December 22, 2022 by The Citron Review
by Jenna Devany Waters
My daughter comes home from school with an assignment. “Ask your parents to tell you a passed-down story. It can be a family legend, or a story from their childhood.” Her gaze is curious, expectant.
I am unprepared for this—for memories of my childhood.
There was the time my mother tried–– There was the day when we were left alone and—
This story will be told to her entire second-grade class. I shift, reframe, try to think of a ‘family legend.’ My mother’s stories flicker like stills from a dance macabre: the day my grandmother threw a meatloaf across the room; the nights spent with a pillow pressed over her head, the gunshots from my grandfather’s basement artillery range reverberating through the bed frame; the day my great-uncle pinned her to the ground so his sons could hit her, snarling at them not to embarrass him by letting a girl punch them ever again. My mother was ten years old.
I clear my throat, sieve my own childhood again. The nights spent hiding in the boiler room, spent barricaded beneath the table; the time my father almost killed— The time— My father—
One day my daughter asked my mother why her kitchen cabinet was cracked. “That’s where your grandfather threw me across the room and my head broke the wood.” For thirty-five years my mother has lived with this fissure. More than 12,000 days. My sisters and I were raised among these shards.
I face my daughter and widen my eyes. “One day, when I was a little girl…” I lift my checks, arrange a smile. My voice takes on the bright shine I have used for decades to perform my life, my one-woman survival show: “Grandma took all three of us to the beach!”
This tale is a comedy. In a tragedy, everyone dies before the end.
In this comedy, my mother takes three children to the beach. In this comedy, my father is present, sober, in the daytime. In this comedy one child, the middle one, is attacked by seagulls while eating a bag of chips. In this comedy one child, the smallest one, is left in a walker and swept incrementally out to sea, the tide tugging her as she spins, laughing, the surf foaming above her knees.
In this comedy my father is hapless, bumbling; my mother well-intentioned, distracted, attractively flustered. There are interlopers to provide an external source of conflict. There are flapping arms and large hand gestures, silly noises and appallingly rude seagulls. There are prat falls and a last-minute rescue, a few clever puns. It is a perfect commedia dell’arte.
My daughter is entranced. She laughs in all the right places. I had forgotten how good I am at transmuting my life.
“Where were you, Mama? What were you doing?” Her eyes clear and bright. “Were you the one who called for help?”
She believes I am the hero of this story.
Where was I? I have no memory of this day. I was a suit of armor; a salvaged shell. I was a dormant crab, estivating. I was the smallest percentage of a person required to remain functionally alive. This is just a story of a story, a version of the version my mother told to me. Later I learned the term disassociation. Then: I was a deer, a fish, a burrowing owl. I had so many tricks of transformation.
“I was just watching, honey.” It is a reasonably accurate interpretation. Assignment done, the night moves on. My daughter is content. I am haunted.
How to learn to speak the truth, after so many years in hiding?
I am not the hero, child. I am the survivor. I was a marker. A hollow. A passed-down story.
You are the epilogue. I am the ending.
Jenna Devany Waters is a queer writer, teacher, single mother, and list-maker extraordinaire. After a decade in Manhattan, she has recently relocated to a 120-year-old farmhouse in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest, where her nearest neighbors are cows, cornfields, and coyotes. Her work is forthcoming in Orion and Alaska Quarterly Review, and has recently appeared in jmww and MUTHA Magazine. In the caesurae, she is working toward a graduate degree in library science.