Then there was her obsession with makeup, even wearing makeup to bed.Piecing her life together, I marvelled at how she endured the racism of living in the predominantly white suburb of Parma, Ohio, with a racist husband.He shoved her aside like so much trash and called her the n-word. “But that's how it was in New Orleans back then.” Now I understood the clues concealed in that story.That she was hinting at her hidden self or maybe preparing me to accept the part of her she'd left behind in New Orleans and her reason for doing that. “Promise me,” she pleaded, “you won't tell anyone until after I die. ” For two years, I'd waited for the right moment to confront my mother with the shocking discovery I made in 1995 while scrolling through the 1900 Louisiana census records.In the records, my mother's father, Azemar Frederic of New Orleans, and his entire family were designated black.But my mother's fearful plea for secrecy only added to my confusion about my racial identity.As did her birth certificate that I obtained from the state of Louisiana, which listed her race as “col” (coloured), and a 1940 Louisiana census record, which listed my mother, Alvera Frederic, as Neg/Negro, working in a tea shop in New Orleans.
I wondered now why she'd never been able to show me photographs of my grandfather growing up. And could my mother's avoidance of the sun be attributed to her fear that her skin would darken too much?
A gifted storyteller, she related stories of New Orleans and the bigotry she witnessed.
As a child I listened with rapt attention to the story of the old black woman on Canal Street burdened with packages who didn't move off the sidewalk for a white man.
Four years later, she moved north and married my white father. For 17 years I told no one, except my husband, my two children and two close friends that my mother was passing as white.
It was the longest and most difficult secret I'd ever held.