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As a child I thought my father was the best-looking person in our family. Arthur Weaver, known as Art or Lawrence (his middle name) to his friends and family, had honey brown skin and hair the color of sand. He had a keen nose and small lips, and when the sun shone on his almond-shaped eyes I saw pools of light brown glimmering in the center of rust-colored circles. They were breathtakingly beautiful.
My siblings and I were an autumn-colored rainbow--tan, reddish brown, yellow, and dark brown. My two sisters looked like my father. I called my baby sister "Sunshine" because she was pale yellow. I used to show her off to people and say, "Isn't she cute?" Everyone on television was white and most of my dolls were white. Everywhere I looked the world seemed to be saying, "White is the only color that is beautiful." And my father was the closest thing to white I had. I was the darkest girl in my family. My hair was short because of a nervous condition. I had a small nose, but it wasn't as narrow as my father's, and my wide lips came from my mother's broader features. It was okay for boys to be darker because they could still get what they wanted out of life, but everyone knew girls were supposed to be pretty and look a certain way. I figured I was destined to have a hard time in life.
The only things I had going for me were that I was athletic and that I was an honor roll student, both of which made me very popular in school.
In 1968, when I was five years old, we moved from our neighborhood in Washington, D.C., to a suburban community in Seat Pleasant, Maryland, following hundreds of other black working-class families who moved into houses originally built for white people. Our house was a two-story redbrick with a fence around the yard.
The county to which we moved had just started a new desegregation plan, busing white students into what had been a predominantly black elementary school. I was placed in the advanced classes, where most of the students were white. A white girl named Nancy became my best friend, and sometimes I went home on weekends with her. But in general there was friction between many of the black kids and white kids.
My black classmates thought I should choose either black friends or white ones, because it was impossible to have both.
"Vidi, you act like you think you're white," they said over and over.
I didn't care, though, because my white friends treated me better than my black classmates did. My white friends didn't care that my hair wasn't long, that I wore glasses, or that my skin was dark. I earned their respect because I was always on the honor roll.
The taunts from black students increased.
"You think you're too good for us?" they hollered.
"You need to hang with your own kind!"
I was shorter than most of them, but I really wasn't scared. I just didn't want to fight. My older sister, LaReese, however, insisted, "Vidi, if you run they'll never stop."
So it was inevitable that one day I had to face my taunters. As I approached the group, a girl with an irritating, high-pitched voice said, "Look who's coming."
I slowed down and stood in front of her with my arms folded. She pushed me. I pushed back. We tussled and the next thing I knew I was pulling her hair and scratching her and she was screaming. We rolled around on the grass. Kids hollered and cheered.
Somebody broke us up. I checked my hair and clothes and found that my opponent had barely touched me but that her face was all scratched up. I walked away as the crowd parted.
I never had to run or avoid anyone again.
I am the middle child of five. I have a brother and sister older than me and a brother and sister younger than me. Our house was always busy, bursting with sound. A radio or stereo would play nonstop because my parents loved music and loved to dance. They would hand-dance in the middle of the floor, my father sliding his feet across the floor, twirling my mother. Then she'd stop quickly and ease into step with him, matching his rhythm. We kids would sit watching, oohing and aahing at their coolness, and then we would clap enthusiastically at the end of the song.
In the evening and on weekends my father and brothers cheered and hollered as they tossed a football to each other. Sometimes my father stood in the middle of the street and threw long arching balls that landed right at the chest of one of my brothers, who then ran around the yard boasting.
We had a lot of family gatherings: crab feasts, fish fries, cookouts. My father brought home live crabs by the bushel and then poked at them as we watched, amazed and respectful of the big claws that grabbed at anything. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and Mama and Daddy's friends came to our cookouts and stuffed themselves and drank until some of them got real quiet while others got real loud.
Mother stayed home with us children while my father worked full-time as a mechanic at a car dealership and part-time driving a truck. He was proud that he was able to make enough money to take care of all of us. We had everything we needed and most of what we wanted. We had the latest toys. I had Baby Tender Love, the first doll to look like a real baby with white, soft skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. As I got older I collected Barbies. I had a dollhouse with more furniture in it than we had in our house.
Little creatures just fascinated me. I had dogs, cats, turtles, hamsters, gerbils, and fish. My brother Lawrence used to go fishing in my fish tank with a needle and thread. Generally he wanted to help and protect us, which is why he dreamed of becoming a superhero. It made sense later that as an adult he became a police officer.
The three oldest of us used to play church a lot, which is fitting now too because we are all ministers today. Church was a big part of our life. My family, minus my father, went to Carmody Hills Baptist Church, faithfully. As far back as I can remember I went to Sunday school and church service almost every Sunday.
My father was well liked by everyone because he kept people laughing. He was handsome, youthful, energetic, and athletic. He never looked his age. He was a good father and he enjoyed being one, spending a lot of time camping and fishing with his boys. Our life was carefree and full of fun and people and laughter.
Then one day when something horrible happened and we all changed forever. That day is a bookmark in my life. There is life before it and the pages of life lived after it.
I was in third grade and came home from school expecting nothing unusual. Mother was home as always, but it was strangely quiet. I do not remember whether or not Lawrence and LaReese were already there when I got home. What I remember is Mother taking the three of us to her bedroom and sitting with us on the bed.
"Your daddy has been in a terrible accident at work," she said, her lips trembling. "He was in a fire. He was burned pretty bad." Tears streamed down her cheeks. She paused and looked somewhere beyond us. "He's in a coma--and he may die."
The words seemed to tumble out of her mouth, one sentence after another, without any breath in between.
Later, we saw a news report on TV about the accident. They speculated that someone was smoking a cigarette and threw a butt near a gas tank at the car dealership. The tank exploded and Daddy was surrounded by fire. The only way to get out was to run through the flames. They said my father was completely on fire and that some coworkers rolled him on the ground to put out the flames.
For the next few days people came to our house to sit with Mother. At times there was crying and whispering. We children could not go to the hospital to visit him, so all I knew were the frightening things I overheard: "His breathing stopped once," and "They're going to operate to help his skin heal."
I walked around with a nervous feeling inside me, half living, never really able to have fun or to put all of my attention on any one thing because I was always thinking of my father.
We did not see him until he got out of the hospital six months later. He had light spots on him where his skin had changed milky white. He was blessed because he still had his ears, nose, and lips. He had his hair, and none of his features were deformed. His skin even healed pretty well. After a while people knew something was wrong with his skin, but they could not tell he had been burned.
Still, he was never the same. The father who came home to us from the hospital was not the father we sent off to work on the morning of the fire. And because he changed, we all changed. For instance, we never took photos after my father came home. I did not realize this for years, not until I was much older and went to search for a family album. I found two pictures taken prior to the accident, and even on those someone had used a blue ink pen to mark through my father's face. There was a two-tone photo of him and Mother, young and smiling, standing at their wedding ceremony. She had on a wedding gown and he had on a suit. And there was another picture of my father sitting with two of his brothers. They were smiling and he was faceless. My assumption was that someone in the family who was angry with him started tearing up old photos and crossing out his face. I never asked anyone or said a word about my findings. But more recently, I considered the possibility that my father, who hated the way he looked after the fire, may have ruined the photos himself. At any rate, I so desperately wanted family photos that I took those two pictures and for years kept them in my Bible for safekeeping.
Daddy started drinking right after he came home from the hospital. Maybe he was drinking before the fire, but we children had never seen evidence of it. Now everyone knew. He hid bottles of vodka in the sofa, under a mattress, or behind drapes. Much later in my life I would realize that I did the same thing with food that my father did with alcohol. I hid snacks, ate in private, and couldn't wait to leave work just so I could stuff myself with junk food.
I was terribly unhappy with my life then, and I am sure my father drank so he could tolerate life, too. But when he drank his temper flared, though he never raised his voice at me.
He had plenty to be angry about. I don't think he ever went back to the car dealership. He found and lost a series of jobs for years afterward. The laughter in our house was replaced by arguing between my parents. Daddy lashed out at Mother with words first; as time passed, he struck her with his fists or hands or whatever he could find. I hated to come home because I never knew whom I was going to get--the gentle, sober father or the violent, drunk one.
I used to tell myself Daddy was sick, so I never got angry with him. I didn't think the accident justified what he was doing, but I thought there was a demon inside him. The demon was just one part of him because another part of him remained the same. He and I still laughed and joked, and I still enjoyed him more than anyone else in the world. But his eyes could change and look eerie and distant, and you knew it was going to be a bad day. If he drank, he treated everybody badly except me and my younger brother and sister. Mostly he took his pain out on my mother and my older sister and brother.
My mother was pretty and dressed well, things Daddy found attractive before the accident. After the fire, he questioned her about everything. When she put on an outfit that used to be one of his favorites, he asked, "Why do you have to wear that?"
When he went drinking or gambling with his friends, I went with them, though my mother didn't want me to go. But my father, whose nickname for me was "La Vidi," just called to me and said, "La Vidi, get your coat," and I would be right beside him. When we got where we were going, if there were kids there I played with them. Other-wise, I just sat and watched my father.
God truly was with me. We were in a lot of car accidents. Sometimes the police brought me home because they were arresting Daddy.
We got used to the police coming to our house because my mother and father were fighting. I became an extremely private person because I didn't want to discuss my family life. When you have police and ambulances coming to your house regularly, you learn to keep quiet, even if you know that everyone else is gossiping about you.
My father collected guns and threatened to kill himself from time to time, so I watched him closely. One Saturday afternoon I left him to go to my room for a minute. I was not going to stay long because I knew Daddy had that eerie look in his eyes. Before I got back I heard a loud bang. I knew immediately what it was. I ran into the living room. Daddy was sitting on the sofa holding a shotgun in his hands. I sat down right next to him, maybe six inches away. I never feared my father, so even though he had a gun, I knew I was not in danger.
I did not realize it at the time, but my brother had seen my father with the gun and had run out of the house and to the police station a mile or so away. There are gaps in my memory about what happened that day.
I remember I left my father on the sofa long enough to peep out the window. I saw a lot of police officers with long guns jumping out of a truck and I thought: "This must be the SWAT team." But they didn't have to knock down our door like I had seen on television. Our door was unlocked, so the police just ran in, a whole, long line of them carrying guns.
From the Trade Paperback edition.