My Mother Told Me
I have my grandmother’s eyes.
Whenever someone points them out it’s always when I’m sitting side-by-side with my father. They tell me I’m the spitting image of him. Same eyes, same eyebrows. But he only has those eyes because of her. Edith Scott, née Plato.
The Plato genes are strong. There’s a story that’s been passed around about my grandmother’s aunt crossing paths with her long-lost cousin at an airport. They both stopped in their tracks the second they saw each other; my great-great-aunt hesitantly said: “You look like my family,” before they realized they actually were.
I’ve never been to Panama, where my grandma was born, but I have a yearning to see it for myself. I want to hold a machete that serves as more than just an ornament in our garage, or as a conversation starter about my father’s childhood. I want to see the house she raised him in, see the border of the jungle looming in their backyard. I want to feel like I’m from somewhere.
When I return to South Florida to visit my grandmother, she does not always recognize me. She will see my face and call me by my tía’s name, and I forgive her because of our strong Plato genes. It is hard to recognize something that’s always changing. I feel the same way about the city I grew up in. Only the house where I lived with my father and my grandparents remains. I remember I was very happy there when my mind was simple and unchecked by existentialism.
I remember my childhood in that house in South Florida. I remember my grandmother’s grilled cheese sandwiches and the hymns she would hum (and still hums), and how tranquil she always seemed, how kind, how controlled. I was too young to hate myself for the rage I hadn’t yet learned to control. The hate would come later. Then, and there, I was very happy.
I remember too, despite my happiness, I used to wish I was a princess. This is fairly common with little girls. I think we all want that specialness, that adventure. As for me, I knew what I wanted: that long, blonde Rapunzel hair. Looking back now, I know I wanted the beauty that the TV showed me. I’d no idea there was any other kind.
My mother shot that down with a vengeance. I had a specialness of my own, one I wouldn’t see on TV. An ancestral face. A beauty she’d given me, she and her mother and my father and his mother. It’s not something I always believe, but it’s something I know. I know because she told me.
My mother craves her childhood in the summertime. Her aunts send her fish, brag about the mango trees on my great-grandmother’s property in Nassau. She scours the grocery store for the avocados without the bumpy skins, the ones from Florida, and makes sure we all say “conch” the right way (Cunk. Rhymes with junk).
I did not like conch until recently, when I eventually acquired my mother’s same retroactive craving for the food of her youth. I’ve always shied away from spicy food, and have always been the black sheep of my family’s diaspora for this reason, even an ocean away in Miami. I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate “spice” as a child, or why I didn’t like it. Instead, I would cry out “Mommy, this rice is hurting me” — even now, that iconic line is the butt of many dinner table jokes.
I have seen the house that my mother was raised in. I’ve laid down in one of its rooms. It didn’t feel like home, but I knew it was special — if for nothing else than its role in nurturing the mothers that had mothered me.
I felt everything and nothing lying down in that room. I wanted that specialness to seep into me, to anoint me with some kind of understanding. Some sense of belonging.
I find ways to manifest a temporary belonging. I slice mangoes by hand, take bites out of the seed until there’s no meat left and my teeth are scraping against sinewy, inedible fibers. I bake in the sun until I am no longer yellow. I let Bob Marley’s Legend and El Gran Combo play and let that rhythm, that percussion, move me.
I know that rhythm is built into me. As long as I feel it, I feel tethered to something.
A diaspora is beautiful and painful. There is an inherent detachment you will never escape. There is an inherent connection in performance, in doing. But you can’t always perform. Sometimes you have to just know, and be okay in the knowing.
The knowing comes when I look in the mirror. I see my face, and my grandmother’s face in mine, the Plato eyes and eyebrows I inherited. But there are also things from my mother: that cheekbone on the right that is higher than the left. The acne scars that turn to freckles. And there are also things from me. Wrinkles and smile lines I inherited from my experiences. Habits of my own that have terraformed my face.
There’s a beauty in that. A beauty and a pain… and a joy. A reverence. It’s not something I always believe, but it’s something I know. I know because my mother told me.