by | Jul 21, 2023

Two Women on the Shore (1898), Edvard Munch. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

You have the same face. It’s as if she never left, says Tío Jorge as he pulls me in for an embrace in front of the El Salvador International Airport. His verbose laugh echoes my mother’s in Los Angeles. This familiarity in a stranger helps me lean into his embrace.

Tío Oscar, the elder brother, walks toward me slowly. His gait is the same as that of my uncle who raised me in the States. His hands are my mother’s. He breaks the silence with his laughter.

It’s like that brat spit her out, Tío Oscar jokes as he picks up my suitcase. My mother is still a girl in their minds, still playing arranca cebolla, still afraid of black cats crossing her path, still with a mouth full of laughter.

My suitcase is thrown in their trunk, and we settle into the car for the drive into the city.

These men are still boys in my mother’s childhood photographs pressed in my family album 3000 miles away. Neatly tucked in the “before” albums, labeled by years: before the war, before departing El Salvador, before settling in Los Angeles. The same “before” my mother hardly speaks of.

I’m part of the after.

They say today I will meet my grandmother. They warn me that her memories are failing her, la abuela lejana. Her distance in time has shrunk.

The streets become narrower as we reach the city. I try to imagine my mother as a teenager watching street cars racing down the dirt roads, sneaking away to see her first boyfriend, dodging the eyes of men leering and as they followed her in the shadows, bracing herself for when the soldiers would enter unannounced and ransacked her childhood home.

They warn me that her memories are failing her, la abuela lejana.

Now go, I imagine la abuela lejana telling her teenage daughter after the city became an open wound, ready to envelop the girl.

As we turn the corner, I see it. The beige concrete brick home, with white metal railings on the windows and doors. Wrapped in concertina wire, a brick fence surrounds the perimeter.

Through the metal doorway, I can see the shadow of a small woman with short gray hair, a plaid shirt and tan skirt.

That’s her. La abuela lejana.

She is small, her curly hair silver. She stands in the middle of her living room with a stray cat at her side. They say she forgets to eat but never forgets to feed the tabby.

She is far from the indomitable woman I have been told intimidated her children. The kind of mother who believes that to save her children, she must break them before the world does. Her brown eyes scan me and I see a glimpse of that intensity.

Mama, look who we brought you, says Tío Oscar, nudging me towards her.

She stands and her eyes meet my shoulders.
Who is this girl? she points with her lips.
Mama, look at her closely, Tío Oscar tells her softly.
She’s going to forget any minute, Tío Jorge says in exasperation.
She looks like my daughter, she says and surprises us all.
Yes, she’s Dina’s daughter, Tío Oscar responds.

My daughter. I had to lose her to save her.
My children. Not all of them.
But some of them. Do you know them?

She shows me her family album. In a single page, there are photographs of myself as a child, of my mother as a girl, of my uncles as men and as boys, of her grandchildren here and in the States. A collage, with no chronology, no order. A kaleidoscope of moments captured. Three thousand miles, more than three decades compressed.

This photo album knows no before or after.
This album, like her memory, has collapsed time. 

Who is this girl? She’s no longer looking at the photographs. Our eyes meet again.
I’m your daughter’s daughter, I reiterate.

A flicker of acknowledgment.
She leans forward, facing me. She folds my hands into hers.

A little piece of my daughter is home.
These sons of bitches never tell me!
You find me like this, in rags!  

She stands up, looking for a change of clothes.
No, your grandmother is more than this.

She stops.
She fades again.

This album, like her memory, has collapsed time.

Who is this girl?
I’m your granddaughter.

Who is this girl?
I’m Tanya.

Who is this girl?
I’m your daughter’s … daughter.

My daughter. I had to lose her to save her.
Do you know her?

She points to the portraits hanging in the living room. There’s my mother in her high school graduation photo. Eighteen, wide-eyed, in a soft pink pastel, with a real smile.

She smiles.

Look at all that pretty hair.
I have hair like yours.

A mirror next to my mother’s portrait captures our reflection.
A veil of gray, blonde, and brown curly hair.

Do you know my daughter?
Do I know my mother?

Our eyes catch each other.
She examines our three faces with the same intensity.
Who is this girl?
Who is this girl?

The last time she asks me, she’s fading into another dream.
Who is this girl?

With her hands caressing my hair, I respond,
I’m a friend.

Friend, my grandmother looks at me sharply,
Don’t lie. Look. You’re me.
The one that’s still.

Tanya Shirazi Galvez

Tanya Shirazi Galvez

Publab Fellow 2023

Tanya Shirazi Galvez is a Los Angeles–born, Las Vegas–based writer. She is a Black Mountain Institute PhD Fiction Fellow at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is senior editor of Aster(ix), co-fiction editor of Witness Magazine, and co-founder of the Los Angeles–based reading series Palindrome. Her work has received support from Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Tin House writing workshop, and Fundación Valparaíso. Her writing explores the darkness of girlhood and centers the narratives of Salvadoran women and girls. She is currently working on her debut novel and a collection of short stories.

Edvard Munch

The Artist

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was a Norwegian Expressionist painter. His works are concerned with human mortality and mental anguish, and he is best known for his 1893 painting The Scream. “Two Women on the Shore” uses the color woodcut technique to express themes of love, death, and loneliness.