BY CARMEN MISÉ
When we first got to this country I was too young to really understand everything that was happening before my eyes. My memories were patched together like pieces of broken glass, glued with stories I would hear my mom and dad recount. I don’t remember the plane ride, or have no memory of my first day in the US. I do remember starting school. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Izquierdo, my bus driver, Manolo, and Yaime, a girl who immigrated the same year we did, and who is still my best friend close to twenty years later. Memory. Isn’t it a funny and mysterious thing? How much of it is it really ours?
Memories, I mean. I feel as though there are people walking around with memories that belong to me. I once heard my best friend recount something that happened on the school bus. She turns to me in utter disbelief that I didn’t remember and proceeds to recount all I said on that bus ride. A memory I clearly did not possess any more, but should have.
Within this complex structure of memory work, I also believe there are memories that have become ingrained in me, not because I lived then, but because they are memories I have inherited. Scientists in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York have noted “the first demonstration of transmission of preconception stress effects resulting in epigenetic changes.” They are calling it “transmission of trauma to a child via what is called “epigenetic inheritance” - the idea that environmental influences such as smoking, diet and stress can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren.”
This study looked at Holocaust survivors, and while controversial, it is true that genes are modified by our environment all the time. So if it is possible to inherit “a memory” through DNA, then you most certainly can inherit a memory of trauma in other ways, I thought.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I had the words to verbalize what I would later recognize as inherited trauma. In fact, not only the words but the scholarly research of literary professionals who were all saying the same thing, just in different words, regardless of whether they were looking at social injustices in India, Latin America, or Europe. I came to so many realizations as a graduate student, that it’s a wonder I am able to function at all. One realization is this concept of inherited trauma and my memory of soap. Yes. Soap.
For many years my mom would collect the last remnants of bars of soap. The small, semi oval, pieces of soap that once were nutrient rich Dove, Caress or Camey bars. God forbid you threw one out, or let it dissolve and disappear if it fell on the shower floor, by the drain, because you were too lazy to pick it up. This “collecting” was a slow process. Over time, gallon zip lock bags or once I remember a ten pound empty sack of rice, would be filled. Over a period of months, we, my dad and I, but mostly me and my mom, would dutifully fill the container with bits of soap. So much dedication. And with each bit of soap added, a small sense of accomplishment, and a renewed determination to fill it up would drive our drive.
At first I did not quite get it, I just helped. It felt good to help my mom who seemed so determined to collect bits of soap. The colorful array of colors in the see-through bag made it like art project I was only too happy to help reach completion. This went on, without question, for a few years. One day, a day very much like all the others, mundane and ordinary, but special in that it’s on those days when we have our biggest breakthroughs, I asked my mom why she collected bits of soap. She looked at me, and down at the colorful, soap filled bag, after a few moments of silence she said that the soap we saved was going to be sent back to our country. “For what?” I asked. “Para lavar,” she replied. As she explained, I imagined a big tin barrel filled with scalding water, laundry, and the bits of soap I helped collect all this time, and a thick, brown woman, covered in a layer of sweat, standing over the barrel. Detergent does not exist where she comes from. Neither do washers and dryers. Too expensive.
I finally had an answer for something I was doing without question for a few years now. Although I learned to be more careful of the questions I ask, the answers are never satisfying. Surely, she could just buy detergent and sent it over? Or those big detergent soap bars I had seen at la bodega. She could send money too. That’s always an option, I thought. We could walk to the Western Union and while she sent the money I could get a gumball from the gumball machine. I hoped it was a blue one.
Of course, I didn’t understand then that she could not simply buy detergent and sent it over, or just send money. In her mind, what my mom was doing was a continuation of what she had always done, save bits of soap. Just on a grander scale, now that she was in the US and had me to help. When she stopped, I don’t really remember. It wasn't abruptly, but one day, when I realized that I didn’t see bags with soap any more, I knew this had come to an end. Well, at least in that form and at least for her. I, on the other hand, inherited the trauma of not having enough. The trauma of caution. A repugnant feeling in the pit of my stomach when I throw away perfectly good things. I know I am doing wrong and I feel it.
The other day I ran a few errands. I went to the store and I bought a few groceries, along with “un palo de mapear” and you guessed it, soap. As I sat at the kitchen table, emptying out the last quarter of liquid soap into the new bottle, I felt the same feeling of determination and accomplishment I felt collecting bits of soap from wasted bars. And we wonder why we drag with us the history of our ancestors? Why it weighs us down? Why we repeat the same fate over and over? I giggled at myself while I sat there saving the last bit of soap. Had this come full circle? And why was I laughing? Perhaps I was anxious or nervous that I had caught myself repeating this act of trauma. The act of saving the last bit of soap, or detergent, Lysol, olive oil and lotion…. Por si acaso.
Carmen Mise graduated from Florida International University with a Bachelor's in English in 2010 and a Master's in English in 2015. She is currently a professor of composition and literature at Miami Dade College North campus' English and Communication's Department. Carmen was recently invited by the Miami-Dade Public Library System to kick off their Art and Sculpture Lecture Series, where she lectured on the topic of Counter-Monuments. A theory she explored in her master's thesis, and a topic she is still exploring in her writings.