Monday, April 17, 2006

Sunday/Monday Scribblings-When I was wee

How much of your story is yours, and how much is lore? Because I can remember so many things from when I was wee. And yet I know that, factually, I wasn’t there. It was more like I was the guardian spirit of the stories, just off stage, silently laughing or shaking my head. It’s a bit like hearing so much about a movie or a television show that you feel you had the experience even if you never saw a frame of it.

If you want to imagine me at all, imagine me as an infant pulling over a somewhat-reluctant set of 4 people to another country via the planned miracle of her birth--using my diaper as a rope, perhaps. My family, like many others, came to this country in shifts--my father first, then my mother, and then three long years later, my parents were finally able to go back to Colombia and bring over my siblings.

I try to remember what it must have been like, knowing that I had a whole family elsewhere, knowing that my mother must have been sick with longing for them, even as she buried her nose in my infant plumpness and tried to lose herself for a moment. Maybe I sat in my playpen, squinting through the mesh walls, watching my mother put her head on the kitchen table and weep while she could, before my father came home from another day at the factory. Maybe she leaned down and showed me photos of her other children, carefully keeping them out of my grabby little starfish hands, and told me stories. Maybe that’s when my fascination with stories began.

So many impressions from those early days--which are my own memories and which are the softly-whispered bedtime tales about an absent brood? Does it matter?

I remember flying to Colombia for the first time--to reunite with my never-seen brother and sisters and to bring them back to the states. I almost wrote "home" but of course, we weren’t bringing them home. In fact, I was the chubby interloper from another country, stealing them away from all they knew and changing the comforting pattern of their family life. They were told flatly to love me, even though they had missed the beguiling baby years, faced instead with an unsteady toddler who launched herself at them with a torrent of words in a language they only hesitantly understood from repetitions in the classroom.

My arrival was greeted by my extended family with a combination of tolerant affection and mocking. I was a living sign of my parents’ changed status--my existence meant that they’d all be headed to the Promised Land, the US. So they were charmed by my swaying on my rounded little legs, singing "Happy Birthday" and nursery rhymes learned from Sesame Street. They were also a little scornful of what were seen as my mother’s new affectations--keeping me from playing alongside the road with the neighborhood children, eating Gerber while other family babies gleefully chomped on bistek. I was soft, vulnerable, an easy target for the other kids (and adults) who maybe had also dreamed of moving to El Norte, but lacked my Golden Ticket-self.

I wish I could remember what that first meeting with my brother and sisters was like--that’s one of the stories that never gets related much. My Mami recites facts from that day--how thin my sisters had become in her absence, how sophisticated Older Sister appeared, how dangerously like a man Oldest Brother seemed now, even as he bit back tears to see Mami again. But, I want the full fairy tale experience. How did everyone feel? What exactly did everyone do and say? I’m sure she remembers every moment, but some events invite silence.

Three year olds are great at making up their own explanations when none seem forthcoming. I’m not sure how I reconciled this new family, the endless beach and the narrow passageways of uneven pavement in front of my abuela’s store with the raucous city streets where my mother popped my stroller above the high curbs and tried to keep me out of the snow. Maybe I didn’t have to--maybe I just trusted that what I saw, what was in front of me, was reality, plain and simple. Reality was the buzzing florescent light in my grandmother’s small kitchen. Reality was the lazy ceiling fans. Reality was a hundred arms passing me back and forth like a doll, arms I only vaguely remember.

Middle Sister (before she became Punkish) was especially distressed at my arrival. After all, she had been the baby of the family before I was born, so she had the most to lose. Jealously, she watched me get all of the attention that had been accorded to her. In her ten year old mind, I was the reason she had been deprived of her mother’s hugs and her father’s smiles for three years. Ten year olds have a wonderful way of cutting through the fog of adult explanations and honing in on the essential. I’m sure the fact that she was saddled with babysitting duties didn’t endear me to her either. So she made sure to hiss in my ears that I was the ugliest baby ever, that my cousin was beautiful, and that my parents only wanted another baby so that they could live in the US with "real" children, i.e. not me.

So of course it makes sense that I was instantly besotted, and that one of my first clear memories of this time period would star her. The kids were playing, and needed to run home in time to make it to lunch. I couldn’t run very fast, so she picked me up. Finding me heavy, she tried to throw me to our other cousin, running behind us. I remember the sickening thrill of flying through the air, and landing with a gravel crunch on the road. All of the cousins circled around me, as I huh-huh-huhed my sobs. Options were discussed. Leave me there? Call a tia or tio? I think that’s when I stopped being an abstraction for her, the sister who Was Not and then Was, and became a fleshy, bleeding reality.

I don’t remember what they decided, but I do still have the scar. And my experience of flying through the air like the heroine of any fairytale, showing my sister that I might have been soft, but I would not break. And memories of my newly discovered family, back when I was wee.

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Blogger Laini said...

What an original, unusual tale. I guess maybe such tales aren't unusual - a lot of families had to experience similar separations and reunions, but I've never read about it, and I was fascinated. When I think of how my baby sister became a focus for my and my brother's resentments, with so much less compelling of a reason (in children's minds), I think there must have been some really complex feelings in your young family. Wow. Another great post! (Also, my young cousin who visited me this week is half-Colombian - her father was from there, but he died at 22 leaving 2 young daughters, who have subsequently traveled to Colombia with their grandparents several times and LOVE it.)

6:32 PM, April 17, 2006  
Blogger Nicole said...

I have goose-bumps! You really should write a book. I'm serious. I've never read such a personal first-hand description of what being a modern day pilgrim is like. Even with all the noise around me, you sucked me in with your storytelling. Keep it up!

8:03 PM, April 17, 2006  
Blogger deirdre said...

Wonderful, rich storytelling. "It was more like I was the guardian spirit of the stories. . ." I'd love to hear more.

9:16 PM, April 17, 2006  
Blogger GreenishLady said...

Oh, yes. I was just captivated by this story. I recall my missing her when my mother spent a few days in hospital when my brothers were born (and resentment at being left in the care of a Granny who made me eat porridge), but this is on such a different scale - such a huge story in all your lives. And so beautifully told. I agree with the others. There must be a book in that. Wonderful!

5:00 AM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Paris Parfait said...

I just love your powerful, unique story, which you told so wonderfully!

5:29 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Cate said...

I'm with Nicole: I want a damn book.

You are a gifted writer, transporting me between the US and Colombia. You made me feel the emotional pain that your parents must have experienced in making their decision to move to the US, and the subsequent pain of your siblings, wrenched from the life that they knew. I "felt" you as the innocent, Gerber-eating interloper, just joyful until that thud on gravel!

Your writing is attentive, reflective, insightful, eloquent, and absolutely gorgeous.

I want more, more, more!

6:38 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Susannah said...

that was captivating, so powerful - you have a wonderful talent, and i agree with all the others - i want to read so much more! thrilled to have found your site

8:15 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger M said...

This is brilliant! It's so interesting to here about moving to the Promise Land from someone who's been through it, so to speak. So glad you are back!!

11:09 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger megg said...

this was amazing. It was so full and unusual. I loved reading it! I resonated with your opening question - I wonder sometimes which of my memories are real and which are stories told to me. My memories often make me wonder.

I was the big sister who resented the birth of the next child. It was hard - but we eventually got over it... I think :)

3:25 PM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Jessie said...

Yes--I wish this book was in the book store...I want to read your whole story. This is incredible writing--and reminds me of magical realism. Really, this one is going to stick with me for a long time. Please write a book, write anything...I'll keep reading. I am blown away.


4:21 PM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger JourneyThroughLIfe said...

I was captured right from the first sentence. Such an interesting look at your young life. A different approach to it than any way I have viewed my childhood. I was totally enthralled by the way you look back.


8:36 PM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Marilyn said...

Your writing just leaves me breathless. I'm feeling emotional right now anyway, but the beauty of this piece--and of the experiences it was woven from--made me teary. Gorgeous, truly.

8:38 AM, April 19, 2006  
Blogger Mardougrrl said...

Thank you is strange to think about how strange your own life can seem from the outside, no?

11:08 PM, April 19, 2006  

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