I don’t really know my mom or my grandmother or anything that they went through when they moved to this country. They were always secretive. My grandmother would hide pictures from her life in South America inside shoe boxes and store them in her garage, behind cabinets, or underneath layers of clothes in her closet. I wasn’t supposed to ask about their past lives and I was left to my own imagination based off of fictional stories from family friends.
There was a lot of hearsay that I sifted through only to discover that my grandmother was ashamed and fearful that I’d one day find out she worked in the factories when she was seven or eight years old. They share a painful history which remains imprinted onto their memory.
On my twenty-second birthday I reported my mom missing. Did I really think something had happened? I can’t be sure. It was the combination of my grandmother scurrying around the kitchen, flipping through the phone books, calling anyone she thought would know my mom’s whereabouts and my four year old son with his head on the table telling me—“We can’t have cake without Grandma.” It almost seemed like a joke sitting there with my grandmother’s frantic Spanish and my son with his head in his hands.
I had lashed out at my mom that morning. The tension of four generations under one roof transformed itself into a yelling match and she disappeared. She didn’t come home and her cell phone went straight to voicemail or was out of service. After forty-eight hours my grandmother and I made a decision to file a report, and my son sat in the living room as the officer questioned me. “Any recent photos?” he asked. I rummaged through my closet for a photo, and by the time I returned to the living room I found my son asking the officer, “Will you help find my grandma?”
After three days, my mom returned home. “Go to therapy,” I told her. That same week we sat in Christa’s office. Christa had a fountain in her waiting room and her office had walls filled with shelves of toys for that creative kind of therapy where they have you play in the sandbox. “I dreamed of a little boy crying tears of blood. And no matter how much I wiped away the tears, they kept coming,” my mom said. We sat side by side on a little blue couch across from Christa. Christa seemed nice enough, although I don’t believe it would have worked out had she been my therapist.
I filled out my mom’s paperwork and answered the questions about her insurance. My mom sat to my right with her arms folded while Christa looked over from me to her and her to me. Had it been this way when my mom admitted me to psychiatric care so many years before? I was the stubborn fourteen year old, adamant to not hear her out. We would bounce from therapist to therapist, one SSRI to another. But I had been the one with arms folded, obstinate against the new treatment or outreach for help.
That same year on my mom’s birthday there was another blowout—a petty argument between my mom and grandmother in Spanish that I could only half keep up with. My mom grabbed her car keys and was headed out the door.
“This day is not even my birthday,” she yelled. “It’s the birthday this country gave me.”
“I’m a foreigner. If you ever screw up you’re fine. They won’t throw you out. But me? I’m an alien. If I mess up, that piece of paper that says ‘citizenship’ won’t mean a thing.”
I know nothing of Hawthorne or Inglewood, her music, her TV, her language, her school. I sometimes wonder what she was like when she was growing up. I sometimes wish I could have been there to hold her hand and guide her through America. Not that I understand the sixties or seventies, or even what it meant to be an immigrant in Los Angeles at that time.
She loved Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. The magic of the television screen. And despite my grandmother’s protests, my mom would sneak around in order to watch the newest shows.
There are days I want to go back in time to protect the young girl who would grow up to be my mother. Would she have talked to me? I feel sad seeing old photos of my mother in her twenties. In one photo her hair is longer, just past her shoulders, and she’s at some kind of garden. It looks warm. And my mom is smiling. I don’t know who she is smiling to. Cactus grows high behind her, but she glows in the photograph. I see her beauty and happiness. But I also know that in a few years, it will be taken away.
We both sit side by side at her therapist’s office. Two women with deep wounds and a history too difficult to talk about, too difficult to hear about. I pass her tissues believing it can’t be too late to heal her, that the woman she really is can someday shine bright, and that there will be an end to humiliation and oppression.
I see her tears and fight back the anger that she should have protected me from my abuser, but stop myself because I no longer see my mother. I see a woman in pain and I reach my hand out to her because I don’t want her pain to be silenced anymore.
Emperatriz Ung is a Chinese-Colombian writer from Southern California. Her writing explores themes of trauma, technology, and identity. She holds a BA in English and minor in Media Arts from the University of New Mexico. She is currently pursuing her MFA in game design at New York University.