By Carolyn Sandra Bentley (Wells)
When I went with a friend of mine this past summer to see the movie “When A Man Loves A Woman”, I didn’t realize I was about to hit a land mine full of emotional memories. The movie was basically about a family experiencing conflict, mainly on the marital level. I think the part that struck me the most was watching the kids deal with watching their parents, their idols, transform into emotionally upset beings that had forgotten how much of an impact their every word had on their kids. I started crying uncontrollably. Why? I didn’t really know. Ok, so it was a sad situation, but tears? From me? A normally unemotional person? Everyone else’s tears had subsided, but mine were just beginning to emerge. I didn’t understand.
Slowly, I began to realize it was me that I was crying for while watching the movie. Throughout the movie, memories had been surfacing, wandering amongst past experiences such as visiting my dad living at his friend Joe’s house, or not knowing my mom’s location for an entire summer, or moving out my freshman year of high school to live with my dad and grandma.
Just this past month I found another person, Rolf Carle, who has experienced a situation similar to my own, “never suspecting that he would find a fragment of his past lost thirty years before” (15). I found Rolf in a short story by Isabel Allende. In her story, “And of Clay Are We Created”, Rolf Carle, a TV news reporter, who is amazingly detached from his work and the horrors he sees, comes across a cover story that dramatically changes his life and his perspectives on life. His business-as-usual, no-nonsense approach slowly dissolves as he throws himself into saving the life of a young girl, Azucena. Stuck in mud that is like quicksand, she represents thousands of victims of volcano eruption that covered an entire town in a viscous glop. Rolf stays with Azucena for days, completely forgetting the camera steadily by his side. It is a story of a man confronting his own fears as he watches a young girl so openly facing her own.
As I read this story, I felt Azucena’s courage in me, as well as the narrator’s desperate desire to watch the scene at all times even though she was helpless, but I related closest to Rolf Carle. As his front broke down and his built-up, yet hidden memories came flooding through his mind, and as he began to cry, I felt the most for him. When I began crying during the movie, it was not for the children or other characters in the movie; it was for myself. The movie had sparked the same type of floodgate that the Azucena situation had for Rolf Carle. I understood perfectly when Azucena said, “Don’t cry. I don’t hurt anymore. I’m fine,” and responded, “I’m not crying for you. I’m crying for myself. I hurt all over” (20).
Like Azucena in the mud with her legs “in the collapsed walls of her house” and “held by the bodies of her brothers and sisters clinging to her legs”, Rolf’s memories are trapped deep within him (16). These memories and emotions are symbolized by Azucena as the story describes him circling around her and trying different approaches. When Rolf and some volunteers finally were able to reach her, their attempt to force her out with a rope failed, but more of her body had surfaced. Rolf, at this point, is closer to facing his memories.
My own childhood memories are usually hidden away in some secret compartment. Once in a while, I will take a few out, dust them off, maybe ponder a little bit but right back in they go. Almost denying that these memories are painful or even exist has been my protection.
Somehow though, while watching this movie, my brain had deciphered the lock I had placed on all those memories, causing me to finally feel free to experience all that I had previously denied myself. It also was the first time I actually acknowledged the fact that when people talk of dysfunctional families, I was part of one.
In Allende’s story, Rolf experienced a similar situation as “sorrow flooded through him, intact and precise, as if it had lain always in his mind, waiting. There, beside that hellhole of mud, it was impossible for Rolf to flee from himself any longer, and the visceral terror he had lived as a boy suddenly invaded him” (19).
At this point, my memories invaded me:Enjoying the cool breeze, I watch my closest companion, a stink bug, make its way around the tree branch I’m sitting on. I relax and let myself become the nature surrounding me. My mind becomes free and clear.
Slam! –It was our front door.
I snap back into the harsh reality I was trying to avoid, I see my dad stalk out the door raving something about my mom. I hear the car start . . . and stop. I see my dad, still muttering to himself, return inside. I can hear them yelling. Again he exits the house. This time I decide to act. I throw a few pine cones down on the pavement near him. He pauses for a moment confused, then looks up in my direction, “Carolyn?”
“Where are you going?”
“Out . . . somewhere . . . to get away from your mother,” he attempts to say under his breath, but his words dart across the air, dripping with frustration. I see him escape into our new, white Bronco. Wait. He’s not supposed to leave me. I’m his little girl. Who will be my soccer coach? Who will make us Mickey Mouse pancakes every Saturday morning and watch Bugs Bunny with us? I panic.
“When are you coming home?!?” He doesn’t hear me. The engine is running. My thoughts become numb and meaningless as I listen to the noise of the engine turn into a hum and then into nothing. Soon it is just me and my tree again. The stink bug has also disappeared.
“I need to talk to you out in the hallway. Get your brothers.”
“Why? Do I have to?” I open the door, notice my mom’s puffy and withdrawn eyes, and realize that obeying is my only choice. Gradually I coax my two little brothers out of their rooms. They had been hiding, as I had been, in their place of escape and familiarity.
Whenever our parents were fighting, we would retreat to our various hideaways. Our hopes of shutting out that part of our lives never worked; we consistently overheard too much. Once in awhile we would hear our names mentioned. That was when our ears perked up the most, and the tears journeyed down our faces.
Reluctantly, we gather in the hall and take our positions not wanting to hear directly what our curious ears had already picked up.
“Your dad and I are getting a divorce.”
It was just as upsetting and shocking this time as it always was. Like all the other times we wanted to deny it and make everything all better. Scott promised to keep his room clean, Brian promised to be better, and I just stared at the blank wall in front of me. Was it real this time? Was the “D” word really going to happen? Didn’t they need to talk it out longer? What would happen next? Where would my brothers and I go?
For as long as I can remember, my parents have argued and fought, wavering back and forth between being separated and being together. I cannot count the amount of times either have filed for divorce. I have grown up with this situation as a routine part of my life. I have now moved out of the house for the third time. My parents are still together and presently living under one roof, but they are debating constantly whether they should be. My brothers are still living there. Fortunately, they have not become as involved as I did with my parents’ affairs.
Often I had served as consultant to one or both parents. It made me feel good about my ability to listen and breakdown problems, but as the tension between my parents rose, so did my own. When I felt that my mom was in the wrong, I yelled at her about my cereal being too soggy or the water in the shower being too cold. If it was my dad that was being irrational, then I would give him the silent treatment. It took a long time for me to figure out that I needed to stay away from their problems, but still I have the tendency to want to help.
Like Rolf taking large risks to capture a story in order to “keep his most ancient fears at bay”, I too found a way to keep the painful pieces of my past out of my mind (20). I buried myself in books. I became very involved in sports and other activities. I used this to keep memories out, and I even used this to ward out of my mind the events that were not past memories but a present experience. I was an exceptional student with an everpresent desire to do better and be better. My life became something that I felt needed to be smoothly pathed with few bumps and detours. I needed something stable in my unstable world, so I found it in books and sports.
Attempting to grasp the effect my parents’ turbulent relationship has had on me has become a means of finding myself, as painful as it may be. By no standards though will it lead to any resentment towards my parents. On the contrary, I think the experience has made me a much stronger person. I have learned how to cope through incredibly traumatic times. It has given me the ability to adapt more quickly to change. I can survive on my own; I have developed my independence.
I have a long way to go in sorting out my memories and feelings. I have just found the lost key and playfully meddled with the contents. Hopefully, I will be able to hold on to this key and someday find a treasure inside.
Allende, Isabel. “And of Clay Are We Created.” The Story and its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 1995. 14.21.