Sometimes, if you pay attention, you remember that your Muse is that fire and those memories that gave birth to you. The Greeks called her Mnemosyne; I call her, mami.
A picture is worth a thousand words ~ a thousand moments. ~~~ This is what every moment, any amount of time with my mami, looks like:
[Note how my dad (as usual) is pretending to ignore them, but can't resist a sly, embarrassed grin.]
Today is my mom's birthday. This morning around 3 am, when I went to sleep, I set the alarm for 6 am, so I could call her at 8, her time. She answered the phone on the first ring and asked, "Que pasó mami, te callíste de la cama?"
Harummph. Apparently, mami remembers I am not a morning person ~ she asked me if I had fallen out of the bed and so called her for help. That's how conversations begin and end with mami ~ she makes you giggle, sometimes squeal with laughter.
Earlier in the week, I called her, to play our typical phone game of "what gift do you want," where she says first, "Oh, just you!" then "Ay, just your love!" then "A million hugs!" And, true to our ritual, I have to remind her that I cannot buy those things on the internet, not even on sale, not even on eBay. So she finally said to me, in a grand, dramatic sweep of her voice, "Ay! Quiero oler como tú! Que rrrrr-eeeeee-co siempre hueles mami!"
So, she wants to smell like me ~ she loves the perfume I wear. [Every time I am around her, when I hug her, she will squeeze me tightly and *exclaim*, "Ay! Que deee-veee-noh hueles!" Every. Time. She. Hugs. Me. (Or any of her kids.) She is very dramatic.]
So, I ordered the perfume on-line and had it shipped to her. She called me two days later to let me know the package had arrived. Well, she explained, she wasn't sure if the box was from me because it wasn't my name and address in the upper left-hand corner(!). I smiled and reminded her, "That's right, because I ordered the gift for you ~ the manufacturer had to send it to you!" She said, "Oh yes; I see now. It says 'Channel' right here in the corner." [Yes, she said 'channel' as in TV. But I think we all know what she means, right?]
"Well, can I open it? My birthday isn't until Saturday." ~ She is so cute. She wants me to beg her to open it, to make even the act of opening the box fun and special and sweet and a ritual. So I begged her to open the damn gift. But then she suddenly noted, "Oye mija, esto llegó FedEx! Pagáste extra!?" She got sidetracked wondering if I paid extra for FedEx delivery! I told her NO, and she said, "Good, because you know, I always say, you should never pay extra because a lot of times, it gets delivered really fast anyway." This no longer drives me crazy ~ I love it ~ it makes me smile ~ I let her give me her 'no pay extra' speech, then I say, "OK, now please open the gift!"
So, I hear her open the outer box and when she sees the box inside, wrapped (apparently) very extravagantly and in pink ribbon, she *exclaims* (as she is wont to do), "Ay Mari! Que leeen-do lo envolvieron! Armando! Ven a ver!" ~ She loved even just the wrapping paper and ribbon, and even yelled for my father to "come see!" She did not want to disturb the beautiful wrapping before someone else could appreciate it with her.
Finally, somehow, she reached the actual gift ~ although my mom makes *every* part of *every* thing 'the gift'. I think this is her gift to the world ~ to me ~ to how I in turn want to do things: to make every part of every one, and every thing, a gift. Some people call this the "drama queen" in me ~ I wish I could explain to them where it comes from, and how I get overwhelmed with each of the beautiful parts of a beautiful thing or person (and, conversely, overwhelmed with all of the ugly elements of something terrible).
So, this morning, I asked her if she was wearing her Chanel 'Chance'. Claro, she said ~ she was on her way out and she likes to be 'perfumadita'. Then she asked me how a friend from college is doing and, since I love my mom's hilarious puns (or, more accurately, the types of lost-in-translation moments I love), I have to tell you, quickly, how the story of this person's nickname stuck:
So, that's how we started our conversation this morning, at the ungodly hour of 6 am. Believe me, I am rarely laughing that much at 6 am. Then, somehow we started talking about men ~ my mom and I were having girl talk(!). And she told me the story, which I never knew before, of the first man who proposed to her ~ when she was 15 and he was 25. I screamed, "25!? Qué ESCÁNDALO Isabel!" She laughed and said, "Ay mari, qué dramática eres!" ~ [Now, remember the year and small town here, ok? In her day, there was nothing salacious about this age difference, or about an older man asking for the hand of a 15-year-old in marriage.]
And so she began telling me....I sat up in bed to listen.
[Here, I have to apologize in advance for the length of this post. I hope you make it to the end, because it's fun-ny in places, and sweet. ;-D.]
My mom explained that she did not know that my Abuelito was actually not her biological father until she was 12 years old. (Remember, my Abuelita gave birth to my mom out of wedlock, and then married my Abuelito two years after.) When my mom was 12, she had to present her birth certificate to her school to get her diploma and move up to la secundaria. She noted that her birth certificate listed her last name as 'Lopez', not 'Casas'. She said that at school later, all of her friends asked her, "Why aren't you Casas anymore? Why are you Lopez now?" Apparently, though, my Abuelito had been very good, if strict, with my mom ~ as good to her as he had been to his biological children. So, she says she "made a secret promise" to herself that she would not leave her parents until she did everything she could to help them put the other three kids through school. My Abuelito at the time earned only 200 pesos per week, for a family of 6.
So, at the age of 13, my mom entered high school but she also worked in a market and as a nanny/housekeeper for a family and she did everything she could around the house to help her parents (clean, cook, iron, babysit). [Remember our family motto: No Lazy Mon Here.]
When she turned 15, her father told her she could go out on Sundays, after finishing all of her chores. He asked her if she wanted to go to Church, to the Movies, or to the Dance. Ha! She ain't no fool! She wanted to cut a rug! (Or, well, some sandy dirt, since the Dance was held every Sunday in the Plaza in Valle Hermoso, where they lived). BUT, my mother explained to me, she could only go to the dance from 8 to 10 pm(!) "Ha!" she told me, "things didn't get good until 10 pm! But I went anyway ~ except your Abuelito made my Tio Toño accompany me as my chaperone."
She said all the other girls from families with more money wore beautiful organza dresses, which were all the rage back then, but my mom told me, "All I had were the '3-yards-for-a-dollar' dresses that a friend would make for me." So, my mom, in her simple dress, noticed this very handsome man sitting at a table in a crisp white shirt and a tie ~ with his suit jacket draped over the back of his chair. My mom said he stood out because all the other men were "Rancheritos" in their cowboy hats and boots. So she really liked this guy: Antonio. As it were, Antonio was immediately smitten with my mom ~ she explains what may have caught his eye, "Ay mija ~ qué preciosa era tu mamá en su joventud!"
So, for months and months, they would only see each other in the Plaza, on Sundays from 8 pm to 10 pm, in public, to dance. That's it. Every week my mom's girlfriends would tell her, "Ay, you are so lucky! Antonio arrives at the Plaza just before 8 pm, dances only with you, has eyes only for you, and leaves right at 10 pm, after you do." And, my mom told me, "he came from a good family, he wore smart suits, era educado, and he was even already a CPA at a bank(!)" More importantly, though, my mami explained, is the way he placed his hand on the small of her back, the way he looked at her, the way he made her feel like she was the only person on earth he could see, the delicate manner in which he treated her ~ 'esos detalles pequeños, tan importantes'. I told her that I know exactly what she means.
Now, she had other suitors, my mom. She told me about the young man who owned the liquor store in her neighborhood. He would always stand in the doorway and admire her as she walked by, or while they talked. My mom considered him as a suitor, momentarily, because, well, "Mira, tenia su propio negocio." He would be a good provider, since he had his own shop. But, she noticed he "hung around" the door a lot, and realized his nickname was 'Changuito'.
Then, there was the 15 or 16 year old boy who always hung out in the market where she worked, sipping soda, reading magazines, trying to chat her up. But, she pointed out, "Era nalgón! Y, tenía braces!" Later she found out this kid was Antonio's brother. She said to me on the phone, "How could ese chaparrito nalgoncito be related to the tall, debonair Antonio!?" Man, she is harsh!
Well, Antonio could not wait forever. He "was getting old" and wanted to make my mami his bride. So, one day he visited my mom's house, to speak with her parents ~ unannounced. My mom says she was in the hallway, hiding, dying of embarrassment because they were so poor ~ she was whispering to the universe, "Trágame Tierra!" Really. She is so dramática. She was asking the Earth to just open up and swallow her, because she was so mortified that Antonio had seen how poor they were. My mother could not hear what he told her parents.
My Abuelita then went to my mom's room and told her, "Mira hija, este joven dice que debemos abrir una cuenta en su banco." (!!!) He said he was there to see if my grandparents wanted to open an account at his bank! My mom's response? "But we don't have any money!"
Since she had been born in Texas and was a U.S. citizen, she moved across the border, to Brownsville, to work in the cotton fields. [My gosh that is backbreaking work!] She told me she was paid $17. "Per day?!?" I asked. "No, per week!" she explained. After a while, she found out she could earn about the same amount of money as a housekeeper, through the Day Laborer Temp-Type Agency. She said each day she was assigned to a different home, but the work was almost as awful as the cotton fields: "Ay! Those people would save up all of their ironing for a month and then make me press it all in one day! Me tenían como bruta!" But, she says, she was very, very good at ironing and cleaning. So good, sadly, that she thought she was not capable of doing anything else.
One day, at the 'Temp Agency', they told her she should go to school, or would get sent to school. NO, she told them ~ she had to work and send money home. Only much later did she realize that what they meant was that she could get paid to go to school. "No me informé," she tells me. Attending school would have earned her the same salary as ironing clothes(!). Later, she moved back home where she found a job as a secretary en un taller. One day, the wife of the owner asked my mom to iron their clothes, as part of her job duties(!). Well, my mom excelled at ironing ~ so it is no surprise they took her off the desk and put her in front of an ironing board. She did leave the taller, though ~ only to go work the grave yard shift across the border, at the shrimp factory.
A few years later, after one of her sisters had gotten married, and her other sister was in college, and her two brothers were old enough to know better, my mom decided she could finally leave home. They had moved to Matamoros a few years earlier, and she had noticed my dad noticing her in the neighborhood where they lived, 'en la 10 de mayo'. They got married ~ and the rest is history.
And that, explains my mom to me, is how she ended up with only a high-school education, but with stellar household skills, exceptional resilience to hard labor, and an appreciation of that skill that even the poorest of families valued: ironing ~ everything pressed, prim and proper, from clothes to curtains to lace to linens. So ingrained in her is the importance of ironing, that I have images of her ironing my father's undershirts when we were very poor and lived in the Northside of Houston. The bleached and pressed shirts were important to my father: they represented the debonair white collar man he was underneath his blue collar exterior, drenched in sweat from working every day on construction sites, in the blistering Texas sun. For my mom, it was a display of her absolute perfect ironing ~ really, you should see her work. She tells me that when I was about 8 or 10, I would watch her, in awe, as she ironed my father's undershirts, then folded each one carefully and piled them into a perfect square tower of white cotton. I wanted to iron like she did, I wanted to impress my father, I wanted to help the family like she did. So, one day she said to me, "OK ~ here you go." She let me stand on a little box to reach the ironing board, and so I began my ironing apprenticeship with her.
Only this morning on the phone did I realize just HOW vital that seemingly unimportant skill is to my mother: it represents how she helped support her family, and bring them all to Texas to obtain their citizenship. To her, it represents her "only skill" since she never went to college. And, it represents the best way she knows how to care for us ~ to always be the best at what she does best, and in so doing, help her family look their best.
Really ~ the simple act of ironing (and her pride in it), over a lifetime, is like the superficial anatomy that shields her heart and soul from everything she feels she didn't accomplish. And now I understand, for the first time, why she chastised us so harshly for not doing those things well enough when we were kids ~ we always complained that when we wanted to help her clean or wanted to iron our own clothes, she would yell at us for not doing it right.
Well, she didn't want us to be good at it. We had other, bigger things to excel at ~ study, travel, language. And, too, she felt she had some skill to assert, something that only she was good at, better than us at doing it. We just never saw it that way.
Now I do.
People make fun of me because I always want to iron my clothes, even if it's a pair of jeans or casual t-shirt ~ my nickname in law school was 'La Planchadita'. But I cried this morning when I hung up the phone, after my mom said, "I love you ~ talk soon". I cried because I finally understand some deep, profound element of her being ~ as silly as it all may sound to you ~ and because I don't care now if you make fun of my ironing ~ ~ because every single time the burst of steam hits my face, I think of my mom ~ and her lifetime of ironing, and her lifetime of helping me straighten out my own life.
Y pues, Feliz Cumpleaños a mi mamá ~ con todo mi amor,
en total asombro de su fortaleza, y en aprecio total de ella, exactamente como es. (Planchadita!)