It’s a calm, sunny midday toward the end of January, and the city seems to stand still. I arrive at my sister’s house for a family lunch. It could be just another gathering, siblings getting together on any ordinary day. But it isn’t. It’s the first time we’re seeing each other since my mother’s funeral. Our mother’s funeral.
I ring the doorbell.
My sister comes to open the entrance gate. She’s wearing denim shorts and white sneakers, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She smiles, I smile, and we exchange a brief kiss on the cheek. There’s something too polite about us. Something wooden, forced and theatrical, like we’re two little girls playing at tea parties for the first time.
We take the stone steps up to the front door. Lining the path are flowers of all different colors. Red, yellow, lilac, blue.
That’s what they’re called.
Together, we go into the kitchen to put the ice cream in the freezer, and my niece’s dog, León, appears, greeting me by jumping up and down and barking. He has a tuft of copper-colored fur flopping over one eye and the most comical, clueless expression I’ve ever seen on a dog. I can’t believe he’s named after the king of the jungle, with a face like that, and I can’t help laughing every time I see him.
For months now, I’ve been promising my niece that I’ll write a story starring León as the main character. Guadalupe, thrilled at the idea of her pet becoming a literary character, sends me countless photos of León. She calls to update me on the funny things he does, which of course she thinks are all extraordinary. I tell her I’ll write the story soon, but times goes by and León’s story, like so many other things, remains buried in that daunting chest marked someday.
At the table on the veranda overlooking the garden, my brother is waiting for us with his new girlfriend. She’s a charming blonde, cheerful and outgoing. She has a spontaneous nature that’s so different from ours.
We are not like that. We will never be like that.
It dawns on me that this is the first time all three siblings have met up anywhere other than our mother’s house.
It was always our mother who invited us to her house, who made an effort to bring us together, to see us together. To see us. It would never have occurred to us to meet up outside the borders of her realm. Or perhaps it might, but even if we had wanted to, we wouldn’t have dared to suggest it, at the risk of our carefully constructed walls of ice coming down.
What a strange family I have, our mother used to grumble, placing herself firmly out of the equation.
Today we are together.
Three siblings. Three orphans. Three castaways.
Mother’s absence occupies the head of the table. And it was my sister, the one with the busy lizzies, “the most normal one” according to my mother, who thought of getting us together.
I watch her as she sets the table.
A well-laid table, with a proper tablecloth and linen napkins edged with pink and purple embroidered flowers. I don’t think I even have cloth napkins in my apartment. Perhaps because my home isn’t a real home. Not in the way this house is.
I notice how some of my sister’s gestures are so like my mother’s. Our mother’s. Certain outdated expressions she uses, the way she cocks her head to the side, the way her shoulders lift when she laughs. Although we’re very different, or perhaps for that exact reason, many of the qualities I admire in her are ones I don’t have: her ability to keep a marriage going for decades, her innate desire to be a mother, her determination to be happy.
I’d have liked a stable life like hers, with cloth napkins, and busy lizzies in the garden. A life as tranquil as a mountain landscape. Although, who really knows how many shadows lie just beyond those pleasant hills?
I go into the kitchen with her and we return to the table with the salads in matching blue glass dishes.
“Siblings be united, for this is the first of laws,” declares my brother, quoting from Martin Fierro in an attempt to be funny. We laugh. Or pretend to.
My sister’s husband brings over a steaming platter of meat from the barbecue. It smells divine.
“A round of applause for the chef!” says my niece.
And we all clap.
I’m silently grateful that my sister has invited us over. There is something restorative in this encounter, something necessary. Through my siblings’ bodies, I salvage what is left of my mother in the material world. She is present in their bones, in their organs, in their corneas.
My blood relatives.
This is the first time these words take on real meaning for me, as someone who knows so little about having a family.
My sister’s husband comes over and congratulates me on an article I wrote that was published a few days ago in the newspaper.
Suddenly, I feel everyone’s eyes on me, and I think, horrified, that they’ve all read the article. An intimate, stripped-down piece in which I recount episodes of my life that they didn’t know about.
“The writer in the family,” says my brother-in-law, with a faint smile and a twitch of his eyebrows, which I can’t quite read.
He says this while holding a huge fork—a sort of trident—that he is using to serve up the cuts of meat and offal. For a moment I imagine that life is a Netflix series: my brother-in-law lunging forward with his trident in hand, stabbing me in the heart to prevent me from revealing the family secrets.
Fortunately, nobody says anything about the article and I ask my niece a question about her piano lessons, managing to steer us off the topic.
Over coffee, my brother pulls up his chair and discreetly asks me if I’m going to write that book about our mother.
“I’m working on it,” I say.
Something in his tone puts me on edge.
“But it’s not a book about Mom,” I tell him. “She features in part of it, of course, but the book isn’t about her.”
He takes a sip of his coffee, and after a few interminable seconds, says, “Alright, but you don’t have to write about everything.”
I’m not sure what he’s referring to. I tell him not to worry, that it’s a fictional text, that it’s my perspective on certain events that took place, or that I’ve imagined or invented. I also try to explain that each of us lived in a different house, in a different family, even though we had the same parents and lived under the same roof.
The words come gushing out. I feel like a swimmer struggling to breathe, the fear pulling me under. The fear of not being able to write that book. I can see in his eyes that he doesn’t understand what I’m saying, while I, with the desperation of a person lost at sea, frantically cling to my precarious raft of freedom.
“You don’t have to read it, anyway,” I tell him, to put an end to the discussion.
“We will read it,” says my sister.
She says this firmly. Her words reverberate in the air.
we will read it we will read it we will read it
Then she adds, “Our house wasn’t sad.”
She’s alluding to a certain comment I made in the article, where I mention the somber atmosphere in our family home.
“And Mom wasn’t sad either,” she adds.
I look at her blankly. “What do you mean, she wasn’t?”
“She wasn’t before.”
“When we were little.”
“Yeah, when we were little. At all my birthday parties there was music, and Mom would make delicious food for all my friends. She told me she liked giving us baths when we were babies. She really loved being a mom.”
I remind her that a few days ago, she’d told me, among other things, that our mother had been ill with depression for a long time, perhaps forever, and that we hadn’t realized the magnitude of the problem.
Now she doesn’t seem to remember any of that conversation.
She’s talking about bubble baths for babies, and pink birthday cakes, assuring me that I must have misunderstood.
My brother watches impassively.
They give each other a look.
I suspect that prior to this lunch, they spoke about the risk of having me in their ranks.
Back at my apartment, I water the plants, take off my clothes, which smell of barbecued meat, take a shower, and get into bed. From the bedside table drawer, I take out a box containing a few photos.
I’m staring at a picture of the three of us on the beach, playing with buckets and spades in the sand with my mother, when I hear a message come through on my phone.
It’s a voice note from my sister.
“Don’t put anything in about Dad making her cry.”
From La voz de la madre, copyright © 2022 by Silvia Arazi. English translation copyright © 2023 Charlotte Coombe. All rights reserved.
This translation sample received support from Translation House Looren.