I am up not yet late
but soon to be so because
I have plenty to write,
plenty to do, and my life is a series
of words and actions associated with them.
I speak, I write, I even draw words
to make myself exist,
and it almost works.
So I write to you because
I don’t write often to you
yet you are so important to me,
so important to us, the motherless Huths
and even the younger children.
“Younger children” because
we are all your children, we cannot grow up out of
that initial childishness. To our minds
you are always Auntie Nini,
a sense of security in a world now long past,
but we hold onto it, tightly.
I think of you, we think of you, often,
because you are invisible to us, left behind
in the place of my birth, the only marker to where
we once were, to where we are from,
a cool peninsula teeming with life. I am always
a Californian, and you live that into fact
for me. Where I once was, you are.
You might not know this, but I wake up
throughout the night gasping for breath. I don’t know this
except that people tell me it is so. I think I sleep
through it, but I awake dozens of times each hour. I never
have a good night’s sleep, I awake tired but ready
for whatever day it is. So you and I
both yearn and reach, as if with our hands,
for that most basic substance of life, oxygen, and our hands
cannot hold it and it slips away,
and maybe we fall back to sleep and dream
we are who we once were, who we always ever
will be, because we can’t change who we are. It is like skin
over bones, that sense of who we are that holds us in,
that gives us shape, and meaning.
We found once a movie of your high school graduation,
and you watched it and said, “I was beautiful. I was
beautiful. Why did no-one ever tell me I
was beautiful?” And you were beautiful,
and you were beautiful, and no-one told you
because it was too obvious a fact to bother mentioning.
Just as no-one mentioned the need to breathe.
Everything that is obvious is secret,
unspoken, held inside the heart, which sits
between two expanding and contracting lungs.
We do not want to say
what we already know. We talk instead
only about what we are ignorant of.
And you are still beautiful and you
are still beautiful. Because you are who you always were,
you are purely yourself, a person of joy
and kindness, a woman surrounded by
her boys, and the rest of us know
you are not our mother, though you are the only mother
we have. And we know you are there
for all of us.
In a family always dominated by a matriarch,
you are that powerful woman who
holds us together, who makes us a family,
without whom we would simply be
a collection of people, centerless,
pointless, floating away. You are the one
who is left. My mother is dead. Your mother
is dead. Your grandmother, my great-
grandmother, that tiniest woman I met but
never knew, is dead. And we leave it
to you to make us who we are,
Californians for a century and a half, descendants
of ’49ers who never found gold,
people brought by great and powerful desires
to an alien and unwieldy land, but the only
land we know.
My home is cool in the morning
and suffused with the scent of eucalyptus.
My home has a view of the water
but it isn’t the nearby sea.
My home has a cuckoo clock
for time, and we live within its workings.
But I am merely from that place,
not of it. As wind passes through the open windows
of my house, I follow it away, down
the Hudson, out over the night’s black Atlantic,
to Portugal, my other home, down to Morocco,
further to Ghana. Harmattan, harmattan,
and I am bound for Somalia before I am lost
over the formless Indian Ocean.
What home I have I have
because of you.
So I thank you, so late
in my life, now certainly more than half done,
for giving us a family. We all love you
more than we love the obvious fact
of the sun or the air. When we are with you,
we realize who we are. And we love you
for that as well.
This is an awkward life,
and awkward letter written after a full day
of chaotic work and hours toiling
in the yard until the evening slipped
into place. In situations like this,
we mumble because we do not ever
want to say what is obviously so. We do not
ever want to tell you how important you are
to us, how you make us possible, even
though we never see you enough, and don’t cross
this wide continent just to see you, even though
that is what we always want.
I apologize for all of this, for my inability
to express the sense of this life of ours, of yours,
to share the secret of our blood. My excuse
is what it always is:
I am reduced to words.