how can i describe her to you? if you knew her, if you knew her at all, you’d surely agree with me: it was her smile that first won you over. we all knew this. it was a fact of the world. her big, white smile. you hoped that time would slow down each time this smile showed itself – one mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi, four. just one more moment with this light! quick, think of something to keep it alive!
for me, it was the very first thing i saw. since the day i was born, since the moment i opened my eyes, it has been there always – my own everlasting sun. because my mother made sure that i never saw night.
i imagine her at twelve years old, in her nicest dress, in a ripe cotton field. no one to put braids in her hair. hiding from her brothers – but it wasn’t a game. the south texas heat. her mother on the porch, calling them in for dinner, or maybe not. her father gone. he died the year before. tears gathering in those dark almond-eyes. this may not have been what it was like, but this is how i imagine it.
i wish i could have been there to see it. what she was like? was she quiet? was she like me? i think i am becoming more like her every day. i sometimes find myself singing her songs.
‘it’s time to wake up, it’s time to wake up, it’s time to wake up in the moooorning’ she skips down the hall, the dog and the cat trailing behind her – tails wagging, excitement is high. this is our morning routine. this is our little life. this is when we eat cereal in my room instead of the kitchen. don’t ask me why, it’s just how it is. it’s just what we like.
i am not fresh in the morning, so i don’t say much. sleep weighs me down. the adolescent gloom is heavy. but i listen. and i bathe in the morning light. and by the time she says goodbye to me at school, i am lifted. i wonder now what she thought about on those long drives home. she drove me to school every day.
i have never seen her in a bad mood. except for those times when – oh i shudder to think of them. most of the time, we were ok, us two. but on those rare occasions (read: monthly) when i was ungrateful-spoiled-entitled-selfish-discourteous-unkind, she showed no mercy. it was only a handful of times, but my god, my mother was a force. she was a tornado rolling through the south, collecting every hint of disrespect i had shown over the years, throwing everything i owned off the shelves, and rattling me to my bones. i cried and cried and cried. because i knew i deserved it. because i knew she was right. i’m not disrespectful anymore.
she showed me how to take care of my things – how to lightly place things on the shelf (those same things she would later displace in a fiery rage), how to fold my clothes and make my bed the way they do in hotels. she taught me this one trick: you karate-chop the top of a pillow to make it look crisp and tailored. try it! your pillows will forever invite relaxation. you’re welcome.
she taught me to care so much, that i had to say goodnight to all of my stuffed animals. each and every one. i was an only child, so i had a lot – a lot – of stuffed animals. goodnight ken, goodnight muffy, goodnight samantha. my mom waited patiently, falling asleep upright at the door. ‘did you get them all?’ yeah i got them all.
‘good night sweet girl, i’m hitting the hay. not too late tonight ok?’ the same routine every night. on the nights she didn’t check in, i would unglue myself from the computer and tiptoe to her room. there she was, in the blue television-lit room, dreaming, with the cat curled up on her lap (and she insists she’s never been an animal person). it’s always strange to see this sparkling, fluttering woman with a still, content expression on her face, not making a peep. anyway, back to my computer. back to my very important pre-teen world. many hours later, the hallway light clicks on, the shuffled steps get louder, and there she is again – my tiny mother – eyes in slits, no longer dreaming, and definitely no longer content. ‘annie. bed. now.’
before the computer, there were the late night snacks. i was small. i’d wake her up and we’d sneak into the kitchen and she’d lift me onto the counter. just when the grilled cheese sandwiches started to brown, my dad’s familiar stomps would echo down the stairs. ‘hey, what are you two girls doing in here?! you should be in bed!” we giggled and offered him a grilled cheese triangle. he accepted.
in the darkest hours of the night, i still mistake my loneliness for hunger.
she doesn’t think much of herself. she doesn’t know that she is a genius. i may tease her for being a silly old goon who says ‘stoled’ instead of ‘stolen’, but her intelligence is something to be admired. she is a magician. when she enters a room, she can lift the furniture off the ground and move it around and replace it with better, different furniture and change the color of the walls and tear down the walls and hang art on the walls, all in her mind. she can transform a space within seconds. she sees the potential, she has visions of what could be.
she can imagine a boring grey garbage bin covered in children’s paintings, and she knows how great it will be for both the kids and the garbage bin alike. the neighbors enjoyed garbage day a little bit more too.
what she can do with her mind, she can also do with her hands. i’m proud to announce that my mom is a handywoman. she owns a multi-level toolbox. she knows what an allen wrench is, what a mains switch is. she can often be found on the top step of a tall ladder. my dad didn’t even know that there are different types of lightbulbs.
my mom loves to shop, but she never buys a thing. we once spent hours bargaining with a tiny old guatemalan lady in a market. my mom negotiated with passion and admired each handcrafted item. but she didn’t buy a thing for herself.
in department stores she would wait for me outside the fitting room. she would hold all of my clothes in her arms. her arms got tired, but she never did.
when i was young, she made me a custom vanity with special make-up lights. she made me a candy-filled, twinkling-lighted wreath to put over my bed at christmastime so i would dream of sugarplum fairies. she made me lunch every day, with enough treats to share with my friends, and with jokes and quotes and countdowns til summer. she took out the shelves in my closet and filled the space with pillows and blankets, so i could have my own hideaway.
she let me redecorate my room with different themes – first pink, then deep in the jungle, then up in the clouds, then ‘mature’. she made my room a mecca for every young girl on the planet.
she gave me everything, the everything that she never had. but the most important thing she gave me was her time. she was always there. every childhood memory – she is always there.
when my parents dropped me off at college, i sat alone in my room for the first time. i was lost. everyone in my dorm went out for dinner, and i stayed in my new room sitting on the floor. i found a handmade photo album under the bed. i looked through the photos over and over, tears falling off my cheeks. in every single shot, my mom is either behind the camera, or in the photo with me, her bright smile blinding the scene.
when friends came over to my house, they didn’t come to see me.
my house was where the candy was at, my house had the goods. my house had no rules. and my house also had kay. her happy voice, her crazy cackling laugh. she tries to speak spanish by saying english words in a spanish accent. she doesn’t take herself too seriously.
she made creatures out of her hands. spidey was not someone you wanted to provoke. you mess with spidey, you will get tickled to tears. it’s truly painful. not recommended. ski man, on the other hand. ski man starts his race on the crown of your head and skis over the bony bumpy terrain of your shoulders, elbows, knuckles. he lands epic jumps, the crowd cheers.
she made everything special. every birthday, every holiday, every trip to the mall, every drive around the block, every friday night at blockbuster.
the car rides to ballet class, she’d let us go to mcdonald’s. weeks later we would discover colonies of fries hidden under the seats. instead of getting mad, she would throw them at us.
every sleepover, she’d make up beds on the floor of every room. she’d invent games like ‘capture-the-figurine-from-the-dark-garage-but-beware-of-the-beast.’ my mom, my poor little mom, would put on a fur coat and an african mask and she would hide, waiting for her victims to enter, two at a time. i still don’t know how she hid in that garage in complete silence, under that hairy disguise, knowing two terrified teenaged girls were clinging to each other in fear. she doesn’t take herself too seriously, no, but when it comes to scaring children, my god she is a professional.
the long drives down to miami. bascom palmer eye institute: the place that saved my life, the place i hated most. she filled the car with pillows and blankets and stuffed animals. we would get so tired of waiting rooms, we would start to get silly. i’d pretend to start touching the doctor stuff and then quickly jump back to my seat when i heard someone walk by. ‘i’m going to tell on you!’ no you’re not!
everything is more fun because she is there. the world is more fun because she is in it.
my dad always said ‘your mother has a heart of gold.’ i’ve always liked that expression. but i think he said it with a hint of sadness, a tinge of envy. how can somebody be so good? how does she do it with such ease? i think we would all like to be a little bit more like her.
my mother loves you. even if she hasn’t met you, she already loves you. i promise. she appreciates you just as you are, she forgives you, she doesn’t judge you, and she wants nothing but your success. no matter what.
she has this way with people. she makes friends with everyone. she says hello to every stranger. somehow she manages to gain your trust in just a few seconds. even her teenaged grandkids go to her for advice, sharing things they would never even whisper near their parents.
she has a sign on her forehead that reads ‘tell me your life story’ and before you know it, you’ve poured your entire heart out, and she’s empathizing with you, and you have no idea how you became so close with this little lady.
if you want to read your book in peace on a flight, do not sit next to my mom.
do you feel like you know her now? can you imagine what it’s like to be with her?
would you believe me if i told you that her life has been full of loss? when you imagine this woman’s life, do you imagine the death of her father when she was eleven, the death of all three of her brothers before she turned forty, and the death of her mother shortly after? would you think of her as someone who had a doctor sit her down and say her daughter has cancer? would you believe that her husband of nearly thirty years was shot dead? no, i wouldn’t either. how could you? the two things simply can’t be reconciled – this gorgeous ray of light, been through all that? no.
and yet, and yet. that smile will not, cannot be broken. my mother defines resilience.
you might think this is a story about my mother. but it’s not. it’s a story about me. it’s a story about how my mom made me. how she weaves her way through me whether i like it or not. how she lives in me, because she lives for me.
a few years ago she came to visit me in new zealand. my mother, who hates flying, flew across the pacific by herself, for me. how relieved i was when i found her at the airport, when i saw her smile shining through her big black jacket – she was prepared for all the elements. i remember running along a trail in new zealand. she was tired so she told me to go ahead without her. i didn’t want to leave her for too long, so i ran as fast as i could to finish the trail and find her again. people commended me for being so active. ‘no, no, you don’t understand, i’m just running to get back to my mom!’
i will always come back to her. i have never left her. she has never left me.