[content warning: mentions of sexual assault, suicide, intergenerational trauma]
October 29, 2015
My grandmother referred to my uncle as “your brother” and my grandfather as “your father.” It was as if she could only see my mother in me and ignored the rest. I once caught her calling me by my mother’s name, but I didn’t say anything. I figured that it was who she needed me to be.
Something of a tightly bundled package is passed down mother-to-daughter, and the unraveling of these tales tie one generation of women to another in my family. Raw scenes of daughters being sold, repeated sexual assaults, attempts to kill their own children rather than letting them starve, generations of bottled up grief against men — they all spill out into the open palms of their daughters, to stain and to hold. It is the desperate practice of mothers carving age-old trauma into their daughters’ bodies, as if the pseudo-inoculation could provide some kind of immunity to the outside world. It is the secret telephone tree of women that wraps around each daughter’s spine at birth, connecting and binding them to the generations of 한 / grief from their mothers and mother’s mothers before them.
My mother opens today’s bundle, quite benignly: “I always thought being nice was a compliment. But now I know that being nice just means that you’re stupid.” I look up from my meal, mid-chew, and brace myself for the onslaught. She always likes to bring up these things over meals for some reason. At some point, food became the communication method of choice in our household, perhaps after finding that spoken words could mistakenly fall into the crevices between her language and mine and that attempts at White-family forms of affection created far too much discomfort. The stories spill out over our dinner table. Bits of poverty and abusive fathers falling out between the clanging of our chopsticks as we reach for the 반찬 / banchan, and then the shame-guilt and a woman is worthless following as our spoons make the final scrapes against our rice bowl. I try to maintain some emotional distance between us as a buffer, silently nodding and occasionally allowing my mind to drift, as to keep the outer edges of ourselves from blurring together too much. But I don’t know why I even try. It seems like we were meant to be bound up in each other’s pain all along, like some fatalistic umbilical cord was suffocating us slowly, while pushing us ever closer together. I could recite her stories as if they were my own. And I’ll even admit that sometimes I can’t quite remember if it were my mother who quietly burned a kerosene lamp under her sheets to study at night, rebelling against the cries of my grandfather that studying would ruin a woman — or if it had been me lying there with my heart pounding against the enclosure, squinting at the edges of the page that fell just outside the confines of the flickering yellow light.
I find it a bit ironic that I am listening to my mother talk about having to hold my grandmother’s stories and how her brother never had to do shit for anyone. How her own mother had always leaned on her, just a bit too heavy. I find it ironic because when my brother walks in, my mother’s eyes dry instantly and her lips slice open into a welcoming smile. I don’t think that my brother has ever seen her cry. But I know all too well, the way her eyes open wider and wider in an attempt to swallow back the tears, and how they leave long bumpy red streaks on her all-too-sensitive skin, like soft but vengeful scratch marks of a young kitten. Or how she reaches for the stack of flimsy napkins we’ve collected from fast food restaurants to blot away her tears, but always rubs too hard that it leaves bits of napkin flakes on her eyelashes. For some reason, maybe because he is younger, maybe because he is a son, my brother is spared from these family rituals. And maybe because I am older, maybe because I am a daughter, I serve as the lone keeper of these stories that well up inside her whenever she forgets to take her medication or on days when the sky takes on a particular shade of grey.
I always listen to her stories in silence — if only for the reason that there is nothing I can do for her. I wonder when she will realize that she deserves things of her own. I wonder when she will realize that she did the best she could, and that her mother’s pain was not hers to carry. That the weight placed into her palms had been handed down from her mother’s mother and then the mother before her, and that she was never supposed to be able to set things right. I wish I could tell her that the only thing you can do sometimes is to gently soothe the wounds inside of yourself — like a parent placing a soft peck on the bruised knee of their child, more in hopes of showing their love than easing the child’s pain — so that the stories do not grow wild within you and swallow you whole.
Sometimes I forget if I am trying to tell these things to my mother, or to myself.