Canned Tomatoes

10/12/2011

My mother and I are very close; we grew up together. I recall holding her hand as her ears were pierced for the first time (I was 3, she was 26–the age I am now). While we do not talk all that frequently (once every few weeks or every month), we both write letters when we can and I feel her with me everyday. I carry her here (imagine my fist pressed to my chest). Not as a weight, but as a buoy.

I don’t want to talk too much about my mother’s life, reveal too much without her permission, but I will say that she has survived a fair amount of trauma, and bears the marks of that in the form of PTSD and other (for lack of a better word) quirks. As children, my baby brother and I were discouraged from making sudden loud noises lest we trigger her. As a concession we were given time to scream. We’d all pile into the car and she’d start to drive and then yell “Okay, one, two, THREE, SCREAM!” And we would, voices raised in joy and rage. Life with my mother was never dull. My mother raised me with the same kind of constant anxiety that she herself experienced. She raised me on caution, suspiciousness, anxiety, double-checking locked doors, looking over my shoulder at the sound of approaching footsteps. I don’t think she meant to–she was just trying her best to keep me safe from a dangerous world.

My mother talks in code when we talk on the phone, as if someone might be listening at some point and interject, protest, punish either one of us for the secrets we share, as parent and child. She calls trauma ‘canned tomatoes.’ My mother has a specific palate for using metaphor to confront even the most difficult of subjects, something I learned well–we are both writers.

I was raised on canned tomatoes, stocked and stewed for years. It’s taken me a long time to stop taking on other peoples’ tomatoes when they share them with me. For years it physically hurt to hear my friends and loved one’s stories, and I would find myself dragging them around with me and being hurt by their trauma over and over, how could these horrible things happen to these people I love? I’d better be careful… My pantry was over-full. I had enough canned tomatoes that I might not ever want to leave the house again, were that possible.

But. I am learning how to be present, to sit with other peoples’ stories of trauma (with my own) without taking on the weight. This thing happened to you, you did not deserve it, it was awful–and it is okay. I am not responsible for it and I can’t take it away, but I can be present long enough to listen, to hear you, and sometimes that is enough. Sometimes that is more than enough.

My pantry shelves are getting lighter. There’s finally room for the fruits (and vegetables!) of liberation, too–and not just the fruit of our sorrows.

-RD

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