I didn’t like my mother.
I don’t remember ever feeling close to her, and I was always convinced that she had no idea who I really was, what I believed, what I wanted or why. I remember coming home with torn pants and knees bloodied from climbing trees or rolling down grassy slopes, confounding her belief that little girls should be happiest dressed in white organdy ruffles; I remember the picnic she and I had on my eighth birthday, because though she knew that unlike her, I loved the woods, she never suspected I dreamed of a party with my friends; I’ll never forget the room she surprised me with when I was 10.
For months my mother had planned and shopped and consulted—but not with me—about my new bedroom. When at last the door opened, I was dismayed to see that everything was pink— walls, frilly curtains, silly bedspread—and I could only wonder whose room it was. The lamp was the beacon that focused my attention. It was pink, of course, but even worse, it was in the shape of an angel, an adorable cherub. What was she thinking? That the cute, rosy angel would light my way, inspiring me to behave angelically?
Though I suspected darkly for years that she didn’t want her plans and her taste derailed by the incongruous opinions of her daughter, who at 10 was too young to have any valid ideas about style and balance, texture or color, I eventually realized that the truth couldn’t have been so sinister. I’m sure it never occurred to her that I might be so different from her. I remember my disappointed reaction, and now as a mother and after all these years, I can imagine how disappointed she too must have been, and how genuinely surprised by my reaction.
I don’t know if my mother carried an image of ideal little-girlhood in her head that she wanted me to embody, or if she could only imagine a daughter who reflected exactly the little girl my mother remembered being or perhaps wished she had been.
The day I asked her to explain how parents create their children, she told me all about the woman’s anatomy but nothing of the man’s, so I asked her why, if the man had no role, children often look like their fathers. “Oh, that’s just a coincidence,” she said. Rebelling against the insult to logic, I went to the library and found the answers to all my questions. The sense of betrayal, the knowledge she had lied to me, ruptured any remnant of childhood trust. With exquisite cruelty, from that day on I called her only “Mother,” never again “Mamita,” as I knew she craved.
What did she make of that obstinate creature, that difficult child who kept challenging her expectations, try as she might to do what she thought was right? Why didn’t she realize she couldn’t fob me off with picture-book answers? It never occurred to her to ask me questions, perhaps because she couldn’t reveal much of herself, of the past and the feelings she had edited out of her own storybook, simplified and pleasant version of a reality that must have been as complicated and occasionally painful as anyone else’s.
So many wasted years. And now that she’s been dead for 13 years—13 years of reflection and no new provocations—I’m trying to understand. I realize that though she may not have known me, I didn’t know her very well either. I know what she said and did, of course, but I don’t know why. It’s easy to say that she was narcissistic or self-involved, but that merely describes behavior, not the reasons for it.
I never asked her what it was like to grow up as she did. She was skilled at writing revisionist history, so I must have felt it was futile. Her past was a beautiful fairy tale, and its falsity became increasingly apparent to me. But perhaps if I’d persevered, if I myself had shown empathy rather than scorn, she might have opened up.
My mother told me my grandmother left her home in Sevilla when she was about 12 years old. Her parents were dead, and she traveled with her older sister to America, where my grandaunt would meet for the first time the husband she had married by proxy in Spain. That’s all I know. My grandmother learned English, but I doubt she had much, if any, schooling in her new world. I suppose my mother grew up speaking Spanish as I did, learning English at school. Since she had no trace of an accent and never confided the difficulties she and her younger brother must have encountered in a world their parents couldn’t have been equipped to explain to them, I never thought of my mother as anything but completely American.
No matter how she thought of herself, however, she must have been forging her own way through a complex cultural thicket. Married to a Cuban, daughter of a Spaniard and a Dominican, my mother had no role model to emulate.
She never told me that my grandfather was a gambler.
What was it like to live in constant fear that today’s bounty would soon be replaced with gnawing hunger and mended clothes? Or were the ups and down not dramatic, but merely disturbing? Perhaps that experience was so painful that only her husband could know, for she never shared it with anyone else, certainly not with her daughter. I’m sure my grandmother taught her to keep the vicissitudes of their domestic life locked away at all costs, to maintain the myth that, unlike every other family, they had no problems.
Only after her death did I begin to understand why appearances were so important to her. She spent hours preparing herself for the outside world, no doubt secretly harboring the fear that no matter how perfect her hair, her face, her nails and her clothes, she might not succeed in hiding some awful truth or disguise some ugly flaw known only to her. I used to watch, thinking only how vain she was. I didn’t understand her formality, her insistence on having the house perfectly arranged before receiving guests, the impossibility of impromptu entertaining. She had to show her bona fides: Her clothes, her home, her tastes were the credentials that proved she belonged not only to her Latino background, which she never rejected—and never fully embraced, either—but to the American upper middle class.
Trying to understand what could have motivated those things about my mother that so bothered me, I realize how little I know and how little we communicated. In retrospect, I can see that we were set on opposite courses almost from the beginning. Every time she tried to surprise me with something that she would have liked—which induced, instead of the expected delight, my disappointment or anger that she had no idea what I would have liked—the distance between us widened. She didn’t tell me about herself, and thus she taught me by example to be reticent about myself. The elisions in the family history book benefited neither of us.
My father’s family lived in Cuba, with the exception of his uncle, who had emigrated, moved his business to the U.S. and convinced my father to follow him to New York.
We visited my Cuban family every year. From a child’s perspective, my mother seemed to enjoy those winters in the tropics. But I was small, and had no way of knowing (or at least no recollection) what my mother thought about her mother- and sisters-in law. Long after I was experienced enough to notice, I deduced that at least one of my aunts was gay, but like so many other things, we never talked about it, not even when I became an adult with a family of my own. Given my father’s antipathy to gay men coupled with my mother’s longing to be mainstream, both in the context of an era much less accepting of difference, it’s easy to see why having a gay member in the family wouldn’t be acknowledged. Not until I was 40 did I come to know the gay men who became fast friends. Their friendship exposed the limitations of my mother’s experience, for she had taught me that gay men hated women.
My mother had some notions that were difficult for me to understand or accept. We belonged to different eras. She was proud, for instance, that my father never allowed her to work. But the conviction that a woman who worked reflected poorly on her husband, implying that he was unable to support the family by himself, was not uncommon among her peers. My parents’ expectation that, once I’d attained a degree from one of the most competitive institutions in the country, I would settle quietly into married life was another common assumption in the ’60s, before the feminist movement was in full swing.
When I was in my 40s and my kids were finishing high school, I attended graduate school in another city, commuting several days a week the first year, then staying overnight at my husband’s insistence. Since I enjoyed what I was doing, my mother thought my afternoons at the library were equivalent to her afternoons at Saks. Was my mother—who, despite being knowledgeable and articulate, hadn’t gone to college—jealous of me?
She never confessed any regret—was she too proud to do so? Though I had the full support of my husband, my mother criticized me, accusing me of neglecting my family. Did she resent my freedom, my opportunity? Did she suspect my father couldn’t have acquiesced in, let alone actively supported, a venture in self-fulfillment that would take her away from home? She never showed any interest in what I was doing, telling her friends that I had a Ph.D. in medieval history when in fact it was in medieval literature. Did she fear that by evincing an interest in my work she might betray an ignorance not befitting the image she so carefully cultivated? I can only guess. I will never know.
Mother’s Day too often is one of those Hallmark moments when we say all the “right” things. We express our love in somebody else’s words because we’re too lazy to think of our own or because we believe we can’t say what we really feel. At the risk of depressing sales in yet another sector of our limping economy, I implore all of you who still have mothers to share your deepest thoughts with them and give real meaning to Mother’s Day.
A version of this post originally appeared at Women’s Voices for Change.