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Telling Small Stories

Published: 
Monday, August 14, 2017

That, I’ve concluded, is what I do best here. Small stories that I think in the telling become enlarged. Today I wanted to tell the story of a family, about how the US Embassy in Port-of-Spain denied a widowed parent a visa to go to a child’s university graduation. Valedictorian. Elite college. First in the family to go.

The student made the long public transit trek out to my home in suburban Maryland for a visit that lasted a cup of tea. As we walked to the irregular bus my visitor would need to take back to the subway, I was told the story. Immediately I knew it was a story that needed to be re-told.

But some stories are too small. That story would end here. Not even filling one column down the page. The story was merely the end of another story. So I needed to tell a bigger story. About why the denial cut so deep. About how I came to tell the story. About the words I learned to tell the story.

Not all the stories seemed to belong to me to tell, though. And they did not want to be told.

There is another very small story. It is, likewise, a story I have been unable to tell, because it is so small. I have tried to tell it over and over, and it stays small. It is a story about my mother.

There is another story of my mother. One I am not ready to tell because it is harder. It, too, may not be mine to tell but I will tell it anyway. Though, to tell the truth, it has slithered out in places already. It is the prelude to the story I tell today. It is the story how my mother grew up knowing how to hide shame. But I will not tell it today.

The story today is really just that: that my mother hid her shame from me. It starts and ends there. I learned the story from a man who lives with me. I have known him almost all his life. He had grown sullen and surly. I tortured him why. And it all came out: the small story. Of shame.

The shame he shared with my mother. The shame they would pull out and swap, the old, wisened woman and the young angry man who did not know how to hide his shame. The shame about me.

Do not speak to me in public. God destroyed two cities.

A man I have known all his life.

Your mother is ashamed.

The mother I had known all my life. She and I had struggled. I knew she had been ashamed. But I imagined that I had won. That I had changed her heart. My family was her family. Or so it seemed. He drove her car. She bought him presents. Attended his funeral.

One day she spoke quietly of her faith. And I became very puzzled. And angry. I had never listened carefully enough to know: that I had won her heart. But I had not changed her heart. She showed me her heart. And in another part of it she hid her shame.

I had no words then. I had anger.

I had no words either when the young man told me my mother was ashamed. I had no words for my mother. But I understood. I understood how much I was loved. Love he could not understand. Understand enough to hide his shame. All I wanted to tell her is: you are careless with him; he is young and does not know to hide his shame. I wondered, though, if that is a lesson that ought to be taught.

My mother loved me, so she hid her shame. From me. That is the whole story. I will talk about my mother’s shame another day. Today is not the day.

The small story of my mother’s shame is also too small to fill this space. So I will tell another small story. A story I had also wanted to tell today. It is a story about grief. But it is not a story about shame.

It is a story of my first visit to the student’s campus. After my visa had expired and I was living here illegally. A story of the friend I had spent that weekend visiting. The story of how we met. Two young, black English-speakers at a Puerto Rican funeral parlour in Brooklyn. At a homegoing filled with shame. And silence. How we spoke.

A story about his mother, of whom he was not ashamed. Of his visits to see her, institutionalised in Brooklyn. Of his younger brother who became ill first. Of how he, older, had been fine for years after, how he’d stopped taking the meds because he wanted to feel. The cycle of hospitalising him. The homelessness. The helplessness. The story of how young he died. How fresh the loss still feels, how complicated, how much it needs words.

Gerard’s story is not my story. But it is a story I dare to tell. It is a story of my grief. How it attaches to other people’s stories. Stories I cannot tell.

I had taken out all the names from the story I was to tell today. But some stories are not mine to tell.

I will still tell my mother’s story. But not today.