For several summers spanning over a decade, I taught in a creative writing fellowship program for talented teens in the Boston area. It is a competitive program, and over the years many students have stood out, but none quite like Patricia. While the majority of other students were white, upper class, and often attended private schools, Patricia was Latina, an immigrant, and attended public school. Like me, she also had long straight black hair and caramel skin, and she was the first writer in her family.
That particular summer, the fellowship’s culminating reading took place at the gorgeous Athenaeum library near the Massachusetts State House on a humid Thursday evening in July. The teens had been prepping for it—timing their readings, perfecting their performances, filling up on greasy slices of pizza before changing into summery dresses and button-down shirts and ties. Family and friends were meeting us there.
Right before the reading, Patricia handed me her cell phone in its glittery blue case. Her mother and sister were on their way from Brighton, but her mother didn’t like to drive in downtown Boston. She was running late. Could her mother call me in case she became lost? I knew her predicament well. Event about to start. Parent not yet there. Heart racing. This was a feeling I often had in the past. My mom hated driving in the city too. My mom was from another country too. But I had no idea if Patricia’s mother would show up in time and what I would do if she didn’t show up at all.
I didn’t grow up in a literary family. We delivered newspapers; we didn’t read them. We told stories constantly, but we never wrote them down. My parents held blue-collar jobs. They worked double, sometimes triple shifts to pay for a house in a peaceful neighborhood with no speed bumps, where my sisters and I rode pink Huffy bikes around the sunny cul-de-sac during the summer.
Even at this young age, I knew my mother was different from other mothers. She did not volunteer to make heart-shaped valentines out of construction paper in my classroom or cut oranges into quarters and distribute them at soccer games. She was always at work. I knew my mother never had the chance to go to high school in her country, never mind college, but I also knew that she made her daughters excited to return to school each September.
I don’t know when it was exactly that I learned my mother worked as a housekeeper. She just always did. It was her job. Whenever I had a cold or flu and was too sick for school, I wouldn’t stay at home. Instead, my mother took me with her to work. Once, in the third grade, I was out of school for almost a week with a bad cold, bronchitis maybe. It was a sunny week in January, and I went with my mother to each of her jobs. The suburban houses all blend together in my memory now, the smell of Pledge and Pine-Sol and the feel of dog fur on couches and the sight of enormous, worn leather shoes piled by the doorways: all of these are images that compete for space in the box of “mom/work.”
That week I had my mother’s attention. And the front seat in our family’s maroon station wagon. At each of the houses I knew the unspoken rules. Don’t touch anything, but if you must, return it to where you found it, doesn’t matter if it’s a book, a board game, or a doll; if you watch TV, make sure to put it back to the station you found it on before we leave; don’t eat anything that can’t go unnoticed.
The fellowship reading at the Boston Athenaeum started. No call yet from Patricia’s mother. I sat in the front row between my husband and the executive director of the writing center. Regie, the emcee, made introductions, his voice booming across the high-ceilinged, centuries-old space. Down the hall, hollowed white arches holding statues of dead white men echoed as far as I could see.
Sleek wooden lamps dropped from the ceiling like long earrings. High bookshelves, balconies, oil paintings, small green lamps, the smell of oak and sun baked into crinkly books that looked like art, open and displayed on tall marble tables. Membership alone to this library was hundreds of dollars. Weren’t libraries supposed to be free? I kept turning my neck, hoping that Patricia’s mother and sister were seated in the back. They were not.
When I was in high school, my mother wanted to be in high school. She and my father enrolled in a GED prep course at the local vocational high school on Tuesday and Thursday nights. My sisters and I cheered them on as they left our cozy house and ventured into the cold dark during these mysterious pockets of the week. I tried to picture them there, sitting in desks in rows in classrooms where poster boards decorated the walls: the Monroe Doctrine, manifest destiny, Reconstruction. When they came home that first evening, or maybe it was after a couple of weeks, I don’t remember, my father declared that the class was a waste of time and money and that they were both quitting.
“What do you mean we?” my mother asked. She continued taking the classes and 12 weeks later she took the GED. We all prayed for her, especially my grandmother. My mother passed the test, and she used my older sister’s white cap and gown from her graduation to take professional photos at Sears.
I had majored in international relations so I could travel the world, something my mother had always wanted to do. On the eve of each trip, I would sit at the round wooden table in my parents’ kitchen in Massachusetts and write letters to relatives and friends. When I was done, I always wrote a letter to my mother. This was the hardest one to write. What could I say to a woman who clipped coupons and stuffed napkins from Dunkin’ Donuts into her purse so that I could have the chances she never did? Dear Mom, thanks for everything.
Traveling only solidified my want and need to write. Whenever the flight attendant handed me a long, narrow customs slip, I took joy in spelling writer inside the box labeled “occupation.”
My senior year in college, author Julia Alvarez visited my small liberal arts college in Connecticut. My English professor asked if I wanted to co-interview the award-winning author on stage. Of course, I agreed. For two weeks I read and reread her novels and essay collections. I even organized color-coded questions according to theme: gender, immigration, the writing journey.
Traveling only solidified my want and need to write.
The evening of the event, I sat on stage and waited for her arrival. My professor was driving her straight from the airport to the campus center, where our interview was to be held under bright lights and facing a packed audience, which included my mother. People applauded when Julia Alvarez entered the room. She stepped onto the stage. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I had left my color-coded index cards back in my dorm room. I had nothing. Not even a pencil.
Afterward, at dinner, after the interview during which I tried my best to remember questions I had prepared and thankfully did well despite not having my notecards (maybe because I didn’t have my notecards and therefore spoke naturally), after Julia Alvarez held a balloon wine glass of red wine in one hand and talked with the English department faculty, she wrote down her email address.
“Let’s stay in touch,” she said. Then she proceeded to chat with my mother in Spanish. My mother even gave her a copy of an article I had written in a national magazine, my first published piece. I admit, I didn’t believe Julia Alvarez would write me. But she did. We stayed in touch, and it was Julia who told me about the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. Over the next few years, every time I tracked her down at a reading she would say, “You should apply. They have scholarships,” she’d insist. “Oh, and say hi to your mom.”
Never had I felt so much the plugging in of two worlds: school and home, writing and family. I was so happy. But the feeling didn’t last.
Over the years, as I increasingly pursued creative writing as a profession, there have been times when my mother didn’t get why I would want to rearrange my life to spend two months in a Maine cabin with no TV or why I would be thrilled to have a story I worked on for years accepted in a journal that only paid in contributor copies. She wanted so much for me to be successful, and for her, a big part of that meant having a secure job, building a life where you don’t have to worry so much about money. The writing life didn’t exactly fit this criterion. Her anxiety would sometimes bubble up in cold questions: “How much did you get paid for that story?” “What’s going on with your book?” “That lady who wrote the Harry Potter books… ”
I get it. She grew up in a country where educational opportunity was synonymous with economic opportunity. School, or having a formal education, was a way “out.” Art, or artistic practice, was extra. Perhaps deep down her worry stemmed from protection. Who doesn’t want the best for their kids? Nonetheless, I always tried to include her as much as I could, and she has always been there to celebrate my successes.
After I won an essay prize from Fourth Genre, my mom carried a copy of the journal in her purse. She showed it to the women whose houses she cleaned. Thanks to her, more women in Wayland, Weston, and Newton have read that winter issue than if the editor had airdropped them from a helicopter into the Whole Foods parking lot. This was her way, I supposed, of trying to bridge the divide.
During the first hour of day one in the Young Adult Writers Program summer fellowship, we did some icebreakers.
“Go around the room and tell us something about yourself that we can’t tell just by looking at you,” I said. Some responses: I used to live in Canada; I speak Spanish; I have a peanut allergy.
When it was Patricia’s turn, she simply shook her head and whispered, “Pass.”
Alright, I thought. Some kids are shy. I say “kids,” even though half the class was taller than me, but as someone who has taught middle school and high school for over ten years, I was used to this. I was also used to getting the shy kids to open up—to peek out of their turtle shells.
That whole first day she stayed quiet. When we shared our writing—quick character sketches, brainstorms, lists of things we hate—Patricia slid her blue-lined notebook toward me and asked if I could read it for her. Or she’d repeat, “Pass.” That afternoon I spoke to her mother, in Spanish, on the phone. She assured me that her daughter was just really introverted. It was not a language barrier. Okay. First day jitters.
But it happened again the next day. And the next.
I admit, I was concerned. I paired her up with the friendliest teen in the room. Patricia did the work. She filled her notebook. She even attended the optional write-in sessions on Fridays, borrowing a laptop from the staff office and typing up her work from the week. Sometimes in class she handed me notes: “I’m stuck.”
Never had I felt so much the plugging in of two worlds: school and home, writing and family.
Then came the odes. Patricia wrote an ode to the Dominican Republic. She was born there before moving to Boston at the age of two. Recently she’d gone back to the D.R. where she visited with dozens of relatives and rode motorcycles down muddy dirt roads, the wind whipping her long black hair. I know this because Patricia soon started communicating through photos on her cell phone. She’d show me picture after picture, one of her three-month-old baby cousin dressed as if ready for the prom, wearing a frilly pink dress and matching headband, and another one of her mom and ten-year-old sister, each wearing one-shoulder black shirts. I showed her photos of my then three-year-old son. Bandido, I called him. At that she smiled, just a bit.
Christmas morning my junior year in college, my mother handed me a present. A white envelope. A gift card perhaps, I thought. Or, for more dramatic effect, cash. I opened the envelope to find a folded piece of paper. A printout of some sort. I read and reread it. It was my mother’s registration for a college class at the local community college. I should have felt joy. Instead, panic set over my body like poured cement. She won’t be able to do it. Not this.
In the moment, I congratulated her. Said it was a great gift. Wow. I tucked the registration back into the card. I tried not to think about the many ways my mother, ironically, hated writing. She often asked me to write thank-you cards to employers for her and, years later, to write emails and texts on her behalf. She wrote in all capital letters. She was a good writer, a fine speller. But even her handwriting told me that it pained her, that she detested having to convert what was in her mind onto paper. She was a talker, a natural storyteller (that was her gift), but on paper she was shy, brief, to the point. And yet I knew she would need to write in this class. I was scared for her.
By week two, Patricia and I shared books. I lent her a copy of Drown by Junot Díaz. Also from the Dominican Republic, he writes about the land, the people, and the dual consciousness of many of his characters who emigrated to the United States.
The next morning Patricia handed the book back to me. “You didn’t like it?” I assumed the worst. “No.” She shook her head. “I finished it.”
Patricia worked on her ode to the D.R. and shared several drafts, both in workshop and one-on-one. While other students balanced multiple pieces throughout the fellowship—stories, poems, letters—like flaming batons in the air, Patricia steadily gripped her one baton. Her ode to her birth country.
As much as I loved writing, it was almost always limited to my journals. I did not have an audience, never mind a writing workshop or a summer fellowship to develop my craft. But I had ganas. Grit, people might say today. And this, I am sure, came from my mother.
When I was 28 and I had decided to quit my job—the one with great benefits and steady salary—and move to Guatemala to write a novel, my mother drove me to the airport; she even helped me cram a small printer and a stack of books into my red suitcase. Over the years I have invited her to readings, introduced her to other writers. Once, I even brought her as my plus-one to a writing workshop in Sicily when Bread Loaf hosted its first conference in Italy.
In my hand, Patricia’s cell phone buzzed.
It rang again.
I excused myself from my row and ignored my husband’s whispers, “What are you doing?”
I waited until I got to the lobby to talk to Patricia’s mother. She was lost and far away—somewhere on Newbury Street. I knew, looking at the glowing numbers on the cell phone, that even if she ran, she wouldn’t make the reading.
Still, I stepped outside to the nearest intersection. City sounds competed for my attention. Where exactly are you? Right now? And now? I was a live GPS for Patricia’s mother and sister. I talked her through the confusing Boston Common pathways and streets until I caught a glimpse of the two of them walking up the hill, the flash of light as it bounced off the balloon in their hands.
The class my mother took at the community college was a women’s studies course of some sort. I have since then pushed away most of the details. I was in college myself, about to intern for the United Nations in Nigeria. I had just studied abroad in Paris. I was so naive. I thought I knew about the world because I had traveled some of it. Because I had read some books. Written some papers.
For my mother’s final project, she had to write a 12-page essay. I won’t even pretend to remember the actual assignment. I just remember the ugly way I avoided my mother’s phone calls that month, how when I came home for spring break and she asked me to help her write the paper, I said no. Maybe I was afraid she was hitting a wall, that she had reached the end of the dream, that the credits had begun to roll on her life and she was only now realizing it.
The truth is I was a coward. I didn’t want to help her because I was afraid of seeing her limitations up close. I didn’t want to see her fail. Why did I think she’d fail? Unlike the GED exam, this assignment was not multiple choice. Unlike other college courses, this particular class had only one written assignment: this paper.
But even her handwriting told me that it pained her, that she detested having to convert what was in her mind onto paper.
Writing, especially academic writing, I knew, was different from narrative and different from talking. My mother could talk her way—and did—through class discussions. She did not use the readings so much as evidence in her analysis but as springboards to share her experiences with and anecdotes about people she knew in real life. I knew that this probably worked because the course she took was a class for social work majors. But what would happen in other courses?
In the end, she got a B. Was I proud of her? Yes. Did she take another class? No.
Just as Patricia’s little sister and mother—dressed up, wearing white high heels, holding bouquets of flowers— crossed the street by the State House, my own cell phone buzzed.
Inside the Athenaeum, my husband sent me a text: the reading is over.
I pictured my own mother, pre-Google Maps, pre-cell phones, stopping at gas stations and convenience stores and asking for directions to the art museum or college center or hall where I was giving a reading. Sometimes she got there at the last minute. Other times she missed the reading, but we’d stage pictures to make it look like she’d been there the whole time. There is something so powerful in your parent seeing you do the thing you love most. Even now, when I see my mom in the audience at one of my readings, my 15-year-old heart within my heart beats a little faster.
I once attended a reading by Esmeralda Santiago at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. In her memoirs she writes about her difficult and complicated relationship with her mother, made all the more difficult and complicated after the family moved from Puerto Rico to New York City when Esmeralda was a child. The more Esmeralda became formally educated, in English, the more of a gap grew in her relationship with her mother. I felt tremendous sorrow reading her work. I felt the same thing happening with my own mother.
During the Q and A, I asked the author about her mother.
“Has your relationship with your mother improved?” She shook her head. She even added, “It won’t ever go back to the way it was. I no longer expect it to, and you shouldn’t either.” Or something like that. I was stunned.
After the reading, I stood in line and felt the weight of her $26 memoir in my hands, and when it was my turn I asked her to make the book out to me and to my mother. She looked up and squinted. I smiled. And I still had that smile when I left the bookstore with her book inside the plastic store bag, pushed the door, and stepped out into the fresh night air.
As I stood outside the Athenaeum, I sent texts like crazy. To my husband inside, to my co-instructors, to the program director.
“Patricia has to read again. Stall? Two minutes away. Please.”
Together, we solved the puzzle. Regie, the event’s magnificent emcee, explained the situation to the audience and then performed a poem of his own.
When I see my mom in the audience at one of my readings, my 15-year-old heart within my heart beats a little faster.
My other colleagues sent me texts.
“Forty seconds away,” I replied.
Finally, with shiny foreheads, Patricia’s mother, sister, and I entered the packed room. A hundred heads turned toward us. I escorted Patricia’s mother and sister to the front row, where they sat as Regie reintroduced Patricia to the podium. The clapping in that moment still rings in my ears. Patricia could hardly get through reading her poem without smiling or laughing or glancing at her mother, who beamed at her daughter onstage. Mother and daughter had the same long black hair and big dark eyes.
In that moment, I felt they even had the same heart. Her mother’s face wore an expression of unfiltered joy, with a shade of Where are we? How did we get here? Are we really here? My mother has had that look before, my mother who was born in another country and moved here for a better life. It is a certain look. And Patricia’s mother had it.
I like memories that are knots. Knots that are stories. Stories that are questions. They help me feel less like I need answers. Instead, I like seeing the patterns, the connections, the tropes and images and painful truths and limitations of our character, of time itself. I find comfort in the collecting, in the gathering of these seemingly disparate memories and, when possible, in making bridges between them. My story is part of a larger story. Everyone’s is.
After the reading we ate cookies and drank soda and took pictures.
“Gracias,” her mother said and hugged me.
I realized I was still holding onto Patricia’s cell phone in its glittery blue case. I tried handing it to her, but her arms were full—flowers, plastic cup of soda, a copy of my book I had signed for her, a helium balloon with the word “Congratulations!” tied to her wrist. Her little sister took the phone from me and giggled.
It was contagious. I started laughing for no reason. Patricia’s mother did too. Maybe it was the sugar, or the caffeine, or the adrenaline, or all of it. Maybe, I thought, writing is about so much more than what can be contained within the margins of a page. Maybe it’s about what can be bridged. Or shoved together. At least for a moment.
I knew there would be times ahead when Patricia and her mother would feel the gap widen. In some ways, tonight was just the beginning of that break, of occupying different spaces, different worlds. I knew it was inevitable, just as it was between my mother and me. But it’s okay. No, we can’t (always) bring our mothers with us everywhere, even to the places they push us to the most—college, graduate school, workplaces, readings. But for me, that isn’t (always) the point. The fear of leaving my mother behind, as I board a train going somewhere she’s never been, will probably never go, is one way to look at it. Another way is to wave to her from the window, smile, and say, Look how far we’ve come.
The essay “Bridged” is adapted from White Space: Essays on Culture, Race, & Writing, published March 2021 by the University of Massachusetts Press. Copyright © 2021 by the University of Massachusetts Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author.