Excerpt from a memoir tentatively titled “My Mother, My Love”
I have two countries—the one where I was born and where all my novels are set and a great many too of the dreams that haunt me at night, and the one I emigrated to at sixteen and where I came of age as an adult, came of age as a writer. And yet I was at home in neither, for though I resided permanently in one, had even taken citizenship there, voted in their elections, marched in their protests, bought land in a furious attempt to root, it was for that other place I hankered, the one that loomed larger than life in my imagination and which was really where my unconscious lived and ruled with great tyranny, though in actuality I rarely visited.
I also have two mothers—the one who gave birth to me, and the one who raised me from the time I was three months old until I was sixteen. Then failing health forced my great-aunt to send me to America to live with my birth mother, who had by then moved there. And within a year of my departure from Jamaica, within a year of leaving everything behind that was familiar, my great-aunt died of cancer, and I was face to face with my mother and all the questions that had been haunting me my whole life.
It’s not clear what happened between my birth mother, who was married at the time to another man and with children, and my birth father, whose nickname I recently came to learn is “Happy.” But there is a lot, I imagine. I see him tall and strapping and broad shouldered and kind. I see him with a mouth quick to laughter, a mouth filled with big and beautiful teeth, a mouth with plump, brown lips. I see him as a man who could sit quietly with things, a man who could withstand long stretches of solitude, a man who knew his mind, liked his own company, could give you the length and breadth of his attention, the length and breadth of his presence.
My mother had never been seen in her entire life. Her mother did not see her, her husband had eyes only for himself, her children only had big huge needs, as children are wont. Perhaps her father was able to see her, but only on rare occasions and through sideway glances. Her brothers and sister were busy looking for people to notice them. But when this man Happy turned his long slow steady gaze on her, she saw herself magnificent and bright, she saw herself lit up as if with an interior glare and she loved the reflection that the pools of his eyes gave off; she loved how she looked and he loved how she looked as well, for she was pretty and she had nice big dimples and a sweet mischievous face and a large and sensual mouth that greatly appealed to him.
He was boarding at my grandparents’ house for the few months it took to complete the bridge that the Public Works Department had sent him and a crew to build. It was a bridge that would join Comfort Hall District to Oxford District. Every morning he would set out at daybreak, a hard hat on his head, big, tall boots on his feet, and in his hand a plastic bag with a thermos full of coffee that my grandmother woke early to brew. One day, or maybe it was one night, maybe it was early afternoon, they were alone at the house, or maybe she went out with him to a function, or maybe it happened in the fields under the naked sky, the stars above cocked and waiting, maybe it was against a tree, her legs hoisted, his body a golden arch, pushing and pushing with all of his might, and there I was, there I was, running and running to meet them, there I was amongst the giddy stars, with a long bushy tail, racing and skidding and sliding and stopping traffic in the starry firmament, hoping and hoping with wide open arms that I would reach them in time until finally, finally we collided.
My mother could not have been happy when her stomach started to swell determinedly against her cotton frock. I cannot imagine her husband was anywhere near happy—he had been away working as a warden in a prison for the last few months; he had not been with her in some time. And I know my grandmother was not pleased. She had eyes that missed absolutely nothing whatsoever, and for some time she had been observing how her daughter lit up like a storm underneath Happy’s gaze.
My grandmother stepped in right away. Face had to be saved and all rumors had to be killed—my mother’s indiscretion had brought down great shame on the family, especially on my grandfather, who was a Baptist minister. My grandmother put out the boarder at once, ordered my mother back to her husband and to her marriage to patch up things, and me, me, the new born, she dispatched to her sister, Nora, who had a penchant it seemed for unwanted children. Having birthed only one herself—a son who lived in England and from whom she was estranged—my great-aunt Nora had already raised eleven of us by the time I arrived. I was the last child she took in, as she was already in her early sixties; both her husbands had died, and her health, her shop, and her farm were in serious decline.
When she came to pick me up that Sunday afternoon from my mother’s house in Spanish Town, she said my head flopped from side to side as if the stalk that held it up had been broken. They didn’t think I would make it. They thought it would only be a matter of time. Still, she tried her best she said, pouring cow’s milk on her nipple and handing the long flat breast over to me, and even then, she said, I would not open my mouth to suck. She tried everything, even chewed the food for me first and then produced her offering, hoping I would eat. But time is a friend, she said, and before long I started to trust the world again, and to trust her, and I started to eat and to grow robust. And all the love that she could muster up from her chest, she handed over to me, she said, and gradually I accepted.
My great-aunt had a shop, which in its heyday was the lifeline of our little village and later on became the setting of many of my stories. It was open all day and until late into the night and was flooded with men who came to drink and to talk and to argue with each other over politics and religion and love. Sometimes fights would break out, and men would threaten each other with cutlasses, or a ratchet knife would snap open, the blade gleaming in the lamp light, and my great-aunt like a great bird would swoop down in their midst and soothe the steaming tempers. The annual street dance, where winning couples received cash prizes, was held right outside the shop’s piazza, and during elections the fork-tongued politicians would broadcast from their loudspeakers promises they had no intention of delivering. Strangers from abroad wandering the countryside often stopped in for a drink, dazzling us with tales of foreign lands, and on Easter and again at Christmas and New Year’s, the two merry-go-rounds in the field across the road would turn, and vendors would set up stalls and sell food and homemade ice cream flavored with rum and rosewater, and the musicians would strike a tune and the ravenous dogs would be joyful again for there was so much to eat. And I too would be happy, for there was no end to the bands of children available for play.
My great-aunt sent me to the best schools her money could buy, and every time my report card arrived she celebrated my success by opening a bottle of rum and calling to the men sitting outside on the piazza to come in and toast me. My days were divided up between school—taxi brought me there in the mornings, and picked me up again in the evenings until I was old enough to ride the bus on my own—the shop, which I tended after school, once I had finished my homework, and on Saturdays all day—and church on Sundays, a small stone building with a glossy-eyed Madonna and Jesus in the stained glass windows, which my great-aunt had built herself and donated to the community.
It was my job to dust the pews and pulpit, to neaten into piles all the bibles and hymn books before service, and on communion Sundays to cut up slices of hard dough bread into neat little squares and to pour Wincarnis tonic wine into tiny glasses. This Wincarnis had a very tantalizing flavor, and I was never able to stop myself from drinking the remains, which meant that by the time service started I was fast asleep and snoring heavily in the front pew next to my great-aunt, who kept rustling me awake.
We had a housekeeper named Miss Ilene who was deaf in both ears and sang in a high-pitched voice these awful mourning songs that reverberated throughout the house. She washed and ironed our clothes and cooked our meals and cleaned our house and made sure my great-aunt took all her medicines, especially toward the end when the cancer brought the pain that blazed through her furiously.
Every few weeks my mother would arrive amidst a flurry of gifts and exclamations. It was usually on a Sunday afternoon after the big dinner, when my great-aunt and I were napping, the two of us curled tightly into each other like slugs. That was the time she would drive up unannounced, my mother, in a cloud of red dust stirred by their car, she and her husband and their other children, and it would just be the cry of the barking dogs that summoned us awake. Usually she brought jewelry for my great-aunt, a broach for her to wear to church, clip-on earrings, or a skinny wristwatch that glittered. Sometimes she brought money to help with my school fees, and for me, dresses, shoes, and books, sometimes new school uniforms. She was a teacher herself and I always had to bring my school books to show her, and my report cards, and she would open a book and ask me to read a passage and then a big fuss would be made over how much I had grown since she saw me last, and how nicely I was reading and how lovely I looked in this new dress or those new shoes. I was making everyone proud, she said. Then, after a few hours of this loud and elaborate fawning, they’d bid us farewell and drive away, leaving the same flurry of red dust behind, and a dreadful sorrow would overcome me then, a great emptiness like a void that lasted for days and which nothing at all could deter, no matter how much my great-aunt tried to distract me.
Summer vacations, my great-aunt would send me to spend a week with my mother. This didn’t always bode well, since the siblings didn’t really know me; they didn’t believe I was really their sister. Why wasn’t I living with them then, they asked, and I too wondered the same question, for it wouldn’t be until years later that I would come to learn the details of my birth, which my mother to this day refuses to acknowledge, although everyone in the family admits that they are true. During these visits, more often than not, a fight would break out over one thing or anotherand I would be caught in the middle—there were five of us—and this would result in a severe trouncing. I hated going there. My mother didn’t have time for me. She was busy with school; she was forever taking courses at the university, busy with papers, busy with her husband, busy with her children. Furthermore, I didn’t have my own room. There were just too many of them, too much noise, too much bickering, no place to hide, no place for solitude; I couldn’t wait for the week to be over.
These are my two mothers, and all through my life, whether with men or with women, these are the types that I have loved, sometimes breaking up with one and going directly on to the other, sometimes straddling both of them at the same time. In one type of relationship I felt cherished and loved in the most awesome and satisfying way. And yet that was never enough. I was never truly satisfied. Deep down the young unfulfilled me was seeking the mother who had given me away, the mother who had rejected me. This love more than any other was the most desirable thing in the world.
And every time I encountered “mother,” there was always at the beginning and throughout the short intense stretch of our engagement an anxiety which I mistook over and over again for enchantment and love, and I’d let “her” in at once, overextending myself, tossing caution to the wind, swept up in the mayhem that “her” presence created in my chest, and she was here and never here, and I’d swing back and forth between elation and despair until one day, one day she would disappear, for my desperate clinging always drove “her” away, and I’d snap, and a great longing, a great wound which would have just been waiting outside the door of my heart would barge in and take over.
Years later, after I’d scraped myself up from the rubble that was me, I’d say to myself, no more, no more, and I would fall into the arms of the beloved who would save me again, who would nurture me again as my great-aunt had done, who would make me solid again. But there’d always be such a feeling of guilt, such a feeling of betrayal, because even though they had saved me, even though they were about to love me and give their affection and their care and their friendship to the best of their ability, I knew deep down I would never be able to reciprocate, because somewhere in my distorted mind there was the conviction that the mother would come again to reclaim me and I needed to save my love for her. It was a self-betrayal of overwhelming proportions. But this back and forth, this back and forth, this split has been the story of my life.
The surgeon had come highly recommended. Everybody said he was masterful, highly skilled, one of our very best technicians. And he was indeed young and attractive, with his hair shaved close to his head and his jaw big and lean and his fingers long and slim and beautiful. Still I did not want to have a hysterectomy, even though I had already seen specialist after specialist and it was starting to look as if that was the only available procedure left to handle these fibroids.
In a last-ditch attempt I went to see a woman who practiced an abdominal massage called Chi Nei Tsang that was supposed to be able to heal infertility, menstrual cramps, kidney stones, endometriosis, fibroids, hypoglycemia, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and more. Chi Nei Tsang was the massage technique originally used by Taoist monks in Chinese mountain monasteries to detoxify, strengthen and refine their bodies to perform their high level spiritual practices. Through deep, soft and gentle touch of the abdomen, Chi Nei Tsang trains the internal organs to work more effectively.
During our first session the practitioner, whose name was Karen, sat me down on the couch in her office and explained the following in a kind voice: When things happen to us in our lives that we cannot digest emotionally, the body finds a way to hold them. The body is very resourceful, she said, pausing to smile. But over time, of course, if the undigested material is not attended to or resolved, it can harden into dense, fibrous material, which can become obstructive. And sometimes fibroids can be so obstructive they have to be removed.
I swallowed all of this quickly. Was she telling me my situation was too far gone, that surgery was the only alternative left?
Still, I took off my shoes, laid myself out flat on her table, and pulled up my shirt so she could have full access to my belly. What is most curious to me about the fibroids isn’t so much that they’ve reached epidemic proportions—one out of three women has them—or that they are endemic among black and women of color, but that they are caused by an overproduction of female hormones, estrogen. My own fibroids had embedded themselves so deeply into the walls of my uterus that to remove them would be to eviscerate the uterus, the surgeon had said. Still, what did it mean that a part of my body, the reproductive and sexual area, was averse to or rejecting of my own male hormones? What did it mean that my body was so out of balance that it could not produce its own yang, as they call it in Chinese medicine, that my will, my power center, my inner masculinity, my independence, my anima was all out of whack?
Her hands on my stomach were so light and gentle, I hardly felt them. What I felt instead were parts of my own belly I didn’t even know were there; it’s as if they’d been asleep and suddenly they woke up. And as they awoke they brought emotional pain, which Karen helped me to breathe through as I sobbed. The story no longer matters, she kept saying over and over, just let it go now. Let it go.
I drove home that afternoon wondering what were my fibroids holding, what undigested emotions were embedded inside them?
I made an appointment to see White Buffalo, who is my therapist.
I want unity with my mother, I said to her. I no longer want to punish her for giving me away or to withhold love from her, which I realize I’ve been doing all my life. I want to resolve things with her at last. I am forty-four, for Christ’s sake!
My mother did not love me. This is the story I’ve spun for myself. If she had loved me, she would never have given me away; she would have found a way to keep me. But she did not want me, she was too ashamed, and this feeling that I am unlovable, that I am unworthy, that I am absolutely nothing to her—this is the feeling that has been impossible to digest all my life. This is the feeling that has been calcified in my womb.
I’m done with that now, I say to White Buffalo, in her office in Los Gatos with the sun beaming at the window. For, in truth I was thinking that if I can heal this thing with my mother, it will reverse the proliferation of these fibroids altogether, it will shrink them and I won’t have to do this surgery. It will also help me to love in a more healthy fashion.
White Buffalo has been working with me nearly four years now. She knows inside and out all the issues I have with my mother. But I could tell from the smile in her eyes that she could see that something huge was barreling down the road towards us. White Buffalo is also a shaman, which means that journeying to alternate realms with the assistance of power animals or spirit guides to retrieve healing medicine is a standard part of our work together
White Buffalo got out her drum and started the slow and repetitive beat. From the bottom of her chest, she started her chant.
My breathing slowed at once and deepened. My body relaxed. I closed my eyes and let myself fall.
Go to the center of your heart, she said.
And I did, as this is where we always began each session.
She invited the energy of my mother to enter. This was not unusual. We worked on many levels: the physical, the psychological, and also the spiritual. I felt when my mother arrived, the air in the room shifted suddenly to accommodate her. I could also sense her emotions. At first she was irritated. Or maybe she was fearful. What’s this now, Patricia? she asked. I heard all this with my inside ears, and her voice reminded me of her earlier frustrations with my never-ending questions about my father, which she would never answer. And then she changed. She grew softer. She turned her chair to face me, and she took my hands.
I love you, she said. I’ve always loved you. And I know how this thing of your birth has made you suffer. I’ve watched you for years, she said. I know. But I could not have done better. I did the best thing. I was sick, she said. I couldn’t take care of you. The best thing was to send you to your Aunt Nora. But I came as often as I could to see you, she said, and at the first opportunity I sent for you to come to America to be with me. I loved you, she said. I love you.
It was quiet in the room for a long time as I listened to all she was saying, allowing it to settle into bones and into cells and into pockets buried deep inside secret crevices. This wasn’t new information, exactly. She had said this to me on more than one occasion, but this time, this time, perhaps there were more openings inside me now, ready to receive.
Finally, I said out loud to her: Mother, I understand all of that. It took me years and years, and to be honest it’s only been just recently that I understand that, and can accept that now. I forgive you, I said, I forgive you for all that.
And it was true. Which of course doesn’t mean that the pain isn’t there from the deed that was done or that it doesn’t hurt. Still, I am way older than she was when she had me, and I too have made all kinds of unforgivable wrong turns and carried out terrible misdeeds. Who am I now to point a finger?
But the thing I don’t understand, I said to her, the thing I can’t make sense of is why can’t you tell me about my father? Why can’t you tell me the truth about him? Why can’t you give me that?
For years she has denied it, though everyone else in the family has confirmed it. Philip is your father, she has always maintained. Philip is her husband, whose name is also on my birth certificate,
I cannot, she said after awhile. I cannot.
There was no more forthcoming from her. And the anger that was finally just starting to subside rose up strong in me again.
At this point, White Buffalo stepped in. Can you accept that this is too painful for her, that after all these years she still has not been able to metabolize this for herself, in her own body, the circumstances of your birth? Can you accept that?
I don’t know, I said.
Can you accept that when there is trauma, the body sometimes disassociates? It splits off; it refuses to return to the site of the devastation. Your mother cannot face the self that transgressed. There is too much pain there. So she must deny your father; she must deny what happened, she must deny the circumstances of your birth. That is way less painful than acknowledging her own actions, seeing herself in this way.
When I think of my mother huge and swollen with me, I think also of Hawthorn’s Hesther Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. I think of all the women whose bodies have betrayed them, their desire swiftly turning into a terrible cross they must carry. I think of their shame and their rage, my mother’s rage at the man she was married to who could philander any time he wanted, yet she was stuck in that loveless, lifeless marriage, with the world waiting to eat her for transgressing their small and ridiculous conventions. On good days, I imagine that perhaps she’d fallen for Happy, and that during those brief moments she was with him, she allowed herself to laugh, to dream, to be swallowed by desire.
Patricia Powell is the author of Me Dying Trial; A Small Gathering of Bones; The Pagoda; and The Fullness of Everything. She is an associate professor of English at Mills College in Oakland, California.