Maryam Barrie: “Settled by German Presbyterian Farmers”

Settled by German Presbyterian Farmers

Settled by German Presbitarian farmers, it was a town of Feldkamps and Finkbeiners, and my last name was Hanifi. Divorce was taboo, a scandal, it was 1966, and only my parents were divorced, though my mom would not admit it, as my father had not yet given her permission. The neighbors knew though, and Christina across the street would taunt me with it. I’d march Christina over to our screen door, and ask my mom to settle the question once and for all. She’d say, “The answer is the same thing I told you before.” Into that gray air I’d turn to Christina and try on a face of triumph.

It wasn’t just that. I was a brown little girl, and loved my brown Chatty Cathy doll dearly. There was one family in town darker. I’d explain the absence of my father by saying that he worked for the CIA behind the Iron Curtain. In Chicago.

My sense of otherness was palpable and had a tart tang. I cherished it, though I knew it set me on the outside. I was there anyway. My best friend, Galen, wore green satin pants to school, with three inch high platform shoes. In the library boys would drop off notes at our table that read “Die faggot!”

Moving back there after the degree, and marriage, and daughters, one woman I had been in Girl Scouts with earnestly told me, after I had said how glad I was that my husband and mother would be the only ones watching my girls while I taught, “You know, you can put them in daycare.” At the one high school reunion I attended, my very drunk friend hoisted her up onto his shoulder, like Rhett Butler. He was wearing heels, and standing at the top of a steep stone set of stairs, weaving as he yelled, “Am I man enough for you now, Sue?” I wrassled her bottom off of his shoulder, setting her down safely. She was drunk too, and told me tearfully that she just wanted to live in a white picket fence world.

Her daughter and mine were in the same third grade classroom. That was the year girls told mine that she didn’t wear headbands correctly, once they’d demanded her help with math. Sue’s daughter, Megan, told mine that it didn’t matter if your feet were comfortable, it just mattered if your shoes looked new.

My husband and I wrote letters to the small newspaper. He wrote for gun control, and I wrote about treating gay students respectfully. When my friend died of AIDS, I had a fire in me to leave that town. So we did. I hear from my brown faced students here at the college that it is still not a good place to drive in whilst brown, or to be a brown face in their yearbooks. Let them have their sameness, and the way they are poised now to rule the world.

 

Maryam Barrie, married with two grown daughters, lives in an Oak and Hickory woods between Dexter and Chelsea, Michigan. She has taught at Washtenaw Community College since 1985. She is a read-a-holic, and loves gardening, trees, colors, the earth, Hildegard of Bingen, and poetry. Her favorite writer today is Lucia Berlin.

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