Belonging: A Daughter’s Search for Identity Through Loss and Love by Michelle Miller with Rosemarie Robotham shows the CBS Saturday Morning cohost go through childhood and adulthood wondering the whereabouts of a mother who refused to raise her.
Born at the end of 1967, Michelle arrives back in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968. The night before, her father, Dr. Ross Miller, becomes embedded in one of U.S. history’s most tragic events: the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Michelle’s father was the first doctor to examine the presidential candidate’s gunshot wounds. Still a newborn, Michelle flies back to the city of her recent birth from Birmingham, Alabama, after her grandmother, Bigmama, discovers her existence. Her father sent his secret daughter to family in Alabama, but Bigmama demanded her granddaughter return to LA. It’s Bigmama’s responsibility to raise Michelle out of sight from her son’s wife and two adopted daughters. This is where the journalist’s story begins.
Her mother, a Chicana fair enough to pass as White, worked in the same hospital as her married father, a top Black cardiopulmonary surgeon. Their affair sparks hate from her mother’s family; they only see their daughter and sister dating a Black man. Once her mother, known by the pseudonym Laura Hernandez throughout the book, gives Michelle to her father, the doctor depends on his family to raise his first biological child. As Michelle grows up around civil rights activists like her father, attends a historically Black college like her father, and embarks on a news career, she leans into her Black identity while wondering about her other ethnicity and the woman who birthed her.
“All my life, I had encountered people who would take note of my light skin, long wavy hair, and pointed features and be curious about my ethnicity. ‘What are you exactly?’ they might ask. ‘I’m Black,’ I would tell them, cheerfully removing their confusion. Sometimes, if I was in the mood to claim my mother’s contributions to my heritage, despite her absence from my life, I might say, ‘My father is Black, and my mother is Hispanic.’”
Growing up in 1970s South Los Angeles, Michelle attends predominantly Black schools at first then gets bussed far away to attend predominantly White schools. Bigmama, who is 73 when she starts raising her newborn granddaughter, is a retired teacher, so education is prioritized in their household. Michelle’s father lives in his own townhouse in Long Beach and visits often after his shift at the hospital. He also brings in girlfriends who become a part of Michelle’s greater village, such as civil rights legend Xernona Clayton, who Michelle lovingly calls “Big.”
When Bigmama gets sick as Michelle becomes a teenager, a neighbor named Vondela starts to help out in the house. She becomes Michelle’s surrogate guardian and also takes care of Michelle’s adopted sister Cheryl. Bigmama’s house evolves and expands with the village once Michelle attends Howard University to continue her family’s legacy of attending the renowned HBCU in Washington, D.C. There, she develops her journalism career while making lifelong friends like her roommate, actress Wendy Raquel Robinson. After graduation, she starts hitting the pavement looking for opportunities to report on the news.
“For one thing, I had spent years obsessing over the mother who did not stay, and fixating on the maternal surrogates who had been there for me while their relationships with my father ran their course. Yet I had hardly noted that it was Vondela who had truly stepped up to care for me. She had been more of a mother to me than anyone else, save Bigmama.”
By the time she starts her news career, her father is diagnosed with cancer. He gives Michelle her mother’s contact information. He says her mother should know who she is. Michelle doesn’t know what to do with the information, her motherlessness always lingering in the background of her ambitious life. She eventually calls her mother for the first time. As the years and decades pass, even with Michelle starting a family of her own with former New Orleans mayor and National Urban League president Marc Morial, she finds that every time she reaches out to the woman genetically linked to her as her mother that she longs for answers she may never get.
“Suddenly, my mother’s decades-old abandonment of me felt as near and as raw as if it had happened yesterday. In becoming a mother, I had stumbled upon a vast reservoir of hurt that I hadn’t even realized I was still carrying, one that might have been forever drained of its poison with one simple act—a phone call or a card from my mother hailing the arrival of our beloved boy.”
This memoir touches the deep vein of living without a mother who is alive and well. From child to adult, Michelle wonders about her mother’s whereabouts while people around her are wondering the same. She is able to connect with people like a young man she dates during a foreign exchange program in Kenya who didn’t know his late mother, or like her stepdaughter who is raised mostly in the Ivory Coast with her mother without spending the same adequate time with her father in the U.S.
Not having a mother distorts her life journey a bit since she’s always expecting her mother to show up magically to support her for the important events, but other women show up instead. Her motherly surrogates seem numerous as her father inadvertently creates a village for Michelle. She is raised by her grandmother, her neighbor, her father’s girlfriends, and her family friends. The African proverb of it taking a village to raise a child is in action, yet there is still the longing for Michelle to have her two biological parents raising her.
Overall, from the storytelling perspective, the underlying motherlessness weaves into the author’s life moments smoothly. She wonders where her mother is as a child, for example, seeing other girls at her school getting picked up from school by their mothers. But that feeling remains when she becomes a mother to her own son and daughter and still wonders if her mother will show up as a doting grandmother. The racial undertones of the reason why her mother is missing is also explained well as a reminder that her White-passing Chicana mother refused to be a present mother simply because her daughter was the product of an affair with a Black man. This story shows how there are still families who have missing members due to racism and the fear of prejudice.