Wednesday, August 13, 2008
It's an overcast, cloudy but pleasantly warm day here at Rehoboth Bay, which almost perfectly matches the interior of my psyche this morning.
It started innocently enough. I was watching "The Other Boleyn Girl" last night and something about the dynamic between the sisters, Ann and Mary, and their mother caught me completely off guard. I got all weepy and girly-burbly and just couldn't shake it.
I've been writing furiously this morning since about 6 AM, sorting out the Stories of My Youth and the Myth of My Mother. I can't - won't - publish any of it. There are, in fact, boundaries, even in the seemingly vast limitlessness of cyberspace. But, I write here, on my blog, to say a few things so y'all don't worry too much about me.
This grief work is hard stuff, even on a good day, but there's something about the grief associated with the loss of one's mother that makes it seem, sometimes, too much for one's heart and mind and soul to bear.
I've been going over the snapshots in my head, slowly turning the pages of my memory like an old, dusty, yellow-with-age, but dearly beloved photo album.
There I am at my birthday party. I don't know. I'm six or seven. Maybe older.
I can see the cake and the candles - the birthday presents piled high around me. I can see my sisters and young brother - The Little Prince, we sisters called him through grit teeth. I can see my aunts and cousins, my grandmother and Bella, my "fairy godmother", as I still call her.
My parents broke tradition and had Bella and Larry, my mother's friend from work, as godparents to all four of their children. That was nothing less than a scandal in my immigrant family - which my mother seemed to delight in and never missed an opportunity to announce that, if anything, God forbid, should happen to her or my father, Bella and Larry would take care of us. We'd go to live with them, she said emphatically. You couldn't miss the scowls on the faces of my aunts, her sisters.
I can see my father and the rest of the men of my family, over in the living room, smoking Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes and drinking my grandfather's homemade whiskey and beer.
Boiler-makers, I think they were called, and aptly so. My experience, even at a very young age, was that tempers flared in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed.
I can see all that, but I can't see my mother. I know she's there, but I can't see her. She's present - very present - but not in the picture.
And, I am not happy. Decidedly not happy. I think that was my first memory of knowing that I didn't belong here. There. What I really wanted for my birthday present was "out". Gone. Anywhere but there. Here. With "them" and their false laughter and lavish displays of saccharine affection.
My grandmother, the story goes, 'ran away from home' in Portugal at age 13. Her mother had died and she, being the youngest of 16 children and the only girl, knew her fate. She said she 'faked' the intensity of her grieving in order to convince her father that she really ought to visit her aunts in Boston for a few months - just to get the maternal comfort her father and brothers could not provide and recover before she returned to care of them, the way her mother did.
Except, she never did. She never went back to Portugal. Ever. Not even for a visit. Indeed, she married my grandfather just shortly before her 16th birthday. Together, as was often the case in those days, they had 20 pregnancies and 22 children.
This story was told often and in many ways - in the stories my grandmother told us at night or whenever a new person came into the family, either by birth or marriage. She would allude to it when she read stories in her little black bible, which she read from several times a day. The stories of Mariam and Moses, Ruth and Naomi, Joseph and his brothers all held elements that tugged on her heart and pulled out the threads of the sacred story of her own life.
She also played her Portuguese guitara and sang about it in the traditional style of Portuguese 'fado' - a folk song that sounds rather like a lament. Fado, roughly translated means "destiny" or "fate."
Mind you, my grandfather would always walk out of the room when she sang 'fado'. Only Portuguese men were allowed to sing this particular kind of song. Only men, you see, are in control of destiny. As much as he loved to hear my grandmother's beautiful voice and her soulful guitar playing, his loyalty to the tradition of his homeland was stronger.
A fado is sad but in a nostalgic kind of way, if you can understand. The Portuguese word, as I remember my 'Mother tongue' is "suadade" which doesn't exactly translate to 'nostalgia'. (Luiz, if you're reading this, help me out here.) The best I can describe it is that it must be the sound the soul makes when it is longing for a return to something, but tinged with a mixture that I call "regret and gratitude" that you can't return - probably wouldn't, even if you could.
That probably doesn't make much sense, but I think it captures where I was on that birthday and where I am right now. Indeed, as I look at that snapshot of my memory, if I close my eyes, I can hear my grandmother singing a fado for my birthday.
And, as I listen, as I follow the sound of my grandmother's voice, I suddenly find my mother. She's off in the kitchen, weeping over the preparation of my birthday meal. She doesn't know why she is crying, exactly, but she's sad in a "regret and gratitude" sort of way. She's weeping because her 'baby' is getting older and so is she.
She's weeping because she knows, deep in her heart, that she has to get out of this place. She's caught between two worlds - her status as immigrant and the American Dream which seems, in this moment, to be painfully illusive. She's caught between the proud heritage of being Portuguese and the reality of being and American.
She doesn't really fit in either place, but she knows that if she doesn't leave this tenement apartment, this city, this family, her daughters don't stand a chance of an 'igloo in Florida' (one of her favorite expressions when I was a kid) of living the dream her mother gave to her and the one she is trying to give to her children.
At least, that's the story as I remember it. The fact is that, shortly after that birthday party, my mother went back to work full time. And, in three years time, they had enough money to buy their own home. In Westport. The suburbs. The place where they could finally live the Great American Dream.
The story of leaving one's family to 'find a better life' and 'be on your own' has become a myth in my family and that myth, in many ways, drives the family dynamic in sometimes positive but often negative ways.
I am keenly aware, this morning, of the power of that myth. I realize that the place I am in right now is 'suadade'. If you drew a map of the landscape of grief, you probably wouldn't find it, but I am here. In this place. This Land of Regret and Gratitude.
I am here in the place of Suadade, turning the pages of my life, my mother and grandmother's life, and noticing things done and left undone, things said and left unsaid. Regret and Gratitude.
My soul is singing a fado this morning. In many ways, it is the song of my life. I am singing it for my life. For my mother's life. For my grandmother's life. For the life of my children and grandchildren.
It is the song of the unfinished and factually questionable stories which become the myths that are at the center of my life.
All our lives, I'm thinking.
It's not a bad place. It's not a place I want to visit often, but I think we all need to travel there - here - every once in a while.
I won't stay long. It's just where I need to be right now.