I remember the dining room table, its vast gleam, the ring of faces.
The kids have been excused. They’re watching illicit TV in the den or, if it’s summer, catching fireflies or playing flashlight tag outside.
If it’s not summer, it must be Thanksgiving. The important part is not which season.
I’m eleven or twelve, the oldest grandchild. I’ve lingered with the grownups. My mother asks me to clear. I stack two or three plates at a time, walk them into the kitchen. Then butter dish, bread basket, serving dishes, silver.
I arrive at the head of the table, my grandfather’s seat.
His plate is slick with fat, dusted with ash. Lumps of chewed meat congeal in gravy. Smoke rises in a column past his skull. His eyes water when he coughs into his napkin. He laughs like choking. I smell the tobacco and piss of his skin. I’ve seen his teeth in a glass.
This is true: I balk. “I’m not touching that.”
My aunt calls me a prima donna.
“He spit out his meat,” I say. “It’s sick.”
“What’s the matter with you?” says my mother.
But I won’t. I slink barefoot into the dark of the hall.
re·sist·ance: the refusal to accept or comply with something
My grandfather laughs like choking. His stupid cigarettes, he sets everything on fire. He flicked a butt into the wind once. Still burning, it stung behind my ear like a bee.
“What’s the matter with you?” says my mother.
“Do as your mother asked,” my father says.
I pick up the plate, the slippery edge, fast walk it into the kitchen, stack it with the others.
the attempt to prevent something by action or argument
“Do as your mother asked you. I don’t want to hear another word about it.”
I pick up the plate, the slippery edge and fast walk it into the kitchen. It slips out of my hands and smashes on the linoleum floor.
synonyms: opposition, obstinacy, defiance, intransigence
I don’t remember if I gave in or not, if I carried the plate into the kitchen or not. I may have refused and taken my punishment. I was inclined to take spankings and sneer that they didn’t hurt. I remember I felt like a spoiled brat. That’s it. Nothing was understood. Nothing was prevented. Nothing was gained.
The plate was broken or the plate was washed.
Only in hindsight could I see: how I fought back.
Sometimes I’d dawdle in public places like the zoo or a rest stop off the highway, shift out of my mother’s view for an instant behind some large-bottomed lady in Bermuda shorts or a man with a camera or map and wait for the moment when my mother realized I’d disappeared. She’d call my name in a voice touched by fear. I despised her then.
resistance: (psychiatry) any opposition to an attempt to bring repressed thoughts or feelings into consciousness.
When I was 21 and my grandfather 75, I sent him a letter accusing him of sexual abuse. He didn’t write back. We never spoke again. Others had made allegations; still more would after I did. It was unclear what was known and when and by whom. The matter was spoken of in roundabout terms.
My mother said, “We didn’t think about those things. People didn’t talk about it like they do now. In all our photos you’re smiling.”
My father said, “It’s very sad. He’s a sick, old man. He meant a lot to me. It’s a great betrayal.”
My grandfather was old and frail. I was young and fierce. I read feminist theory and marched in Take Back the Night. I didn’t let people call me girl. I flipped off catcallers. I bought the poster that said Kissing doesn’t kill: Greed and indifference do. I wore Doc Martens and thrift store slips and cut my hair in the bathroom. I curated performance art and performed poetry in bars. I didn’t go to my grandfather’s funeral. I didn’t go home for years.
Resistance: (often initial capital letter) an underground organization working to overthrow an occupying power, usually by acts of sabotage, guerrilla warfare, etc.
The field of memory studies investigates how we remember and why we forget, what and how we commemorate, the role of memory in individual and collective identity, memorials and museums, nostalgia and nationalism. One of the pioneers of the field, Paul Connerton, has proposed a taxonomy of forgetting. In it, there are seven kinds: repressive erasure; prescriptive forgetting; forgetting that is constitutive in the formation of a new identity; structural amnesia; forgetting as annulment; forgetting as planned obsolescence; and forgetting as humiliated silence. Repressive erasure refers to the forced forgetting of language and customs by which a government or state may seek to control a people. Like Indian boarding schools. Like the Khmer Rouge.
Families, those tiny countries, do this, too.
My grandfather was a judge. In my mind that meant like Solomon, a king with a sword held over a fat baby. Formidable, perhaps, frightening, even. But fair. When we went to church everyone said what a beautiful family. I stood as far away from him as I was allowed. When he kissed me, I turned my cheek and held my breath, like when we drove past a cemetery. To write this, I have to call to mind the images—my grandfather’s eyes that were holes in the dark. His tobacco cheek, hoarfrost of stubble, hands hard as roots. In my body it’s immediate and animal. Darwininan: Fight, freeze, flee. It’s uncanny how a body tells the truth.
In the good old days this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very, very rough.
Nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.
Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.
When it starts on election night, I have a name for what’s happening. PTSD symptoms kicking in. Grab them by the pussy wins Florida, Ohio, North Carolina. My girlfriend and I stay up. We’re waiting for Pennsylvania, we’re waiting for Wisconsin. When it’s called I feel sick. I feel like a doll, which sometimes happens. Like I’m made of plastic and cotton. Or I’m floating. Or choking. Or I need, above all, to hide. This time the feeling lasts a couple weeks, maybe a month.
In the good old days this doesn’t happen
The mornings after my grandfather shakes me from sleep in the middle of the night to commandeer my small frame, the sun comes up. People pour milk on cereal and brew coffee in the old fashioned percolator. They talk about whether we should go to the pool or the roller rink. My sister and cousin hang out in the secret club they made behind the garage.
Nothing you can do, folks
Another kind of forgetting: Forgetting That Is Constitutive In The Formation Of A New Identity. In other words, when a memory doesn’t jibe with our shifting identity it’s vulnerable to being forgotten. The crimes of the past grow hazy and dim.
My mother says I want to paint her father with one brush. He was a good person, she says. “He was wonderful with you. He didn’t mind when you spit up on his suit. Men didn’t do that in those days. He visited Aunt Iris every day. He was the only one who did that. Family meant something to him.”
Studies on eyewitness testimony suggest that how and what we are able to recall is influenced by our cultural norms and values, our understanding of the world. That means language comes into it. And bias.
Most times, the facts remembered are not incontrovertible.
I don’t know who knew and who didn’t know. I don’t know who saw something unsettling and buried it because it was troubling or impossible to believe. Sometimes I ask my mother about her own childhood. I don’t remember, she says. “I’m stupid, okay? I don’t remember anything.”
Suggestions circulate on social media after the election.
From Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King: Use his name sparingly. Remember this is a regime.
From Yale history professor Timothy Snyder: Don’t obey in advance. Think up your own way of speaking. If nothing is true then all is spectacle. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Do not look away.
I took a class in college for which we were required to watch a dozen or so films. They were about the disappeared in Argentina, Mahatma Gandhi, Harvey Milk, the Scottsboro boys, the Holocaust. After a scene in a film about homeless children in Brazil in which two boys rape and murder a third with a broken shard of glass, I told my professor I couldn’t watch any more.
“You need to toughen up,” she said. “This stuff is important. You need to be able to take it.”
Years before, my sixth grade class had watched a film about a family who risked their lives hiding Jews in their home in occupied Holland. I remember wondering then if I’d be brave enough to put my own life on the line. Would I have been an abolitionist, would I have sat at a ‘60s lunch counter in Greensboro? Of course, you wanted to think you were a good person, a brave one, one who saw the truth of right and wrong and acted. But the world was full of bystanders. The world is full of people who believe they are doing right.
A magazine accepts an essay I write about the abuse. In it, I mention my sister and I fighting over who had to sleep in my grandfather’s room when we stayed there. Before it goes to print, my sisters and mother have to sign releases that the story as I’ve told it is true.
When it’s published, my sister calls.
“I liked your story,” she says. “I felt bad for the girl.” I hesitate, not sure how to respond.
“But you know who I really felt bad for?” she continues, “The sister.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I felt bad for the sister, too.”
A woman writes the magazine and says reading the essay changed her mind about killing herself. Strangers friend request me on Facebook. For months, the first thing that comes up when you type my name into Google is the lead some editor wrote: Scarred by decades of abuse…
This is how you remember violence. In dreams. By sleeping with people. By drinking. By eating. By hiding in the closet. By exercising. By choking. By getting colds. By watching TV. By falling. By accident. By ending your life.
A broken plate: a dozen tiny weapons.
In high school we learned about Maria Goretti, a Catholic martyr who was murdered in 1902 at age eleven. Her twenty-year-old neighbor sexually assaulted her and when she fought, allegedly shouting, No, God doesn’t want us to, he stabbed her fourteen times.
“If someone attacks you,” said Sister Helen, “And you don’t fight back, you’re fifty percent responsible for that sexual act. And that’s a mortal sin.”
I raised my hand. “If you fight and are killed, are you fifty percent responsible for murder?”
Sister Helen scowled. “That’s not funny.”
“I’m not trying to be funny. And then it’s too late to go to confession. Because you’re dead.”
Tabloids call them monsters. Rapists, war criminals, murderers. It’s easier to believe they’re not human. My grandfather was an ordinary man. An ordinary, damaged human being. He was a judge and a Catholic. Smart, supposedly, and funny. In an old photograph he holds me, an infant, bundled against his chest, he in a suit, in a driveway, the world washed watercolor green with spring. That blurred square, white edges stamped with the date: incontrovertible.
My mother hates the president.
“He’s terrible,” she says. “He’s sick. How can people not see how awful he is?”
My girlfriend and I make signs for the Women’s March at my parents’ house in a suburb of D.C. Mine says RESIST.
“It’s very aggressive,” my mother says. “You don’t want to write something more loving?”
Comply: to act in accordance with wishes, requests, demands, requirements, conditions.
Obsolete: to be courteous, conciliatory.
I carry the plate into the kitchen.
The Greek amnēstía is the root of both amnesia and amnesty.
I used to do a writing activity with women in jail, a warm up, to generate material: You write “I remember.” Then you write “I don’t remember.” We used the old composition notebooks, not spiral bound. We had to count the pencils. I listened when they read.
I remember. I don’t remember.
I noticed when they lingered on details, when a scene blurred into light and shadow.
Once a woman missed workshop, and the others explained she was on lockdown for braiding another woman’s hair.
resistance: the capacity to withstand, especially the body’s natural capacity to withstand disease.
In January whitehouse.gov deletes the pages on climate change, LGBT rights, civil rights. Spanish language pages disappear. Someone starts writing FIGHT TRUMP EVERY DAY on the sidewalks in my neighborhood.
To forget in French is oublier. It can mean to overlook, to miss, to leave, to neglect, to omit, to bury, to slip, to lay aside. What is forgotten, overlooked, missed, buried is un oubli.
I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.
You need that wall to stop the human trafficking, to stop the drugs, to stop the wrong people.
It’s not a Muslim ban.
I taught poetry in a group home in Chicago. Our class was in the library: donated books, Formica tables, beige industrial carpeting. I sat across the table from an adolescent girl, trying to get her to write a poem. She wouldn’t look at me. She wouldn’t pick up the pencil. Her teachers wanted her to express herself. It’s therapeutic. I wanted to show her words were a lighter in her pocket. I wanted her to set things on fire. Hanging on one wall was something that resembled a giant potholder. The staff told me they threw it on the floor if a kid acted up. That way, if they had to restrain a kid, she wouldn’t get rug burns on her face. I sat across from the girl, drifted to another kid, checked back in with her. A minute before the bell rang, she grabbed the pencil, scrawled a word. Pushed the paper at me.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. That’s a start.”
The phrase forgive and forget is at least as old as Shakespeare. King Lear bade Cordelia, “Pray you now, forget and forgive, I am old and foolish.”
My mother has long complained that I have a memory like an elephant. She says I’ve always held grudges. My father used to say I was the stubbornest child he’d ever met.
I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about
Anaïs Nin wrote that most people acquire the truth “fragment by fragment.”
Take responsibility for the face of the world. Remember this is a regime.
“Are you typing?” my mother says during a phone conversation. “Are you writing this?”
“Yes,” I tell her. “I’m always writing this.”