LETTERS TO THE LINEAGE
Tell me, what was it like to be married at eighteen and already an old hag and withered fruit? When you came to America with your newborn in arm, did you come because you longed for adventure, or because your marriage vow was a choke collar around your neck?
If you knew your arranged marriage was a cage, why did you impress my eldest aunt into it too? Did you want her to share in the bitterness?
Laboring like a workhorse in the canning factory, eight children, and a husband who worked long hours until he left you widowed young. If this was the suffering, where was the joy? I’ve never heard about it, but I imagine you pursued it outside the boundaries of home and husband. Where they couldn’t catch you, and the danger was the thrill.
What were your passions, beyond gossip and the mahjong table? When your desires were pent up, where did they go? Did they spill out of you like overripe fruit, like your belly splitting open for your children? Or was it like wine souring into vinegar, the cost of survival? Is that why your tongue is so sharp, or were you always so cruel?
Is this my inheritance from you: the familiar cut of a knife-tongue born in love, the ability to continue no matter what, this desire for freedom?
What was it like to be the first? To say no to your mother many times over? No, to an arranged marriage, so it was never a question that I would marry for love and never the yoke of obligation. And when your mother threatened to exile you from the family for dating a white man, you laughed, and said, Do it, then.
I asked you these things, and you looked at me, baffled.
What other choice was there? you replied.
So you left behind the ghetto, for a full-ride scholarship to college, a one-way ticket out, to graduating early, to marrying for no one but yourself, to homeownership and a middle-class life far from the soap opera of your childhood. I tell you how rare you are, how elusive your success is. And again, that look, like this was never in question, like there was no way but the way before you towards something better.
We are all our mother’s daughters after all.
You: my second mother by my mother, and my grandmother’s, admission. How did you learn to unclench your fist? Like your mother, and all your siblings, there are tales of your temper, but it’d cooled long before I was born. How did you learn to let go of it?
My mother doesn’t talk about her childhood, but she talks about you. Knocking down your hair to play at recess; telling the operator you were blind, so the sound of the rotary phone wouldn’t wake your mother up; how you thought you were dying when your period came.
You, though, you can name being poor. How did you learn to untie your tongue and speak of your childhood, the scalding showers, the spoiled food, and how you ran away from home?
I go to you, asking you to decipher my mother’s words, her actions. Ask you how I am to survive her butcher-blade mouth, set on making me into what she believes a woman should be.
She sounds like our mother, you told me, and then took me out to ice cream.
I want to let go of my despair, speak its name, and shape my past into a better future. Without shame, without fear, with what my mother calls vanity, but I call freedom–just like you did.
And you, who comes after,
How will you remember me? What secrets will you try to parse from my diaries and the stories told about me? Will you hold them up to the light, trying to find the scars from where I rebroke my spirit so it could set correctly? Or is that a polite way of saying I gave you these scars too, my tongue still a cleaver knife?
For winter solstice, I named myself as from a line of freedom-yearning, freedom-loving women, a woman made in my own image and by my own hand. Is that how you will see me? Breaking curses and loving the dragon curled tightly around my heart?
Even longer ago, when I went to college, I named how the women in my family stand upon each other, each going further than the last. I don’t know where I will take us, but when it is my turn to leave, I wish you this:
An imagination deep and rich, so you may always dream of different ways. And when you are caught between two impossible things, you will find the third path that makes you true.
Did I leave you this? Was I successful? What did you make of this gift? Tell me.
ESTHER O. LEE is a writer based in Napa Valley (Talahalusi to the Wappo people). Her work spans poetry, creative nonfiction, and genre fiction. She is also a fan of fantasy and romance novels, a participant in fandom, and a lover of other people’s cats. She blogs at EstherOLee.com.