Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 7: The Aunts
At Christmas, when I say I go home, I mean I go to New York, but not the house in Laurelton, Queens where I grew up, or the Cambria Heights one my mother and sister moved to when I was away at my freshman year of college. I go home for Christmas to my Aunt Francis’s house in Long Island, the house where I sleep on the couch so I can snuggle with the cat and where there’s always room for everyone no matter how many of us are crammed in there and where my childhood piano takes up half the living room cause we can’t figure out how to get rid of it now that my 20-something year old cousins no longer use it.
In my own 20s, I didn’t go home for Christmas for years. It was too painful. At my mother’s house, no matter how long I’d stayed away, I was always once again the girl made awkward and stupid by fear. I always lost my voice, I always lost my bearing the moment I walked in the front door. Whether I was in a fat phase or a thin one, I rarely managed to feel pretty at my mother’s house. I knew she disapproved of how I dressed, which was neither provocative nor frumpy, but was merely not the way she dressed. I felt like an outcast because I loved all the wrong things—going to the movies, literary novels, art museums—too much, and I didn’t like the right things—going to church as often as possible, long drawn-out Bible studies—enough. So I avoided going home, saying I couldn’t make the trip from Chicago because I couldn’t afford the plane ticket.
But then I moved back East and decided it was time to join the family again. If Maracas Valley is the heart of my mother’s side of my family in Trinidad, Uniondale and Baldwin have become the heart of our family in America. My mother’s never there with us for Christmas. She stays in Charlotte, sometimes with her husband, sometimes on her own. I am both angry and relieved that she never joins the rest of the family—her younger sisters, her nieces and nephews, her cousins—for our holiday revels. When I visit my mother, I know she is happy to see me, yet even as I hug and kiss her, I can feel her holding me somewhat at arm’s length. My aunts and cousins, on the other hand, burst into wide smiles when they see me. They draw me into close hugs. They text or call me several times before I arrive to find out when I’m coming, if I’m on my way, how soon I’ll get there. I know my mother loves me, but with the aunts and by the aunts, I feel beloved.
According to the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, one of the definitions of beloved is “dear to the heart.” And that’s how I feel with my aunts, that the entire time I am with them, they are pulling me close to their hearts. My mother loves me, I know, but that love is intricately wound with distance, a distance only occasionally bridged by tenderness, and never for very long. On the couch at my aunt’s house, someone is always sitting next to me, or throwing their legs across my lap, or trying to share my blanket. At my aunt’s house, I am always safe.
My aunts weren’t always “the aunts.” I didn’t always say or think that phrase with unbounded affection. The aunts—my mother’s two youngest sisters—lived with us when they both emigrated from Trinidad, first Fran and then Maria, the baby of the bunch. They were barely out of their teens. They’d been raised by a mother who compensated for all the ways she’d been emotionally broken with rage. This rage was often leavened with humor, and my grandmother could also be quite tender when she wanted. But she was also mercurial, and strong-willed, controlling and unaccepting of the idea that someone could have a life other than the one she dictated and planned for them. Her three sons all stayed in Trinidad, but she made sure all of her daughters made it to the United States, even if she had to bully them and wreck their romances to do it. I think my grandmother saw her daughters as problems to be managed, with terror if need be. And that’s how my aunts saw my sister and me, as targets for their own incipient rage. One particular favorite game of theirs was to feint that they were going to hit us, and then as we braced, to laugh and ask, “What are you breaksing for?” breaksing being Trinidadian vernacular for “fending off blows.”
But as they met other women who did not parent their children with slaps and sarcasm, they promised themselves to do differently. And they did. My sister and I delight in telling our cousins how awful their mothers used to be and how they’re so lucky to have the new and improved versions. This tattle-taling is done not with malice, but with great gratitude that they somehow escaped at least this aspect of their emotional DNA. And this parenting is not just for their own daughters, but extends to my sister and me as well. The same is true of my aunts’ first cousins, who always say the same thing when they see Debbie and me, “Oh, these are our first babies,” as they hug us close, show us we are beloved.
My mother has changed in some ways too, but there are so many ways she hasn’t that I find it hard to accept the affection she tries to give me now. I have added my own distance to hers and I’m not sure if what is between us is actually love, or not quite love, or almost love. Or if our love is like the moon on the night before it’s full, when at first glance, it looks whole, but if you peer closely, you can see the slightest sliver still missing.
When I speak to my mother on the phone, I have to anchor myself firmly in the present, remind myself to receive and revel in the affection she’s offering in the here and now. If I let even a wisp of the past creep in, her affection rings hollow. The coldness and constant criticism and lack of praise I remember from my childhood, chills the warmth of whatever loving words she’s trying to offer.
I do not know if there was a time I was ever beloved to my mother. I’m fairly certain that she knew even as I grew in her womb, that just as soon as she could—which turned out to be when I was three months old—she’d leave to start our new lives in the States, though I wouldn’t be part of that life till I was nearly three years old. I have always wanted to ask my mother how she could stand to leave me. What part of her did she have to bury? What did she have to excise? When she tourniquetted her love for me so she could survive the wound of leaving me, did she know she was risking a permanent amputation?
This wasn’t just a mother going back to work after maternity leave. This was a mother allowing an ocean to come between her and her child. Perhaps it’s that ocean that I sense in the shade of difference between being beloved by my aunts and being loved my mother. To be honest, I don’t know if I want to figure out how to cross that ocean completely. We seem to do well muddling around somewhere in the middle of that ocean, even though it’s not all that satisfying, and neither one of us ever feels safe enough to remove our life jackets. I don’t know if it’s giving up or accepting what I cannot change to never call my mother home. And if I do have a place where I am beloved, and people by whom I’m beloved, maybe it’s a question I don’t have to answer.