Last Fall I went home for my mother’s “65th” birthday party. I use quotes to say that the actual age of my mother is unknown to me. It’s been implied many times by my siblings that her actual age is different, that maybe she is closer to 70, that she had me in her 40’s and that my entire life up to this point has been a series of mistruths (not lies).
I wouldn’t say my mother always lies to me, rather, that these failures of truth are wrapped around so many facts that they are hard to divorce from what actually transpired and what she’s controlled and crafted into reality. My mother, was born in 1950 (some have said) out of an affair. One that would mar her life and impact all of her relations with her siblings, her parents, and from the little she’s told me, the world. Like me, she is the only one of her two parents, born through the sheer will of a man who wanted. Her father, a reputable man of the world, who met a child, and took her away. Her mother, young, naive, and destined for a world before she was ready, fell for this man; married, with children, and quickly gave birth to Gretel.
My mother lived with her father as a child, with her stepmother who hated her. Who resented everything she was, the adultery, the otherness, the fact that she was not of the same cloth. In Liberia, this is the story of many. We are a country of wayward men, always searching for something from another. This story, of my grandmother, 16, pregnant, and without a choice is the story of my mother, 16, pregnant and without a choice. Who left her fathers’ house after an old man got her pregnant, who then married her, got her pregnant, again, and again, and tried to keep her. A kept woman, a ‘housewife’.
My mother talks almost fondly about her relationship with my siblings’ father. I say almost because he, James is only mentioned in specific ways. One being his desire to have many children (which he did with the help of other women). The other being his desire to keep my mother at home, which he tried to do, but she rebelled; she worked, she studied, and she supported herself. The third being his untimely death, “so young” she often says when James is discussed. His death is mentioned in passing, a moment’s reprieve, a breath of chill. James is the reason I have siblings who I love. He is also the reason my mother never followed her dream of becoming a nurse.
Gretel wanted to be a healer, a nurse. Someone who worked with people and understood the medical realm. James, in his haste, in his lust and the expectation of men at that (or any) time is one of certainty. So she stopped dreaming, and started working. She worked as a Secretary for the Government, and she lived. She met a man, Stephen, and “he loved her, o” she often says.
I would be foolish to assume that Stephen was a better man than James. He, like all men of his time, had a world full of possibility. A light-skinned lawyer and judge, who was of the upper caste, met a dark-skinned young woman looking for work. And his pursuit, was fruitful. This man, who entered a family with three children not his own, with grown children of his own, some of whom are my mothers “age”, chose to love my mother and she loved him, o.
And they loved each other.
There are no sadder words than the words spoken about a once and former love. To speak on the possibility of a world where they could be. This is the way she speaks of Stephen. And he, a faint glimmer in the darkness of my mind ,is a collection of stories, most of them retold and formed into salient memories. Like looking through a fishbowl on the other side and realizing you’re seeing the best part of another person. Not knowing until seven months later that he had gold trimmed front teeth, or a bad temper. Like the first time you took the first step on a decision. Like your first kiss, the brevity of the moment is fleeting, the significance muffled, but the feeling so visceral.
And than he died, an old man in a hospital in New York. Across an ocean, away from his children, his country, his love.
And then the war came, it changed all of us. IT changed everything. And where once there was the possibility of future; there was for many a sharp discord. Like someone slamming a gong over and over, the reverberations sit in your bones and force you to gnash your teeth. A ripple… a hum.
And this ripple lingers in my family, it lingers in me. Because I am afforded the ability to explore the confines of my truth. Because I’m one of the lucky ones. Because Stephens’ daughter brought me to America, at six, and I grew up in a space of exile and as a child born in mystery, through misery, and who survived. I am left to ponder: is the lapses of truth a blessing or a curse? Does the truth really matter at this point? And how can I be honest with myself about a past I don’t know, and don’t have access to?