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The Things They Tell You Not to Write About

Mom rewriting her memoir.

My mother is reading through her memoir. That's our cat, Green.

Our morning begins with the clack of the walker’s brakes a wall away from where I sit here writing—that specific clunk of two handles lifted to release the wheels. But for her, it began an hour ago, waking up, looking at the ceiling of her bedroom, deciding whether or not to rise. It’s a painful decision. She’s ninety. When she lifts herself, the thin, exhausted muscles of her abdomen pull tight, like the strings of the old mandolin from El Salvador, which now sits on an upper shelf of her closet. A brittle instrument, no one’s played it in ninety seven years. It might snap and shatter if you pluck the strings.

She’s lifting herself from the bed. Her lungs tighten in the strain then release a breath that could dig through gravel. It’s a guttural, Old Country breath that has weathered the sins of others, now released in a house of children and a doting daughter-in-law and a son who breaths like she does in exertion, while lifting a heavy object or battling a psychotic episode. Our breaths grind into this world, this existence; our breaths have, for decades, defied.

She’s turning the walker toward the door. She negotiates the door. It takes time. She moves. Now, her slippers slide over the white oak floor of the hallway, toward the kitchen.

My mother’s name is Amanda del Carmen. She’s from El Salvador. She moved in with us early this year. She had lived in Appalachia Tennessee, my father’s world, since 1951. Dad died in 2011. Mom did well for a few years, she could take care of herself. But the time came to bring her home to us.

Ours is a busy house. Three of our four kids are at home, in that pit-stop time between college and their independent lives. Mom has gone from complete, utter solitude in a house where she talked to herself to escape the loneliness, coming to the edge of creating another persona, to our wondrous bedlam of voices.

It’s worked out well, having her with us. It shouldn’t. Both Mom and I are sick. We suffer from madness. I use that word instead of “manic depressive” or “bipolar,” because those don’t have any spunk. Madness. The blood-letting type. The kind that screams so hard, that brings you to your knees and makes you beat your head against the tile floor. The one that sends you to the asylum. The one that can kill you by your own hand.

We both take medicine, so we maintain a modicum of calm, though the illness always prickles underneath our skins. It’s not just genetics. The violence of others exacerbated the illness. In me, it metastasized.

She’s writing her memoir now. Her memory of events way back in 1930 are as clear to her as what we ate for supper last night—clearer. As she writes, the memories thicken-up, and spill into our conversations. They spill into my own childhood. I welcome this.

I study history obsessively, but don’t believe in Time. I’ll steal a physicist’s theory: Through our conversations, Mom and I have pulled the trick of wrinkling time, so that our childhoods fold into each other. It’s brutal. It clarifies. We need clarity from the swarm of events that worsened our illnesses, the brutality of people that could have torn my mother and me apart, and nearly succeeded.

Hold our folded pasts up to the light, and you will see murder, childhood rape, a massacre, a near-kidnapping, a predator priest, an insane grandmother, a violent homophobe, drowning alcoholism, poverty, incest and suicide. I have never written of these things. And here I am now, considering writing them, on a goddamn blog.

Because, I want to share with you what hope is. Not the cloudy, empty-of-reason, religious, spiritual bullshit hope that desperate people spout on about. I’m talking about defiance. How staying alive is a triumph. I’m talking about now, this moment, when an old woman’s slippers slide over a white oak floor. I’m talking about a gnarled peace.

I don’t know how much of this I can write about. But, I’m going to give it a shot. There are people in that swarm of violence in the above paragraph that would just love to whisper in my ear, as they had so many years ago, Don’t tell anybody of these things. But I have to tell it, so that you can understand why those slippers down the hall mean so much to me.

But, this is dangerous territory. The minefield of childhood. I must walk carefully.


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