By Mary Williams
I am about to attempt time travel.
Once I pass through airport security and board US Airways flight 2748
to Oakland, California, I will be transported to a place I fled
nearly 30 years ago. Although I have taken on physical challenges,
like a cross-country bicycle ride and a five-month stint on a
research base in Antarctica, I have generally shied away from emotional ones.
Six years ago I quit my well-paying job, left my fiancé and sold my
three-bedroom home in Atlanta, abandoning a life of materialism and
attachment to pursue one that included solitude, travel, and adventure.
Now 43, I spend half the year working all over the country for
federal parks and nonprofits, doing odd jobs like manning a visitor
center, clearing trails, or assisting researchers. So I often live in
constrained quarters with an assorted lot of scientists, dreamers,
Although the Internet connects me to the outside world, I was
hesitant to try Facebook. But after a colleague at an Alaskan
wildlife refuge introduced me to the site, insisting that with my
reclusive lifestyle it would be the ideal way to stay in touch, I
decided to give it a shot.
That's how I found Neome Banks, someone I haven't seen since
childhood. And that's why I'm headed back to Oakland. I want to see
the place that formed me, find the people I left behind.
Neome and I grew up in the heart of the violent and frenzied Black
Power movement. As members of the Black Panther Party -- an
organization founded in Oakland during the mid-1960s to stop police
brutality toward African-Americans -- our parents tried to help those
who lacked employment, education and healthcare. Revolution was a
day-to-day reality resulting in bloody shoot-outs between the police
and, well, us.
I was a toddler when my father was sent to San Quentin prison after
he led the cops on a high-speed chase while hurling Molotov
cocktails. At first, my mother took me and my five siblings on long
bus rides to visit him. But after a few months the trips ended, as
did our relationship with our father.
My mother quit the Panthers when I was 6. I learned about this at the
community school when one of the administrators called me out of
class and informed me I wouldn't be coming back. Ever. She handed me
a sack lunch and sent me on my way.
Overnight, my family shrank from a community of Panthers to my four
older sisters, one younger brother, and our mother. Without the
support of her husband, my mother struggled with paying bills and
finding employment. She enrolled in trade school to become a welder.
Circumstances shifted again after my mother injured her knee at work
and lost her job. Devastated by the loss of her hard-won
independence, she went on welfare, and morphed into someone I did not
recognize. Once funny, loving and vibrant, she became a zombie.
She sat alone on the couch in our living room for hours crying,
drinking, and listening to blues albums by B.B. King and Bobby "Blue"
Bland. Slip-ups that might have merited light chastising, like
spilling a drink or forgetting to do a chore, became offenses worthy
of a beating.
So when the opportunity came for me to get away from home one summer,
I grabbed it.
At age 11, I boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Santa Barbara to
attend Jane Fonda's summer camp. She and her (then) husband, Tom
Hayden, supported the Black Panthers, and had met my uncle through
Until I attended Laurel Springs Children's Camp, nestled 2,800 feet
above sea level, with spectacular views of Los Padres National Forest
and the Pacific Ocean, I had not known I was poor. I brought a light
jacket, one pair of pants, two shirts, and a pair of shorts that
doubled as a swimsuit when worn with a T-shirt. Toiletries? A bar of
Irish Spring soap, a worn-out toothbrush, and an Afro pick.
I returned to Laurel Springs for several summers, and I got to know
Jane. Smiley and chatty, she often wore snug sweatpants and a T-shirt
baring her toned midriff, her hair bouncing and behaving. She invited
me to her cottage for lunch and coached me on monologues.
She focused on me, taking in everything I said as if it were the most
fascinating thing she had ever heard. She hugged me whenever we met,
held my hand when we walked together, scratched my back when we sat
next to one another. This touch, this healthy loving touch, was a revelation.
Our family had shriveled like rancid fruit in summer heat. One of my
older sisters developed an addiction to crack and turned to
prostitution; another just drove off with her young daughter and a
boyfriend. My mother was occupied with her own demons.
When Jane Fonda offered to let me live with her in 1982, I left East
Oakland for good. Although she was not technically my legal guardian,
we ran into zero trouble; when you're with Jane Fonda, red tape tends
to fall away.
From our small run-down home in turbulent East Oakland, I moved to
Jane's hacienda surrounded by gardens and avocado trees in Santa
Monica. She sat me down soon after I arrived and said, "I see you as
my daughter now. If you want, you can call me Mom."
I also had new siblings, a little brother named Troy, and two
sisters, Vanessa and Nathalie. I was worlds away from discussing
Michael Jackson, neighborhood happenings, and boys back in Neome's
bedroom. Landing on the moon would have been less disorienting.
Everything was new.
In her Facebook photo, Neome Banks still closely resembles the young
girl I knew. I click on "Add as friend," and, across space and time,
she accepts my friendship. Again.
Through our correspondence I learn that Neome is still in touch with
one of my birth sisters, Teresa, who is also on Facebook. And so,
after typing in Teresa's name and seeing her picture pop up, I friend
my sister, too. Just like that, we close the void.
Teresa and I begin sending each other Facebook messages and e-mails:
She tells me she's recently divorced but happy, and lives alone in a
modest apartment by the sea; her daughter is now a tall young woman
with long black hair and severe bangs. Then we reminisce about our
family -- a great-aunt who covered her sofas in thick plastic and
displayed a candy dish full of mock sweets, another aunt whose house
always smelled of chitterlings, and our mother's father, "China," who
resembled the Buddha.
She tells me our mother has stopped drinking, and that they take
cruises together. She e-mails a photo of them on the deck of a cruise
ship. Our mother is plump, dressed in a purple pantsuit paired with a
loose pink blouse, sitting on a red mobility scooter. Her
close-cropped hair is now gray, but her face is unlined. Though she
doesn't smile, she looks fiercely happy sitting there in the sun on
the deck of a ship headed for Mexico. My sister kneels next to her
smiling a smile not unlike my own. Her hand rests on our mother's arm.
Seeing this picture makes me weep. My mother looks vulnerable, but
regal, so different from the woman I remember. I fantasize about
forging a new relationship with her and Teresa. We could travel
together. We could recapture the good times before our family fell apart.
I want to visit, I tell my sister. Considering the lives they have
now, and how they appear so unlike the childhood snapshots in my
head, I open my mind to a new possibility: What if my mother's
decision to let me go was a gift? I was 14 years old and a minor when
I went to live with Jane. She could have revoked and legally
challenged the situation at any time. But she didn't.
As a child, I both feared the day she'd drag me back and resented her
for not staking a claim on me. I had grown up thinking she didn't
care. But now I wonder: What if, seeing her other daughters struggle
with drugs, teen pregnancy, and abusive relationships, my mother was
relieved that her youngest had happened upon a way out? What if the
woman who had given me life had also given me a shot at a better life?
After I accepted Teresa's offer of a place to stay, we had a heated
e-mail exchange. Defiantly, she withdrew her invitation. She wrote
that she was angry with me for turning my back on our family. The
night I left, I sent her one last e-mail, letting her know the dates
of my trip and giving her my cell phone number in case she changed her mind.
The clear, warm beauty of the Oakland weather belies the storm
brewing in me. I'm waiting to meet Neome at the train station when I
see her approaching on foot with a small boy. She recognizes me
instantly and we embrace. She is tiny, thin, and not much taller than
she was as a young teen. She still possesses flawless ebony skin and
a radiant smile.
Teresa waited until the last day of my trip to call, which pisses me off.
"Hello?" I say.
"You sound like me," she says.
"Who is this?"
"Funny how our voices sound alike."
"No, they don't."
"So, how are you?"
"Well, I was just checking in."
"Great. I'm kind of busy. So...
A few weeks after my Oakland trip, I am heading out to spend
Christmas with my Fonda family. After Ted and my mom divorced in
2001, we started spending the holidays at a ranch she bought in New
Mexico. But this year we are celebrating in Los Angeles, because my
mother has a new boyfriend -- Richard, a record producer who lives in
the Hollywood Hills.
Time travel is tricky. You can't return without bringing something
back or leaving part of yourself behind. I still feel the presence of
my birth family like a ghost. No matter where I end up, I'll always
have my families.
And while I might reach out to Teresa again, right now knowing she's
out there is enough. In the meantime, I do what anyone in my position
would do -- I take to the dance floor and do the Jane Fonda.