Aging in America: Cherríe Moraga on Her Mother’s Struggles
Growing Up in a Mexican-American Family and Revering One's Elders
Days later, the attendant showed up for an interview and I was forced to tell my mother why she had come. My mother was incensed, of course, feeling that her last hold on the integrity of her home was dissolving before her eyes. She would barely talk to the woman, who did little to ingratiate herself to my mother. Maybe that was just what Elvira needed—a no-nonsense Mexican American woman, whom my mom could not manipulate. These are the stories we tell ourselves to justify decisions riddled with doubt. The other more traditional “señoras” we had previously hired to help out around the house were regularly sent away by my mother after a cup of reheated coffee and a few stale cookies from the cupboard.
“No, todo ’stá bien. No necesitamos nada.”
They, too, knew better than to challenge the dictums of their elders.
It was all arranged. Starting Monday, the attendant would begin to take care of my mother during the weekdays. Vera threatened to pack her bags. And so we pumped up our dad. “You gotta be brave,” we told him. But our father was not brave and when the attendant arrived that Monday morning, he predictably yielded to his wife’s threats and sent her away.
What we didn’t know was that the day before, our brother had shown up from out of state. Even when James lived within a few hours’ drive of my parents, he seldom visited them for longer than an evening, separated by long periods of absence. For the most part, his visits and communications numbered no more than two times a year, a restaurant meal squeezed between business meetings and golf rounds. Possibly for Anglo American families, this was acceptable; but for our extended familia mexicana, his distance remained, for all of us, completely incomprehensible.
“Cleave to your wife,” my brother’s trusted spiritual adviser, the monsignor, an elderly Irishman, had counseled, quoting Genesis. And with that, James settled on the outside what could never be resolved internally, the 40-year antagonism between his wife and his mother and sisters.
It had started as early as the age of 16, when James began dating an attractive and strong-minded “American” girl from our high school. Entering la familia Moraga was no doubt a culture shock for young Aileen. We all watched in stunned amazement when the things we took for granted in our home and that were loved by so many of our Mexican and non-Mexican friends alike were challenged aloud by the teenager.
She didn’t understand why James was required to kiss his mother and father and two teenaged sisters and abundant aunts and uncles each time he entered or left the house. It eluded her why an older brother might genuinely want to spend some time in his younger sisters’ company, if only to bang on the guitar and sing silly folk songs. She ignored the presumption that after months became years into their relationship she might offer to set a table or pick up a dish after dinner. The hardest part was that she made little effort to know our mother or, as Elvira put it, to leave the boy’s lap long enough to talk to [her], even if it was just pretend and she didn’t really give a damn about la vieja.Aileen was not required to know us culturally. We did not feel similarly entitled.
The last bit was just one line from our mother’s litany of discontent, spoken behind closed doors each time her son left the house, girlfriend in tow. The receding sound of tires against gravel was our cue to speak once James had maneuvered our family ’65 Chevy down the narrow driveway and out into the wider American world of awaiting promise.
In the beginning, our family remained in a kind of holding pattern in the young couple’s presence. What had worked so beautifully in public—the Student Body President/Captain of the Football Team going steady with the Cheerleader/Homecoming Queen—proved to be a miserable failure at home. We dashed and darted around the censored subject of the ill-fitting familial match, the silence growing increasingly strained and hostile.
My mother decreed that we were never to address the matter directly with our brother. As a result, Sunday dinner-table conversations were painful exercises in suppression, where Aileen freely expressed her right-wing political views about abortion and all those Mexican Americans who had suddenly turned Chicano, not to mention those un-American antiwar hippie protesters. Meanwhile, my mother would cut her eyes at us, a knife blade of censure flung across the dining room table, to silence me and my sister. I swallowed my rice and beans, along with my resentment, and lined up the toothpicks extracted from my taquitos like little foot soldiers along my plate: my own private 1968 army of dissent.
Aileen was entitled to her position because she was James’s girlfriend, but also because she was “American” in a way that we, as Mexican Americans, were not, especially my mother. Aileen was not required to know us culturally. We did not feel similarly entitled.
My father had nothing to say on the subject.
One day, unexpectedly, James decided to leave Aileen. By then, away at college, all he said was that she had been his only steady girlfriend and, well . . . they were both Catholics and, well . . . as my mother intimated, a young man has feelings. (The implication, of course, was that a young woman does not; and that the young man might need to go explore those “feelings” with other women first. All Elvira’s perspective.)
JoAnn and I couldn’t contain our excitement over the prospect of a free life for our brother, one that might lead him to a kind-hearted girl who might even love his family, too. I see now how much we perceived my brother’s choices through the prism of our own lives. James was the master of his own destiny. As females we would never know such freedom. Yet, culturally speaking, he was emotionally tethered to a Mexican family of women that had a direct stake in his choices. Perhaps the very onus of this was why my brother chose to leave us.
Suddenly, Aileen wants that long-awaited conversation with the much-maligned mother. One afternoon, she spills into our house crying, I love him. Convince him to take me back. Please, Mrs. V. And Mrs. V will do just that. At last, a player in her son’s life.
A few days later, James is home for the weekend, kicking back in his Bermuda shorts on the living room La-Z-Boy, watching TV. The late-morning sun pours through the sheer curtains. Elvira enters, sits down on the carpet at her son’s feet. She puts her hand on the naked part of his thigh just above the well-muscled kneecap, and tells him in plain words that she knows what he’s feeling.
“It’s only natural,” she says.
My mother would retell this story over and over again. It captured a brief moment in time when her word mattered in the life of her only son. But, more than this, it was a conversation about desire. This is what seemed to matter most to Elvira; that she knew the world of men’s desire well enough to advise him, even as it conflicted with the unbending Irish Catholic education we learned in our mission schools. My mother was well versed in the real rules of the world but was seldom asked to draw on them in guiding her son as he grew into American Christian manhood.
On that Bermuda shorts Saturday morning, my mother urged my brother to take Aileen back “because she is a good girl and would be a good mother for your children.” And so James did take her back. And true to biblical teachings, he would “cleave” to her. And the soon-to-be wife quickly dumped her soon-to-be mother-in-law, who had supported her in her time of need.
And we daughters chide, “We told you so, Mom. Why didn’t you just leave it alone?”
She responds, “Because I know how it is to love and be left like that.”
I am nine years old. It is a Saturday chore day. I am vacuuming the hallway.
“I have something to tell you,” my mother says over the blast of suction from the Kenmore. I catch the unease in her eyes and in the rope of dish towel she wrings at the waist of her apron. My heart quickens, and I hit the “off” switch with my sandaled toe.
“Yeah . . . ?”
“Mi’ ja, I was married before your father.”
They had met during the war, she says. And that’s about all she says. I am relieved to learn there were no other children, relieved to put a name and a story to the stranger’s portrait, foreign and blond, that lay at the thinning bottom of the red-and-white May Company box in the cupboard.
Many years later my mother revealed that she was the one who decided to divorce when she learned that her husband had reenlisted after the war. “It was so he could have other women,” she said. Too many women in too many ports is how I remember it.
Once in the early years of James’s marriage, my mother came to my sister and me and asked us to write his wife a letter. She wanted to explain her feelings, she said.
“If I have ever done anything to offend you . . .” was the line I remember most as she dictated the words to us. I also remember my mother’s utter shock to receive a letter back from her daughter-in-law, whose single response was “Examine your conscience,” refusing any gesture of reconciliation. The courage it took for my mother to swallow her pride in order to “write” the letter was just one measure of her love for her son. Perhaps it was the depth of this love that was so hard for Aileen. We would never know.James remained inextricably Mexican; for it was my mother who had crafted my brother into the role of patriarch.
Elvira is anxious. There is always so much to do. Is it lunchtime? Have we eaten? She goes to the kitchen, opens the refrigerator, and takes out half a tuna sandwich brought home from the coffee shop three days earlier, and puts it onto a plate for her husband. She sits and waits. She rises, goes to a kitchen drawer, removes a pile of unopened mailers, and crosses to her bedroom. She puts the mailers into a shoebox at the base of the closet. She returns to the kitchen, takes the coffee grounds from the pot of cold coffee on the stove, and dumps them into a mound on the pantry shelf. She shuts the cupboard. She sits again and waits. He’ll want coffee. She goes to the stove and turns on the near-empty coffee pot to high. She goes outside to call him in. The sun is setting into a hot muggy pink sky. She takes the hose to water her plants. The hose gets heavier every day. She hears men’s voices through the garage walls.
On the Sunday before the attendant’s scheduled arrival, my father escorts his son into his office, out of Vera’s earshot. There he confides the weight of his troubles—his volatile wife, his demanding daughters, his barely functioning but “I can manage” hips. When the subject of the attendant comes up, my brother responds, “Don’t listen to my sisters. She’s your wife. Do whatever you think is best.”
James gave this advice after assessing our mother’s condition over one meal; a meal during which Elvira put on that same coquettish face she had for the stranger-doctors. I had observed this for much of my adult life. As James grew more estranged, my mother grew stranger in her manner toward him.
On the few occasions when he visited without his wife, Vera seemed to “perform” herself. Once at an Easter meal, I watched as my mother twisted a full 90 degrees to talk with her son sitting next to her, literally turning her back on the rest of the family for the entire two-hour length of the dinner. She leaned into him like a lover, her makeup gleaming. When her son entered a room, all others were eclipsed and all was forgiven, or so she pretended. When she could still remember to pretend.
During that garage meeting, James also encouraged my dad to continue to postpone hip surgery if that was what he chose. When my father justified his inaction with “Your brother agreed,” there was no mistaking the bitterness in my sister’s and my responses. James had never endured the smell of urine on my father’s pants or the rank odor heat-baked into the broken upholstery of the driver’s seat of his car. My brother had no way of knowing my father’s real condition because he was never around long enough to observe that his father’s deteriorated hips couldn’t get him to the bathroom fast enough nor allow him to bend sufficiently to wipe well once he got there. He didn’t see him take a full five minutes to roll out of the driver’s seat of the car nor recognize his complete inability to move quickly enough to come to my mother’s aid.
In retrospect, the failed attempt at home care for my mother probably went the way it was supposed to. My mother’s fierce opposition and the stalemate of fear and resentment that was the fabric of my parents’ marriage may not have allowed for any other course of action. In this sense, my brother was blameless, constructing his advice on a fantasy marriage where the husband is not afraid of becoming an orphan and can monitor his wife’s well-being with the confidence of an endowed knowing. Perhaps my brother needed his illusions about his father, in spite of evidence to the contrary.
My brother’s authority, as the eldest and a male, went unchallenged within our family. In this respect, James remained inextricably Mexican; for it was my mother who had crafted my brother into the role of patriarch, the same role her elder brother and father had occupied in her own life. His long absences notwithstanding, my brother’s word was law. In all other aspects of our cultura, James was, as he once described it, “just passing through.”
From Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir by Cherríe Moraga. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on April 2, 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Cherríe Moraga. All rights reserved.
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