Welcome, Mamma Crew! Today is Mamma Thursdays when it’s all about us! The mammas!
My mother passed away this year. I would like to say that it was not her time because she could have lived longer. But after years of living with diabetes, she decided that she didn’t want to endure her final years attached to a dialysis machine. So when her doctors told her that her kidneys had begun to fail she refused to have the required dialysis shunt placed into her body. A year later, she died due to kidney failure. My mother was a beautiful woman who was far from perfect but a strong woman who lived and died on her own terms.
I still remember being about 8 years old when my mother sold the family home to legally immigrate to the United States. The sale had been for $42,000. My father was furious saying she had undersold it by $20,000. But she was determined to bring her three daughters to a country she believed would provide us with a better future. Not that she fully understood the American Dream, she never understood my love of books and hoped I would just become a secretary in a good company. Still, she was very proud of me when I graduated from college and bought my ring when I earned my Ph.D. She was so proud of the fact that “doctor” was part of my professional title. Regardless of whether she understood what it meant or not, her dream had become mine and my dream hers. It was all too intertwined to attempt a separation. All I know is that it is through her sheer determination that I’ve had the opportunities that I have. But my mother was not all about her children, she had her dreams too. Dreams to fulfill herself as a woman and for her, that meant becoming a longshoreman, a male-dominated position. I have never known her to be happier than when she became a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. I shouldn’t be surprised that my mother was such a strong woman. Her mother had been stronger.
My maternal grandmother witnessed the suicide of her mother at the age of nine. She always told the story with disdain never understanding how a woman could give up her life in a fit of jealous rage when she had five children. Angry that her mother had tempted her with the poison she was about to take, it was my grandmother said, her first experience with betrayal. Two years later her father died when a crop duster accidentally dumped pesticides on his fields and wells. He drank the water and died of poison before nightfall. It was a horrible thing to become an orphan at the age of 11. But my grandmother didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. She had three younger siblings to take care of, the youngest who was very ill, and “an idiot” teenage brother to misuse their fortune. Yet no matter how many times she called him an idiot, she always shook her head with a smile. I don’t know if it meant that she understood his idiocy or if she was remembering his charming good looks. I know she kept his picture on the headboard of her bed.
A year later, in financial ruins, her youngest brother died. At the age of twelve, she traveled several miles on foot to the town where she negotiated her marriage to a 42-year-old man. The cost of her hand in marriage, the burial of her younger brother. She returned home to bundle her other two young siblings to relative’s homes. Her first marriage was not my grandmother’s happily ever after. She had three children all of whom died in infancy and then her husband died soon thereafter.
So she remarried because she fell in love. She said her second husband had been a good man. Unfortunately, he had a sister possessed by the devil who often beat his mother. He had to intervene repeatedly. Decades later we would learn that the devil had a name: schizophrenia. Their two daughters and one of their children would be haunted by the familial predisposition. Their son was not touched by the disease but never had any children. This always broke my grandmother’s heart despite the fact that she several dozen grandchildren. My grandmother never spoke to me about the death of her second husband. All she ever said was that he had died and I knew better than to pry. The wound still felt fresh even though she was telling me these stories decades later.
The third husband was a handsome cavalry officer. My grandmother liked to tell me that he could make any horse dance. He made her dance too. I was always surprised by how much seemed to have enjoyed dancing even though I never saw her do it. He gave her another gift, four children, the oldest being my mother. The daughters were amazing beauties and the son a troublesome charmer. Only one of my aunts now survives, the rest of the siblings died, my grandmother also died several decades ago. Still, I remember her vividly telling me her stories in the four-room house she had built with her own two hands after leaving her third and final husband. She never remarried.
I once dared to ask her why she had not remarried a fourth time. I had always been afraid of my grandmother not least of all because she was a strong proponent of corporal punishment. She looked at me and told me the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe:
A poor Indian widower named Juan Diego lived in a small village near Mexico City. On Saturday morning, he was on his way to a nearby barrio to attend mass.
Juan was walking by a hill called Tepeyac when he heard beautiful music like the warbling of birds. A radiant cloud appeared, and within it stood an Indian maiden dressed like an Aztec princess. The lady spoke to him in his own language and sent him to the bishop of Mexico, a Franciscan named Juan de Zumarraga. The bishop was to build a chapel in the place where the lady appeared. Of course, the bishop did not believe the Indian. Eventually, the bishop told Juan to have the lady gave him a sign.
About this same time Juan’s uncle became seriously ill. This led poor Juan to try to avoid the lady. Nevertheless, the lady found Juan, assured him that his uncle would recover, and provided roses for Juan to carry to the bishop in his cape.
On December 12, the day of our Lady, when Juan Diego opened his cape in the bishop’s presence, the roses fell to the ground, and the bishop sank to his knees. On the cape where the roses had appeared an image of the Lady of Guadalupe exactly as she had appeared at the hill of Tepeyac.
I asked my grandmother what the story had to do with not getting married again. She told me that the Catholic church was having problems getting the Indians to convert to catholicism. Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mother of God, had to appear before the Indians for them to convert. She said, it always takes a woman to do a man’s job. Why bother getting married again? Only a decade ago did I learn that Our Lady of Guadalupe is a Catholic title of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of the Christ not God, associated with a Marian apparition and a venerated image enshrined within the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. I may not be Catholic, but I can’t abide by the demotion. My grandmother’s story is seared into my soul.
I remember sharing the story with my mother who smiled and told me she had heard the same version of the Lady of Guadalupe’s story many times. The story had a very strong message: it takes women to get things right. We don’t have to be perfect. We just need to be strong. Our destiny is in no one’s hands but our own.
It has been an amazing legacy from my grandmother to my mother and my mother to me. Persistence and determination seem to be the underlying traits in their stories as they are in mine. I grew up in a community where a teacher felt safe in telling me that I didn’t need to learn to read because I would be pregnant and married before I turned 18, in a community where students felt free to vote me as the most likely to fail advanced courses because of my ethnic background, a community where I was told I would never earn my Ph.D. because of my ethnicity and my sex. And, yet, here I am, living life on my own terms. Doing what I want because of the legacy that has marked me for life.
I understand now that strong women are confusing and imperfect, but they are who they want to be and live the life they want to live. To love them is to accept their imperfect perfection, to respect them is to accept them, I am saddened by the loss of my mother but know that she lives on in my life and that of my daughters all of us who have been given the perfect inheritance in being and becoming strong women too…