What is Revealed by the Family Stories That Go Untold?
Kei Miller: “I know how to tell stories, but how does one begin to tell silence?”
Virginia Woolf once mused, “I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite,” and it makes me think about the old black woman who sat in the virtual corner of my family. I suspect there is a novel to be written about her, and about my family, and about the secrets we kept. It would be a much safer thing to do that—to write a novel with its guise of fiction—rather than this. I think about the old black woman, the way she sat there wrapped in a blanket of silence and secrecy. I did not think about her much as a child, but I think about her now.
“But maybe that’s all family is? Just a handful of stories you tell yourself.”
I read this line from the manuscript of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play, Appropriate. It leaves a cold and stinging impression in my heart. I stop as if to gasp, but then the feeling stops, just like that, as suddenly as it had hit me. It is curious. I consider the line again. Why did it hit me, and then why did the impression leave? I think it is almost certainly the truth, but maybe the truth as reflected through a mirror. An inverted truth. So I spin it around in my mind. I spin it until it says something slightly different: Maybe that’s all family is—just the handful of stories we never tell. And there it is again, the cold shock of truth. I feel the icy bite of it first in my heart, and then it spreads across my entire body.
There are many stories my family did not tell me. They did not tell me about the woman, my father’s aunt, who was arrested for murder. It is true that she was not related by blood. She was the wife of my father’s uncle, and she had raised cows. So had her neighbors. They raised cows for a living, but a thief in the village was depleting the herds. Every morning they would wake up to find one less cow—either completely gone, or slaughtered and butchered in the field. The police had been informed, but they were useless. Every morning this thing kept on happening. Every morning a congregation of flies would tell them this thing had happened once more—more money down the drain.
Frustrated, the villagers decided to set their own trap. They decided to stay up themselves, hidden in their own fields, until the thief was caught. And so this woman who I had almost never heard about was part of the mob of villagers that caught the thief and part of the mob that beat him to death—slaughtered him just as he had slaughtered the cows.
My family had never intended to tell me this story, but they had gathered—my father, his siblings and their mother—my grandmother—and somehow the edge of the story had slipped out, by a sort of accident. They had tried to usher the story back into the darkness, into the place of cobwebs, but I had grabbed hold of its edge, the trailing hem of it. I had wrenched it back into the light.
The story is told to me almost resentfully, and it goes so far and no more. At this point in time, no one even remembers her name—though she was my father’s aunt—my grandmother’s sister-in-law. It is only remembered that she murdered a man, and that she went to jail, and that that was the last they ever heard of her. I ask my grandmother again for a name. Oh, she says, who can remember such things now? She was Haitian. My grandmother says this as if it should explain everything. She was Haitian, which is to say her name was French, and so felt strange in the mouth of a Jamaican so who could bother remembering such sounds—such strange syllables—if one never had to call such a name again. And maybe as well my grandmother was saying she was black and an immigrant, so definitely not worth remembering. It does not matter that my family was a black family. This kind of thing is more common than you might think.
And then my grandmother’s eyes light up. She has remembered something—another detail. “Oh yes—she killed my brother, you know. I told you that she was Haitian, yes? Well she made all these bush teas for Massa. It damaged his liver.”
They did not want to tell me this story. They did not want to tell me about this woman from Haiti who raised cows and who helped kill a man. And they did not tell me about the old black woman who sat in the corner.
I think about my family—my black family—and the black women we hide from our story.
Maybe all that a family is, is the stories we do not tell. Maybe all that a family is, is the shape of its silence. For there in that silence lies all the family’s shame, and all of its values, and all of its most desperate longings. Often, in the vault of a family’s untold stories are the most important things.
They had tried to usher the story back into the darkness, into the place of cobwebs, but I had grabbed hold of its edge, the trailing hem of it.
I must write this from a peculiar angle. I cannot tell you the stories that were never told to me, or at least that were never told definitively. These are only whispered stories—the little bits overheard when the aunts thought you were not listening, the assorted pieces of a puzzle assembled by you and your cousins as you tried to figure out how things fit together; these are the half stories you swapped at night like little prizes; these are the small snippets told to you by your grandmother when she decided that she was dying and so to hell with it. Perhaps, at the very least, I will change some names—not in order to make this fiction, but to acknowledge the fiction that would have already crept in over the years—the guesses, the conjectures. I must acknowledge the incompleteness of it all. I know how to tell stories, but how does one begin to tell silence?
Of course, my grandfather should have been the one to tell this.
Of course, he would not have.
That would be wishful thinking. A stern and proud man, he, perhaps more than anyone else, was the orchestrator of the family’s silence. He often liked to say, “I am not a man of words.” And this became a family joke. You see, my grandfather was very much a man of words. Words were his livelihood. I am not the first writer in my family. That was my grandfather. He was a newspaper man, writing and editing for the New Statesman, Public Opinion, the Daily Gleaner. His best friends were also writers of books and he too had had ambitions of writing his own books one day, though it never happened. He was a man of words. Words had once landed him in jail for sedition.
Perhaps my grandfather really meant that he was not a man of speech, but that would also have been untrue.
My grandmother tells me of the day she sent him, her husband, to buy laying chickens for the coop. It was a large family that my grandparents had—11 children—and so they needed the eggs. My grandmother tells me how, on his way back home he stopped to talk to one of his mentees—a young journalist—and they talked and they talked. My grandmother was waiting, but my grandfather was sitting on a verandah on Slipe Road, talking until the sun was going down. At last, seeing the colors of day change, he gets up to leave. By this time, the chickens in the boot of his car have died. He goes home, wrings his hands, shamefaced. My grandmother laughs when she tells this story—when she tells me about my grandfather whose speech was longer than the lives of chickens.
My grandfather was most definitely a man of words, but he would not have used his words to tell this particular story because to tell it, I suspect he would have had to tell you about another woman that he loved, and maybe then my grandmother would not be laughing at all.
For this, we will call her Miss Henny. It is not her name, but it will do. And in any case, for most of my life I did not know her name. She was just the old woman at Aunt C’s house. She had beautiful black skin and impressive white teeth. They were big and straight and I was so young that I did not know that they were false—that they were things that she would take out at night and rest on the bedside table in a cup of water. I knew little about Miss Henny—only that she had been a maid and that even now, in her old age, she still cooked the food at Aunt C’s house, and made the beds, and swept the yard. It seemed to me that Aunt C was a generous woman—that she would not dispense of the housekeeper simply because she was old. I saw Miss Henny at least once a year, whenever the family gathered at Aunt C’s house.
There were so many family gatherings. My grandfather, my grandmother, 11 brothers and sisters, and all of them close, and all of them competing to have the entire family over at their house for one celebration or another. So I saw Miss Henny when the family gathered at Aunt C’s, and always I was introduced to her all over again, as all my cousins were. Someone would shout in her ear: “Miss Henny, this is D’s son!” or, “This is M’s daughter!” And she would smile her big, impressive smile and nod. It strikes me now that the introduction was never returned. She was never introduced to us. As the night wore on she just became a shadow sitting there in her chair, sometimes looking on, sometimes sleeping. She was just the old black woman who sat in the corner. I did not know her story. I did not know her story was connected to my family’s—not until the cousins began to whisper: “Do you know who she really is? Do you know her connection to us?”
My grandfather who insisted he was not a man of words instituted the most wordy ritual as part of our annual Christmas dinner. After the feast, and after the family song (yes—my grandfather had composed a family song which we sing with all the gusto of a National Anthem), then it is time for the speeches. The speeches are interminable. Beginning from the eldest child straight down to the youngest, each is expected to stand, give an account of the year just gone and give general Christmas greetings. But of course there are 11 children, and those 11 children have children and grandchildren. So the speeches start with one generation, and then go to the next, and then to the next. My grandfather is long dead, but it seems this tradition will not die. Whenever it is the turn of my youngest cousin to speak we all breathe a sigh of relief because it means there is only one speech left. The last speech belongs to my grandmother. She is the matriarch.
On December 25, 2011, my grandmother stands up at our family dinner to give a kind of speech she has never given before. Her white curls fall over her wrinkled brown face and she leans onto her walking stick. She looks at each of her children gathered before her. She is a mixed woman, my grandmother—Norwegian, Indian, Black—and her children seem to fall, ad hoc, along the full spectrum of her own racial ambiguity. I wonder if it seems odd to her—not that her children have such various racial presentations, but that she has come to an age where they too are old and retired, and with age they have begun to look more alike.
I know how to tell stories, but how does one begin to tell silence?
“I’ve been thinking,” my grandmother begins, “that there were things we did in those early days—some decisions that we made—and I know they have caused a lot of hurt. Before I die, we should sit down and talk about these things.”
The family erupts.
“OK, Mother Dear. OK.” Mother Dear—that is what we call her. They pat her on the shoulder as if she is senile at last. But she isn’t and they know it. She is over 90 years old but is more clear-minded than almost any of her children. She has a BlackBerry phone and an iPad. Her husband—my grandfather—had suffered from Alzheimer’s and it was a gene he seemed to pass down to his offspring. My grandmother, however, is not so afflicted. She brushes aside these attempts to shush her. They are patronizing.
“I’m not losing my head!” she snaps. “I’m old, and these days I’m weak. But I haven’t lost my mind. Everything is still up here.” And she raises a hand to her head. “And so I’ve been thinking, while I still have it all up here—while I still remember everything—we should sit down one day so I can tell you why we did the things we did.”
Once again the family erupts. Aunt C is on her feet. “All right Mother Dear! All right!” They cannot help themselves. The past is such an uncomfortable place. They have grown so used to the silence. “OK, Mother Dear,” they say again. “OK. One day.” Which means, never. They never want to talk about these things.
I was not at that family dinner so it is my sister who calls and narrates all of this to me. “Can you imagine it!” she says.
“She’s ready to talk.”
“I know,” I say, hardly believing it myself.
I hang up the phone and go online to buy myself a little tape recorder, and soon after that I book my ticket to Jamaica. My grandmother is conscious of her impending death and before she goes she must tell someone about the old black woman who sat in the corner.
Excerpted from Things I Have Withheld © 2021 Kei Miller. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.