When I was a girl I lived in a big house on a street of big houses. Each house large enough to hold its family’s secrets. When I was a girl I set about learning those secrets. My purpose was not to expose them but to add to my knowledge of the world, which was strictly limited for a child of Southern Blacks migrated North, their history tightly bound by cords of silence and censure.
It was not too difficult to learn other families’ secrets; I only had to befriend a family and be invited into their home. I did not have to snoop in medicine cabinets or ask rude questions. Once I was inside, each home would unveil its secrets to me as easily as someone drawing open the drapes.
The Orangewoods’ house was filled attic to basement with the spoils of Mr. Orangewood’s exploits while on Safari in Africa: genuine ivory tusks; huge ashtrays made from actual elephant feet and lined with hammered brass; antelope horn walking sticks. The house was, however, empty of Mr. Orangewood, who was never there. I barely registered his absence, enthralled as I was with the trove of disembodied wildlife.
One day while I and Dot, the daughter of the house, were playing safari on the Serengeti that was the Orangewood front lawn, the postman arrived and handed Dot an envelope of tissue thin pale blue paper. She was immediately excited, and exclaimed, “Airmail letter from Daddy!” She ran to deliver the envelope to her mother. Naturally, I followed her.
Mrs. Orangewood was elated too, though her excitement was tempered with anxiety. To our soaring disappointment, she sent us back outside before reading the letter. Not to be deterred, Dot and I ran to the side of the house, where we listened at the window.
Mrs. Orangewood read the first lines out loud, her whispers skittering over the words, and then she said in a small howl, “How can he do this to me? Another child with that woman.”
Dot walked away from the window. I went too. She told me with matter-of-factness, her voice crisp with the effort to sound indifferent, that her father had a second family. In Africa. A wife and now three children. And he refused to come home.
What you have just read is fiction. I made it all up. The next best thing to being told a good story, is telling one. As a participant in the 2012 CBS Diversity Writers Institute, I am preparing to tell great stories on TV. This is an uncertain but thrilling experience, and I plan to trust the power of storytelling to see me through.