Saturday, December 20, 2003

It may be important to mention the circumstances of Rick's adoption ... .

In keeping with my "good girl" profile, and having fulfilled the strong wishes of my parents, I fully expected to bear my first child nine months and 24 hours after the wedding ceremony. Not so. My older sister, Marjorie, had been married for five years (she was 4 years older than I) but was pregnant with her second child -- and my youngest sister, Lottie, who was 4 years younger had married at 17 and was also expecting her first. I had been -- up to that point -- unable to conceive. In my early twenties, having two sisters pregnant and feeling barren, I started to explore adoption. Mel was less than enthusiastic. After all, he had plans to create his business and I would be the on site "employee," so this was an impediment to his ambitions.

He'd added another job to his schedule, that of working with Aldo Musso, the man from whom we'd bought our home. Musso owned a juke box route and hired Mel to service his locations with records and make the collections. The difficulty in finding the kind of music that the new Californians from the south wanted to hear suggested to Mel that this was a great opportunity to go into business for himself. With his benefactor's support, and a list of national suppliers with race music catalogues, he saw a profitable future ahead.

But I'd waited impatiently for motherhood to begin, and saw his plans as further postponement of my own dreams. Catholic Social Services announced in January that a child would be available in a month or so, and in March of that year, a nine-day-old little boy was ours. It took only a few hours for Mel to bond with our baby. He was a loving father. My gratitude for his having yielded to my wishes gave me a feeling of indebtedness that hemmed me in and defined my life for many years. I dedicated myself to making real his dream of owning his own business. Thus, began a period of years of standing behind the counter wrestling with diapers (sloshing away in the back of the store in the washing machine), tending to the customers, keeping the books, ordering from catalogs, working with play lists, etc., that ended only after Bob was nearly three (when Rick was seven) and I was pregnant with David. It was then that we started construction on our house in the suburbs, after spending years pouring over House and Garden, Sunset magazine, and Architectural Digest. Little did we know how costly those dreams would be.

Marjorie's son, Lottie's daughter, and Rick all came into the world over a three month period. The Charbonnet girls had delivered on cue. Motherhood was deeply fulfilling. Being a wife was not. The seeds of discontent -- years of feeling overworked and under-loved began to erode my stability.

Mel (we) not only had founded a successful business that more than adequately supported the family, but he'd also enjoyed the freedom and acclaim of being a professional athlete. That life offered travel and freedom from the responsibilities that fell to me. I was the stabilizer. He played quarterback for the Oakland Giants, the Honolulu Warriors, and also continued to play semi-pro baseball. There were other women who invaded our marriage from time to time, that was hard. All the while I managed our little business and gave birth to one more child while raising the first. I both wanted and needed to be out of the store with the time to bring up the children -- away from having to know about Mel's indiscretions. My parents were unsympathetic. "All men have some faults," says mother, "as long as he takes care of you -- you shouldn't complain. That, and the fact that -- as a Catholic -- there was no exit possible. "Adjusting" to the situation was the only possibility open to me. Divorce was unheard of in my family, at least up to that time.

Besides, there was a kind of innocence about Mel. He was always contrite, and I'd become aware early in our marriage that this handsome Adonis was also functionally illiterate, a condition I would recognize much later as a severe case of dyslexia. He hid his problem well. Few knew. He'd compensated by becoming a fine athlete in both baseball and football -- which took him as an All-Star through high school, Sacramento State College, and finally to the University of San Francisco. During his last semester at the University of San Francisco, I'd read and briefed him on his assignments. I was just out of high school at the time. He was a football major with a minor in history. He needed me, and I needed to be needed. In time we grew apart, painfully and with little recognition of how it all happened. In time, I was starved, intellectually, but found that -- since he was actually more comfortable with my family than I was much of the time -- it was easy to see myself as the not-quite-normal one.

There is nothing more tragic than to find oneself at 40 living in a marriage with the quarterback chosen by an 18 year-old! At 40 Mel was still the quarterback but was now operating in a world that required an MBA, and that was eventually this good man's undoing. He surely did his best for us. He more than made up for his deficits by out-working everyone around him. For most of the years of our marriage, he left home in the early morning, and returned at midnight. All of the energy spent in being the best on the gridiron was now applied to his business, and he accomplished miracles, despite all.

I must have been very difficult for him. I was pretty and bright, but a constant reminder of his failings. I was smart enough but it took years to realize that being pretty was all that was required of me in this marriage. The rest was a liability. He slept with a little round flat microphone under his pillow, convinced by someone along the way that -- by using tapes while sleeping -- his brain would take in the lessons of grammar and he would eventually overcome the gaps that plagued him.

I suspect that I did little to support him over time, but lost myself in the world of the suburbs where I was forced to struggle without his emotional support. Mother was right. He did his best to provide well for his wife and children, financially. In time, it simply wasn't enough and we drifted apart. We eventually became strangers, both lost in space, without a clue to what was happening to us.

Mel hit the heights as his business grew and prospered. For some years he'd been able to provide a few jobs to young people, and his confidence grew. He eventually became a prominent theatrical and concert promoter with clients like Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. He was the original manager of the Edwin Hawkins Singers and traveled to Europe with that choir at the peak of their popularity. He'd given up the outside activities as he grew older and -- with a very capable uncle, Paul Reid, joined him in the business, together they became icons in the music industry. As long as enough money was coming in -- he could move it from place to place. In time, as he lost the exclusivity -- as other such shops began to come into being, more was demanded of him. We simply hadn't had enough generations in the marketplace, and the sophistication needed to hold on to his fortune was missing. Eventually all was lost, but not before our family had grown to include (mentally impaired) Dorian, and my life in Walnut Creek had become more complex and less needful of Mel's presence. I eventually learned to survive without him. There were huge gaps in each of our lives that neither was aware of, by the time we were -- it was simply too late.

Next: The move to Walnut Creek and the 180 degree turn into a new life of unknowns and unexpected growth in new directions ... .

Right photo: The late Dale Richard Reid (nee Galvin), adopted son and our eldest child. He was eleven when this picture as taken.

Left photo: Mel with Aretha Franklin. She's only sixteen here and in town with her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin who was brought to the Bay Area for one of Mel's giant gospel shows at the Oakland Auditorium Arena. Aretha was presented as simply one of the acts in the otherwise Rev. Franklin event.

Back to the early years ...

Though Mel and I met in early adolescence, our paths didn't lead to a relationship until we neared young young adulthood (19 and 23). As an extremely handsome all-star quarterback -- in college on an athletic scholarship -- he had been engaged to the lovely daughter of a local dentist (pretty impressive stuff in our group). I'd had a succession of young boyfriends (one that was serious and that I was later to regret having abandoned). My parents adored Mel who showed all signs of being dependable and good husband material, and besides, he was handsome and fair-skinned (top assets among Creole parents). At a time when leaving home was solely dependent upon finding a husband, this was total fulfillment for my parents. There was no thought of education beyond highschool. It would be unfair to say that I was resentful, it was simply the way it was. Success for a girl was a proper marriage. Choice was an unheard of concept.

At a formal ceremony at St. Bernard's Catholic church on May 24, 1942, we were married by Father Kelly (the second Father Kelly to figure in my life), and started life in Berkeley in a duplex that Mel had managed to save for while attending college (down payment of $750, as I recall). I understood that his former fiance's parents found him inadequate since their wish was that he become a physician (far beyond his capacities) while his ambition was to be a truck driver for Wonder Bread Bakeries (later Continental) where his father had spent his entire working life. Only problem was that -- he was unable to do so because the Teamsters would not accept a non-white in membership.

Which brings me to one of the ironies that later helped to shape my politics:

Thomas Reid, Jr. -- Mel's father -- was employed by Wonder Bread Bakery at the age of 14. He'd left school at that time. He was a shy and kindly hardworking brown-skinned man whom I barely knew. For all of the years -- from that age until he retired at sixty -- he'd worked nights and slept days. And, for all of those years he'd lifted 100 lb. sacks of flour from railroad cars to the dock without ever rising above that duty. I remember my silent fury the evening that we attended his retirement dinner at the huge wholesale bakery and a succession of white men extolled "Tommy" and spoke about how helpful he'd been over all of those years, how "faithful" he'd been, and how grateful they were to him for "helping to orient me to my duties when I entered the firm totally inexperienced -- green...". After all those years, he'd not risen to the status of having a last name. His son (and my young husband) could not become a bread delivery truck driver though everyone had known him from childhood -- attending the annual Christmas parties with his Dad -- and being awed and inspired by the world of the Plant. How sad!

That evening when they handed aging "Tommy" his gold watch, I felt the breath catch in my throat, though to have spoken out would have been unthinkable. I hated those men (and they were all men), with a passion, and added the experience to the many racist incidents that were coming in ugly waves into my life. This coincided with the events of the new "Colored" context that had arrived with the war effort, and with feeling set apart from the world I'd grown up in -- in the relatively racism-free Bay Area.

It was in this climate that Mel and I married and moved into our Berkeley duplex that was situated on a street where the Santa Fe railroad ran right in front of our doorway. We watched untold thousands of warworkers arrive throughout the day and night, hanging out of train windows for their first signs of the "Golden Streets of California." We lived no more than 15 minutes away from their point of arrival. It was as though the ground was visibly shifting beneath our feet with each thundering trainload.

"The South" was arriving under our noses, with white and black folks who -- at that point -- had never shared restrooms or drinking water fountains, or been buried in the same cemetaries, and were now bringing Jim Crow right into our living rooms, but all of that had been pushed to the background by the demands of the war effort. Few noticed that the Klan was burning crosses in the nearby hills, or that "separate but equal" facilities were cropping up in order to accommodate the biases of these white southerners from Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. Home would never be the same.

Though Unitarian Minister Thomas Starr King, and some parts of the California State Militia (and some of our ancestors) had succeeded in keeping California out of the Civil War on the side of the South, it was unclear whether or not this 20th century "invasion" would hold the line. In much of the state -- even now -- I'm not at all sure that we did. It was in those years of my youth that it was not possible for Negroes and Whites to marry (or even those who appeared to be-- as was the case with a blond and blue-eyed cousin who had to leave the state for Nevada), or to teach in the schools, or to move up from loading 100 lb. sacks of flour from the dock ..., or to work in any job other than those in the service sector. This was new for our fast-disappearing "new immigrant" early colored settlers in the west. Our world was being buried under by change we were ill-prepared for.

Mel's heart-breaking experience in his brief encounter with the Navy and mine with the Air Force (then in the Jim Crow Auxiliary union), added up to our determination to never again work for anyone. In June of 1945 we tore out a wall in the street front garage of our little duplex, took out commercials on a local radio station, and went into business for ourselves. Reid's Records and the adoption of our first child happened within 3 months (Rick was born in March of 1945). We were instantly successful -- with a new attitude about our racial heritage -- no more ambiguity about what being "colored" meant, and the will to move with the culture, we became the headquarters for what was then known as "race" music (blues, black gospel, and jazz).

While Mel continued to work on the late shift at the Richmond shipyards and spend his days as playground director at San Pablo Park not too far from our Berkeley home, I spent my time playing merchant with the record stock piled in neatly-arranged orange crates, a cigar box for the money, Rick in a playpen on the concrete floor, and about as much knowledge of what it meant to be a retailer as my baby might have! But in a fast-changing world, it mattered not. Keeping up with the demand was enough to occupy my brain, motherhood was something I loved, and the novelty of the breath-taking social change were enough to keep me from losing my mind. I was far more curious and engaged than fearful, so survived. In time, my marriage did not. But that's for much later.

...and now it's time to take a deep breath and let it all go ... the tension of remembering.

Photo: Melvin Adelbert Reid, quarterback for the University of San Francisco Dons the year he was named All-State. He later joined the Oakland Giants, the professional team that preceded the establishment of the NFL.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

There's much to be said for consistency, routine, and setting a rhythm to one's life...

Did pretty well with my writing -- at least until the routine was broken by the unexpected (bout of flu) then the spell was broken. Getting back into a pattern of writing a bit each day proved to be more fragile than I might have thought or wished.

The pace of my life is such that even a brief pause creates an impossible backlog. This was a first for me, at least for a period of the past several years. The advent of the age of email has wrought havoc! My desk computer turned into a monster that held my entire life hostage with my Palm Pilot adding to the confusion. My life is being dominated by machines, and it's all of my own making!

On the first day of my return (a week ago Monday), there was a four-hour session with a coalition of environmental groups who are working to save Breuners Marsh -- a beautiful stretch of shoreline along San Francisco Bay that's being threatened by both contamination by mercury and other vile chemicals on the one hand, and acquisition by Signature Properties for a huge housing development on the other. "Save the Marsh" is the rallying cry, and "The State" (moi) has a role in helping that to happen. I felt very small and pretty vulnerable after ten days of illness, but life does have a way of either engaging you or plowing you under!

Catching up with my calendar plus our Holiday office party, plus the annual Day at the Races at spectacular Golden Gate Fields in Albany; family birthday parties (another this evening), meetings re the Barbara Alexander Academy (still trying hard to help it to survive and regain its charter), staffing Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (yesterday) at the dedication of a newly day-lighted urban creek, and, and, and ...

And surviving the loss of Fr. Bill O'Donnell, activist priest who lived through over 200 arrests in the causes of the United Farm Workers; the protests at the gates of the School for the Americans; long ago and current People's Park protests; and about any other Progressive cause one can imagine over the past several decades. Fr. Bill was memorialized on Sunday. It was a great loss to all of us who knew him and shared concerns in common. Each such loss brings a sense of awareness of one's mortality - the inevitability -- the inexorable passage of time ... .

Have been asked to keynote the Martin Luther King celebration in the city of Walnut Creek (nearby suburb where we lived for many years) at the commemoration of his birthday in January. The Mt. Diablo Peace Center is hosting the event. Hesitated at first, but only for a few minutes. Writing a 15 minute speech for the occasion will give me a chance to re-assess where I am on the continuum of change in the areas of civil rights and civil liberties. The contrasts in my life (lives!) over the years will provide a broad canvas upon which to draw together my thoughts on the subject. Maybe the thinking is more important than the delivery of such a speech. Though it's not easy to be in both a period of active participation and retrospection simultaneously. We'll just have to see if I can manage it.

Maybe I can work that through here ... but it would surely help if you'd provide some feedback while I do so. Do you suppose?