My mother likes to tell the story of how she got her name. Her oldest sister, Doris, came up with it. Away at boarding school in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, Doris fancied herself a sophisticated 11-year-old. “Maria Antonieta,” she proposed, and “Maria Antonieta” it was.
My mom was born in a town near the Eastern shore of Venezuela called Aragua de Barcelona, to the prominent family of the place, not in terms of money but of influence. Back then, says my mom with pride, Aragua de Barcelona was known as the “Athens of the East” because of the town’s intellectual and cultural vibrancy.
My mom retains a certain pride in her roots and often interjects fancy words and expressions people used back in the day. She likes to tell stories about her extended family and the illustrious careers in industry and public service of many of her relatives.
My mother’s a superb storyteller. Perhaps it comes from being the youngest child of older parents. Even by today’s standards, her parents were old. Her mother was in her mid-forties and her father in his early sixties when she was born in 1941.
Being the youngest, she always tagged along with her mother, and she was spoiled in a way the youngest of five kids, born to older parents, can be. My grandparents weren’t rich but, as my mom puts it, they were “honorable,” which appears to have been the highest virtue at the time. Regrettably, it no longer seems to be — neither here in the US nor in Venezuela.
My mom didn’t live in luxury, but she was doted on. When she was around five years old, the whole family moved to Caracas and she was enrolled in school, kindergarten I suppose. She cried so much on her first day my grandmother decided to delay my mom’s schooling for one year!
Not only that, the following year, my mom went to Rosita’s class for a while until she was “ready” for her first-grade class. Rosita was a “foster daughter” taken in by my mom’s single aunts, Tia Nina and Tia Tina.
Rosita, to be more precise, wasn’t a foster child in today’s sense of the word. She was a girl from Aragua de Barcelona that Tia Nina and Tia Tina were raising. Perhaps her parents were poor, or had died — I’m not sure. What I do know is that these types of arrangements — based on trust and goodwill — were not uncommon in that time and place.
My mom’s stories enrapture.
One that I love, not only because of how my mom tells it but also because of what it reveals about her deepest self, is her account of her trips to Mexico City.
In 1949, Doris, the sister who’d come up with my mom’s name, was about to have her first child, also the first grandchild in the family. Doris and her husband, Frank, were living in Mexico City and my grandmother traveled there for the auspicious occasion — taking my mom along of course.
For some reason, my mom seems to have been the only child in her family to never have been entrusted to others for any amount of time. She was so attached to her mom, she says with a mischievous grin, that she remembers crying inconsolably the few times her mother had to go out during that month-long trip to Mexico City. And she was already eight years old!
As life would have it, my mom never again set foot in Mexico’s Capital until 2019, seventy years after her first visit. The circumstances of this second trip reflect life’s twists and turns in a remarkable way, and show another fascinating aspect of my mom’s psyche: her attitude toward the mystery of life and death.
My Aunt Doris and Uncle Frank lived in Mexico for just a couple of years. Only Doris Rosa, the first of their six children, was born there. Due to this accident of birth, Doris Rosa is Mexican by birth, and this “accident” would shape her children’s lives and her mom’s (Doris) death.
In light of the political and economic chaos in Venezuela, three of Doris Rosa’s five adult children ended up emigrating to Mexico in the 2000s. Why Mexico? Because as children of a Mexican woman, they had a right to become Mexican citizens too.
Last year, Doris, then 90, a grande dame if there ever was one, traveled to Mexico City to visit her grandson’s family. One day after she arrived, she had a massive stroke. She was 90, yes, but she was in excellent health, so the event was unexpected.
The very next morning my mom was on a plane to Mexico City, where she stayed at her eldest sister’s bedside until she passed away two days later. And that is the second time my mom went to Mexico City: the first because her sister Doris gave birth to a new life; the second, because Doris’s own life was extinguished.
My mom has now lost all of her siblings. Her brother died in a car accident decades ago, but her three sisters passed away quite recently. My mom dropped everything to be with her sisters during their last weeks and days, always hoping and praying they’d live one more day, one more hour.
She has a defiant attitude toward death and believes that we should fiercely fight it until the very last second.
My siblings and I know well that she is never to be taken off life support; that her wish is to prolong life no matter what.
My mom mourns openly and intensely. But she’s lost enough loved ones for us to know that one fine day she’ll wake up and be ready for life again. And she does love life like a child loves life.
Everything she does, my mom turns into an adventure. It may not always be a fun adventure, but it’s always an interesting and worthwhile one. If, let’s say, she decides to clean the bathrooms, she’ll tell you how she did it, how she managed to clean the hard-to-reach part of a cabinet, and how she made a cleaning spray out of this and that because she’d run out of Clorox or something.
My mom’s never bored. She totally gets into whatever she’s doing. She finds a rhythm to it, a creative way around a small problem, an unexpected surprise in the experience. She’s divine.
My mom’s such great company that she makes friends with people of all ages and walks of life. She’s actually friends with my friends and my six sibling’s friends, and these friendships are completely independent of our original friendships!
It’s all because my mom makes everyone feel special. She’s effusive, kind, giving and fun. She will make an equal effort to help or see you no matter who you are. It’s quite remarkable. She’ll celebrate you without holding back, whether for your qualities, accomplishments, beauty, attitude, or whatever it may be.
She even has the gift of making people see a failure or negative circumstance in a positive light. No matter what my mom highlights, you feel that her advice and admiration are sincere and important. There’s no hint of arrogance, insincerity or superficiality in anything my mom says or does.
Is my mom perfect? Absolutely not. But this is a Mother’s Day tribute after all — plus I’ve even come to find some of my mom’s faults endearing and humorous.
Like her habit of asking five different people for the same information, even if she knows the answers will all be the same. And she’ll do it in front of you too. Today, for instance, she asked me whether she should take up her doctor’s offer to get a Coronavirus antibody test. After I gave her my opinion, she said she’d ask my sister and my husband and God knows who else.
Then there’s her annoying custom of taking at least twenty-seven minutes to see you off. When you get up to leave, she’ll suddenly have something she needs to ask or give you. She’ll walk you outside and bring up topic after topic, somehow sucking you into several new conversations.
And, every time, she’ll stand on the front steps of the house as you drive off. She can never get enough of you.