Updated: Apr 15
By Katherine Sinback -
I imagine you have questions for me.
Who was I?
Was I really the great guy your mother said I was or am I another one of her nostalgia trips?
Your mother, my sister, is prone to coating everything in a shellac of “fine.” When she was a kid, I found her hiding behind the thicket of sunflowers in our daddy’s garden. Her face was red and her eyes shone extra blue in the hard glint of the afternoon sun. I asked her, You okay? Her lips tightened around the words that were clamoring to get out of her mouth.
Something happen? I asked.
She swallowed whatever truth pushed against her lips and whispered, I’m fine.
We sat there, picking at the weeds that had sprung up between the sunflower stalks and stacking them in a pile until she was ready to tell me that our mama was in a mood, that our mama called her a cow when she caught her sneaking a fritter.
She didn’t mean nothing by it, I said.
Your mom wiped at her eyes even though they were dry. She’d already learned to cry without tears, to pack our mama’s little cruelties away into a corner of herself. I thought I had too, but they stacked up inside me until they blocked out everything else.
I pushed up from the ground and pulled your mom to her feet. I took her hand in mine and led her down to the creek that cut through the forest on our land so we could get our feet wet and squish the silt between our toes until a smile broke through her lips.
We didn’t have many friends. We had each other. We lived miles from the other kids at our school and our older brother, Jimmy, wasn’t inclined to drive his younger siblings around. Jimmy is the uncle that you’ve known since you were born, the face that pops to mind when you hear the word “uncle.” When you were little and your family came to visit my mama, photos of Jimmy, your mom, and me lined the wall by the door. Your eyes ticked over the photos, marveled at how your mom was once so young and beautiful, how her brown hair had formed into a perfect flip. You thought your uncle Jimmy’s head was a perfect square. Your eyes snagged on my photo and you thought maybe the kid with the crooked teeth was a cousin from another branch of the family tree. The word uncle never entered your mind.
You didn’t give my photo a second thought until the day it clicked into place.
You were sixteen. You and your mother were shouting at each other in the living room over one of your usual topics.
You had stayed out late.
You smelled of cigarette smoke.
Did you really need to wear so much black? You looked like you were going to a funeral!
You don’t remember what rope you followed to that moment, pulling yourself hand over hand into another argument with your mom.
You do remember the slap.
The sting on your right cheek, your mother bursting into actual tears a second after her hand connected with your face, the heat that emanated from that spot to the rest of your body. Your shock froze time. Tears rushed to your blue eyes. Then a revelation. You now had the upper hand because your mom hit you. She hit you! She sank onto the couch sobbing. She wouldn’t raise her eyes to meet yours. She couldn’t believe what she’d done. Hit her own daughter!
Our mama didn’t hit. Your mom wasn’t forging another link in some family chain of physical abuse when her hand flew to your cheek. Our mama couldn’t be bothered to raise a hand to us. We weren’t worth the trouble.
While your mother cried on the couch, you grew taller. The pity you felt for your crumpled mother ran a distant second to your righteous indignation.
How could you do that? you asked, breathless.
She didn’t answer. She tried to catch her breath. Since you had turned sixteen, thoughts of me had been rolling around in her mind like a marble. Never coming to rest. You reminded her of me. Your spark, your independence. Nothing terrified her more than thinking of the two of us, two marbles tracing the same path. The argument, the slap opened something inside of her, a chute for the marble. She couldn’t keep me contained. She rolled my name around silently in her mouth before she breathed life into me in your living room.
My grand entrance into your consciousness came through sips of air, through her throaty sobs. I have another brother, she said. His name was Dale. He was my best friend. He was a great person. Her head fell into her hands. You froze for a moment, let the shock of the slap be replaced by the shock of my existence. The picture on your grandmother’s wall! Your mom’s terror whenever you said you were depressed! Your mom could barely say the words: Dale, suicide, we didn’t talk about those things.
After that day she refused to talk about me again.
Now you’re safely out of your tumultuous teenaged years, a pleasant bicoastal mother-daughter relationship settled around the two of you like a worn quilt. Weekly phone calls, chats about books and TV, a list of topics that keep the peace etched into the space between you, a long hallway with closed doors. You are now the same age as your mom when she slapped you. You bring me up when you feel the closed door between the two of you open a crack, when you feel like the list of topics can expand. Tell me about Dale. Were you close? I know it’s hard to talk about him, but I’d love to know more. What a tragedy. That sounds like a traumatic experience.
You fill the silence, hoping to shake something loose. But she’s still that little girl hiding in the sunflowers, telling you that she’s fine. There’s nothing to talk about, she says. She doesn’t crack for you like she did for me. She is still trying to protect you. She is still trying to protect me. Protect me from myself. Protect me from our mother. Protect me from her own anger at what I put her through.
I know you have questions. You search for me online. You remember my picture on my mama’s wall and wonder where it is now that your grandmother is decades dead, her house sold, her wall emptied of all traces of your family. You find my death certificate online. Cursive handwriting spells out the cause of my death: hung self with belt. Was your mother the one who found me? Whose belt did I use? Who was I beyond that picture on my mother’s wall, beyond the word suicide? I was more than a trauma for your mother to endure. I was more than my crooked toothed smile. I was more than the unspooling questions gathering in the corners of your mind. I was more.
Katherine Sinback’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Southern Humanities Review, and Taco Bell Quarterly, among other publications. Her essay “I Was Never Here” was selected as a 2021 Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2022.Her stories appear in the anthologies Resist with Every Inch and Every Breath and Hello! How Can I Help You Today. Her essay about Randy “Macho Man” Savage is included in the anthology From Parts Unknown: A Pro Wrestling Anthology. Born and raised in Virginia, Katherine lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. More at katherinesinback.wordpress.com. She can be found on Twitter @kt_sinback.