*An essay every Friday in 2016*
By the time I was five, I already knew something was wrong with my mother. I knew she wanted to kill me. And I knew it was my fault.
I was so little I had to climb onto the toilet seat to look at my reflection in the mirror. The blue plastic shower curtain behind me framed my body. I pulled up my flimsy white t-shirt and stared at my torso. The left side of my rib cage was dotted with red splotches, where Mom had pushed the knife in. Not hard enough to break skin but hard enough so I that it hurt. Hard enough to terrify me and break capillaries. Hard enough that I thought she was going to kill me.
I don’t remember what caused Mom to flip out that day. Maybe I walked in front of the TV while she was watching one of her novellas that played on Channel 41 and 47. The ones she watched every night, sin falla.
Maybe I’d broken a glass, tripped and dropped some food on the floor. I’ve always been clumsy and Mom couldn’t stand it. I got beat so many times. I fell. Scraped a knee. A hole in a pair of pants. “Es que tu cree que yo soy rica.” Slap.
Or maybe it was my mere presence that set her off. I was so often the target of Mom’s rages.
She used her hands. Or a belt. A coffee mug with hot coffee hurled straight at my head. (Thank God I’ve always had good duck and weave skills.) An extension cord a few times. That day Mom took her anger somewhere else.
I don’t remember where she got the knife. Or how. But I remember how sharp it was. It was a small knife. Like a paring knife Millie used to peel my fruit. An orange peeled into a long curled string that I carried around until it was hard and cracked. But this knife was pointy. I felt that point push into my skin.
I didn’t dare look at Mom and I didn’t dare cover my ears. I heard her tell Millie, beg her, “Atréveme que yo mató a esta desgracia’.” That’s when she first poked me. I bit down on my tongue. I couldn’t yell. Couldn’t say anything. That would make it worse. I pushed myself into the couch. The rips in the plastic scratched my back and dug into my thighs.
No te muevas que te mata.
I was scared Mom would plunge that knife into me. Over and over. She kept poking and daring Millie.
I stared at the oil stained walls of our living room. The pictures of my family. Us kids, me, my sister and my brother. My parents, Mom and Millie. I stared at Mom’s ceramic figurines on the wall unit. The capias from sweet sixteens and baby showers. Her porcelain Honduran flag. I looked at Millie, pleading for her to save me. My Millie who I met when I was two. Who took me in as her negra. Millie, the butch who taught me love.
“Dejala. ¿No vez lo que le estas haciendo a la nena?”
Mom just kept begging her. “Atréveme. Atréveme.”
“Mommy, please.” Mom’s face was twisted. Wild. Her lips were pulled back over her teeth. She looked like the demons I’d seen in so many movies that had kept me up so many nights, peering through the length of our railroad style apartment, I fought sleep until I saw daylight break into the kitchen window. Only then would I let my eyes close. I thought the demons only came out at night.
“Cállate!” She poked me again.
When I told my mother years later that she’d held a knife to me when I was five, she told me I was crazy, that I was making it up. “Yo no soy capaz de hacer eso.” I don’t think she’s in denial. This was her first psychotic break that I can remember. It wasn’t the last.
Mom didn’t kill me that day, but she spent much of my life trying to break me. And that day I learned that Millie couldn’t protect me from my mother. No one could.
Did I exaggerate this story? Is mom right when she says she’s not capaz of doing such a thing? I remember that knife and I remember the look on my mother’s face—her lips peeled back, so taut I could see her two rows of teeth, gritted and angry. She hated me in that moment. I saw it in the spittle on her lips and the red rim of her eyes.
“Your pain is your teacher.”
I was told this over dinner on Tuesday by a new and dear sister-friend. It’s been on loop in my head and heart since.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this pain I carry and what I discovered at Tin House a few weeks ago—that this memoir is about being unmothered. It’s what both memoirs are ultimately about, both Relentless and A Dim Capacity for Wings. I tried to make my brother the protagonist of Relentless and my mother the protagonist of A Dim Capacity for Wings…but both books are ultimately about this wound I’ve walked around with for so long.
I am remembering my mother.
I am wondering if I’m being dramatic. Overly sensitive. I was accused of that so often when I was growing up. Not too long ago some audacious pendejo told me “tu cojes las cosas muy serias.” I wanted to punch him in the face.
I am remembering Dorothy Allison’s hand squeezing my leg and the pained look on her face when I told her “that’s why my mother can’t love me…”
I am remembering how validating it felt when that therapist told me that of course it made sense that I was so hurt by my mother’s rejection. She was perplexed by my unwillingness to see and acknowledge the pain I was in and the damage that had been done to me. “You’ve been told your entire life that your emotions don’t matter. To deny someone’s feelings is to deny their existence.” I started crying hard. She passed me a box of tissue and let me blubber. When I finally stopped, she said, “Your feelings matter, Vanessa. They always have.”
This week I finished my sister friend Gabby Rivera’s novel Juliet Takes a Breath. I finally got my hands on it when I got back from Tin House but the flu kept me from reading it as quickly as I wanted to. I’ve known for years that this gorgeous womyn is a phenomenal writer but she really outdid herself with this one. While I read, I laughed, I teared up and I was sad when the book was done, I was so in it and invested in Juliet’s story. There was a moment on page 176 that really took my breath: “She asked us to reflect on the first woman we’d entered into community with. It’s assumed that mothers are first but in this world nothing is promised, not even a mother’s love.” I felt seen as an unmothered woman who’s struggled with the mother myth for years. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt seen like that, and this is especially poignant right now post Tin House. It was six in the morning but I had to send Gabby a message. She responded a few hours later: “That line is for you, V. I wrote it with you in mind…Your truth and stories made me feel like that just needed to be said, to offer solidarity to unmothered spirits.” I confess to choking up and shaking a little bit. I’m sobbing as I write this.
Why have I denied this pain? Why have I pretended to be so tough when the truth is I was dying inside, little by little?? It was the only way I knew how to survive. I had to disassociate.
An article titled “The Gift of Disassociation” in Psychology Today says, “A pain so utter needs time to heal and may need forgetfulness.”
If this is true, it follows that supposedly I’m strong enough now to confront this pain and deal with it. I’m dique strong enough to embark on this healing journey… The thought still frightens me.
I thought the grief over losing my brother was the greatest grief I’ve ever known. Nope. Don’t mistake what I’m saying here—that grief almost took me out. But that grief is minuscule compared to this pain over being unmothered.
Your pain is the breaking of the shell
Even as the stone of the fruit must
break, that its
heart may stand in the sun, so must
you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in
wonder at the
daily miracles of your life, your pain
less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons
of your heart,
even as you have always accepted
the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity
winter of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the
you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and
drink his remedy
in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and
hard, is guided by
the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it
burns your lips, has
been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has
moistened with His own sacred
by Khalil Gibran
Do you know what it feels like to know that your mother hates you?
Do you know what it feels like for your mother to pull her arm in so she doesn’t touch you as she passes?
I’ve gone back to this night often. It is August of 1989. It is 3am. In an hour or so we will leave Brooklyn for Wellesley, Massachusetts. They will return without me. In a few days I will start ninth grade at a school 250 miles away from where I grew up. Millie borrowed her brother Sergio’s church van, the one with the Pentecostal church’s name in white calligraphy peel off letters on the side. It had been loaded with all my stuff, the clothes and new alarm clock mom bought me at the Aqueduct flea market. The only thing not in the van was the ten speed, red bike Millie bought off a crackhead (stolen, for sure) for my two mile trek from the dorm at the top of the hill in Norfolk Terrace to the main campus building on Rice Street. I asked her to let me ride it before she put it in the back of the van. Mom said, “Muchacha, ¿estas loca? ¿No vez que hora es?” Millie came to my defense like she always did. “Déjala,” and motioned for me to leave.
I rode that bike up and down the block and said goodbye to my neighborhood. I looked up at the second floor apartment where my first love lived and blew a kiss at the darkened windows. I said goodbye to my childhood friends, the hallway where I’d gotten my first kiss, the lumberyard turned Waldbaums supermarket parking lot where I’d played so many games of double-dutch and stickball, the street where I’d played Kick-the-Can and we’d had so many block parties over the years, including the one where a stage was built and the girls from the neighborhood took turns dancing to Menudo songs, imagining ourselves in Madison Square Garden, thousands of adoring fans crying and fainting in front of us.
You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you can never go back. ~Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin.
I said goodbye to everything and everyone. When I was done, the sky was starting to lighten with the arrival of a new day. I helped Millie load the bike into the van and climbed in. I didn’t look back when we pulled off.
I don’t know how that thirteen year old girl knew she had to save her own life, but to this day I still marvel at her audacity. Thank you, nena. Thank you.
In the essay I workshopped at Tin House, there is barely any mention of my mother. I didn’t find it strange until Lacy pointed it out. “She’s so absent,” she said. She wrote on my manuscript: “I want to know more about the mother-daughter relationship.” I tried to explain it away. After all, an essay about my mother, “They Call Her Saint,” was part of the writing sample that got me into Tin House. I know better now.
When I said I was unmothered, Lacy raised her eyebrows but said nothing. Later, when I told her the question I am seeking to answer in the book: “How do I survive without my mother?” she just nodded, eyebrows arched again. What could I say?
In her book, The Other Side, Lacy reveals that it was her mother she called from the hospital after she was raped. It’s been years since I listed my mother as an emergency contact. On the Tin House Emergency Form, I listed my aunt and partner.
I wondered if Lacy would get it. If she could. I can’t tell you how many times people have heard my stories and responded with: “…but she’s your mother.” It’s like a knife every single time.
I admit, I most often expect people not to get it. Unless you’ve lived it, you can’t imagine what it’s like.
Imagine something horrible happening and not being able to call your mother.
Imagine something wonderful happening and not being able to call her.
Imagine knowing that your mother is not safe and you are better off without her.
Imagine knowing that it hurts to not have her in your life, but it hurts more when she is…
On the last day of workshop, I was laid out on the cot on the window ledge of the Hemingway House. Our class was held in the living room that day and though I was already stricken with fever and chills, I showed up. “You’re a trooper,” Lacy said. At the end of class, Lacy gave us time to process the weekend. I told the group about my discovery, about what I’d been running from, what Relentless is really about—learning to navigate the world as an unmothered woman. Lacy smiled softly. “Great, write about it.” She pointed at my journal and I knew in that moment that she totally did get it. She got me.