The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a story that is dedicated to las mujeres, the women. The book is composed of a series of memoirs from her childhood that tell her story of rising above what she as a woman was told she was capable of.
This is my own short series of memoirs from my childhood that tell my story, and the story of my family. Together, we rose above our challenges with each other, and faced the challenges the world through at us. I’d like to dedicate this to my family, and to all of the families. In every family, there are challenges and conflicts to rise above. I hope that we can learn to forgive each other and be with each other, instead of against.
Names and Nicknames
My mother’s name is Kamerin. My sister, who is older than me, her name is Brennan. And my name is Kathrynn. I am a combination of the two: Kamerin but not quite exactly, and two n’s to match with Brennan.
My middle name is Bao-Tram. My Vietnamese teacher from church tells me that it means “precious pearl.” That sounds like a pretty meaning for my name, but she is the only one who calls me that.
At art class, I am Katie. There are two other, older girls who have the same name as me, so I made it easier for them and told everyone to call me Katie. I don’t mind it; I think that Katie is a pretty name. And I can still sign my name as Kathrynn on my paintings, so my name is still mine and it doesn’t really matter.
My name isn’t the only thing I want to have from the women in my family. From my mother, I admire her kindness, strength, and intelligence. She beat the odds to come to America from Vietnam and be successful here despite being poor as a child. I hope I don’t inherit the fact that she was chased away from her previous home by war, but I hope I have her strength to do what is necessary, and the intelligence to make it happen. As for my sister, she’s always been better than me at talking to others, and she’s always looking out for me. I hope that I can take care of her the way she takes care of me.
I hope that I will grow up and people will know me as Kathrynn, kind, strong, intelligent, and caring. That I will eventually smooth my rougher edges and be like a pearl.
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My mom says that when I was younger, the hardest I ever cried was on my older sister’s, Brianna’s, first day of school. Apparently, I cried even harder than Brianna. To my younger self, being separated from her, even just for a few hours of the day, was the worst fate imaginable.
It’s funny to reflect on it now, that I was the one throwing the fit, when it was my sister who was going to be alone, away from our parents and me for her school day. And yet, she stayed quiet, not making more of a fuss for our parents.
When I need help with my homework, she’s the first person I will ask. And no matter how much homework she has, she will set it aside and help me until I understand my homework. When I need advice, she’s the first person I go to. She always offers to cook me food the second I mention that I’m hungry.
But, when I do something wrong, she’s the one our parents are upset at. She’s the one who takes the fall.
So, I defend her. It wasn’t her fault, it was mine.
Mom says, she should have reminded you.
I should have been able to remember without having to rely on her, I respond.
My sister is my number one defender, supporter, and friend. And I try my best to be hers, too.
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Unlocking a New World
Thuan, my cousin from Vietnam, is thirteen years older than me; he’s twenty-two years old. But, he doesn’t know how to talk. They treat him like he’s a baby.
My fifth-grade teacher has been teaching us bits of sign language in class. I’ve already learned the entire alphabet! She says that she uses it to communicate with her kid, who has hearing problems, just like my cousin. I told my dad about it, and he’s been using Youtube to learn sign language. Thuan has been, too.
So, the three of us learn sign language. I’m not the best at it, but I’m trying and I’ve learned enough to have a conversation with Thuan. My dad is a lot better; he uses it to talk to Thuan all the time! I like talking to Thuan though, it’s good practice, and I like how much he smiles.
My dad tried to get Thuan’s siblings, my other cousins, to also learn sign language. Apparently, there’s a whole class at their high school that specifically teaches sign language! I hope I go to their high school, that sounds like a fun class to take. I heard them arguing about it one night, and it sounds like my cousins can’t take that class because they are already taking too many.
Thuan talks to his family, my cousins and my aunt, using a whiteboard my parents bought him for Christmas. They each have to write down what they want to say to him, and it seems really hard. I’m glad that I’m learning sign language, it’s so much faster than using that board.
Whenever we eat dinner, I’m the first one he asks whether I liked the food or not. He talks to me the most, I think. I’m glad that I’m his best friend in the family.
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A garden from home
My aunt lives with us now, but she lived in Vietnam before that. I don’t talk to her much because I don’t know Vietnamese that well, but my parents tell me that in Vietnam, she owns a business and is very wealthy. She used to live in a massive house with just her family of five, but now, she lives in America with me and my family in our house of nine.
She doesn’t work here in America, so she cooks for our family at home while my parents work. She cooks more Vietnamese foods than I can name, and she plants longan and white guava trees in our backyard, the trees she once had in her backyard, back in her home in Vietnam.
One night, I heard a lot of yelling in the living room. We were supposed to be asleep, but my sister and I snuck out of our room in a game playing spies and we listened in to the adults’ conversation. Later, my sister translated the argument to me, explaining that our aunt wanted to go back to Vietnam, but couldn’t because she had to take care of our cousins, who were here for high school and college.
The next morning when I saw her cooking breakfast, I looked out the window of the kitchen where my aunt was staring. In vision were the longan and white guava trees, and I think that I might have even seen a tear running down the face of her reflection in the window.
She’s mourning a past life of successful businesses, roomy mansions, and sleeping on beds and not couches. A life where her backyard had rows of white guava and longan trees. She sacrificed so much for her children’s education; I feel sad for all that she’s lost too.
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The power of volume and a voice
Lower your voice, people say to me. You’re being too loud.
It wasn’t always this way. It used to be: speak louder, please. I can’t hear you. What did you say? It used to be not being heard at all. Being disregarded, invisible, neglected.
So, I started to speak up. And speak louder. Because if I didn’t no one would hear. I had to speak up over the arguments, the yelling, to make sure I was taken care of. Who else would advocate for me?
To my sister, quiet whispers. She listens, and so do I. It’s quiet with her. A peaceful pocket of silence our room is, within an incessantly turbulent house, where to be loud is to be right.
Years later, the storm has passed. There’s no need for an umbrella of ‘loud’ to fight off the rain. There’s no need, but I still carry it and learn to wield it not as a weapon, but as a tool.
Lower your voice, they say. You’re being too loud. They see a girl who speaks too loud for the room, who sometimes forgets to use her “inside voice” like she was taught to in elementary school. They don’t hear the “inside voice” that was constantly spoken over.
I will be loud when I need to be heard. And I will be loud for the people who need to be heard but have yet to build their own umbrella, the people who are still struggling in their own storms. I want to be the one to advocate for them, and help them advocate for themselves.
Image courtesy of pixabay.
These are memoirs of my life with my family, back when nine of us lived under the same roof. I was in elementary school still, and my parents were spread thin, working to provide for everybody. I used to feel so lonely as the youngest person in the house, but like all storms, that has eventually come to pass. I moved away from that small, three-bedroom house on Persimmon Street long ago, but with family, we are always connected.