The mystery of memoir and the universe and process
What a day. What a day. What. A. Day. The Hedgebrook application was due yesterday. I’d been trying to get through the application for a few days but I just couldn’t. Who knew I could be so shaken by questions like: What’s your hot topic? What are the issues and ideas that inspire your creative process? The application made me confront what I’ve been running from over these past few days…or maybe it was sitting with myself alone in my room. No music. No Vasia. No nothing but me and the page and the questions. All I know is that I couldn’t hide it or run from it anymore. I really, really miss my brother, and I’m really, really sad. So much so that I’ve talked to my friends about depression because I’m wondering if that’s what it is. Am I depressed? Just typing the word scares me. My hearts throb gets louder with each letter I type so by the time I get to the “n” of depression, I can feel and hear my heart slamming in my chest. Fuck!
I woke up knowing I had to get this application out. I could benefit from a residency in a cabin in the woods. I arranged a playdate for my daughter. I went home, put on my brother’s t-shirt (I’ve been wearing one when I write these days), and I didn’t let myself get up until I was done. I prayed and asked my brother to help me. He sent me a VONA/Voices sis who gave me permission to write through and with my grief. I cried a lot but I submitted it hours before it was due and felt lighter afterward. Still sad, but lighter. What did I learn? Or, rather, what did I re-learn? That my grief can feed my work, even an application for a residency. That running away from what I’m feeling won’t make it go away. And, like I included in my ap: Just because something isn’t spoken, doesn’t mean we don’t suffer it. Solo poco algo no se habla, no quiere decir que uno no lo sufre.
I went to pick up Vasia when I was done and went to my aunt’s house to use her wifi. I got rid of my wifi and cable and all distractions (or at least the worst ones) when I needed to finish the first draft of my memoir. I’m working on the umpteenth draft but still have no wifi so I went to my aunt’s house to submit the application. Just a few minutes after I got there, while I was talking to my grandma (the most obsessive Spanish novela watcher I’ve ever known—seriously, she doesn’t miss any of them, EVER!) and watching Channel 41 news with her, after seeing that Ariel Castro (that sick man that imprisoned and raped three girls for ten years) hung himself, my grandmother turns to me and says, “Yo soy culpable d’ese pecado.” “Que dices abuela?” And that’s when her sharing started.
She was fifteen and had just gotten out of work. She went home, dropped off her stuff and walked to a bridge that spanned el Rio Cangrejal in La Ceiba. She says she leaned over to jump in when she felt a hand pull on her shoulder. That’s when she realized what she was about to do. She says this is the reason she believes in guardian angels, because that day one of them leaned in and stopped her from killing herself by jumping into the white crested, churning rapids of the river. “Yo me hinque y le dije a Dios, ‘Ay señor, que es lo que yo iba ’cer?” She sat there for over an hour sobbing and praying, begging God for forgiveness. When she got home, her eyes were so swollen her mother asked her, “Y que te pasa?” She says she never told her. She never told anyone. Until yesterday, while we were sitting in her daughter’s living room watching T.V.
She turns and looks at me with her lips pursed and eyebrows arched. Her ay-plis-you-should-know expression. “Por un hombre, m’ija.” I imagine her thinking, “aren’t men what all women want to kill themselves over?”
We start talking about womanhood and how we develop. My little girl walks in to ask me a question and when she leaves the room, my grandmother starts talking about how she’s going to go through puberty early, that all the girls in the family do. Then she tells me about “cuando yo me hize mujer” which in Honduran-speak means when she got her period.
She was ten. Her sister, Angelica, who was five years older, had sent her to the supermarket to get some meat for dinner. Grandma says she felt a gush between her legs. When she checked, it was blood. She says she got really excited because this meant that she was a woman now. She put a piece of paper between her legs and off she went to the supermarket. When she returned, as she skipped over the threshold of the kitchen, which she says was a little incline, the bloody piece of paper slipped out of her panties and fell on the floor (she’d been wearing a dress). Her sister asked, “Que es eso?” Grandma pretended to cry and said she’d just cut herself. She didn’t trust her sister. “Angelica me pegaba.” When her mother, mi abuelita Tinita (the same one who raised my mom, who mom says “fue mi madre”), came home from work, my grandmother told her. Her mother had already ripped up an old sheet for her daughter “como paños,” grandma says. She looks at me with a slight smile, then her eyes go off and I know she’s back in the Honduras of her childhood.
I don’t have the typical grandma-granddaughter relationship with my grandma. In fact, my grandmother hasn’t really been a grandma to me. As a kid, mom would send us to spend weekends with her. They had an antagonistic relationship (sound familiar?) but mom pushed us on her, insisting that we have a relationship (or maybe she hoped to gain her mother’s love through us, her children). We’d meet grandma on Fridays at the Bedford Avenue stop on the L train, just a few stops from the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop where we lived in Bushwick. Grandma worked at a factoría in Williamsburg for more than twenty five years. She’d introduce us introduce us to her work friends as her sobrinos (nephew and nieces).
I don’t remember grandma ever being gentle or tender with me as a kid, and have to think hard about it to remember her being that way with me now as an adult. I remember I always looked up to her because she was always so well-dressed, make up perfect, hair tightly coiffed, dressed to the nine in colorful dresses and slacks and silk blouses. “Yo paraba tráfico en mi día,” she’s always said. She had a slew of handsome boyfriends when I was growing up, one who was younger than my own mother. But grandma was cold and impatient. It didn’t take much for her to roll up one of her thick Vanidades magazines and smack us across the face, legs and arms. So when mom tells me stories about her, how icy she was and the agarrones they had after mom was raped, I believe it… But, still, what she shared today makes me pause and think about how I’m portraying her in this memoir. She reminded me (and I know I needed reminding) that a human being is multi-dimensional, they have layers and contradictions, they have ugly and beautiful. And we have to write that when we write them.
Over the past few months, mom has shared stories about her relationship with my grandmother; how hostile it was, how they never had a mother-daughter relationship, not even in Honduras, because grandma was always working. She had to work long hours to feed the family, to survive. My mother always makes sure to tell me that. She always interjects that into whatever story she’s telling me about my grandmother: “tu tienes que entender, Vanessa, tu abuela a sufrido mucho.”
Grandma worked from the age of 5 until just a few years ago. And even now, at 79, she babysits my aunt’s kids, cooks them dinner four to five days a week, washes clothes and helps take care of the house. My grandmother is a mule of a woman. And, apparently, she always has been.
At five, she worked for a rich European family who lived in a mansion behind wrought iron gates that stood seven feet. She cared for their baby and cleaned the house. Mom says she was beaten and abused. I remember grandma telling me that she’d pinch the babies she took care of because she was jealous of the tenderness and love they received. Of all the toys they had. That they didn’t need or want for anything. She was only five years old, a baby herself, and she already knew what it was to suffer hunger.
One day during the cruise, mom told me that B (the family friend who joined us and was quite a handful) told her that she and grandma were talking about the men they’ve loved. Grandma told her that M, the man who raped my mom and fathered both my uncle and my brother, was one of the best men she ever had. That he showed her things about sex that she never knew. Mom tells me this one morning while we are walking around the track on the upper deck. She’d been talking a lot about the rape during the cruise, well, not a lot, but more than she ever has. She says that should have been a sign that he was a sick man, a pervert. “Pero la perra fui yo, verdad? That’s why I never healed. Why I’ll never heal.” She gets quiet and I see her squeezing her eyes like she does when she’s trying hard not to cry. I wonder how many times mom has pushed those same tears back into their ducts, the tears over what happened to her.
My mother tells me these stories that make me resent my grandmother. It’s easy to. I remember a confrontation grandma and I had before my brother died. It was late May. We were in my aunt’s living room talking and watching TV. I was sitting next to grandma on the couch. My daughter walked in and grabbed a gift bag that was next to grandma on the armrest of the couch. It was a yellow paper gift bag, the kind you buy at the 99 cent store. My grandmother snatched it from her hands. “Pa’ que quieres eso?” My baby girl flinched. “To draw on it.” “No,” grandma said sternly. “Why not let them play with it?” I asked. I was making an effort to not sound angry or bothered though I was. She was being unnecessarily rough. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all. “Porque yo dije que no,” grandma snapped. “Why not? It’s just a paper bag.” That’s when grandma started yelling, telling me that no one could say anything to my daughter without me jumping to her defense. “Why are you yelling?” I was pissed at this point. “I’m right next to you.” She threw the bag at Vasia and kept on yelling. That’s when I got up and told her about herself. I told her that I didn’t like the way she treated my daughter. That she was too dura with her and she had to stop “ahora mismo.” That’s when she told me to shut up. “No me voy a callar. I am a 37 year old woman, not a little girl. I will not shut up.” “No me importa,” she said, her arms were wrapped tightly across her chest and her face looked stern, her cheeks were sharp lines. “That’s the problem, grandma. That you don’t care.” We didn’t talk again until a month later, when my brother passed, when she got on the phone to comfort me and tell me that she thought I finish my writing residency at VONA. “Quedate. Eso es lo que quería tu hermano.”
We were at dinner one night on the ship. It was all fourteen of us at the table. My daughter and seven year old cousin were playing Macala at one end of the table. The teenage girls, B’s granddaughters, were talking with my aunt’s boys and her 25-year-old daughter while the adults were planning a trip to Honduras next August to spread my brother’s ashes. Grandma and B start their own conversation while Mom and I chatted. Mom tells me that grandma once told her that if she could it again, she wouldn’t have left Honduras. “Perdí el amor de mis hijas.” She says that leaving them made her daughters lose their love for her. Mom stares at her mother across the table. The woman who has just a third grade education. Who has worked so hard in her life. Who had to have the menu read to her because though she can write her name, her writing and reading abilities don’t go far beyond that, and despite being in this country for more than 45 years, she still can’t speak or read the language though she understands it if you speak to her slowly. Mom looks back at me. “If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t have this, Vanessa. We wouldn’t be on this cruise. We wouldn’t be able to celebrate Vasia’s birthday here. Recuerdate d’eso, Vanessa. Es por ella que estamos aqui.”
I already know I’ve become the keeper of my mother’s and my brother’s stories. What I relearned yesterday (and will likely have to relearn again) is that one of the mysterious things that happens when you’re writing memoir is that people will start to share their life stories with you. Key people, like my grandma. People who are part of your story. And they’ll start to tell you stories at important junctures in your memoir-writing journey. When you’re writing about them and you’ve written about them one-dimensionally. And you know this, but you don’t know how to forgive them. You don’t know how to write past your resentment, past your how-could-you-fuckin-do-that, why-did-you-do-it, I-don’t-know-how-to-redeem-you. It’s the universe leaning in, telling you, “there’s more to them than that; let me show you.” And so she does and you are left reeling at the never-ending mystery of it all.