THIS IS WHAT she did:
She ate the brown bananas and other over-ripe fruits so that we didn’t have to.
She removed the nata — that film that forms on the surface of milk when you heat it, as when you make hot chocolate or atole, hot cereal — and ate it so it didn’t have to touch our lips and tongues, because we thought it was yucky.
She fed my father first, if he was around, then us, because we insisted that our tortillas be hot off the comal.
When we took our lunches to school, she made them for us before she made her own and went to her job.
Up north, she’d get up at 4 a.m. to start the fire in the wood-burning stove in order to make everybody’s lunch, then our breakfasts, and make sure we all had or work clothes, then she joined us in the sugar beet or cucumber or potato fields all day, then come home to cook our dinner.
She taught us early on that it’s a rough would out there and that not all fights are worth fighting — that we’d better learn to pick our battles carefully. When we got into fights with neighborhood kids, most of whom were cousins, she never stepped in to defend us, instead she would tell us that nothing would happen to us if we stayed in our own home. And if we complained about being harassed by a sibling or a cousin, she’d tell us, mejor un loco y no dos (better one lunatic than two).
THIS, ALSO, SHE did:
While my sisters were expected to iron their own clothes and help with the laundry, I always had clean and pressed clothes without having to lift a finger. In that way she did spoil me, as most Mexican mothers spoil their sons.
While she always pressured me to find an after-school job, she never failed to give me a weekly allowance, whether I worked or not. Granted, it was a very small allowance, but it was an allowance nonetheless.
She never screamed and she never spoke loudly, and her laugh was a quiet laugh, almost a chuckle. But she had a great sense of humor and loved jokes and even told jokes every now and then.
She had an odd yet an endearing habit of repeating a story — or a punchline — if it got a good reaction the first time. She repeated it within minutes of having told it the first time. My brother inherited that habit. It’s not as endearing with him. Sorry, Jando.
AND SHE DID this:
She taught me how to make calavacita and how to make chorizo.
She would have taught me how to make tortillas if I had asked her. I’m sorry I didn’t.
She spent a lot of time during the last half of her life waving good-bye to her children and their families, from her front yard, as they drove off. She never cried until they were several blocks away.
She loved “I Love Lucy” even though she knew almost no English. ¿Porque llora esa vieja? she would ask whenever Lucy started crying.
Likewise, when I played my Aretha Franklin records, she would demand, ¿Porque grita esa vieja?”
She died before I was able to bring classical music into her home, but I have no doubt she would have loved it and she would have loved the hell out of the fact that as I write this, I am listening to the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.
She loved watching boxing matches on TV but hated wrestling, yet she sat there and watched it quietly (usually while sewing quilts or knitting) because my father loved wrestling.
She taught my father how to read and write. I’m sure she regretted that many times, but she never said so.
Even though her English was limited, she made sure to correct me when I came home from the second grade one day and told her that the English word for cebolla is “cunion.”
Her own mother died when my mother was very young and she acquired her first real mother when she married and her mother-in-law welcomed her with open arms. Because of that, she swore that no daughter-in-law of hers would ever be made to feel like a stranger in her home. None ever did.
AND THESE ARE among the things she did:
One day, in North Dakota, my brother Norberto was with Tío Adrián under Tío’s heavy Pontiac, trying to fix something when the jack failed and the car came crashing down on them. It was a Sunday and my mother was doing the laundry in front of our house. As soon as she saw the car drop, she rushed over, bent down and pulled the car high enough so that the two men could crawl out. She did that.
She made my sisters’ dresses, when Tía Benita couldn’t. She made at least three or four quilts for each of her eight children and at least one for her 27 grandchildren. Once I asked her to make a quilt for the child of a couple I was friends with, and she did. She made that quilt.
She made the best tamales in the world, the best tortillas in the world, the best enchiladas in the world, the best tacos in the world and the best hamburgers in the world.
SHE MADE MANY other things.
Somebody convinced her once, as she was nearing retirement age, that she would get better retirement benefits if she were a U.S. citizen and that she could become an American citizen by taking the citizenship test in Spanish. She studied like crazy and learned all about George Washington and the Constitution and the Civil War. Then she was told that because of her age, the test had to be in English. She never became an U.S. citizen, and this nation missed out on a great opportunity.
She survived by showing up. When told that the local Del Monte cannery would not be needing her services on a particular day, she’d show up at the beginning of a shift anyway, just in case someone didn’t show up and they needed an extra hand. Showing up worked often.
Her husband was abusive. There is no other way to put it. Yet, when he died, she wept.
She loved all her grandchildren, but there was a special place in her heart for Norbie and Norma, my dead brother’s two children. The other grandchildren understand that.
She loved roses. She loved all kinds of flowers, but roses gave her great delight. She had a rose bush in the front yard of our old house that bloomed like crazy. I made it my mission to cut off the dead roses so that new ones would grow, and she loved that. When Urban Renewal tore down our house and ran a road through our property, she insisted we dig up that bush and transplant it in our new yard. It never thrived there.
She was a devout Catholic and she loved when I would come home from college and go to Mass with her. But when I became a non-believer and I told her I would not be going to church (I didn’t tell her why, I just said I wasn’t going), she understood. She never insisted; she never harangued. She understood.
When I was in my early 20s, she talked often about the kind of woman I should marry. By my late 20s and early 30s, she never spoke about that. She understood. We never talked about it, but she understood.
Every New Year’s Eve, she remarked, Quién sabe si este será me ultimo año. On New Years Eve, 1990, she didn’t say that. She couldn’t. She was lying in her bed, unable to move or talk. She probably thought it, though. The next day, she died.
That’s what she did.
That’s what my mother did during her 84 years on this Earth. I hope you have these kinds of memories of your mother. If you’re a mother, I hope your kids remember you as fondly.
Happy Mothers Day.