Notes on My Mother

I always begin to write about you; of your soft facial expressions and the shape of your fingers, of the music that makes you smile in the car and your favorite sandwich to eat on lazy Sunday afternoons (cheese and mayo, lightly toasted). But I pause and think — wait — “How did I miss this one thing?” or “I forgot about the time this happened!” and I believe I will never be done studying you; I will never stop being in awe of you. So I’m afraid to write it all down. Because I will always write about you. Because you are always there, in beauty and in laughter and in tears. Because you are so much more than scribbles on the pages of a notebook. Eres mi madre, hoy y siempre.

My college roommate shot up, scrambling out of her sheets to make sure I was safe. I remember her eyes widening as she approached me, full of genuine concern. We were still getting used to sharing a space, our habits and personalities so different and big in a tight little room. I assured her I was fine, just a nightmare, and she returned clumsily to bed. I thought I’d lie awake for hours, but her snores quickly lulled me into a dreamless sleep.

The nightmares continued, sometimes once every few weeks and sometimes whole months apart, the space between teasing me with false safety. They were the same, every time: Set in my childhood home in Mexico, late afternoon light filling the library. My mother is walking up the stairs. She misses a step and stumbles awkwardly, then falls — a dramatic, bumpy, violent fall — until she hits the cold floor. She lies still, not bothering to call for help. She knows no one is there.

My parents split up when I was 11, maybe 12, when my father finally moved out, a new silence taking over the house. For a long time it was just my mother and me. Sometimes it was just me, my parents struggling to help my sister, who went to rehab when she was 19; I never quite felt forgotten, but put on hold, like a dog-eared page in a book you don’t pick up for months.

My mother and I stayed in the house my parents built right before I was born. She always enjoyed saying it was my house — I was born as soon as it was finished, ready to welcome me home that hot August night. I enjoyed those years with her, loved our Saturday morning grocery runs and weekend afternoons watching movies. I would lie down with my head on her lap and she’d stroke my hair, tell me I was beautiful, and kiss my nose. “Mi pequilina,” she would whisper, and it was the two of us, day after day, in a house too big for two people.

Once or twice a year there came a day when I would wake up and run to the kitchen to chat over scrambled eggs and find the place empty, lacking the smell of fresh coffee. I would go to her room and find her curled up in the right corner of the king-size bed — still taking a side — and she’d look so tired I would forget 45 was young.

Those were the bad days, when she’d sob and ask for time to herself, and I’d silently close her bedroom door and stand waiting. Just on the other side of the wall was the woman who told me I deserved everything, yet there was nothing I could do for her. She would cry, and I would try to ask even though I knew why — because she felt lonely, because she felt helpless, because she missed her oldest daughter and her husband and the idea of forever that broke years ago.

Whenever I spent time with my father in his new house, I never thought he needed taking care of; he seemed fine, surrounded by his new walls, still complaining about my mother and their problems, always with an anger that kept me from believing he could be sad. It always seemed to me that as a man, he didn’t need help or comfort. Years later I would come to realize the injustice of it, the assumptions I made because it was easier to walk than to make him talk. He was easier to leave; I chose to stay with my mother.

In the last dream I had of my mother, she was sitting alone in a corner booth at a restaurant, smoking a Marlboro Red. My whole life I never saw her with a cigarette in hand, so I awoke confused, the image of her stuck in the back of my mind for weeks. We were having dinner once when I was home for spring break and I tried to pick up on anything unusual, on smelly fingers or yellow teeth, but there was nothing. So I asked her point-blank if she smoked. My mother stared at me intently and asked me where the question came from. I told her about the dream, a dream so bright and real I believed it was more than just a whirl of midnight magic. She told me she hadn’t smoked since she became pregnant with my sister… until only a few weeks ago, when she craved a cigarette and decided to buy a pack.

We sat in silence, looking at each other in momentary disbelief until she shook her head and smiled, almost happy that her rare realities haunted my dreams. She was always with me, in separate countries, in separate beds.

When it comes to my mother, I sometimes think in list form. Not because she can be narrowed down to a few points, but because her complexity demands simplicity — somehow, at some point. I begin:

  • She loves coconut ice cream, vanilla ice cream, maple walnut ice cream. She freakin’ loves ice cream. Every time she visits, she asks we go buy some, so we stop at a convenience store for a pint or a local shop for a double scoop. A few weeks ago I was at home with my husband when out of nowhere he said, “Next time your mother visits, we should have a vanilla pint ready for her in the freezer.”
  • Some of my mom’s celebrity crushes: Christian Bale, Colin Firth, Eric Bana. Whenever she hears of a new movie starring — [insert celebrity crush here] — she rubs her hands together, grins mischievously and says, “¡Ay Eugeeeee!”
  • She opens emails with “Mi Pequilina” and closes with “te amo”
  • She drives in silence, but always keeps Adele in the car, just in case.
  • She loves buffalo wings and ranch dressing and papaya and every vegetable you’ve never heard of. After my parents separated, my grandmother called and begged for my mother’s recipe book; I told her she doesn’t keep one, she knows them all by heart. ¡Pero su menudo! she said. ¡Pero su ensalada! she said. ¡Pero su sopa de calabacita! I know, I told her. My mother’s a wonderful cook.
  • She cries in the opening scene of Finding Nemo, when Nemo’s mother dies.
  • She cries at the end of Rocky II, when Rocky beats Apollo.

My mother is gorgeous, but she always scoffed when I told her she was pretty. She’d cover my face with her small hand and softly say, “Ay, mi amor” as if I had said something absurd.

I think of her in curlers, taking an hour to get ready; wearing a long black dress and structured black jacket, the smell of Chanel No. 5 as she kisses me one last time. “Buenas noches, bonita,” she says, my dad waiting at the door in his sharp black suit.

I remember the smell of her in water, swimming in our pool on Sunday mornings. When I was still young enough to be picked up, my head resting on her shoulder, the smell of chlorine in her hair.

She approached me several times to talk about my weight, and I could tell it terrified her, but it scared her even more not to say anything. She thought it was her fault, my being overweight, and she said this to me once, twice, on the edge of my bed, and I held her while she wept.

I can hear my mother’s laughter, always at the smallest things, shaking her head and reminding me not to cuss too much but to keep telling stories. Keep telling stories, she’d say.

I think of my mother behind the wheel, driving through the night on long road trips. I would sleep beside her, or in the back seat if my sister took the front. I would wake up in spurts and feel safe, watching her, serene and quiet, guiding her daughters in the dark.

My mother’s closet was divided in two: There was black and there was white. When I was younger I would look through fashion magazines and be stunned by color, color so loud next to the neutrals in my mother’s wardrobe. I feared sometimes this made her less fun somehow, that the clothes she picked were chosen to make herself invisible. I watched her for years, slender and delicate in a crisp white button-down and black pants, her movements graceful as she cooked herself an early dinner or sat cross-legged to read a book.

I walk into her closet now and find pops of color here and there — a pale pink sweater, a pair of mustard colored pants. She wears more jewelry, heavy gold bracelets that shake and clink when she pours herself some coffee. My mother’s beauty remains, shocking me early in the morning when she greets me with a silent kiss.

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