*An essay a week in 2017*
I was late to This is Us for no other reason than that I just was. I’m not one to follow what other folks are watching, but that has more to do with me and my circumstance — because I didn’t have cable for a while and then I only had the local channels and then I only had Netflix, and then I didn’t have wifi and so, you get the point… I never got into Game of Thrones or Orange is the New Black or any of the other shows that have taken their turn dominating my FB timeline. It’s why I was late to Grey’s Anatomy (clutches heart) and Jane the Virgin (Gina Rodriguez, I love you, girl) and why I was late to This is Us. I caught up over the last few weeks, and oh my gah, I am so glad I did.
If you’ve never seen this show, please do yourself a favor and start today. Cry with me, fam!
The episode “Memphis” stayed with me in a particular put-a-thorn-in-my-heart-and-twist way. In it, William and Randall take a road trip to Memphis where William was raised. (William is dying of cancer. Randall, his biological son, found him only a few months ago, and they’ve been bonding ever since. Of course there’s a lot more to it but we can keep it simple here.) They return to the house where William grew up with his mother. He doesn’t need a map or GPS to get there though it’s been decades since he’s been there.
Two things in particular stayed with me from this scene:
- When they get to the house, William can’t stop looking at the door. He says there’s used to be two doors when he lived there with his mother, but now one of them is bricked up. “Strange thing to be looking at. All these years and it’s a door that’s messing me up.” His son Randall tells him the story of when he cut his afro, trying to fit into corporate America when he made partner at his firm. When he returned home, his daughter Tess who was then three, started bawling, not because she didn’t remember him but “because she was focusing on the door that was bricked over.”
- They ask the current occupants if they can enter the house. William goes straight for the fireplace where he had jimmied a brick out and placed what he called “my treasure” — a few toys and three quarters. He says: “I put these here once, and after all these years later, they’re still here. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that strange how the world sticks and moves like that?”
It got me thinking about the things that stick and those that move. The doors we focus on. The things we hold onto. The memories that remain, thick and clinging.
I am thinking about our beach trips to Rockaway when I was a kid. My mother dancing to old school ballads in the sala, the smell of King Pine curling around her, a mop in her hand, her head is thrown back, she is singing Rocio Jurado’s Algo se me fue contigo madre…
My neighborhood in Bushwick, all rubble and poverty and love…
My brother, before the heroin, before the heartbreak…when he was whole.
My Millie, the way she loved me, her lessons on life–”con puños, Vanessa, con puños!”
My sister when I worshipped her, before she too broke my heart.
The people on my block. My first love. The girl that was both my friend and my nemesis.
I’ve been thinking about mothers. Truth is I’m always thinking about mothers and being unmothered and mothering. It’s one of my most potent obsessions. Recently, in my Writing Our Lives class, during a lesson on how to write the self as a character, I asked my students: what is something you do or write that you wish you could just stop doing? I shared (because I always share, because I don’t believe I can expect my writers to trust me with their stories if I don’t trust them with mine): “I wish I could stop writing about my mother. It’s exhausting. She is both my altar and my abyss…”
Have you noticed how many fairy tales are based on the unmothered syndrome? Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty in Beauty and the Beast, they all have lost their mothers. Cinderella and Snow White gained evil stepmothers in the process. In Hansel and Gretel, the mother is not dead but absent. In The Snow Queen, mother is gone because she’s left in search of adventure.
I posted about this on my timeline, and a friend responded: “Mothers get in the way.” I winced.
Apophenia: the minds desire to make connections between unrelated events
Then I come upon Granta’s First Sentence series where Granta asks authors to revisit the inspiration behind their stories. Here, Kelly Magee writes about her novel “The Neighborhood”:
In the 1950s, Harry Harlow set out to prove the experts wrong. Everyone from the American Medical Association to the government to practitioners of the relatively new field of psychology was of the same mind: love was a menace, and ‘mother love’ was a particularly dangerous brand of it. Babies who were picked up got sick more frequently, so the advice to new parents was to withhold as much touch as possible. Harlow – by all accounts a cold and demanding man himself – embarked on a series of increasingly disturbing experiments to prove that love was real; that babies needed more than nutrition to thrive, that mothers delivered more than just calories, that physical touch was as crucial to primate development as food. The methods Harlow used to prove the existence of love resulted in the torture and death of baby monkeys, and Harlow has gone down in history as being instrumental in both attachment theories and the development of the animal rights movement. He took hundreds of infant rhesus macaques from their mothers and caged them with two surrogate options: a ‘wire mother’ who offered milk, and a ‘terrycloth mother’ who offered only her soft texture. No surprise to whom the babies clung. No surprise that, even when Harlow pushed his theory further by having the cloth mothers shoot out spikes or blast cold air or shove the babies away with spring-loaded arms – he called these the ‘evil mothers’ – the babies still returned to them, held on to their softness for dear life….
I tried to write a wire mother story, but she would not speak. It wasn’t the cold, robotic mothers of Harlow’s experiment that I could identify with, but the flesh-and-blood ones whose humanity had been stripped from them. So instead I wrote a wire children story and gave the question of love back to the mothers. Mothers who had committed atrocious acts toward their own children. Mothers who had made terrible mistakes. I couldn’t separate myself from them; becoming a parent was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, and I’d certainly made my share of mistakes. Given a different set of circumstances, I didn’t know what worse mistakes I might’ve made. But the point of the story was not the characters’ crimes. Rather, it was the question of love. Love after trauma, love in an inhospitable environment, love for unlovable creatures. Harlow proved that primates need touch, softness, nurture. I gave my story’s mothers their own collection of scientists, tasked them with the impossible and set out to see if I, too, could prove that love was real.
Last week, my mother texted to ask if she could hang out with my daughter. She was going out with her niece, my aunt’s daughter, who is Vasia’s age, and wanted my daughter to come along. I obliged though I was freaked out by the request. When my daughter got home, I laid in her bed and listened closely as she shared what my mother had said:
Mom can’t eat bananas or even smell them since her son (my brother) died because they were his favorite.
Mom told Vasia about my birth. How I was born chubby, healthy, 11 lbs of baby rolls, & how I went down to a mere 3 lbs in a matter of weeks. “She almost died,” she said. I imagine her saying this, the accent still heavy on her tongue though she’s been in this country for 45 years. She says she prayed that if I wasn’t going to make it, for god to take me now so I wouldn’t suffer.
I tried not to but I couldn’t help myself–I asked: “Did she ask about me?” My daughter, who was getting her stuff ready for school the next day turned to me and nodded. “Yes, mom,” she said. Her face was soft, searching. She knows…
My therapist asked me last week what keeps me hopeful. I saw a clear picture of my daughter’s smile in my head. I thought of my love, my work, my students. I thought about the red cardinal I heard that morning, chirping his little heart out. It’s mating season and he’s calling in his mate. I searched the sky and found him on a nearby branch, puffing out his chest and singing. He survived this recent snow storm that brought ice in its wake. He’s still chirping. I thought of my Loba pack, with all their gutsy and rebellious, their raw pain and tears. I thought of our shadows. I thought of this world and our country and the current administration and the heinous things the president is doing. I thought of the good good work that’s coming out of resistance. Not always neat or pristine, but rooted in love &, dare I say, hope. And I came back to my daughter’s smile, how she smiles with her whole face, how she shows two rows of teeth, how her eyes smile just as bright…
I remembered that while yes it’s true, there is some seriously scary shit going on, there is also love. I remembered that love is also a form of resistance. And it’s a powerful one.
How delicious, the power these evil mothers had. The boldness of the ogress to demand a child as payment; the fierceness of the witch with her poison apple. They had appetite and desire and ambition; they put themselves first. And yes, they were punished in the end, but their murderous presences called tale after tale after tale into being. They were where the story began. The easy scapegoats, born into villainy, too loaded with their own character to be redeemed. ~Kelly Magee on Granta
A few years ago, a woman contacted me after reading my essay “Unmothered on this Mother’s Day”. She questioned why I had to write this on Mother’s Day. She said it was disrespectful and dishonoring to mothers. No matter how or what I explained, she came back to that: how dare I?! In the end, she taunted: “Well, I have a great relationship with my mother.” It was cruel. I blocked her.
My daughter held a gem for a few days from her hang out with my mother. We had just had a mommy-daughter breakfast on Sunday and were on our way home when she said: “Tata told me something else.” Every muscle in my body tensed. My daughter stared at me, the worry line in her forehead grew deep. “Forget it, mom. I’ll tell you later.” I had to insist.
“Tata said she’ll never be happy again now since Tio Tio died.” A blue jay cried its distinctive cry.
My mother said no one suffers a loss like a mother. She followed that with: I know other people feel it but not like me, “he was my son.” I imagine her saying this. I imagine her face looking at my daughter’s face. My daughter has my mother’s cheeks. Her eyes, like mine, like ours.
My daughter was heading off to hang out with her cousins and then to a craft store to stock up on slime making supplies, including the largest jug of glue I’ve ever seen. She lingered for a while, making sure I was okay. I played stoic. She hugged me before she left. That worry line was cavernous. “You sure you ok, mom?”
I shrugged. “Yes, go. I have to write.”
When she left, I curled up on the couch and slept. Later I cleaned and made dinner. I didn’t try to write at all. It wasn’t until the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep, still hours away from daylight, that I started trying, and only because I couldn’t silence the obsessive talk in my head and my bladder pulled me out of bed. I stayed up writing and reading until my alarm went off indicating I had to get ready to go teach.
I’ve been searching for literature by women who write about torn relationships with their mothers; the many ways they weren’t held and loved; how they’ve come to terms and haven’t; and how they make their pain into art. I decided to create a list of reading just for us unmothered women, because if I need it, I can’t be the only one. This is my love letter to unmothered women, to us. I see you. You are loved.
I began with the work of Jaquira Díaz. Her work has been like a balm over these years of digging into that unmothered wound. Check out her essay, “My Mother and Mercy” in The Sun. It will shred you then give you life.
This is typical of my mother. I haven’t seen her in seven years either, though she does call on rare occasions to ask me for money. She lives alone in a tiny efficiency in Miami Beach a few blocks from Mercy. Because my brother, Levy, works in Miami Beach, he sometimes (reluctantly) takes care of our mother — as much as you can take care of someone like her.
For many years my mother and Mercy, both addicts, kept each other company. Mercy took pills mostly: Xanax, Ativan, oxycodone. My mother prefers crack, cocaine, meth. Both women have been prescribed powerful antipsychotic medications for paranoid schizophrenia. They saw each other every day, bailing one another out, sometimes living on the streets together, loving and hating each other the way addicts do.
Most recently I added “Mother Could be You” by Chloe Cela. This essay is my introduction to this writer’s work, and I am looking forward to reading more.
A year ago I was pretty, people noticed me in the train. I had this way of not looking. That’s the trick, isn’t it? You present yourself, your perfumed body, soft at the right places, a straight back and tall, strong bones. Living the busy life, giving everything but. And that but is what the weak-hearted want. They’ll crawl for it; they’ll kiss your heels. I know this so well. It’s a model of love, handed over from generation to generation. Mothers who say: go play in the street honey because Mother is busy. Mother has her lover waiting. Mother wants to take a nap in the sun. You really want to play with the other kids, but you wait on the porch for Mother to open the door.
Years ago, my mother told me that Rocio Jurado wrote “Algo se me fue contigo, madre” for her mother after she died. I searched for the song on YouTube and played it in the background as I finished this essay. I selected the original version of the song because that’s how my mother used to sing it when I was a child. This was before I knew what happened between my mother and hers. How my grandmother failed her daughter. How my mother has been trying to restore herself since…the wars that have raged between these two women for more than forty years.
I choked up as I listened to the song. When I went back to the window where the video was playing, I choked up even harder as I saw image after image perpetuating the mother myth, again and again.
Myth says that mother does not fail. Mother is self-sacrificing. Mother always shows up, cradles and coddles and nurses and kisses boo boos and sings songs and is consistent and tender and steadfast. Your biggest advocate. Mother is perfect.
I am proposing a panel for AWP 2017 in Tampa: Deconstructing the Mother Myth in Literature. How writers have and continue to deconstruct the myth in their stories and poems. Why they feel the need to. The urgency of it. How they deal with the backlash.
We unmothered women need to know that there are more of us out there. This existence is so lonely. So isolating. I know this is one of my purposes in this life… and yet, sometimes I wonder, I ask myself: Am I focusing on the door that’s bricked over?