The Past Can Set You Free
by Amy TanFor the first 30 years or so of my life, I tried to distance myself from my mother and her dark waters. She flailed as she called out senseless tragedies: the suicide of her mother, her first marriage to an evil man, her second marriage cursed by the deaths of her husband and son just six months apart.
I, her ungrateful and secretive child, was often on the list of laments. She would pound her chest and wail, "Why?"
I tuned out her complaints. I vowed never to be like my mother, who tormented herself with what could not be changed. Nonetheless, I still feared being pulled down by her undertow.
Twenty-one years ago, when I felt that my work had become meaningless, I began to write fiction - just for pleasure, I told myself. Yet no matter how different I made the characters from the people in my life, my family crept in and made all the stories seem bleak and senseless.
About a year later, after believing my mother had died of a heart attack, I was jolted into realizing how little I knew of her. So for the first time, when my mother recounted those same sad stories, I listened. I wanted to know what had happened and why. As I imagined the past - the grand house, the hollow room, the still woman on the bed - suddenly I was there, experiencing it as it unfolded. I was the little girl with the breaking heart. I was alone with my dead mother lying on the bed. And I was crying as she did: "Why can't you take me with you?"
Dwelling in the past wasn't useless, I discovered, for I could change it. I could witness my mother's hopelessness as she endured the unbearable. I could be her voice, her mother's voice, the voice of the voiceless. And I could finally give meaning to all she had gone through. That was what she had wanted all her life. That was what I wanted as well: to give meaning to my life.
In freeing her, I freed myself. The legacy of my family is no longer dead weight. It buoys me with strength and curiosity. It is a reminder to look at all thing - the ordinary, the wondrous, and especially the difficult - and to ask why. In so doing, I see the many answers as they continue to unfold in the past and in the new day.
repost from American Elle: "The Most Important Thing I've Learned"
Image: 1912 - Lucile with a client and mannequin at a fitting
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