusion. The truth is a coin she pulls from behind your ear.
Maybe mine was not a blissful girlhood. But is anyone’s? Even people whose parents are happily married to each other and no one else, even these people have their share of unhappiness. They spend plenty of time nursing old slights, rehashing squabbles. So you see, I have something in common with the whole world.
Mother didn’t ruin my childhood or anyone’s marriage. She is a good person. She prepared me. Life, you see, is all about knowing things. That is why my mother and I shouldn’t be pitied. Yes, we have suffered, but we never doubted that we enjoyed at least one peculiar advantage when it came to what really mattered; I knew about Chaurisse; she didn’t know about me. My mother knew about Laverne, but Laverne was under the impression that hers was an ordinary life. We never lost track of that basic and fundamental fact.
When did I first discover that although I was an only child, my father was not my father and mine alone? I really can’t say. It’s something that I’ve known for as long as I’ve known that I had a father. I can only say for sure when I learned that this type of double-duty daddy wasn’t ordinary.
I was about five years old, in kindergarten, when the art teacher, Miss Russell, asked us to draw pictures of our families. While all the other children scribbled with their crayons or soft-leaded pencils, I used a blue-ink pen and drew James, Chaurisse and Laverne. In the background was Raleigh, my father’s best friend, the only person we knew from his other life. I drew him with the crayon labeled “Flesh” because he is really light-skinned. This was years and years ago, but I still remember. I hung a necklace around the wife’s neck I gave the girl a big smile, stuffed with square teeth. Near the left margin I drew my mother and me standing by ourselves. With a marker, I blacked in Mother’s long hair and curving lashes. On my own face, I drew only a pair of wide eyes. Above, a friendly sun winked at all of us.
The art teacher approached me from behind. “Now, who are these people you’ve drawn so beautifully?”
Charmed, I smiled up at her. “My family. My daddy has two wifes and two girls.”
Cocking her head, she said, “I see.”
I didn’t think much more about it. I was still enjoying the memory of the way she pronounced the word beautifully. To this day, whenever I hear anyone say that word, I feel loved. At the end of the month I brought all of my drawings home in a cardboard folder. James opened up his wallet, which he kept plump with two-dollar bills to reward me for my schoolwork. I saved the portrait, my masterpiece, for last, being as it was so beautifully drawn and everything.
My father picked the page up from the table and held it close to his face like he was looking for a coded message. Mother stood behind me, crossed her arms over my chest, and bent to place a kiss on the top of my head. “It’s okay,” she said.
“Did you tell your teacher who was in the picture?” James said.
I nodded slowly, the whole time thinking that I probably should lie, although I wasn’t sure why.
“James,” Mother said, “let’s not make a molehill into a mountain. She’s just a child.”
“Gwen,” he said, “this is important. Don’t look so scared. I’m not going to take her out behind the woodshed.” Then he chuckled, but my mother didn’t laugh.
“All she did was draw a picture. Kids draw pictures.”
“Go on in the kitchen, Gwen,” James said. “Let me talk to my daughter.”
My mother said, “Why can’t I stay here? She’s my daughter, too.”
“You are with her all the time. You tell me I don’t spend enough time talking with her. So now let me talk.”
Mother hesitated and released me. “She’s just a little kid, James. She doesn’t even know the ins and outs yet.”
“Trust me,” James said.
Reprint courtesy of Algonquin Books, copyright 2011 Tayari Jones.
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