I remember the day I met my mother.
I began my day as I did every school day, awakened by a tap from my aunt urging me to drink my Nestum, then ushered off to the bathroom to bathe and get dressed. It was 6:30 a.m. and the sun was shining through the windows, illuminating every inch of the house. The air was damp and still, and filled with the scent of toasting tennis rolls.
I was in the bathroom washing the soap off my magga little body one cup full of water at a time when I noticed that the usual morning jangle had reached a suspicious quiet. I finished bathing and stepped out of the bathroom and followed the short hall into the kitchen. Standing before me was my father with a strange woman. That woman was my mother and her arrival would change everything I thought I knew about my life.
Just days before my mother’s arrival, I knelt before an image of Christ that hung over my bed and prayed, “God, please sen’ my muddah to me. Everybody else have their muddah, but I don’t have one. Plus, I’m tired of getting holla and beat fuh tings I did’n do. I know my muddah won’ holla on me and beat me. In Jesus name, Amen.” Whether it was prayer, destiny, or sheer randomness, my mother showed up. It was September 17, 1992, and I was six years old.
By August 1994, I would have moved to the United States to live with that strange woman standing in our kitchen. The two years in between our introduction and my immigration marked a period of discovery and change for me. I would come to know this woman and eventually call her mother. And I would discover countenances of my father that I had never before met. I would learn the truth about why my mother left and unlearn the narratives of abandonment and being unwanted that often made me question my worth. My foundation would quake and crack with each passing day, ultimately crumbling to reveal my new life where I walk hand-in-hand with my mother, no longer a stranger but a newfound best friend.
It took time to develop a relationship with my mother. I was so confused about how to feel about her return. I had spent countless hours imagining what she would be like. I watched with envy at other children with their mothers.
I hurt when my cousin and I were picked up from school and she held her mother’s hand, but I had to hold on to an aunt. I wanted to know that feeling. Yet, my mother’s arrival did not feel like a blessing. Her presence came with an ask for love, bonding, relationship, and I didn’t know how to give that. Significantly, that ask felt like a threat to the relationship I already had with my father.
But she persisted, picking me up from school for lunch and having me visit on weekends. I was quiet, withdrawn, sometimes rude. She absorbed every slight and let me have the time and space required to understand that she was not going anywhere. After about six months, my address for her evolved from “’ey” to “Ma,” a sign that there was some trust. From that first “Ma,” our relationship grew quickly and we began to share our stories with each other. She shared about her life with my father and I told her who he was as a father.
My relationship with my father was an unusual one. Where many of my peers saw their fathers as strict disciplinarians to be feared, I was unafraid of mine. “Daddy, I break my lunch kit again,” I would declare, knowing that though it’s a burden to replace it, he would not censure me. He was a loving father who saw me off to school each day, drank tea with me as part of our nightly ritual, and defended my right to wear pants and climb trees “like a boy.” He taught me the alphabet and how to read the standard clock. Ours was a relationship characterized by love, trust and mutual respect. I knew my boundaries, and if I crossed them he would let me know by firmly saying my name, “MARIA!” I apologized immediately, knowing I had done something wrong, and the situation was resolved. He never once raised a hand to me. If there was a violent streak to him, I never saw it.
So, I was very surprised when my mother shared with me that my father used to beat her. I doubted that the man she described was the same man who raised me, but I would meet those traits before migrating to the United States.
In 1994, just after a lengthy custody battle for me, my parents decided to reconcile. For a brief moment, I was not in a single-parent home, but I quickly learned that the two-parent home is not necessarily the best home. One day, while I sat in the living room watching TV, I heard my mother scream. She was in clear distress and there was shouting. I ran into the bedroom to find my mother pinned to the bed by my father’s left hand as his right hand rained down slaps and punches. I don’t remember surveying the situation and making an explicit choice to move. I only know that as soon as I observed the scene I pounced on the bed, coming between them. The sight of me gave my father pause, and in that moment, my mother grabbed his hand to bite in defense. She was not the woman she was before who would just take the beating. This new woman was ready to fight back. I couldn’t bear the thought of her biting him, so I put my hand on his just as she bit down. My scream from the pain broke up the entire situation. That night, I saw my father’s violence and I became a guard between them. It was the singular instance of violence that I witnessed between them, but coupled with my mother’s stories, it would shape my adolescence and early adulthood.
Eventually, custody was awarded to my mother and I moved to the United States with her. Our relationship continued to grow and I came to understand why she left me behind at two months old. The visa was granted and she saw an opportunity to escape the abuse and build something better for us. She trusted that my father would continue to live with her sister and that I would be raised by trusted family members. That would allow her to build capital in the U.S. before coming back for my brother and me. Her expectations were unmet since my father removed me to his sister’s care and I seldom saw my mother’s family. Despite that, he kept me safe, so she was not worried. She knew she would get me back.
The years that followed my immigration were my toughest years. I had to adjust to a new parent, home, family, and history. As my parents’ past became clearer, I struggled with how I positioned myself between them. I started to evaluate who my father was in my life based on who he was in my mother’s life. Knowing that my nurturer was also my mother’s abuser, would I be able to love him and my mother at the same time or are those two things mutually exclusive? What does it mean to have to forgive him for something he did to someone else? Does justice in this situation mean that I turn my back on him and never look back? Do I surrender happy memories of my childhood and replace them with more painful interpretations to justify anger toward my father?
I was also angry at my mother. I wondered why she told me the whole story. What was there to be gained? What did she want me to do about it? Was I supposed to feel responsible for what happened to her? Is his atonement my burden? If not, why tell me of her suffering? I often wondered if ignorance in this situation would have been better for me. Would it have relieved me of the inner turmoil that I endured in my formative years if I had not known of the abuse?
Adding to my strain was my additional role as a guard. The one I adopted the night she bit my finger. I found myself constantly vigilant about her relationship with my father. If he called to speak with me and they ended up talking, I became angry, wondering why she would let herself engage with the man who had done her so much harm. Nothing in me wanted to see them together or even be cordial to one another. I simply wanted them as mom and dad, separate from each other. I felt safer that way. I had strong convictions that she was safer that way. So, I could not bear it when she chose to speak with him and laugh with him, even when she justified it as necessary to co-parent me.
Resolving the anger and all the questions that came from understanding the abuse in my parents’ relationship has been a continuous process that I have revisited over the past two decades.
In the early years, I was in denial. There was no way I could understand my father in that light. By adolescence, I had the evidence and critical thinking to reckon with what I knew and my anger toward my parents—my father for abusing my mother and my mother for allowing herself to be abused for so many years. This stage was marked by rejection — of my father as well. I rarely called him and he rarely called me. Our conversations topped off at 30 seconds after each “Happy Birthday!” or “Merry Christmas!” was articulated. We had no relationship anymore. I found myself now in a position I knew well: yearning for a parent I didn’t have, except this time it was my father who was missing.
The rejection of my father in this stage was driven by a rejection of myself. I realized that I was the product of an abuser and an abused woman, and which one of those identities was most reflected in me was a question I struggled with.
I felt certain that I would never “let” myself live under the circumstances my mother endured with my father. “If a man raise ‘e han’ at me, either me or he going out in a coffin. Because I ain’t going to let no man do to me what Daddy do to you, Ma,” I would exclaim, not realizing how judgmental the statement was. But if I surely wouldn’t be abused, did that mean I would be the abuser? Would I be the one to inflict pain on another? To bruise their body, to break their mind, to cause them to be numb, to incite fear? Do I have such tendencies? Knowing what had transpired between my parents had maimed my sense of self. I sometimes struggled to see myself beyond that dichotomy, and to overcome that, I had to start to see my parents as wholes, more than their experiences with each other. My own healing began with healing my relationships with them.
The final stage started with a thought: I could love my father as the father he is and know that he has abused my mother. This is the stage of acceptance and reconciliation. The thought initially appeared when I was about twelve years old, but the anger was too present then for it to take root. It has come back to me repeatedly through the years and eventually led me to forgive and re-establish my relationship with my father. I spent years rejecting him, struggling to understand him in the context of my mother’s life and mine—who is he, abuser or father? What does it say to my mother if I hugged my father with love and compassion? Would she think that I did not hear her experience? My mother never once discouraged a relationship with my father or nurtured any anger I had toward him. Quite the opposite, she nurtured my love for him and encouraged me to keep in touch. “Yuh only geh one fadah,” she would say.
The fears I had about how she would feel were my own anxieties rooted in my need to guard and protect her from him. With her support, the first plane ticket I bought when I landed a full-time job after college was to Guyana to visit my father. I hugged him like the little girl who had never known anything about his violence. I took him in and held him as a whole person, as the man that perpetrated horrible beatings upon my mother and the father who dressed my wounds in my wild and clumsy childhood days.
I have also forgiven my mother for sharing her story with me. It may have protected me to not know the truth, but the truth has shaped me in important ways. I cannot deny its value. By wrestling with that truth, I have come to understand myself as a survivor. I am not merely the product of abuser and abused, but born of survival and redeemed by my mother’s will to survive.
This acceptance and reconciliation has liberated me from my fears of what lies within. I am not stifling myself anymore, anxious about what may surface if I loosen up too much. I know that being my father’s daughter is not the same as being my father.
I fear what my parents will think as they read this story airing the details of their lives for an audience wider than either would wish to share it with. But I think it is important to share it because this story is not just ours—it’s the story of many Indo-Caribbean families.
Generations of women have survived abuse at the hands of men who purport to love them. Many daughters grow up seeing their mothers beaten by their fathers and being affected by that tragedy we are often confused about who we are, how we relate to our parents, our role in our own relationships.
We learn early that abuse is just part of marriage, that jealousy is a substitute for love, that we are to respect our husbands and put the marriage before our safety. When my mother left, she broke that narrative and communicated to me that I don’t ever have to stay. That has been crucial in my healing.
The next step in my recovery is to share this story in support of all the other women who need to know that they are not alone.
Working with Jahajee Sisters, a group of women building a movement to end domestic violence in Indo-Caribbean communities, I use my truth to build sisterhood and uphold those of us who have survived. We are coming together and changing the future so that we can all have the promise of safety and freedom in our partnerships. We are re-positioning women in our community. I hope that my parents do not despise my choice to share this story, understanding that I did so with compassion and courage, hoping that my story would touch someone and advance our cause by illuminating the impact of domestic violence.
On September 17, 2017, 25 years after that first meeting with my mother, I stood on the landing of my father’s house in Guyana, looking out at the trees that fill his backyard and the cane fields out in the distance. I reflected on that meeting 25 years earlier and all my uncertainty about that woman. I was filled with gratitude for her return and everything that has followed.