*An essay a week in 2016*
(still playing catch up…bear with me)
At Tin House this past winter, Lacy Johnson said: “A memoir tries to answer a question. It’s not about answering the question but about the journey of trying to.”
I could hear the Pacific crashing into the shore just outside the window. A seagull cried out. I looked at the bookshelf behind her head. Lacy, who was leading this Nonfiction workshop in Nye Beach through Tin House. Lacy, who had just dug into my chest cavity and put a defibrillator to my already beating heart, making it thrash…
I heard the question right away. The question I’d been trying to get at in the ten plus years I’d been trying to write this memoir.
Lacy even saw it in the essay I workshopped. She couldn’t understand why my mother was absent in the piece. I tried to explain it away but I knew why… I went back to the question I’d been running away from:
How will I live without my mother? How have I up to now?
They call us unmothered. There are those who are unmothered because their mothers died. Then there are those like me, whose mothers are alive and still don’t mother us.
According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary the Definition of UNMOTHERED: deprived of a mother: motherless <adolescent gosling that, unmothered, attached itself to him — Della Lutes>
Dictionary.com takes you straight to the various definitions of “mother” as if unmothered couldn’t possibly exist. As if nature would not allow that. God wouldn’t. The universe wouldn’t. And yet, I exist—an unmothered woman.
It was my brother’s death in 2013 that made me really look at all the grief I was carrying. The grief over losing him sent me reeling into the darkest place of my life. That grief had the potential of destroying me. I knew I didn’t want that. I had a kid to raise and a life to live. So I picked up a chair and sat in my grief.
“It is perhaps the greatest misperception of the death of a loved one: that it will end there, that death itself will be the largest blow. No one told me that in the wake of that grief other grief’s would ensue.” ~Cheryl Strayed, “Heroin/e”
I had to let grief kill me a little so it could give me life. What’s come out of it is A Dim Capacity for Wings: A Relentlesss Journey… This story where I finally confront what this memoir has always been about… what I was afraid of writing: my story of being an unmothered woman.
When did I start to see it… I’ve traced it back to when I was five.
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 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. But that day Mom took her anger somewhere else.
I don’t remember where she got the knife. Or how. But I remember clearly how sharp it was. It was a small knife. Like a paring knife Millie used to peel my apples. Or 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 pinched my arms and scratched my back. Dug into my thighs.
No te muevas que te mata. I was so 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. Pled with my eyes. Begged 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 yelled and 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. In her mind, she never did this. 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.
I came up with ways to save myself before I really knew that I had to. One of the ways was climbing the tree in our backyard.
I grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn when it was a pile of rubble. It was the early 1980s, at the tail end of what’s known as the Fire Wars, a period of fifteen years between 1965 and 1980 when over a million fires ravaged the city. The South Bronx is most notorious for the aftermath of that but Bushwick was just as devastated.
We lived on the first floor of a run down three floor tenement. The crumbling walls gave me and my brother asthma. Our apartment was infested by the kitten sized rats that lived in the junkyard next door. Still, my mother tried to make beauty of what we had.
The summers I was six and seven years old, my mother took it upon herself to clean up the backyard to plant a garden. The yard was partly paved. A fence covered in chipped red paint separated the paved area from where mom planted her garden. This area was separated in two by a paved pathway which led to a red ladder that went all the way up to the third floor. Clothes fluttered on the clothes lines that stretched from the ladder to the apartments above. On the left side towards the back was the plum tree I started climbing when I was five. I’d stretch out on one of the thick branches and watch mom work.
Mom wasn’t the Martha Stewart kind of gardener with a sunhat, gloves and gardening apron. She was third world, an Hondureña from La Ceiba. She didn’t have those luxuries where she came from and she didn’t have them here. She planted in her bata or simple shorts and a t-shirt stained with sofrito and dirt.
Mom threw the mounds of trash she collected from the yard over the falling apart plywood fence into the junkyard next door. It took days for mom to weed and till the soil that had been packed by years of snow and sneakers. First she pulled out the weeds and got on all fours to yank out the stubborn ones whose roots clung hard to the earth. She then used an old shovel she found in the basement to till the soil. With her right leg, she pushed the shovel into the ground to bring up the dark soil underneath. Squirming earthworms came up with the mixture. The sweat dripped from her nose. Mom wiped her brow with her forearm, looked up at the sun and closed her eyes, a small smile curling the corners of her lips. Then she got right back to work.
The right side she tilled right up to the gate that separated our yard from the yard of the building behind ours. The left side she toiled up to the base of the plum tree.
Then mom went out and bought the seeds. I don’t know how she figured out what she would plant or how she would arrange the seeds, but she was deliberate in her choices. I watched from the plastic covered couch in the living room, pretending to watch TV. She laid the envelopes of seeds out on the wooden table my second mom Millie built and lacquered when we first moved into the apartment when I was three. Each packet had a picture of the potential inside: peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, squash; herbs like peppermint, rosemary, thyme and recao; flowers like sunflowers and geraniums.
She brought the seeds, still in their envelopes, into the yard. She separated the rows by furrowing a shallow hole between each. Then she used her index and middle finger to make small holes. She put seeds into the holes and packed the soil down with her palm. She did this softly, handling the seeds with a tenderness I envied.
The herbs and flowers went in the rows closest to the gate that separated the garden from the paved section of the yard. The vegetables followed. Tomatoes first then the peppers, squash and pumpkins.
In the mornings, Mom stood by the window, staring out at her garden while she sipped her coffee. She cursed when she saw garbage thrown out the window by a tenant. “Estos desgraciados. Por eso es que no tienen na’.” Then she’d climb out the window, picked up the trash and tended to her garden.
Some days, when the sun beamed down hard and rain didn’t come, Mom connected her long green hose into our kitchen sink and pulled it out the window into the yard. She’d water her plants herself, screaming at me to lower the pressure if the water shot out too hard.
I watched her smile as the tomatoes and eggplants came in. When she turned them over in her hand, I imagined her talking to them in her head, encouraging them to grow and flourish. The sunflowers grew so tall, mom got old shoelaces and tied the stalks to the fence to keep them from toppling over.
One day, mom was making dinner when she sent me out to the yard to get tomatoes and peppers. “I need them to make sofrito,” she said. Small piles of onions and garlic lay on the cutting board. The day before I’d noticed that the tomatoes were red and green. I turned to see if mom was watching before I touched them, turning them over like I’d seen her do. They were firm to the touch.
I gasped at the scene that greeted me. The rats from the junkyard next door had feasted on mom’s vegetables. Peppers and tomatoes were scattered about, bitten into in chunks. I could make out their teeth marks on the flesh. A few hung limply on the bush. I gathered what few I could and climbed back into the apartment.
“Mami,” I said almost in a whisper. “The rats ate them. These are the only ones left.”
Mom slammed down the knife she was using to chop cilantro and stomped out to the yard. She cursed and yanked up some of the bushes. I ran to the room and hid. I didn’t come out until she called me for dinner.
After two years mom brought her plants into the house where she could protect them.
If you’re like me, you were raised to believe that seeing a therapist/psychiatrist/any sort of mental health practitioner meant you were crazy. “What I need that for?” my mother said when I recommended one after my brother died. She waved her hand as if she was swatting a pesky insect. What I’ve learned is that therapy can (and has) saved many including my own life.
On Friday, in my therapy session with K, I uncovered some things about my grief over losing a dear friend just a few weeks ago that I probably wouldn’t have been able to see were I not digging into my past and the ghosts that haunt me. The themes of the session have been on loop for years, since even before my brother passed though it was his death that caused me to face them: resilience and reinvention.
My therapist noted that I have an ability to reinvent myself and make beauty of my trauma. When I spoke about my friend and the sadness he carried, K said: “there’s a sadness to you too.” I cringed visibly and said, “There is…” This is what I know: I channel that sadness; I use it to survive and thrive and keep fighting the good fight. I’m no longer scared of that sadness that as a child propelled me up that plum tree in the backyard. See, I’ve been using that sadness since way back then in Bushwick when I learned that something was wrong with my mother and no one could protect me from her… Those climbs up that tree, that scraped my knees and scuffed my sneakers, were the beginning of my attempts to save myself.
I told K about the conversations I’ve been having with friends about how the traumas can feed you and your work, your creativity. They can drive you but they can also be the monster that takes you out. K asked: “Do you have a monster?” “I did…” and I told him about the moment I decided I wanted to live.
It was the spring of 2014. The day was that kind of sunny and crisp that only happens in early spring when the earth hasn’t yet exploded with green but is about to, and you can’t help but smile at the tiny green shoots pushing through the brown. You smile because you know what’s coming—life.
I was on the B train crossing over the Manhattan Bridge. I was reading yet another essay on depression. When my brother died, I started reading everything I could get my hands on about grief and depression. Books like Unholy Ghost—Writers on Depression and Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction. I read essays and articles and studies. I was trying to make sense of the darkness I’d sunken into.
That day, the author wrote about how bad it got for her, how deep she sunk that she thought about offing herself to make it stop. Suddenly, I thought (I may have even said it out loud), “I don’t wanna kill myself!” and I slammed the book shut. That day I decided to face my monster… I’ve been doing it ever since, and so this book has taken on a new life. Yes, it’s about my journey of being unmothered, but it’s also a study of why and how it is I’ve been able to use my pain to drive my work. An added question to drive the book: How is it I’ve been resilient and been able to use this pain as fodder for my work while my brother and my dear friend RD were crushed under the weight of theirs?
This weekend I watched my partner with her mother. Her mother who smiles whenever she sees me. Who just a few minutes ago gave me a bottle of lavender bubble bath because I told her yesterday that I love all things lavender. Who has a specific way of doing things in her kitchen that I completely respect (don’t mess with a woman’s kitchen!)—water with detergent in the sink for washing the dishes, a paper towel to wipe them.
I watch mothers with their daughters all the time. I feel it dig into me often, the longing for that. I wonder if there will come a day when I won’t hunger for that bond that I’ve never really known. The one I have with my daughter… It’s one thing to offer that to my daughter. It’s another to want and not have that for myself…