“Aren’t you Mexican...” the blond boy said disdainfully with a smirk on his face.
With my heartbeat accelerating, and sweat nearly hitting my eye, I weakly replied “Yeah... why?”
It was a windy, cloudless afternoon. No other noise besides the noise from the palm tree leaves dancing along with the wind could be heard. We were facing each other on top of the slides of the apartments’ play area. This was the first time I truly felt intimidated by someone who had asked about my ethnicity. I was ten-years old then, and my family was living in apartments where the majority of the people were white.
“You are fat too. Don’t you feel disgusted about how you look? Well of course your parents work at McDonalds...” he said, shooting a fixed stare on me.
Why was this boy being so rude? Up to that point, I had never exchanged words with him, nor had I given him motives for his disrespect. Before the boy could shoot another insult, I quickly slid down the slide, seeking refuge for myself underneath the playground. Suddenly, I felt something slippery crawling down my left cheek. It wasn't sweat. It wasn't rain. The boy had spat on my face.
Without a second thought, I sprinted as fast as I could back to my apartment. My parents were having a good laugh, but when my father saw me he asked, “What’s wrong with you?” In shock and, in a river of tears, I described the incident. My parents consoled me; they told me I was brilliant, that my siblings and I were the purpose of their life, and that I was forgiving. Forgiving that boy wouldn't be easy; however, resenting him would be pointless.
That night I reflected why the boys ice cold words stabbed deep into my pride. He was wise to choose such words in order to hurt my feelings. That year our family was going through economic difficulties. My parents managed to find employment at McDonalds, where they worked ten hours a day in order to provide us with at least a degree of financial stability. Since their shift started at 4:00 a.m. we had to wake up at 3:00 a.m. in order for my siblings and I to be
dropped off at my aunt Lulu's apartment because we needed adult supervision.
Lulu usually greeted us at the front porch of her apartment. When we arrived, it was still dawn, and the moonlight outlined her tired, aged face. When she welcomed us in, we would stumbled through her gloomy apartment into her bedroom, where we went back to sleep for two additional hours before my cousin, Gustavo, woke us up for school. We hated having to wake up at 3 a.m. simply to be dropped off at Lulu's apartment. On the way to school, Gustavo, who would safely walk us to school, would often hear complaints.
“Not fair, I don't want to wake up so early" Candy, my older sister, would remind Gustavo every morning.
“Please don't complain again. You have no idea the sacrifices that your parents are making in order to provide you with everything you need," he would respond irritated.
"Still,” Candy replied, “it isn't fair that we have to wake up so early.”
Although I agreed with my sister, I usually didn't gave my opinion in these types of discussions. However, it wasn’t until the night of the spit for me to understand what Gustavo truly meant. I realized that my parents most likely encountered stereotypes at their jobs, or people who were prejudice that wouldn't hesitate to remind them of their inferior position as foreigners.
The next morning, before we meet with our aunt Lulu, I asked my parents if they encountered stereotypes at their jobs. My mother took my hand, “Nomas algunas veces mijo,” only sometimes sweetheart she replied with a smile. “That's why your only obligation is to bring home excellent grades, so that you don't have to work like us ever in your life,” my father said patting my shoulder. Regardless of these unpleasant encounters, my mother was taking English courses and my father had become a fluent English speaker; nothing held them back from their American Dream. Now it was my turn to seek out the future I wanted for myself.
In school, I gave the teacher my most undivided attention, and at home I wouldn't allow myself to watch television until all my homework was done. Self discipline, confidence, and perseverance were the key to my rapidly elevating grades. My parents became proud of my hard work and thanked me for raising those grades. "No lo pude hacer sin su amor,” I reminded them.
One humid afternoon I was walking towards my apartment. It had been three weeks since my incident with the blond boy. The path towards my apartment went by the play area, where I noticed two kids glancing at each other as I passed by.
“Isn’t that the Mexican boy?” the girl said to the boy on her left when she noticed me
“You’re right, that’s him. What happened between Jason and him?” he replied back.
Who was Jason? Was Jason the blond boy that spat on my face? I needed answers. I needed to swallow my pride and approach them.
“Yes, I’m Mexican. Hey there, my name is Diego, and you are......” I said stretching my hand out to the girl. Although there was confidence in my tone, I was scared of their reaction.
“Oh... I’m Stephanie hey there,” she said accepting my hand shake.
“And I’m Angel.” the boy said shaking my hand as well. I discovered that Stephanie and Angel were best friends with Jason. They said that they knew something happened between Jason and me, but they didn’t know exactly what. After I explained the incident to them, Stephanie and Angel looked at me in shock. Hesitant at first, they explained to me that Jason’s family was going through a difficult situation. They assured me that Jason was kind and caring;
they couldn’t understand why Jason acted like a jerk.
That afternoon was the most fun I’ve ever had in those apartments. Stephanie and Angel immediately became my friend--the only friends I had there. However, they were also friends with Jason and if I wanted to be with them regularly, then I’ll need to face Jason.
The face off took place that Saturday. I woke up excited for another game day with my new friends. I fixed my bed, washed my face, and dashed towards the play area, where we scheduled our meeting. When I arrived, the wide smile I once had on my face quickly disappeared; its replacement was an opened mouthed, dumbfounded expression. Jason had also arrived at the playground! My pulse began to accelerate and beads of sweat emerged on my forehead. I began to approach him.
I called out to him, “Jason...” My instincts were yelling for me to flee, but I wouldn’t hold back any longer. “Hey, I’m Diego.”
When he saw me approaching I couldn’t figure out his facial expression. Was it shock? Was it anger? Was it fear? My insides had turned into twisted knots as I waited for a reply. The silence became too dense, so dense that my ears began to buzz. We both stared at each other, trying to read the other’s mind. Finally, he cleared his throat.
“Stephanie and Angel tell me a lot about you, Diego.”
“Haha... well they are great people,” I replied nervously. “I’ve also heard great stuff about you. They’ve known you since you guys were preschoolers.” It seems as if my words made him recall a fun memory because a smile had appeared on his face.
“That day at the slides I didn’t know why I was such a jerk,” he said in a soft, troubled tone.
“I’ve learned that we all go through difficult times. We all make mistakes,” I said gracefully.
“No,” he cut in. “There isn’t an excuse for my actions. I regret putting you through that awful situation. I’m sorry dude.”
Before I could respond, I heard a gasp behind us. Jason and I turned around to see Angel; his mouth hung wide open in amazement. Suddenly Stephanie appeared, but instead of making things more awkward, she smiled. “Well, don’t just stand there, let's go,” she said playfully. Jason and I became friends that Saturday and I soon discovered we had lots in common. He also had siblings, two younger twin brothers, who were ready to enter school the following year. Like me, his favorite superhero movie was Spiderman, with Tobey Maguire. And although it was for different reasons, the most meaningful aspects we had in common was the temporary hardships our families were going through. We both explained our families’ situation and both promised to keep our situations a secret. A secret I have kept to this day.
I wake up to morning light shining through my window. I slowly rub my eyes and sit up in bed to see my covers on the ground. It has been uncomfortably hot for the past few weeks and today will be no different. I get up for a stretch and make my bed. Even though I’ve never been a morning person, I feel energized by a sense of power. In just a few hours I will be protesting for what is right. I almost leap down the stairs and across the kitchen where I find my parents and brothers already eating cereal and peanut butter toast. Marc is twenty-one and Oliver is almost eighteen.
“Morning sis,” says Oliver barley looking up from his food.
“Morning,” I reply as I head to the cabinet for some cereal.
Marc looks up, saying, “So are you ready for today?” There is a hint of rebellion gleaming in his eyes.
I return the look, “Of course, should we get the posters out?”
My mom and dad listen with approving grins, “You still have some time to get them ready,” says my dad.
My mom adds, “Maybe we’ll see the posters on tv.”
Marc, Oliver, and I smile at the thought of our parents proudly watching us participate in the protest on television. The three of us couldn't be more different, but do agree on today. It is Diada Nacional de Catalunya, the National Day of Catalonia, held to celebrate the history and identity of Catalonia. To honor Catalonia’s identity this year, we plan to do something we have never done before-protest for Catalan independence from Spain.
My uncle shakes me awake with a contagious smile.
“Today is the day,” he yells joyfully.
I can’t help but smile back with the same enthusiasm. Today is the day I get to cover my first story.
I quickly get dressed and start towards the hotel lobby to meet my uncle and his coworkers for breakfast. My uncle is the founder of a humble newspaper, the Know Now. But today we are not just a small company from Rhode Island covering local news. Today we will cover something huge, the National Day of Catalonia.
While this celebration usually includes political demonstrations, concerts, parties, and honoring historic figures, this year will bring much more. Hundreds of thousands of people plan to attend a protest for Catalonia's independence, and our team will be there front and center to record and report the action.
“I can’t even imagine what a group of hundreds of thousands of people will look like,” I exclaim.
The crew members nod in agreement and my uncle says, “I bet you close to a million people will end up protesting.”
Harold, one of the older members smiles greedily, “That may just be too crazy but then again that works in our favor.”
The others grin, excited for the big event, but the thought of a million protesters gives me chills. I am terrified of something this big getting out of control.
Footsteps of kids thundering down the hall and the low purring of my cat wake me up. I rush out to the kitchen to help my husband, Luca, with breakfast. We decide to start today’s celebrations off with our kids’ favorite, cinnamon French toast with extra whipped cream. Carmen, who is seven, and Leo, who is four, have been asking for French toast with whipped cream for days.
“This is so good,” Carmen says with whipped cream now smeared across her mouth.
I smile as I grab a wet cloth to wash her face and say, “I am glad it lives up to your expectations.”
Leo pauses between bites long enough to say “Is there more?”
Luca laughs and says “Finish what you have now and I can make more if you are still hungry.”
He looks at me with a proud smirk. French toast has always been his specialty. All I can do is smile back and roll my eyes.
After breakfast I announce that I plan to run errands early to avoid the protest’s chaos. The celebrations for Catalonia Day have turned into wild protests for Catalonia's independence from Spain. While a large part of Catalonia fights for their independence, Luca and I do not feel the same. We moved here because of our jobs, but we are both from other parts of Spain and have family roots throughout the country. If Catalonia gains independence from Spain, it will add uncertainty to our lives.
“Be careful and whatever you do get back before one,” Luca warns as I gathered my bags and the list for much-needed groceries. “I wish you could just wait until after the protest.”
“Me too but the stores will be closed by then. Don’t worry I won’t be gone long,” I answer as I slide out of the apartment and down the building’s hallway.
I am beaming with excitement. Marc, Oliver, and I each carry a sign with neon colors and bold statements. We park somewhat far away from the protest to avoid some chaos and start to walk towards the crowds. We are a little less than half a mile away, but we can already hear the cries and shouts of people bursting with Catalonian pride ready to make a point.
“Alexis!” a familiar voice yells. I turn to see that it belongs to my cousin, Lucia.
Lucia is just two months older than me and has loads of energy. She carries a sign similar to mine, colorfully decorated.
I answer Lucia joyfully and say, “I was beginning to worry your parents wouldn’t let you come.”
“Well they didn’t exactly let me,” Lucia says with a devilish expression.
“Are you saying you snuck out?” asks Oliver.
“Are you surprised?” says Lucia.
We all break into laughter. It is not the first time she snuck out, and it won’t be the last.
“We’re almost there, we need to stick together,” says Marc with a warning expression.
Everyone is buzzing around except me. I had been looking forward to reporting an important story for what seems like forever, but I am nervous now that we are in the crowd.
“You ready?” my Uncle asks.
“Absolutely,” I say, with some sarcasm.
“Hey, try not to worry. Everything will be fine,” my uncle answers.
People are swarming around me. Signs are everywhere. Shouts and chants fill the air. I sit in my car, completely stuck. I can’t believe the numbers of people. I thought I left early enough to avoid this exact thing. Now my only choice is to wait.
The protest is in full swing. I am marching for what I believe in and think nothing can ruin this moment. Lucia and I walk arm in arm closely behind Marc and Oliver, proudly chanting. Then I hear something, a distant roaring. In less than a blink of an eye the screams start. Screams of pure panic replace screams of passion and pride. I don’t understand what is happening at first, and then I realize the sound is coming from an engine.
I am caught up by the crowds and in my world of writing. Everything quickly changes when people begin to scream and bolt around in so many directions that I lose track of the rest of the newspaper crew. I realize people are jumping to the sides of the road, so I jump too.
It happens so fast I don’t see it coming. A bright red car tears down the street, zig zagging rapidly. People dive out the way and scream for loved ones. I watch in horror as people search for grandparents, children, parents, and friends, but so many are gone, gone, gone.
Marc, Oliver, Lucia, and I are suddenly caught in a sea of people pushing and pulling to get out of the road. Danger has awoken a beastly desperation in us. I hear Marc and Oliver scream at me and Lucia to move. We manage to find our way to an alley where were the four of us huddle together in fear. We slowly realize a car has ripped through the protest, killing as many people as possible. We stay together trembling as we wonder if we know any of the names that will be on the news later that night.
I land with a thud and quickly pull myself up to keep running. A car races right past me. I feel myself shaking as I fall into a haze, but screams fill my ears bringing me back to the moment. People lay in the street surrounded by pools of blood. Their awkwardly positioned bodies lay still. Nausea and unbelievable terror overtake me when I see my uncle among them.
Finally done with another day in elementary school, walking the same path I would take everyday to get home. Entering through the door to two unproductive hours that consisted of channel surfing only to zone out, staring at the wall and drowning out all the sound. Well, guess what? There was a familiar man on my couch perfectly replicating my routine. Suddenly, my phone started to ring. It was my mother. Answering it, I heard a faint sigh. She knew what I saw, grown ass man playing with his feet on her couch. Her brother
I sat next to him, the room void of any communication besides whatever the characters on the TV were arguing about.
“Jesse, what the hell are you doing here?”
In our immediate family we all loved each other. However, in moments many of us didn’t like each other. Year after year passed, and time had yet to heal our wounds. It had been about ten years since my Uncle Lorenzo’s life cut short by a bullet to the head; before then many of us were on thin ice with each other, reaching a brink of collapse. Then with this loss our family shattered, sending shards in every direction, nobody the same, all of us at the crossroads looking for a path to continue onward. Relationship we’re fragile and “last straws” moments were common, but somehow our paths came to cross again.
“Oh yeah, your mom said I could stay here for a couple of days,” He responded, food in mouth, in between taking the last sips of his beer, while Pawn Stars played in the background. As a child, I was told to keep a blind eye towards Jesse's actions, but I know that it isn’t normal for a shirtless man in his late 30’s to welcome himself in his sister’s apartment and become our permanent guest. Witnessing, first hand, his bizarre tendencies,, putting his intimate relationships out in the open. It didn’t help that he talked into his phone instead of texting. Talking about “after my thanksgiving dinner, you want to be my dessert”, I’d be surprised that any women would want to associate with Jesse. Buying all my electronics, thinking he'd be able to flip them. Brandishing guns, Jesse gave me an AR-15 poster that my mom quickly tore down. Stealing my gold bracket when I was just a toddler, my mom opened a new credit card just to buy that. This list just scratches the surface.
Jesse never got to experience anything close to a childhood; always running towards the last light of his adolescence, but we both knew that door closed a long time ago. There’s a connection between you were brought up and the person you become; Often it be assumed Jesse was a man drowning in self consumption and shallowness. But if you looked deeper, you’d see someone who was handed a devastating beat down by life. People who lack a strong father figure in their life tend to overcompensate. Jesse and I were both a victim of this trait. So, I can relate to his wanting to keep his emotions to himself. For the most part, He did a good job at hiding his emotions. The only semblance of emotion were the tattoos that covered his body. Those doves on his neck, were able to spread their wings while he was chained down. Fifty-one fifty, temporary insanity, branded on the back of his neck. He late brother Lorenzo forever immortalized with ink on his sleeve. Keeping his memory alive, even if it caused his nights to be plagued with recollections of his passing. Now, Imagine seeing your younger brother being keep alive by machines, the pain of seeing him unplugged. And he packed that pain in a glass pipe, grabbed a lighter and inhaled it through a pipe. Letting the smoke temporarily lift his problems into the air, miles away from where he could feel them. Smoking his demons, praying that one day he’d reunite with who he lost. I didn’t know all of this then, so I just stayed quiet, walked in my room and closed the door.
I've seen addicts my whole life. From close friends and family to someone standing in the street with a sign. Distinguishing the two main kinds gets harder and harder every day. Depending on the person taking them, the drugs effects will differ. There’s functional addicts that can go on with their life without the risk of any obvious symptoms, and then there’s fiends, people who let drugs engulf their entire life till it takes everything from them. My uncle was a fiend. Throughout the years, I’d watch him continuously hit rock bottom, spend a couple weeks sober, only to hit a new low. And as a family we understood that addiction was a real disease, but traumatic event after traumatic event, people get tired of trying to pick up the pieces.
After various incidents and regressions, Jesse made some light homicidal and suicidal threats. Jesse’s never shied away from telling people about his actions, often trying to make himself seem like a “badass”. he once told his ex-girlfriend’s child, an eight year old, about hitting a lick on a liquor store. Him threatening me wasn’t uncommon, so I wasn’t too surprised when he went on drug fueled rant to my mom through text. I remember vividly as the green text boxes, Jesse always owned an Android, from my mom’s iPhone 6 illuminated the car on our ride home. Her screen reflected off the jet black leather car seats of my grandma’s Volkswagen Jetta. What exactly instigated the conversation is still blurry, but his message was clear. He wasn’t going back to jail, and if the cops came he would “die a g”. I knew he had the means to go out guns blazing, I’d found the AR-15s under his bed, what I didn’t know is if his conscience would allow him to pull a trigger, or did drugs fry his brain way past repair. His words regressed him back to earlier time, void of optimism, he cried desperation to reunite with his brother. It wasn’t the threats that worried me, instead Jesse overdosing on his pain. Letting the past drive him to point where he didn’t want to see a future, he didn’t want to spend another second alive.
Jesse and I had our good times. He introduced me to technology, let me drive a car for the first time. We spend hours playing fighting games on his Xbox 360. In my early childhood, he was the only male figure that consistently in my life. Through all of money he stole from my mom and I, I wouldn't put a price on my relationship with my uncle. At the end of the day Jesse was human, bearing the same flesh and blood as me. If anything his problem humanized him. Pouring your soul out to a therapist isn’t always an option. And most of the time our pride prevents us from accepting we have a issues, confining ourselves to our own minds. But by doing that we’re ultimately stuck talking to our own reflections, and do you want to spend your limited time in this world speaking to a mirror. People always say that great pain fades slowly, his pain never faded, mine hasn’t either. My back just grew strong enough to be able to carry it. When I lost my grandpa, he lost his father. When I lost my uncles, he lost his brothers. As much as he tried, it never got better. Continuing to withdraw, seeing the face of who you once buried, Tormenting us till we relapse back to a grieving state. I am not justifying drug use in anyway. Jesse was nowhere near right for his habits, but I understand his decades of dancing with methamphetamine.
After years of ducking the law, Jesse ended up in jail for a month, which is incredible considering that he was originally facing years. They found him asleep in his truck, after a week of his baby momma searching Orange County. Being locked up, whether it's jail or prison, can either be a hell or a place of reflection. An island of solitude, where the world progresses while you’re trapped in time. I never wished jail on Jesse, or anyone for that matter, but maybe it would serve as a wake up call. I spent hours with my grandma trying to set up the collect calls. Finally, we got a call. She didn’t want to talk to him, so she handed me the phone.
“Aye Vincent, you know they gave me three months, I’ll be free September 29th.” He chuckled. It always do confused me how Jesse made light of certain situations. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Secluding himself from sympathy, because if he didn’t take his situation seriously why would you? But I wasn’t oblivious, his cries for help were obvious even through the phone.
“Bullshit, how do you think I got your inmate number? You’re only locked up for a month. Be happy that they didn’t lock your ass up longer. So, what are you doing?”
“Push ups, I’m outside right now. I see this birds nest. I like the view here, it’s beautiful.” He explained. I could hear the vulnerability in his voice. Part of me knew that he would never get it, all I knew is that he didn’t want to continue living the way he is. I know my uncle, But I will never come close to knowing the burden he holds so close to himself. Just as he can’t understand mine. All I can do is listen so maybe he doesn’t have to crystal for some consolation, so maybe his obstacles can be the patches in my road, so maybe I can find meaning in my lack of a childhood and move past it.
Dedicated to my Uncle Jesse, the only uncle I got left. Stop trying to be the next Paid In Full, you ain’t got juice like that.
R.I.P. Lorenzo & Isaiah
Sitting before my mirror, that foggy Tuesday morning, attempting to make myself look presentable for the school day ahead, I was completely ignorant to the events that would follow. I gathered my hair into a messy bun to keep it out of my face while I brushed my eyelashes with mascara and covered up the bags under my eyes, noticing how the pendant of my necklace had fallen out of place. As it slid across the chain back to the center of my chest where it normally lay, the light tugging of my fingers was enough to make the chain snap. And snap it did.
On my fourteenth birthday, about two years previous to that dreadful Tuesday, I received a simple golden box from my sister. Inside it lay a necklace: a dainty, gold pendant that revealed a sun, and within it, a crescent moon. It was accompanied by a note that still hangs in my room for my eyes to peek at every so often, reading, “Let your bright light shine. Make a wish and put on your necklace. Like the sun and the moon, you make the world a brighter place. Wear your necklace as a reminder that your spirit, your love and your light are my everything.” From the moment I received this beautiful gift, I knew it was something to be cherished. Few days went by when I did not have this necklace on. It became a sort of trademark for me. My sunny gold pendant gave me a form of safety, and I loved it dearly.
If ever I was bored, you could look over and see my fingers mindlessly playing with the chain, smoothly gliding the pendant back and forth over my chest, like a figure skater dances on ice. When deep in thought I held that sun and moon close to my heart, as if it helped me process the thoughts on my mind. At times I caught myself rushing through life at such a quick pace, and as I placed the pendant to my lips, I was reminded to take a deep breath and appreciate the things surrounding me. I didn’t expect this gift to hold such value in my life; however, as time went on I fell deeper in love with my necklace. It became a crutch for me. I turned to it in order to fill whatever aspect of my life needed extra attention.
The day my necklace broke was the day my heart shattered. Months went by, the necklace constantly on my mind. It was strange taking on life without it. The constant reminder that it was no longer hanging around my neck was unbearable for a long time, as my fingers habitually traced my collarbone, in search of the pendant. I face life each day knowing that the broken chain lay in my room awaiting the tools that could mend it, but I’ve realized in these painful months that I needed to learn to face life alone, to not rely on a shiny piece of jewelry to help me through the day. There’s nothing faulty about depending on something; it’s quite incredible actually. I recognized however, that I had failed to experience life on my own, and at a crucial time of growth nonetheless.
This decision to not get it fixed right away was something I struggled with for many days, for it was a difficult decision, and I knew I had to be careful in the ways I handled it. There was more than just my feelings on the line. Each day it sits next to me, I force my heart to grow numb so I don’t have to miss it anymore. I attempt not to yearn for it, but seeing it lay there as broken as I, makes it difficult.
My necklace was a beautiful gift, one that reminds me of a relationship I once had. Similar to my necklace, I loved someone fiercely, but there came a time that I had to let him go. He was not only a light for me, but he was the person who challenged me and encouraged me to be a light for others. Each day I went journeying with him through life, and my necklace was almost always along for our adventures. Much like the reminder that my necklace gave to me, his spirit, his love, and his light were my everything.
As the feelings began to pile up that maybe I should no longer be with him, I grew fearful. I realized how badly I wanted the freedom of being without out him, but I craved his warm embrace that offered the comfort and security he brought to my life. I am just like any other human: searching for love, but I found it sooner than I expected. As a freshman in highschool I was unprepared to experience love so in depth and because of this, felt dissatisfied sticking to what I’d grown so accustomed to in the past two years. I had always imagined my high school years to be full of spontaneity and various experiences that would define who I am as an individual, but being in such a stable and committed relationship made this difficult. My heart is still being pulled in different directions because I have no “yes” or “no” answer to these feelings. I am forced to sit uncomfortably, awaiting an answer that I expect to appear out of thin air. Maybe one day it will.
I am learning to be content with the fact that I need time on my own before I ever fix my necklace.
I am learning each day, to sit in my discomfort, that it is okay to feel this pain.
I am learning that in my discomfort there is strength and growth.
Trial is inevitable in life. The sooner we recognize and invite pain into our hearts, the sooner we can process and grow into the best possible versions of ourselves. Humans are stronger than we may think. We are resilient, and just like broken bones, broken hearts can be put back together too. It just takes time.
Growing up, you weren’t there for majority of what was going on. Off with another family, worried about your other kids. But never worried about me, about what was going on in my life. When my next meet was, my next concert, next school event. And if you did, you would end up not being able to go because you were always busy or the things that interest me, were too long and boring for you to stay and watch. So many times, I forgave you and let you know it was okay when in reality it really wasn’t. It wasn’t okay for me to go to all these special events and get to see both mom and dads supporting their children at what they love. Especially me being so young. But I’m not the type of person who shuts important people like you out of their life. I forgive but not forget. You always did this too so it wasn’t like a thing that was new to me. Thankfully, I did have people that we’re there for me supporting me along the way to shut out the fact that you weren’t there for me when I needed you the most. I thought I was crazy or wrong for not talking to you and start to act out and defend myself. All up until you started sending me back messages that weren’t right to send to your daughter. Messages that made me seem like the victim and you the guilty one. The time I hurt most was my graduation. One of the biggest highlights of my life, where families come and celebrate this big milestone in your life for achieving so much. Everybody went, everybody but you. That hurt the most, especially because it was all set back to me. It being my fault that you didn’t come. That didn’t stop me from having you in my life although it should have. It kept me to continuing having you in me life because I still loved you. Time after time, I still choose to keep someone like you in my life, even though at times you wouldn’t keep me. All I’ve ever wanted was to feel pure love and support from you and all I ever got was guilt and let downs. Now, being the age I am, having the lessons I’ve learned, I still do love and care about you but do not put forth as much effort as much as I used to. Of course, you blame me and get upset when I don’t call or text you. But if it wasn’t for me we wouldn’t even communicate in such important holidays or important days for us. Oh sorry I forgot, it’s my fault. Now a days I’m lucky to get a text from you, saying that you “love me”, and that you do soo much for me and I’m the one who doesn’t appreciate it. I’m the wrong one for thinking you are. I’m the monster, the one who doesn’t answer the one who choose to pick a new dad and family and in your words forget about my own. Now I don’t do it for you, instead I do it for two of the strongest people I know. My brother and my sister. The ones that also need you the most especially since you’re all they have. I love you, I really do but i can’t keep putting in all this effort for someone who didn’t even call to wish me a happy birthday but instead just a text.
In some ways, my grandparents are distant, like a misty haze hanging over the mountains. Yet, at times, they feel so close, a blanket of warmth which I wrap around myself. I envision their faces like the figureheads of Mount Rushmore, looming over me with a protective gaze, creases etched into their foreheads, crinkles carved into the corners of their faces. Grandma, Grandpa, Papi, Carol, Nana. Each powerful in stature yet for different reasons. Each emanating rays of voracious love.
Tucked in a back corner of my closet is a small wooden box, thoroughly scratched and nicked, with “LANE Cedar Chests/AltaVista,Va./Presented by MC MAHAN’s MERCED” inscribed on the lid. I am not acquainted with this “MC MAHAN.” However, the rural town of Merced, which lies nestled in the heart of California’s Central Valley, I know all too well. Beyond the pungent wafts of dairy farm, unending rows of crops, and fine dust that pervades its air, Merced’s charm lies in its nostalgia for my family. For, within it sits one-hundred acres of land purchased, plowed, seeded, watered, weeded, and harvested by the sweat and grit of my grandparents. 4515 Elliot Avenue, Merced, California.
The chest contains a curious collection of Grandma’s treasures: a faded photograph of a youthful her and Grandpa, smiling contentedly in the booth of some country diner, two precariously delicate, hand-crocheted gloves, various embroidered doilies, a rosary and Sunday Missal, a quaint wedding ring, and a pair of eyeglasses with lenses thicker than an old Coca-Cola bottle. I fear leaving the lid open too long will cause the sweet, musky perfume of my grandmother to escape the chest and dissipate into the air, lost forever. So, I close the lid and ponder. So many stories within a single object.
Sifting through the box’s contents reminds me of memories buried within myself, images of Papi that play back in vibrant color. December 2007, Jackson, Wyoming: Papi chortles as the funny mustache glasses slip down his nose; Papi swiftly deals me a “paddy whack” to the rear before proceeding with the rest of the grandchildren; Papi scoops up a glistening handful of snow to pack and hurl at Michael. May 2008, New York, New York: Papi, Mom, and I dine at a tiny Indian restaurant, clamoring with customers and aromatic spices and the knocking of chair legs against uneven floorboards. I think this was the last time that I saw Papi. Retrospectively, I am unsure if the restaurant was truly as cramped as I remember it to be or if it was Papi’s wheelchair that made the space feel awkwardly tight.
Regardless, the memory of Papi I savor most is dated from before he surrendered his hair to chemotherapy and his mobility to that clunky wheelchair, from the time he and Nana visited our family in Santa Barbara. August 2006, Moschitto Home: We relax together in the living room, drinking up the afternoon sunlight that filters through the front windows. Our voices join Dad’s tinny guitar strums; the music reverberates through the air:
“Country roads, take me Home
To the place, where I belong…”
The melody swells, filling up the room and floating out to the front yard on the breeze swirling through the open windows. The lyrics soak through our skin and into our souls, becoming consecrated as a part of us. That entire remembrance is tinged in a golden hue which I cannot un-envision.
There is one final memory of Papi but this one is not mine to keep. It is Mom’s. October 2008, Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital, New York: I am perched on the edge of Dad’s hospital bed, cradling his worn hand in mine, lifting my voice softly, singing him Home, singing John Denver, his favorite. I ache dwelling in that moment as if I had witnessed it.
Mom told me that it was then that Papi entrusted her with his final words of wisdom: that at the end of his life, he judged his most rewarding endeavor not to be accruing assets or crossing the country or practicing law. It was raising his two children - growing them in love, leading them through life, releasing them into adulthood knowing that one day, they would be the ones releasing him.
Now, anywhere I hear that timeworn lilt, the soft plucking of the guitar and the sweet, sonorous croon carries me down those “country roads” of memory to a place of peace and comfort in belonging, to a family that calls me Home. Yet, the same winding country roads remind me how vast my earthly Home is. I have found Home watching shadows change on the mountains in my backyard and I have found Home gazing upon foreign peaks from an airplane window. I have found Home amongst utter strangers and in the familiarity of forever friends. On both paths of certainty and paths of wandering, I have been at Home.
Months ago, I stumbled upon Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses […] let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” I was mystified by this cloud of witnesses; the words lingered in my mind long after I first encountered them. Only when reflecting on my grandparents, whom themselves had likely never heard the phrase, did I understand its significance: each day brings an opportunity to bear witness to the faces surrounding us. This is perhaps what my Papi understood best of all: our greatest legacy is the love we leave behind. Our loftiest ambition is to call each other Home. And I think Grandma and Grandpa and Nana and Carol, smiling down from their heights, would agree with him.
Summer 2006, Shenzhen, China
I was, granted, too young to remember much details. My scattered memories of that summer were filled with bitterness. My parents fought and argued, and eventually they terminated their marriage. To a young child, it felt like the world was falling apart. A couple months later, my grandparents decided to take me and my older brother with them. Being 4 years old, I had no choice but to follow them into an uncertain future.
For the next 3 years, I lived in Wuhan, miles from the murky waters of the mighty Yangtze, first bypassing some of the European-style marble and granite buildings along parts of the river shore (many of which were built by actual Europeans during late 19th-early 20th century), past the old sprawling market and newly built shopping malls, and navigating through the streets lined with apartments a few to many stories high. Wuhan was in some cases wealthy, yet also mired in poverty. Some apartments appeared new, shiny, almost luxurious even. Yet, others appeared grisly and dreadful. It’s walls were cracked and battered, the windows were old and stained, with dried mosses and vegetation filling up the cracks and crevices. Yet, as pitiful as they looked, countless Wuhan residents still call these places home. My Grandparent’s apartment was neither terrifically old, nor new and spacious. It was on the first floor of a modest, blocky 8 story building, with plain grey walls, and skinny, rusted iron bars protruding out of the windows to prevent burglary, or at least according to the people living there.
I was not happy moving to this new, unfamiliar place. My grandparents, then aged in the late 50’s and early 60’s, were sometimes harsh disciplinarians. They certainly did not refrain from giving us love and compassion, but when the rules were broken, they would also not shy away from physical discipline. I was, in all honesty, sometimes terrified of them. Here in the States we frown upon corporal punishment, especially directed towards a little kid, but in China it’s far more socially acceptable, as long as you don’t injure the child.
I missed living with my parents, and their calm temper. I couldn't wait for them to be back. To take me home. My Mother would occasionally come back North and visit us, and maybe live with us for a few days or weeks. If I remember correctly my father never came up to visit us. He had moved away from Shenzhen to find work in another city. He still supported financially, but rarely did I see him.
When my mother left and headed back south , I cried.
During the fall of 2007, I was enrolled in 1st grade at a new elementary school not too far from where I lived. I was 5 ¾ years old, the youngest pupil in my class. The most unforgettable experience I had was befriending one particular kid. He was, in many aspects much less fortunate than I was. The times I went over to where he lived, I discovered that his family lived crammed in a one-bedroom apartment, leaving him to sleep in the tiny, dark kitchen. There was no other place. He was scrawny, almost malnourished. His family operated a old shoes store along a gray, dusty street, that wasn’t doing well.
I felt symptomatic for him. There was little I could possibly do to change the situation he is in. Although I was still very young, I guess it did teach me to be a little more grateful and compassionate, for there were people far worse off than I was.
As September turned into October, the humid, sticky heat of Wuhan Summers started to fade, as the leaves of ginkgoes and aspen trees turned yellow and fell amidst the cooler winds of change blowing from the North. The Winters in Wuhan are chilly, not cold enough to have all apartments equipped with central heating, but cold enough that it still snows occasionally. If it got too cold, we would huddle around the kitchen every morning for warmth, and while the heavy clothing made the outside temperature tolerable, your exposed skin still dries and itches due to the dry frigid wind.
During Early February of 2008, we were hit by the heaviest snowstorm in close to half an century. While it was beautiful seeing thick, fluffy snow piling up against the trees, buildings, and streets, it also knocked out power, and during the Frigid nights that followed horror stories came of people freezing to death in their homes. Granted, those were rumors that could be false, but what is sure is that the snowstorm made the lives of many unbearable.
During the Chinese new year that followed, my mother visited again, and drove all of us up back south, to Zhuhai (where my father lived) for a obligatory new year family reunion. I do not remember much of the details, yet I was happy that the whole family was together again, even if only was for a few days. Yet, I also thought about my friend still back in Wuhan. How is he doing right now? My grandmother reassured me, saying that once the snow melts, life will get back to normal.
Life did went on. In the summer of 2009 my mother took me and my brother back south, this time to Hong Kong, and eventually we immigrated to the States. My parents never remarried, and to this day I still do not totally understand why they agreed to leave me in Wuhan. Nonetheless, I slowly began to realize parents aren’t infallible beings, and when life turns difficult, everyone certainly tries their best to make things right, even though that may not always be possible.
Regardless, at that time I still disliked my parents for what they did, but eventually, as I grew older and more mature, I realized that my 3 year stay in Wuhan had taught me valuable lessons. For the first time in my life it made me see that the world was inherently unfair, and there are a lot of less fortunate people out there, even today, I sometimes remind myself of the need to be grateful for what I have. Sadly, the power of one individual in this world is far too weak. After all, I could not stop my parents from divorce, could not help my friend improve his livelihood, nor could I mend and fix all the problems in this world today, Life can be harsh, but no matter what happens, I learned to be resilient.
(The reason why I am in 11th grade right now and not 12th was because I went to 2nd grade twice, once I left Wuhan and moved to Hong Kong, where educational standards were different, so it was a opportunity for me to go back a year because I was too young. Anyway, story for another day.).
Multiple Narrator Narrative
What a Sad Girl Eats
She likes to eat candy, but not the way she used too. When she was younger, a bag of jelly beans or gummy worms would be followed by a finger or two down her throat in a lonely school bathroom. Now, she eats her feelings but keeps them pent up inside of her, bringing her a rush of happiness that she can’t get anywhere else. Her best friend helps keep her sane, telling her how boys prefer girls who have meat on their bones, who weigh enough to get their periods. The space beneath her bed is covered with wrappers, hidden away from the prying eyes of her health conscious parents. The bright candies hurt her stomach but make her feel comforted and warm inside.
What as Sad Girl Thinks About
Going to class can be too much sometimes. When she can’t take it, she’ll walk to a cemetary down the road from school and take a break from her life. The cool grass against her skin make her feel grounded and the solitude is comforting. Her head is often so clouded that she can’t think but when she cuts class to be alone outside, her thoughts are as clear as the sky she stares up at. She thinks about her brother, who’s mental illness keeps him at almost constant risk of hurting himself. She thinks about her ex boyfriend and how he hurt her, leaving her crying, lying in the middle of the road watching his car pull away. She thinks about the future, and if she’ll be alive to experience what it has to offer. She can’t wait for college, a career, and kids, but she doesn’t know what those will bring and if she’ll be able to help herself through it. These solo field trips bring her stillness externally, but inside she’s full of movement.
Why a Crazy Girl Doesn’t Go to Football Games
She used to love them, the excitement, the cheering, the snackbar, and the acceptance that her school’s team will lose but enjoying watching them play anyway. The first game of the season that year was different. She originally decided not to go, but the solitude inside her house was making her crazy so she joined her friends at the end of the first quarter. Sitting in the hard concrete stands, she listened to her friends talk about the boys in their lives. Some of these boys brought happiness, some brought heartbreak, some brought excitement, the nervous, happy feeling of a newness and the promise of a relationship. She confided in them that she knew hers was going to break up with her, maybe that Sunday when she had plans to see him. They all told her not to worry; she was just feeling insecure and it would end up alright. Thinking about this brought on a wave of anxiety, a tsunami crashing down on her from the top of the stadium. She knew a panic attack was coming, so followed by two friends, she dashed up the steps and then down towards the hallways. She ran and ran, surprised by her own speed. Finally, she crashed into a wall and began to sob, falling to the floor and lying in a messy heap. Her friends caught up to her and tried to console her, but her mind was in such chaos that she couldn’t register what they were saying. All she knew was that she was in danger; from kids passing her in the hallway, from the dark bushes, and from the severed head hiding in the loudspeaker who was knowingly whispering, “You aren’t okay, are you. They’re all after you. All of them.” Suddenly enraged, she threw her purse as hard as she could, hitting a younger boy in the back of the head. He was trying to kill her, probably with the long bloody knife sticking out his back pocket. Her friends called her mom, who came to pick her up immediately. She knew she needed to go to the hospital psych ward but instead, she calmed down, had a glass of tea and went to bed. Ever since then, she’s been afraid to go to football games, for fear of these events repeating themselves.
What a Crazy Girl Talk About in Therapy:
Her therapist is a friendly blond woman who blames her symptoms on her astrology chart, full of Scorpio and Gemini. She tells her that sometimes she wants to jump off a building, not to kill herself but because she thinks she can fly. She tells her that sometimes she daydreams about sneaking into her ex boyfriend’s house and cutting off his wavy black hair with scissors so he can feel her pain, even though she knows that he already does. She chuckles, picturing how he would look bald. Her therapist reminds her of the rules of confidentiality, that the police will be called if she states serious intention to hurt him or anyone else. But she and her therapist know that she won’t actually do any of the destructive things she thinks about doing.
How a Smart Girl Parties
She limits herself to the cheap vodka halfway filling a glass kombucha bottle. She takes as many hits off her and her friends’ e cigarettes as she wants but only two from her wax pen. The best kind of drunk is sober enough to have coherent conversations and to not worry about throwing up but drunk enough to dance and give her snapchat to any boy who asks. Everything in moderation; go out, but not every weekend. Kiss boys, but don’t let them convince you into going further in the back rooms of house parties. She was proud of herself for being safe that Halloween. A boy at the party she went to drank to such excess that he was unable to speak, a mixture of foam and vomit pouring out of his mouth as he stared blankly. 911 was called and the party ended in flashes of red and white lights, the fire trucks roaring away while everyone looked on. She felt bad for the boy, and glad that she had not had the same fate. She knew she was prone to making bad decisions when it came to drugs and alcohol. But that time, she felt mature for pacing herself and having fun without being self destructive.
What a Smart Girl Has Realized
She knows that she has nothing in her life figured out, but that that’s okay. Her feelings are huge and heavy, sometimes coming close to crushing her. But she’s learned how to deal with them and grown strong enough to push them off. She still thinks about the boy who broke her heart, but doesn’t miss the chaos he brought. Being a teenager is about figuring out who she is, which she doesn’t yet know how to discover. In the meantime, she works on taking care of herself and the people she loves, finding happiness in her relationships.
Laughter fills the small kitchen as all twenty-one of us try to squeeze to get close to the big pot over the stove. The room smells like a sticky, sweet day, and we are all trying to get over to Grandma to sample her famous jam. No matter where you turn, there is a relative who is engaged in some conversation. To the kids it sounds a bit like the adults in Charlie Brown, “Blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah…”.
It gets too crowded with all the kids running around, and one of the uncles, most likely Uncle Dan, yells at us to scram. We burst out of the small doorway like water from a dam. We run into the adjoining living room and most of the younger cousins go upstairs to push the little red button on the singing fish Grandpa Merle found somewhere. “There’s a little song I wrote, might want to sing it note for note…” plays in the background as the girls go into Grandma’s closet, try on all her pretty dresses and pretend that we are queens going to a ball. It is how we see her, and sometimes if we are lucky, we can drag the boys in to be our princes, but not today. “Take me to the river, plop me in the water, take me to the…” We dance and sing along with whatever song is mumbling along in the background. Someone bangs on the ancient piano. Finally, we are adorned with old aprons that Grandma’s mother made for her and some that she had made for Nanna and her daughters. We all file back into the kitchen and squeeze together to watch the process of the jam being put into jars, and after, we shuffle to the table for Grandma’s homemade veranika, a dish that we have all grown up learning to make, and one that we all love.
Once we are all seated, we pray for the meal and begin to enjoy the food Grandma worked so hard to make. We are not disappointed. We all talk and catch up about our crazy year and how we have been, the kids bragging about all the cool things they got to do trying to one-up everyone else. These kinds of meals are periodically sprinkled with quiet moments, which are almost always broken by an antsy cousin who complains that he is bored of sitting and waiting for the fun to start back up again. It’s funny that there is complaining even though this is the most looked forward to event of our entire trip.
Slowly we are excused from the table and now the conversation is interrupted by the singing fish, “don't worry be happy now ohhhhhhhhhhhh…” Next we are all called down to the backyard, and we walk with Grandpa Merle as he brings a handful of sunflower seeds and cashews for his friends in the trees. We watch in wonder as he seems to talk to all the birds and squirrels in a way that we have only seen in cartoons. We try not to scare the birds away with any sudden movement or noise, which inadvertently makes us look like we are walking on the moon. Once Grandpa Merle’s pockets are exhausted of sunflower seeds and cashews, we go back into the house where all the dads and uncles are sitting around the living room with a beer, and all the moms and aunts are gossiping in the kitchen.
The sound of buttons spilling out onto the carpet causes a stampede of little feet running from the kitchen, where we were sneaking extra dessert from the pans. We are still adorned with old homemade aprons from long ago, and we all fight to get to Grandma, because this is our favorite activity whenever we are at her house. The button tin has been brought out. We run up the stairs and find Grandpa Merle, as always, sitting on the ever warm chair, reading the paper like he always does while we sneak extra dessert and he pretends not to see. I run into the room first, beating the rest of the cousins, and over to where Grandma is sitting next to a pile of buttons, although I have seen them a billion times, the buttons seem brand new and different than before. We each circle around and carefully sort through the assortment of buttons. We know each button has a unique story. We each choose one that we like, and then we wait until everyone else has taken a turn. Grandma always goes from oldest to youngest, which means that I almost always get to go first (unless Seb, Lizzie, and Kenzie came, but they rarely do). The button tin has a rich history of kids, grandkids, and now great grandkids sorting through it for a story from Grandma as she laughs and watches us with pride and joy. The button tin used to be an old cookie tin. It has since overflowed from that tin into an actual box. We all circle around. My button is a deep blue velvet button with a little ship that is embroidered in gold. I hand it to Grandma and her smile grows as she laughs and starts into her story.
This particular button was from a coat that her mother had made her when she was young. When Grandma was growing up, it wasn't very often that she got a store bought dress, but her family had saved for months so she could have a party dress for her 12th birthday, and the button belonged to a coat that her mom had made to go with the dress. She absolutely loved that dress. On her birthday, when she was running around playing in the forest behind her home, she tripped and her coat was torn. When she got back home, her mother stitched it right up. She took a button that she had found and sewed it on as an extra to help keep the mended part sealed. As she finishes her story, her laughter fills the room like sunlight in the morning, the rest of the cousins get their story told, and we all get to keep the button we have chosen. My cousin Logan asks excitedly like he always does, “Tell us a story Grandpa,” because we never get bored of the stories that are shared in this room, and Grandpa Merle always has the best stories.
“Well when I was a little boy it was very different, and when I was 5 or 6 or so I would hop on a train to see where it went, and packed a sack of potatoes or some odds or ends from dinner the night before that I had stashed away in my napkin, and I would go down to the fires that were all along the tracks and would have dinner with the hobos. We had the best stew and there was almost always music and dancing. It was a good time.”
The story always ended with him laughing to himself and saying, “that was a good time.” He would continue on, and we would all get drawn in as he told the beautifully woven stories of people he had met long ago. I don't think you can adequately describe the joy and admiration that writes itself on all of our faces as we listen to Grandma and Grandpa Merle’s stories. We just enjoy sitting and talking with them. The most important thing about family Grandma tells us, is the fact that even though we don't always get along or enjoy being with each other, we always have each others backs. This has been drilled into me and my cousins since we could talk, and it is such an important thing to remember, especially since as we have gotten older, and we don’t get to see each other every year. We have gotten closer to one another, because we know that no matter how cruel the world can be, Grandma's house will always be a little sliver of heaven.