In the article “No faith in memory: Greg Martin talks about Stories for Boys,” the author says” “The idea of a “round” character, in memoir, is an idea only. No one I’ve ever portrayed in my writing is ever as “round” as they’d like to be or as they see themselves.”
This very issue is one I’ve been struggling with for some time. The conflict is of making my characters “round” is wrapped up in many issues that are inherent to memoir (or at least the modern incarnation of memoirs):
- I’m worried about how I’m portraying the people I’m writing about. Even if that concern comes from knowing that a deep-seated resentment drives me and the story (as does the want to get over it, to redeem, myself and them), the people I’m writing about have influenced me enough that I want to, have to write about them, so I want to capture them honestly. I have no false delusions here; I know that I can only capture them as I experienced them. There’s so much we don’t know about people, even those that are closest to us. Take, for example, my Millie. I don’t know her coming out story (this is one of the many things she protected me from). I’m so fascinated by this I plan to one day go to Lares (in Puerto Rico, where she grew up) to interview people who knew her then.
- I worry about over-sentimentalizing the people and the stories, and simultaneously worry about under-sentimentalizing and not really capturing the emotion of the scenes, how I felt, what was done and, yes, undone. As writers we know that the hardest part of writing stories is the transfer from brain/heart to the page. We have to capture the throb of our pulse, the knot in our throats as we re-feel and re-experience. That’s no easy task.
Because I come from fiction (I’ve written two novels), I think I have a different understanding of the importance of character development. I know that even if I’m writing about real people, they are ultimately characters in this story. I have to show them with all their complexities and contradictions. Of course, I’m talking here about my mother and my Millie.
I think about them as opposites in many ways: Millie on one side of the spectrum, Mom on the other. Millie taught me how love can be tender. Mom taught me how love can be cruel. But, the truth is, they didn’t always exist solidly in these places. And that’s really where the complexity of humanity lies.
It wasn’t always this way. I mean, I didn’t always see them like this, as so different, as teaching me two very different ways/meanings of love. But that’s the way memory functions. The way we see our lives is very much influenced by our present consciousness. How we view the world and ourselves in it. I’m a mother now and am grieving Millie years after her death. All this while my mother hasn’t spoken to me in going on 11 months. There’s no separating these realities from the work. It just doesn’t work that way. Writing and life, that is. They’re all so intricately involved, in such complicated ways.
With all this, I know my concerns are valid. Porque? Because I want these two women to be seen as real people, not just because they are (or was, in the case of Millie) but because it matters to the story. My story. Because whether it’s memoir or not, it’s my job as a writer to show them for who they were, with all their shit. Ultimately, this is a literary endeavor, whether it’s a journey of healing or redemption or otherwise, it is no less a literary endeavor.
For some time while writing about Millie, I held back on showing her rot, when she wasn’t being tender as I could usually count on her to be. I didn’t want to dishonor her memory. I want people to see how really critical she was in my upbringing and how she saved my life, so many times, even after her death. (Though it didn’t happen until a year after Millie’s death, leaving my daughter’s father was in large part influenced by conversations she and I had while she was on her death bed, but that is a story for a later time.) Now I know that the truth is the truth, and I don’t dishonor her by telling it. If anything, I share the richness of her personality.
I was violent as a child (and even into young adulthood) in large part because of Millie. She taught me that to get respect, you had to take it, with bofetadas and headlocks. When I was being bullied in school, Millie took me out into the backyard and taught me how to throw a jab, the pressure it took to knock somebody out, “Dalé a alguien aquí” she pointed to her temple “o aquí” she pointed to the bridge of her nose, “y lo puedes noquiar con solo un puño.” She grabbed my thick hands and laughed, “Pero ten cuida’o con esas manos de madera porque puedes matar a alguien.” It’s why she taught me to punch straight because punching up when swinging at someone’s nose could kill. I had that heavy a hand.
The thing is, Millie didn’t teach me that violence was a last resort. She didn’t tell me when it was okay or acceptable to defend myself with my hands. She didn’t tell me that it wasn’t the default, the automatic response to being teased or bullied. She didn’t teach me to first talk or try to figure out an alternate solution. The solution, the only one, was using my fists. I became an expert at it. There was a time that I had at least a fight a week. I was in the 3rd grade.
When I was eleven, I had a friend named Caroline who lived just around the corner. We had a short, hostile friendship that ended when Millie walked out into the hallway to catch Caroline pulling me off the stairs by my long hair. I can’t remember what it was I said to Caroline to set her off. We were always bickering about something. That day it went too far. Caroline wasn’t the best fighter and she wasn’t as strong as me but she was quick and that day she caught me off guard. I was probably in the middle of rolling my eyes when she grabbed my hair, what the girls and boys I fought (yes, I fought boys too; I didn’t discriminate) always went for first when we threw down. I was trying to gain my footing when Millie walked out. Caroline let go when she saw her, put her hand on her hip and watched, a smirk on her face. Millie glared at her, then at me.
“Millie, I…I can’t.”
“Millie, I’m Jehovah’s Witness. I can’t.” By that time mom had put us in Jehovah’s Witness Bible Studies classes and I was struggling with living by the Word. I was trying to change my ways. To calm my violent tendencies.
Millie said nothing. She just walked back into the apartment.
A few months later, we were on our way to the beach in her green van. The one she glued a teardrop window to the left side to get rid of the commercial license plate. The one we piled into for long trips to New Jersey and upstate New York lakes. We sat on the floor and held onto one another, giggling every time the car jerked. This was before she got the long church-bus-style seats bolted into the floor.
That day Millie got into a road rage-fueled argument with a driver who, like us, was on his way to a family outing. He cut Millie off, sending her into a chase-you-down-so-I-can-tell-you-off tizzy. She pulled up next to his station wagon and started yelling. When she made to get out of the car, Mom grabbed her, “Millie, no.” A little girl in the back seat stuck her tongue out at Millie. “Let me get her,Millie!” I screamed from the back, shaking my fist at the girl. Millie glared at me in the rearview. “Y tu que vas a hacer? Aren’t you Jehovah’s Witness?” She put the car into drive and peeled off. I shrank into the seat, wishing I could bury myself into the pleather upholstery.
It took me years to redeem myself. Five years to be exact.
I was home for the Christmas break. My first love and I had a special arrangement (way too mature for our age but it’s what our lives required): we could see whoever we wanted while I was away at school but when I was home, he was mine. As proof, he showed me letters from the distraught girls he broke up with for me. They hated me. Blamed me for breaking them up. For taking their man. One girl couldn’t leave well enough alone.
She relayed messages to me through mutual friends. Said she was gonna get me. “Tell her Imma fuck her up when I see her.” She invited me to meet her afterschool while I was in NY. I didn’t go. I wasn’t stupid enough to step into her territory. I know “hood rules.” And I have common sense.
It was the day before I returned to Wellesley. I was across the street from my building, saying goodbye to my mom’s cousin who had come by for a visit. I met her for the first time that day. Millie was sitting on our front steps when I saw the group coming up the block. I knew what was about to go down.
I looked at Millie and stared down the block. She followed my eyes and stood up. I nodded and started walking down the block.
I didn’t talk to the female. I just swung my fist hard and quick, and the fight was on. I heard Millie and my mom yelling while I was pummeling the girl.
Millie: “Con puños, Vanessa, con puños.”
Mom: “Quitasela que la va matar.”
The girl left bloodied and embarrassed.
I finally redeemed myself to Millie and that female would never mess with me again. Double win.
Mom’s no less complex. The same woman who held a knife to me when I was five is the same woman who stayed up all night that time I was so sick, she couldn’t get my temperature down or get my asthma under control. I remember waking up to her rubbing alcolado on my chest and humming softly. She finally took me to the emergency room at Woodhull Hospital and flipped out when they didn’t attend me right away.
This is the woman who when I told her I was a writer, dug into the bottom of her bookshelf and pulled out a stack of papers and handed it to me. I looked at her thick cursive. The pressure of her pen so hard, I could feel the imprint of the letters on the other side of the sheet. It was all in Spanish. Her story or the beginning of it. She smoked and cried quietly while I read a few pages. Then she took the pages from me, shared a few stories she had written or intended on writing. About being a child in Honduras. The time she stole the hen and abuelita beat her. How they had to travel in search of food. How mom had to work caring for children when she was just a child herself. How abuelita went without just to feed her and her sister, my titi. Mom teared up when she said she’d ask abuelita for more food. Abuelita would pass her a piece from her plate. “Ay, yo no sabia, Vanessa, lo que sufria mi abuelita.”
This is the same woman who hasn’t spoken to me in going on eleven months and recently sent me a tub of my favorite Honduran sopa de frijoles. The same woman who would sing the same song to us when we drove home late at night from Long Island. I would lay back and listen, staring at the dark sky, the shadowy blur of the trees and the brightness of the lamp posts. She sang until we drifted off to sleep, off beat, in her raspy voice. “Porqué se fue y porqué murió, porque el señor me la quito, se ha ido al cielo y para poder ir yo debo también ser bueno para estar con mi amor…”
Much of the book is about our relationship. How cruel she could be. Callous. At times malicious. Denying me her love was her punishment of choice. It still is. But that’s not all she is and was. This woman, my mother, could be loving and tender and, even, maternal. Something happened to her to make her who she was.
The other day, the universe sent me a reminder.
My aunt gave me a VHS tape of Christmas 1989. (Yes, I have a DVD/VHS player. Ancient, perhaps, but it comes in handy at moments like this.) I was 14. I had left to boarding school that August and was home for the Christmas vacation.
In the video, I see that I’m already quieter, more contemplative. I was working already. When I got to boarding school, I was 13 so I couldn’t yet get my working papers, so I got a slew of babysitting jobs. A girl needs money to buy her necessities. Clothes. Sanitary pads. Shampoo. When I left mom said I had to take care of myself. (“Te crees mujer asi es que te vas a tener que cuidar.”) She stood by that.
That was the first Christmas I could buy my family gifts with my own money. I remember taking special care in picking their gifts. A locket for my sister. A sweater for Millie. She loved sweaters. A skirt for Mom.
I’d searched the racks at Filene’s Basement for mom’s gift. I took more care in picking hers than anyone’s. I so wanted her to like it. To see that I put so much thought into it.
I see myself waiting while she rips the wrapping off the box. Even that I’d put extra care into. She pulls out the skirt. Silk. Blue with delicate pink and white flowers. “Ay, que bonita. Mira Millie lo que me dió, Vanessa.” I cried as I watched myself and remembered how relieved I was that she liked it. That she acknowledged me.
How do you write these scenes without over-sentimentalizing? Or, on the other hand, under-sentimentalizing? How do I capture how I had to wrap my hands together because they were shaking so hard? How do I show that I was barely breathing, waiting to see her react? And when she hugged me, I had to keep myself from falling into her, because what I wanted to do was melt into her arms and say, “You finally love me, mom.”
She wore the skirt the next day. She wore it every time I visited for the next few months. I’m not sure if she did it purposely, but I like to think that she did. It’s sweeter to remember it that way.