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Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 7: The Aunts

Me_Deeb_The Aunts_Blog

Debbie, me and The Aunts in Trinidad circa 1974.

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.

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Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 14

I was seven or eight when I discovered my father’s stash of Playboys. When I think back, I see them sitting next to the green recliner in the den, but I can’t believe they would’ve been so easy to find. They were probably, instead, in the forbidden cupboard where my mother kept all of her romance novels, the cupboard I raided regularly after I ran out of library books because my voracious brain needed something, anything, to read, and this explains both why I see all great love as involving tragedy and why I knew too much about sex before I was in double digits. I would sneak the magazines up to my room, look at them with a flashlight under the covers. It’s hard to believe I could be sexually excited by them at seven and even as I type this it feels like I am holding my breath and panting at the same time at the memory.

I was caught, of course. Many times. But still I went back to the big-breasted women and their chauffeur uniforms and twosomes and their slow stripteases over a series of pages. After the first time I was caught, at my grandfather Sugrim’s house, me unseen near where my father sat around the table with his brothers, my father told his brothers they’d caught me with the Playboys. My father joked, “It was only for the articles, of course,” and as they laughed, me not understanding the joke, I bloomed into the shame that should have been his.

A shame that has never left me, I should probably admit though I never dare even whisper it out loud. Mine is a body betrayed by its body-ness, by its needs, its wants, the way desire still flares at the sight of a woman’s beautiful breasts or heart-shaped ass, not because I’m a lesbian (I’ve considered it and when I can picture a life not lived alone, it is never with a woman) but because it was a woman’s body that first taught me that ache.

My mother was frightened of desire, too. She told me that some man had said something to her in Mexico when she was sunbathing with a boyfriend and that was the reason I had to keep myself covered up. That was the reason my over-generous ass, my flaring hips were a terror to her. Though now, I am disloyal and I wonder was she protecting me or was she protecting herself from me? Did she think I could only be seen at her expense?

I am looking too for my mother in those women, wanting her to show herself to me not the way those women spread and draped themselves across the pages, but the way mothers spread and drape themselves across their daughters so their daughters know what it is to be loved, to be desired, to be longed for in a way that shows how grief-stricken the mother was to expel the baby from her womb, knowing she could never hold that child as close again. But most mothers would try, wouldn’t they?

That hunger of the body, kindled when I was 7 or the 8, was that other hunger—for mother, for father—made flesh or made bearable or made into something I thought I’d found the glossy answer for. It was shame and guilt made flesh too, a reason to hold onto for why I wasn’t enough, for why I wasn’t seen, for how easy a daughter could become a punchline, for how a father could decide not to throw away his dirty magazines, but to instead throw away the daughter who’d discovered them, for how a mother could punish a daughter for wanting other women and yet stay stubbornly out of reach.

Writing About Love, Day 3

What follows is not a good poem. In fact, I haven’t looked at it since i made one attempt at a second draft in November 2005. (I eventually stole parts of it for another poem.) But it’s an interesting poem, I think, because of what it’s trying to get at—that there is an element of possession to love. We want to both possess and be possessed. That there is something somewhat cannibalistic about love, in how much we want to not only hold the beloved, but we want to have them inside of us, woven into the very fabric of our DNA. Of course, if we’re relatively sane, we don’t act on that deep desire. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s taboo to talk about, but we all have a whiff of the obsessive about us, particularly when it comes to love. In the case of this poem, the beloved in question is my mother, who I’ve now figured out was actually standing in for both of my parents. Two people I wanted desperately to possess. Two people who could never figure out how to possess me.

I should also say that the poem is dark, and I find myself resisting that darkness sometimes. It feels wrong to have so much fun being twisted, and I don’t want anyone to think I am actually this extreme. But as all great crime fiction writers know (at least the ones who write for the BBC), sometimes you have to push things to the extreme to get to the very ordinary human truth.

Eating Mother (second draft)

There is a certain desire toward
cannibalism of the beloved mother.
It asks an act of violence,
this sacrament of love.

I love you so much mother
I will wear your heart
hanging from my lips,
the best stick parts
gouged out. When

you expelled me. When
you threw me out
from between your legs,
didn’t you smell the grief?
What else is blood but mourning
for what has been broken?

Now I see your teats are a substitute
lacking the rankness of true intimacy.
They are given too freely.

I suckle too for the ghosts
who didn’t make it, those
you kicked out before
they had hands to hold.

What choice have I
but to open my mouth wide
as all our tiny mouths.

Mother–

you are our beloved suckling pig.
you are our beloved first kill.
We are giddy with blood and delight.

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