Tag Archives: family

Why the Most Beautiful Poems Defy Understanding

At The Walrus, Matthew Zapruder examines his relationships with poetry and with his father. Despite being two men with great facility for precise language, they were unable to use it to bridge the distance between them. In likening poems to people, Zapruder says that the most beautiful thing about the poems most important to him is that their meaning cannot fully be articulated.

I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me, to which I return again and again, retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry. They can come first as a surprise, then immediately afterward feel inevitable, at least for a little while.

This is why asking for a certain kind of knowledge—that way of knowing we automatically, and justifiably, expect from other texts, anything other than a poem—limits our experience with poetry. If we imagine a poem as something to be answered or solved, we will most likely find ways to do so. But I think we would be better off to think of “understanding” in a poem as an ongoing process of attention.

Simone Weil writes that attention is the purest form of generosity. A generous, open, genuinely focused attention moves us through the poem, just as it moves us through an experience, through a friendship, through anything else that means and keeps on meaning. If a poem is really good, you can’t really say what it’s “about,” that is, what its central “message” is, any more than you can do so for a painting or a piece of music or a person or a mountain.

A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.

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The Uncomfortable Discoveries That Come with Home DNA Testing Kits

In the Washington Post, Libby Copeland follows the story of Alice Collins Plebuch, a 69-year-old woman who believed she was the daughter of Irish Americans until she took a “just-for-fun DNA test” that upended everything she thought she knew about her family history.

Genetic testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have made it much easier for consumers to learn more about their genealogy and health risks. But home testing kits have also led people to unexpected discoveries:

For adoptees, many of whom can’t access information about their birthparents because of closed adoption laws, DNA testing can let them bypass years, even decades, of conventional research to find “DNA cousins” who may very well lead them to their families.

But DNA testing can also yield uncomfortable surprises. Some testers, looking for a little more information about a grandparent’s origins, or to confirm a family legend about Native American heritage, may not be prepared for results that disrupt their sense of identity. Often, that means finding out their dad is not actually their dad, or discovering a relative that they never knew existed — perhaps a baby conceived out of wedlock or given up for adoption.

In 2014, 23andMe estimated that 7,000 users of its service had discovered unexpected paternity or previously-unknown siblings — a relatively small fraction of overall users. The company no longer provides data on surprise results. However, its customer base has more than doubled since 2014, and now contains more than 2 million people — and as more people get involved with recreational genomics, bloodline surprises are certain to become a more common experience. The 2020s may turn out to be the decade that killed family secrets, for better and for worse.

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My Mongolian Spot

Jennifer Hope Choi | The American Scholar | August 2017 | 17 minutes (4,250 words)

 

First you should know: I was born with a blue butt.

So was my mother.

Thirty-two years and many thousands of miles of land, sky, and sea separated her creation from mine, yet we emerged the same: wailing, mad for first breaths, 10-fingered, 10-toed, chick-like tufts of black hair nested atop our soft skulls, and, incredibly, a wavy-bordered blue spot not unlike that of Rorschach’s inkblots, blooming across our tiny bums—blue like ice-cold lips, blue like the ocean at midnight, Picasso’s most melancholic bluest of blues.

By the time I learned about my blue butt, it was gone. Like a spy’s secret message written in vanishing ink, the spot disappeared sometime after my fourth birthday. The timing seems strange—to think that as soon as I could form my earliest memories, my blueness had already left me. In one such memory, I recall taking a shower with my mother. The water beat down on my shoulders thunderously. I’d misbehaved (perhaps, refused to wash my hair), and as I slid open the mottled glass door to escape, my mother smacked my bottom. Because this is my earliest butt-related memory, I mined it recently, hoping to uncover any clues of my former blue self. I remember wailing in the showy way children do when they’re old enough to know better, then peering behind me for proof: the fierce, fiery outline of my mother’s hand. But I can recall nothing but plain tush. I was neither red nor blue. We stood as nude as newborns, un-shy in our nakedness, water cascading across my mother’s towering body as she fumed and I wept in her shadow. Read more…

I’ve Found Her

Martha Baillie | Brick | Summer 2017 | 17 minutes (4,882 words)

This essay first appeared in Brick, the beloved biannual print journal of nonfiction based in Canada and read throughout the world. Our thanks to Martha Baillie and the staff at Brick for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.

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1.

“I have found her,” announced the email sent to me by a close friend, H, who was working in Paris. The attached photograph showed a person I recognized—an elderly woman standing on a street corner and clutching a notepad. Her abundant white hair was gathered into a loose knot at the back of her head; she had a fine nose, an open face lost in thought, and on her feet flat shoes. Her white dress, more coat than dress, I could picture a shopkeeper wearing half a century ago or a modern lab technician. A large, unadorned purse hung from her wrist. To the right of her, the glass wall of a bus shelter exhibited a map of the immediate neighborhood, the Fifteenth District, portions of which became legible when I enlarged the image by sliding my fingertips over it. Across the street behind the woman the name of a café could now be read: Le Puit. Read more…

Becoming Estranged from My Family ‘Was the Best Thing for Me’

Jessica Gross | Longreads | July 2017 | 20 minutes (5,000 words)

When Jessica Berger Gross told her parents not to call one summer day on a street corner in Manhattan, she didn’t know she’d never speak to them again. Seventeen years later, she remains estranged from the father who physically abused her throughout her childhood, the mother who stood by, and her two brothers, who minimized the abuse. In her memoir Estranged, which follows a much shorter Kindle Single of the same name, Gross—whose previous books include About What Was Lost, an anthology she edited on miscarriage, and the yoga memoir enLIGHTeneddetails these violent rages, and the bewildering way in which they were intertwined with love and affection.

Gross and I spoke by phone about the process of getting her history on the page, the intricacies of her family dynamic, Long Island (where we both grew up), being Jewish (which we both are), and, inevitably, the fact that we have the same name.

I’d love to start by talking about the title you chose for both your Kindle Single and your memoir, Estranged. It’s an interesting word, now that I’m rolling it around in my mind—it literally means you’ve become a stranger to your family. What does it mean to you?

At the very start of the Kindle Single, I had the definition of that word. And that is, becoming a stranger and becoming a foreigner and, in a sense, becoming strange.

When I made the decision to stop talking to my parents, I didn’t even have a word for it. I had done a lot of thinking about child abuse and I knew that that’s what had happened to me, but I didn’t realize when I said, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” that basically I was making a choice to become estranged. I had never met anyone who had done that, that I knew of. I’d never heard anyone talk about it. It’s such a strange thing when you take an action and it’s not till years later that you can name it.

As we’re talking, it’s occurring to me that it’s an odd word in a certain way—because the truth of it is that in some ways you were estranged even when you lived with your family, right?

Yes.

You only become estranged afterward if you feel like a stranger in your own home in the first place.

That’s so true! [laughter] My brothers would always say, “Oh, you were adopted, you’re not really a part of our family,” [though I wasn’t adopted]. But their idea was that I was different—and I really was. And everyone in my family really resented that I was different, and I felt that so strongly growing up. So, absolutely. I felt strange in my family and it was in leaving them and making my own family and the family of the larger extended family of my friends that I could no longer feel strange. Read more…

Unknowable Dads: A Father’s Day Reading List

Dear old Dad. To hear retailers tell the story, he’s a transparent creature, someone who is pleased by the simple things: a shirt, a book, a steak, a new gadget. But the dads most of us grew up with — and without — are a more inscrutable lot. They’re people, after all, whose past lives, present concerns, and future legacies can vex, perplex, and frustrate their children. Can we ever really know these men? Some of the best writing about dads embraces that mystery, confronting the hard questions of what it truly means to know one’s father.

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Not Really A Distant Aunt: My Family’s Slave

In this poignant, posthumous feature at The Atlantic, Alex Tizon tells the story of his family’s slave, Lola. An utusan (“person who takes commands”), Lola was given as a gift from his grandfather to his mother in 1943, when Lola was 18 years old. Lola worked, unpaid, for Tizon and his family for 56 years. During a turbulent childhood where his parents were out of the house for days at a time, Lola was a constant source of love and devotion for Alex and his three siblings. In this moving piece, Tizon attempts to understand his parents’ point of view and motivations, and reconcile himself with Lola’s life of servitude.

We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964, all our belongings in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Lola had been with my mother for 21 years by then. In many ways she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father. Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. As a baby, I uttered Lola’s name (which I first pronounced “Oh-ah”) long before I learned to say “Mom” or “Dad.” As a toddler, I refused to go to sleep unless Lola was holding me, or at least nearby.

Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. “Didn’t I tell you I want the letters here when I come home?” she would say in Tagalog, her voice venomous. “It’s not hard naman! An idiot could remember.” Then my father would arrive and take his turn. When Dad raised his voice, everyone in the house shrank. Sometimes my parents would team up until Lola broke down crying, almost as though that was their goal.

It confused me: My parents were good to my siblings and me, and we loved them. But they’d be affectionate to us kids one moment and vile to Lola the next. I was 11 or 12 when I began to see Lola’s situation clearly. By then Arthur, eight years my senior, had been seething for a long time. He was the one who introduced the word slave into my understanding of what Lola was. Before he said it I’d thought of her as just an unfortunate member of the household. I hated when my parents yelled at her, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they—and the whole arrangement—could be immoral.

“Do you know anybody treated the way she’s treated?,” Arthur said. “Who lives the way she lives?” He summed up Lola’s reality: Wasn’t paid. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Wore hand-me-downs. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen. Rarely left the house. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family. Had no private quarters. (Her designated place to sleep in each house we lived in was always whatever was left—a couch or storage area or corner in my sisters’ bedroom. She often slept among piles of laundry.)

The woman who used to hum Tagalog melodies as she rocked me to sleep, and when I got older would dress and feed me and walk me to school in the mornings and pick me up in the afternoons. Once, when I was sick for a long time and too weak to eat, she chewed my food for me and put the small pieces in my mouth to swallow. One summer when I had plaster casts on both legs (I had problem joints), she bathed me with a washcloth, brought medicine in the middle of the night, and helped me through months of rehabilitation. I was cranky through it all. She didn’t complain or lose patience, ever.

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A Runaway Sister’s Survivor Guilt

a woman in a coat and hat walks down a snowy road, alone

Catapult has a personal essay by Chris J. Rice about searching for, and finding, the baby brother she left behind when she ran away from their abusive mother. Rice left home at 15, when her brother was just a year old. For years, she wondered about him, and felt guilt about having gotten out when he was stuck.

I hadn’t seen him since I was fifteen and he was one. I have a single Polaroid of him: a family shot taken when he was a few months old, nestled in Mama’s lap. Like her, he had a full head of dark hair and searching eyes. For years, I didn’t know how best to reach out to him or how to let him go.

I wondered what became of him. I wanted to know, but I was afraid to find out. At sixty, I didn’t want to reach out to a brother I’d left behind only to be turned away, or worse, blamed for the hard life I’d left him in.

If I’d stayed, I could have protected him. That’s what I believed. Maybe he believed that, too.

Then Mama died, and I put aside fear. I used every resource I had, and some money too, to find a likely contact number. I discovered it through a fee-based public records database. His number, listed and active for years—kept through every change of address and dropped like breadcrumbs as he went along—convinced me he might want to be found. Still, I had to muster the courage to connect.

With trembling hands and a trembling voice, I left him that message and waited.

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Bringing Her Dad Up to Speed After Thirty Years Away

At Refinery29Ashley C. Ford has a moving personal essay about getting to know her father now that he’s been released after thirty years in prison Her father has missed so much of his daughter’s life, but that’s not all he has to catch up on. Having been incarcerated since the late 1980s, he is way behind the times, technologically speaking. He’s new to the whole world of cell phones, not to mention texting.

At least once a day I open my phone to scroll through our one-sided text conversation. There are a few sentences from his end, words separated by periods. He has trouble with the space bar. I see the uninterrupted column of my selfies and views of my surroundings. I know he appreciates the technology that allows him to see my current world so clearly, as he missed so much of my past. Because he has trouble responding with text, he calls to say how wonderful I am, how proud of me he is, and how much he wishes he could see the things I see every day. If I can’t answer he leaves minute-long voicemails. He is a talker, and I am his rapt audience.

I know someday he’ll figure out how to text exactly what he wants to say. When that happens, I’ll miss how much we’ve had to fit into phone calls, and how I’ve had to describe all the things he can’t see about who I am and where I am. I’ll miss his voice, too. His strange and familiar voice that sounds so much like my brother’s, and his brother’s, though the thoughts often sound just like mine.

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The Tears and Tenacity of the Mothers of the Disappeared

During the ’70s and early ’80s, 30,000 people “disappeared” during Argentina’s Dirty War — some of them pregnant women who gave birth in detention centers, had their babies stolen, and were then killed. Delia’s daughter Stella was one of those women. Aided by other mothers and grandmothers, Delia never stopped looking for her lost grandson. Bridget Huber tells the story of Delia’s search in California Sunday magazine.

Delia counted the days until Stella’s due date. Then she started looking for Martín, too. A neighbor whose own son was missing told her that searching mothers were meeting in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. The first time Delia went, there were just a handful of mothers, but their numbers multiplied each week. The women made head scarves from cloth diapers they’d saved from their children’s infancy and embroidered them with their missing sons’ and daughters’ names; their white kerchiefs would come to symbolize the search. Public assemblies were forbidden, so the women would make counter­clockwise laps around the plaza, sometimes prodded along by soldiers’ gun barrels. (Within a year, three of the mothers would disappear.) In the plaza, Delia met other women who were looking for pregnant daughters or daughters-in-law. Soon they were meeting in parks and coffee shops. They’d bring props like knitting or birthday gifts to pass themselves off as harmless grandmothers on a social call. But really they were plotting investigations. The women made the rounds at candy stores and orphanages and spied on families that might have acquired a child under murky circumstances. They gathered evidence and stuck it in tin cans that they buried in their gardens.

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