My daughter has her father’s white skin, her grandfather’s dark curls, but nobody is sure how she got her blue eyes. Her father’s eyes are hazel; mine are brown. On her father’s side, the origins of her blue eyes are easy to trace: Grandpa has bright blue Irish eyes. It’s now known that the genetics of eye colour are complex, and that any combination of parent-child eye colours is possible. Still, the question of whether there have previously been blue eyes in my family — simple enough on the surface — dredges up all sorts of complicated family dynamics, long-buried resentments.
Long ago, when I was about twelve or thirteen, I once asked my grandmother about my grandfather, who died in 1958, two years before my parents married. I asked her whether he was serious or funny, what he liked to eat, what he liked to read. I asked her whether his hair was thick or fine when he still had hair, and I remember this as clearly as though we had the conversation yesterday: when I asked her what colour his eyes were, she said, “Blue.” But when I ask my mother and her siblings about it now, much disagreement ensues. “I don’t know,” my mother says, “I never dared to look into the man’s eyes.” Then she recounts, again, her many memories of abuse, her memories of a father who would grab the scruff of her neck and push her face into her soupy dinner plate for no reason, then watch her choke and splutter. “Well, it must be true,” she says. “If your grandmother said so, it must be true about the blue eyes.” But when I ask my mother’s brother — my grandfather’s favourite, the darling of the family, the one whose cupped palms my grandfather would fill with coins while my jealous mother watched through the cracked-open door — he scoffs and shakes his head. “What nonsense!” he says. “Where do you people get these ideas?”
My mother and her brother — the punching bag and the favourite — disagree about all their memories of their childhood, even though they are only two years apart. They argue about whether my grandfather had a car before the war, whether their uncle and aunt used to come and visit by car or by train, the colour of my grandfather’s eyes, who spoke up in defense of their older sister when she was doing more than her fair share of the housework. My uncle throws his head back and laughs at my mother’s memories, tells her she must be hallucinating, makes us all laugh with his theatrical exaggerations. In the middle of their arguments they call their older sister and get her to referee: who is right and who is wrong about the car? In what year did x, y, z happen? What did so-and-so really say that time in 1954? After my uncle leaves my mother’s voice trembles for days. She brings up the disputed memories any chance she gets. She visits her sister and browbeats her into agreeing with her side of the story.
We know there is more at stake in these arguments than the colour of my grandfather’s eyes. We know they are arguing about who my grandfather was, how he could have loved one child so much and bullied another so cruelly. My mother, who got nothing from her father, who was mysteriously left out of his will, wants to own the memories, at least. In this way — by remembering accurately — she will finally taste victory over her brother. She will be the one who noticed the things he did not, the one who gained wisdom and perception instead of fistfuls of coins.
All the photographs of my grandfather are black and white, of course. When people ask us — as they often do — where my daughter got her blue eyes, I nevertheless tell them that my grandfather had blue eyes. For one thing, there is no reason I should trust one person’s memories of my grandfather over another’s. But more important than that is my need to lay claim to my daughter. From the time she was a newborn, many people, seeing only her colouring, have said to me: Wow, she really looks nothing like you! At the Turin Book Fair, a journalist exclaimed: “This one is your daughter? You must have adopted her!” (Yes, “you must have adopted her,” not “is she adopted?”, as though I might have adopted a child and then forgotten about it). Neither of these possibilities — that she looks nothing like me, that she might be adopted — is bad in and of itself. Were I another mother with another child, I might not care that people do not see me in her physical appearance, or I might have got over that after the first few months. But it is different for us. I am brown-skinned and my daughter, for all intents and purposes, is white. She will grow up being treated as a white person. And because how we are treated has immense influence on whom we become, I worry that she will grow up identifying only as a white person, forgetting that she is that and more. The desire that most parents have to pass our culture on to our children becomes more urgent, more desperate for me. Instead of Mummy or Mommy or Maman, I chose to be Amma, clinging to this shred of not-whiteness, hoping that sometime in the distant future her use of this word alone, Amma, will set her apart from all the kids calling Mum or Mom on their cell phones in some college dorm. I’ve taught my daughter to call my parents Tata and Paati, even though all their other grandchildren call them Grandpa and Grandma, even though it would be easier and more natural for her, too, to use the English words. I worry I will become the mother who forces her reluctant child into Tamil classes and Bharatanatyam lessons. I was once that reluctant child myself: I tore up and threw out the school letter inviting my parents to sign me up for Saturday Tamil classes; I asked for ballet lessons instead of Bharatanatyam. Why should my daughter have less choice in these matters just because she happens to have white skin?
In Malaysia, my daughter draws attention everywhere for her blue eyes. Are they real? people ask, looking from me to her and then back at me again. Are they coloured contacts? No, I tell them, Believe it or not, I don’t put contact lenses in my two-year-old’s eyes. Once, when we went to buy curtains, shop assistants took turns holding her to pose for each other’s cell phone photographs. Even in France, her eyes are the first thing strangers notice. Without looking at us, they smile and say, Well, she certainly has her father’s eyes! No, she doesn’t, we tell them. It is a fair assumption to make, of course, that the blue eyes must come from the white parent. Still, I grit my teeth; I wait for my husband to point out the shape and size of her eyes and the length of her eyelashes, all inherited from me. If he doesn’t, I resent him for it. I feel he owes it to me, this hard-won half of our child.
Every brown mother of a light-skinned child has been mistaken for the hired help. But it is one of those clichés that each one of us must revisit. No matter how many times you’ve read about it, when it happens to you, it is new all over again, a fresh wound. Two weeks ago, when a fellow guest at a beach resort made this mistake — “Oh, I thought she was your maid,” she said about me when my white sister-in-law told her who my daughter’s mother really was — I felt the now-familiar irritation. I’m irritated not just because I’ve been mistaken for the help when I am highly educated and very likely speak and write better than the person who has made the mistake, but because people pay so little attention and yet feel free to open their mouths. If you paid attention, I want to tell them, you would see past skin colour and eye colour. A white mother with completely different features from her white child never gets the adoption question/joke; why does only colour count? If you paid attention — just a little attention, the modicum of attention anyone interested in other human beings pays to strangers — you would notice that my daughter does not behave around me the way children behave around nannies and maids, and that I do not act like a nanny. Even making allowances for the fact that people cannot guess what Amma means, I wish they would notice the physical closeness in our relationship, the confidence in the way I talk to her and hold her, all the little things that would be surprising in a nanny. But all this is too much to say to strangers, too difficult to summarise. Instead I tell them when I get a chance, even when they don’t ask: Oh, my grandfather had blue eyes. Like my mother, I am talking about more than the eye colour of this man I never met. I am standing up and demanding to be counted; I am reclaiming what is mine. In my version of the story, my grandfather’s eyes will always be blue.
[Images: Blue Ripple by basegreen on flickr; Blue Eyes by Brynja Eldon on flickr; Early Paget Process Colour Portrait #4, Car at Marazion, 1952, and House, India, c. 1900 by whatsthatpicture on flickr; Mother and Child by Mary Cassatt by cliff1066 on flickr; Mother mother by Frederic Poirot on flickr]