Rippling refers to the fact that each of us creates—often without our conscious intent or knowledge—concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations. That is, the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on and on until they're no longer visible but continuing at a nano level. The idea that we can leave something of ourselves, even beyond our knowing, offers a potent answer to those who claim that meaninglessness inevitably flows from one's finiteness and transiency.
–Irvin Yalom, Staring at the Sun.
The cold, sharp edges of one revolver press against my skull. Another is aimed at my mother’s heart. Time ticks quickly from all that came before to what happens next.
“Kris,” my mother, Elaine, yells from the adjoining study. “Can you get the door? On the phone.” Mitzi, the dirty white lap dog belonging mostly to my mother and sister, is barking the high-pitched yip she uses to grow herself big.
I sigh with that impatient, eye-rolling breath I often use with my mother. Do this, do that, I think to myself. Just leave me alone.
I wanted to be anything other than what I was that year of 1984—a missionary kid of a missionary kid—and, in Israel of all places. My parents had not taken my own social standing into consideration when they became people doing God’s work. To be fair, they told me when I complained about the wrongness of it all, that they didn’t like the word missionary either. They weren’t there to start a church. My father, a conscientious objector, spent two years in alternate service in the West Bank at an orphanage. After marrying, he and my mother returned to the same work. The nuances of why and how they came to be American Christians in Israel and Palestine were inconsequential to my teenage self who wanted to belong and didn’t.
We live in the middle of a citrus grove, by day a fragrant contrast in colors, by night a silent sentinel, accompanied by an orchestra of insects and the occasional coyote. This is Israel in the 1980s before its upward and outward takeover of stony fields dotted with aged and contorted olive trees and crimson anemones that could be seen from afar. Our windows are always uncovered and at night we could pick out Orion, Taurus, and Canis Major with ease. The moon grows large in the dark. I run in the cool of the night, daytime heat melting as the sun lowered. I know the paths around my home well enough to move comfortably in the dark.
It's Wednesday evening and my father has taken my sister, Kim, to her cello lesson in Tel-Aviv. It’s also soup night and Mom has made a vegetarian chili chocked full of carrots and peppers. Her chili is more soup than stew. Vinegar sits in a small carafe, ready to be poured by the teaspoon into waiting bowls. She has set the table with five placemats and purple cotton napkins rolled into napkins rings. Water glasses are filled. We wait for dinner until we can all sit together. It’s like this every Wednesday.
Something they clearly knew.
I am restless, edgy—at home on a school night, counting the days till graduation. A pile of art books teeters next to me as I sit on the corduroy-covered couch, comfy in the concave impressions left by hours of use. I have spent many evening hours here imitating, with my pencil, the drawings of Da Vinci’s women, passing time and imagining myself in art school. Dreams niggle the confines of what I’ve decided to do—follow a boyfriend to college.
Something’s off. I can barely tolerate sitting still and my skin tingles, vibrates. The sensations have amplified in the last weeks. I chalk it up to boredom, to wanting the next part of my life to start. Waiting. I hated waiting.
I set aside my drawing pad and slump towards the front door. I look through the upper half and see my own face reflected back against the dark of the summer night. I turn the handle and pull open the door.
Two men rush the door. Their eyes, dark and darting beneath balaclavas, glance at me and then shoot about the room. They are dressed in army fatigues the colors of sand and shrub. I fold, as though a marionette dropped from above.
From what seems a great distance, I hear a whimper. Me? The dog barks—sharp, staccato, piercing. A base-key groan, “No. No. No.” My words, repeated. My chest rises and falls as I try and catch my breath but the room feels empty of oxygen. Static, like a television without a station, grows louder in my ears.
One grabs my upper arm—his presence imprints my skin with purple bruises I find the next day. His shoulder wedges itself between my shoulder blades. My legs no longer work and I am jerked upright. I am caught in a vice of revolver and a hard male body. Molten fear runs down my face from temple to chin. My legs grow warm and wet.
“Dollars,” one says, the r stuck in his throat. “We want dollars.”
Each word loudly exaggerated, “What? You want money?” Mom says, as though in slow-motion. My mother remains planted on her chair next to the old pine desk in the study. I see her sit up taller than I’ve ever seen her sit before. Her shoulders are thrown back. Defiant.
The two of us are facing each other through the door connecting the kitchen and study but I can’t see her expression, the look on her face erased in the glare of the fluorescent lights.
It’s April of 2021 and I’ve had a terrible case of writer’s block for the past month. I pull out of my files, the latest draft of a piece, “Finding Her Voice.” Maybe a revision will quiet my inner critic. New doubts arise.
I talk with my therapist, describing my resistance to writing this piece. “I don’t think it matters,” I say. “Not with what’s going on in this country.”
She doesn’t give me a line like, “All stories matter.” What she does say is that there are little t’s and big T’s—small, repeated traumas that reinforce somatic and psychological states of fear and huge, devastating moments of horror and trauma.
An unheeded call for healing and resolution, even for seemingly minor trauma, adds one more story to the collective grief of humanity. Minimizing my own experiences of unsafety and terror render others’ experiences unimportant as well.
I carry on.
“Dollars. We want dollars,” one of them repeats. I can’t place his accent.
The phone dangles, taut, as she rises from her chair. “What?” she says loudly. “What? You want money?” I hear her again, her voice unnaturally loud, abrasive. I want to throw my hands over my ears but I can’t. My arms and legs are unresponsive to my brain’s plea—do something. Language abandons me. I am eighteen and stronger physically than my mother but in these moments, the lines are all hers.
At vision’s edge, movement. One man charges my mother. She drops the phone. It clatters on the tiled floor. He pushes her but she resists. He uses his shoulder to push harder. “Leave her alone,” I hear her say. “We have money.”
I see her clearly as though I could draw her. She had grown larger. She is all I see.
Her hair, thick and russet red, is pulled back, looped into a bun. She covers it with a scarf tied in the back, just under. She stands beside the dusty bus, arm outstretched towards something in the sky. A bird, perhaps? She is beautiful, my mother, like Iris, goddess of the rainbow. Such possession. I pull plastic off the album page and pry the photograph into my hand. I want to remember her as strong and powerful.
“Punishment, A Story”
At the boarding school, matrons roamed the hallways, listening, looking for aberrant children speaking or laughing during rest time. Carol, my mother’s closest friend and confidant, is caught by the head matron. “Go into your dirty laundry and grab your knickers. Sit here and smell them.” A row of chairs, students walking by, shame.
By age seven, my mother has learned to not make a sound, to curl up, arms hugging herself.
She stands at the foot of her bed every morning after the bell has woken them. Hands out, palms down and then up. Lift that face up! Face down and a hand slides down beneath the clothing on her back. Grime. Elbows? Dirt. Go scrub with a brush. Brown and white children scour their skin until sink water runs pink. My little-girl mother is silent.
They drag us back to the kitchen from the bedroom where my mother has led them to the
box, high on a shelf, filled with money, dollars. The men slash at air with guns like swashbucklers swiping with swords. “Down,” the guns say.
We fall on the linoleum, bellies to the floor. I see a dried clump of dirt and want to touch it. My eyes take in the kitchen—steam from bubbling soup, the table covered in a white, needlepointed cloth, a blood-red flower in a vase. It looked like the kitchen always looked only brighter. Strands of my mother’s hair touch mine.
“It’s not real,” my mother says as they grab a toy gun my parents, the pacifists, gave to my brother for his birthday. They take it, anyways. A final wild wave of guns and they run out into the trees hidden in the dark.
If she could go back there would be no toy guns as birthday gifts for her Black boy. Not because of that night but because of now—her Black boy now a Black man in America. I see bones beneath her silky pants. She has dressed up, pulled out her fancy clothes. Her arms are translucent, skin layered like crumpled fine paper pressed flat. Regret burns my throat, scorches my chest. I had never asked for her stories. I kept her quiet all these years. Now, I welcome their reiterations and practice telling my own.
My father and sister turn onto the sandy lane. Flashing police lights pierce the rural darkness. Dad steps on the gas, wheels spinning as the car gains momentum. Kim grabs the door to balance herself, the bouncing making her queasy. Something is wrong.
My father has visions of what he might find, images born from war and his care of its orphans. My sister counts the police cars. “Five, Dad,” she says.
No one stops them at the door. A good sign, Dad thinks. They find Mom, my brother, Matt, and me, seated on the loveseat that had borne witness to it all. “Dad, they took my .44 Magnum,” Matt yells over my parents’ embrace. “I told the police all about it.”
I’m told I was interviewed by the Petah Tikva Chief of Police. That police combed the grounds around the outside of the house, measuring boot prints, looking for any other clues. I have no memory of the neighbor, on the other end of my mother’s call, finding us still on the floor. He had heard her, “What? You want money?” and had taken off running across the fields between our houses.
Around the edges of memory, I see myself, arms wrapped around my knees, shaking in a dry bathtub. I spent the night there, cocooned in blankets, cradled. I imagine I slept. I don’t know. Trying to bring logic to the choice, I confirm, many years later, that the bathroom had no windows. I was no longer on stage. The curtain had fallen for my audience of two.
I struggled for decades to tell this story. Thirty years passes before I am diagnosed with chronic PTSD, this night one more in a series of childhood violations. Unresolved trauma
can linger in the body. Or, not. It did in mine.
I begin trauma work with a therapist who is trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). I’d been in talk therapy on and off for my entire adulthood, long enough to have been fired by three therapists. “We aren’t getting anywhere” led me from one to the next. I had a number of “Aha” moments but they were correct—I was stuck.
I approach EMDR therapy with skepticism but after a few weeks of using the bilateral stimulation while recalling distressing memories, I notice a shift. I feel stronger and carry a new belief about each trauma. I go from telling Alev, “I am not safe,” to “I can take care of myself.” There’s something simple and beautiful in replacing the negative with something different.
The ringing in my ears, flash of heat in my chest, the shaky voice were danger signs from my primal brain. Do not enter here. And so, I didn’t and the story laid dormant until the fifth decade of my life. In the shadow of a devastating pandemic, murderous racism, hunger and grief, I feel uncomfortable with telling my story. I compare and I almost decide to stay quiet.
Humans want to belong and storytelling connects us to one another. Telling my story brought you to me and me to you. Putting this tale out into the world has brought me back to my mother.
I asked her at a post-COVID vaccination dinner what she remembered of the evening, my myopic rendering of childhood still surprising to me. Her brow creased. I could see the effort it took to return to memory—they are growing opaque and dusty with the passing days.
“Oh, I remember,” she says, her voice rising in pitch and volume. “I was so scared. They had you with a gun on your head.”
“Yes,” I say.
“But, I told them we had money.”
“Yes,” I say.
“My girl.” She pauses, looks at me across the table. “Oh, I remember. I told them we had money and to let you go.”
“Yes, Mom,” I say. “You stood right up to them.”
I reach across the table for her hand and write my story into ours.