Split at the Root:
A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity
By Catana Tully
To Livingston With Willie
The sun had set and the few village lights were turned on by the time we continued our walk. On the outskirts of the village, already in the jungle, we strolled into Raimundo's bar. People sat outside the hut at tables around trees drinking much and eating little. A slender man came out with bottles of beer for his customers.
"Tío, look who's here," my brother shouted.
The uncle hugged his nephew, embraced me, and made us sit at the bar inside. From an icebox he took out two bottles of ice-cold beer and handed each of us one. His wife, a diminutive, round, cream-colored woman, made skinny quesadillas for those who ordered something to eat.
Raimundo recalled the era of the Germans as a great time, when everyone in the village worked, and no one had to leave in search of a livelihood. Livingston then wasn't a crummy village at the end of the world, he said. There were no drunks or bums. "It was beautiful then, and it's a damn shame," he added pounding his hand on the bar, "that those days will never return." I was grateful to finally hear something good about the people who were so dear to me, and I was glad Willie heard it too.
We left Raimundo and ambled to the beach where we walked on the sand. It was quiet but for the enduring breeze in the palms and the waves. The stars were out, all of them; the new moon a sliver on the horizon. Livingston's beach was quiet at night, and I wondered if I had been conceived there.
The village was another story: it was bustling with Saturday night activity. Naked light bulbs with bugs buzzing around them brightened the porches and storefronts. Side streets were dark. Everyone had something to do, someone to see, somewhere to go. Hippiefied European and American tourists dined on the balconies of shacks that called themselves restaurants. I wondered if after a dinner in this village at the margin of the world with no television, any of those eating would be alive in the morning. Loud music floated out of radios and boom boxes. Livingston was warm, colorful, exotic, poor. Its existence reminded me of the surreal world of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Macondo, where a simple story could become a bigger than life reality, and a brown baby born in a hot, lost jungle, would grow up German.
At the hotel we ordered a shrimp dinner served with pan de coco, and Willie began by telling me about his daughter who looked exactly as I did as a child. He spoke of our mother; how she had loved and spoiled him. How his world ended when she died, and how his father, who never paid much attention to him, told him to go to the city without offering him any support. He learned to survive on the streets and became a man at 14. My little brother wept as he remembered how sweetly our mother had touched his life; she had loved him, he said. He was a serious, gentle, emotional man who was not ashamed of his tears. I hated having to sit there and see him weep like that. It was something I could never do, bring myself to cry like that with someone looking at me. Judith wept when she talked about our mother, now Willie. They were always overcome with emotion when they talked about her. And again I thought that if I had known her, perhaps I, too, could weep at her memory.
"What does it say of my mother, that she knew a man before she married my father?" Willie asked, his eyes clouding over.
So, my sisters had left it to me to fill him in. I had to tell a thirty-nine year old man, who wanted to behave like an adolescent when it came to his mother being female, not to judge her! Heaven knows why, but it was clear now that lies had been flying all over the place. Willie looked straight into my eyes and didn't blink. Nothing moved in his face as I said so many things to him. I knew he wanted to doubt every word. How could I be considerate of his feelings in this frustrating situation? More than anything, I stressed, I needed to understand why my mother could walk away and leave me. Getting to the bottom of the lies had now become my quest.
"All I know," Willie said quietly, "is my mother telling us over and over that she gave birth to four children and that we are always to be there for each other. She raised us, but you were the one she longed for."
My nose began to tingle. I swallowed hard, and managed to keep the tears from welling up. "No power on earth would have allowed Esther to keep me without Edmundo's consent," I said succeeding in blinking back tears. My brother finally looked away. His eyes were dark, his mouth drawn. He was torn between my words and the ones he had heard from his parents.
"The way you say these things…" he said humbly, his head bowed, "it could be possible."
We learned much, that day. I learned that part of what I'd been told as a child regarding my growing up with the Germans had been true to a significant degree. What Willie had to deal with was more difficult to swallow: that my mere existence cast a shroud over the image he had of his mother. He and his sisters had been told stories, and it was our mother who told them.
I woke up well before dawn and sat on the balcony waiting for night to turn to day. It was quiet and cool. Occasionally I heard a breaking wave, a pelican's wing, or a cricket's chirp. The perforated canopy of the heavens, the muted sounds of nature, the salty smell of ocean, the breeze on my skin… I was in communion with all that was around me; I was at my source. "Thank you Universe for the gift that is my life," I whispered into the breeze.
As the black of night slowly changed to gray, I dressed, left the hotel, and walked up the grassy path to where I spent the first year of my life. Only one of the six Egyptian palms of long ago remained on the empty grass-covered plot. I opened the barbed wire gate and walked through the property trying to see if I remembered the Casa Grande and the sweeping view. I looked at the Rio Dulce and wondered where Mutti decided she saw the jungle leaf with the brown baby on it. What would Vati, Mutti, and Ruth say if they could see this now? Just as well it's gone. Their era was over and time had erased the Livingston they knew. Village roosters welcomed the new day as they did on the morning of my birth. I was conscious of being somewhere at the outer border of the periphery of a peripheral part of the world, reconnecting, or trying to, with the child that left over half a century ago to become an actress in Germany and a professor in New York. I felt Mutti's spirit near me and thanked her in my heart for having raised me. There was no shame in my birth, I whispered to her, no shame in Livingston. As I acknowledged my heritage, my spirit embraced hers in forgiveness. We understood then, Mutti and I, that forgiving could only soothe the pain and comfort the wound. Did she take me? Was I given to her? Whose was I? The scar of the separation would remain indelible.
Livingston: I liked the smell of heat, the sounds of nature, the gentility, passion and compassion of the people. Everyone knew the other in this world of simple pleasures. Fish was fresh, fruit was sweet, eggs the size of fists were eaten still warm from the chicken that laid them; black beans, pan de coco. How do they make pan de coco?
As I walked down the hill a stray dog limped along, tail tucked between its legs in fear. Dogs in the tropics get beaten a lot. In the distance a woman balanced a metal container on her head. She had gone to the well to fetch water for the day. There is little to want in Livingston, and less to have. It was Sunday morning in the village. The morning after a night of drink and dance and senses responding in the heat. I am the product of one of those sultry tropical nights, of youth and sensuality, of liquor, rhythm, and sex. Of midnight passion and whispered promises that turn to lies at dawn. I was born at dawn in the heat and palpitation of this sensuous culture. But I grew up so removed, so distant from the blood and gristle of this sort of life - so cool - that I learned not to perspire. I had accomplished what I had set out to do. There was no more to ask, nothing more to say.
After breakfast Willie and I walked once more to the plot where I was born. Barely a leaf moved in the early morning quiet. A lone rooster serenaded the moment, and it seemed that this spot on earth stood still so I could honor the place of my ultimate truth. I inhaled the warm air and smiled at my brother who observed me gravely and in silence. I could hear my heart beat; I sensed the blood in my veins, the pores on my skin. I was alive and deeply moved, sad and happy, empty and filled to capacity. I turned and embraced my brother. "We can go now," I said.
Dr. Catana Tully grew up trilingual (German, Spanish, English) in Guatemala where she attended elementary and middle school. In tenth grade she entered a boarding school in Jamaica, WI and received her Advanced Level Higher Schools Certificate from Cambridge University, England. Expecting to become an international interpreter, she continued her studies at the Sprachen und Dolmetscher Institut in Munich, Germany. However, she was called to work in a play and discovered her affinity for the dramatic arts. She became the actress and fashion model Catana Cayetano and appeared in Film and TV work in Germany, Austria, and Italy. In Munich she met and married the American actor Frederick V. Tully and ultimately moved to the United States. They have a son, Patrick. In Upstate New York, she completed the BA in Cultural Studies, an MA in Latin American and Caribbean Literature, and a DA (doctor of Arts) in Humanistic Studies. She held the position of tenured Associate Professor at SUNY Empire State College from which she retired in 2003, returning in 2005 for part time work in ESC's Center for International Programs, where she served as Mentor and instructor in the Lebanon program, and as Interim Program Director for the Dominican Republic. In 2011 she retired completely to dedicate herself to publishing Split at the Root. She is currently preparing an academic version discussing the psychological issues imbedded in the memoir.
Learn more by visiting www.splitattheroot.com