I am lucky, I know. I’m in my mid-forties and I have a healthy mother who turned seventy years young today. I’ve been hanging out with this lady since she was twenty-five years old. Just as a mother watches her daughter grow from a child into a woman, I, too, have seen my mother grow, evolve and change. She’s a woman that I continuously have to reacquaint myself with.
I could list the endless ways we are different and the countless ways we are alike. But this isn’t a comparison and contrast essay; this is about my Mom. These are about the memories that have helped me understand her and be grateful for every one of those seventy years.
The Early Years: Poverty
When I think of my Mom growing up in Ozona, Texas, I think of her being surrounded by dry, nutrient-lacking dirt. It would seem as if your life’s foundation was set in stone, in poverty, when the very land you are born on lacks quality and opportunity. She tells me she had an imaginary friend named Pala, which in Spanish means “shovel.” I find this name quite fitting and amusing, as a shovel is exactly what you would need out on the Ozona landscape. Maybe her subconscious picked Pala, aka Shovel, to help dig her way through a rough childhood. But a handy tool is only as useful as its user. So my Mom took Pala everywhere, starting where most children of Ozona would make their beginnings - working in the fields.
Fields: A Real Life Grapes of Wrath
My mother, along with her brothers and sisters, “followed the crop.” On the 1,500 mile stretch from Ozona, Texas to California's Central Valley, as the seasons turned and each crop was ready for harvesting, they were there to pick it. They did this every year, from west to east, back and forth, drought or flood, without a choice. It was their means of survival.
My mother is the middle child of nine. During this time she was not old enough for independence and not young enough for dependence. She was right in the middle and learned to negotiate her position well. She’d beg my grandmother to let her stay home to watch the younger children instead of going to the fields. If her request was granted, it was under one condition: do the laundry, iron, sew, make tortillas, cook dinner, clean the house, and watch the younger children. She agreed. My mother’s motherly ways and work ethic, even at that age, were and remain incomparable. For those of you (including myself) who have called my mother “too motherly,” this is the reason. Running a household and reporting back to my Grandmother was not only high responsibility, but it was her ticket for the occasional “break” from the fields.
One of my favorite books is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which is tale of a struggling, field-working family traveling from Oklahoma to Tulare, California. It reminds me of my mom’s stories and I asked her to read it. The book proved too realistic, as it brought back many memories of her own time under the hot sun, picking produce. She didn't like the book. It was the first time I realized how naive I was about her childhood and about field workers in general.
Flood and Fog
That dry Texas land is known for another thing, flooding. And my mom lived through one.
I like knowing that she survived a flood. For whatever reason, it gives her life story even further character and makes me feel as if she conquered nature in some small way. After a flood, isn’t there a new beginning? Unfortunately, that would come, but not in a Texan flood. For a new beginning, nature had a heftier price in store for the family to pay - in the form of fog and death.
A thick, white wall of fog with zero visibility settled over a road in California one morning. Her father was killed in that winter murk. In a way, his death was the ultimate, unintended sacrifice needed to change their lives. With a decent settlement from the trucking company involved in this deadly accident they were able to start anew. This meant, at the tender age of thirteen, my mother could retire from laborious field work.
My mom usually concludes her field life stories saying this, “At least I never had to pick cotton. Now that’s the hardest thing to pick! I sure was lucky.” That's her definition of lucky.
The Middle Years: Mother
There are two things I inherited from my Mom: my love for music and food.
The first concert my mom took me to was Duran Duran’s Seven & the Ragged Tiger tour. It was April 13, 1984 at the Oakland Coliseum. I was eleven years old. It was the start of seeing some of the greatest artists of the 80’s and 90’s perform live: Elton John (numerous times), George Michael, Steven Winwood, Rod Stewart, Whitney Houston, Michael McDonald, Genesis, Phil Collins, to name a few.
If she didn’t care for a group, she drove and waited in the parking lot, like when I saw Bon Jovi. She did this more times for my brother, Noel. When conservative family members expressed concern that Noel was listening to the “devil’s music,” my mom was the one driving him and a friend to see them: Judas Priest, Ozzy Osborne, Iron Maiden. Can you imagine my mom navigating a car around the heavy metal headbangers and then waiting two hours in the parking lot for Noel to return?
My mom says “If I go to an event or somewhere and don’t eat, I don’t feel like I really visited.” I understand. We love food and eating is part of the experience. But when I became a vegetarian at age 16, my mom didn’t blink an eye. She whipped up eggplant parmesan and potato tacos like a meatless culinary queen. And eleven years after, when I reverted back to a carnivore status, she didn’t miss a beat. She converted the potato tacos into carnitas, she grilled burgers and never once questioned my turnaround.
I think this is the essence of what makes her a great person - she has allowed me to be who I am, whether or not she’s been in agreement with it. And I know, she hasn’t agreed with a lot. We don’t see eye to eye on many things, but she doesn’t interfere in my adult life. Not interfering in a child’s life (no matter what age they are) takes a lot of strength. I learned this when the roles reversed.
The Later Years
The mom I knew fifteen years ago isn’t the same woman she is today. This is due to two defining events. First, my Dad died. Things that were important when he was alive, like raising Noel and me, budgeting the finances, and keeping the yard nice, were no longer top priority.
My father always emphasized that she needed to relax, go visit people, have a good time - but like that young child, she had to tend to responsibilities first. When my dad died at age 57, and never once had called in sick to work, I think she finally saw that life is for living. And who wants to spend it mowing the yard every weekend? She finally understood what my dad had been saying all along - life is short, go out and enjoy it.
The silver lining in death is that it can be a catalyst for the living. Just as a new beginning emerged with the death of her father, a new beginning transpired with the death of my dad.
The second event was her meeting Gilbert. This man had/has spunk. I was leery. Suddenly, my mom was giggly and never home. I'd often ask myself: Who is this woman? What happened to my mother? It’s was difficult seeing her this way - so carefree. Unlike the strength she had not to interfere in my adult life, I wanted to interfere in hers! It took time to get accustomed to her new personality. I eventually did and I am so glad I have. Not only did I gain a new, happy-go-lucky mother, I gained Gilbert as a member of our family. My mom knows how to pick ‘em. I can't imagine life without Gilbert and I now appreciate the giggling he brings out in her.
A few years ago for my mom’s birthday we went to see the movie Selma. During the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the historic video footage of the beating of blacks came across the screen. I broke down crying. I looked over at my mom and she was crying too. She whispered, “I remember that.”
In Texas, my mom experienced a level of racism toward her, as well. Although nothing in comparison to Bloody Sunday, her fellow-Texans constantly reminded her that although American-born, she was "brown.” She recalls being kicked out of a bowling alley because she entered through the front door. Didn’t she know better? She was Mexican, enter through the back. She remembers segregation, MLK, the riots, the lack of opportunity, what it meant to be "poor," but never does she dwell on it.
Like the time with The Grapes of Wrath book, I realize I will never truly grasp the entirety of what shaped my mother. It is only through my interpretation of her storytelling can I get a glimpse of it. And I'm sure my interpretation doesn't do it justice.
I look at my mom and see how far she’s come: overcoming poverty, fields, flood, racism, and being a widow. She shoveled herself out of all of that. I think, If Pala could see her now! If I can take my mom’s imaginary friend one step further, I like to imagine “Pala” as an angel, who perhaps has never left my mom’s side. Sometimes imaginary friends and shovels are one in the same. Thank goodness for “Shovels," no?
My mother doesn’t have an ounce of resentment for how she was raised. If she does, I've never seen it. If anything, she defends it, “They did the best they could given the times.” That’s what we are all doing.
And I’d say, my mom, at 70 years of age, is doing a pretty damn good job at motherhood and living life to the fullest. And that's my definition of lucky.
Happy 70th, Mom!
Like this family post? Read about the charismatic person my Grandma Isabel. "Corundum" is my favorite post I've written.