Jennifer Mancuso, Massachusetts Portrait by Lori Pedrick

Jennifer Mancuso, Massachusetts
Portrait by Lori Pedrick

dresses made of paper

At 43, I am a proud, resilient, biracial woman. Raising two beautiful daughters in Boston, with a successful career as an event planner and budding career as a writer, I am exactly where I need to be. This is my measure of success. I can look over my shoulder at the life I endured and the little girl I used to be. I have made my way across the fire.

       Early on, I knew something wasn’t ‘right’ with me. I looked different; olive skin, curly hair, eyes, cheekbones. Mine was not your every day look and people were quick to point this out. I was born in the aftermath of the Boston Busing Crisis in 1974 and although I didn’t know it at the time, our white mother, Eileen, moved me and my brother to a predominately Italian suburb of Boston to make us pass as Sicilian. It wasn’t until I was 6 and met my father, a six foot black man from the South, that I put it together. After that first meeting, we would see him during summers, always in a neutral place. He was not allowed in our house in Winthrop. I was instructed not to tell anyone about our father.

       Things were about to reach new traumatic heights when Eileen was remarried to a man who would turn out to be a pedophile, an alcoholic, a junkie, and a wife beater. The cops became daily fixtures at our house. I became a firm believer in the power of prayer when one day he slipped into a coma from an aneurysm in his brain and never regained consciousness.

       Eileen would soon be diagnosed with MS. She was broken from her experience with her late husband and the depression soon manifested itself into a full-time dependency on prescription pills. Unable to do her job as a nurse, she became a shut-in. I was forced to maintain the daily routine of keeping house. I was 13. Days would pass where she would only wake to use the bathroom. It was like living with a ghost. Although, to be truthful, I preferred this state over the verbal abuse I had to endure when she was lucid.

       As a teenager, I learned to be friendly and outgoing to classmates and respectful to their parents. This shift in personality guaranteed me a seat at different dinner tables and sleepovers on the weekends. Escaping Eileen’s house became my full time job. 

       It was around this time when a new family started taking interest in my brother and I. They were from Hong Kong and we were friendly with their eldest daughter. They opened an ice cream parlor and offered us after-school jobs. This was where I went after Eileen kicked me out of her house. I was 15.

       Suddenly being biracial was the least of my worries. The Department of Social Services let me stay on with this family and we maneuvered through the adjustment with respect, discipline and a bit of humor. Six months later, my new parents Bob and Helen were to experience growing pains again when Eileen sent my brother’s belongings over in trash bags. With four teenagers under one roof, we settled into a quiet chaos. We remained that way until cancer took Bob from us in ‘98, the year my brother’s son was born.

       When I moved out West, I told myself it was to gain distance from the trauma I suffered while in Winthrop. I found a best friend who would later become my husband. We had a love affair in San Francisco. Our daughter took her first steps in the vineyards of Napa Valley. Our second daughter was born in Boston—the best place for a baby with cysts on her lungs and needs thoracic surgery at six weeks old. Later that same year, I received word that Eileen passed away from complications of MS. At her funeral, I was reunited with my birth father. Through a series of phone calls, we made up for time that had been lost to us. This lasted for nine months until he passed away from a blood infection caused by smoking.

       At 40 I went back to school to finish the undergrad degree that had escaped me for so long. I cried upon receiving my diploma, a life long milestone. I cried again that year upon the completion of another milestone, when my husband and I bought our condo.

       My childhood left me with my fair share of ills. Anxiety lives inside me but instead of fighting it, I tap into it for motivation. It gets me up at 4:45 am to hit a cycle class. It aided me to write three books while working full time and raising two children. And when depression tries to take hold, I think of my birth mother wasting away in a haze of prescription pills. This image is enough to force me up on the darkest of days.

       As women, we are made up of the battle scars and triumphs of our youth. Each of us carries baggage in our hearts, in our memories. Some of us hide it in a suit of armor built up against the world. Others wear our wounds on a dress made of paper that all of the world can see. I do both.

— Jennifer Mancuso