When the stories we tell ourselves crumble
Whenever my brother spoke about Millie, he’d always preface it with “I know Millie loved you but you and Millie had a different relationship.” Mom has taken to saying the same before she reveals her truth about this woman, the butch she had a twenty plus year relationship with. My Millie who I held so dear for so long.
I want to believe what my sister Philly Walls said: “Millie is who she was to you. More than one thing can be true at once.”
What happens when someone you thought to be one thing turns out to be another? So different from what you believed or wanted to believe. I tried not to martyr her when she died eight years ago. I’ve tried to write truthfully about her. What I knew of her. How much she loved me. But there was a side to Millie I didn’t know. An ugly side. A heinous side. A controlling, manipulative, take advantage of people side that disturbs me. I haven’t spoken to her since I started hearing these stories. The ones mom prefaces with “Of all my kids Millie only loved you.” I used to talk to Millie every few days.
I cringed when I read the first draft of my memoir. The resentment I felt toward my mother was palpable. It dripped off the page like blood. Like sap from a tree, sticky and hard to shake, without the sweetness. I’m not trying to vilify my mother. I understand that she did what she could with what she had. I understand that my mother has endured a life that few people could have survived. These epiphanies came in the writing. But as a kid, I just wanted my mother to love me and I swore she didn’t. Hearing her talk about those years is giving me a whole new view on her. A rounder one. A more forgiving one. A more complex one. One that is more true since it considers the layers of her personality, the contradictions. This is true of all of us. We have so many sides.
Millie isn’t here to defend herself but I can’t deny that ugly side to her. I witnessed it and a few times, a few rare times, it was directed at me. But what she did to my mom and my brother, that I’m having a hard time dealing with. I told her the other day when I felt her spirit close that I was going to need some time to work through what I was learning. I felt her limp away.
I didn’t know how mom met Millie until just a few weeks ago. I don’t remember meeting her. I was all of two years old and I only have one memory of life without Millie. My brother, however, remembered. He was five. He said he remembered going to the Kingdom Hall and he remembered when we stopped going. Abruptly. One day Millie moved in and that Christmas we celebrated our first Christmas. And that that was that. That was how Millie was introduced to him, de un solo, sin explicación, as was the way we children were treated. We had no say over our lives. Carlos said Millie was the worst thing that ever happened to us.
I asked him about what Millie told me years ago. That the next door neighbor was molesting Carlos right under mom’s nose. (“Un maricón” is what Millie called him; she could throw that slur at people but she shrank into herself when it was thrown at her.) He pretended to be mom’s friend, to love us kids, until Millie confronted him and threatened him. Millie made it seem like she saved Carlos. Carlos confessed that it was true, the guy did molest him, but if given the choice he would have rather put up with that than have Millie in our lives.
This was 1978. Mom was a baptized member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses when she met Millie. Mom has always had a special connection to God and an affinity towards religion. As a kid in Honduras, she used to sneak out of the window to go preach in the villages in the campos with the Catholic priest from the church up the block. She says religion is what has always helped her cope with life and all the terrible things that have happened to her. Even now she says her fé is what is helping her in her grief over losing her son, my Superman.
A brother from the Kingdom Hall asked mom if she could accompany him to his sister’s house. (At this point mom interjects that there was a man from the congregation who was pursuing her. She ran from him. He had a reputation for getting involved with the women in the Kingdom Hall. “Problems happen in every congregation,” she admits. “Somo humanos, Vanessa.”) Mom went with him. She says she left us kids with Norma and Felix, a couple from the Kingdom Hall that had taken us in as familia. They couldn’t have kids of their own.
When they arrived, the brother went to the kitchen to talk to his sister, leaving mom sitting on the couch in the living room. Mom says she remembers there was music playing and a bunch of women sitting around, smoking cigarettes and talking, but she didn’t think anything of it. “Yo era tan inocente,” she says.
Millie went to sit next to her. I picture Millie in her bell bottom polyester pants and button up shirts that she always wore. She’s skinnier then. It was years with mom that gave her that extra tire around her middle. “Hello,” Millie said.
“Hola,” Mom said politely and looked in the direction of the kitchen.
Millie asked if she was a Jehovah’s Witness. When Mom said yes, Millie asked, “Y que tu haces aqui?”
“Pues acompañando al hermano.” Mom says she had no idea the brother’s sister was a lesbian. She was only accompanying him as he’d asked.
“So you don’t know what’s going on here?” Millie asked. She smiled her chipped tooth, plotting smile.
“What are you talking about?” Mom asked.
Millie got up and grabbed one of the women to dance. She watched mom as she pulled the woman to her, their torsos close, swaying in rhythm to the beat.
Still, mom says she didn’t know. Or maybe she didn’t want to know. “A mi nunca me gustaron las mujeres,” she confessed.
As if by coincidence, Mom ran into Millie on the train on her way home from her job at the factoría. “Or maybe she was following me.” Mom shrugs and I see her naiveté of all those years ago. Just twenty-two years old, mom had three children, had only been in this country six years, and had already experienced so much trauma.
Millie sat next to mom and started to ask questions. If she had children. Where she lived.
Mom says she started to run into Millie everywhere. On the street while walking with us, Millie would ride up alongside on her bike. Mom would try to walk quicker but she was with us, we couldn’t walk so fast. “A ella le dió contigo de una vez,” Mom says. I was finally recovering from being near death for the first year and a half of my life, and I loved the attention Millie doted on me.
Mom came home from work one day to find Millie sitting on the stoop of our apartment building. One day, Millie knocked on the door of the apartment. She was so bold. Presentada.
“She was stalking you?” I ask, more of a statement than a question.
Mom stares off and nods. “Sí, Vanessa. Sí.”
Mom doesn’t say how or why she gave in. How it was that they became a couple. She repeats that she never liked women and still doesn’t. “Yo lo que quería era cariño. Amor.” I picture her, so young, so lonely, so in pain. Her son, the result of a rape. The father of her daughters, gone. The little one (me) had almost died and spent most of her two years in a hospital. I imagine her flashing back to when she was ten and watched her six month old sister have seizures and die. “Su cuerpito le brincaba.” Mom motions with her hands how her body jumped in the air. She had to run to tell her mother who was working as a maid with a Turkish family. You can’t forget that kind of shit, can’t unsee it. It stays with you. Always.
And Mom couldn’t make her mom love her and us kids. Mom says that she moved to Brooklyn to get away from grandma. Because when they argued or had one of their epic agarrones that mom talks about so often now, grandma wouldn’t talk to her or to us, though we lived on the same floor, just a few feet away from her. Our apartment faced the front of the building and whenever Carlos saw grandma walk by, he yelled, “Abuela! Abuela!” Grandma ignored him so Carlos would run to the kitchen window which looked out onto the entry way and call her again. He was all of four years old.
She did this often, every time she was mad at mom. Mom couldn’t go to her to get food when she ran out. Mom says the food for me was so expensive. I could only eat the vegetables prescribed by the enzyme specialist. Veggies that were often out of season so she had to travel the city in search of yucca and aguacate which she would mash up and feed me. When she ran out of money, it was her friend who gave her plates of food, which mom split with her children.
But even when she moved to another borough, Mom says she visited grandma every weekend. We went after Sunday service at the Kingdom Hall, and we kids had to sit and not make noise. If we dared to, grandma would roll up one of her thick Vanidades magazines and would slap us across the face with it. I remember her doing that so many times. I hated her for that. Yes, mom beat us, but she respected our faces.
One day, she slapped my sister Dee so hard, she left her hand print, red and enflamed, on Dee’s pale white face. Mom says she had it by then. She got up and said, “Let that be the last time you put your hands on mis hijos.” She grabbed us and left, but she was there the following weekend. “Eso era lo malo mio,” she says. She insisted that grandma have a relationship with her and with us. She was so desperate for her mother’s love.
So when Millie came into her life and offered her love, how could Mom turn her down? Mom wanted so badly to feel safe. To be loved and protected. Millie was a tough Boricua who came out in the hills of Lares where the Pentecostal religion is as deeply rooted as the wild mango trees. Millie offered stability. Safety.
The first time that grandma saw Mom with Millie was in the Halsey Street train station. Mom met her to pick something up. Grandma looked over at Millie and said, “Que, ahora te vas a volver pata?”
“Y que?” Mom demands, her upper lip curled, nostrils flared, hands winged.
Grandma slapped her hard. “Una santa bofetada,” is how Mom describes it. Mom nods and smirks. “Meterme con Millie tambien fue rebeldía.” Millie was a way she could get back at her mother.
But she didn’t know Millie’s other side. The side that was jealous of anyone and anything that held mom’s attention, including her son, my brother. The side that would never pay a bill in the house though Mom says Millie walked around sometimes with a wad of money three inches thick, and would fight when mom didn’t have money to go to Coney Island on Easter. Now I know that’s what those fights were about. Their fights that were just as much tradition as were our trips to Coney Island every Easter Sunday. We cried when mom told us to take off our new Easter clothes—the white shoes that pinched my toes and crinoline dresses that itched but made me feel so pretty (Dee and I were usually bought the same dress, her pink, mine blue), the white crochet ponchos. We kids always ended up getting dressed twice, first excitedly when Mom woke us, then again when mom told us to put our clothes back on after they fought and mom cried and they grappled with each other, then made up.
Mom didn’t know Millie would tell her son, my brother, when he was just thirteen that he was the result of a rape, so mom was forced to tell him the story when he was too young to understand that it wasn’t his fault, that he wasn’t a sin.
Mom didn’t know that Millie would steal the money that Social Security gave us when Papi died. Mom at first agreed to buy the house in Lares from Doña Carmen, Millie’s mother, but changed her mind when one day she overheard Doña Carmen, who lived on the second floor in the apartment directly above us, call her muerta de hambre. Mom had been out tending her garden when she heard her say, “Yo no le voy a vender la casa a esa muerta de hambre. No se lo que Millie le ve en ella.” Mom cried for the rest of the day until Millie got home. When she told Millie, Mom says Millie went upstairs and fought with her mother. It was the first and last time she defended Mom. Still, mom refused to buy the house, no matter how Millie pled, but she made the mistake of putting the money in Millie’s account so when Millie went to PR a few months later, she bought the house with that money. When Millie was dying, Millie told mom she would leave her the house in her will with one caveat—when mom died she had to leave the house to one of Millie’s family members, a Rodriguez, because she didn’t want any of us kids to inherit it. Not my brother. Not my sister. Not even me, her dique negra. The only one Mom says she loved.
Before Millie died, her brother’s had convinced her to change her will so Mom wouldn’t get the house. These dique religious men, two of them pastors of their own churches, wanted to deny my mother of something that was rightfully hers, that was bought with our money. The woman who took care of Millie during her years long battle with cancer. The one who cooked for her and took her to her doctors’ appointments and chemotherapy and cleaned her ass. The one who traveled every day from Bushwick, Brooklyn to Calvary, the hospice in the Bronx where Millie was sent. They wanted to take that house away from my mother. But Millie died before the will could be changed. “Dios sabe lo que hace,” Mom says.
I was so angry when Mom told me she was selling the house. But when she explained why, when she explained how Millie’s family treated her, how Millie had treated her, how the house was bought, that Millie didn’t want me to have it, I understood. That house is being sold in two weeks, as it should be.
When Millie died, Millie’s home attendant, Milagros, told Mom not to cry. That she was better off without Millie. That Mom didn’t know the evil that she had living in her house. Milagros told her that when my brother came over, Millie would have Milagros gather her soap and tooth brush because she didn’t want “ese Sidoso, tecato” anywhere near her stuff. Every cup he used, she had Milagros disinfect. Meanwhile, it was my brother who helped Millie bathe in her last days. He fed her when she didn’t have the strength to bring the spoon to her mouth.
Mom has told me these stories over the past few months. When I asked her the other day, while I was at the beach, who initiated the grappling matches they had, where they swung on each other and we kids got in to break them up, Mom looked at me and teared up, “Esa Millie era mala, Vanessa. She would hit me. She hit me all the time.” In my mind, the way I remember it, it was Mom who initiated those fights. I asked my brother the same thing before he died, when I was putting the pieces together. He shook his head angrily, remembering, “No, it was Millie who hit Mom. That’s why me and Millie had problems; I didn’t like the way she treated my mother.”
As I sit with these stories, I’m wondering how I can reconcile this new information. I remember Millie’s tenderness with me. I remember how when I wanted a bike, she built my Rainbow Bike out of pieces she gathered from her friends and junkyards around the neighborhood. I remember how when I was six and told her I was being bullied at school, she took me out to the backyard and taught me how to throw jabs and uppercuts. I remember how when I was beat for doing something my sister did, Millie fought with my Mom, telling her, “Esa no fue la negra. Eso lo hizo esa gringa.” I remember the time Millie asked me why I didn’t defend myself. Her face dropped when I told her, “Mom won’t believe me anyway.”
The Millie I remember stands in stark contrast from the Millie Mom is telling me about. How do I reconcile the two? What do I do with the chasm that lies between the two images? What do you do when the stories you’ve told yourself crumble? Right now, I’m not sure.