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In this excerpt from her new memoir about her “multicultural marriage,” the author writes of her son’s first trip to his father’s country of El Salvador and the death of a family patriarch.
BY BETH KEPHART
First Visit, Last Farewell

 

Blood Lines
The summer Jeremy was born, Nora came to our house and stayed for a time while I failed—miserably —at being who she’d hoped I’d be. I failed, first of all, because Nora had wanted a granddaughter, not a grandson, and I failed, second of all, because I hoarded this boy who had been born to me—hoarded the smell and feel and weight of him, planted him in his own crib at night and sang him to sleep with my songs. American songs with American words. My mother’s passed-on lullabies wafting through his channeled ear. It was so horribly hot that summer, so horribly unrelieved, and every day my husband went to work and every day I disappointed my mother-in-law in ways that cannot be emended. I loved my Jeremy. I held him, steadfastly, in my arms. I was home, in my country, on my soil, with my son. I sang him my American songs.

But no matter how suburban and protected my baby was, no matter how Ivy League and graceful his father, no matter how influential and loving my own all-American parents, there was no denying the exotic look Jeremy had about his eyes, or the slight hint of darkness in his skin, or the blackness of his hair that wallowed, from the beginning, past his ears. There was something foreign about Jeremy from the start. There was his father’s blood that would not be negated, and the Salvadoran bibs that had arrived in plastic sleeves, and the Salvadoran linens, embroidered collars. There were the Salvadoran songs that somehow did get sung, and the endearments: bonito niŅo, buen niŅo, mucho gusto bonito niŅo. The slip of Spanish into a child’s ear. The electrochemical sparks of another language.

The first time we took Jeremy to El Salvador, he was four. It was February 1993, just one year into the cease-fire that had been cobbled together by an exhausted government and a depleted gang of rebels. I didn’t like the idea of going to a place still percolating with the memory of an 11-year civil war, and fought it. Aimless death squads, I cautioned. Choleric guerrillas. One percent of the population sacrificed to the fighting, their tangled, splintered, naked bones still barely hidden underground, or not hidden at all, but dumped inside mass graves. I argued that it was indecent, irresponsible to take a child to that place, that cease-fires had been marched out before in El Salvador but discontent had a mind of its own. Safety is here. The familiar is here. The things he’s grown accustomed to. All here. I argued, and of course I lost. A son should know where his father comes from. What he means when he says, Once upon a time I was a boy.

Jeremy was four. He liked cars, and he liked planes. I equipped him with a bag full of his favorite miniatures and did not let him out of sight for five protracted days. In the photographs of that trip that year, Jeremy rides the proud shoulders of his father and, sometimes, the shoulders of Rodi and Mario, Bill’s brothers. On occasion he wears the thin plastic helmet that he favored at the time, its imagined protection jammed down over his ears, its green plastic visor snapped forward over his eyes. He wears the shirts and overalls I loved dressing him in, comports himself in the chubby feathery cheeks that I’m addicted, still, to touching. I am not in any of the photographs, but Jeremy is there and, again, he is there: in the arms of his father and his father’s country.

Every marriage, my friend Sandy says, is a multicultural marriage. I think that’s true and right. My mother’s mother was Irish and her father was Italian; they learned, over a lifetime, to mix the spices. Bill’s parents were from separate places—the United States, El Salvador; they remained in separate places all their lives. Couples I know grew up one rural and the other urban, one Orthodox Jew and the other lapsed Catholic, one Canadian and the other a pure shot of Manhattan, one bothered and the other meditatively calm. There are no perfect photographs, there are only photographs, only evidence of the ways we dance, in and out, in and out, of one another. It is in the ways we love our children that they learn just how to love, and whom to love, and what family history is.

In 1993, in the wake of a depleted civil war, Jeremy saw his father’s country for the first, astonishing time. He saw the marketplace crammed with the fruits he couldn’t name and the radishes arranged like Christmas wreaths and the bulbs of scallions, fat as fists. He saw the babies on the streets in their cardboard boxes, the weathered ladies behind their mounds of dried bouquets, the men who would pose for my camera, and the woman who would not, though I snapped her picture anyway, a portrait of disdain. Jeremy rode on the shoulders of the men of Santa Tecla, and saw the place, which had become a mall, where Don Alberto’s plantation-style house had stood, saw what his father taught him to see: See the feathers of this bird? They have a story. See the pig on the street? It’s someone’s dinner. See these orange fruits? When I was a kid, when I was a boy, I’d climb the trees and eat them. Jeremy was shouldered all over Santa Tecla, and the next day he was shouldered through the port town of La Libertad, rode high among salted fish and pinkened two-day-old snapper, among buckets of octopus and platters of shark, among the merchants and their children and the vagrants on the pier that stretches out into the restless Pacific that almost swallowed Don Alberto whole.


Illustration by
William Sulit

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