If you had to write a letter to your children what would you say? What if you had to write a letter to your parents? Or someone who wronged you? Writing a letter is a great way to practice first person point-of-view, delve deep into a character's psyche, or express emotions with immediacy. Who would you write to?
A letter to my children on the occasion of my daughter's 5th birthday
I don’t trust memoir. It always rings false. The idea that my life might hold someone’s interest is unlikely, but there might be snippets, short eras that can entrance like fiction. Ironically, I always wished my mother had chronicled her life. I always thought my father’s mother might have been healed by telling her secrets. Or his. Those before me were not raised to glorify their tragedies or jinx their hopes and dreams. If their curse was to be silenced, then our curse is to expose too much. My words, pictures, moving images will also be lost, but not for lack of being told. My stories will be lost because they are being told in a forest dense and electronic. A silence made of white noise.
I am writing to you, my children, so you can know a little about me.
Where I'm From
I was born on an island called Jamaica. For the first two years of my life, I…I don’t know what. I don’t remember. If this were memoir, I would say something about the scent of hibiscus or the quiet heat of the night and the opposing coolness rising from the tiled floor. I would tell you that when I heard a helicopter or airplane, I would run to my Vava, my grandfather, and it was the only time I would let him hold me. But those are not my memories. Those are someone else’s.
What I knew of Jamaica I learned in America. Jamaica was food. Jamaica was accents my friends could detect, but I could not. To my friends, my parents’ voices were spicy, rapid, and strange. To me, my parents sounded like air. If their voices had a flavor it would have been water.
If Jamaicans were in the news or in sports, my family paid attention. We were proud of gold medals. We noted news stories of Jamaicans rising to positions of prominence in America and in the world. Even a singsong commercial from the tourism board would cause my family to pause. We would watch an idealized version of a land that was no longer ours.
(the view of the sea from the mountains in Jamaica)I often wondered why my parents left an island where they had maids, servants, and a nice house overlooking the capital city. They were not wealthy, but they were comfortable. I wondered what I would have been like if I sounded like my parents. If I could remember. If I had grown up on that island. Why they left is not my story to tell, but I know that they left with a sense that by leaving they could give their children, my sisters and I, different and possibly better opportunities.
As a young child in America, I had many friends who were born in places like Korea, Cuba, and India. We all felt the same. Wholly American and yet different enough to not quite belong. I have recognized my own limbo and yearning to belong in the words of authors like Maxine Hong Kingston and Sandra Cisneros. It did not matter to me if they were Jamaican, just that we, inwardly, were the same.
Who I am
Americans are dreamers. It is for this reason that I write my letter to you today. Dreaming is who we are, but I was never one of those girls who dreamed of being married or imagined having babies. When I was growing up, I did all of my dreaming for fictional characters. Characters I read in books, and eventually characters I created.
I love happily ever after. I love romance. I love that dreaming is ingrained into the culture of this country. For me dreaming is imagining new stories.
But now I have to dream a little dream for you.
I dream that you will understand that you are not the center of the universe, but on a small blue planet in the corner and the rest are burning bright red to white-hot. I dream that you will one day be able to take care of yourself, your family, and your world. I dream that you won’t look to anyone else to take care of you. As your mother, that is my job. If I have done it well, no one else need take care of you save your father. His wisdom is different, maybe even greater, but he leaves the writing to me.
This is what you need to know about me. I believe that laughter and desolation are roommates. I smile at strangers. I get mad at those I love best. I am wrong sometimes. I still don’t think of myself as a mother. I like laughing. I accept anger. I like being around people who are different from me. I like science fiction and the Bible. I like football and poetry.
I have fallen in love and gotten married. I have had the happiest of days. I given birth to three babies, and miscarried another. I have had the most desolate of days curled up in bed, the room pungent with the smell of blood and also the sweet scent of amniotic fluid. I’ll never be done. I’m learning every day like you are learning.
Are the things I’m telling you really me? I don’t know. I worry that you may never really know me because I will filter all that I am into fiction. I write because it makes me happy. Even when I write about sad things it improves my spirit. Ask me. Talk to me. I will try to tell what you want to know when you need to know it.
My wish for you
I wish my grandmother could have told me her story. My flippant American girl ways irritated her. When I asked her about her life, she would cry. I don’t know my grandmother’s story, but I imagine she was filled with shame for events sixty years forgotten, but not forgotten by her.
I still want my mother to write me a letter. I want to hear her happy stories and stories about her dreams, even if they were deferred.
I wish you many things: struggle and heartache and happiness. They are unavoidable.
I would tell you that I love you, but you know this. I wash behind your ears. I clip your toenails. I wish I cleaned better or cooked better, but I don’t. I only know how to share books with you. Sometimes we look at a bunny looking at the moon and back, and you get the idea. There is no end to this, and that is something to rejoice in. Your stories and mine together make a new story. And so it will be with your children.
I am so thankful that my parents took a risk and changed their world for me. Enjoy what has been given to you. Everyday the world is changing just a little for you.
With love from your mother,