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After my brother, Héctor, was born, Mami and Papi seemed to fight more. She accused, he defended himself. She cried, he sulked. She told him to leave her alone, he disappeared, to return days later as if nothing had happened. My sisters and brother and I cowered in our hammocks, or stayed clear of them when Papi was home. We watched her face for signs that a fight was coming, listened to her tone of voice and whether she set the pots down gently or banged them upon the cooking stones. If she was in a dark mood, we were silent and watchful, subservient to her whims.
When they were getting along, they worked at opposite ends of the parcela. As she collected gandules for dinner, he built sturdier walls. His hammer kept time to the Mexican rancheras he sang in a clear baritone, she moved her hips back and forth as she hummed boleros and dropped the fat pigeon pea pods into a metal bowl. I've always thought that words belonged to him, but music has always been hers -- the wordless hum of effort rewarded.
With four young children to take care of, Mami had little time for socializing. But when the public water fountain was installed about a mile from our house, she met some of the neighbor women. Several times a week, we walked over to collect fresh water. While Mami and the vecinas stood around the fountain filling their buckets and jabbering, we stomped on the mud from the spillover. From time to time, one of them looked in our direction and yelled at us to stop. But as soon as she turned around, we went back to smearing ourselves, and each other, with mud.
After her visit with the neighbors, Mami filled two large pails, then carried them down the dirt road, her arms straining. We trailed her, each with our own can filled to the brim, arguing about who would spill the least on the way back. Once home, she stored the water in huge square lard cans topped with a wooden cover. This was our drinking, cooking, and teeth-brushing water, boiled daily before use. For washing, she still poured buckets of rainwater into the tin tubs.
Sometimes I still catch Mami scrubbing a blouse by hand in the bathroom sink, her fingers fisted around the garment, her knuckles rubbing the fabric in even, confident strokes, as sudsy bubbles drip down her wrists to her elbows. There's a slight smile on her face, and stern concentration -- the triumph of will and strength over dirt.
While I didn't understand it then, it now appears inevitable that Mami would want to return to the city. Life in Macún was hard; and with my father gone most of the time, and in spite of the visits with the vecinas by the public fountain, she was lonesome. One day she picked us up from school and moved us to Santurce, closer to those of her aunts and uncles who had not fled to the United States in search of work. They dropped in on Sunday afternoons to share the letters received from their siblings in New York and to gossip about them over endless cups of sweetened café con leche.
In Santurce Mami smiled more. She knew how to handle herself in the city, liked the convenience of a couple of blocks to the store instead of a couple of miles to the cooperative that might or might not have what she needed. On lazy evenings, we walked around the plaza, where she bought shaved ice in paper cones with sweet jewel-bright syrup poured over it. Sometimes we caught a bus at the corner near our house and got off in front of her uncle's pastry shop, where we chose a tembleque or a square of coconut rice. While she talked with her aunt and uncle, we played with our cousins in the porch, every so often returning to stare hungrily at the cool glass cases filled with more sweets than we'd ever seen in one place.
Mami was in her early twenties then, and, in spite of four pregnancies in less than six years, she looked good and enjoyed dressing up. Instead of the cotton shifts and bare feet of Macún, she now wore stiff starched and ironed blouses and skirts, high-heel shoes, hair curled or twisted into a bun at the nape of her neck. She wore rouge and lipstick, too, and powder on her nose. She constantly told us to speak softer, to stop running, to sit still, to keep our clothes clean, and to wash our feet and scrub under our fingernails.
Papi came to see us, and eventually to stay with us. Soon after Alicia was born, he convinced Mami to return to Macún, and we did, with city manners and clothes ill-suited to the country. The vecinas criticized her for acting as if we were better than everyone else in the barrio just because we'd lived in Santurce. At the water fountain, they looked away when we approached carrying our vessels, no better nor worse than theirs.
It still hurts me to recall how hard it was for Mami after we returned. The look on her face as we approached the water fountain was a lesson in quiet dignity. Her lips tight, her lively eyes focused on one of us or on the task at hand, she asserted her dignidad as the neighbors turned their backs on her or made comments that she was sure to hear but pretended not to. It took weeks to win them over again, as if we had to prove we would stay this time before they could trust us.
Like most of the women in Macún, Mami made all our clothes on a black Singer treadle sewing machine. She also cut and hand-stitched the cotton diapers and baby blankets of which there never seemed to be enough. For everyday wear she made me and my sisters sleeveless cotton shifts out of fabrics stamped with tiny flowers and vines. For special occasions, she sewed dresses with rows of lacy ruffles, itchy cancans and long sashes that tied into bows at the back.
She liked to dress us alike, and tried her best to make us look like triplets, even though we were all different sizes and skin tones. I was brown, skinny, taller than Delsa or Norma. Delsa was darker, petite, with slanted onyx eyes and wavy black hair that Mami shaped with her fingers into corkscrews around her head. Mami called Norma "la colorá" because of her rosy skin and curly hair that framed her narrow face in fuzzy red-brown ringlets.
Unlike my sisters', my hair was too straight to stay in any of the shapes Mami tried to impose on it. Sometimes she cut squares of paper that she folded around locks of wet hair before I went to bed. When she took them off the next morning, the limp spirals lasted just long enough for her to see the potential.
One day, she washed my hair, trimmed it, then dabbed on a liquid that she swore would curl my hair. It smelled like burning rubber mixed with lemon juice, and it tingled my scalp as she put it on. She rolled strands of hair tightly around pink plastic bones. She then had me sit in the sun for the time it took my shadow to crawl from my right side to my left. "The permanent has to set," she said.
When she unrolled the bones, my scalp felt as if it had separated from my skull, and my hair smelled burnt. She handed me Papi's shaving mirror, where I saw a black, frizzy halo around a scowling face. "You look like a startled monkey," she laughed.
Every time a feast day or other special occasion approached, she came home from the cooperative market with a new permanent kit. I hid behind the oregano or annatto bushes, but she called me back with threats that I was afraid to ignore. After many attempts (to this day she says she only did it once), she agreed that my hair was never going to be like Delsa's, Norma's, or baby Alicia's, so she stopped trying. I have an aversion to hair salons and treatments that I trace to those hot afternoons in our yard while the smelly permanent solution set and Mami promised Shirley Temple curls if I just sat in the sun a little longer.
|My Mother in the Nude||23|
|"Hello, Dollinks": Letters from Mom||35|
|Persephone's Quest at Waterloo: A Daughter's Tale||47|
|Mami, a.k.a. Dona Lola||67|
|Travels with Mami||91|
|September 19, 1985||103|
|A Mother Named Queen Solitude||113|
|How (In a Time of Trouble) I Discovered My Mom and Learned to Live||157|
|Just a Woman||169|
|Frida, Friduca, Mami||181|
Posted August 3, 2008
Posted August 22, 2000
Sons and daughters, authors from the Americas, relate true stories as a tribute of their Mamis (mothers). You will cry, laugh, smell, and feel every word because you will find your Mami in these inspirational and lovable stories. A great tribute not only for Hispanic Mamis but for every Mami in the world. Once you start reading you won't stop!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.