(I wrote this for The Austin American Statesman in the late 1990s)
My mother was a hummer.
Except when she was visiting with somebody – or listening to her historias on the radio – she was humming. She hummed as she patched together her quilts. She hummed as she sewed, crocheted or knitted. She hummed as she cooked or washed dishes. She hummed as she watered her plants.
In the summertime, when we were up north working in the sugar beet fields, she hummed as she hacked away at the weeds with her hoe, the muted murmur flowing sweetly from beneath the flaps of her garsole – the long-hooded bonnet that protected her from the sun.
And she hummed as she ironed. Especially when she ironed.
The tunes were more often than not nameless and unrecognizable, but at times she hummed familiar hymns – slow-paced ones like “Viva María,” “Bendito,” or “O María, Madre Mía.”
Mamá never used a steam iron. To moisten the clothes, she dipped her fingers into a small bowl of water. Forming a tentative fist, she shook her hand slightly as she passed it over the shirt or dress, much like a priest blessing his flock with holy water.
The splish-splish-splishing of the water escaping her clutch was like a muted snare drum that provided the tempo for her simple symphony.
We never asked her why she hummed, perhaps because it never seemed that odd. We assumed all mothers did so, that humming was in their job description.
And it was such a soothing sound. As we lay or sat nearby, reading or doing other things, we were at peace.
Inevitably, however, the humming stopped and, after a short pause, we heard El Suspiro – The Sigh. The Sigh started with an extended sibilant intake of air, came to a brief silent rest when all the world’s activities seemed to cease, then reached its tremulous end with that same air innervating the inevitable words that supplied the obligatory exclamation point.
“Ay, mamacita,” was the most common. We read that as a plea to her long-departed mother, whose death when my mother was 4 years old was the beginning of a life of hardship that included an abusive stepmother, an unfaithful and drunken husband, long periods of harsh poverty, backbreaking work at starvation wages, life-threatening illness and injuries and the death of two sons.
But there were other pleadings. and these were almost always exhortations to her God:
Or, “Ay, Dios mío.”
None lasted more than a second or two, and then after a few minutes, the humming would start again, but not before it stoked our ever-present reservoir of fear. Like minor temblors, her suspirations shook the soothing, nurturing hammock her humming had weaved. And it always took a while for the calm to return.
What, we wondered, can be going through her mind? How much pain must be tearing at her soul? We loved our mother, truly believing that loving her was our only purpose, so any of distress in her voice was disconcerting.
Mamá was a strong woman. That was her role in life, and she played it to near perfection. Yes, she cried, but only when it was absolutely unavoidable. When we grew up and started making our homes away from her, we knew that each time we drove off she cried silently, but we never way those tears, for she held them in until our car turned the corner.
We depended on that woman’s strength, for it made our scary world seem a bit safer. So when her suspiros revealed the tiniest crack in the tough shell of stoicism that protected her – and us – there was a terrifying moment of angst in our hearts.
About nine years ago, my mother’s humming stopped. Her body, already weakened by a decade of fighting a losing battle against the effects of Parkinson’s disease, was ravaged by a stroke that left her incapacitated and virtually mute.
For almost four years, until she died in her bed on New Year’s Day 1991, she lay there, her eyes telegraphing the frustration, even anger, that her communication was limited to grunts and gibberish.
Her suspiros were also silenced.
Today, when my siblings and I get together, we often talk about my mother. We tell ourselves that we should have asked her about those suspiros, that we should have insisted she share her sorrows with us.
Perhaps we should have. However, over the past few weeks, as I have talked to people about spirituality, and as I have listened to them speak of their constant communication with God, my mind goes back to my mother’s humming, and her suspiros.
And it occurs to me that maybe they were not signs of agony or suffering, or of longing for the mother she barely remembered. Maybe it was nothing more than her way of getting in touch with her inner being.
We are told that spirituality involves, among other things, a connectedness with past experiences, a recognition of the influence of others who have walked this earth before us.
Maybe Mamá, in invoking her own mother, was simply trying to make that connection to the one person in her life she viewed as closest to Perfection.
Maybe, in her calls to God, she wasn’t asking for anything after all. Maybe all she was saying was, “Here I am.”
And maybe the answer she was hearing as she hummed was, “Yes, I know.”