She transcended resilience

Excerpt from Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

Photo by Kevin Erdvig on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot.

You may want to look up content warnings before reading this book, if there’s certain content you wish to avoid reading about.

Zohar asked my mother if she could sleep next to my bed, on the floor. She listened to me all night. Storytelling. What potential there was in being awful. My mindlessness became a gift. I didn’t feel compelled to tell any moral tales or ancient ones. I learned how story was always meant to be for Indian women: immediate and necessary and fearless, like all good lies.

My story was maltreated. I was a teenager when I got married. I wanted a safe home. Despair isn’t a conduit for love. We ruined each other, and then my mother died. I had to leave the reservation. I had to get my GED. I left my home because welfare made me choose between necessities. I used a check and some cash I saved for a ticket away—and knew I would arrive with a deficit. That’s when I started to illustrate my story and when it became a means of survival. The ugly truth is that I lost my son Isadore in court. The Hague Convention. The ugly of that truth is that I gave birth to my second son as I was losing my first. My court date and my delivery aligned. In the hospital, they told me that my first son would go with his father.

“What about this boy,” I said, with Isaiah in my arms.

“They don’t seem interested yet,” my lawyer said.

I brought Isaiah home from the hospital, and then packed Isadore’s bag. My ex-husband Vito took him, along with police escorts. Before they left, I asked Vito if he wanted to hold his new baby. I don’t know why I offered, but he didn’t kiss our baby or tell him goodbye. He didn’t say he was sorry, or that it was unfortunate. Who wants one boy and not another?

It’s too ugly—to speak this story. It sounds like a beggar. How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I choose it every time?

I learned how to make a honey reduction of the ugly sentences. Still, my voice cracks.

I packed my baby and left my reservation. I came from the mountains to an infinite and flat brown to bury my grief. I left because I was hungry.

In my first writing classes, my professor told me that the human condition was misery. I’m a river widened by misery, and the potency of my language is more than human. It’s an Indian condition to be proud of survival but reluctant to call it resilience. Resilience seems ascribed to a human conditioning in white people.

The Indian condition is my grandmother. She was a nursery teacher. There are stories that she brought children to our kitchen, gave them laxatives, and then put newspaper on the ground. She squatted before them and made faces to illustrate how hard they should push. She dewormed children this way, and she learned that in residential school—where parasites and nuns and priests contaminated generations of our people. Indians froze trying to run away, and many starved. Nuns and priests ran out of places to put bones, so they built us into the walls of new boarding schools.

I can see Grandmother’s face in front of those children. Her hands felt like rose petals, and her eyes were soft and round like buttons. She liked carnations and canned milk. She transcended resilience and actualized what Indians weren’t taught to know: We are unmovable. Time seems measured by grief and anticipatory grief. I don’t think she even measured time.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Heart Berries – Summary

Here is the book summary:

Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is

Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father―an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist―who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.

Copyright © 2018 by Terese Marie Mailhot.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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