It started with the overnight bag. The one you’ve taken with you every other Friday since you were one and a half. To the baby sitter, day care, Head Start, to school for kindergarten, first and second grade, even summer camp. But it wasn’t until this year, third grade at a new school, that this bag became an issue. A symbol for being different, for something you don’t have: a father who lives at home.
I left your father when you were just a year and a half. But I knew it was over when I was pregnant. Truth is I know now that relationship happened so I could have you. You who have saved me from myself so many times.
You gave me my Mother’s Day gifts four days in advance because this was his weekend. You first gave me a collage and said, “Because you know we love collages, mom.” You smiled with your whole face, showing your two rows of teeth and that deep dimple on your left cheek. We’ve spent so many hours together cutting up magazines and gathering images and quotes that we paste onto large pieces of poster board and construction paper. In your collage there’s an image of a baby gorilla sitting on her mama’s lap. She’s leaning into her mama’s bosom, close to her heart like you’ve always sat on me, playing with my forearm (you’ve called it “armie” since you were two). You’re just a few inches shorter than me now at four foot seven inches and eight years old, you’ll be taller than me soon, and, still, I know you will seek that space that will be forever yours. That was yours before I even had you. You were always meant to be my daughter, nena.
There’s a quote on the collage. I picture you turning the pages of a magazine, looking for the right words to speak for you. When you read it, your eyes get big like they do when you’re excited, when you discover something new. Those eyes that make me want to hold you forever, to keep you safe. Those eyes that stared back at me when the nurses brought you to me after they stitched me up. I’d never seen such beautiful eyes.
“You can’t learn from remembering. You can’t learn from guessing. You can learn only from moving forward at the rate you are moved, as brightness, into brightness.”
You read me the quote when you handed me my gift. “I saw it and I knew it was for you, mom.” Then you searched my face for a reaction. I had just scolded you about your messy room. Told you I wasn’t going to clean it while you were at your dad’s like I always do. That was a lie. Of course I’ll clean it. Of course you’ll come home to a freshly organized, swept and mopped room, crisp sheets on your bed, flowers on your table. I melted and took you into my arms. Then you handed me the handmade card. You drew a heart in the corner, a jagged line down the middle, on one side you wrote Vasia, on the other you wrote Mommy. “The heart we share,” you say. My darling, my Wunkies, my booger, my Minnie, once you were born, my heart no longer belonged to me. It now exists in you.
You drew two trees in the center. Their roots intertwine. Below them, you wrote, “can’t stop growing together just like us.” And inside the card, you wrote, “You make me dance with butterflys.” You’re already a poet, nena.
* * *
It was late fall. I was packing your clothes for your weekend with dad like I’ve done so many times. I asked you what you wanted me to pack. You’re such a style maven, you’ve been picking out your outfits since I can remember. You shrugged and dug your face into your book. You were reading the Dork Diaries series then. You swept through those books and even had me pre-order the next book so you get it in the mail when it comes out in June. My third grader who reads at a fifth grade level.
I knew something was up when you wouldn’t look up at me when I asked, “Should I pack this?” I was holding up one of your favorite shirts, the turquoise one with the wide neck. The one that you love to wear with your skinny jeans. The first time you wore it I almost cried. You looked like such a big girl. I wanted you to be a baby, my baby, forever. I still do.
“What’s wrong, nena?”
“Nothing, mom.” You refused to talk about it. Even your prayers that night were stiff, like you had a wad stuck in your throat. The meltdown happened the next morning.
You woke up in a foul mood. You cried when I sang, “Wake up time.” You pouted while you went about your morning routine. Stomped around the house, sucked your teeth when I asked you what you wanted for breakfast. I lost my patience and yelled. That’s when the tears came. Buckets of tears. I tried to hold you but you pushed me away. I bit my lip to keep from letting you see how much that stings. Your rejection cuts deeper into me than any machete made by any man.
We were about to walk out the door when I told you to grab your overnight bag. That’s when it happened. “I don’t wanna take it. I hate that bag.” More tears by the bucket. “Why can’t we have a real family like everybody else?” My insides caved. You stayed home with me that day. A mommy-daughter day. We both needed it.
* * *
When your father first got married when you were four, I felt a change in you. You were quieter. You’ve always been a pensive child, but this quiet was different. It was sad. One day you asked, “Why can’t you and papi be together? Why can’t we be a family?” I’ve never lied to you and I don’t speak badly about your dad in front of you, though he doesn’t give me that same respect. I don’t want you to vilify him because of me. Whatever opinion you have of him, I want you to gather on your own. I’ve always tried to explain the truth to you in ways that you can understand.
“Well, you know when you have a friend and they stop being nice to you, do you still want to be their friend?”
“No, mommy.” You shook your head. “We don’t like mean people.”
“No we don’t. Well, mama, your dad wasn’t nice to me so I didn’t want to be his friend anymore.”
You stared at me, your eyes telling me you understood.
A few months ago, you told me your dad was talking badly about me. You didn’t say what he said, but you did tell me, “I told him, Papi I don’t like it when you talk bad about my mom. That’s not nice and I don’t like it.” You say he’s never done it since. Nena takes care of her momma.
* * *
When your dad and his wife had a baby (“my little brother,” you say with fierce pride and protection) you told me you wanted to see him more. “Is that okay, mom?” You cupped my face in your hands. “I love you mommy.” You were so worried that would hurt me.
At that time he and I weren’t communicating well. It’s gotten better since but we’re just cordial. Still, for you, I swallowed all the resentment and reached out to him. I told him you said wanted to spend more time with him. I was willing to make it work for him. Maybe once a week on a day that fit his schedule. His response, “I have too many responsibilities.” I never told you that, nena. I knew it would crush you. I did tell him that when you got old enough to ask where he was when you needed him, I was going to send you to him to answer that question. He didn’t know what to say.
* * *
It’s Mother’s Day today and you’re with your dad. I’m spending the day writing about you because Mother’s Day isn’t about me, nena. It’s about you. It’s about our relationship. Today I’m thinking about how terrified I am of failing you.
There’s one thing stronger than mother’s love, baby girl. That’s mother’s guilt.
I’m finally writing this memoir because of you, nena. Because in order to face my fears of mothering you, I’ve had to look at my relationship with my mother. How antagonistic it was and still is most of the time.
“But there’s a story behind everything. How a picture got on a wall. How a scar got on your face Sometimes the stories are simple, and sometimes they are hard and heartbreaking. But behind all our stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where your begins” ~Mitch Albom, For One More Day
This morning a friend asked for you. She hasn’t seen you in a while. She was commenting on how amazing you are. So well behaved, so vibrant, so loving, so curious and compassionate “She’s like that because of you, mamita.” I felt my heart pinch. Sometimes I don’t believe that. Sometimes I believe you’re amazing in spite of me not because of me, nena.
I remember when you were just two. I reprimanded you for something, I can’t remember what, and spanked your thigh with two fingers. That night when I bathed you, the shadow of my fingers was still imprinted on your little leg. Pink and accusing. Calling me abusadora. I picked you up and cradled you and cried “I’m sorry” over and over. I promised I’d never lay a hand on you again. I never have.
There are times, like when you asked me a few months ago, “why can’t we have a normal family?,” that all I think is that I’m failing you. And then I watch you. I watch you reading on the bus, dancing on a stage, making hysterical videos with your best friend Po, laughing with your friends, holding the door open for people, telling me stories about your trip to the botanical gardens and how you saw a frog the size of your hand in the marsh. It’s then that you remind me that you are my daughter, a piece of me, and I think maybe, just maybe, I’m doing a decent job of raising you.
* * *
Before quitting my job three years ago to live this writing-teaching life, I sat you down and talked to you about what I was doing. The sacrifices we would have to make. You were just five but I wanted you to feel that you had a say in your life, our lives. You smiled at me and asked, “Will you be happy?” “Yes,” I replied with a smile. “Then, ok, mom.” You hugged me and asked, “Can I watch Annie now?”
We’ve made many sacrifices along the way, including having to cut off the cable and not being able to eat out and go to the movies as much. You haven’t complained once. You run around the city with me to events. You sit in the corner and read while I teach my workshops. You write me letters about how much you love me. Recently, during prayer, you told God, “I’m thankful that I can tell my mom anything and that she’s always there for me.” I cried when you went to sleep.
The bag isn’t an issue anymore. I spoke to your teacher and the school social worker and read books and articles to help me gauge where you were and what to do. The social worker and teacher explained the different types of families that your classmates have. I bought you a book about single parent households and we read it together and talked about it. And I held you through it. Through your wanting to fit in. Through your ache for something “normal.” I answered your questions. I let you cry and reminded you that I am here and I love you and I am yours. You smoothed your hand on my cheek when I put you to bed one night and said, “Thank you for choosing me to be your daughter.” I laughed and said, “I think you chose me to be your mom, nena.” You giggled. “Yes, I did. I made the right choice.”