hi, i wrote an essay/letter in The New Yorker on growing up with a mother with PTSD, and the inheritance of war. Mother’s Day can be a complicated day for many, if not all of us, and i just wanted to acknowledge that. and also, perhaps, that love does not have to be perfect, or even smooth, in order be worthy.
Four excerpts from poet Ocean Vuong’s lyrical letter on migration, intergenerational trauma, and abuse:
That time when I was five or six and, playing a prank, leapt out at you from behind the hallway door, shouting Boom! You screamed, face raked and twisted, then burst into sobs, clutching your chest as you leaned against the door, gasping. I stood, confused, my toy Army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves—but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son. Boom.
Female monarchs lay eggs along the route. Every history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division. The journey takes four thousand eight hundred and thirty miles, or the length of this country. The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past.
What is a country but a borderless sentence, a life?
That time at the Chinese butcher, you pointed to the roasted pig hanging from its hook. Its ribs are just like a person’s after they’re burned. You let out a clipped chuckle, then paused, took out your pocketbook, your brow pinched, and recounted our money.
What is a country but a life sentence?
The time, at fourteen, when I finally said stop. Your hand in the air, my face stinging from the first blow. Stop, Ma. Quit it. Please. I looked at you hard, the way I had learned, by then, to look into the eyes of my bullies. You turned away and, without a word, put on your wool coat and walked to the store. I’m getting eggs, you said over your shoulder, as if nothing had happened. But we both knew it was over. You’d never hit me again.
Monarchs that survived the migration passed this message down to their children. The memory of family members lost from the initial winter was woven into their genes.
When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?
Perhaps to lay hands on your child is to prepare him for war, to say that to possess a heartbeat is not as simple as the heart’s task of saying yes yes yes to the body.
I don’t know.
What I do know is that, back at Goodwill, you handed me the white dress, your eyes glazed and wide. Can you read this, you said, and tell me if it’s fireproof? I searched the hem, looked at the print on the tag and, not yet able to read myself, said, Yes. Said it anyway. Yes, I lied, holding the dress up to your chin. It’s fireproof.
Days later, a neighborhood boy, riding by on his bike, would see me wearing that very dress in the front yard while you were at work. At recess, the kids would call me monster, call me freak, fairy.
Sometimes, I imagine the monarchs fleeing not winter but the napalm clouds of your youth, in Vietnam. I imagine them flying out from the blazed blasts unscathed, their tiny black-and-red wings flickering like charred debris, so that, looking up, you can no longer fathom the explosion they came from, only a family of butterflies floating in clean, cool air, their wings finally, after so many conflagrations, fireproof.
That’s so good to know, you said, staring off, stone-faced, over my shoulder, the dress held to your chest. That’s so good.