by Eric Sorensen

by Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega

I learned how to tell stories from the ladies in my family—their histories all dotted on a line like birds on a wire, infinitely poised to take flight and ascend over the rooftops of time, and then glide, descending onto my sensibilities. I internalize their memories, their markers of memory and embolden them onto the grid of my story, my space.

These stories share a common rhythm, a rich optic for the uncanny which bellows out of the holes of traumas like poverty, neglect, rejection, abuse, prostitution, addiction. These ladies are a relentless force of matriarchs, where men occupy shadows that hinge on the movements of their footsteps, the transcendence of desperate decision. Illegitimate children surface from those shadows like anchors under buoyed boats, beacons of light made opaque in the fog. 

 I wrote stories in sixth grade, and read excerpts drawn onto wide-ruled notebook paper to my friend Coral on our walks to my bus stop every morning. I filled gaps in memories with settings only I could conjure up. I’d open the Thomas Guide and pick whatever city and make up events that would take place there. These stories bore no resemblance to what I knew and lived, and true stories—treasure troves already imbued to me by blood—were never given consideration as material for anything I’d write then.

I thought my writing would set free my imaginations. The impulse to write became electrifying as I’d hear stories from the mouths of those who’d prescribe their words to me like a medicine. An antidote to my ills. 

***

 I’m certain now that the tales that echo through my bloodline are stories that were meant for me to hear. There are stories trapped in the confines of family secrecy, or shame, that I wrestle with and don’t need to tell, despite my disbelief in coincidences, in chance, in mistakes. I’ve recorded stories told to me by aunties and my mother and ensconced them as files in the ether where they wait to come out of the cloud like precipitation. I don’t have the appropriate rhythm or memory recall as these storytellers do, but what I do have are vignettes—snapshots captured by the speed of a camera’s shutter. Because these shots are fragments of longer stories, the full picture is left to be known. I can place them, then, into stories of my imagination where my pen meets the paper. I complete them with my own stroke of color to make something new. 

 I don’t know if these storytellers have the slightest idea about what it is I write. They seem to know I write and may suspect it is a fitting vocation for me since I’m introverted and timid, the only child of my mother’s. Yet some family and friends have expressed interest in what I do only to tell me that they know someone whose life would make a great story. I’m offered anecdotes about a life in another country, the scope of circumstances that brought these out of their birth country and into another one for reasons only they can understand. I don’t own their stories, despite my self-imposed expectation to steward them.

If you only knew all the things I know, all the stories people I know have shared with me, they say, you would have a saga no one would ever forget. I hear this and my heart races faster like I’m desperately attempting to rescue diamonds thrown into the sea. I need my equipment. I need my gear. I need to listen deeply to save these gems from oblivion.

***

On a trip to Mexico in 1995, I was offered stories that only I was entrusted with. I needed to handle them like papel picado, perforated paper cut into beautiful and elaborate designs. I filled my memories with observations I made of the city of Guadalajara, the songs of my aunties, the aromas of grease in the air of their kitchens, the tiled floors of places that welcomed me. “She took a small step over the curlicues and geometric patterns of the olive and blue encaustic tiles that have seen years of foot traffic, rain, and sun. I’m sure they had once been lovely under all those layers of dirt.” These curiosities color the descriptions in my short stories, fictional tales that complete the picture of recorded lists, places, recipes, and names.

 I chronicled everything I could as best as I knew how, knowing that not everything was consequential to my writing—the food poisoning I experienced, the routine bus rides I took from one colonia to another for work, the tedious process to set up camera equipment to film a documentary. Not everything is meant to be used as material for the plot of a story, but anecdotes may prove useful, like my cousin’s recounting of his missionary work in the Yucatan peninsula. He talked about the small villages where he’d visit to bring the gift of the gospel. It’s really something, he said, to be so close to the forces of evil. Even the animals are influenced by that presence. Cats fight like mad over rooftops, goats butt their heads against each other with fuerzas that make windows rattle in their frames. And the vultures. Those strut in the streets like marauders, flapping their wings like brutes, dismembering trees. Straw huts have been destroyed by those gusts.

I remember feeling a sense of dread—not about the content of the stories I’d hear—but about my inability to remember them, to record them accurately. I fretted about misplacing my notebooks, my sensibility, my empathy. I would lose sleep and feel the urgent tug of responsibility burden my shoulders. I had the relentlessness of a journalist, but the isolation of a creative writer.

 I became sensitive to the world that was opening before me and decided that I had to do something with all I was offered. What good was it to be called to write and not write anything about the lives of those that touched my soul the most? It was too unnerving and tangentially, utterly selfish to keep the stories buried in the ground. I would need to dive into the great blue sea and search for the diamonds that slipped out of my hands. Too much was at stake. There were lives that needed to be contextualized.

Now, my manuscripts will be comprised of these vignettes, some shaped out of the gems bestowed to me orally, reinvented through memory. Sometimes when I take stock of these pieces I wonder if they will ever be completed by me, or by another hand that will take ownership of their parts. How far will I go with all that I’ve been given? If I were ever to decide to quit, will it be due to exhaustion? I continue to steward these stories that haven’t been imparted to the world yet, these fragments of perforated paper so delicate in their beauty, colorful tissues of paper that wrap like bunting to declare celebration.

A version of this essay was previously published at Brevity.

About the painter: Eric Sorensen is a medical student and artist who loves painting, drawing, and photography. After college he studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. Eric enjoys both figurative and abstract work. Image: Painting, acrylic on panel (2014), part of a series exploring synchronous color palettes and the geometry of flat shapes abutting clean boundaries.