My sister has been through two husbands, both tall and fair. There were children, one from each husband. They cheated on her, and she cheated on them. There was drinking. There were drugs. They'd slap Lydia around, and she'd beg forgiveness. They always took her back. Or she took them back. It depended on the whim of the week. They did this until it played out.
"Remember that time your dad came for a visit?" Lydia said to me one day. She was in the hospital recovering from her latest beating. "I was around 4."
I remembered and felt guilty all over again. He'd come for my graduation from high school. His occasional presence always sent my brother and me into father-worship hysteria. Some of it must have rubbed off on my little sister. Lydia was the sweetest kid, shy and quiet, never a problem. She hung around my father's knees, staring at him adoringly, and asked, "Can I call you 'Daddy'?"
"No," came his stern reply.
Lydia looked hurt, but she didn't cry. She never asked again, nor did she mention the incident, but her questions regarding her own father increased. The unraveling of my mother's past had been set in motion.
Lydia's birth seven years after my parents' divorce had always needed some explaining. Back then, Mom had filled in the details in her own enigmatic way. "Your daddy thought you were beautiful," she'd say to Lydia with a sigh. "But he was a musician, and it just wasn't meant to be."
My brother and I accepted this version of the affair that produced our sister with few questions, even though Lydia looks completely different from the rest of us. Mom is a long-legged Latina, but my brother and I take after our father. We're both tall blonds. Lydia is petite and cinnamon-coffee dark with tightly curled blue-black hair.
"Your father was Sicilian," Mom said. We anxiously believed that somewhere below the boot of Italy, there was a whole flock of people who looked just like our sister.
"I want to find my real father," she said now, 45 years later.
We had the name of the man Mom claimed to be Lydia's father. With the Internet the rest was easy. So Lydia called this guy, Sam Gianni in Michigan, and said she was his grown-up daughter in Santa Fe just calling to say hi. Yes, he told her, he was a musician who had traveled there to play for the opera, but no, he was not aware of the birth of a daughter, and what's more, he didn't remember our mother.
All hell broke loose at that point.
Sam's loss of memory regarding their affair hit Mom's vanity dead center. Her bedroom eyes snapped open but turned hard and small in the depths. "Just like a man," she said. Her slippered feet pounded off in the direction of her bedroom, but her shoulders slumped like the little old lady she is. She refused to discuss the matter further.
A few weeks later we went out for drinks -- my little sister, Mom, and I. While sitting at the bar together, Lydia started begging for the truth. Again.
"Who's my real father?" she said. "Why won't you tell me?"
"I've got a confession to make," Mom said in her smokiest storytelling voice. "Around 1966, when I was bartending at the El Corral... something happened." She took a slow puff of her cigarette, drawing in deeply, since it's a low-tar brand, her only concession to the surgeon general's report. "Business was slow," she continued on the exhale. The nimbus of smoke surrounding the three of us excluded everyone else at the bar; we were in our mother's world now. "I locked up early to get a head start on inventory. I was in the back room when I heard a noise behind me." She paused here, holding Lydia's enraptured gaze. "A black man was standing there. He said not to be afraid, that he wouldn't hurt me if I didn't scream. He emptied the cash register... and then he raped me."
Lydia and I gasped.
Mom looked pleased. "I had been with Sam earlier that day," she went on. "So, you see, I really don't know who your real father is." Lydia stared at Mom, her mouth slightly open.
It could have happened like this. Or maybe not. Mom's older sister told on her. "Your mother was dating a black guy back then," she said. "I don't know why she can't admit it." My aunt tapped her fingers and stared off into space. "He played the saxophone at the jazz club."
Sam the Sicilian's instrument was the violin.
Mom doesn't understand why it's so important to Lydia to know her father. "I was the one who took care of her," she told me. In my mother's world, the fathers and the truth are always expendable. "I know you all think I'm a bad mother," she added, a question beneath her armor.
"No, Mom, it's not that we think you're a bad mother," I said. "It's that we think you're a bad liar."
That day in the hospital with my sister, I held her bruised and swollen hand and remembered another incident from our shared past. When Lydia was 5, I came home for a weekend from college. My brother and I, along with our little sister, had driven over to a shopping center to buy shoes. A demonstration for black power was in progress in the parking area. A lot of that went on in those days.
As I helped Lydia down from the car, a tall, very thin, and very dignified, Afro-haired young black man stepped apart from the crowd and approached us. He was carrying a stack of leaflets with various slogans printed on it. Ignoring my brother and me, he stooped low and handed Lydia one of the papers.
"Here you go, sister," he said to her.
My brother and I laughed, standing there in the hard sunlight. My memory is an unrelenting snapshot: our heads tilted back in the same way, our blond hair and strong teeth gleaming mercilessly bright above the rare blue-black luster of our sister's curly-topped head. We laughed back then, looking into each other's eyes, and never told Mom or kept the memory alive for Lydia.
No father ever came to claim Lydia.
No son of Sicily, memory restored and classically trained, arrived to lift my sister's spirit on lofty waves of Bach or Mozart. No ebony patriarch appeared to teach my sister about her roots, dark and deep, black pride reverberating on the complex notes of his sax.
"Black is beautiful, sister," he could have told her. "Take pride."