- from The Outside Child
My father, James Witherspoon, is a married man. He's been that way since before I was born, when he met my mother, Gwendolyn, at Davidson's downtown. She was working in gift-wrap at the time, and he came to her counter with the electric carving knife that he had bought his wife for their ninth anniversary. My mother says she knew that something wasn't right between a man and a woman when the gift is a blade. I say that maybe that means that there was a kind of trust between them, that he thought he could give her such a weapon and still sleep peacefully at night. But I don't have to tell you that my mother and I 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 Poppy, even now.
When most people think of bigamy, if they think of it at all, they imagine some bizarre practice taking place on the pages of National Geographic or in a farm house in Utah. Some of us in Atlanta remember one sect of the Back-to-Africa movement, headquartered in the West End. The women were dealt out four to each man. From time to time, you can still see them, resplendent in white trailing six paces behind their mutual husband. If you spend any time in beauty parlors, you will hear tales of new widows surprised at the funeral by the other grieving widow and her five kids.
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 stood with him in front of a judge just over the state line in Alabama, but to call her only his "wife" doesn't really explain the full complexity of her position.
There are other words, I know, to describe a woman like my mother and when she is tipsy, angry, or sad, she uses them to describe herself: concubine, whore, mistress, other woman. There are just so many and none 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 the air of our home. "You are his daughter. End of story." If this had ever been the end of story it was in the first four months of my life before James's wife, Laverne, gave birth to Chaurisse, his legitimate daughter. My mother would wash my mouth with soap to hear me use that word, "legitimate," but if she could hear the word that formed in my head, she would go to her room and cry. In my mind, Chaurisse was his real daughter. I was just the outside child. With wives, it only mattered who got there first. With daughters, the situation was a bit more textured. [End Page 979]
When I was a little kid, my mother and I used to spy on James's wife, Laverne, and his daughter, Chaurisse. It doesn't sound right when I say it. This is why I wish I had my mother's gift for laying the truth in such a way that the result was smooth as water. As soon as I try to explain to anyone the way we lived they get this look on their faces as though having a father who had other obligations was like being an accessory to murder. It really wasn't as scandalous as all of that. I have to agree with my mother that a lot of people suffer from a failure of imagination. They think there is only one right way to do things, only one right way to be happy.
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When did I first discover that although...