Uncertain mother-daughter relationships exist in many families and households. Snapshots of these relationships help readers connect to their own experiences. When my mother died at age 58 in 1992, I was seventeen years old, and my world was set off balance by her loss. Thus, when I read narratives of mother-loss, I can help to process my own mother’s loss and begin to heal.
In “Holes” by Leslie Salley, the reader experiences one woman’s mother loss through a selection of non-linear scenes from various points in Salley’s life. The essay opens in a hospital with a quote that establishes scene and character. Salley writes, “When the doctor said, ‘bone marrow biopsy,’ my mom and I didn’t make eye contact.” This first line establishes fear and uncertainty. The news is not good, and even though we do not know the relationship between the author and her mother, we understand from this one line that we are entering a story that may not end well.
In the remaining paragraphs in this first section, we have a snapshot of the procedure from a front row seat in the “operating room.” Salley as the daughter narrates as the only family member in the room during the procedure. Time and space are again established in a half-sentence: “Around noon, she was being prepped for the routine procedure, and after my dad and brother left for lunch, I stayed glued to the vinyl covered seat….” In later segments of the essay, we see other times and places in Salley’s life that all provide small snapshots of falling into physical holes: the hole in bathroom linoleum, manure hole on her grandfather’s farm. We understand in these scenes what is implied in the epigraph at the beginning of the piece–a woman has many ways of falling. When a woman has lost the love of a mother, picking herself up out of those holes gets harder.
In the final scene, the perspective shifts from a hole that Salley has already fallen into to a hole that she wants to enter of her own accord: the physical space of her mother’s grave.
Before the groundskeeper covered the mahogany casket with the dry brown dirt, I walked around the open grave, wanting to leap on the casket and be buried with Mom. The man looked at me as he leaned on a metal pole that held the blue tarp drooping above the hollow rectangle and said, “Don’t fall in. It’s deeper than it looks.”
The final line is both literal and metaphorical. Mother loss can leave a hole that looks much deeper than you might at first believe. And, ironically, the one woman who might help you out of that hole is the one buried in the hole itself.
For those of us who have not encountered our mothers as adults, “Mexican Americans and American Mexicans: An Etymology” by Sarah Chavez provides another snapshot into daughter/mother relationships. This essay centers around a single scene: two daughters and a mother on a road trip to Anaheim. Just as with “Holes,” the dialogue between the mother and daughters directly establishes a close and easy relationship. Clearly, these woman love each other. And in this love, they can test their identities and question their relationships.
In the first paragraph of the essay, we see a montage of conversations. The trio have already moved “from which Starbucks is closest to the freeway, to funny pet stories, to politics, to my sister explaining some of the many ways in which the women she works with are awful.” This montage prefaces the main conversation about how the women identify themselves using ethnic and racial titles.
After the main contribution is introduced, the narrator pauses the action and narrates a brief history of her family so that the reader can understand the context for this conversation. In the two paragraph aside, Chavez moves fast-motion through other periods in her life where subtle and not-so-subtle cues told her how to position herself culturally.
The main conversation slows down the action, abruptly shifting from fast-motion shots of Chavez’s past to a normal speed recounting of the conversation in the car.
On being called white, I could see in the rear view mirror my sister’s face twitch with restraint.
“We’re also Mexican,” she finally says.
“No, you’re American,” Mom says, twisting in her seat to look Christy in the eyes. “Your race is Caucasian. There are only three races and Mexican isn’t one of them. All Mexicans are white.”
“Mexicans in this country don’t get treated like white people, and by that logic, all Mexicans are Americans,” I say. “America is the continent and in that continent is both Mexico and Canada.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” my mom says, this time sounding irritated.
Chavez uses this conversation to demonstrate how the political can be personal and vice versa, and how the terms we use to construct our identity. The women in the car navigate through words separated by language which is used to both connect them to each other and help them establish personal boundaries.
The last three lines of the essay show us an uneasy truce.
“Fine. Whatever,” Christy says. “Then what do you call yourself, Ms. PhD student studying ‘La-tino’ literature?” She separates out the first syllable, making air quotes with her fingers – something my dad says only white people do.
My mom reaches over a delicately manicured hand and turns on the radio.
Chavez’s ending is even more powerful in our current political climate where parents and children, sisters and sisters struggle to find common ground on which to discuss different world views. Chavez demonstrates how, when our world views intertwine with our passions, our educational encounters, and our experiences, we might encounter those who are both “other” and deeply a part of ourselves. At the boundaries of relationship and language, we struggle to find common ground through love and shared experiences.
Both Salley and Chavez allow us to see into their lives at critical and sensitive junctures, not so much to expose themselves, but to invite us into the conversations about our mothers–those who have passed and those still here–and ask us to consider ourselves as humans in flawed and delicate relationships.