Last week I wrote about gathering the puzzle pieces of my mother’s first 25 years of life. This made me think about how often we don’t know the stories that our loved one’s carry.
The tragedies, lessons, and life skills my mom learned in the first part of her life set the stage for her next 25 years.
I’m filled with mixed feelings about writing this portion of her life. I wasn’t an observer during this time, I was living this part with her, as a child and a teenager. At that time, I mainly thought of what I and my siblings were going through, as a result, of her choices.
Mom was gone from morning until late at night. We saw her on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and the weekend. Babysitters came and went, some pretty nice, some not.
The nicest one we called Sugar, she didn’t speak English except for the words to the song “Sugar, Sugar.” The meanest babysitter roared instructions. Mom had a cancelled class and caught the woman chasing my brother with a belt. She threw her out on the street.
Although Mom barely reaches five feet and was petite, she knew how to fight like a bantamweight boxer, a skill she learned sparring with her older brother. This was also a survival skill we saw displayed a couple of times when defending her children from drug addicts or an irate neighbor (that’s another story).
More Puzzle Pieces
A new life meshes into her own. The stigma is great-“Unwed Mother.” Her baby girl passes off as little sister.
Years after the Korean War ends, the town is still surrounded by military bases. Everything changes when the USO women came to the neighborhood.
“Come to the dance. Free food, good music, appreciative servicemen…” “Sounds fun, what’s the harm, oh, come on,” said among giggles of the single young women.
A gaggle of men, handsome in Air Force uniforms, swarmed the newcomers. One sat behind mom, content to talk, unaware that his soft blue eyes, blond hair, and Kentucky accent mesmerized her into silence.
Her beauty brought him into the barrio, had him speaking Spanish. They married. He adopted two year old little sister/daughter. An anomaly of a couple, even in California.
Three more children, all in a row. Almost a big “Leave It To Beaver” family until alcohol, fear and anger tore them apart. She told him to leave. A regret to this day, even beyond his death. The good recalled with much more frequency than the bad.
Back to stifling packing houses, a heavy apron, aching back, wet wrinkled hands from sorting vegetables. Worked ten hours in silence, not allowed to turn her head left or right, the rules you know. Plenty of time to think of the future: a secretary, a police officer, a social worker.
Bus across the tracks to adult ed to get her high school diploma. The drive to want more accompanied the three-mile walk back, at ten p.m., three nights a week. At thirty-two years old, she graduated and decided to attend community college.
Ridicule, jokes, shaming comments from neighbors and relatives. “Who does she think she is, what kind of mother isn’t home for her kids after school, leaving them in the evening, sin vergüenza…” She carried books of knowledge along with her guilt through dark nights on the city bus.
In the early morning she knelt before the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the staircase niche. In the evening, a votive to the Virgen de Guadalupe. Weekends at Mass.
Government canned food, powdered milk, the kindness of her siblings fed her family. She pawned her wedding ring when the cupboards were empty. Hunger was the only thing that almost broke her.
Every summer for eight years she sent her children to her brother and his wife, angels to the rescue, so she could go back to the packing houses, save money, remove the cross tattoo on her hand, send her kids to Catholic school.
At forty, she graduated from community college, found her first office job, but still wanted more.
Commuting to a university filled her with hope for a future alongside the fear of what was happening at home, her children now teenagers living in the barrio where success stories are few and far between. We moved across the tracks. Strict rules, education, education, education, drummed into our ears.
Strikes, boycotts, Si Se Puede, self-determination. A community activist, volunteer, doer. Doors opened, scholarships bestowed, a donated car from a women’s group. No time for romance, no time for breathing.
Baby daughter left to college after Mom graduated with two Bachelor’s of Arts degrees, at forty-five.