Conquering the Portuguese by Charing Ball
I come from a long line of angry grieving women.
They didn't have to tell me. It oozed from every pore of their existences.
They were authoritative, stubborn and strong willed. And if they said no, you best believe they meant it. They had few friends and very little in the way of companionship. Most times, they barely smiled.
Mom was angry with her hands a lot. A slick eye roll or a telephone call home from school or just an unwashed dish in the kitchen sink had the potential to set her off. She might have called it discipline, but to me it felt like something else. Something personal.
Like a bit of disappointment and frustration mixed with both shame and guilt.
She became a mother on the eve of adulthood. She was a sophomore in college. He a freshman. He wanted to be a doctor. She wanted to be a writer. She was fresh from Catholic school and a strict Catholic upbringing. He was a handsome man who really liked the ladies. She would end up being a single mother of two children, working at two-to-three jobs. And he would go on to become that doctor he always wanted to be.
Without saying it, most times I knew she blamed me.
I could tell by how she beat me. She would swing on me with belts, shoes and her fists while also crying and yelling about other things. How hard it was. How it wasn't fair. How everything felt like spite.
And then one day she let it slip. In one of her fits of rage, she told me that she hated me because I ruined her life.
Hearing those words come out of her mouth wasn't the death blow I had always imagined it to be. Instead her words served as confirmation of what I had already internalized.
I hated my mom. But sometimes I loved my mom too. I had to because she took care of me when no one else would.
One day, I summoned the courage to ask mom what made her angry like that? She told me grandma. I asked grandma if it was true and she denied it. But she still managed to pass the buck of whatever my mom had accused her of, onto granny. She said granny was mean and nasty. And that for a while, she hated her too.
I asked granny if it was true and she shrugged. Her mom was nice, she said. But then she told me about her grandmother, a Portuguese woman from the East Indies. She didn't like her very much.
I had seen a picture of this Portuguese woman in the back bedroom of Granny’s house. Her features sharp, her eyes vacant and her lips thin and furled. She did not look very nice. I wanted to hate her too. To claim her as the source for all the angry grief felt by the women in my family.
But one day granny told me more about her. She told me the Portuguese lady had come to America from the East Indies with an Irish man who had drank himself to death. She would eventually take up with a light-skinned Black man from the West Indies. Her children from her first marriage didn't approve of the union. And they told her that if she married the Negro, they would never speak to them again. She called their bluff and married him. They kept their promise.
Out of all the angry grievers, Granny was the most open and the least hostile. She didn't mind me asking questions. She also didn't mind when I acted like a brat. She rarely raised her voice. I think it had to do with the Bible and those rosaries that she fingered. Once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once in the evening she would sit by window and mumble to herself a passage from the good book. Then she would finger the rosaries and mumble some more. Then she would become still.
When she wasn't talking to Catholic Jesus, she was knitting us sweaters and baking us biscuits from scratch. It was the only treat she allowed herself. She couldn't have too much salt, she would always say. Or anything too sweet. She would only allow herself a small slither of homemade cheesecake and sweet potato on holidays. It was doctor’s orders, meant to keep the hypertension in check.
She deprived herself a lot.
She wanted it that way. She lived all alone inside of a spacious three-bedroom row home in Northwest Philly. Fiercely independent through her 90s, she choose to walk to church as well as run errands to the supermarket and the bank all by herself. She didn't trust her neighbors so she barely opened the door to strangers. She trusted her family even less, which explained why she rarely came to visit. We saw her mostly during holidays. It was at the rest of the family's insistence.
When asked why she didn’t come see us more she would simply reply, “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone.” Most of the family chalked it up to it all being a part of her personality.
“You know how she is,” they would say. “She just likes to be alone.”
But I could tell that wasn't true. Granny was faithful, but she didn't have a lot of faith, especially in other people. And she lived that way because she had become accustomed to the loneliness and the hurt. I could tell by how much love she threw at us great-grandchildren that she wanted more. She would always come bearing lots of new sweaters and hats she knitted as gifts as well as plenty of hugs.
She would wrap her arms around us children and hold onto us for dear life. She would hold us and kiss us in a way that even grandma and mom wouldn’t. Even if she was not happy, I could tell by how she held us that she wanted us to feel happiness. And even if she pretended to enjoy being alone, I could tell by how she held us that she really didn’t like the loneliness much at all.
Granny could not stand tears.
I once asked Granny about her two husbands, one of which was my great-grandfather, and what happened to them.
“Well your grandfather died,” she said as she worked the flour through a cake sifter.
“And the other?” I said, being my curious self.
Without turning her back on me, she said “he went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back.”
“Well, did it make you sad?”
She stopped her sifting for a second to think about it. Then she shrugged. “If he wanted to be gone, let him go.”
But her face wasn't that assured. I could tell that his leaving still bothered her. It would hurt me. Yet somewhere along the line she was made to feel that this pain was inconsequential. That being and expressing vulnerability offered little rewards. Somewhere along the line she learned that lost, loneliness, and anger were part of the territory. And that to live life was to suffer greatly and quietly.
For the women in my family, being vulnerable and loving carefree was a privilege. Granny was a single working mother of a single working mother of a twice-widowed single working Portuguese mother from the East Indies. Through her living testimony, we learned everything we needed to know about what it meant to be Black and colored women in a culture that told us that we didn't matter and were easily forgotten.
As such, I was angry at mom, mom was angry at grandma, grandma was angry at granny and granny blamed the Portuguese.
I often wonder how our lives might have been different had the women in my life been given the space to speak freely of past grievances?
If granny had been allowed to be vulnerable, would she had felt safe and secure enough to pick up the phone and ask her family for help when things got too hard for her, instead of almost dying alone merely feet away from the kitchen telephone? If grandma would have been allowed the space to vent righteously would it have freed her from her hoarding of old newspaper clippings, magazines, and regret? If mom would have been given the opportunity to confront the father who abandoned her, would she have been a lot less angry and a lot less fearful to love me?
I remember the first time I got angry. I was a kid, no older than nine, and extremely curious. I was playing alone outside of our King street apartment complex in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, when I happened upon a stranger's first floor apartment window. I had my face pressed up against the outside screen to get a better look inside. I could not see the apartment dweller, but I saw their television clearly.
A couple of minutes later, a boy walked out. He was much older than I, at least in his teens. He asked me what I was doing. I shrugged and giggled. He asked me if I thought it was cool spying on people through open windows. I assured him that I meant no harm. He punched me in the mouth as a sign of his disbelief. I sobbed all the way home. Mom found me sitting alone on the steps to our apartment building. She asked me what was wrong with both me and my bottom lip. I told her I fell. I could not risk telling her the truth without risking injury to my top lip.
She yelled at me for being clumsy and popped me upside my head anyway. Then banished me to my room. I spent the rest of the evening wishing horrible things would happen to both my mom and the boy who physically assaulted me.
I would experience that angry grief many other times in life. Like the times when Dad wavered between being present and active and resenting the fact he had a girl child he never wanted. Like the time when I was called a nigger by a coworker only to have the Black boss dismiss my harassment as a sign that I was both whiny and uppity. Like the time when my first boyfriend didn't respect my boundaries and decided to take what he felt he was entitled to. And the many times when I was told I was too ugly, too fat, and too stupid to be loved.
Everywhere I went people blamed me. They told me I was no victim. That I was responsible for how they treated me. It was because I wasn't trying enough. Or that I was being lazy. Or that I was being emotional. Or I wasn't loving myself enough. Or that I wasn't being rational. Or that my expectations were too high. Or that I was trying too hard. Or that I was emotion-less. Or that I was nobody thinking I was a somebody.
Every person I turned to for relief told me to buck it up. Stop crying. Stop whining. Stop being ungrateful. They said that life ain't easy for nobody. Accept it. And get over it.
I took fragments of that angry grief and tucked it away in dark corners and in the back of closets. I took that anger and buried it so deeply in the recess of my mind, I had convinced myself that it no longer mattered. That I was no longer grieving and angry.
But no matter how I tried to hide it, that angry grief would always show up. At work. At my friends and family. And in relationships. On my face and in my words. Nowhere felt safe. Not even in my own home. Not even in my own skin. After a while there was no way to hide from it. And the angry grief began to consume me until it almost killed me.
My best friend would be the first to save me. She was the one who told me to go to therapy. It helped her, she said, from dying from her own angry grief.
My therapist helped me further by giving me the tools to save myself. The first tool she gave me was admission. It was okay to acknowledge my grief. That what I felt wasn't all in my head. She told me that I was right: that I did not deserve it nor was it my fault. And most of what was said and done to me - and what I had learned to say and do to myself - wasn't even true.
She told me that in order to free myself from my own grief, I had to fully untangle myself from Mom's grief. And grandma's grief and even granny's grief. For that, my therapist gave me the tool of permission. She told me that I should give myself the permission to stop being so hard on myself. That it was okay to say I was hurt. And that I was in pain. And in agony. And in defeat. And in grief. And she told me that I should give myself the permission to speak these truths, even if it means that I had to grieve openly....
It would be a bald-faced lie to say that I am healed. While I am anxiously awaiting the moment in my life when I can say that without a doubt that I am whole, the reality is that the process of learning and unpacking my grief has been measured and not without its setbacks.
As such, my space from whence I write and create is a bit chaotic. And while the foundation is built on love, hope and a tad bit of faith, the walls in between are filled with discontent, jealousy, envy, spite, trust issues and of course, angry grief. My space is not perfect. But that’s okay, because I am not perfect. And I don't have to be perfect in order to be vulnerable and speak to my emotional justice. Nor do I have to be perfect for other people to relate. I just have to be unapologetic, sincere, and brave.
And if folks still can't understand, blame it on the Portuguese...