Time and Space in “Holes” and “Mexican Americans and American Mexicans”

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.

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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.

“Mestiza.”

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.

Death Day

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock allowed free access on MLK Day, January 20, 2014. My husband, my just-turned-5-year-old daughter, and my five-months-pregnant-with-our-son me decided to make our first trip to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum–our first time to visit since we returned to Arkansas the previous July.

We walked past the limousine that might have carried President Clinton during his first inauguration, and up the stairs to the theater that played the fifteen minute video of the former President walking us through a timeline of his political life. From his law school days to becoming the Governor of Arkansas to his first inauguration. And there, on the screen, is Clinton taking the oath of office.

At this point, my heart fell open on the floor. I burst into tears.

My husband and child, unaware of any particular deep love of Clinton on my part, tried not to stare at me in the darkness.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My daughter’s due date was January 19, 2009, but she couldn’t wait to meet us and came 13 days early on the morning of January 6. I had anticipated watching Barack Hussein Obama being sworn in as the 44th President from the confines of Cox Hospital labor and delivery unit.

Instead, I sat in my rocking chair holding my soon-to-be two-week-old girl. Postpartum depression hit hard, and one of the only ways to keep it at bay was to hold her and rock and rock and rock and watch mindless television, like What Not To Wear on TLC, and write in my journal.

That day, I thought back to Tuesday, November 4, 2008, when I, seven-months pregnant, watched the first mixed-race man to run for the highest office in the land win an unlikely victory. On the drive home from a watch party, my husband said, “I don’t believe it. They’ll find a way for him to lose.”

But no. He won, and my hazel-eyed, mixed-race baby girl slept while I rocked and cried and watched the woman in yellow smiling as her husband spoke his oath.


Monday, January 20, 1997

My college group arrived at Clinton’s second inauguration at 7:00 a.m. and still didn’t get anywhere close to the main event. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and shortly after noon, Clinton referenced the great civil rights leader in his inauguration speech to an audience blue from hours already spent in the near freezing cold.

He said, “The divide of race has been America’s constant curse. And each new wave of immigrants gives new targets to old prejudices. Prejudice and contempt cloaked in the pretense of religious or political conviction are no different. These forces have nearly destroyed our Nation in the past. They plague us still. They fuel the fanaticism of terror. And they torment the lives of millions in fractured nations all around the world.”

I shoved my hands down further in my coat and huddled against my friends who had also paid their $200 to ride on a bus for two days to not see the event from behind a huddle of the yearning masses.

My father paid my way.

Before Clinton took his second oath, Miller Williams read a poem called “Of History and Hope.”

A year later, I would meet the poet Miller Williams after a reading at Missouri State University.

And over a decade later, Miller Williams’ granddaughter would watch my children one New Year’s Eve so my husband and I could go to watch a friend perform in “Tales From The South” about how his father was mistaken for the poet Miller Williams at Missouri State University.

But on that cold, January morning in 1997, I stood five hours to watch Bill Clinton be sworn in and stood another four hours, until my fingers and toes were well past numb, to watch a parade to celebrate the two-term President from Arkansas.

The Presidential Limousine drove past us around 4 p.m., and Hillary Clinton waved to me out of the window.


Wednesday, January 20, 1993

I stood in front of the television cabinet, very close, too close and watched Bill Clinton, former governor of my state, raise his right hand and repeat after William Rehnquist his promise to uphold the Constitution of the United States. I was seventeen, thin, black-dressed, and numb. My father, a true blue Democrat from Minnesota, Bill Clinton’s biggest fan, stood beside me and also watched.

Back in Arkansas, a cold rain had fallen and frozen the weekend before. At the capitol in Washington, the first couple bathed in the cold sunshine.

After the oath and the cheering, and before the speech and the cheering, I clicked the television off, turned around, and got my coat to leave for my mother’s funeral, which had been a day delayed because the ground, frozen solid, would not yield to the gravediggers.


Friday, January 20, 2017

Two days from now, another inauguration. The weather is calling for a warm rain in Washington.

I will not hunch in my coat bracing against the cold. Arkansas, where it all ended and began, is having a particularly mild winter.

My daughter is just turned eight. My son is near to being three. They will go to school on January 20, like any other week day. My husband and I will go to our schools where we will work and avoid the televisions, like any other day. We will try not to talk about it.

We are numb.

As Miller Williams wrote and read to President Clinton and all of us,

“In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.”

Why Simplify and not Forgive

A friend emailed a week ago with a challenge. Pick a word and sent an intention to focus on that word in 2017.

Two words immediately sprung to mind: play & forgive.

Educators know that play…well…plays a significant role in human development and in human social endeavors. As an educator, I try (or rather USED to try) to incorporate play into my classes. Students completed simulation games to learn about technical report writing or journal and freewrite in creative writing classes to come up with a kernel of an idea.

Play involves both winning and losing. Failure opens the portal to success by building neural structures. Closing off avenues to play harms humans and leads to emotional and social disorders.

Over the course of the last few years as I earned tenure at one school, promptly resigned that position and moved from Oregon to Arkansas, had an unexpected (and WONDERFUL) pregnancy at 38, started a new job, worked to earn tenure AGAIN, and moved into new residences three additional times, I didn’t always have (or MAKE) time for play.

But even now, I have other work to do mentally before I really dedicate myself to a year of play. Some of that work revolves around forgiveness. Forgiving myself for less than stellar performance (the perfect is the enemy of the good) and forgiving others for a variety of slights. For the last few decades, I have been living in a constant Festivus Airing of Grievances.

While I need to center on both play and forgiveness, the more I dwelled on those terms, the less I felt ready for them. What I need to do first is simplify.

A few years ago, I subscribed to Real Simple in an effort to declutter, destress, and clarify. I never made time to read it, and the issues that I didn’t read gathered cluttered and stressed my life.

What I need now is that decluttering and destressing, but first, I need to clean out my head. So, I have decided to ask, when I am charged up, angry, or depressed, “What is the most simple choice I can make right now?”

I am a professional at worrying over the possibilities of damn near every decision I have to make. When I put on a shirt in the morning, I mentally picture myself going through the day…considering what possible scenarios I might face in said shirt. Would that shirt be comfortable if I sat at my desk? If I walked to the copier? In various meetings? Sprinting across campus in case of a….you get the picture.

Instead of what I call “running the plays,” I need to work on simplicity. So, instead of asking myself the barrage of questions above, I need to just say, “What is the most simple decision I can make right now?” If the simple decision is to put on a shirt that is comfortable RIGHT NOW, then I assume that the shirt will be sufficiently comfortable the remainder of the day. Done.

My new simplify my mind (and live in simple mindfulness) motto can be found at the Word Porn website:

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I have in this first 10 days of January not been so successful at this. Last night, I spent a good two hours running the plays on various imagined scenarios instead of simply being present.

The good news? I have 355 more days (and hopefully many years after that) to get it right(er).

Why I Have(n’t) the Time to Blog

Last night, I spend an hour and a half playing a game called Jelly Splash on my cell phone. I played from when the kids went to bed until my phone battery died.

And, for an hour and a half, I cursed that game for clearly cheating me by not acting in the ways I wanted to act. I wanted to win. And, like a gambling addict tapping the “ROLL!” button at a casino slot machine, I kept hitting “Play Again!”

So, this morning, when I faced the first day of classes with coffee-fueled energy, I considered blogging.

“You probably don’t have time,” my Self said, cradling the cell phone where Jelly Splash rested behind the sleepy screen.

But the truth is, I have as much time as I make. Like Rumplestiltskin’s gold-spinning trickster, my Self spins all the time it needs for shiny things (JELLY SPLASH) while talking me out of blogging or exercising or eating a salad.

No more lack of time! So far, this post has taken five minutes to write, and while it isn’t the most shining example of professional prose I have ever developed, it’s writing. It’s five more minutes of writing than I had completed five minutes ago.

Last year, I decided to write for just five minutes a day and downloaded vJournal (which works with Evernote) to capture my five minutes of golden straw. I journaled for five days.

This year, I am asking my students to keep a blog, and as I am a masochist, I need to make myself suffer through what they are suffering through so that I can understand their plight. Which means…blogging. And preparing for blogging. Modeling good blogging practice. Talking about and researching blogging.

To be honest, the thought that I will write out words that have an instant (potential but not likely) audience makes me a little woozy. Sure, I can toss out something quick and easy on Facebook, the chocolate protein bar in the online publishing buffet. But to actually put thought into something that I push out nearly instantly into the netherworld of the interwebs?? Ack. I don’t want you to read this. Stop reading. I insist.

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So, here’s my goal. I will blog at least 500 words. I won’t blog every day. On good weeks, I want to blog Monday morning and Friday morning. On bad weeks, I want to blog Monday mornings only.

After all, young Doogie Howser, M.D. wrote after every episode, and he wasn’t even a REAL doctor. And there was no such thing as the internet! He just wrote for a journal that no one would read (except all the show’s viewers, but still).

See? I’ve already written 450 words!

Not only will I write 500 words weekly (apparently, numbers don’t count as words…), I will announce at the end of each blog what the next blog is about so I will be motivated to think about that next blog when I am oh, say, working on trying to possibly…

Time’s up! 🙂

(p.s. The next blog will be about my theme for the year: Simplify! And a bit about why I tossed out the previous theme: Forgiveness.)