Sunday 24 April 2022

One Free Verse Poem by Charmaine Arjoonlal


My Adoptive Mother

I think of you when my voice erupts in snaps that rip through the house, snap, snap, snap.

From you I learned to grow a shell. To allow it to shield me, to hide me, to hold me.

I snapped at my husband Zip when he taught me Tai Chi to help me manage my work stress.

 “What’s wrong with you?  How could you have forgotten!?” I had screamed, screamed, screamed, righteously sure he had muddled the first move.

As a Health Care social worker during the pandemic, my shell has become brittle.

I still knew you when your shell was smooth and splashed with colour.  Your eyes sparkled and you smiled, smiled, smiled and your sun-infused radiance was contagious.

You loved those that needed you.

You moved a massive turtle to the side of the road ignoring my adoptive fathers’ warning, “it could be a snapper.”

I admired you.

I was four when you volunteered at the Center for R* Children.  You took me with you.

You refused to use the ‘R’ word in its title.  Maybe too often you heard it used as a taunt towards the different.

At the Center I didn’t need to speak, to stut, stut, stutter, to force the words out from behind my teeth, to force my head out from its shell.  Kids were enough like me and I was enough like them.  We played together, clasped hands and watched the turtle swim.  Her back was edged in olive-green squares that gleamed, “like floor,” my best friend Anna squealed. We stared at her as she stared at us, our braids intertwined--hers blond and mine black.

After decades as a social worker, the first crack appeared as I tried to sleep. My clients’ anguished anger would flash hot, the images clouded like a murky pond.  Rivulets of sweat pooled under my arms, between my breasts, in the small of my back and I’d fling off the covers. I’d shiver and thump to retrieve them and slam, slam, slam, back into bed.  The selfish part of me needed Zip to wake and satisfied, I’d hear a groggy, “let me massage your temples.” After, Zip slipped slip back to sleep and I’d watch the clock drag itself to morning.

Only you and my father and sister had understood my speech.  At school frustrated teachers asked me to write down what I was trying to say.  Finally, around age seven, I was understood by most.  Yet when I was tired or nervous, I would need to repeat, repeat, repeat.

I’d retreat to my shell.

The second crack appeared as my speech disintegrated.  My head bobbed to reshape my mouth, I’d spit out words like scrabble tiles, incomprehensible. Sometimes an off-topic word popped out unbidden and my skin hid my heat but not the dribble on my chin. 

People that didn’t know me would then ask, “where are you from originally?”

I’d retreat to my shell.

You never said anything about my speech.  You always understood me, never laughing or correcting or suggesting.  In this one area, you let me be.

I volunteered in my school’s Resource room when I was nine.  As I grew older, like you, I volunteered multiple places.  I won the ‘Volunteer of the Year’ award when I was 14 and was interviewed on the local TV channel.

You inspired me to become a social worker.

You volunteered all spring and summer but as fall came, you retreated to your shell to watch TV as you knitted hats and socks, “for the babies at the hospital.”

When my father retired, he joined you to watch Carnation Street and eat microwave dinners and look forward to spring.

Your husband, my father, was arrested for sexual assault on a minor.  Women called you to tell you to leave him.  Your dentures clicked and snapped.

You retreated to your shell.

I pleaded, “it’s never to late to change your life.”  But your brittle shell had developed fissures.

You screamed at your husband, “Goddamn you, just die, just die, just die,” and when he obliged, you snapped bitterness at his ghost.  You spent more and more in your shell until one day the cracks became too big.  Your shell couldn’t hold you. 

You lost your snap. 

You couldn’t wait any longer for the warm currents of spring.

The police broke down the door to find your cold body crumpled on the bathroom floora shell encased effigy amidst cigarette-scorched tiles. 

The quiet of the dead interrupted.

You died before I could get to know you.  Your belongings left behind like pieces of cracked tile.

Zip says that maybe every now and again, I need to stick my head out and snap, snap, snap.

But the pandemic may be ending.

Spring is coming.

Charmaine Traynor-Ruitenberg also known as Charmaine Arjoonlal (she/her) is a writer and social worker from Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Macleans, Cloud Lake LiteraryYukon North of Ordinary, Brown Sugar Literary and elsewhere.


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