By Maria Molina
“And I’m talking to God again too
He said sometimes you gotta guard for your guardian too
You did your best with your lemons and now it’s clear
Cause I lived under your heart for almost a whole year
So I could never not be an extension of you
Tears streaming as I pen this, sending blessings to you
It’s like I understood her and then I suddenly found me
The reason I ain’t waiting for a nigga to crown me—Mami.”
—Nitty Scott, “Mother’s Mark”
Our relationship was often at odds because, unlike me, my mother could walk effortlessly into a party, shoulders back, head held high like a dame, drawing people like she was goddamn da Vinci. Everyone was her friend and they would rush over to greet her, exchange gossip, and share in raucous laughter over something or other. I never could quite hear what the joke was, I only remembered the laughter that erupted, shaking my mother’s belly like my old Etch A Sketch. But this was my mother: outgoing, effervescent, loquacious, and spunky with an in-your-face personality that, as a child, I believed was aggressive. Over the years, I blamed my mom for any falling out with family or friends, thinking that her outspoken, albeit veracious, tongue was the reason for the broken relationships, the awkward encounters with friends-turned-foes. I loved my mom but as a burgeoning adolescent, (a dull and immature one at that), I didn’t always like her, mostly because her personality was a stark contrast to my shy, quiet, introverted demeanor, further emphasizing my theory that between the two models of human behavior I had at home, surely, it was my father I had to imitate. Obviously, we were more similar in our personalities, we were both serious, subdued individuals, cautious with our actions and our words, always keen on blending in with the crowd as inconspicuous as a shadow at night. However, while I was reticent with my thoughts, my mother was always forthcoming with hers, whether you asked for it or not; she just wasn’t afraid of anybody and I judged her harshly for it, wishing she’d lay on the criticism as carefully as she applied her red lipstick. Nevertheless, reminiscing on my childhood helped me discern the truth: the traits I disliked in my mom were all the things I was just too intimidated to be.
You wouldn’t find my mom baking cupcakes and cookies in the kitchen every day (or any day), or standing over a hot stove tending to dinner with a timer in her hand, harried by the thought that she somehow put two tablespoons of salt instead of one. My mother was smart and efficient—when she cooked, she made sure that meal lasted the entire week. As for a timer? Please. The timer was built into her schedule, the food was done when she arose from her nap, and wouldn’t you know it, her white rice always came out fluffy and oh-so-savory, her habichuelas zesty with the remarkable combination of fruits and herbs that is our most sacred ingredient, sofrito. She didn’t fret over learning new recipes either; for dinner, it was either white rice with chicken or beef substituted only for a good ol’ dish of pasta; however, I didn’t mind that and for my last meal I’d ask for some white rice, habichuelas and aguacate with a chicken thigh on the side. Scrumptious. It was only until after I moved out that my mom, shrugging her shoulders, let us in on a secret: she knew how to cook plenty of other things, the opportunity just never presented itself. Thanks, mami, I guess it’s not entirely my fault I’m a picky eater who reserves the right to try anything new for the sake of sticking to what I know agrees with my taste buds. No, my mother didn’t mollycoddle, and cooking wasn’t her favorite thing, although she makes a bangin’ shrimp soup, but she was demonstrative with her love in other ways.
As a little kid, I was scared about many things, nervous that inconsequential, abstract figures in the dark would escape the deep recesses of my closet at twilight to hurt me, frighten me with their fangs and disfigured faces, paralyzing me into helpless silence. Leaving the hallway light on wasn’t enough, either. I needed my mommy, so every night I’d ask her to sleep with me and every night she’d oblige, squeezing into my tiny twin bed until I was fast asleep. Her presence comforted me and inexplicably banished the stealthy monsters hiding in my fathomless closet. What did I care if my mom couldn’t sleep soundlessly in a bed barely fit for one? But it turns out my mom was playing a trick on me all along. One night, following my instincts that something was amiss, I forced my eyes shut feigning sleep and once my mom thought I had drifted off to my ninth dream, I silently peeked my eyes open and watched her ever so slowly climb out of my bed. I realize now what a damn cockblocker I was and, of course, my mom couldn’t spend every night with me protecting me from only imaginary things I thought would…what exactly? Do me in in the middle of the night? Stab my heart through the bedsheets? My mom did what she needed to do for me and then got her life. Thanks for doing that for me mami. There was also the time in 5th grade when I was caught cheating on an exam and was given an F right on the spot. At home I lied through my teeth about being dishonorable during the Spelling test and my mother, without question, not only believed me but went one step further: She would see the principal, and that lying teacher of mine, to expunge my academic record. I don’t remember if my mom succeeded in doing that because, of course, I had cheated; I knew it, my teacher knew it, and no matter how much my mother believed me (and told my teacher she was wrong), my teacher wasn’t going to budge on alternating the truth to appease my mom. What came out of that moment, and others like it, is that I learned whether I was culpable of a situation or not was trivial to my mom; she would go toe to toe with anyone to defend me. Thanks for that, too, ma.
My mom did a lot of things for me that she probably shouldn’t have; nonetheless, I was thrilled she did. For example, between fourth and sixth grade (okay, maybe until eighth grade), I was obsessed with the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, consuming every mass-produced product manufactured by their empire. I remember in sixth grade, after devouring scores of their books, movies and TV shows, a clothing line was unveiled at Wal-Mart and I couldn’t be more excited to own any of the fashionable items. I especially coveted a pretty, peach colored spaghetti strap top with the bra built right in, which I thought was so cool. On one special trip to the discount store, my dad had allotted a certain amount of money for my sister and me, sending us off with my mom to shop for summer clothes. When we got there, I made a beeline for the girls’ department where the Olsen twins’ line was displayed front and center. I snatched that peach spaghetti strap top and grabbed a couple other items, a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach that my mother would tell me to put the clothes back because I had exceeded my budget. But no, she placed my clothes on the belt and paid without complaint. It was a different story when we got home. I sprinted to my room and one by one put on each article of clothing, analyzing my new wardrobe, ecstatic that I’d finally have the coolest outfits that summer, but my sartorial aspirations were dashed like a broken dream. The anguished complaints from my father bellowing from my parents’ bedroom left me ashamed that we had misspent a hundred dollars on a measly five items of clothing, and guilty that I had asked my mom to buy them for me. The next day the clothes were exchanged for a lesser known brand but I wasn’t resentful. I knew my mom wanted to please me and I took advantage of her. Today that memory makes me grateful that my mom gave me that moment of happiness, even if it was only for a day and it makes me wonder about her childhood. Had someone been as kind to her as she was to me?
By the age of sixteen, my mother knew what her world looked like without—not just one parent—but three parents. Her biological mother died of ovarian cancer two months after she was born; at sixteen, her adoptive mother, the only mother she knew, passed away from liver cancer when she was a teenager; and her father, an amateur boxer whom she’d run away from whenever he visited her, was mugged and pushed onto an oncoming train in New York after he fought the assailants back. After the passing of her adoptive mother, my mom left the beaches and barrios of Puerto Rico for a better scene in Passaic, New Jersey where she moved in with her older brother and sister. She rebuilt her life and never once wallowed in the injustice of losing people in her life who knew and loved her from birth. And that wasn’t even the worst calamities she would face. After she had my sister and me, my mom had an accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. It took her a year to regain her ambulatory skills all with a husband and a four and two-year-old child who needed her. She never complained about her journey, instead focusing all her strength and energy into walking again, because she was a mother and a wife, and goddammit she wasn’t going to stay immobilized the rest of our lives. That’s what so cool about my mom; maybe being born on an island gave her the advantage of holding a ray of sunshine inside of her, drawing everyone to her like a planet. It took becoming a mother to understand the challenges my mom faced.
This past year has been the most important year of my life because I had my son, the realest thing that has ever happened to me. I couldn’t even imagine what his face would look like, what his demeanor would be, because he was beyond anything my imagination could conceive, which was very intimidating. Although I had nine months to prepare for his birth, for this new person in our lives, nothing can compare to that baby being in your life, and I felt my world change overnight. I always said the only person I wanted in the delivery room was my boyfriend, but when I experienced those contractions I wanted anyone in that room that would coddle me and help me through the pain. I not only had my boyfriend on hand, but I also asked that my mom and sister stay with me, too. It was just like when I was afraid of the dark as a little kid and wanted my mommy next to me to make me feel better. Her presence alleviated my fears and her assistance continues to be vital to my well-being as I raise my son while my partner and I work full-time. After experiencing child birth and child rearing, I admire my mom more for bearing three daughters without losing herself, it’s a passage into womanhood that should bond all women if we so chose. Giving birth was a surreal experience, however, it proved to me that women are the strongest human beings and we can truly do anything. We should be more united over our shared experiences of our bodies stretching to make room for our babies; feeling claustrophobic, enclosed in the house caring for all your infant’s needs; the sleepless days and nights; and the loneliness and frustration of breastfeeding. It takes strength, patience, love, passion, vulnerability and resilience to have children and I understand now that the woman I get to call mami possesses these qualities in abundance. I only wish I had spent half of my childhood admiring her in this light so that I could’ve imitated her characteristics.
I cherish the memories of my childhood in an urban city, sitting around the dining room table in the summers, Icees numbing our fingers, the windows to our three-bedroom apartment thrown open to coax a non-existent breeze from the sweltering humidity, while my mom explained the rules to brisca and roba paquete to my sister and me. We’d play for hours, rolling around in our chairs, laughing at the loser’s hand, baiting them to chance another round for the sake of redemption. As we played, my mom would tell us how often she’d play these games in Puerto Rico with her group of friends, under the cool umbrage of trees in the courtyard of her school right outside the window of her classroom, unperturbed by her professors. And why worry? She aced all their tests, and wasn’t that what mattered anyway? I’d listen open-mouthed, aghast at her gall, as my sister stripped me of my acquired pile of cards. “You lose!” she cried, but I ignored her. “Didn’t you care about getting in trouble?” I asked my mom. She’d wave one hand in the air flippantly, and with the other hand pick up the cards from the table to reshuffle them: “No, nena, the teachers knew me.” Who was this woman!
I don’t know my mom’s whole life story; there’s details she shares, parts she shields from me, and moments I’m sure with age or determination she’s forgotten. Her life hasn’t been without tribulations, but she made the best with the lemons she was given, which makes her the strongest, most fearless person I know like Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, determined despite deficiencies to get what she wants above everything else, which for my mom was the happiness of her three daughters. She made sure she gave her children the stability she grew up without, and the intact nuclear family that provided the safety she, as a teenager, was robbed of. I never had to live with the uncertainty and isolation that I can only imagine my mother felt as the only mother she knew left her world. I couldn’t witness my mother’s past but I am so grateful to be a part of her present, to be a humble extension of the incredible person she is, because I’m learning from a woman who is the epitome of cool and phosphorescent happiness how to be a better person and a good mom.
Maria is a writer who, in her blog, MyMiseducation, shares her experiences exploring what it means to be an “adult” when you’ve been taught all the wrong things. She writes about representation, and loving and finding yourself. She also shares her short stories, her thoughts on books, music, movies and more. Follow her on Instagram (@mymiseducationblog) for updates on new blogs. Read about her journey understanding and loving herself by re-evaluating her relationship with her mother, who she realizes she wants to be just like in her blog post, “Mami.”