In case anyone reading doesn’t know me in person or somehow forgot what I look like from not seeing me in so long, I have Albinism. One of my first entries was about my relationship with the sun. The short version is that I am pale. I have pale skin. I have platinum blonde hair. My eye brows, eye lashes, chin hair … okay you get it … are all white. Daenerys Targaryan with the silver hair ain’t got nothing on me.
My appearance has led people to a “what nationality is she?” guessing game my whole life. I have been disappointing them since birth. My mom was a dirty blonde blue eyed California girl when I was a kid (that’s not to say she’s not blue eyed anymore, but the hair has changed color. Cancer and aging will do that.) When I was out and about with her, people would ask, “oh, is your husband Swedish?” Nope. “Norwegian?” No. Sometimes mom would explain; more often she was in a rush because that is a constant condition of being a single mom.
My dad has gotten darker over the course of his life. As an adolescent, he was kind of redheaded, at least he looks that way in a picture I have. By the time I came around, which wasn’t all that long after his adolescence, he had dark brown hair and greenish/hazel eyes. I can’t be sure. I don’t really look at my dad in the face, certainly not closely enough to discern his eye color. He also worked outside on landscaping crews so he was always tan. When I was out and about with him, everyone asked, “Is your wife Swedish?” No. “Norwegian?” No.
No. I don’t have Swedish or Norwegian lineage as far as I know.
One time when mom had taken me into DC to the Smithsonian to see King Tut when he was on tour, some people in line were gawking. Mom has never liked people gawking at her children. One funny thing about Albinism is I’m often too blind to notice the gawkers… it has to be REALLY bad, and it has been sometimes (those German guys in Paris? WOW friends, lean back, personal space and all). Mom got annoyed with the people in line and decided to educate them. “She has Albinism.” That didn’t shut them up or stop their staring. In fact, they then conducted a conversation in a whisper that was not quiet enough to miss my mom and me, “I thought people from Albania were dark.” We didn’t spare them our ridicule and still laugh about the stupidity over two decades later.
So, not Albanian either.
Unrelated to my coloring, but also in the game of “What Ethnicity Is She?” on a late night subway ride home a crazy lady talked to me for at least ten minutes about the fact that I AM JEWISH. She was adamant. I was sorry to disappoint her, but she did not believe me. She said that my nose gave me away (thanks for pointing out I have a big nose… I like to think of it as REGAL!). I laughed with good nature and assured her that I was German Lutheran, Irish Catholic, and Dutch Protestant. No, she continued, I must have had ancestors who converted to protect themselves, maybe even as far back as the Crusades. I only know my family history back to the nineteenth century – and that we were definitely out of Germany by the 1890s – so I had no way to prove her wrong. I retreated into my headphones when I realized she wasn’t going to give it up.
So, not Jewish.
Even my own grandma has chimed in regarding the family’s heritage, though her information is suspect and lends nothing to an explanation about how pale I am. She said we have Cherokee blood somewhere. Yeah. Okay, grandma. You’re also an astrologist, numerologist, alcoholic, and compulsive gambler who has said some of the most hurtful things in my entire life.
In fact, I forgot to include her in what went wrong in 2014 because I try very hard not to think about it. I’m thinking about it now, so are you ready for some of the bullshit she laid down in August 2014 at the family reunion in Colorado? At one dinner, she casually mentioned that my mom wanted to abort me when she found out she was pregnant because things weren’t going well with my dad and she was already overwhelmed with one child with Albinism. Um. Wow. Thanks for that, grandma. I tried to steer clear of her the rest of the time I was there because what do you even say to someone after that? Mind you, she is NOT my mom’s mom, and my mom was never close enough to her to confide anything so important, so I assume grandma was divining this information from the stars.
After avoiding her most of the trip, she grabbed me one night after dinner and maybe in her mind tried to make “your mom wanted to abort you” okay. Except she dug herself a deeper hole by telling me that my soul was not sure it wanted to be born into my life, that I was sick as a baby and had to go back to the hospital for several days because my soul was unsure about its participation in the life I would have. Well, science says it was a Staph infection and jaundice, but who am I to argue with grandma? She kept going. She said my soul’s uncertainty was also the cause of my suicide attempt when I was a week shy of 16. I try very hard to avoid my grandma at all costs after this encounter. I don’t need any of what she’s got in my life.
So, not Cherokee or whatever other weird painful shit my grandma thinks.
Today, though, today was a SCENE. My ankle is still weak, so I had it wrapped and was wearing capri pants and loafers when I went out to the drugstore. I had my very white hair up in a ponytail and quietly made my way through the aisles gathering what I needed before I approached the pharmacy line to pick up my diabetic fur face’s insulin like the good pet mom I am. (Happy mother’s day to me!) There was a woman leaning on the counter having a full conversation with the pharmacist. I guessed they were speaking either Russian or Polish based on the demographics of my neighborhood and what I know of how the two languages sound. I stood patiently in line, not making any faces or checking the time, just letting them do their thing, shoot the shit. I wasn’t in a rush.
The customer saw me and immediately started speaking to me in the same language. She then turned to the pharmacist and pointed at me, continuing to speak in the language. She stepped away from the counter, closer to me, talking rapid fire and LOUDLY in a language I do not speak. She pointed to my ankle, noticing for the first time that it is wrapped, and said a single recognizable word, “pain.” I nodded and said, “yeah, it hurts, but it’s okay.” She then advised me that my hair is very pale. (Prior to her saying so, I didn’t know, right?) She pointed to me and continued speaking to the pharmacist about me. She then asked me a question that I should have been able to answer because she believed that I speak her language. She gave up at some point, maybe because my polite smile started to slip because I wasn’t in the mood (am never in the mood) to be a spectacle. She finally asked in English if I’m Polish. Again, I had to crush someone’s guess in “What Nationality Is She?” I told her no, just American. She wanted to know my heritage, so I said some Irish and German. At “German” she spat at my feet. She told me I should dye my hair. The pharmacist indicated that this woman didn’t have any real business and that I could step forward and get my cat’s insulin. The insistent customer kept trying to speak to me in Polish, CONVINCED that because my hair is so white, I MUST be Polish. She offered a few other nationality possibilities, like Italian (what?). She continued to speak in Polish throughout much of my transaction, indicating with hand gestures that I should speak Polish, I must speak Polish. Finally she went away, and the pharmacist offered apologies on the woman’s behalf. “Barbara is okay. She just, she thinks you have to be Polish because of your hair. Sometimes she’s a little… ” and a gesture to indicate off kilter. “I’m sorry she offended you.” I wondered briefly what my face looked like because I wasn’t offended so much as confused at how emphatic she was. I assured the pharmacist that it was fine and left.
Walking home, I tried to think of the people of Polish decent that I know. Not a one of them has hair nearly as blonde as mine, though many of them are very tall like me. I was also amused by the notion that I should either dye my hair or learn to speak Polish to satisfy that woman’s view of where I fit in her world.
So, not Polish either.
Just a person with Albinism and mixed western European heritage. And disappointment for those who persist in guessing. And waning patience for vociferous guessers.