Since I began these essays ten weeks ago I have taken note of how they have shifted me:
- My already low tolerance for small talk has become even lower.
- The nagging feeling to tell those around me what I think and feel or withhold it from them as some form of punishment has lessened.
- I’m writing more; therefore, less television.
- So, I’m haunted by how much time I have wasted. My novel calls out to be finished. And short stories have begun to call too.
- Details of my life now come with a thought or the spoken words of, “I think this is an essay” or “This should be an essay…”
- And story now finds me, as if the world, conspired to see me as one giant memo-pad.
The last few weeks I’ve been busy with close reading of different short texts with my students in an effort to prepare for the upcoming standardized tests. This past Friday I read an excerpt from a book called The Most Beautiful Place in the World by Ann Cameron. It was a scene about the main character, Juan who was rejected by his own mother and made to live with his grandmother. Soon after he starts school Juan’s love of words is noticed and he’s given the opportunity to skip a grade because he’s that smart. His grandmother is overcome with emotion because as a child herself she was never given the opportunity to go to school. She never learned to read and write. https://Most-Beautiful-Place-World/
I read with my students and underlined and annotated the text under the document camera. Necessary, in order to support their short responses based off of their interpratation of the text. And as I did this I become overwhelmed with memories and thoughts of Mami.
“You know guys,” I turned to look at my students in front of me. Clipboards with a copy of the text on their laps and pencils in their hands. “I know we are supposed to be preparing for the test at the end of the month, but do you want to hear a story?” I asked.
Sixteen years of teaching and I never had a class that didn’t enjoy a good story. It was a mid day snack for their minds. This class was no different. I smiled at their eager nods. “My mother is like Juan’s grandmother.” I let the words sink in and waited for a reaction. “My mother never went to school a day in her life,” I rested my elbow on the lectern that held the document camera. Already pinned down by the weight of the story.
“Why?” One of my student called out. She’s part of that new and gentrified Brooklyn. Dressed in tight jeans with holes, Doc Martens, and a Bob Dylan T-shirt.
I looked at my brown students some of them very well aware of why. But they remained silent. “My mother was born in 1936 in a rural part of Colombia.” My eyes fixed on my student that had asked why. And I thought of the idea windows and doors behind diverse books. This was my story, and this was not the door that she would walk through with me, but it could be a window for her to see something else. “It’s so remote it can’t be found on the map.” I said.
And this was true even people from Colombia. They refer to it as that small town near Sincelejo. What’s it called, Chalan? Is always the unsure questioned asked. The biggest claim to fame for Chalan was it being the birth place of el burro bomba. In short, members of LA FARC got someone to hide a homemade bomb inside a donkey in front of the local police station. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FARC Ten officers died because of that unsuspecting donkey, but people now had a reference for Chalan.
I tell none of this to my students.
“So your mother doesn’t know how to read?” Another student asked, his face twisted in shock.
“She never stepped foot in school.” I said with my neck jutted out and my eyebrow cocked. Heat rose off my chest. I took a long breath before I spoke again. “But she taught herself how to read using the Bible.” I doled out pieces of my mother to my students as I looked at the class library. Bright colored plastic bins held dozens of books. My eyes lingered over the labels of each basket: names of authors, titles of series, names of genres, catchy titles for fun topics. I thought of what Mami’s book basket would hold: La Santa Biblia, Los Nueve Domingos del Divino Nino, and Las Oraciones Ayudame Senor. But it would also hold Mami’s shame. The shame of not being able to do what a five-year old learns to do—read.
“Wow,” I listened to the murmurs from my students as the idea that their teacher’s mother never went to school sunk in.
I stood up straight my hands on my hips like a super hero ready to defend Mami. “My mother’s father didn’t think it was acceptable for girls to go to school. My mother was one of eight, and they were three girls. And not one of them went to school. They were meant to stay home and help with cooking and cleaning.” I rattled off the details of the explanation Mami gave about why she never went to school. “My grandmother was illiterate.” I stated. She never learned to read a word.” My neck tense. I placed my hand on my shoulder and rubbed. I knew that I picked up Mami’s shame and carried it as well, a result of four years on a therapist’s twill sofa. But I now realized I carried my Abuela’s shame as well, alongside Mami’s.
Mami was always proud of the fact that she could sign her name. Her mother, my grandmother didn’t even know her letters. She signed with a crooked X. It looked like two sticks across each other. Abuela’s name was Reparada, but was just called Repa. And for the longest time I believed that her name meant repair, but I was wrong. Reparada after a quick google search I learned meant renewed. Repa lived in Chalan most of her life, except the last twenty years of it. She was forced to leave her house after the guerilla occupied most of Chalan. And afraid that they would recruit my cousin who she helped raise, then fifteen, she moved to the city of Barranquilla with him.
Mami left Repa’s side and Chalan at twelve. Promised by an Aunt who lived in the Barranquilla, schooling in return for help with chores around the house. Mami was thrilled by the idea that she would finally get to go to school, and was blind to her Tia’s ulterior motives. Once in Barranquilla Mami was made to be nanny and a servant with no pay. School was never mentioned again. Mami drifted from nanny and servant jobs for most of her adolescence. School eluded her and she gave up on the dream to read.
“Ms. Meza,” a student called out to me. I was pulled out of my thoughts and looked around the classroom as my students raised their hands to ask questions about Mami.
“Yes,” I looked at my student. He was an avid reader, and when he wasn’t calling out in class or acting the role of self-proclaimed jock, he could be found lost in the world of the book in his hands.
“I think it’s so ironic” He studied my face before he spoke. “You know your mom and your grandma,” he stood up from his chair as he went on to explain. He used his hands as he spoke, like punctuation they helped the fluency of his words. “They never went to school and didn’t learn to read. And then their granddaughter and daughter, you… you are a teacher. You love to read. You are a writer. Isn’t that ironic?” His eyebrows high on his forehead in awe of this connection he made.
I stared at him.
His eyes were fixed on me. I could see that he saw me as more than just his teacher. Because here I was a woman, who was once a little girl raised by a mother who was uneducated, a heavy burden to carry. And instead of pity on his face, there was another look he wore. It was appreciation. He saw three stories intertwined. And though they were part of me I could not read them as such. A lifetime unable to untangle myself from the shame that held me tight, I was left loose by a ten-year old with a keen sense of how story works.
I turned away for a second. I blinked away a tear. And steadied my heart. “I never thought of it like that,” I said.
It wasn’t long before we returned to the reading work we started off doing. Juan and his story built a bridge for me to walk on and think of Mami. The rest of the day and days after I have walked back and forth on that bridge. And a list of tiny epiphanies have popped up.
- All this time I thought that teaching was part of a plan to help students like me caved in by dysfunction at home seek solace in books and writer’s notebooks. But that was only piece of the plan. It pulled me closer to the story of mi abuela y mi madre.
- And not only can telling your story set you free, but it can help you revise your thinking. I refused to share the story of Mami not going to school with many because I thought they wouldn’t understand. That hipsters and blanquitos would wrinkle their nose at me and avert their eyes like a world vision commercial.
- In writing about Mami I gained understanding about all the different pieces that make her up. And in turn I was given access into myself.
- Then there is the idea of why I read and write.
Mami is as complex a character as you can get. She’s always been a hit by my writing teachers, writing group members, writers at retreats and workshops. My friends love her and call me to have her pray for them. They love her gems of wisdom that she strikes out with. And while I love to write about her refranes, wild and spicy sayings, and even her violent outbursts. I have always shied away from writing the root of Mami. The stories about her growing up in rural Chalan and living on her own in Barranquilla during her teen years. Details she would hurl at my sister and I, meant to sting. I would often wonder if Mami hated pieces of me and my sister because we had her. We had a mother that was present. In her efforts to break the pattern held by her and Repa, she smothered us. Most of my life I wanted my mother who wasn’t mothered to not be such a mother.
I don’t think I realized that my mother was unmothered until just now as I typed that sentence. She never called it that. I didn’t even know there was a name for it until I read the words in Vanessa Martir’s writing about her own mother. https://vanessamartir.wordpress.com/
Mami would say Repa was brutal with her beatings. That she pushed and shoved her away from birth. Never really wanted. Mami grew up absent of hugs and kisses and tender names whispered in her ear. In an effort to comfort herself she listed off the reasons why Repa behaved they way she did. “Mi mama was married so young and straddled with a litter of kids. She went hungry for us and worked herself to the bone for poquito pesos. She was left a widow young.” The excuses endless.
During the ages of 11 through 17 I read a book a day. It was my oxygen. And from ages 18 through 22 I read two or three books a week. I was an English major at Hunter College, and would read books on other English professors’ syllabus along with what was required of me by my own professors. Shame propeled my obessive reading as much as the need for escape. I wanted to make up for two generations of illerate women in my lifetime. A futile attempt to correct a wrong rooted in history, culture, and circumstance. But one thing I gained from my all those books I have read. Well, I understand how story works, that behind the symbols hides a story. That characters are portals to other characters. Storylines not meant to merge, collide, and something beautiful is always born of that. That much I know to be true, and I know that Repa, Mami, and I, our stories are woven together. That without one the other can’t exist. So, in order to tell my story I must tell Mami’s, and in order to tell her story I must tell Repa’s. And only then will my story be complete.