Three memories of my mother
Somewhere locked in my mother’s brain are splinters of the woman that Alzheimer’s is trying to erase. Some days, it’s a test of my own recall capacity to summon to mind her face, her walk, her hugs, even the way she spoke before this disease became part of my daily vocabulary. On this Mother’s Day weekend I want to share three things I do recall about my mom as she was in her prime — loving, generous, and strong.
As a band nerd, I spent many hot summer days and cold winter evenings on Coronado High School’s football field in preparation for halftime performances. One particularly cruel night as we marched eight-to-five under the stadium lights it suddenly turned bitterly cold. Perhaps a front roared through as we lifted our feet and blew air through our horns. Or maybe it was just my dumb luck that I forgot to bring a heavier jacket that night. Either way, the wind whipped around that field and reached its cold hands under my thin, belted sweater so that I shivered violently. My stiff fingers barely felt the clarinet keys and my frozen lips blew more air around my mouthpiece than through the instrument itself. I was maybe 15 years old, and not yet driving. My mom was supposed to pick me up after practice, but that moment seemed like a long, long way off. Do you believe that a force like love is enough to alter wind or cold? That such a force can make nature seem to be something it isn’t at a particular point in time? I’m not sure I did up until the moment when I looked across the field and saw my mom waiting in the stands for practice to be over. The wind literally stilled and the temperature rose a few degrees. A layer of warmth enveloped me, and my knitted sweater was suddenly just right for a night like this.
During my college years, my mother often found me late at night in the kitchen writing papers or cramming for exams. I don’t remember anything specific she said to me during those sessions that sometimes ended just before sunrise. She couldn’t possibly help me with the work itself as she had barely gotten an elementary school education in her native Mexico. But the message that emanated from her was: You will finish that paper. You will pass that exam. You will graduate from college. You’ll see: you will. It wasn’t a threat; nor was it a command. It was a simple knowledge we held between us: I, as daughter, was to grow up, get an education and move forward in life; as mother, she had my back. I had her apoyo, her support. My mother had a charisma and openness to others that drew people to her all her life. What little she had in the way of material goods or cash, she’d give it away to someone needier. As for affection and generosity of spirit, she had those in abundance and people sought it. Even now, in her disease, people ask her to jot down their needs in her daily prayer list.
When I decided to leave El Paso for a journalism internship in Fort Worth, my mother alternated between crying and walking around with a shocked look of disbelief. Mexican girls did not just move across the state unless they were getting married. Leave her parents’ home and live alone in a crummy apartment — for a job? It wasn’t done! We may as well have been on another planet, that’s how unfamiliar this concept was to my traditional family. Yet, when she saw I wasn’t going to budge, my mother and one of my aunts packed my clothes and a few furnishings into a van. My mother drove that van nearly 600 miles, right behind my Datsun B210, and set me up in that apartment. Then, in the company of my aunt, turned around a couple of days later and drove home.
My mother wasn’t perfect. We argued. I screamed at her that she didn’t understand me, that my life wasn’t her life, and I couldn’t always behave the way she wanted me to behave. I’m sure I hurt her feelings. But the fact is that I’m one of the lucky daughters who had a mother who was always there for me. And this weekend, I want to honor that simply by remembering.