Domestic Relations

I was told: it happens in more
instances than you could know,
to more people than you

can imagine. That we are not
the first to have in our family
a long-held cache of secrets.

I found out a little
about mine when I was helping
sort my father’s documents

the year after his
retirement. He was old
and ailing by then, no longer

able to take the long
walks he used to enjoy, no
longer able to relish what

former pleasure he used to get
from food and drink— meals
for the most part prepared

by the woman I’d thought
all those years was my aunt,
beloved to all in our extended

household, and famous to the whole
neighborhood and beyond for her skill
in the kitchen: piquant fish and

meat stews, molasses and coconut-
glazed kankanen and cookies,
the fruitcakes studded with nuts

and glazed fruit she made each Christmas
and also sold. As it turns out, the rumors
I’d heard sometimes in childhood

were true: that I was in fact her
biological child, though it was
her older sister who raised me

as her own and that I called mother.
As for my father, he was who he was,
as photographs will show: I have

the unmistakable shape of his brow,
the same way of smiling while apparently
not smiling, the way we pursed our lips

the same. But I don’t know how the two
women truly regarded him, though now
in hindsight finally I can understand

the currents of tension that prickled
up and down my arms and on my nape,
the feelings of being pulled this way and that

in allegiance, all through my childhood
years. I never knew until I found a letter
in faded blue ink, written by a relative,

tucked in a rubber-banded stack of legal
pads, dated the year after I was born—
There, at last I was named her child.

And there I knew that I’d been taken in, and she
as well. Before I went to preschool, she’d been
the one to watch me in the afternoons

as I napped, while she ironed
and folded clothes in a little room
in my parents’ house. She had a suitor:

the man she stole out to see
sometimes with me in tow, the one she
eventually married, and that she must have

also secretly invited into our house
those afternoons she was left there to do
the housework. And while it’s true none of them

can corroborate what I say here,
and this is mostly a story told from my
own point of view, I will never forget

how when she left momentarily— perhaps
to use the bathroom? perhaps to make
some food?— I felt the fingers

of the man she’d marry and that I’d never
in my life be able to call uncle, slide

cold beneath my clothes to dig and probe
between my legs. I was four the first time
this happened; it happened more than once,

until I was six. They married, went away
for a few years to live in a one-room shack
at the edge of the city, where her husband

had found work as janitor in a small
public school. But they came back to live
on the ground floor of our split-

level bungalow because her sister
was heartbroken at the poor conditions
in which they lived. She had three

children from that union, and she
took care of them even as she continued
to serve upstairs, especially in the kitchen:

most meals, and then in later years, the laundry
—as her older sister, the mother known to all
the world and to me, decided she’d go back

to school, be active in civic groups, look
to ways she could have a career outside
of the home; in my opinion, she quite

detested housework. It’s almost like the two
sisters were two shadow sides of mother: one
scrubbing clothes in a basin on the stoop

till her hands grew raw, taking a basket
every day to market, cooking and cleaning,
and doing it all over again day after day;

the other, getting up to put on makeup
and smart clothes, attending meetings
of the Women’s or Soroptimist Clubs

or going around the city passing out
brochures on family planning to women
in community centers, attending

parties and concerts and shows
with my father and with me…
And they had their little dances

of vitriol and forgiveness, days
and nights of cruel silence as well
as falling into each others’ arms.

They spoke of each other to me
in alternating accents of hardness
and of yielding. But I don’t know

to this day what love meant for one
or the other or the three; whether I
might have been viewed as constant,

living reminder of an incident of truth,
or of sin— whether what they did to and for
each other was the wages they imagined

thereafter must be paid for some moment that came
loose from the tapestry and that they’d dared
to touch instead of leaving alone.

1 Comment


  1. Brave and honest. ‘dances of vitriol and forgiveness’ … perfect choice of words!

    Reply

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