Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood

Out in Print

by Terri Schlichenmeyer    
Published: November 3, 2009 in Out in Print

gringa_sm“Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood” by Melissa Hart
c.2009, Seal Press $16.95 / $21.50 Canada 276 pages

You thought you knew everything.

When you were a kid, knowledge came so easily. An answer to everything sat on your lips at all times and there was little anybody could tell you that you didn’t already have locked in your brain. Oh, sure, your unbelievable brilliance got you in trouble now and then because you could never resist taking advantage of that keen intelligence. Indeed, you never let anyone forget that you knew it all.

But you didn’t know what you didn’t know.

In the new memoir “Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood” by Melissa Hart, youthful innocence morphs into understanding for a girl torn between many worlds and the adults who love her.

When Melissa Hart was in grade school, her mother fell in love with the bus driver who picked Melissa’s younger brother, Tim, up for school each day. Smitten, Melissa’s mother packed up her children and a few belongings, left her husband, and moved in with the bus driver in a nearby town.

The bus driver’s name was Patricia.

When Melissa’s father finally found the family, he brought the police, who removed the children from the house. A judge, later saying that being parented by two women “was unnatural”, gave custody to the father. Melissa’s mother was allowed to see her children twice a month.

But for Melissa and her siblings, it wasn’t enough.

They longed to be with their mother and the fun she offered. Life with her was an adventure. Not so, with their staid, stern father and his new wife.

Through her childhood, Melissa, aching for her mother, strived to emulate her. She tried hard to like girls, then eventually realized “you can’t alter nature”. But adolescence with a lesbian mother and an unconventional family wasn’t easy.

“I had a vaudevillian great-grandmother who wore silk robes over hoary overalls, a grandmother who made Smurf costumes for a living, and a lesbian mom who subscribed to Ms. and Mother Jones. I was screwed,” Melissa said.

Then, at a sophomore-year party, when a quinceanera’s mother asked “¿Quien es la gringa?” (“Who is the white girl?”), the Spanish-speaking, culture-confused, WASPish ghost-white former lesbian wanna-be understood the question’s deeper meaning: who was she, anyhow?

The answer lay in another country, in another lifetime.

I have two words for “Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood”: De. Lightful.

Part coming-of-age story, part pop-culture for late-Baby-Boomer-early-Gen-Xer, author Melissa Hart writes about what it was like to be the child of a parent who came out of the closet at a time when homosexuality was extremely taboo in much of the country. It was – and consider this a warning – a time when pejorative words were much more common and casually used than they are now. Hart also abundantly recalls being a teen during the late-70s / early 80s and the acute embarrassment that inherently comes with living that age.

If you’re up for a warm, funny, loving memoir that’s relatively quick and definitely easy to enjoy, pick up this one. “Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood” is one I know you’ll like.