By Samantha Thomson LoCoco for RYOT Studio

My grandparents, Dub and Millie Fuller, both came from large white families, neither of whom had much money between them. The children survived on vienna sausages (pronounced vaye-ee-na), families grew their own food and the women sewed everyone’s clothes. But at family gatherings, tables were full of food, some of it canned, all of it with full fat, and rarely any leftovers to be had. Rooms were full of multiple generations, extended family, close friends and squealing children running from one house to another. Most in the family were faithful, practicing Methodists or Baptists. All were hard workers. And none would ever anticipate welcoming a child into the fold who wasn’t white.

But in December 1948, when Dub arrived at a hospital in Dallas to pick up my mother, the baby that he and Millie were adopting, he expected to see a fair-haired child with light eyes. They had adopted another blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby girl two years earlier, and they had been told that my mother was certain to be a good match. When Dub arrived home to his waiting family, his mother, Granny, took one look at my mother’s olive skin, dark eyes and black hair, and said, “That chile’s never gonna speak-a word-a English.”

Millie & Dub Fuller, pictured here in 1935, tried for several years to conceive children before they adopted two baby girls.
Millie & Dub Fuller, pictured here in 1935, tried for several years to conceive children before they adopted two baby girls.

Dub and Millie had unknowingly adopted a biracial child, as my mother’s biological father was Puerto Rican. When my mother tells that story, she laughs, and shares that everyone else in the room at the time had laughed, too. When I hear it, I can’t help but think of the unacknowledged burden that little baby — my mother — would bear. Granny had been dead serious. Her attitude is reminiscent of the way J.D. Vance characterizes hillbilly culture in his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.” He describes how hillbillies — his community — value family above all else, which in his description are complex, multigenerational formations that struggle with poverty and “don’t much care for outsiders.”

While my family comes from the south, not the rust belt like Vance, you can hear the identification of “other” in my great-grandmother’s words. Yet that prioritization of love of family also resonates within my lineage — although very differently than Vance’s experience. My mother, Susan, would happily benefit from undeniable familial love, regardless of some of the family’s initial comments. And I often wonder if she was somehow the catalyst that ended up bringing necessary change to the lessons we’ve since inherited.

LISTEN TO SUSAN AND SAMANTHA DISCUSS SUSAN’S CHILDHOOD:

By many accounts, Dub was close minded — much like his mother — and didn’t care for outsiders. Yet, he was now the father of a biracial child, his blacked-eyed Susan. Perhaps, in a different life, he may have judged her differently if they’d ended up strangers, but he loved her unconditionally — as did Millie. Whenever I ask my mother what she understood about being adopted when she was little, she describes how Millie made her feel more loved because she was adopted: “I remember her always saying, ‘Susan, you and your sister were really wanted. We really wanted you.’ And that just made me feel like, ‘Well, then I’m special.’”

Years later, when my mother would seek out her biological parents, it was to uncover elements of her genealogy in preparation of having me; it wasn’t because she felt she was missing anything in the way of family. And while she was always glad that she found and developed a relationship with her biological mother, she is adamant that she could never consider any other family her own other than the one she grew up with: “My mother was Mildred Cruse Fuller, the lady that raised me.”

Millie and her sisters, Dorothy (left), Bobbie (middle) and Millie, circa mid-1950s.
Millie and her sisters, Dorothy (left), Bobbie (middle) and Millie, circa mid-1950s.

Millie gave my mother a family in the truest sense of the word. Millie and her two sisters were a tight knit trio, and the children and cousins grew up together — a life my mother characterized to me as “idyllic.” “We did have a very special bond growing up,” she describes. “My mom and her two sisters were so close, so all of us cousins were very close. It’s a very special thing, you know. Not all families have that.” My mother understood how lucky she was to have that bond — an appreciation for family that she has certainly passed along to me.

Dub and Millie worked hard to provide opportunity for my mother and always encouraged curiosity — even in the form of seeking out her biological roots. Millie was whip-smart, having graduated salutatorian of her high school, and was known to write and draw. She would have attended college — and loved it— had there been money to do so. But she poured her dreams into my mother who would later encourage me.

LISTEN TO SUSAN AND SAMANTHA DISCUSS SUSAN’S ADOPTIVE FATHER, DUB:

Two generations later, I consider the extent to which Millie’s nurturing has impacted my life, and the life of my son. My worldview is diametrically opposed to Granny’s: I see beauty in difference, I see necessity in diverse perspectives and experiences. I see my mother and the power that can come if one chooses to open their mind.

But even the pursuit of an open mind can be a difficult path to traverse. When I returned to Texas to start a job as a professor of writing and rhetoric at a prestigious Methodist university, I must admit that I arrived with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Having taught poetry and personal narrative writing in the Bronx for several years, where the lessons I gained felt earned on a deep level, I scoffed that a pristine, multimillion-dollar campus full of affluent students could ever offer me anything more valuable.

I could not have been more wrong. As I grade essays, sitting in my home office, I think, what could be more important than teaching critical reasoning skills right now? How to determine if a source is credible, how to develop your unique view of the world by listening to people other than your family or friends you grew up with, how to connect to and understand that yours is not the only valuable story in the world — these are skills that, to me, have never felt more necessary.

Left: Millie in the 1970s; Middle: Susan in 1969; Right: Samantha in 2020. 
Left: Millie in the 1970s; Middle: Susan in 1969; Right: Samantha in 2020. 

The images of Millie, Dub and my mother hang above my desk and remind me how my mother’s life as their child began with a close-minded remark; but that’s not how her story evolved. Millie and Dub encouraged my mother to be curious and ingrained in her the meaning of family. My mother offers me the same lessons and encouragement, which I strive to perpetuate and develop both in my classes and in my home.




From “Hillbilly Elegy” on Netflix:
We continue to learn from the strong women of past generations in our family — even if that lesson is simply how we need to evolve and change. Netflix’s new film, “Hillbilly Elegy,” highlights the story of one man and how his life was transformed, in large part because of the strength and love of his grandmother. Watch “Hillbilly Elegy” now on Netflix.

This article was paid for by Netflix and co-created by RYOT Studio. HuffPost editorial staff did not participate in the creation of this content.