It was the much-anticipated school play, and there I was in the teeming auditorium, wrangling an enormous camera and a wiggly toddler next to my husband, scanning little faces for my eldest child up on stage. After curtain call, our 7-year-old daughter ran over to us, a radiant smile spread across her face. “Are you proud of me?” she beamed. “We are so proud of you, baby girl!” we exclaimed. My husband swept her up in the air, and she nuzzled her head contentedly on his chest, skinny arms draped over her daddy’s shoulders. I felt an unfamiliar kind of ease, a sense of triumph I could not quite decipher.
My heart was full, yet I couldn’t breathe. A weight in my chest announced itself, a familiar gripping sensation I often forget I still carry. I wanted to weep. I watched my girl hold onto her daddy, safe and happy, innocence intact and whole in her sparkling eyes. She was tracing little hearts on her daddy’s shoulders as she excitedly told us every backstage detail. It is at these moments of tenderness and joy that I feel the wound open, get air and begin to heal.
I remembered the little girl I once was, the child who wanted to sing and dance and play, to hear soft, encouraging words from her father. “Papi, can I have dance lessons?” I asked shyly. Singing and dancing is for whores, he said, looking at me accusingly. I lowered my head, feeling somehow ashamed of a word I did not quite comprehend. I was the same age our daughter is now, 7.
In the ensuing years of childhood, I learned how to be quiet before I really even knew how to speak. I became a hard, pragmatic young person, one who observed human beings from a comfortable distance, calculating moods and personalities, quirks and preferences, because this is how you survive walking on eggshells. You create binary worlds, one for at home and one for outside, because what happens behind the closed door is to stay there. Behind the door was contained rage — mine, his, ours.
By the time I was 12, I recall watching my mother from the door frame. She was sitting at the edge of the bed, her back to me. Minutes before I had told her she looked lovely in a two-piece skirt suit she was set to wear to a work meeting. She had given me a rare broad smile. Then my father had walked in and casually berated her for dressing up, saying she looked “cheap and ridiculous.” I watched her face fall as she turned quickly around and glanced at me, embarrassed I had seen. I averted my gaze and pretended I hadn’t, that her humiliation wasn’t so familiar. My mother had always been a beautiful woman. My father was aware of this, so he would often tell her she was ugly or stupid, anything useful to keep her afraid and with him, in our house of shadows.
“Mami?” I later called out timidly. My mother stared vacantly out the window. She looked like a porcelain doll. This is how you break a person, I remember thinking. This is how you empty someone out so that they look like everyone else, but inside they are hollow. I closed the door quietly.
How many times had I closed a door so I could pretend to not hear what happened behind it?
At age 14, the things that had long dampened my mother’s spirit were swiftly being directed at me. As I began to resemble my mother, I became her reflection in his eyes. Except the reflection had gone awry, and the daughter wasn’t as docile as the mother. The tenor of the house shifted, became sharper. One day my mother placed her body between my father and I and said nothing, but her eyes were bright and alive in a way I had never seen. I now understand that the look said, Not with my child — that sometimes you are able and willing to do for your children what you cannot do on your own behalf.
My father decided to travel alone that Thanksgiving, leaving us on our own and with an empty refrigerator for the holiday. My mother, the woman who had never had a checkbook or a credit card of her own, who had handed her paycheck to her husband for 19 years and spoke English as a second language, had quietly squirreled money away, started a new bank account, hired a lawyer, and found us a place to live. When he returned, we were gone. Broke, we used a coupon for a free turkey to eat. My mom cried when I used it, because she was sad and ashamed and scared. She couldn’t yet see how proud I was of her, the happiness at being able to breathe. That cheap frozen turkey was ours, and it was freedom.
Still, nothing came easily. Friends and those of our faith tradition abandoned us, feeling it was better to save face and keep a family intact. We were seen as shameful and disloyal for bringing to light what nobody wanted to see. I resisted a relationship on my father’s terms, a life by his measure. And so he did not come to the hospital when a car hit me and left me on the side of the road the week of my 17th birthday. My mother was the only person who came to my high school graduation, wearing a navy blue dress with huge white polka dots to be sure that I could spot her in the crowd. She did her best to make herself twice as big in my life, while learning who she was in the process.
Over time I did the things that I dreamed and had long been told I would never do — I went away to school, I got stamps in my passport, I watched the sun rise with dear friends on warm summer nights, and I became a woman who drew the contours of her own life. I met a partner of remarkable kindness and patience, who over 13 years has gingerly shown me that the mark of a man is the capacity to embrace without the need to control, that healthy love cracks the world open rather than slamming it closed.
Looking at my buoyant daughter, tears sprang to my eyes at the little girl who decades ago cowered in her room, wanting to disappear under the weight of jagged words and numbing silences. It had seemed then that joy was a thing that was not for women; it was not for me. Salty drops tumbled over my lips after my daughter’s play, because that would never be my girls. The cycle had been broken, because sometimes it is the shattering that pieces you together. I wanted to tell the quiet little girl in her room lost in books that things would be okay. Someday our girls — the children raised by the woman I became, and the sad little girl that will somehow always still be inside her — will look into daddy’s eyes and see a home where their spirits grow big.
My daughters will know that the value of a woman is intrinsic, not conferred to them by their relationship to any man. They will think of their daddy as their ally, their first example of how a man should be. I nurture their father-daughter relationship, one that I treasure but in some fundamental way will never understand. It is a tenderness without which I was shaped, and a trust I never learned to have. Yet when I wrap my arms around our little family in moments of happy melancholy, I will breathe in the gratitude of paths changed, and for the courage it took to get there.
Dotson-Renta is a scholar of romance languages and postcolonial literature. She writes, edits and tweets.
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