The Cast: My Mother (my mom), Myself (grateful).
This post started with a Tweet. Here it is:
As I sat in my chair and reread what I had wrote, emotions began to well up within me. My relationship with my mother has not always been the best. I have not always agreed with the way she has handled some things. I believe many children can say the same thing about their mothers. But whatever else she may be, she is still my mother. And I am grateful for what she has taught me.
Based upon appearance, I look like your average white guy. But, I am not. See, I am a first-generation American.
Over the years I have filled out many different forms. Applications, medical histories, parental (whatevers), waivers, government forms… (ugh), and many others. Several of those forms have a section that asks about race. I’ve never cared about my ‘race’. My mother never made it an issue in my house. I was a person. And the other humans that I interacted with were people too. I have never cared about race. But as an adult, that is all that adults seem to care about—at least that’s what the paperwork makes me think. So there’s this section of the paperwork that says ‘race’ and then a series of boxes with labels. When first I encountered this I checked ‘white’. I look white. And because my mother never made an issue of it, I almost forgot I’m not.
Eventually I started checking the ‘Other’ box and writing in ‘human’. I always knew when someone read what I wrote—you know that point when you hand over the paperwork and the person scans it over to see if you filled it all out to see if you missed anything—because they would give the faintest of smiles when they read ‘human’.
At some point, my brother and I were having a discussion regarding our heritage and that same discussion returned to my mind when I had new paperwork to fill out for graduate school and there was no ‘Other’ box. I had to pick one. But which one? So, I read through the descriptions and found that by definition, I’m Latin—and it wasn’t wrong. Not Hispanic. Latin (there is a difference—I already knew that, thank you mom). But like I mentioned before, because my mother never made an issue of race in our home, I’ve never thought of myself that way. This was the beginning of a re-evaluation of my existence.
I’m not going to pretend anything here. I’m not going to justify or excuse. I am going to write it as it is. If you, the reader, want to infer anything beyond what is written, then that’s on you. If that is a problem, stop reading and find somewhere else to go.
My mother was abused as a child. Her mother had a rough life. That same woman—my grandmother, my mother’s mother—was the kindest, sweetest, toughest, hardest working woman I’ve ever known. Whatever she used to be in her youth, she stopped and became someone I loved a lot—and feared a little bit. I would later in life learn why that unspoken/unconfirmed/irrational feeling existed. It’s because she could kill me.
I am sure many of you have heard someone say, in a fit of anger, “I’m going to kill you.” and known that the deliverer of that message didn’t mean it, couldn’t mean it. Well, my grandmother had done it before, so she might do it again. Yup, that sweet little, lady from Panama had shot, and killed my mother’s father in broad daylight, on the courthouse steps, in front of her children. Then moved to another country (yes, you read all that correctly). Evidences show that there is potential of a legitimate connection to a possible Central American mafia (and you read that correctly too).
My point was, that at one time, my grandmother wasn’t all that kind to my mother. As a result, my mother did her best to not continue that abusive cycle. However, she wasn’t always successful. For example, my mother broke her foot once because she had become so angry—I believe at my father—that she kicked her bedroom door (and put a 2-foot diameter hole in it). We still talk about the broken foot, but never the reason why.
As children, we all knew she loved us, but we also did not want to anger her. There is a lot of truth to the legendary Latin passion. However, I think people often associate passion with love, not realizing that passion can be a driving force behind other emotions, like anger or rage.
I still vividly recall the day I truly believed my mother was going to kill me.
At twelve years old, you are in that balance of what is real and what is not. Imagination still fuels possibilities and all rationale is forgotten. So, when events unfold that your brain tells you can’t be true, there is a part of you that says, “Uh-huh.” That is why I believed I was going to die. I knew mom loved me, but I also ‘knew’ she was going to kill me. I could see it in her eyes.
As the youngest, there was a time where I had a 30-minute window of being home alone after school, that I could play without disturbing anyone. I would take advantage of this freedom every weekday. This day I collected my He-Man action figures and moved upstairs so they could battle on the side of our sofa. It had half a wagon wheel designed into it which made it fun for He-Man to climb on. So, I began my play.
Only a few minutes into it, my mother unexpectedly came home. She was in a rush, she was flustered, upset, and I did not want to make it worse. So I did not move or make a sound. I was not afraid of getting caught, I was afraid of upsetting whatever focus she was in. She shot back and forth from the car to her bedroom and then had to divert into the kitchen and that would mean crossing through my playfield. She moved toward me like a locomotive—full of steam and ready to run me over. But I derailed her. She had to move over my toys and she wasn’t prepared for that.
Mom asked why I was there, I told her, she instructed me to clean up, NOW. I simply backed-up, out of the way, taking He-Man with me. As mom moved in and out of the kitchen, I struggled to gather up all the toys and not get in her way at the same time. I failed. After a few passes in and out, and having to dodge He-Man and friends, mom snapped. She exploded on me the likes I had never seen before. “I THOUGHT I TOLD YOU TO CLEAN THIS UP!” “DIDN’T I TELL YOU TO CLEAN THIS UP?” “WHY ISN’T THIS CLEANED UP YET?” And similar phrases. I couldn’t respond. I didn’t know how to respond. She did.
Before I knew it, my right arm was in her left hand and a wooden spoon was in her right. The blows rained down upon my backside with fire and Hell. Three blows was all she got before the spoon broke. The round head flew off and hit the sliding glass door. The now spiked shaft was all that remained. At this moment I turned around to see what would happen next. In my lifetime I have witnessed some terrible things. Nothing compares to the madness that was in her eyes. It was like a furnace overfilled, red-hot, and about to burn the place down. I could also see she had a choice to make: Continue with the beating or stop. But when someone is that consumed they can’t always think clearly. I also saw new anger, at the spoon. Would she add it to the existing anger? Would she take it out on me? And if she did, how would it happen? Given her history, I was certain I was about to be stabbed to death. I mentally prepared myself and at the same time fell apart. My mother, my mother… My mother was going to kill me. I saw it in her eyes.
Then it quickly went away, as did she. She went to work. I cleaned up the mess and went to my room.
Her father, the same one who was assassinated (I used the right word) by my grandmother, was an U.S. immigrant from the Ukraine. He joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Panama. That’s how he met my grandmother. That’s how he became my grandfather. I never met him. But was told stories about him. He was a tracker, a hunter, a patriot to his adopted nation, a good father, a loving husband. I will not pretend to know how much is true and how much is romanticized memory. Honestly, it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter because my mother taught it to me. Through her, I learned that my grandfather taught her to love your country. Remember who you are, where you came from, and where you are now. He taught her that America was the greatest nation on earth, because his parents taught him that. So, she taught me. She would show pictures of her father in uniform, serving his adopted nation. I learned patriotism from him, through her.
From him, though her, I also learned to love more than yourself. What it means to sacrifice for something greater than yourself. The day he died, my mother was eighteen, he told her he had no more time. That it was worth giving up what he had, for his family. Decades later we would understand that he allowed himself to be killed so that my grandmother could escape whatever life she could not get away from. So that his daughter, and her step-siblings could be free, in America. Legally, my grandmother, her new husband, and family, came to the States to live a new life.
As a youth, with an American father, my mother was put into an English speaking school. There were not accommodations for her. She had to learn English, without help. There was none. This rough period in her life would result in one of her most repeated lessons she would pass on to us children: “If you visit a foreign land, learn their language. Do not make them accommodate to you. It is unfair to them. Nobody made you go, you chose it. Learn. Their. Language—the best you can.”
My mother taught me so many things:
Like, how to keep and maintain a dirt floor. If done correctly it can become like cement. She also taught me about the jungle. When I was deployed to one for some training, I was the only Marine who knew how to find pathways or trouble spots and how to avoid certain plants and things—even though I had never been in an actual jungle before. I also learned that I don’t care about certain things the world does, and almost too passionately about stuff the world doesn’t. Like, I never thought of myself as white—or anything else, I was always an American (I know that’s not a race, but it’s a people), I was a person. The world thinks I’m white but labels me Latin. I’m human.
Patriotism is important. Serve your country. Somehow, some way. Church service, civil service, whatever. This was another of my mother’s important lessons. America is great and she needs to be watched over. So, I joined the Marines. I wanted to support and defend a nation that allowed my family to immigrate so that I could be born here. I have a short line of military history in my family, but it is a wide line. My family (uncles, cousins, aunts, brother, and so on) is in it all. We serve. I am a Patriot.
God is important. My grandmother’s grandfather had a vision of a better life. He told her of what she must do to be part of it. She did. Because of this, I am where I am with God. I know He is in my life. I know He knows who I am. I know He hears and answers prayers. I know He loves me and wishes to bless me. I am grateful for Him. I am grateful that my mother taught me of Him and of His love for man. I am a child of God.
Willpower. We all have it. It is our inner strength and we can either use it or ignore it. Once when my sister had a serious foot injury, she required an injection so that she could go on stage, on point (my mother was a ballet instructor, taught by the greats). I saw the doctor use the biggest needle attached to a syringe full of thick sludge, stab it into my sister’s foot, through her big toe. My sister didn’t even flinch. The doctor would later comment that in his many years’ practice, even the toughest of men cry when given that shot. My sister would later explain that mother had taught us that you don’t make noise when off stage, so she couldn’t scream, she held it in. It was that simple. She was right, mom did teach us that. I can do hard things.
Hold onto your dreams. As a little girl, my mother would dream of the day when she finally would get to go to America and live in a house, instead of a hut with a dirt floor. We were told of opportunities only made for us because of our choices and dedication. She was an Olympic qualifying swimmer, but ballet was where she wanted to be. Doors only open if we prepare for them, if we work for it. Doors only close when we shut them. Doors in life are our dreams. We either open up to the possibilities or we close ourselves off. I make my dreams come true.
Love. I’ve always known my mother loves me. Despite any type of punishments dealt. I was able to do the same for my children. I’m not claiming to have been perfect. I’ve made some bad judgment calls. But, when my oldest said that while she has not always liked what I have done, they (her and her siblings) have always known that I love them and would keep them safe from harm. That meant the world to me. I love my family.
My mother is hard. She is a visionary. She has been abusive and cruel. She has been warm and supportive. There are times I wished she would just stop her drama and lies. There are times where I don’t know how I would have made it without her. She is a unique mix of pain, sorrow, love, charm, manipulation, visionary, dreamer, idealist, joy, love, and more. But whatever else she may be, she is still my mother. And I am grateful for what she has taught me.