Saturday, May 7, 2011 | Washington
WHEN I WAS about 11 or 12 years old, I bought my mother a glass for Mothers Day. That’s right, a drinking glass. I got it at El Cres, the five-and-dime store. I went with my cousin Javier, who went there to buy something for his mother. That was the first time I ever heard of people buying presents for their mothers.
Our family was not a gift-giving family. Birthdays, Christmases and other holidays went by year after year without a single gift being exchanged. I can count on one hand the number of non-underwear, non-socks presents I got in my childhood, and have two fingers left over. One Christmas, before my two older sisters got married, they used some of their earnings from their jobs at the local cannery to buy all of us presents. I got a beautiful toy fire truck and a cap pistol and holster. The pistol worked for less than 24 hours. Fina, one of the sisters who had bought it for me, borrowed it for a few minutes and broke it. The truck, though, gave me many months of pleasure.
Years later, when we were working in the sugar beet fields and my birthday was coming up, my sister Mariana sent a song request to the KROX, the AM radio station in nearby Crookston, Minnesota. The song was to be played early in the morning, before we headed out to the fields, and when the day arrived, we all listened to the radio as the announcer dedicated the song to me. The song was “Unchained Melody,” my favorite tune at the time.
For Mothers Day, the tradition was to pay a local band to bring a serenata, a set of two or three Mothers Day songs, to your mother, right outside her window. If you were lucky enough to have a member of the family who could play accordion or guitar, or sing, then you could get free mañanitas; that family member would get together with other musicians to serenade their mothers, as well as their girlfriends’ or wives’ mothers. We never could afford that, and none of us had any musical ability, so my mother had to settle for listening to Las Mañanitas or other songs that were being sung down the street to other mothers in the neighborhood.
So, the suggestion, by Javier, that I buy a present on that particular Mothers Day came as a shock, but it did seem like a good idea and I agreed to it, spending about a third of my weekly $1 allowance for the glass. Buying it was easy. The difficult part was the actual act of giving it to my mother. I had never given her a gift and I didn’t know how to do it. I don’t remember how I went about it, or what I said. Probably something simple like, Esto es pa’ usted. (We always used the formal usted, when addressing our parents, or any adult.) And I don’t remember her reaction.
Neither do I remember if gift-giving on Mothers Day became a tradition through the rest of my childhood. Probably not.
ONE TRADITION THAT does continue is the Mothers Day serenatas, and I’m glad to say that my mother enjoyed many of them, thanks to her children or her sons-in-law (or son-in-law wanna-bes). And of course, if we were home, we too got to enjoy the pre-dawn songs, not just those near my mother’s window, but also those sung to mothers up and down the street. If you were to go to Crystal City tonight, you too would enjoy this Mothers Day songfest and the soulful strains of the accompanying accordions and guitars. There is nothing more beautiful.
I wish I could be there to hear it. But since I can’t, I’ll make certain that my iPod is next to my bed, and when I wake up at 2, 3, or 4 in the morning (as invariably I will, being that my body is still partly on European time, I’ll turn on the music and listen to Las Mañanitas. And I’ll listen to Lydia Mendoza replace the stillness of the night with her Amor de Madre, beseeching her mother in heaven to send down a maternal sigh to fill her heart.