In the year 2000, I received a strange letter. It was from an insurance company, saying that they wanted to pay me about $2,000 in benefits. I was immediately suspicious. I wondered if their main office was in Nigeria. I wondered if I was going to be asked to put up $500 first before I received the $2,000. But strangely, it turned out to be a love letter from 1955.
I called the company’s 800 number and the lady on the other end looked up my account.
“The records say we’ve been looking for you for a while,” she said. “It’s a life insurance policy. You have a choice of taking the money in stock or getting a cash payout.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’ve never taken out an insurance policy with your company.”
“Well, this goes back quite a number of…decades.”
After conducting a little research through their computerized records, she discovered that the policy had been taken out when I was only a month old. After 20 years, the policy had been paid off, and at a certain point, they had lost track of me. I didn’t understand all the technical aspects, but by law, they had to try to find me.
The one who originally took out the policy, they finally discovered, was my father, who’s been dead for over 20 years.
I was puzzled. I had never heard of this policy. So I went to my mother and asked her. For a while, she drew a blank, but then it all started to come back to her.
“Your father paid all the bills while he was alive,” she said, “but yes, okay, right, I seem to remember that we took out a life insurance policy the year you were born, I remember now. We paid every month.”
After all the identifications were made, I finally received the check.
But that wasn’t the end of it. In my quiet moments over the next few weeks, I pondered this mysterious policy. My father had been raised virtually by wolves–that is, by a mother who was mentally ill and neglected him, pestered him, harangued him. My mother had been raised in poverty in East L.A., and her mother used to beat her.
There was so much drama in her house. Once, my great-aunt Margarita laughingly recounted an incident in which my grandfather came home at 4 am stinking of whiskey and with lipstick smudges on his shirt.
“Maria [my grandmother] accused him of being with another woman,” Margarita said, “and he said ‘So what if I did?!’ and she started hitting him. Well, that got him really mad. He went into the kitchen and got a big ol’ knife and took out after her. So I jumped on his back, put my hands around his neck and yelled, ‘Run, Maria, run for the hills!'”
Finally one day in 1951, when my parents were 20 and 21, respectively, they found each other, two wounded birds trying to act like normal adults, but each with a secret. Within three weeks, they were married, and in October, 1955, they had their firstborn.
I see my parents holding this child and looking at each other, like, Now what do we do? They did a lot of things wrong along the way, to be sure, but one thing I can’t fault was their intentions. They always had the best of intentions.
They say that no movie can be truly satisfying without a transformation in the protagonist. If so, this movie has no flaws in that regard. I saw genuine transformations in my parents. I remember misbehaving when I was five. My mother ripping a switch off a tree and whipping my behind. My father taking off his belt and whipping my behind. My father using his hand on my bare behind, and me yelling, No, no, no!
But over the course of a year or two, it became increasingly difficult for them. It made my mother feel evil, she later told me. When she did it, she felt first a rage, and then a deep regret. She loved her children too much to use a belt on them.
“I felt myself turning into my mother,” she said. “I remembered the pain of being hit. I remember the hurt and rage. I couldn’t pass this violence along to another generation.”
Some parents don’t learn, they just pass along the sins.
If I focus on that moment in 1955 when I was born, I can understand. After the labor, my mother, all sweaty and weak, apologized to her new husband for how she looked. But Dad responded with that thing they say in all the movies these days and has become a cliche, but only because it’s so true.
“You look more beautiful today than I’ve ever seen you,” he told her.
They didn’t say it in movies back then. He really felt it.
And if I focus on that moment in November, 1955, a month after I was born, I can feel their love. Their new baby was four weeks old. It was their light, their joining, their responsibility. It could be anything, the sky was the limit, if they didn’t screw it up. Hell, it had already changed their lives.
But what was important, they felt, so very important, was to care for him the way they had never been cared for. There had been so much pain in their own pasts, but they were determined that their son would never have that kind of pain. So they took out a life insurance policy and paid into it a little every month, just in case.
Growing up, I was never hungry, never beaten. My mother never put my feet on the stove because I was five minutes late coming home from school, as her mother did. I was never left alone at age 7 at my mother’s house, as my father was, her having spent several days at another man’s house. I didn’t have to figure out stoves and ovens at that age and cook my own meals. I wasn’t scared when a thunderstorm hit when my mother was gone, so scared that I fled to my father’s house. My father didn’t come home that morning from the graveyard shift to his whimpering little son crouching soaking wet on the back porch. I was dry and fed and happy. I was loved.
And decades later, I had a check in my hand that proved it.