The first indication that my life was not going to be a normal one was when, at six weeks of age, my parents sold me to a landlady.
Supposedly to pay back rent. That is the story I got a few years ago anyway. Until then, I only knew that some sort of currency changed hands and I was left behind.
The next time I saw my mother was when I was a little girl, not yet in elementary school. It is my first memory. I think I was three or four.
I can’t see her face. I can’t reach back in time and capture the shape of it. Whether she smiled. There is just this ghostly shape, shadowy and undefined.
She had my older sister and younger brother with her. I lived with my maternal great-grandmother and my maternal grandmother, my mother’s mother.
There might as well have been a line drawn in the dirt between us, such was the hatred that hung in the air. Hatred manifested by my great-grandmother that I never understood, or even knew why it existed.
The first indication that my mother would not have a normal life was at her conception. When some man raped my child-like grandmother. And she was the result.
There was much shame in those days about such things, even toward the victim. And I’m sure toward the child that was created from this act of violence.
I’m sure it shaped my mother, just as my childhood shaped me.
That long ago day in the sixties when I met my mother, I know my great-grandmother did not want her on her property that day. I could feel the anger emanating from her. I don’t recall her speaking. But I believe she told me things. Things I cannot grasp hold of now.
My mother was with my grandmother’s older sister, who I’m sure rigged the whole thing. Why, I don’t know. How exactly she fit into the picture, I just don’t know.
From all indications, I don’t think my mother wanted to be there that day. I think she wanted to be anywhere else but in her grandmother’s yard with two of her children. And her middle child standing there, who she hadn’t seen since infancy.
I don’t even recall if she was allowed in our house.
Many times I’ve closed my eyes and tried to recall if I resembled her.
My first memory. And I don’t even know if she looked at me. Or whether I looked at her.
I just know that the visit was filled with tension. That my great-grandmother was strung tight as a coil. That my grandmother, ever childlike, cowered in the background. Always afraid to be noticed.
It would be fifty years before I could begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together. To understand those two women, mother and child. And what I do have is vague at best.
Last I saw her, one of the three times in my memory, I was a young mother myself. She had her youngest child with her, as she had lost the others for one reason or another.
It was at the same great-aunt’s house who brought her to see us that awful day in the sixties. I never understood their strange connection.
I think I stood around for maybe 30 awkward minutes until I could stand it no more. Then I gave the little boy a $10 bill and left. I didn’t know what to say.
There never seemed to be anything appropriate to say.
And I still could not begin to tell you what she looked like. Even then I don’t think I raised my eyes to study her face.
Every year at this time, these things come back to me in dreams and flashes that are gone so quickly I can barely see the tail end of them.
Mid-April was when, at the age of 13, I found my great-grandmother dead in our small house. It shaped everything from that time on. One way or the other.
And the odd thing is, year after year, I never remember why April is so important until it is near May. I think somehow my brain flips a switch when the date is far enough past. And it can’t affect me as much.
But usually I will write something about it. Just so I know it didn’t break pattern. And I will cry, because it evokes feelings I don’t quite understand.
I think back, and I can’t see the home I lived in as a child. I can’t see the furnishings, the way the house looked outside. The memories did not come away with me.
I can hear the rocking of chairs on a porch. I can see a large garden which is where we got most of our food. Sometimes I think I can smell fruit cobbler baking in an oven. The rest is just gone.
Somewhere along the way, I ended up with two photos of my mother. One when she was about four. And the other on her wedding day to my father.
The photo is grainy, and set far back. You really can’t tell much about the features of either one of them. The sun was too bright.
One of my great-grandmother’s daughters came at some point in the days or weeks after her funeral, and handed me a bunch of photos of my mother and father. I felt hate for her. My great-grandmother would never have allowed this.
Unfortunately, in what I suppose was an act of defiance, I did not even allow myself to look at them. I immediately took them to the burning barrel and set fire to them all, before I could give it any thought.
I have always regretted burning those photos, links to my heritage. It was an act born of such strong and primitive feelings I couldn’t even put a name to them.
Perhaps it was the fear of barely being 13, and being without anyone in the world who really cared about me. And even worse, knowing it.
I left there at 15. I couldn’t bring myself to go back.
I know that if I had those photos today, I could look at her features, the shape of her eyes. And know that she was more than the faceless figure in my dreams.
That no matter what transpired or what she had done, she was still my mother. And that’s something no one could change.