By Alicia Chadbourne
Recollection is a curious buffet. My mother’s memories are deep fried and sugar-dusted. Like a churro, their only bite is a smattering of cinnamon. If hers are confection, mine are curtido, shredded and pickled greens in bitter brine. On their own, either sets a stomach churning.
I left home at 17, the day my father, a Vietnam vet, choked me for opening my bedroom curtains. He said “they” were watching us. Because of “them” I was never allowed a sleepover or guest. Most children learned phonics from Dick and Jane. My father clipped stories of heinous crimes to read over breakfast. For years I wondered who these mystery monsters were. Over time I came to realize that for him, the enemy was anyone outside the house. Nadie te va querer como tu familia. “No one will ever love you like your family,” he chanted. But his love required darkness and I needed sunlight.
“No!” I said, refusing to close the curtains.
“Exhibitionist! Slut!” he snarled, his face contorted and eyes hollow. I reached for the phone to call 911, but he ripped it out of the wall. “No one’s coming,” he whispered with a smile and wrapped his hands tightly around my neck. “I’ll kill you, little bitch.” He squeezed tighter. I couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t hit me. He said I “never did listen.” That’s why my pudgy legs were covered in welts even as a young child. But this was more than hitting. I feared he would kill me. I wanted to live and so for the first time, I didn’t float away and wait for the calm. I fought back. I thrashed and kicked. I clawed. But my struggle was futile as he outweighed me by 200 pounds. There was nowhere left to go but down, so I let my body fall, boneless as a toddler’s. He lost his balance and his grip loosened. I rolled away and ran.
I could hear his heavy footsteps behind me, the jangle of keys dangling on his dungarees, his jagged breath. Outside, the day was oddly sunny. I looked back as he slammed the front door and peered at me through the glass. He retreated into the dark house, never to catch me again.
We made it to Colma, a strip mall and cemetery wasteland, a town where the dead outnumber the living by a thousand to one. Colma’s motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma.” I called my mother from a pay phone. I had spent years begging her to leave him. When that failed, I prayed he would die. Still nothing changed. Now this horror would be the impetus. She would save us all. It took several tries before I reached her. She was away at a union conference. My mother: professional advocate.
“Go home,” she said from her hotel room 500 miles away. “Your father would never do anything to hurt you.”
“He tried to kill me,” I said.
“If he really wanted to kill you, he would have.”
I started to cry, knowing then that my father was right. No one was coming.
I hung up and moved into my boyfriend’s walk-in closet, the first of many homes to come. It was cozy enough, but I cried incessantly. “Do you want to talk about it?” Daniel asked. I shook my head and sobbed.
Years passed, and Daniel remained the constant in my life. My mother cut me off financially when I refused to return home, so I nearly dropped out of college. Daniel and I both found jobs to pay my tuition. When I graduated, we married. I refused to invite my father to the wedding. My mother was appalled.
“You know,” she said, shaking her head, “Your uncle chased your cousin around the house with a knife and she still lives there.” My mother had a collection of stories starring families more dysfunctional than ours who miraculously stayed together. She called me exajerada, literally, she who exaggerates. When that didn’t work, she resorted to Jesus-speak mixed with psychobabble. “Pray. You need to forgive him for yourself. It’s not healthy to hold grudges.”
“I never knew how to be a mother,” she whimpered, tears streaming down her face. “I did the best I could.” My mother had been abandoned by her mother as an infant, so in her mind, simply by sticking around she had done better. Everything is relative. Still, I yearned for more than she would give.
I became sullen and withdrawn, angry and confused, storming around the house for days after a visit. Daniel begged me to distance myself from her. I severed ties for good when I was pregnant with my first child. I would do anything for my baby and I couldn’t be fully present while living in the past. It was time to stop trying to find a mother, so that I could become one. I changed my phone number and we moved.
I revisited my childhood in nightmares. It was always the same one: me trapped in my childhood home, cradling my son, running around searching desperately for an exit, up and down the winding stairs, my father in pursuit. I’d wake up wheezing, the asthma of my youth perched on my chest like a leaden ghost.
With time, the nightmares stopped and when my son was one, I became pregnant with a girl. At first, I was terrified. How could mother/daughter ever mean anything good? Then I saw her. She was red and puckered, like most newborns, but had the alert brown eyes of someone far older.
I named her Aria, which means lioness in Hebrew. It proved to be the perfect name. Bright and quick-witted, Aria’s cherubic face belied her ferocity. If anyone dared hit her or her brother, she was quick to hit back harder. “I have a right to defend myself,” she insisted. It was an impulse I would never squelch. Neither would I stymie her curiosity.
“The kids at school have two grandmas,” she said.
“Really?” I replied. She nodded.
“Is your mom dead?”
I hesitated, tempted for a moment to lie. “No.”
“Why don’t we see her?”
“She and I don’t get along.”
“My father hit me when I was a kid.”
“And she didn’t stop him?”
“I don’t know.”
“You should ask her.”
“What does she look like?”
“I have a picture.”
“Can we meet her?”
“Do you want to?”
I paused again. “Then…. yes.”
My voice faltered.
“Stop it, Aria,” my son said. “You’re making Mom sad.”
“I can ask Mom anything I want,” said Aria.
“That’s right,” I replied.
I knew what it was like to grow up in mystery. My father had enlisted in the navy at 18 and never saw his family or the Bronx again. But fleeing never gave him the distance he sought. He carried the past locked tight inside him. There were no pictures, just stories that painted everyone, except his sainted father and beautiful sister, as demons. As a child, I was curious about his family. Who were they? Did I look like them? The unanswered questions plagued me. Cutting ties with my own mother had been an act of rage, desperation and self-preservation. Seeing her again would be an act of love—for my daughter.
My father never gave me the choice to know his family. But choices are power, and Aria would have it. She would not spend her life tiptoeing around the past. She would know our history, even if the path traversed shadows.
I was pregnant a third time when my mother and I met again at a playground in San Francisco. The children complained during the forty-minute drive, but I would not meet my mother in Oakland. It was important to me that we keep a bay between us. Seven years had passed, but she looked immeasurably older. She was obese, stooped, with deep furrows in her brow. Her hair was an unnatural shade of orange that clashed with her yellowing skin. It pained me to look at her.
“I am your grandma,” she announced, before demanding hugs from her grandchildren. My son, ever the pleaser, acquiesced, but Aria refused. She simply met my mother’s eyes, shook her head and walked off.
“That one’s a handful,” said my mother.
“Like me,” I replied.
We sat there side-by-side for a long while, silently watching the children play, my past and present coming together again.
We met sporadically after that, always in public places and never for more than two hours. She bought the children Christmas presents and I texted photos of their smiling faces. She called to make idle chitchat and sometimes I answered the phone.
Recently, I baked a quesadilla for my mother’s birthday. It is a homely Salvadoran cake made of Parmesan, sour cream and rice flour, the top freckled with sesame seeds. Let’s just say, it’s no churro. Still, I think she liked it. I can only speculate because she is not prone to smiles or praise. It is a tendency, along with my father’s temper, that I battle.
“There is something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” she said.
“What is it?” I replied, curious.
“Why did you stop talking to us for all those years?” Embedded in her question was one of the very reasons—she viewed herself and my father as one, never “I” but “us.” She had stayed married to him for more than half her life. When he died, she canonized him in her mind.
I answered my mother the only way I knew how. “I know we have differing opinions on the past. I feel dad was abusive. I could never forgive him for it. I feel you should have protected me. I could never forgive you for that.”
“Oh,” replied my mother.
Once upon a time, her response would have sent me spinning, back when I still held out hope of apologies and Sunday teas. But that dream exists in a world where monsters abound and darkness is sanctuary. Now maternal has a new meaning.
This past Halloween, Aria decided we would both dress up as tigers. Her father wanted in on the act and declared himself ringmaster.
Aria shook her head. “No, daddy. Mama and I are not circus tigers. We are free tigers.”
Free indeed. And together, we make our way.
Author’s Note: Aria is putting her spunk and loveliness to good use as an actress, but there are certain perils involved when you mix a bouncy six-year-old and a curling iron. Last week, I singed her forehead. Racked with guilt and regret, I tearfully apologized. Aria touched my cheek. “You’re my mama,” she said. “I’d forgive you anything.” I am working toward the day when I might feel the same way.
Alicia Chadbourne is a writer, actress and mother of three from Oakland, California.