Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “Stories They Never Told” by Amanda Borquaye. Amanda is a current master's candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University where she studies how technology is shaping the migrant and refugee rights landscape. Prior to graduate school, she lived and worked in Washington DC as a civil rights paralegal. Amanda is a proud Georgian, Ghanaian-American, and last born child.
This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
I’m in my twenties, and I am sad.
There isn’t anything novel about this at all except that I default to envisioning what my mother and father must’ve felt like in their twenties. I envision because I feel too shy to ask, as if my hesitancy is an act of benevolence that allows them to maintain the preciousness of who they were before I came along.
Children of immigrants become quite well-versed in recounting tales of trauma. Each story has the same basic formula: arrive in a new country with one suitcase, no more than twenty dollars in your pocket, work grueling hours in a low-wage job, and top it all off with a racist boss and ignorant co-workers. Depending on colonial history, there’s also a language barrier. I know these stories well. I’m sure you know several different versions of them too. I know of my mother nearly losing a finger dicing vegetables at a Chinese restaurant. I know of my father, elbows-deep in a sink, washing dishes at an Italian restaurant. How comical linguine must have been to a man made of fufu (pounded yam) and stew.
But these tales of adjusting to life in America no longer mean much to me despite their prevalence in my upbringing. These stories, like me, are sad. I don’t want to envision my mother’s jubilant gap-toothed smile, downturned in panic because an injury may render her unemployed or my father’s wit unappreciated because he is cordoned off away from the cooks. I am in my twenties and sad, and I want to know of their mundane stories. The stories that just make them human, like everyone else, like me in this moment, just going through a routine until something exciting disrupts it.
But rather than ask, I invent. I base my stories off of their belongings. For my father, it is a photo of him, wide-eyed yet cool. His now glistening bald head was adorned with a high-top fade, and he wore acid washed jeans that crinkled as he leaned forward to rest his head on his palm. In addition to being a dishwasher, my father was also a cab driver and a DJ at house parties frequented by other Ghanaians. I picture him sitting down after playing a long set, energized by the night, yet tired. The men must have clapped him on the back, and I bet he felt cool. The women must have tried to meet his gaze, and I bet he felt desired.
The only thing I know about how my parents met is that my mother and father were introduced by my mother’s uncle at a house party in Pittsburgh. I know my mom liked my dad because “he was smart,” a full-time medical student at the time. I know my dad liked my mom because “she was very pretty and sweet.” The question of how they met they both dislike and do not understand.
“Americans are nosy,” they say. “They meet you and immediately want to know how you met, what you do, just to size you up. Is there nothing else worth knowing about a person?” They say this impassionedly, not loudly, the volume in their voice amplifying neither anger nor disdain but a sense of incredulity at becoming a spectacle.
So, I’ve never asked. Instead, I imagine that my mother’s bubbliness spilled over and intoxicated my father, that maybe they danced, and that “Basketball” by Kurtis Blow played at some point that evening. Or maybe Prince. Definitely Michael Jackson. When my father sings to each newborn baby he delivers, my mother finds it sweet, ignoring the fact that his musical stylings are hardly suitable for these tiny new persons who, moments ago, were expelled from darkness into light. I bet he sang to her in his signature off-tune and out-of-time delivery and that she was enchanted. I can only hope she didn’t dance her perm out, that each thick strand of hair stayed in its place, that her red lipstick didn’t budge. These invented memories of mine remind me that I do not know who they were before I came along. These memories could be true, but they probably are not.
The last time I went home, I visited my favorite thrift store: my mother’s closet. Her immaculately lined shelves and towering racks require a ladder, and it feels like mining for gold each time I go inside. My three older sisters, who all caught on to this practice far before I did, snagged most of the vintage goods. But after about 40 minutes of rummaging, I emerged with a pair of cherry red, square-toed, box heels.
“These are older than you, you know,” she said as I slid them on and walked circles in her bedroom.
I imagine my mother in a shoulder-padded suit, her skirt meticulously ironed, legs covered in stockings, the cherry red heels, the matching the red lipstick she refuses to go a day without. Maybe she wore these to a job interview before deciding to stay home with me for the first five years of my life. She chaperoned every field trip in kindergarten and first grade. She was even my substitute teacher at times. But I can also remember a time when she would stay up at our kitchen table, hunched over books and tracing her index finger under each line. She sat for the real estate license exam but she never worked a day as an agent, and I’m not sure why. I see her clacking across the wooden floors of a house viewing in these shoes even though I know it never happened.
My mind finds new vignettes to return to when I wish I could be a voyeur, to peer into the versions of their lives I do not know and fear I can never truly know. It is up to me to fill the in between.
I wonder if my parents feel the same way about me. I haven’t lived at home in over six years, and in that time, I have had experiences that they only know about from a photo or a summary, an unsatisfying distillation that neglects the excitement of what it means to be young. My father calls to tease me about my frequent trips to Brooklyn to see a new boyfriend.
“And how did you all meet?” he asks. “And when can I get him on the phone?” he says, the support of my mother echoing in the background.
I tell them we met at a house party. We were introduced by my dear friend who they both know and love. But this distillation is a disservice. We met at a house party, yes. But it was only a few weeks later that the world would go into lockdown. It was the last party I went to, and I only went to see my crush. The guy who would go on to become my now boyfriend (who was not my reason for attending) and I exchanged no more than three words that night.
To some extent, the words I write are silly. I’m sure we all fill in the blanks because we can never possibly know the full story. We all possess this acute awareness that only our own lives exist in totality, with everyone else’s existing in varying degrees of periphery.
But my desire for my parents’ stories, the happy ones and the mundane ones, is more than disappointment at the obscurity of their coming of age. Trauma and pain have a way of commanding narratives, displacing what was and tarnishing each thing they touch.
I fill in the gaps because I know there are things I will never know. And in my imagination I see the people, places, and things I will never know. My grandfathers are imagined. My mother chuckles at how I adopt each kind-faced, elderly Black man on television as “grandpa”. Morgan Freeman is frequently cast in this role. James Earl Jones is recurring as well. I have never seen what my mother’s father looked like. I hear of joyrides in his car on Sundays after church and ruffle dresses and lacy socks. I wonder what would come of asking my dad to describe his father’s face the way I look into his own, in amazement that it is also mine. By now I am fond of my imagined grandfathers. I want to write them letters signed, “your granddaughter”, sealed with adoration, to make up for lost time curled into the warmth of their necks, babbling about my insignificant day. My sadness steeps in figments of imagined people who I cannot conceptualize as real. I swallow this sorrow, knowing my parents’ pain is punctuated by abandonment, the circumstances of which have become more of a lore than an actual reason to be scrutinized, mourned, and eventually, accepted. In the wake of that, it seems insignificant to want to know how my grandfathers’ hairs curled, if their hands were calm and calloused, if they were lanky and looming.
My desires for these stories are not borne of entitlement, but rather a creeping curiosity that grows until I remind myself of the respect and deference I want to pay to the people who brought me into the world. How could their lives be truly ordinary in the context of everything they faced? Their challenges came not in the form of existentialism but in daily reminders that life is difficult.
I have exhausted myself of sad stories, real and imagined.
Tonight, I lie on my back and stare at my ceiling. I think of my dad’s vinyl collection. Each record has a small neon sticker with “Jerry’s” printed across. A quick internet search reveals that Jerry’s Records still exists in Pittsburgh to this day. I try to visualize my dad around my age, rummaging through crates, inspecting each disc before jiggling out some change to take home his new record he’ll spin at the next party. My mom will be there. For a moment, I become him, the records underneath my fingertips. I suspend them there in my mind – young, and ordinary.