My mother left when I was two. When I was five, I asked my father to tell me the story of her leaving, the story of the end of their marriage, of her absence. He said that she believed he could give me a better life.
“Why?” I asked.
His left eye twitched and he cleared his throat. My father always spoke to me like I was an adult. He did not like to lie to me, even when the truth hurt. “She was not ready to be your mother,” he said finally.
“Why?” I asked again.
“There is no simple answer,” he said. Then, he explained nature and nurture—how they affect people’s choices. “Your mother grew up in a family that lost everything,” he said, “and the trauma is in her blood. I think that’s what made her leave.”
After he said that, I stopped asking why. His words terrified me. I too had lost a lot: I had lost a mother. And, if trauma was in my mother’s blood, then it must also be in mine. Everyone said that I looked exactly like her, except that she was white and I was black. My mother is Armenian-American, my father Ghanaian. I got my mother’s face and frame, my father’s curly hair and eyelashes. My skin color is my mother’s olive and my father’s ebony blended in equal parts, as though in a watercolor mixing tray.
It wasn’t until years later—when I was ten or eleven—that my father told me precisely what it was that my mother’s family had lost, why trauma was in her blood.
He told me that, in the years leading up to and during WWI, the Turkish government deported and massacred Armenians en masse. At the time, there were two million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. By the early 1920s, when the violent campaign ended, it is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians were killed. Most of those who survived did so by making dangerous treks on foot across the Middle East. They sought refuge in cities like Aleppo and Cairo, cities out of which refugees pour today. Many Armenians eventually found their way west to France and Argentina, Russia and Cuba, and to America. Despite the refusal of the current government of Turkey to use the word genocide, most historians believe that is what it was. My mother’s family members were among those who were killed and those who survived. My great-great grandmother and my grandfather’s two-year-old cousin were among the dead. The survivors’ losses: their loved ones, their homes and earthly possessions, citizenship, hopes, dreams, security.
In 1915, my maternal grandfather’s family was driven out of the town of Marash, in the southeastern part of the Ottoman Empire, when they refused to convert to Islam. They were Armenian Orthodox Christians which at that time made them persona non grata. Other families were not given the option of avoiding deportation by agreeing to religious conversion, but the chief of police felt sorry for my great-grandmother because the family was without a patriarch. My great-grandfather had already immigrated to the United States under threat of imprisonment, or even the gallows, for the crime of treason. He had climbed a pole and replaced an Ottoman flag with an Armenian one. For nine years, after he escaped from the cell where he was being held pending trial, his whereabouts were unknown to his wife and children.
Three hours after the family—my family—left Marash, police rode up to the caravan of 650 refugees with whom they were traveling and rounded up all of the Armenian Catholics and Protestants. The Catholics and Protestants were, it was later discovered, all murdered, their bodies thrown in a giant pit to rot. It is unclear why the Orthodox Christians were spared that fate.
I cannot remember the order of the ordeals the family faced on their way to America, where they ultimately joined my great-grandfather, but they included an earthquake, typhus, bouts of temporary blindness due to vitamin deficiencies, several armed robberies, malaria, near-starvation, and visa denials from multiple countries. One of the ordeals I remember most clearly, though, is that of my great-aunt Areka’s multiple abandonments. I did not, for a long time, understand why that story felt especially important to me.
Between the ages of four and seven, Areka—my grandfather’s older sister—was abandoned in the Syrian Desert three times. She was left in the shade of a large rock, under a tree, and on a donkey. The donkey belonged to a man who named Areka as his price for a goatskin full of water. Her mother decided to pay that price.
Each of Areka’s abandonments was reversed by my great-uncles Aram, Artin, and Gorun who could not bear to leave their little sister behind and went back for her. In the case of the goatskin of water bargain, they found her in a village sitting on a boulder, happily eating a piece of bread. When her new ‘master’ refused to give her up, her brothers appealed to the tribal chief who ordered her immediate return to her family. Areka cried as her brothers led her away. In the strange village, at least she had been fed.
I have heard multiple versions of the story of Areka’s abandonments. Once, my grandfather, who was not yet born at the time of the events (he was the only one of his siblings born in America), told me that his mother was delirious from thirst when she left her daughter behind. Another time, he told me that she did not believe that any of them would make it out of the desert alive, so what difference would it make? At least, without Areka, no one would have to carry an extra burden to their death. Areka was too weak to walk on her own. My great-uncle Aram asserted, in a published collection of accounts of the Armenian genocide, that Areka had become “unbearable with her pitiful crying for water.” Crying children, he noted, were a liability. They drew attention at times when silence was imperative. The caravan often walked under the cover of darkness so they would not be attacked by the police or thugs. Aram recalled an episode whereby a screaming baby was almost strangled to death for fear that the noise would get them all killed. Fortunately, the negotiation over who would do it took so long that the baby fell into a deep sleep and was saved.
My maternal grandmother’s family also came to America from Marash. They too were genocide survivors. They too had many losses, had trauma in their blood. My grandmother’s mother was raised in an orphanage. Her parents did not make it out of the desert alive. She was brought to America at sixteen by my great-grandfather who went to Armenia to find a wife. He wanted to marry a woman who was Armenian but didn’t look it. He wanted his children to be blonde, or at least to not have prominent noses, low hairlines, dark complexions that would mark them as different. He knew all too well the dangers of that. Arriving in Yerevan, he went straight to the orphanage and among the many young, dark, beauties with thick, glistening black hair, he spotted my great-grandmother. Hair the color of a robin’s breast, eyes the color of murky pond. Her, he said. And so it was. Not adopted, but claimed all the same. At first, she was relieved to have the answer to the question of her rapidly approaching future. She would have been forced to leave the orphanage in two years. But, upon arriving in America and discovering that there was such a thing as choice, and that she had been given none, she was furious. She punished my grandmother for it until the day she died. She punished her for being yet another command, another binding rope.
“She was always very distant,” my grandmother says of her mother. “She didn’t speak to me much. I was always afraid that I would come home and find that she had left.”
My mother has said similar things of my grandmother. If my mother had stayed, perhaps I would have said the same of her. There are different kinds of absence.
For most of my life, when people asked me how I felt about having grown up without my mother, I would say that I did not remember her leaving. I said that my injuries were minor. This was not entirely true. I do have a shadow of a memory of her saying goodbye, of a kiss on my forehead, hair tickling my cheek, my eyes fluttering open, a warm feeling. Perhaps this memory is a dream or trick of the mind. But, as a child, it would come to me in that place between being asleep and being awake. As for injuries, pain is not always felt when and where it is inflicted. Bleeding cannot always be seen outside of the body. And, it turns out that my father was right, or almost right, about trauma being in the blood.
A 2015 study led by researchers from New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital found that genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children. Our genes change all the time when chemical tags attach themselves to the DNA and turn genes on or off. The study found that some of these tags—found in the genes of Holocaust survivors—were also found in their children. In the study, other sources of the changes—that led to increased incidences of stress disorders—were ruled out. This passing down of environmentally altered genes is called epigenetic inheritance. My father did not live long enough to read that study, to have that vocabulary. He died over two decades ago, when I was thirteen. Perhaps my mother told him that she thought there was trauma in her blood, or perhaps he came to that conclusion on his own. I cannot ask him and my mother and I rarely talk about the past. After my father died, we did not speak for over ten years. She was still not ready to be my mother. I lived with my stepmother until I turned eighteen.
In my junior year of college, in order to qualify for the financial aid I needed to pay my tuition, I filed papers and presented proof to declare myself independent. As a student under the age of twenty-four, to be eligible to file financial aid forms as an independent, you had to be married, have dependents, be a veteran or active member of the armed forces, or be an orphan. When I tried to put the point of my ballpoint pen in the orphan box, to make a check mark, my hand shook so violently that I put the pen down. I sat on my bed picking the pen up, watching my hand shake violently, and putting the pen down, for what seemed like hours, but was probably only a few minutes. On my nightstand were a photocopy of my father’s death certificate and a letter from my stepmother. She had, until then, been listed as my parent, even though we had never actually made that legal. The letter stated that she stopped supporting me financially when I turned eighteen and my mother’s whereabouts were unknown to me. This was not wholly true as I knew my mother to be in Sedona, Arizona. The private investigator she hired to find me told me that before I hung up on him and threw my phone against the wall. I knew where she was, but her whereabouts did not, then, have anything to do with me or with my ability to pay for college.
To make the necessary check mark, I took the papers to the bar down the street. I ordered a shot of tequila and then another. It wasn’t as though checking that box changed anything. That my father was dead, that my mother left when I was just a toddler, that we had not spoken in years: these were all facts that had been true for a long time. But the box, I suppose, formalized their absence, gave it a name. Knowing and accepting the inevitable are two different things.
I had a one night stand that night—my first. When I woke in a mist of Patron and migraine, I couldn’t remember how he touched me, how he kissed me, if the sex was any good, if I came, if he came, if he held me afterwards. I couldn’t remember his name, but I was glad he was there. He was, for a newly official orphan, a minimalist version of intimacy
It was after checking the orphan box that I realized why I so often pulled out the story of Auntie Areka’s three abandonments and examined it in the light. Two, I counted. I had been abandoned by my mother twice. My abandonments were not the same as Auntie Areka’s. There was never any threat of starvation, of typhoid, of death in the desert. But still: A pattern. The trauma had been diluted by time. But, it was still present, still discernible, in my blood.
Much of my twenties were spent in a thick fog of the mind, the technical term for which is depressive and anxiety disorders. I made my way out of the fog, to the extent that one can make their way out of it, through a combination of medication and reading and writing, mostly about mental illness. I paid particular attention to studies of orphans and abandoned children.
In 1949, the pioneer of the attachment theory of psychology John Bowlby, was commissioned to write a report for the World Health Organization on the mental health of homeless children in post-war Europe. Drawing together what limited empirical evidence existed at the time from across Europe and America, he concluded that mothers and their children have evolved with a biological need to have caring and responsive, loving relationships with each other. It is this relationship that serves as a secure base from which the child can begin exploring the world. It also acts as a prototype for all other relationships. The consequences of a disruption, privation, or deprivation of maternal nurturing can result in serious and irreversible mental health consequences ranging from despair and detachment to an inability to follow rules, form lasting relationships, or feel guilt.
When I read that study, I thought immediately of my father telling me about nature and nurture. I think that’s what made her leave, he’d said. The trauma was in my mother’s blood, in my grandmother’s, in my great-grandmother’s. Add to that despair and detachment. Add to that an inability to follow rules, form lasting relationships, or feel guilt. Those are all things that are true of me, in some measure. They are the qualities I most detest in myself. They are qualities that make it difficult to be a mother.
We were cursed, I thought. We were cursed to fail our children.
I am in my thirties now. My mother is in my life these days. I called her on the phone as I was making my way out of the fog of my twenties. I was ready to end our estrangement. We reconciled. We treat each other like new friends now—carefully and politely. We tread lightly on the ice that has frozen over my two abandonments. I am hopeful that there will not be a third. She asked me, only once, if I wanted to have children. I told her that I am not ready to be a mother. I do not know if I ever will be.
Recently, I have been reading and writing a lot about refugees. I pay attention to the debate about their fates—in the halls of government, the courts, the media, at dinner tables. The stories being told often focus on the dream, achieved or deferred, of a new life in a new world. A lot is made of what refugees leave behind. There are questions about what they deserve, what we owe them. The cost of their trauma is negotiated. Nations decide whether or not they are willing to foot the bill. Little is said of what they will always carry with them, what they cannot leave behind in the desert or the bombed-out city. The body remembers what the mind tries to forget.
“She loves you in the ways she knows how, in the ways she can,” my father used to say of my mother. I would nod and try not to think about the ways she couldn’t, the ways she never would, except perhaps in that place between being asleep and being awake, in the moment before she says goodbye.
TORCH is a monthly series edited by Arielle Bernstein devoted to showcasing personal essays and interviews about immigrant and refugee experiences. You can visit the archives here. For more information on submitting head here.
Rumpus original logo art by Jyotsna Warikoo Designs. Photographs provided courtesy of author.