Mother’s child

I’ve been told since I was little that I look like my mother. Mom says that’s why my grandmother is often cold and withdrawn, and really hasn’t been an abuela to me, “porque te pareces a mi,” mom said. “El pelo, la cara, tu actitud, pero ese cuerpo, ese cuerpo es Boricua.” (Thanks for mating with my dad, mom.)

I don’t see it. I’ve never wanted to see it. I spent so much of my life trying not to be like her that, of course, I ended up being so much like her. She’s a writer, like me. Or, mejor dicho, I am a writer like her. When I told my mother that I’m a writer, years ago, she showed me a yellow steno pad where, in fat script and a hand so heavy you can feel the indent of her words like braille, she started writing her story in Spanish, her mother tongue.

When I sit, I tuck my leg under me and bring the other one up so my knee is under my chin. That’s how I eat, how I watch movies with my daughter, how I read. I get that from my mama, who would sit and eat like that after we were all done eating. She watched her novelas in that position. She sewed like that and embroidered cloth napkins and tablecloths with bright flowers, sitting just like that.

I hum when I cook. Unconsciously. My daughter brought it to my attention one day. “Mommy, what are you singing?” “Singing?” “You’re humming mom.” I’d been humming a song my mama sang to us on our long rides home from New Jersey or Long Island where the adults drank beer and smoked cigarettes and played loud, raucous games of dominoes deep into the night. “Porque se fue, porque murió, porque’l señor me la quitó…”

Mom loves to read. She’s the one that gave me Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner.” I introduced her to Junot Diaz and Julia Alvarez.

I collect books in which the characters search for the same meaning and connection I look for in my own life…Difficult questions are grappled with. Lessons are learned. But this is not life. Real life has no beginning and end. For books to imitate life, one must assume after the final page comes more strife. After answers comes more doubt. Friends and lovers will fight. They will suffer. They will perish. ~“And So On” by Lynn Davis, The Sun October 2013 Issue 454

But it was in my brother’s addiction and his ultimate death that I realized just how much like my mother I really am. Mom started reading books to try to understand. She read David Shef’s “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through his Son’s Addiction” while I ate up Burroughs’s “Junkie” and “Naked Lunch.” We read but we didn’t talk about what we read and we didn’t talk much about my brother’s addiction. We grappled with it in our hearts, separately, like strangers. It wasn’t until this year that we talked about the heroin and the silence and how together they destroyed the Juan Carlos we knew. We’ve been talking about it ever since.


My mom’s favorite song right now is Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida.” She had me play it over and over at my grandmother’s birthday brunch, and she was blasting it on her new iPod when I saw her the other day. She smiles wide and the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes deepen. And, she dances a two-step, her arms winged in the air while she sings along: “Voy a reír. Voy bailar. Vivir mi vida la la la la la…”


Yesterday my little girl was given the Student of the Month award for her first month in fourth grade. She’s nine now, dresses herself and can do her own hair. She still giggles when I kiss her in the street but she doesn’t cling to me like she used to. She makes sure my public displays of affection are quick; her eyes dart around like she’s making sure no one’s watching. She takes the bus to school by herself and she’s already had boys crushing on her. I’m raising her by myself and though I don’t always see it, yesterday I realized that I’m doing a good job.

It’s true what they say: it’s when you become a mom that you learn to see your mother differently. You understand her better. You can forgive her. You can see that despite her faults and how hard she was, she did it because she loved you and she hadn’t healed from her own hurts.

By the time mom was 21, she had three kids she was raising on her own. She hadn’t been in this country five whole years yet and she barely knew the language, but she was navigating it with her three kids, all born a year and a half apart. My brother, el moreno, who was the result of a rape and she loved con pena. My sister, la rubia, who barely talked and wouldn’t eat anything. And, the last one, me, who spent much of my first year and a half in the hospital because I was born with diabetes and without enzymes, and the doctors told her there was no way I was going to survive. (I’ll be 38 in two months.) And, when I did live, the doctors told mom not to treat me like I was sickly, to be strong with me because I would need it to keep going. Mom took that to the extreme. She says, “Yo se que yo fue dura contigo but that’s why you are who you are.” I used to hate it when she said that to me. It made me resent her more. Yes, mom was hard, so very hard, so much so that I often thought she didn’t love me, but when she told me earlier this year, tears in her eyes, as she smoothed my hair out of my face, “Tu eras la fuerte. You’ve always been the strong one, Vanessa,” I finally believed her.

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth of falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Woudn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? ~C.S Lewis, A Grief Observed

This year has been so very hard. My brother’s death has been the greatest loss of my life, but this year I learned to do something with my grief, to feel all of it, channel it and honor it as best I know how—through my stories and my living and my teaching and my loving. I’ve learned to forgive my mother and work to have a relationship with her. I’ve learned to walk away from lo que no me pertenece, from friendships that I held onto out of costumbre, from people who did not love me like I deserve. I learned to soften and open myself up. Grief taught me a new kind of faith and belief in myself and the possibilities. So when I’m scared or feeling lost, I talk to my brother and he reminds me…like last night, when I listened to a message he left me on May 1st, just a month and a half before he died. “I miss you. I love you,” he said, and though I fell apart at the sound of his voice, I know he’s close, I know he loves me, I know he misses me, and I know he’s still very much here.

Is the secret to happiness to stop remembering? It seems wrong to forget. Please, world that I cannot comprehend, send me confusion and storms and destruction, let me cope and heal and let go, but please, please, don’t ever let me forget. “And So On” by Lynn Davis, The Sun October 2013 Issue 454

One comment

  1. Vanessa – Your essay brought tears to my eyes. It resonates so much – about motherhood and the women in my own family. My mother used to say that when she was growing up, she thought my grandmother didn’t love her. My grandmother raised my mom by herself, (my grandfather was killed and my aunt died when she was two), so it was just my mom and Abuelita. Abuelita felt she had to be strict because she had to be both father and mother. My mom was in her early twenties when she had me and my brother in much different circumstances as your mom as well as her own, but with her own pain and hurt. Those old resentments can fester unless you open them up and let them breath. Keep on writing, girl. Keep writing through the pain and hurt and forgive — and love your girl as fiercely as you can.
    With admiration for what you’re doing and lots of hugs…

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