A Beloved’s Hunger: A Eulogy on Parental Love

Elizabeth Nunez, Not for Everyday Use: A Memoir (New York: Akashic, 2014); 256 pages; ISBN 978-1617752346 (paperback)

• November 2015

With Frida Kahloesque precision, Elizabeth Nunez turns a heavy mirror to the textures of her family life, and in particular her parents’ sixty-five-year marriage, in her first memoir, Not for Everyday Use. While at home in New York, Nunez gets “the call,” that which all immigrants, miles away from family, dread. She learns that her ninety-year-old mother is dying in a hospital in Trinidad. Her niece insists she return home immediately. Ultimately, Nunez proves what most immigrants have hardwired in their psyches—home is the place where your parents are, where your extended family resides though you may hold citizenship in places from “away.” It is a singular place to which you are able to return even if only in the imagination.

Nunez paces a life journey through the frame of the four days from her mother’s death to her burial. What is revealed by brutally honest truths, searing questions, resentments, and childlike fragilities is the radiant story of a Caribbean family linked to each other with thick threads of loyalty. Central to the text is Nunez as observer, as ever-child in the presence of her aged, grieving father. The sincerity of this memoir is the unavoidable, if unintentional, tone of the five-year-old child in all its innocence weighing the depth of a parent’s love when it has to be shared with ten siblings. Starting from humble beginnings, Una Nunez, Elizabeth’s mother, is a devout Catholic who refuses birth control, fearing an afterlife of damnation. Una endures fourteen pregnancies and bears nine living children (adding to her husband’s two children from a previous marriage). In total, Una and Waldo Nunez raise eleven successful children, though never at the sacrifice of their own love. It is this love that Nunez, their first child, tries to unearth; she perceives fissures in the airtight devotion of her mother to her father and vice versa.

When Nunez arrives in Trinidad the day after she gets the call, she meets one of her younger sister at the airport, who, with the practicality that defines her, states that their mother has died. It is then that the “sterner stuff” which provides the Nunezes with their backbone emerges and both sisters commiserate on the status of their ninety-two-year-old father rather than fall apart emotionally. Framed as a dance, Nunez takes us through the steps of first seeing her father, trying to ascertain if he fully understands that his wife of sixty-five years has died, while she, sieve-like, balances the bombardment of memories and emotions that flood through her with acuity.

In many ways, this memoir, a first for Nunez, author of eight novels, is really the completion of a trilogy that includes Anna In-Between (2009) and Boundaries (2011).1 The two novels are connected by the yearning of the central character, Anna, who is trying to access, as an insider-outsider, her place as daughter in the relationship she has with her ageing parents. Not for Everyday Use is Nunez’s permission to herself to finally participate in the text, while surveying the landscape of her family. Neatly melded into the chapters are flashbacks about growing up in newly independent Trinidad, as her father emerges as an important man for the government. So too does she document the blossoming of her mother from a woman who sewed clothes for her eleven children and maintained a baby chicken and turkey nursery in their living room in order to make ends meet, to the woman who dressed in fine linen during meetings of her upper-middle-class Woman’s Group and Prayer Circle.

One of the most salient themes in this memoir is Nunez’s unraveling of the strict Catholic orthodoxy that her mother had framed her life by. Raised as a devout Catholic, Nunez reassembles her relationship with the church as she designs her own life once an immigrant in the United States. Nunez, divorced after twenty years, refuses the dictates of the church. It is this life of freedom, of self-defining, juxtaposed against the guilt-ridden doubts of family and church that Nunez embraces, and it is the lens by which she sees her mother. Nunez feels that a nonwavering religious devotion limited her mother’s relationship with manifesting a full personhood, especially around passion and sexuality, since all intimacy could lead to another mouth to feed. Nunez indirectly suggests that her mother’s faith created a home where there was too much emotional wanting, too much vying for place and space amongst the siblings. It is in these childhood memories that Nunez experiences the shrinking space between her mother’s arms and heart, as there was always a new baby on her hip or in her belly. In contrast to this domesticity is the stark memory of Nunez as a five-year-old child, left for months with her younger siblings and the family helper while Una followed Waldo to Europe, where he had been stationed for work, because she missed him. It is this perceived abandonment, this wonder about the nature of the relationship between her parents, that Nunez peels back during the four days that frame the narrative of her mother’s death and burial.

Nunez bravely edges around the pain of watching her father, who has low-end dementia, accept that his wife is gone. Nunez is with him for the first viewing at the funeral parlor when her father looks at his wife in the coffin and says, “That’s that.” He has finally found the evidence to ascertain his wife is truly gone. These are the moments that are most emotionally gripping in a book tense with grief but not with regret. Nunez removes herself emotionally from the narrative as she watches her father refuse to exit the limousine at the High Mass funeral for his wife. As the gravediggers remove the dirt for Una’s coffin, Waldo reiterates that it must be nine feet deep, not six; there must be space for two coffins. He follows his wife a mere seven months later, and it is with this closing that Nunez finishes the chapter on a priceless eulogy of family love, success, passion, and sacrifice.

Without a careful reading, this memoir is about Nunez coming to terms with the relationship she had with her mother. Nunez wonders if her mother loved her as much as she loved her husband, and it is this quest about relationship, love, and men that is underneath the narrative. Asked by her siblings to write their mother’s eulogy, Nunez prepares the entire memoir as a testimony to both of her parents; cleverly folded into the layer of memories is Nunez’s story of her father. In the end, this too is the story of a little brown girl from the Caribbean who grew into a masterpiece because her parents loved each other so passionately that their children created these same standards by which to mark the success and failure of their own lives. This is an extraordinary story of two adults who were bound together in a shared life that spanned sixty-five years, with a reminder that they knew their love was not to be hidden but was for everyday use.

 

Natasha Gordon-Chipembere is an Africanist whose work focuses on slavery in the diaspora. Her edited collection Representation and Black Womanhood: The Legacy of Sarah Baartman was published in 2011 by Palgrave. She coedits the AfroLatin@ Diasporas book series at Palgrave and is currently writing a novel on slavery in seventeenth-century Costa Rica. She is the founder of the Tengo Sed Writers’ Retreats in Costa Rica.

 


1 Elizabeth Nunez, Anna In-Between (New York: Akashic, 2009); and Boundaries (New York: Akashic, 2011).


 

 

 

Related Articles