BY AMY HOLWERDA
When the doctor told me, days after I had been spread eagle in his stirrups feeling him scrape, scrape, scrape inside me, that it was the early stages of cancer, he was full of questions. “Does cancer run in your family?”
“Yes, I think so,” I said, telling him about Grandpa.
“I see,” was the ready response. “And what about your mother’s side?”
My grandmother falls, I wanted to say. She has had every kind of cancer, parts of her body have been hacked away leaving gaping holes, scars. But these things do not matter, not when someone else’s blood is pulsing through my veins.
When my mother went searching for the family that abandoned her, her birth mother told her to stop looking. I never want to meet you, she said. My mother gave her plenty of opportunities, told her she wanted nothing from her, just to see her face. But after these requests went unanswered, the line of communication fell dead. Severed with the cold sterility of scissors at the umbilical cord. Years later, the face of my mother’s mother, a woman we knew only as Tootsie, graced a billboard-sized poster plastered against the walkway of our local airport. A friend came knocking with the photograph she snapped returning home from Cabo San Lucas or Myrtle Beach. “It’s your mother,” she shrieked. “You look just like her!” At the dining room table my mother cupped the photograph in her hands and stared at her birth mother’s wide smile, highlighting the words: WELCOME HOME.
For years after the birth parents’ names were released on my mother’s eighteenth birthday, we heard rumors. People knew people who knew people who heard. Unwinding the truths of a hidden history is a bit like playing a game of telephone – you hear things whispered, passed along, transforming into something unrecognizable. When Tootsie was pregnant, she bound her stomach. This much we think we know to be true although no one is sure where they learned it. We heard that she wound fabric tightly against her protruding belly and covered up with layers of bulky clothing. There are rumors that Tootsie took my mother home for a few days, hiding her under pillows when guests came over before she dropped my mother off, unceremoniously, at the orphanage. Another rumor is that she simply walked out of the hospital without her baby. Whatever the rumors, my grandmother received a call that there were infants for her to choose from and she threaded her way between the collection of cribs, perhaps peering down intently at each face, perhaps not, before selecting my mother, the smallest baby of the bunch.
My mother was in her late thirties when she received a call from her birth brother—they shared the same mother but different fathers. He told her that he’d recently become a Christian and that the Spirit had moved him to call her, to know her. When they met, they did so in secret. His mother, their mother, this Tootsie, would have been enraged, he said. When I saw them together for the first time—my mother and her brother—it was like staring at a split screen image, two sides of the same coin. When he turned and saw my face, the color drained from him, stark as the sun disappearing behind clouds. “You look just like her,” he said.
This woman I do not know.
She is rough, he told us, rough to the world, and rough in it—tumbled around like a stone that never polishes, but chips away jagged as a crag. When we asked, he didn’t know much about her medical history, especially not the things a woman might want to learn from her mother. He didn’t know what parts of his mother were genetic, what parts were brought on by her three-pack-a-day habit, her alcohol abuse. She aged prematurely, can’t think rationally, functions through anger. “Does that help?” he asked my mother. Does that even scratch the surface?
When I was twenty-four, I met a man in a dance club. We danced together, our bodies moving as one. He said, “Let me buy you drink,” so we made our way to the bar. When I ordered two shots of Rumplemintz, he said in a voice like purring, “Oh, I’m not drinking. Alcoholism runs rampant in these Bellefonte genes.” When he repeated himself, Bellefonte, I recoiled as though he were on fire. Yes, I knew this name. Bellefonte, the named inked on my mother’s birth certificate naming her father. Tootsie’s one night stand.
One Christmas Eve night, when I was too young to remember, my mother approached her birth father in a church parking lot, moments before midnight mass. I imagine she was weeping, snow clinging to her wavy brown hair, the tips of her wet eyelashes. “You’re my father,” she said.
We had heard many things about him, too. Heard that he fathered several children, drank his weight in whiskey, taught women how to Samba, punched walls, worse. But in that moment, in the light of the frosted midnight moon, he reached out a gentle palm to my mother’s hair and stroked it. “You call me anytime,” he whispered. And then he was gone.
But now, standing in the club, he returned in the slate blue eyes of his only son, this Bellefonte. I had seen photos of this man, clipped from newspaper stories, laminated in thin sheets of hot plastic and saved in a shoebox under the bed, a makeshift family album. When he married a local news reporter, his last name splashed across headlines: Bellefonte, Bellefonte, Bellefonte.
“I think you’re my uncle,” I said. And then he disappeared like vapor. Like the wave of memory, running.
I remember hearing how my mother’s birth-father called her late in the night. How he slurred curses into the phone. “She’s my daughter,” he might have demanded. “Put her on the damn phone.”
“Don’t call here again,” my father said. And he never did. But it has always been this way. This coming and going and drifting of things that comprise me. The things that lurk around corners, shadowing in my definition like a charcoal sketching and the back of a fist, rubbing.
When the doctor told me he had found these precancerous cells, he said the surgery to remove them would be simple. “Imagine that your cervix is like an orange,” he said. “I’m going to go in and peel the skin off that orange.” He said it would be as simple as making breakfast. Casual, as if he could already feel the juice dripping down his fingers as he wedged a thumb between peel and pith.
“You should have someone with you,” he said. “You can’t drive yourself home.”
I said I would ask my mother, but like my father, I found that words were difficult. Like fear. Like the loss of control. But she beat me to the punch as I stood awkwardly in the kitchen. “Your grandmother fell again,” she said. “Let’s go.”
At the hospital, the doctor told us there was nothing wrong with my grandmother. “Her brain scan is normal,” he said. And then, “Perhaps it’s her legs. They may be too weak to hold her,” as if this had only just occurred to him—that weakness leads to our falling.
A note on why we chose it:
As both an editor and a writer, I believe image is everything. If I had been born with a better ear poetry might’ve been my calling, but fiction and nonfiction are what I’ve fallen into. As soon as I began to read “Family History,” it was the imagery that made me catch my breath. The legs spread eagle in stirrups, a grandmother’s shattered bones, a doctor peeling cancer from the cervix like an orange. Amy Holwerda tells a story that could easily fall into victimization, self-pity, obsession with the unknown. But she focuses on what she does know: her non-biological grandmother’s love of falling down; her father’s destructive, though self-preserving, silence. Amy Holwerda takes us on a quest to figure out what makes us up, and it is a pulsing, lyric journey. That’s why I chose it.
~Chidelia Edochie, Nonfiction Editor