It’s been a while since I blogged. Why? Because I’ve been feet and heart and marrow in my memoir. Last night I realized, no, I faced what I’ve known for a week, I am ready to compile these stories. The writing is complete, well, for now at least. Now it’s time to put the stories together as a book, figure out/confirm their order, make sure they weave into one another. Yes, I am in the final stages and I am a ball of emotion right now, terror, joy, exhilaration, angst, awe. I’m still processing the weight of it all; the massive research I’ve done on the art and process of writing memoir and personal narrative, psychological studies on memory and the effects of being raised by a mentally ill parent. It’s surreal to think that I’m so close to completing my first draft, after all, I’ve been living with this memoir for more than a decade, writing it in earnest for the past three years, only found the focus of A Dim Capacity for Wings (the first of a pentagonia of memoirs) in January: age 0 to 13, what happened to me that I left and never returned, that is, my relationship with my mother.
Today, I came across this email I sent a friend back in November after having a moment with mom where I realized how much I’ve grown while writing this memoir, how much I’ve let go, how I see her with a new set of “less resentful” eyes. Of course things have changed since then. She hasn’t spoken to me since December. We’ve been in the same room and she won’t even look at me. She still baits me though. Still tries to dig into my skin and feed on me, like a leech does his prey. It’s what she does. Only now, I don’t bite. I sit there and protect my space. I say nothing. It’s in my relationships that I see how much I’ve grown throughout this process.
There was a time when three words out of her mouth would send me into a tizzy, where we’d end up yelling, me crying, leaving in a huff, spiraling into days of depression. She had that much power over me. But now I see that her behavior is a manifestation of her pain. She’s so heavy with accumulated trauma. I have this newfound compassion for her. It doesn’t give her a pass for her behavior, but it certainly keeps me from reacting and carrying her anguish. So, I send her love, but continue to protect my space, because I have to, because the little girl inside me needs it, because this woman I’ve become understands that I deserve more, demands better.
November 9, 2011
Saint Eden is her name.
When I walked into the apartment, I felt her energy heavy. I know her so well. I know when she’s on the brink of flip. It’s been directed at me enough times for me to sense it. I gave her a kiss she didn’t return. So cold. But I sensed the pain in it and left it alone, stayed though every atom in me wanted to run away. I’m a master at running. I sat.
“Porque no me llamastes para decirme que Carlos venia con tu hija.” I detest those words, when she refers to Vasialys as “your daughter.” It’s as if she negates her as her granddaughter. She knows how to cut into me. I didn’t catch the bait. I let the hornet fly around and sting without swatting. I explain the accusation away, quietly and stare.
She hummed as she prepared dinner. I hum when I cook. I’ve fought for nearly 36 years to not be like her and still, I carry so much of her, from getting quiet when I hurt to my defensiveness.
She started in about my sister. Choked up when she spoke of Carlitos, Dee’s son, how his underwear are threadbare, how she (my sister) does not help with him at all. We’re carrying him now. She choked up. “Si, yo fui dura con ustedes, especialmente contigo Vanessa, yo lo se.” Her eyes well. She wipes her face brusquely. “Pero les compre lo que necesitaban. Siempre.” The tears come fast. I put my hand on her shoulder, “Mami.” She shrugs me off. “No, me duele, coño.” Her voice cracks. She squeezes the tears back into their ducts and goes back to work on cutting vegetables. I sit and watch her cook. She’s so small, my mother. Round in the middle with squat legs that could kick a bull over onto his side.
As a kid, we would hang out on the front steps, me, my sister and the neighborhood kids. Mom would walk out, her face stern, a cigarette in her hand. All of five feet, she could take up the entire eight feet of the door frame and the four feet of the foyer. We would disperse. Some would walk down Palmetto, others up Ridgewood Place. A few brave stragglers would sit on the car hoods in front of the building, fidgeting with the seams of our jeans or staring down at the gutter, cracking the vials with the front of our shoes. No one would look at her. “Rambette” they named her, the female version of Rambo. She was that menacing in her silence. She’d inhale her cigarette in long drags, glaring through squinted eyes. When she was done, she’d flick it into the street, roll her eyes and go inside. No one dared approach our building for the rest of the day. Her force lingered there, earning the shivering, hair raising fear of un mismo demonio.
She starts talking about how she’s going to confront my sister. “La voy a agarrar, tu vas a ver. Yo se cuando ella viene.” She says she’ll grab her on Dyckman one day she’s visiting titi’s house. She’ll invite her to the park. “Si le gano la cara depende en ella. Pero esto yo no me lo voy a aguantar.” She rails on about her planned confrontation. I have flashbacks of back in the day, the “meet me afterschool” brawls I was involved in far too many times in a sad effort to make people respect me. It was the only way I knew. In punches and headlocks.
“Necesito testigo. Y tu? Tu quieres ser testigo?” I get up, flustered.
“No. A mi no me metas en eso.” She laughs for the first time all evening. The tension dissipates. “Llama a Bella que ya esta la comida.”
She eats when we’re all done. She’s done that for so long, wait for everyone else to eat before she sits, one leg tucked under her, the other folded over under her chin. I approach and sit.
“Talk to me, mom.”
“How did you meet my father?”
She smiles. She stares at the plant on the table. Mom has always had plants in the house, layered on the windows in makeshift tiers she made out of slats of wood that she perches with expertise, using the windowgate as leverage.
“Raul Martir.” She met him in Bushwick. She’d already had my brother, Juan Carlos. She lived with my grandmother at the time. The woman who blamed her and still does, and doesn’t let her forget it. Just the other day while watching a novela, she snides, “Vas a ver, esa le va quitar el macho a la madre.” I glared at her. Look at mom. Mom bites her lip and looks away. I swallow the bile that pushes onto my tongue. I clench my teeth, holding it in, and walk out.
There were times, so many times that grandma put my mother out on the street, pregnant and even afterward when she had her son, my brother. My mother worked in a factory making sweaters. She was so thin that the owner used her to model the clothes. She was only 17, hadn’t been in the U.S. for more than two years, didn’t even know the language, but she somehow knew how to survive. I get my hardcore I-can-do-this-no-matter-what ways from mami.
She’d gone out to the store to get pampers and milk “porque en ese dia todo era barato. Los pamper costaban $2, la leche, centavos.” She’s proud that she didn’t need public assistance. In fact, she didn’t turn to the government until she had me. I was born without enzymes. I was supposed to die. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me. She grew tired of the lucha, “yo corria contigo al hospital, al menos dos y tres veces a la semana.” She took me to a specialist a doña told her about. He referred her to St. John’s hospital, the hospital to which he was affiliated. One day, after working long hours and running home to check on her other two children, she walked in to to find me, all bones, no meat, not having been touched tenderly all day, laid out, asleep, she got on her knees and prayed, “Dios mio, si mi hija va sufrir asi, por favor, llevatela.” Something came over her. She started to rip the nodes off my chest, the tubes, the needles. The nurses thought she’d lost her mind. She says she somehow knew that if I remained there I would die. They had her sign a waiver saying that she was responsible. My bones were so brittle I couldn’t be held to her chest. Imagine that. Months old, I couldn’t be held to my mother’s chest. I couldn’t hear her heartbeat that lulled me when I was curled inside her. They created a makeshift cradle out of a board. This is how she carried me to Columbia Presbyterian’s Baby Hospital. That’s where she says they saved my life. I say she saved me. More than once. I see that now.
I was in the hospital for four months. Brought back to life. Mom had to quit her job. The doctors said I needed her round-the-clock care. That’s when she went on public assistance. The first time and only for a few years. She went back to school. Then she started working as a para-professional in the NYC school system. She’s been doing it ever since.
Raul stood leaning on his yellow Nova. Said he knew her. “Yo pare.” She smirks when she says that. She raises her eyebrows and I see the 17 year old, hungry for love, coqueta, intrigued by his attention. “Yo no te conozco a ti.” He says he’s seen her in the neighborhood. He was staying with friends nearby. She leaves but they talk when she sees him. Brief chats when she’s goes to the store. She tells him she has two brothers and a sister. That she lives with her mother. It’s all he knows.
One day, when she exits the school, Bushwich High School where she takes night classes for her high school diploma after long hours at the factory, he’s waiting for her. He offers to buy her a pizza. Their first “date.” She arrives home at 11, an hour later than usual. My grandmother refuses to open the door.
In the past, whenever he walked or drove her home, she’d wave to him through the window. He wanted to make sure she got into the apartment safely. He didn’t trust the men who lived on the first floor. “Ese edificio es peligroso.” When she didn’t come to the window, he grew nervous. I picture him, drumming his fingers on the top of the steering wheel while he waits. The drumming grows nervous. She hasn’t pushed the curtain aside to wave. He needs to see her face, safe inside. He finally pushes the door open, steps out in his bell bottom jeans and butterfly collar, like the picture of him sitting on a staircase, black and white, curled at the edges.
Mom is in a frenzy at that point. Her soft taps at the door remain unanswered. “Mami, abreme, por favor. Mami, es Santa.” She’s almost whispering. Her head is cocked at an angle. I see the 17 year old her, though she’s 57 now. Hair to her waist, so thin she looks almost frail, but she already has that don’t fuck with me air, just not as pronounced. The years added the exclamation point.
“Sulma, abre, es Santa.” She starts banging. “Esta bien. Dame a Juan Carlos. Dame a Juan Carlos. Yo me voy. Me quedo en la calle. No seria la primera vez. Dame a Carlos.”
Her mother comes to the door, leaves it bolted. “Adonde estabas? Putiando por seguro.”
“No, mami. Un amigo me invito a comer una pizza. No estaba haciendo nada malo. Por favor. Dame a Carlos.”
Raul ascends the stairs and finds my mother, desperate, in tears, banging at the door. “Santa, que pasa?”
“No me quieren abrir.” She’s wringing her hands. “Mami, dame a Carlos. Mami, por favor.”
“Santa, ven. Vamos afuera. Vamos. No te preocupes.” He puts his hand on her back trying to calm her. She shoves him away.
“No.” She turns back to the door. “Dame a Carlos, mami.” She bangs.
“Y porque quieres que te den a tu hermano? Santa, vamos. Ven.”
“Mi hermano?” She laughs. “Carlos es mi hijo.” He falls back.
To me: “El me creia muchacha. Yo no le habia dicho que yo tenia un hijo. No queria que el supiera.” She’s looking at me now. The wrinkles around her eyes have grown impossibly deeper. I understand. She didn’t want to destroy the image he had of her. Still a girl. A virgin, new to this country, new to the ways of the city.
He starts to talk at the door. “Señora, dale su hijo. Yo la saque para una pizza. No hicimos nada. Yo no he subido a conocerla porque Santo no quiso. Por favor, dale su hijo.”
I imagine my mother, though distraught and still pleading, she is surprised that Raul has not left. He knows and stays. She sees him through different eyes now.
My grandmother finally opens the door. Mom plows in, grabs her son, a few of her belongings and leaves.
Raul takes her away. My brother falls asleep in the backseat. He’s not even one yet and has already seen so much. I imagine him, trembling when my mami takes him into her arms. She hoists him on one hip while she throws things into a bag, mostly things for him, clothes, pampers, formula, just a change of clothes for her. No matter what, no matter how hard she was, we always came first.
Raul looks over at Carlos. He’ll dub him “el negrito” and will love him like his own.
“Porque no me dijistes que tenias hijo?”
Mom begins to cry. “Ay, Raul, si tu supieras lo que me paso.” Mom tells him how Carlos came into this world. Her eyes are wet but she still doesn’t let them fall. It’s her way.
“El lloro conmigo, Vanessa.” She looks at me. I see the scene, him holding her while she cries into his chest. He tells her he’s going to call his brother, Miguel, who lives with his wife Virginia on Ridgewood Place. They have a room. She can stay there with Carlos for the night. He will figure out what to do in the morning. It’s late. El nene needs a bed to sleep on.
The next day mom takes Carlos to the sitter and goes to work. She is a mess but can’t stop. She has responsibilities. She has to feed her son.
She stays in the room for a few weeks. Raul visits her everyday. He takes to Carlos, who takes to him right away. “El Negrito.”
“Pero yo no estuve con el, Vanessa.” She needs me to know that. She needs me to understand that while they were involved, while he courted her and took care of her, helping her find a place to stay, they didn’t share a bed. “Besitos y abrazos, si, pero yo no estuve con el.”
Then he moves her. They rent a room together. “Entonces, si, pero antes de eso, no.”
She begins to whimper. I want to lean in and hold her but somehow I know I shouldn’t. She is somewhere else. She confesses how good he was to her. “El me quiso, Vanessa. Me queria tanto. Y a Carlos tambien. El quiso a mi hijo.” She confesses, nodding, that she too was to blame for the falling apart. “Yo no pude tener relaciones, Vanessa. Lloraba. El trato pero no pude. Por ese hombre. Ese desgraciado.” Her chest heaves, she wrings her hands and she cries, wipes her face, though not as brusquely this time. “Por ese hombre yo nunca pude tener relaciones con nadie. Nunca.”
“What happened to you, mom?”
She waves her hand, pushing the memory away.
So heart braking. Every woman’s heart is an ocean of secrets. We have no idea the pains our mothers have gone through. For that alone they deserve forgiveness and understanding. Open hearted blog, loved it.
Yes, it is through the writing that I am learning to forgive. I confess, I’m not there yet. It doesn’t help that she’s still the woman she’s always been. So cold. So callous. I’ve learned not to take it so personal, but sometimes, well, it’s too painful to deny. La verdad es que me duele and that’s okay.
a rising tear
This had me in tears! I can relate in so many ways. I have yet to find the strength to write about my mother. I can write endless tales about my father, but when it comes to Mami, I can’t. Thank you for sharing this!
My sweet daughter, you will, you can. In time. And I will help. I love you!
In just this mere glimpse into your world, your words have created raw intimacy that can be rare when reading personal stories. There’s a balanced flow of emotions and details of your experience that pull me into the story. I love how you used spanish to capture the essence of how you remember your mom’s words. It’s as if you’re both in the room telling it. Pure and mulit dimensional…a true manifestation of bringing the inside of you out. My hope is that all who have had similar journeys as you will read this as I know it will serve as a lesson that you can turn brokedness into something great.