The other day, while reading Audrey Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of my Name, I felt inspired by the way she started what she called her “biomythography.” I loved the idea of starting a story of yourself and your life by answering some critical questions:
To whom do I owe the woman I have become?
I wrote about my Millie. The way she’d grab the brim of her Kangol, always fresh and black, and say, “Yo soy butch,” but the way she said it, she did this wave thing with her shoulders, like she was dancing salsa but just with her shoulders, “not caring whether or not she was a poem.” (Audre Lorde, Zami)
I wrote to the men who couldn’t love me, who taught me that love is not sex. Those wounds you left by our loving have scabbed over but their cicatrix will remind me always that I deserve more.
I wrote to my dad, who when he found out mom was pregnant with me, chased her out into the street and tried to kick me out of her. When I was months old and close to death and the doctors couldn’t figure out why, he refused to go to the hospital to get his blood tested. When he visited us that last time in April of 1984 before he died in December, I watched him watch my sister, pale like him with his eyes and his blonde hair, I never saw that loving stare aimed at me.
I wrote to the enzyme specialist visiting from Boston who saved my life in 1976. He took one look at my emaciated body lied out on a gurney in the NICU and knew what was wrong with me—I had no enzymes to break down my food. He knew what to do to save me. And when he did, he told mom not to be weak with me because I was so sickly. “Tienes que ser fuerte con ella,” Mom told me when I was already an adult and she was explaining why she was so hard with me. “She survived because she’s strong,” he said. He didn’t know what mom would do with those words.
I knew I had to write about my mom. Of course I owe much of who I am to her, but in that moment, I couldn’t write it. I felt the heat rise in my chest. I felt the lump of anxiety gather in my throat. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I wrote: “My mother…” then I slammed the journal shut and walked away. I don’t remember what I did. I either turned on Netflix (I’m currently watching every episode of House) or went to clean the refrigerator.
It took me three days to return to the question.
Writing about mom is so much these days. It’s now been seven months since she’s spoken to me and though she’s done this many times throughout my life, it’s crushing every time.
In my freshman year in college, when she found out I was with a drug dealer from the Heights and basically living with him, that he’d stay over in my dorm more often than not, she slapped me and yanked me by my hair when I visited her one day. I stormed out of her house. We didn’t talk for months.
When I didn’t move back in with her for the summer break, she stopped talking to me again. I was well into my 30s and already a mom when she finally confessed during a heated argument, “tu me abandonastes. Tu fuistes la que se fue.” I never realized she felt abandoned when I left at 13. I was too busy trying to save my own life.
Last summer, during the cruise I emptied my account to take her on, she admitted that for a long time she believed I’d come back. “Yo pensabe que tu volvias.” I never did. It’s been 25 years since I left her house. I never went back, never even considered it. Not once.
I’ve spent much of the past 25 years living in resistance of her, trying desperately not to be like her, so the other day, when I snapped at my daughter and she in turn hugged me and pled, through tears, “You have to stop taking your anger out on me,” I felt like dying.
I tell my daughter that I love her every day, several times a day. We talk about everything, from boys to her love for all things dance and singing and art to my relationship with her dad and how it fell apart.
I quit the safety of an editing job to pursue my dream because I knew I wanted to live a more fulfilled life. I knew what misery did to my mother. I didn’t want to live that way.
When my brother died last year, I had to confront all the ways I’d run away from myself and my pains to survive. I had to sit in my grief so I wouldn’t be destroyed by it. I’ve come a long way but I still have work to do… I’m still taking my anger out on my kid.
I’ve written so much about the abuse, I felt compelled to write about the love mom gifted. I had to remind myself that though there was abuse, though that’s what sticks out from my childhood, there was love.
I am alive because my mother saved me.
I imagine her, just 22 years old, she has been through so much in her life already. Single mother to three children, one the result of a rape when she’d only been in this country a few months. Mom works long hours in a clothing factoría to make ends meet. After a long day, she goes home to check on her other two children then heads to the hospital to see the one who’s dying—me. The doctors still don’t know what’s wrong with me. They have told her I probably won’t make it.
When she walks into the hospital, the news is grim. They tell her to say her goodbyes. The prognosis: death. She walks into the NICU. I am laying on the infant bed, tubes sticking out of me, nodes on my chest and head, they had to put the IV in my head because the veins in my arms and legs are too weak to hold the needle. I have blacks and blues on my body where I’ve been poked and prodded. I look like I haven’t been touched tenderly all day.
She gets on her hands and knees and prays, “Dios mio, si mi hija va sufrir, llévatela.” Something comes over her. She starts to rip the nodes off of me. The doctors think she’s gone mad. She insists on taking me out of there. They make her sign a waiver releasing them of liability. They are convinced I will die.
Mom takes me to the American Center (what she still calls Columbia Presbyterian Hospital on 168th Street) where an enzyme specialist visiting from Boston takes a look at me and knows what’s wrong. I don’t have amino acids to break down my food and am diabetic. He works with my mom to nurse me back to health.
He teaches mom to concoct formulas and baby foods rich in amino acids and enzymes. Yucca ground in water. When the yucca settled, mom gives me the cloudy water that remains. Mashed avocado for a while. When they aren’t in season, mom hunts the city for avocado, clocking miles in trains and buses to East Harlem, the lower Eastside, south Brooklyn.
I’m in the hospital for four months. When I’m released, I’ve gained weight and can stand up in my crib. The diagnosis: healed.
I started going to day care when I was three. The story is that mom had an appointment with the social worker. She was frazzled and on edge (the language she uses is “estaba loca”) because of me and my brother, who was three and a half years older than me. As soon as I started walking, he and I set off to do every wild thing we could think of—we scaled walls and jumped high on the babysitter’s bed trying to touch the ceiling with our toes. That’s how I broke my arm when I was two. The social worker took one look at mom and knew she was close to the breaking point. Mom walked out of their with day care vouchers for all three of us kids. Days later, we started going to Audrey Johnson Day Care Center in Bushwick, just a few blocks from where we lived.
One time, during nap time in kindergarten, I was having trouble sleeping because I had a stomachache. I asked my teacher Ms. Reese if I could go to the bathroom. I tried to number two (what we called it then) but I couldn’t. I was constipated and my stomach hurt bad. I was still pushing when the door slammed open and Ms. Reese came in yelling, snatched me off the toilet by one arm and spanked me hard on my bottom. I’d been in there longer than I thought. She thought I was fooling around. I whimpered for the rest of the day, constipated and with bad cramps. When I told mom what happened, she came in the next day livid and ready to hurt somebody. No one could mess with her kids. Ms. Reese was spared a beat down that day but she never put her hands on me again.
Once when I was six or seven, mom stayed up all night trying to get my fever down. She let me sleep on her bed, algo que nunca, and when she woke me up to give me medicine or I was woken up by the cold compresses she put on my head, there was an intense love and fear in her eyes. I wonder if she was reliving those carreras to the hospital when I was months old and no one could figure out what was wrong with me. When they’d told her I was going to die.
She finally took me to the ER when the sun rose and my fever still wasn’t down. She argued with the nurse when we’d been sitting in the crowded emergency room for hours and they hadn’t so much as taken my temperature. At that point, I was in and out of consciousness, laid out on two uncomfortable, orange chairs. When the doctor finally gave me a shot that made me slide onto the floor like I was melting (I remember feeling my life slipping away from me), I looked at my mother in desperation. The fear I saw in her eyes rocked me. “Vanessa,” she pled, almost in a whisper, like she was calling me back from somewhere far away. I never saw that look in her eyes again until the day we found out my brother wasn’t going to make it.
When I was applying to boarding school, mom and I took a trip to visit two—Leland Academy and Wellesley (where I’d eventually go). When we were touring Leland and being told about the programs and student life, I caught mom watching me. She blinked hard a few times. Later, while touring the dorms, she asked, “You sure you wanna do this?” “Yes,” I responded without hesitation. I think that was the day mom started letting me go.
A few weeks later, I went to Turkey to dance in the NATO Children of the World Festival. I toured Ankara and Istanbul, performing sometimes three times a day, one time even for Turkish TV. We rehearsed for months, sometimes until 8 and 9 at night. Rehearsals were in a school two miles from where we lived. I can remember mom picking me up only a few times. The rest of the time, I walked through my neighborhood by myself. Though it was a pile of rubble and crack was wrecking families and lives, I can’t say I ever felt unsafe.
The program I was dancing with rented charter buses to take us kids, who ranged in age from 11 to 15, and our parents to the airport. I started crying in the bus. Mom buried my face in her chest and looked out the window. When I looked up at her, tears were streaming down her face.
I got pregnant with my daughter when I was 28. When I went to tell my mother, I brought my sister with me. I needed her to mediate, to give me courage. We weren’t there five minutes before mom smelled something was up. We were sitting in the living room of the same railroad style apartment we grew up in. She stared at us from the kitchen where she was making coffee, “¿Que’s lo que pasa aqui? Tu no estaras preñada.”
It was January 2004. She’d just met my baby daddy in August when she insisted if he was a decent man with decent intentions he should go meet her before he took me to Dominican Republic just two weeks after meeting at Bally’s Gym on 231st Street in Riverdale. Every time I saw her, she’d ask, “te estas cuidando, ¿verdad?” I always said yes, embarrassed that she’d even acknowledge that I was having sex. Mom never spoke to me about sex when I was growing up. Never.
I whimpered, “Yes, ma. I’m pregnant.”
She started storming around her kitchen, banging pots on the stove, railed about how irresponsible I was. Why hadn’t I protected myself? Hadn’t she told me to get on birth control?
I started crying while my sister held me. “I need you, mom.”
That’s when mom did the unexpected—she crossed from the kitchen to the living room in just a few long strides, pulled my head to her chest and cried, “Ay, m’ija.”
Then she grabbed the phone and called her sister, my titi. “I’m gonna be a grandmother,” she sang.
“Who’s having a baby?” Millie called from her gurney in the room. She lived long enough to meet Vasia who she called her nieta.
When I almost miscarried a few weeks later and was put on bedrest, mom came to clean my house and cook for me.
Mom was in the hospital when I had Vasia. When I brought Vasia home, after a difficult labor and complications with my c-section, mom again came to my house to cook and clean. She made me a remedio of limes and oatmeal, “pa’ la leche,” she said. It was delicious so I went through the gallon easily. The next day, when I woke up, my nightgown and bed were soaked with breastmilk. I never had a problem nursing after that.
When I told mom that I had written a book, she told me a story of when I was in pre-school. The teacher complained that I was always distracted during story time. I’d get up and walk around, wanted to play instead of sit on the rug with the rest of the class to listen to the story. When mom came home, she scolded me for being disruptive. “Why don’t you pay attention?” she asked, her hand on her hip, swiveling her neck like she does when she’s frustrated. “Because I know the story already, ma.” “Really? So, tell me the story.”
Mom says I got really excited. I sat her down and stood in front of her like I was on stage. I started, “Once upon a time…” and went on to tell an elaborate story. That’s how mom told me that I’ve always been a writer.
When I told my mom, four years ago that I was quitting my job to live my writing-teaching dream, the first thing she said was, “¿Y Vasia?” I explained that she’d be fine. That she had insurance with her dad. She grew quiet and stared off at the traffic on Broadway. Then she said, “Bueno, cuando tu dices algo, lo haces. You’ve always been like that.” That was the closest thing to “I’m proud of you” that she’s ever said.
When my girl was a year old, we were walking to the supermarket when she said, “I thought you were going to be a bad mother. Te gusta la calle demasiado. Pero, no, I was wrong.” That’s the closest mom has come to saying I’m a good mom.
On the cruise I took her on after Carlos died, mom apologized for being so cruel. This time she didn’t add, “But that’s why you are who you are.” This time there was no explaining away her behavior or giving herself credit for my accomplishments. This time, she just said sorry. “Perdoname hija. Fuistes tu la que pagastes por mi rebeldía.”
Through this memoir journey, I’ve come to see that I wouldn’t be who I am had she not raised me with such a hard hand. The little girl in me still wishes she hadn’t have been so cruel.
I owe my fierce independence to my mother. She put the fuck you in my throat. She’s the reason I always push back and through. From her I learned to take a beating and keep going. I don’t know how to give up. It’s simply not in my DNA.
I am because she couldn’t.