My mom and I spent much of my high school years making each other cry. We did not fight daily, nor did I ever profess to hate her as many adolescents do, but we both recognized the tension between us that, if even gently poked or prodded, could erupt into a full-fledged battle of verbal assaults.
The funny thing about the tears that we caused each other to shed was that they were all easily forgotten after the bouts of fury had subsided. They were unlike tears of heartbreak or of mourning, the kinds of tears that are languorous and melancholy, that crescendo like rivers into floods and then slowly evaporate. Our tears were momentary downpours in which we opened and closed our floodgates swiftly and abruptly, and after the fact, we seemed to be amnesiacs to our moody exchanges. Even now, I cannot remember anything we fought or argued over. These tears were merely an extension of our anger, a release of frustration, an attempt to tell the other that she was uncomprehending or overreacting, but they were not tears of sadness.
Aside from these mother-daughter feuds, I rarely cried throughout my adolescence and often envied the girls who sat in the front row of movie theatres sobbing uncontrollably over the unraveling heartbreak onscreen. I mistook their sensitivity for empathy and thought myself cold-hearted for not being able to do the same. I once cried because I failed a physics quiz; another time over a boy who wanted to be my friend instead of my boyfriend; and another when I was lost in New York City on a rainy night. Before I was nineteen, I could count the number of times I had cried sad tears on one hand and could date each instance too.
During the fall of my third year in college, I decided to study abroad in Italy, and it was during this time that I learned how to cry. The easy explanation for this was that I adopted the expressiveness of the Italians I was living with, whose rage, sadness, and joy all seemed to be completely unrestrained at all hours of the day and were fully conveyed in loud voices and wild gestures. Maybe living with them rubbed off on me, but I do not think that this explanation accounted fully for my newfound tears.
The tears that I cried during my time in Europe were of many types. Sometimes I cried because I was tired and lonely, other times because I was homesick. These tears made sense to me, but there were other tears that I did not understand at all. I remember stepping into St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, looking up at the gilded ceiling of the apse, which was decorated with winged angels, and suddenly feeling a sensation snaking up my body from my toes into the hairs of my arms. For a brief moment, my body felt like a strange separate entity; I was holding my breath, and I felt water welling up in my eyes, which surprised and embarrassed me at the same time. I tried not to blink and kept my head tilted upwards, hoping that the tears might drain back into my eyeballs instead of rolling down my cheeks, but my sad attempt failed, and there I was, standing in St. Paul’s, slobbering like a fool for no particular reason at all.
Maybe it was the beauty of the places I visited that overwhelmed me, or perhaps I was just becoming more emotional. The first time I ever saw the Fiume Arno in Florence was at 6 am, when the sun was just barely peering above the orange and green Tuscan hills, and the water, usually brown and murky, was gleaming from the light of dawn. The moment I looked down the river and saw how the warm hues of the run-down buildings on the edge coalesced so perfectly with the rhythm of the bridges and arches and running water, I realized with disbelief that I had arrived in Italy and that I was six thousand miles from home, on a continent I had so often thought about and imagined and now could finally be breathed and grasped. This simple realization hit me with so much gravity that I cried. These were the first tears I shed in Italy.
My mom came to visit me in Florence in November. This was towards the end of the program at a time when novelty was becoming tiring and I was desperately craving familiarity. For the few weeks prior to the visit, I had called my mom crying numerous times—tears which had no specific triggers but could probably be attributed to a combination of boredom, coldness, and homesickness. My mom and I had agreed to meet at the hotel she was staying at. I checked in for her prior to her arrival and sat in the room waiting for her. After an hour or so had passed by, I finally heard a knock on the door and opened it. My mom was standing outside, and before we greeted each other, we busied ourselves with her luggage—she had two bulky suitcases in tow—pulling them into the room and finding a space for them in the room closet. When that was done, we finally turned to each other and hugged. But for the first time in our lives, we did not let go of each other right away. Instead, I think our tears kept us in that embrace—because I was crying and so was she, and even when we both meant to pull away, we came together again. It was a new and strange experience for me—because my mom and I had never cried together before. We had each individually cried our tears of anger and sadness whenever we had previously fought, but we had never cried these tears of solidarity, tears that did not need a prompt or a trigger. This was a moment in which crying was an act of togetherness, an act of mutual understanding, and I was not ashamed of our tears.
Growing up, my mom used to tell me stories of how much I cried as an infant. I was a colicky, inconsolable baby who cried in every unfamiliar environment and in the presence of any stranger. During my first year, my mom slept little, spending hours cradling me in her arms as I wailed and screamed without pause. In her frustration, my mom would cry along with me until we both fell asleep, tired from our own tears. I remembered these stories during my mom’s visit to Florence because we spent so much time crying together, which was a new and intimate experience for the both of us. On the night before she left, I lay in bed next to her, pretending to sleep but crying softly, hoping she would not notice. She did and began stroking my hair, wiping the tears off my cheek with her fingers. Twenty years after we had first cried together, here we were again, sharing tears that would dry up soon but were made significant by the reason for their existence. She was the mother again, I the infant.
I would like to think that living in Europe made me a more sentient being. Despite the bashfulness my tears often cause me, when I am easily affected by the world around me, I feel more human and more able to connect with other humans. I used to think tears had to be rational—that there had to be a legitimate reason for crying. Now I see that my tears are merely an emotive extension of my being. They tell me that I am here and present, that I am living, and that I am feeling.
|My mom and I at the top of the duomo in Firenze.|