Saturday, November 10, 2012


My mother' home bursts with magic. Pheasant feathers and gourds in an antique glass vase. Moss growing in the sacred circles of her brick patio. A skull and a broken pitcher near the garage. The pitcher used to hold spider plants growing long tentacles in water on their way to earth. Somewhere between a glass of water and a pot of soil. There is a cauldron with a dead plant coming out of it under the nectarine tree. She has a makeshift altar above her sink. It has a chalice of water for her spirit guide and Buddhas she finds at flea markets. One looks like ivory and she tells me how she bought it for a few bucks.

The sunrise here is a marvel and the coffee tastes different, like cozy socks and a hug, even though the robusta beans coat my tongue with extra caffeine. My mother and I talk and talk about psychics and spirits and grandmothers, Of emigrating, moving, changing space. We talk about retirement and staying home and my childhood. Then, she mentions to me in passing that mother-daughter relationships are complicated, and I chuckle. Heh heh, yeah, Mama, I heard that once.

My children run through the yard like wild things--they climb trees and track rabbits. My mother tells my daughter she used to kill birds with a slingshot and roast them in the cemetery. She grew up poor and my daughter's mouth gapes open in amazement. My daughter spots a woodpecker in the valley. We sit by the stream, tossing red leaves into the current as the visiting neighbor's weiner dog barks. We climb over the weeping willow the hurricane tossed out of the earth. I used to sit under that tree and play guitar in the summer. My stepfather is non-nonplussed. "I'll put another one in. This bank was too loose. In spring, I'll put in a cutting up a few feet in sturdier ground." I strum my daughter's favorite song there anyway, while she sings.

Oh, my Mama. 
She gives me 
These feathered breaths. 

I made my way here on Wednesday morning to pick my mother up from the hospital after surgery. My step-father received a call when she was rolled into surgery that his mother was not going to last much longer than a week. She could no longer eat, or drink, and the morphine was all they could do. She died an hour after my mother and I arrived home from the hospital. She is the last of the grandmothers in my family. The last of that generation. Sixteen years ago, my paternal grandmother died at 67. My mother's mother died at 95 two months after Lucy, now my step grandmother at 86.

While I mourn for my stepfather, cry with him, his mother suffered from the death that most of us fear. Forgetting our husband and children, experiencing the indignities and humiliations of rotten people and a body betraying its soul. She was surrounded by love, though, and she was never want for anything. I wonder if there is a good death and what that would look like.

The children and I tramp through the woods, and my daughter points out that in the summer this place is filled with poison ivy. She tells me a story about my own childhood. It is the story about poison Sumac. I couldn't see well because my face was so swollen. My aunt had to take me for the day, while my mother worked. My Titi, as I called her, had no idea what to do with me, so se taught me to dance the cha-cha with a record and a mat with feet prints. My mother waits for the children and I at the top of the hill, right by the sweet cherry tree. My children call to her, "Abuelita, Abuelita, we walked through the poison ivy." I want to be an abuelita some day.

My daughter's death was as good as it gets. It hits me. She died in her mother. She never feared. And we loved her like she was going to live forever. There was never pity or grief in the love. But still, how good can it be if you never really got to live?

Being in my mother's home soothes something broken in me. My mother rubs in salve and aloe when she makes white rice in the same pot she's been making rice in for forty years. She puts on another pot of lentils, despite my protestations. She just had surgery. She doesn't have to make my favorite meal, but she insists. We talked about making rice. She taught me when I went to college, but it still took me many years to make it like her. She breaks off sofrito from the freezer and adds a can of tomato sauce. She tells me about being the second youngest of twelve and learning to cook Panamanian food in America. I watch the birds out the window beyond her shoulder, and think that this land is the land of my mother, even if it is far away from the land of her birth. But it is both for me. I feel attached to this land. I dug my feet into the dirt this morning, the dew almost frozen hurt my feet, but I refused to move.

This is the land of my people.

As I stood there, I realize that the hardest part of writing is learning you are mediocre. And in that mediocrity, you still sometimes nail a good phrase or two. You sometimes write something amazing. But mostly, it is just mediocre. But the world is constructed of mostly mediocre. It is part of the suffering. You feel the extraordinary bubbling underneath its surface, but it hasn't (or perhaps never will) quite burst through you. It is like rice-making year three. The phase in which you change from mother to grandmother.


  1. This is so warm to read, like a giant hug. Something so comforting about being with your mama...if you're lucky to have mamas like ours. I saw the picture of the vase of water on the window ledge and almost asked about it... Then decided I would be silly to ask about a vase with water and no flowers... But now I know different.
    "mother-daughter relationships are complicated" that may be so but I'll take the complication. I already am missing out on that complication with Camille and that's even more complicated.
    My grandmother dropped dead. I was living with her. She was 89. We loved eachother very much. She used to say "I hope I just drop dead" because that seemed like the best kind of death to her... and I would hush her and tell her I didn't want to speak of death. Because I don't deal with death well -whatever dealing with it well means. I did CPR on her ... It didn't work. She would have been pissed if it had. My heart broke and I was depressed for at least a year. But what I didn't know then was the anguish I felt when one of my closest friends and grandmother died is very different than the feeling of my soul being ripped out of me when My daughter died.
    "I'll be a mama, I'll have a daughter" and I listen from across the country to you strumming your guitar.
    I hope your mother is recovering well.

  2. I like to think Bear had a good death. I know he had a good life being held inside his mama and knowing only complete love. But perhaps this is just something I believe in order to get through the days.
    If some/most of what was written was not mediocre, how would recognize the extraordinary? The image of your children joyfully running through Abuelita's yard like wild things is wonderful.

  3. Love this post. Thank you for providing this peak into the multigenerational connections of your family and the amazing, never-ending circle of mothers and daughters.


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