Invoking the I

By Sylvie Beauvais

hen you started writing, everything was in the second person. You lived in a faceless world with generic people. Trying to describe something, it would inevitably fall out in a tumble of You’s.  When you were clinically depressed, when you were in love, when you had moved cross-country: when you tried to write your stories, but were invisible in them. This went on for years. You had no awareness of the situation; you comfortably fell to the back of the frame. A writing teacher had to tell you about your curious habit, and it seemed so strange, you were an I every day, so why did you become a You when you wrote? Where did this plague of You’s come from? You were puzzled until one day, during an ordinary phone call with your mother, you were talking about your job and your difficult relationship with your supervisor when your mother opined, “Everybody finds work challenging.” Then you knew! This habit came from your mother, who never talked about her feelings, referring instead to a group of mysterious People. There is no way to capture the oddity of her phrasing or the opacity of her feelings. If you ask your mother a direct question, for example, “Did you like this movie?”, she will answer, “I think some people are going to love this movie.”

But knowing the origins of the habit only made you more scared. At 31, you were still the amalgamation of your upbringing. Exhausted, you practiced the I: I like berries. I like kissing. You know. Shit. I do. I know.

 

Nine years later, you are still fighting between the “I” and the “You”: it drops onto the page whenever you have a moment of weakness and it makes you feel dishonest and impotent. You like to experiment on your mother, just to remind yourself how much further you have to go. There are only two women in the family, and both of them, out of the five of you, have problems saying I, one way or another.

 

The plague of You’s is just one of several silences between you. This is a family that tends to avoid talking about the things that matter, the things that hurt. The obvious is only dealt with obliquely, in hints, silences and loaded looks. Unless the obvious is dropped like a leaden bomb, unexplained and full of buried meaning. Lately, you have remembered how your mother asked you during a Christmas visit, “Who do you think it was ruined you?” This phrase overwhelmed you. Your mother thought you were bad cheese–you had become corrupted, expired. So you tried to focus in, what did ruin mean, exactly, and was it really the word she wanted to apply to you?  She said, “Yes, I mean ruined. Who Ruined You?” So years later you asked her how she came to say those words. She didn’t remember the conversation you will never forget.

 

You do not know your mother. In some ways it is because your mother rarely says, “I.” Her speaking habit feels like a mystery but perhaps it is not. There are plenty of supporting facts that allow you to deduct how this came about. Your mother is and was a cipher in her family. She was a terminal pleaser. She was a good student, a good daughter bound for medical school until she got pregnant with you during her junior year abroad and switched allegiances to your French father.

 

What made for a good daughter in her family, you might wonder. Well, not arguing, not expressing needs, and following the parental agenda: hygiene, respectability, studiousness, a mild leaning towards art, a light Quaker affiliation, a middle of the road republicanism, a concern with fashionable but demure attire. It is upstate NY in the 60s–there is a family dog and a family servant, a housekeeper.

 

Your mother is more than this, but she is this also. She is part rebel, part conformist–she was married at 21, and pregnant to boot. She pleased your father once she stopped pleasing her parents, first by becoming a Catholic, then by becoming a Buddhist, following in your father’s steps. She had three children because he wanted to, and later let her hair grow white because he wanted her to, and at 31, you found yourself writing like she talks–you know, that’s what people do.

 

Your mother doesn’t understand why you barely speak with her. The woman who has no self has an endless ability to chat about nothing–and her inability to discuss with you anything that matters without her flying into an obsessive panic leaves you frustrated and exhausted. There is nothing to be talked about because nothing can be talked about, especially with someone who doesn’t want to be known.

 

Saying that she has no self is a lie–you can perceive a self that likes to act out in small gestures of pure self-indulgence. She has plenty of self: you can see it when she eats goat cheese–one whole crotin in three mouthfuls. She smiles and doesn’t share; she eats the whole palm-length log of grey-skinned cheese. She does many things all for herself: the nightly mass and the volunteering at the Catholic institute. Is volunteering something you do for yourself or others? You don’t know. She has the occasional urges for local travel in France, where she lives with your French father because she is a pleaser and a Francophile. There are her twice-yearly trips to celebrate her parents’ birthdays in Florida. She comes to America, but you don’t see her. She does not come to your town, or your brother’s. But maybe this isn’t about her, but about the power of her parents, her original masters. She goes straight to Florida where she plays peacekeeper between fractious sisters because she was always the good child, but also her sisters’ enemy for her otherness–her weird mix of effacement and stubbornness.

 

You ask your mother who her friends are, who she likes, and who knows her. And she dithers. No one knows her, well maybe your father, but your mother does not like to be known. She has been secret for sixty years now and she has friends, but she does not confide in them. She is her own confessor, you think, despite the catholic rituals. She is in a prayer group, but she does not tell them the things that compose her life: how in Paris both your father and youngest brother are chronically ill and vie for her attention; her inability to connect with her parents in a meaningful way; that out of guilt for living in Europe, she listens for hours to her sisters’ complaints, and how everyone in her original nuclear family is alienated from everyone else–all vying for position, all failing to get their parents’ approval, despite the good behavior, despite the nice clothes, maybe because of the husbands. The grandparents only want to see their daughters; they do not welcome the husbands to Florida.

 

So here I am. There are only two women in my immediate family, and one of these women is a secret, and one is me, exploring the spaces beneath the You and around the I. And I am learning to come first. Me. My inability to know my mother has me determined to know and express my self. I was raised by a pleaser to be a pleaser, but you have a choice, a choice that you keep making when you choose to use words, when you are tired, when you want to hide, when you want to be invisible, and that choice is to say, I.

 

 

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I live in Philadelphia. I received my Master’s of Liberal Arts with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania. I alternate between writing fiction and creative non-fiction.  My novella, Fly, Rapunzel, was a finalist in Low Fidelity Press’s 2006 Novella Award Contest. I have had other work featured in FRiGG Magazine, Philadelphia Stories and Quail Bell Magazine online.  I blog about life, travel, and writing at www.sylviewrites.com.


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