“These ghosts. Our smoky ropes of attachment. And our reeling them in.”
1. Hewnoaks Artist Colony, Lovell, Maine
There’s electricity running through my body. My mind races as I hear the sad call of a loon far off on Kezar Lake. Frogs croak up close to the window I’ve left open to let in the cool lake breeze. Up above in the rafters of my cabin, something shuffles. I’m told squirrels seek refuge in attics. They also glide from tree to tree. I’ve yet to see one do so since I arrived in the middle of a pine forest in rural Maine.
Whatever is up there goes about its business cracking then dragging what I imagine are branches or pinecones across the ceiling. Making a nest, no less. This cabin I’m staying in is a hundred years old. Who knows how long my attic-mate has squatted here or how many other creatures call this place home.
My mind becomes fixated on building a narrative for whatever lives with me, but I should channel my preoccupation towards writing about my family. What I’m here for, to write about my mother and her mother, how their lives dictated everything before I was ever born. My attention shifts to that and I’m paralyzed with dread. I glance out the window that clouds over with fog.
Fog hangs over the entire forest, glowing in the early morning light, making the tall pine trees assume an eerie dominance. It draws me out of my cabin. Fuck, it’s cold—fall is, in Maine. I’m used to Texas fall, which is merely less scorching by a few degrees than summer right up to Halloween. But I endure, taking a snapshot with my phone.
I marvel at the impenetrability of fog. The way it casts a pall over the South Texas roads most mornings, suspending everything in its air.
(Are we moving forward or backwards when we can’t see in front of us? Are we frightened when we don’t know what’s ahead?)
For me, writing about my childhood experiences in memoir feels like moving through fog. I’m often frustrated at my inability to capture moments the way they happened. Uncertainty gets in the way of clarity. I’ve written about my struggles to pin down narrative out of experience, but what happens when looking at the past rekindles a sense of defeatism that threatens to efface my life?
Fog somehow infiltrates my memoir. I open with a scene: I stand alone in a dark parking lot. It’s the middle of the night and a balmy mist sets around me. I look up at a street lamp and puff breath clouds with my mouth. I’m seven years old in this instance; unnerved by the ideas my mother has put in my head. Be weary of the darkness, of the unknown. Strange things lurk there. Nothing good ever comes from straying so far. The Mexican pessimism rises like brume, so thick it obscures and restricts reality. I fight it with my own imagination.
It penetrates another moment. In this one, my father is lost in the middle of nowhere Mississippi. We park at a gas station right in front of a phone booth that’s submerged in heavy mist. It’s 1985. We’re stranded hundreds of miles from anyone who looks like us or speaks our language.
That very scene elicits an emotion that absorbs me in the same way as that snapshot above. Take those lonely chairs and imagine a phone booth, a thicket behind dense mist. Keep looking. Look past the phone booth until you can make out the detail in the trees. Look beyond the trees until you’re inside it—suspended and terrified of the unfamiliar, the anomalous, the uncharted.
Nothing good ever comes from running away so far just to understand your problems.
2. Kezar Lake Trail
My mind hasn’t come to terms with where I am. I look down a dirt path that leads towards the lake. At any moment, I imagine that at the end of this dirt road is a wall, Truman Show-like. Perhaps, I bump into a prop, watch it topple down before me, revealing… I don’t truly know.
I’m reminded of the childhood places I lived in as a migrant farm worker. The tiny one-room efficiency infested with bugs, the brick shack with terrible plumbing, the large barracks devoid of walls—all were in a state of decrepitude and a far cry from the house my father bought and sadly couldn’t afford in Brownsville.
As a child that disparity hardly escaped me and in fact, the constant shock of moving in and out of these spaces kept me at a heightened awareness of my surroundings, made me notice the stark contrast of substandard living against gorgeous backdrops of the northern Michigan forests or Central Florida’s tropical beaches. That outside world, to me, became a fake. The reality was an endless stress.
Twenty-five years separate me from that old life, those feelings long receded. My isolation in Maine brings them back. I try thinking of something else and I arrive at the words that haunt my family narrative—andas por la calle de la amargura.
My grandfather said this once to my father, right before we left Texas to start a new life. You’re walking down a street of bitterness. There are consequences from living a life astray.
I taped old family photographs on the cabin walls.
My mother never decorated the wall of any of the places we lived in. Few pictures remained in small frames close to our bedside, on dressers, and at some places, our kitchen table. But nothing pleasurable ever graced our walls. One time, I tried imitating what I saw in kids’ bedrooms on television shows. I had no posters, so I cut up my favorite pictures from old magazines and old an Scholastic catalogue I got from school, and tried putting them up on wall next to where I slept. The act was my first form of individuality. My mother took them all down by the time I came home from school.
What this taught me: only calendars hang on walls, a constant reminder of our interim lifestyle that was never meant for comfort.
One picture tapped to the cabin wall is a class photograph of my kindergarten class, the kind you take at some point during a school year. In it, I stand in the second row, center, wearing a checkered hand-me-down western shirt and a big gummy grin.
I’ve written about what’s behind that grin, what the picture failed to show: hunger because I wasn’t eating.
My smile clouds reality.
I remember hating the food at this school. Their pizza, Salisbury steak, spaghetti and meatballs, and even their country-fried steak was smothered and marinated with onions and tomato paste. The aroma, or the acidity of the tomato, made my stomach turn. Then there was the foul wet rag that the cafeteria lady used to wipe down tables. The stink rose off the tabletops and hit me while I sat heaving over my Styrofoam plate. I sat miserably in the cafeteria that also served as a gymnasium, with many of the same kids in that group picture.
Like a prop from my past, that gymnasium endures in my dream to this day. In one of these dreams, I sit next to my classmates during lunch. I feel ill, so I heave and gulp. The cafeteria monitor asks what’s wrong. Then she motions that I head straight to the nurse’s office.
As I rush towards the gym’s front doors, my hands over my mouth, the cafeteria tables expand into longer more dizzying rows. I exit onto an empty walkway, and here, my mind plays more tricks.
The hallway becomes hard to walk on. In one instance, the hallway has no walls, but sheets of pouring rain. Then in another, the hallway seems fine. I wander through the hall and am lead back to the front doors of the gymnasium. I try again heading in the direction of the nurse’s office and arrive at the very same spot. I go through this over and over, each time I’m much closer to vomiting.
In some versions of this dream, my only exit becomes the bright yellow doors of the school library. The very same setting where that photograph was taken.
The library doors are a way out for me—what I was running from?
That loss of appetite was a result of the harsh shifts of environments, now manifested as a vestige in my subconscious.
I don’t write about one detail in that picture. Right above me is a large sign that reads: NON FICTION. Those word loom over me, a banner that augurs what’s in store.
It’s hard to write about someone who’s dying.
Before I boarded a plane to Maine, I spoke with my mother. She reminds me that my grandmother is in the ICU. The doctors tell her that she won’t make it through the week. My mother tells me this in tears. But my grandmother is conscious, even cracking jokes about kicking the bucket to my mother, who’s distraught.
I tense up; we’ve been here before.
My mother has been at my grandmother’s side non-stop for weeks. My mother willingly puts herself in these situations, often forgoing days without adequate sleep or nourishment until she herself is faint and weak. In a way, her own deprivation is a sign of solidarity with her mother, the same woman who willingly abandoned her as a child and now mocks her goodwill as an adult.
But my mother loves to suffer. For what’s a good life worth if you don’t put yourself through the meat grinder for others? This is my mother’s fundamental principle and biggest flaw—to feel alive one must suffer for others.
I grew up listening to my mother remind me to love they neighbor. “Amar a tu prójimo,” she’d say to my brothers and me. If a stranger slapped you, you’re supposed to turn the other cheek.
Here lies my own conflict between allowing myself to suffer for others and railing against the very teaching that left me vulnerable to be a taken advantage of.
The fog of resentment rises, cousin of pessimism.
Mother asks if I want to speak with my grandmother. But I decline and change the subject. I don’t tell her I’m on my way to an artist colony. I already have a difficult time accepting that I’ve been awarded anything. Farm workers don’t just win things. We work hard, but we don’t have things like this handed to us.
Yet I board.
3. Route 5
When I’m not writing in my cabin, I take walks. The Hewnoaks Artist Colony is tucked deep in rural Maine next to the massive Kezar Lake. The New Hampshire hills roll green on the horizon. Across the lake, I’m told lives Jonathan Demme, and just down the road is Stephen King. In fact, the road I walk is Route 5, the same road where King was nearly killed in 1999 while going on a walk. Locals and tourists like to barrel through, so I’m careful.
Route 5 evokes many of King’s novels. Rural Maine is the setting in many of his stories. The piney woods that stretch along Route 5 recall The Body, his most famous novella. The film version, Stand By Me, moves the local cross-country to the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon woods in the film are in essence a body double, a likeness seen at quick glance, but verified false at second take. That change betrays the nascent wonder I witness on my walk. The same wonder I believe King aimed to capture in his novella.
This place takes me back to my own childhood, when I challenged myself way too young to read King’s books. I’d sit up late at night trying thumbing through books under very little light. “Go to sleep,” I was told by my mother. “Reading will make you go blind!”
It amazes me to this day that reading books is a central part of my life today despite so much discouragement from my mother. “What do you see in those books?”
She saw reading for leisure as absurd. In contrast, my mother was fine with my older brother staying up late into the night glaring madly at his math book.
What I learned: learning can’t be an enjoyable act, but an afflicting experience on the road to achievement.
Interestingly, ignoring my parents’ wishes to quit reading became my first successful stab at individuality and staking a claim to my own beliefs.
Route 5 leads to the small town of Bridgton. I walk the aisles of the local Food City in search of provisions to make it through the rest of my week. The small grocery store recalls the setting of one of my favorite King stories, The Mist. In the story, a dense fog overtakes the town and a group of shoppers are stuck inside the store. But like many of King’s stories, the horror lies within the seemingly ordinary. The stranded group increasingly succumbs to claustrophobia and panic as what’s inside the mist reveals itself.
The Mist scared me as a kid and it’s hard not to recall that fear while I’m in the store that inspired the setting. I glance out at the storefront windows at every chance half expecting them to cloud over the way it had in the bedroom window in my cabin. But I exit the Food City to blue skies and a warm bright sun.
There’s a story here.
I say this often when I write. Usually while I’m in front of my computer, but this time I’m in bed listening to rain as it falls hard on the roof. The wind blows hard, rattling the windows. Thunder compels me to look out in time for a flash of lightning. In that instance, I see the forest clearly: the pine trees that tower over my cabin cartoonishly sway back and forth. Behind it, a thick mass swells up from the lake. Just as fast as I see this, everything returns to darkness.
I try focus my thoughts back to finding a common thread in the memories, photographs, and all the ideas I jotted down before I came to Maine to write.
Suddenly, I’m startled by a crash so loud it sounds like half the cabin has caved in. I look out once more, but see nothing past what little the glimpses of lightning allows. I spend the rest of my time opening and shutting my eyes until I can longer tell the difference between the night and the moment I fall asleep.
Oh, nature, the distractor, she had other plans.
The morning after the squall, I set out to find the cause of the loud crash. A few yards from my cabin, I discover the remnants of a fallen tree.
I stand at the hedge of an enormous forest. Behind me, a hill slopes downward. When I turn to look, the hill looks awfully steep. My brothers are at the banks of the grassy field, waving and yelling to come down—Hurry up, fatso! C’mon, let’s go!
It’s so easy going up the hill alone when you’re not thinking, when you shut off that side of you that second-guesses your abilities. But I’m a kid in this dream, so easily distracted. Instead of going down the way my brothers want me to, I turn around and take a step into the woods.
I dream a lot about forests. I dream that I’m lost in the woods or that I live in one. These dreams are never scary despite the fact that I depict myself as a child. Instead, they’re exhilarating knowing that I forge ahead on my own. All of the forests in my dreams have dirt trails. In every dream I’m always in the middle of these paths, never near an end and rarely at the beginning. In fact, I never know whether any of these dream trails have a beginning or an end or for how long I’ve strayed off my given path.
Andas por la calle de la amargura.
When I was nine, I lived in a large warehouse outfitted as a barracks in a small town in the Lower Peninsula in Michigan. Scores of immigrant families lived inside this encampment. Walls made from portable school chalkboards were used as partitions between families. In a set up such as this, there was no privacy. Not a day went by that I didn’t accidently catch a glimpse of a bare ass or a lumpy breast. I giggled the first time this happened. At night, I remember hearing all kinds of strange new noises coming from every corner of the barracks, farts mostly, but sometimes I was startled by puzzling new sounds I’d never heard of—aggressive moaning and soft weeping. This arrangement was perfect for a nosy kid, but the novelty wore thin pretty fast. During the day, when the adults and older children are worked picking cherries and cucumbers, I stayed behind to read books and listen to music on a little weather radio.
What do you see in those books?
A forest for escape: My brothers and I stand in a run stance just a few yards away from the migrant camp. Ahead of us is the bank of that verdant hill. At the top, the marvelous North Wood forest expands around us.
On your mark. Get set—go!
5. Kezar Lake
I sit on a small dock with my journal in my lap, watching the morning mist hover above the water. I think about my mother and grandmother. I have an urge to contact them, but there’s absolutely no reception for several miles. Even if I could, what would I even say?
I’m isolated from the ones I love. I should feel bad, but I adjust. It’s a habit I’ve had since childhood—a thick skin to new things.
But about this habit: it’s not that I don’t feel these new experiences, I just don’t process them. Writing becomes the way I process.
I list out things I know in my notebook:
· A huge component of what I’m writing at Hewnoaks is about my grandmother.
· Through my perspective, she embodies all the anguish and pessimism that haunts my family.
· I hold grudges about the past that have nothing to do with me. Yet they mark me.
· My grandmother is dying. This bothers me.
· My mother is a much better person than I am.
· I must find a way through this fog.
· Write my way out!
Because there is a story here, but also ghosts.
She stands near her own mother by a wide muddy dirt road that veers left and out of sight. They appear as if they are on a hike or on their way back to their village. The sun is so bright that it fades the details of the day. Behind my mother and my grandmother, is the costal city of Tampico. My grandmother was born in that city, and so was my mother.
My mother is eleven. She wears a summer dress that hangs on her thin frame as if she was a clothesline. Her shoulders slope downward, her face in a grimace, perhaps, but not entirely from the sun. She seems willingly detached from her mother, evident by the way she stands almost behind her and several feet away.
Her mother stands bold, wide in almost every way: chest, shoulders, hips, thighs, calves—even her grin is wide. It’s hard to not read more into her demeanor. My grandmother is shapely and beautiful with waves of blue-black hair that rests softly on her dress. She’s hardly aware of my mother as they walk that they might as well be on two different paths.
My grandmother moved away from her village pal norte, hitting the road towards big city Chicago with a new man, and in search of her own American Dream. My mother was left behind as an afterthought.
The nights in Maine are cold, especially by a lake. I find myself lying in the middle of a field along with a group of other artists, looking up at the stars. Between us, we down an entire bottle of Jameson. Our lively conversation that brought us together gradually wanes, as the whiskey drifts us all into our own thoughts.
My thoughts: The more I write, the more it casts an air of deep resentment. There’s so much anger in me that I still don’t understand, that still hasn’t found a voice. When I write, it swells in me.
How to fight this?
Nothing good comes from straying far.
How to escape?
Por la calle de la amargura…
César Díaz teaches creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He is a featured columnist at Essay Daily. You can read the rest of his contributions to Essay Daily here, here, and here. Also, sometimes he has things to say on Twitter.
Great work, Cesar. That's the fundamental paradox of writing about our families: we don't control where these ghosts take us...ReplyDelete