Literary Reflections is pleased to present our featured writing prompt response from November. Earlier this month, we asked you to write about your transformation from childhood to adulthood in terms of how you interact with your parents and to describe a specific experience in which you saw your mother or father through the adult eyes of admiration and respect. What effect has that experience had on how you are raising your children?
Merle Huerta wrote:
Long after multiple-system atrophy, a central nervous system disease, robbed my father of his continence, virility, and final breath, I realized that I had adopted his values. A pharmacist by profession, my father worked in Camden, New Jersey, one of the most poverty-stricken, crime-ridden cities in the U.S. Despite a job without benefits, he worked 12-hour shifts, sometimes seven-days a week. He loved it. The poor who relied upon his advice, medications and salves he measured or mixed by hand, and on the drugstore that was part “Variety” and pharmacy, called him “Doc.” He reciprocated their adoration with hugs; and, despite twice being held up at gun-point, he continued to deliver groceries and pharmaceuticals to their homes, if illness prevented them from coming to him.
As I child, I listened to his diatribes about those who had hurt him. My mother, the principal character, had left him in 1963, remarried, and took me to another state. With each retelling, he described the broken couch and the orphan plate with a half-eaten tuna sandwich, she’d left him when she moved out. I tired of the stories; as a teenager, I vowed never to become a bitter, angry adult like him. I shied away, determined to reinvent myself. He was hurt by my detachment. I felt justified. But Edmund Burke, a 1700s philosopher and British Statesman understood all too well, that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” That’s precisely what I did.
In 2001, I lost custody of my children after a contested custody battle. Two months after the judge’s decision, my ex-husband quietly moved the children to another state. For years, paralyzed by the loss, I brewed, ruminating over perceived personality flaws that led to my loss. I had walked in my father’s footsteps.
But, I had also become the best of him. After completing a masters and a nonfiction writing program, I taught English skills at a SUNY community college. Most of my students, children of poor, uneducated, non-English-speaking immigrants, struggled with basic elements of survival. Some, commuted nearly two hours each way to class. For a few, graduates of the foster-care system, being a college student was as foreign as being raised in a nuclear family. They couldn’t relate. While teaching english composition, I introduced them to authors such as Andrew McBride, Mary Karr, and Antwon Fisher, writers who’d emerged from poverty and struggle with confidence, purpose, and vision.
My students stumbled, failed, repeated, and either passed my class or dropped out. Years later, I bumped into one student whose aunt had thanked Jesus for the teacher who had turned her niece into a reader.
Like my father, I gave those in need respect, validation and affection. Unlike him, I learned to separate myself from the bitterness and anger that ultimately gave him a lifetime cause. I used my hurt to drive on. My struggles became personal challenges to achieve more. Fifteen years later, I still feel my father’s voice, especially in the classroom. Though he cared for the poor who relied on him, I prefer to teach my students skills “to fish,” so one day they can feed themselves.
Merle can be reached at: mhuerta(at)sunyrockland(dot)edu.
A new Literary Reflections writing prompt is published the first weekend of every month. Responses are accepted until the 15th, and I promise to comment shortly after that. Look for it – we’d love to hear from you.