Excerpt from “Motherland”
This essay was published in Bearings Online, a publication of the Collegeville Institute, on April 28, 2016, as part of the “Encounters with God” series. You can read the essay in its entirety, as well as companion pieces from the series, here.
As my grandmother was dying on the sofa in her mid-century ranch house, she called me to fetch her tweezers.
“Sister,” she said, “you see these chin hairs? Just pluck them for me.”
My grandmother was not a vain woman. And yet.
So I leaned over her, tweezers readied. I reached for the lamp on the end table, turned the dial once, twice, three times for the brightest light. “I don’t see any chin hairs,” I lied.
“Oh, they’re there. Just a few.”
Still, I resisted, tweezers hovering mid-air. “It might hurt,” I said.
“It’s alright,” she said. “Go ahead.” As matter-of-fact about suffering as she was about everything else. She was Catholic, after all.
I studied my grandmother’s face. Her eyes were closed, her face tilted back in peaceful, steadied waiting.
So I leaned over her, plucked three careful chin hairs. She smiled as if relieved, and we went back to watching television. The living room walls were covered in fake wood paneling and an oversized portrait of the Pope, reaching out to us from the mantel, hand extended in perpetual blessing.
I was nearly thirty years old. I was supposed to know that my grandmother was dying. Still, when all was said and done, I did not know how to know a thing like that.
Not long ago, I bought my first car and drove it across the country to a little college town in New Jersey. I felt like a pioneer in reverse, the golden paradise of California’s central valley shrinking behind me in the rear-view mirror. Some days, it haunts me, this California.
I have lived in the northwestern corner of Spain, the south of France, a small town along the Mexican border. Nothing has felt so far from home as New Jersey, this great suburban land that is comforting and infuriating in equal measure. Still, I am trying it on as home. I keep trying it on, taking it off, trying it on again. It is mostly an exercise in trying. Some days I move a little more slowly, not recognizing this new land, muttering under my breath, as if afraid I might forget: I am not from here. I am from someplace else. I repeat the words like a mantra.