How my mother crossed the border
Mami's got the radio on as usual, it's Selena with her Como la flor, and I turn it up. Como la flor . . . all the love that you gave me has died and how it hurts how it hurts . . . And then we're dancing round and round the kitchen table, como la flor, we're like two flowers no one has ever seen bloom in our two-step, and the kitchen's spinning with the polka's shoo-shoo-bopping love songs, no matter that there is something about love dying like the way that carnations die / asupacito carcacha nodejestambaliar aunque tenga carcacha no importa peep-peep! And how it hurts to see love die, comolaflor, like a flower a woman is like a rose.
SelenaSelenaSelena's singing, her voice a smooth crema in harmony with the sax and the trumpets pumping the beat and the band is rockin the polkas so that Mami and I two-step two-step, dancing the pain away together. The beat is swaying right back, tingling tentando, don't play with my love don't play with my cariño so I can follow my road.
We can dance shoo-bop shoowa all night, we are not afraid, we are not afraid, we won't give up, even if it's not returned because that's all there is, because we are women, we are roses, and love is the rain, the sky, and the land we seek. Mami wants love and I want her to find it.
"What do you mean?"
Mami's reminiscing again about Mexico and like always the story stops when I ask her how she crossed the border. Now the radio and Selena are surrounding us with that terriblebeautiful love story that begins with a man's hands sliding up the wrist to dance and Selena's song takes me and Mami to that moment forever and I know she wants it to begin again even when it has ended and I know it must have hurt so much and yet. Sometimes I think love is just the beginning we want even when we already know what the ending is going to be. Love forbidden they murmur in the streets because we're from different societies the world says that money doesn't matter oooohooohbaby who cares the only thing that matters is our love.
Mami's making gorditas for me and my brothers. Only she doesn't fry them, because that's not the real mexicana way. My mother, hair blacker than the comal where the gorditas are cooking, doesn't look up. Watches the corny fatsos swelling. Turns them over. At sixty-plus years, her hair has only one thick streak of white, like the two-finger Crisco slick she's lacing the griddle with.
"¿Cómo cruzaste, Mami?"
"What do you think, the way everybody did in those days. Over the bridge. Didn't jump in the river, if that's what you mean. Can't swim." Shrugging as she talks, her voice a shrug too.
"I mean, how did you make it across?"
Mami's my miniature, or I'm her giant version, depending on how you look at it, she's not even five feet, with hands and feet half my size. But we both know she is the taller one.
"Well, it was the forties and it must have been strange for a woman, a divorced woman like you to come across by yourself, were you alone?"
More gorditas are cooking on the cast-iron griddle. To me, they're maize clouds, the mangos of bread. Others are tempted by sweets, but my weakness is corn. Her tortillas are my downfall as I watch her open the package of Quaker Masa, wipe the plastic bowl clean, scoop a white glob of her indispensable manteca, shake a centavo's worth of salt on her cupped hand, add just enough warm water, hand-mixing it into soft dough, rolling it into a ball, pat-patty cakes, tás-tás back and forth between her fingertips and palms until it's nice and round in her hands for the cast-iron comal. She doesn't need the tortilla press like I do, and her tortillas always puff up like your heart when you see someone you love walking toward you.
"What questions you ask."
"You say you left your toad-husband, and you were just eighteen. And that you were real pretty."
Tease her, leering at her doughy curves, up and down. "At least, you say you were pretty."
Try to wolf-whistle, wheeeeetwhuuuuuy. Mami's over sixty years, but her vanity is timeless, though she admits sometimes after a few beers that the train has come and gone, and run her over. Still, she stopped claiming me long ago because las comadres start adding it up. She's now younger than my baby brother who's twenty-five.
"I still am. Más de cuatro. Chiiiit."
More than four women would like to look as good, she means. Her spatula stabs at me with a hot gordita on it, but too far away to do anything. She slices it open with a knife, sets it aside, then another. Now she's frying onions for the beans, next, the ground meat. I want to say there are always four unfortunate souls uglier than our worst days, but she clings to her youthful tiempo, and I'm hoping to take this conversation beyond the beauty competition she's still having with her four older sisters.
"Did you take the bus at night? Weren't you afraid? To be alone?"
"I took the train. No, I was determined."
My mother's looking at me from the stove, but she is really staring at the past, and for the first time I realize how there must have been a before-me, as there will be an after-her.
"I had a sister living in Oklahoma, remember."
But for someone who loves to talk about Mexico and recapitular el divorcio from the beginning to the tortured finish with Daddy, she is silent as fireworks that you can see from across the river in San Antonio. Her eyes close, open, tissue-wrapping to the mystery inside, and I can tell she's sorry that I'm just like her. I'm an exile just like she's been all her life, only from a different side of the river. So I keep going.
"Mami, but you never got farther than the border. You stayed and met Daddy. Why won't you tell me . . ."
"Look, that sapo!"
My mother points the spatula again at me, and wátchate, a temper tantrum, because she knows where I'm going with this—and she never, ever calls her first husband by anything but The Toad. She turns again to the stove, her refuge, and I can feel her nightmares crossing into mine.
"Wasn't a good husband, believe me, he was just rich. That's all. Wanted to leave him, but he threatened me."
Stirs the onions, the beans.
"What do you mean, he threatened you? You were married, what could he do to you?"
Mami sighs, a hot breeze on a summer day with no relief.
"He could keep my little girl. Me podía echar a la calle. He—he could call me an unfit mother by calling me a woman of the street."
She says this as she bangs the garlic on the counter. Begins to peel and grind the cloves in the molcajete. But it's her pestle that's on fire.
"Chiiiit. Thought that he was going to take advantage of me, yo! A young girl who he bragged was nothing next to him. Mis-ter Omnipotente!"
She's grinding the words into the volcanic stone.
"I showed him."
"Look mijita, por favor." She breathes the words as if she's just finished running a block.
Mami's getting angry with this conversation, preferring a thousand other juicy chismes and family 'scándalos, anything but this. Now she's stripping the boiled tomatoes for the red salsa, a warning to me to be more delicate with her heart. She's slicing more onions, garlic, massaging, then cutting, wedges from limes. Finally, she arranges a bowl of lemons and oranges and one soft peach for a centerpiece.
But all this is her fault, she trained me well.
"What do you mean he wasn't a good husband?"
"Look. He was an old man when I met him."
She's giving up a little, fiddling with the pots now as if she was still that short-order cook making batches of chicken-fried steak for my friends after school. I catch a glimpse of a scared young girl in her eyes in the glance she sends me. And I see the forty-year-old daughter reflected back at me. It's like we're traveling together somewhere and the years between us are crossing and circling each other. Her eyes are brown shimmering, like the way the golondrinas she likes fill up the sky with their purple-tipped wings, so that brown is the sign of spring.
Finally, finally, she says, "Twenty years older than me, and I was just fifteen. I didn't know anything, anything, still playing with dolls at night."
She rinses the cutting board, and I notice how her fingernails are the color of old egg yolks.
"Blame your grandmother for all of this. She never told me anything. Nada. NA-DA!"
She starts shredding cabbage for stuffing the gorditas.
"The night before my wedding, you know what advice she gave me?" Her shoulders harden. "Told me that my duty was to aguantar. That I was going to become a woman, that I should obey. Had no idea what she was talking about. Chiiiiit."
Cucumbers are whizzing from her sharp knife. Aguantar, the word slices from her mouth too. Aguantar. Put-up-with, take it, shut-up-and-don't-open-your-mouth. A woman's lot. A woman's duty, the Bible says, the Church says . . .
"¡Pues no! Chiiit!"
Now I've done it.
"Here I was, a girl, excited to be a princess for the day, my mother inviting everyone in the neighborhood to come and admire my French-cut gown, my bridal diadem, the bouquet I could hardly carry—yes—he let me have the reception I wanted, and I remember it like yesterday. Avocado vichisuichi, shrimp tamales and a seafood banquete, merengues italianos and a chocolate mousse cake—do you know how expensive that is? I haven't tasted any of that again since my wedding. Fine arracadas, dangling like golden bird nests from my little Red Riding Hood's stupid ears. For me, this was my quinceañera. That's what I thought the wedding was, a fifteen-year-old's debut, because there was no money, don't you see, by the time I was born we were in miseria and I wanted my party, regardless. And I got it. Even though my family had nada!"
She's hissing and making her a-poco-no, watchmestopmeifyoucan sounds under her breath.
"I showed them. Your grandmother the fanatical, la señora most proper, the ultimate católica, the last true virgen residing in San Luis Minas del Potosí, a woman destined for sainthood of the hypocrites and cowards of this world, baptized at the Templo del Carmen, whose caca smells like roses, simply hated me for leaving her house. How dare I, chiiit, me, her money machine, la chaparrita, though she could never tell me to my face that I was the one she needed most!"
Mami shakes her head, a broom sweeping never done inside her head, and I wonder what happened to those earrings.
"She didn't love me, my mother didn't love me, don't look at me like that! It's true! I was an accident, she never wanted to have me. Not as beautiful, not as intelligent, not white like the other sisters—y para acabar de chingar—the shortest, I was never desired, understand? She told me so plenty of times."
Then that smile of sheer rebellion, if only for a moment.
"So my wedding-quinceañera was a triumph! ¡Un triunfo!"
Mami's lips soften like the sautéed onions before adding the tomatoes for the red salsa, low heat.
"Your grandmother was forced to accept him, though she didn't like the idea he was my papá's age. How could I deny the pleasure of revenge?"
Her voice is a slow simmer. "He took me out to dinner. Yo, I had never been to a nice restaurant before, much less stood outside one. He brought me not roses, but orchids, perfume. El Aire del Tiempo, Nina Ricci. I felt like I was Verónica Castro in Rosa Salvaje! Now you understand?"
Wild Rose was the soap opera I started watching after Mami's fevered recommendations, with the main character, la Verónica, lying naked in a rose-filled bathtub, the petals just covering the ones we women have.
"He brought me three serenatas. Not one serenade, not two, three! Hallucinated me with his attentions!"
Turns on another burner, takes a discount-store generic cigarette from her pack on top of the refrigerator and lights it from the stove. Boils water for coffee, and sits down to talk to me.
"He had money, you see." I reach across the table to give my mother the ashtray.
"I was going to be free of her."
"I was going to have parties, and be free for once."
"Was that so bad?"
She looks at the ashes falling from her cigarette.
Mami taught me the best story sometimes takes a lifetime to tell, that's why you have to tell it over and over until you get it right. The best story, like a quilt, she said, is made from scrap pieces of cloth, old buttons, leftover thread, and don't forget the worn-outs and manteles, "¿verdad, mijita?" That's where the real story is, she said, just look for it in the cabinet where everything's stored away and forgotten. And that's how I'm telling you this story, finding the hand-carved jewelry box I brought her once from Hawaii, to the Avon lotions inside the medicine cabinet to the yellow suitcase where she kept all her children's report cards, and the corner of a kitchen drawer where she saved a little plastic bag of stuffed-bunny keychains, Christmas presents for me and my sisters from the dollar store. Here's the tomato-stained recipes mixed with coupons for shampoo and the church donation envelopes, and under the bed, the grammar and poetry books she brought from Mexico to teach me español when I was in the second grade and had mastered the English alphabet.
But most of all, this story comes from what she didn't say, it's the way she looked out the window washing dishes on Saturday night when she burned inside to go dancing. How she touched her face in the mirror that night after a comadre told her I was going to be beautiful. It's the way she sang to herself, and the birthday cakes she baked, toasted coconut and triple-pink icing just for me, because she never got one present as a girl. Mami's the one who gave me a diary for my tenth birthday, telling me to write down my secrets. From what she didn't say, she told me her story, you understand?