One thing I’ve learned after spending a week in Big Bear with three kids all under the age of 6 is that I don’t know shit about what it takes to be a mother. I thought that because I was raised by a single working mother of four, I understood and knew the struggles of motherhood. It didn’t take long to for me to realize how wrong my perception was and in reality, how exhausting, complicated and fulfilling motherhood really is.
I’ve been blessed to know what a good mother is because of the generous and tenderhearted woman that raised me, but also through the care of my Tia Kika, a silly and fun-loving woman who has always been like a second mother to me. I’ve always felt lucky to have an aunt I could talk and cry to. Another mother figure I could run to for help or advice or someone I can call when I just need a good laugh, especially now that my mother is gone. Aside from my aunt though, I was also blessed with my primas Melina and Marisol. These are two women whom I consider to be my sisters. Though we are different in many ways, it seems with every passing year, we become closer. They are the hermanas I would always pray for when I was much younger. Sometimes you can’t see the gifts the universe gives you when they are staring right back at you. I struck gold to have such forceful, outspoken and caring role models in my life.
When we were younger, our abuelito Don Chuy and our parents were notorious for taking us on family trips. Ask any one of us and we can tell you countless stories from our childhood road trips in the motorhome or in the caddie, both always overpacked con chamacos like a goddamn clown car. We must have all gotten our need to travel and explore from our great-grandfather Nicolas, un birriero de Colima. He traveled from town to town in Mexico following the carnival and selling his birria. Our passion for food and travel runs through our veins.
Since our abuelitos death in 1996, we haven’t taken a real family vacation. Melina, now a mother of two, has wanted to continue my grandfather’s legacy by teaching her own kids to appreciate and love travel, so this Christmas, she planned a Big Bear trip for us, 6 adults and 3 kids all under the age of 6. I got to witness firsthand all the trouble and preparation that goes into planning a trip for a family, for someone other than just myself. I was entertained and amazed at her meticulous precautions, but most of all, I was exhausted and I didn’t even do that much to help. I was the last to sleep and the last to wake up. I was given one dish to make for breakfast and even then, I couldn’t remember to check everything off of my list. Melina, being the precise planner that she is, had packed 6 bins of food and toys to make sure her boys and husband were comfortable and fed. She was the last to sleep and the first to wake up to have coffee ready every morning.
After spending a day with the kids in the snow, Tia Nicolasa was tired and hungry and wanted to relax with a drink. Without any kids of my own, I have that luxury. I can go home, kick off my shoes, unbutton my pants and relax. I could sit in silence and stare at the wall for as long as I want to without any interruptions. One thing I learned this weekend was that a mother doesn’t get that solitude. When we’re done with nature walks and snow days, she unpacks the car, changes the diapers, gives the kids snacks and water, makes sure they aren’t bickering, is holding them if they’re crying while also making them dinner. When it’s time to eat, she feeds the little ones first and then her food gets cold and even then she can’t relax to enjoy her meal because one child is bickering and refuses to listen and the other just doesn’t want to eat at all. It’s laborious just to watch. I felt exceptionally selfish for even having the option to watch that all unfold, observing like a fly on the wall, offering my help but feeling all the more useless when I realized I wasn’t much help after all. With a family, a husband and children to take care of, where and how do you find the time to be so defiantly selfish? I wish I had her patience and prowess.
There was lots of “mommy” talk, like which shows the boys were watching, what tricks worked to get them to eat, what their bedtime routine was, etc. I had nothing to chime in, so I sat there and thought about my mom and wondered how in the hell she managed to do everything for me and my three brothers. How did a single working mother of four get through life on any given day without the help of a husband? Physically, financially and emotionally?
When I was in college, one of my writing classes had a culminating ceremony. We were to perform and share some of the pieces we’d worked on that semester in one of the auditoriums. It was one of those ceremonies where the only people who attended were the students taking the class and maybe their s.o’s if they had any. My mom and I spoke on the phone 2-3 times a day, so I know that I’d mentioned it to her in passing. Without offering her anymore information other than the date and the time, she pulled her mom magic and surprised me by showing up to my performance. She missed work, drove the three hours south to campus to visit me and surprise me with a bouquet of flowers. To this day, I don’t know how she found out which auditorium it was going to be in. Even at that age I was too stupid to be thankful, instead I was embarrassed, thinking this little ceremony was nothing to get excited over, that I could and will do better. There was hardly anyone in the audience and yet, there she was, with a proud momma bear smile on her face as she hugged me and said, “I’m so proud of you mamacita!” The inconsiderate child that I was could only laugh with embarrassment. That was so typical of her, beaming with pride for me when I felt like I didn’t deserve the recognition, “Mom! You’re so embarrassing!” I told her. One of my classmates who’s writing I admired, overheard us and came over to introduce herself to my mom. Having lost her mother, she looked me in the eyes and said, “Don’t ever be ashamed your mom is here for you. She is your biggest supporter and she’s proud of you, one day she may not be here and you’re going to wish she was, take a look around, you’re the only one with a bouquet of flowers and that’s because of your momma.” A stranger’s words have never rang more true, I wish so badly that I wasn’t such an ignorant brat then. That I wasn’t so blind to her efforts and that I didn’t feel the need to be independent of her love, her kisses or her admiration.
Now that she’s gone, I try to be more aware of the efforts of those around me. Watching Kika play with her grandsons and my primas tend over their kids made me love and hurt in a way I have never experienced. The oldest of 7 siblings, my mother has always been a natural caretaker. I thought of the snacks she would have made for the kids, the nicknames she would have given them and how she would have laughed at the tantrums Logan threw, “Ay si, mira nada mas!”. She would probably have found a way to make him laugh through his berrinches or encourage him to cry it out to teach him a lesson. I thought about all of this as I washed the dishes, the only way I could offer proper help since I’ve never been good with kids or learned my way around the kitchen even though my mom was an exceptional cook. I trembled with embarrassment as I thought of all the berrinches I used to throw and felt so ashamed that I put my mom through all of that. I wasn’t called Enogenia for nothing.
I took my time washing the dishes, thinking about her and missing her, hoping no one would notice my detachment. “What do you think grandma is here for?” I heard someone say as I let the water swish back and forth over the soapy dishes. I was too busy lost in my thoughts, turning over phrases and memories in my head, trying to put meaning to them without ruining the moment for everyone else. Grandma. That word has never caused me so much pain the way it does now. My mom loved children, she’d ask me all the time, “Cuando me vas hacer abuela?” “You have three equally capable sons that can make you an abuela mom, I’m too young!” I’d tell her and we’d laugh at the thought of me being pregnant with a child, how big my pansa would get and how I’d be really worried about having to quit drinking for 9 months. “Oh you sick!” She’d laugh at me.
Now that making her a grandma isn’t a possibility anymore, it hurts more than words can explain. Her death has a way of materializing into my daily life in ways I have never imagined, stirring up emotions and feelings I thought I was getting closer to fully understanding and accepting. I could be sitting in a room full of all the people that I love and even still, a memory of my mother could bring that void pummeling through my head and there I go, falling into that despair and loneliness again. Thinking of the way her hands felt in mine, the smell of her hair and her home, her bright smile that revealed one front tooth longer than the other. I thought about what it would be like being pregnant in the delivery room without her there to calm me down, about who would teach me what I need to know to be just as good a mother as she was. With every passing year, I find myself thinking that I’m getting better at dealing, finding ways of coping with her absence. But the reality of it all is that it’s getting harder for me to accept the infiniteness of her death when I continue to go on living without her here.