A letter for my mother
Para ti, mi querida mami:
I’ve wanted to write you a letter for so long mom, but I haven’t been able to. Maybe this is guilt calling me to this page. Maybe it’s an attempt at pushing myself into memoir, because my biggest terror is that what I’m revealing will send you on a new fuck-Vanessa frenzy. Or worse, it will send you reeling into your raw wounds that have never healed though the violation happened forty years ago. Or, maybe, this is an attempt at telling you everything I want to say, that I won’t dare tell you to your face because I’m still too soft to handle a blatant rejection. Because I just can’t handle you pushing me away again, like you did when you weren’t talking to me for those fifteen months. Like when you’d sneer when I ran into you at titi’s house, when you wouldn’t even look at me and gave me a half-ass “Dios te bendiga” when I asked for your bendición. When you’d bait me, even targeting Vasialys, who you referred to as “your daughter” like you’re denying her, because you know that stab cuts the deepest.
I remember one day the clearest… Vasia ran to you when she heard your voice. She was so excited; it’d been months since she’d seen her “tata.” I watched from titi’s livingroom, my body clenched, expecting a blow, one of your knock-out punches that you don’t need fists for. You’ve laid me out so many times con esa boca y esas palabras tan crueles. Vasia hugged you. You kissed her so quick I almost didn’t register it. Like you didn’t want to. Como si te costó tanto hacerlo. “Vasia what’s wrong with your hair?” Vasia backed away. You hadn’t even said hello. Though Vasia’s back was turned to me, I imagine she lowered her eyes. My nena is so sensitive. She has such a delicate heart. “Tell your mother to wash your hair.” I swallowed hard. Vasia walked back into the room. She didn’t look at me as she passed but I felt her sadness. What the fuck, mom?
I didn’t say anything. Pa’ que? I already knew where you were. I’d already decided I wasn’t gonna let you reel me in, get me all riled up and angry and crying. I took my power back. Well, at least publicly I did. The truth is that your silence fucked me up in so many ways. Many I’m still figuring out but some, some I know right off…like how I ran into arms that didn’t want me because I was so desperate for someone to love me. I was still living that twisted “love me, please love me” pattern that I learned from you. I’m still unlearning that.
I’ve written about you, mom. And, now that I’m reading the first draft of my memoir, I see the resentment. It’s blatant. It’s raw. It’s etched into every line.
Someone asked me the other day, “Are you removing the bad shit now that mom is talking to you.” No, I’m not. But I’m not writing this memoir to vilify you, mom. If anything, this book, this digging, has helped me see your humanity more than I ever have. Passed all the resentment I carried for so long. I know you loved me as much as you could with what you had. I know you’ve been through so much. I know because I’ve written and am still writing it…or how I imagine it.
And still, there remains a chasm between us, a gorge, a ten thousand mile long crack that I cannot even begin to scale or attempt to cross or even look at sometimes. And sometimes all I can do is stare at it and wish it away and wish I had it in me to jump over it. And then there are times I see you reaching over and I freeze because it’s what I’m used to doing. I freeze or I run. I’ve become so adept at this…because it’s been so long since you’ve held me or hugged me. You’ve never told me you’re proud of me, mom. Never. And sometimes it breaks me to think how that’s shaped me, how I love and don’t love, all the walls I’ve built. Shit… And then, one day, while I’m sitting in the hospital room with my brother, you look at me and say, “Thank you. Me siento tan sola a veces con lo de tu hermano.” And somehow I find the nerve to say, “I know mom. I’m here. But you know, I need support too.” And you don’t yell or get defensive. You sigh so softly I almost miss it, and you blink your eyes a few times too many so I know you’re sorry and you get it, though you don’t say it because you don’t know how.
I still flinch when I see your name on my caller ID, mom. Like it’s a lie. Like it’s a dream and I’m going to wake up, and I’m scared because if it isn’t true and my mind is in it’s I wish place, I wonder how the fuck I will survive this one. You’ve punished me so many times by denying me your love.
I’ve wondered if I was ever good enough? Was I always a disappointment? I so wanted to feel wanted by you, I tried everything to get on your good side, but somehow I always fell short. Or least I always felt like I did.
I remember when I graduated from Columbia University. We went to lunch afterwards to an Italian restaurant on Broadway, not far from campus. I was relieved I’d done it. That I’d survived those four years. That I didn’t quit no matter how hard it got, no matter how stupid my decisions, and, yes, there were many. Like dating a drug dealer. He had just dropped off a huge bouquet of yellow flowers because he wasn’t invited to eat with us. (Maybe that’s what set you off?) I didn’t fight about it. All that mattered was that you came. Even if you argued and threatened that you wouldn’t, you came to share that day with me. We were talking about my future plans and I revealed that I wasn’t going to law school. That I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but I knew law school wasn’t in the equation. (I have never regretted that decision, ma.) You slammed your fork down so hard I’m surprised you didn’t shatter your plate. “I knew it. Yo lo sabía que no ibas hacer ni mierda con tu vida.” I don’t remember responding. I was too shocked. There I was, still in my blue gown with the Columbia crown stitched into the lapel and you were still saying I wasn’t going to amount to anything. I remember swallowing my food quickly and leaving as fast as I could. That day you proved to me that no matter what I did, you would never be satisfied. It was that day that I stopped living to please you. Or at least that’s when I started the journey of releasing myself of the hold you had on me. I’m still on that journey, ma. I’m not sure there’s a finish line.
* * *
A Dim Capacity for Wings excerpt
I watched her from the window when mom planted a garden in the backyard. She wasn’t the Martha Stewart kind of gardener with a sunhat and gloves, gardening dress and apron. No, mom was too third world, too campesina Hondureña for that. She didn’t have those luxuries where she came from and she didn’t have them here, and I don’t think she wanted them either. Mom bought a small shovel, seeds, and fertilizing soil, and she did the work on her hands and knees, in her bata or simple shorts and a t-shirt.
I watched her get on all fours to yank out the stubborn weeds whose roots clung hard to the earth. The sweat dripping from her nose, mom wiped her indigena brown brow with her forearm, looked up at the sun and closed her eyes, a small smile curling the corners of her lips. Then she’d go right back to work.
There were few things mom put that much concentration and effort into. There was the paint by number sets of kittens and fruit that she spent months on, doing it piece by piece every day. And the flowers she’d stitch onto napkins, bright oranges and reds and greens against the stark white. I knew better than to bother her when she was immersed in her work. I hoped gardening would be different.
Our yard was split down the middle by a narrow cemented path that led up to a red iron ladder that reached far up to the third floor. I tried so many times to climb all the way up but I got scared when I reached the second floor and everything looked tiny when I looked down. I’d come down slowly, step by step, breathing deep, so I wouldn’t fall and hurt myself as I was so prone to doing. Then I’d go climb my plum tree.
I watched mom lay the seed packets out on the wooden table Millie built. I stared at the images on the packets. There were peppers and pumpkins and tomatoes, squash and eggplant, sunflowers and geraniums and peppermint and sage.
When mom climbed out into the yard and started working, I followed her. I sat on the doors that led to the basement, pretending to be fiddling with a plant that had broken through the concrete. I approached the gate slowly, walked up the pathway and leaned on the trunk of the tree. Mom kept digging, using her hands when the soil wouldn’t give or when she wanted the soil to fluff out more. I giggled when I saw an earth worm squirm out of the way. That’s when she looked up at me.
“¿Que quieres?” Her face was smudged with dirt. I shrugged. She gave me a toothless smile and went back to work.
After a while, I asked, “¿Que haces, mami?”
“Voy a sembrar unos vegetales.”
“Si da tiempo.” She put the spade down and looked around the yard. The other side was still full of weeds and shrubbery. She sighed loudly.
“Can I help?” She pursed her lips. “Please.”
Mom smiled. This time it was a full smile. “See all those weeds on that side? I need you to pull them out.” I stared at the jumble of weeds and grass. I’d seen how much it had taken her to clear the side she was now working on and she was only three-quarters of the way through.
“But I want to help you plant the seeds,” I whined.
“Bueno, that’s what I need you to do. Si no quieres, no lo hagas pero no me vengas a joder.” She grabbed the spade and shoved it hard into the ground like I’d seen an assailant on TV stab his enemy in the chest and watch the life seep out of his eyes.
I pouted but I walked over to the other side and started pulling. It was harder than I thought it would be. I fell back several times when I pulled the weeds with all my might and the roots gave way, sending chunks of soil into my eyes. I didn’t stop until mom called me in to clean up for dinner. I hadn’t even noticed when she went inside. I was exhausted and my back hurt but I spent the next two mornings clearing the space for mom while she tossed the earth and planted seeds on her side. When I was finally done, I ran inside to tell her. She waved me away and kept talking on the red rotary phone, the heavy receiver resting on her shoulder while she laid out the packets of seeds.
“Si, ya planté la yerbas. Hoy voy a plantar los vegetales.” I tugged on her shirt. Mom looked down and pointed at my brown fingerprints on her shirt. I’d forgotten to wash my hands from my excitement. I headed to the bathroom to wash up without another word. When I walked out, mom was already in the yard.
I watched as she fluffed the earth and made little holes in the ground with her fingers. I sat close by and waited, expecting her to call me over. When she didn’t, I said, “Ma, let me help you.”
“No, you don’t know how to do this. You have to space the seeds or they won’t grow right. Porque no te vas pa’ fuera.”
“I don’t wanna go outside. I wanna help you.”
“No necesito tu ayuda. Go outside with your sister.”
I went into the house and watched her plant from the window, knowing this was just something else she wouldn’t be sharing with me.
* * *
For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what Chris Abani told me at AWP: “Redemption is easy, Vanessa. It’s restoration that takes a lifetime.” I’ve been thinking about what I’m trying to restore in writing about you and how we were. How we are now. And, yes, all that I suffered at your hands. What am I trying to restore if you and I were never close and still aren’t? What am I trying to restore if the bad times are what stick out? The way you cut me with your mouth, that diabolical look on your face when you were enraged, the way you pulled your lips over your teeth, taut like Saran wrap over Tupperware. Maybe I’m trying to restore the good times to a place where I can remember them first. Maybe I’m trying to restore those moments when I did feel that you loved me. Like that time when I was so sick with fever and asthma (I must have been eight or nine) and you stayed up all night watching over me. I know because you woke me up every few hours to give me medicine and rub my back with alcolado. Because you made me get into a tub of freezing water to lower my fever and cried with me, climbing half in so you could be cold with me. Because you took me to the hospital a media noche and flipped out on the nurse because she didn’t attend to me right away. Because you didn’t leave my side, not for one second. And when that doctor gave me that shot that made me crumble to the floor, you crumbled with me. I want to remember that. I want to restore those memories to the forefront of my mind, mom. I want to remember that you did love me with all you had even if the little girl in me didn’t think that was enough.
You told me once that you had to be there for my sister and my brother “porque tu eras la fuerte, Vanessa.” I wish you would have told me that so I wouldn’t have felt so rejected and alone. I look at my siblings now and think maybe you were right. My sister exists on the brink of flip. She’s always ready to swing at or scream on somebody. Of course it’s starting to weigh on her. She’s obese and her body is falling apart and she’s only 39. My brother is a heroin addict. And me? I’m writing our stories. I’m trying to make sense of it all. How it is we all resulted so differently. How it is I survived and thrived. How I became the woman I am today. And how, no matter what, I still miss you, mom.