Mother died. The last connection to my Dominican homeland, the flesh and bones, sinew and blood, disappeared with her. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. There would be no eyes to look into where I could see reflected the palm trees, the mangoes sweeter than honey, the malecon, a walkway by the ocean, where she pushed my baby carriage during a daily stroll in happier times, swaying to some internal merengue that played in her head as she remembered when she fell in love with my father, a ne’er do well, too handsome for his own good and no match for the soon to be Doctora de Farmacia. I would no longer be able to see the fear at the mention of Trujillo, a malevolent dictator who was President for most of her life before she ran away to New York, nor the still simmering hatred, more than half a century later, for my father who she managed to turn into an architectural engineer so he would be worthy to be her husband. He then took his new found success elsewhere and decided she wasn’t what he needed anymore. Gone too was the reminder of the paranoia that caused her to suspect everyone’s motives. Gone was the look that made me feel guilty for not being strong enough to care for her at home and the questioning look that asked, “What am I doing in this place?” when I visited her during the last months of her life in a nursing home.
To lose the person who gave birth to you is like losing a piece of your history, your essence, both good and bad. When we suffer loss, whether through death, divorce or theft, do we grieve the person or thing lost or do we grieve something more intangible? Do we long for the specific or for something that maybe never was? I have suffered all three forms of loss and all left me wondering if what I’m missing is something that was ever real or something I wanted to be real. Was that young man who was torn between his love for me and the demons that eventually made him take his own life really the Prince Charming who took my breath away when I was fifteen? Was the marriage that ended in divorce after thirty years ever the loving partnership I imagined it to be before the lies took over? Did cancer steal my healthy body or was it ailing anyway from years of binging and purging to maintain a figure with which I was never satisfied with anyway?
I’ve spent sixty-three years living with this longing, suffocated by the sense that I didn’t belong anywhere. And now my mother was gone, the only person who cooked pernil and maduros so perfectly that your taste buds did a happy dance. She was the only person who said my name correctly. I grew up with school teachers who never knew how to pronounce my name. I learned by second grade that when the teacher stopped during roll call, squinted her eyes, and made a production out of inhaling and exhaling, that she had gotten to my name. My hand would quickly shoot up in the air to avoid the embarrassment of hearing my name mispronounced and to save her the effort of saying words that were foreign to her tongue. It got so I adopted their mispronunciation of my own name, anything not to call attention to myself. This theft of my right to be my authentic self I allowed without so much as a fight. This was way before the era of made up names that were cobbled together by disenfranchised people trying to give what they thought was a piece of their mother-land to their child through a creative name. This was way before everyone had jumped on the multicultural bus careening to some land where everyone’s culture would be respected, but instead got stalled in a ditch where no one remembered why they had gotten on the damn bus to begin with.
In high school homeroom when everyone pledged their allegiance to the United States flag, I dutifully put my right hand over the spot on my chest where I imagined my heart to be, looked at the red, white, and blue fabric that brought tears to the blue eyes of people I saw on television before the start of the baseball games my cousins loved to watch, and recited the lines along with my fellow classmates. “I pledge allegiance….” our voices mumbled. The feet of my classmates shuffled. Their eyes looked everywhere but towards the front. I, however, couldn’t take my eyes off that piece of fabric that hung to the left of the blackboard from a wooden dowel that pointed up towards the ceiling. It wasn’t spread out but hung in folds so that you couldn’t count the forty-eight stars though you knew they were there. I wanted to feel that pull of patriotism, that sense that I belonged to the club whose membership my classmates so took for granted that they couldn’t be bothered to look at the flag. I wanted to feel something, but couldn’t.
At seventeen I enrolled in a public college. The City College of New York required me to become an American in order to continue my matriculation. “But I was born an American!” I wanted to shout to the officials when I was naturalized. Naturalized? Does that mean I was unnatural before? Everyone who is born in the Americas is an American. Why do citizens of the United States think you have the right to co-opt this title? Why do the rest of us have to add a modifier to the American part? Is it just so we can all be clear that if we were born in Central, Latin or South America instead of Montana, Louisiana, or Ohio we are not like you or as good as you?
Today I vote. I have an American passport. It identifies me as a citizen of the United States. Why then do I feel as If I am a citizen of nowhere? Why is there this longing, this homesickness for a home to which I cannot return, which maybe never was? I realize too late that my mother was the last rock to which I had clung as I attempted to sort out my identity as a Dominican American woman. She could have provided me with the connection, but didn’t. Instead, she left me with mixed feelings about my identity and a yearning for things I’ve yet to comprehend or even know if they exist.
Some of us spend our whole life in search of our niche. Not just the wood and plaster walls of a house, but that elusive something that clicks and you just know you’ve arrived. Drugs, alcohol, bad relationships with women or men who remind you of the parents you imagined you had, friends who temporarily stand in for the brothers and sisters you never had, trips to places everyone dreams of going to or places people wonder why anyone would venture there are only temporary substitutes. Is this quest instigated by some irrevocable occurrence during childhood? Or, is it intrinsically part of our DNA?
My sons chastise me when I say I have gypsy feet because I am in a constant state of readiness and willingness to travel. It is politically incorrect to allude to the fact that gypsies have historically been a nomadic people. Since I have the choice of whether or not I will take a trip, they remind me that gypsies didn’t always move by choice but rather by force and I should not take the title lightly. But like gypsies I feel I am searching for a place to call home, where I can be accepted as I am. I spent the better part of my adult years trying to cover up who I am. As a child I disavowed my first language and allowed people to fuck up my name. As a young woman I tried to eradicate the natural curls on my head and stayed out of the sun so as not to get too dark. Because I refused to speak Spanish as a child, I have no accent. My English is without a discernible regionalism, though now I would give anything to have the lilt my mom maintained even after living in the United States for nearly sixty years. Now I speak Spanish with an accent so I don’t really belong in Santo Domingo either.
I’ve developed a yearning that is only partially satisfied by reading stories of lives lived in other lands. I’m especially drawn to stories of Muslim and Latin American women and yes, even men, who have had to relocate from the land of their birth. There is a similar thread that runs through both worlds of misogyny and totalitarian governments. I imagine that most write their stories to have a permanent record of their history and culture. I envy their ability to do this. The only knowledge I’ve managed to get about the land of my birth is through fiction. The novels of Julia Alvarez and Junot Diaz have provided me with more information on the dictator Trujillo and being a Dominican than anyone in my family. Though they were affected by the regime, no one in my family was willing to engage in conversation, believing that walls, even in the U.S., had ears and no one was safe from retaliation if they divulged any details of a life lived in fear. I daresay some might even be afraid to compromise other family members whose participation in a despotic regime could taint the family name.
Hireath, a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, which maybe never was drives me today. At least twice a week I muse about what it would be like to move. Paris, Barcelona, Santo Domingo, Santa Fe, San Francisco or Seattle all jostle for preferred relocation destination. What do I think I will find in any of these places? I’m in the third act of my life and the idea that I will die before I find my home fuels the madness of the search.