When I had the website redesigned and relaunched it, I decided that it would fulfill the promise of being a resource “for lovers of Mexican food and culture” and exemplify the meaning of my tagline: “Alone one cannot share life.” In that spirit, this issue is dedicated to my mother and mothers everywhere who are the heart of a Mexican family.
Family is at the center of Mexican culture and the family as a group is the top priority. We live in a joyous extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, real or “de carino” (by affection), cousins, compadres and comadres (godparents). The MOTHER is the gatekeeper who passes on traditions. She is venerated and Mother’s Day is the biggest holiday in Mexico where it is always celebrated on May 10. Mexican-Americans often celebrate both El Dia de las Madres on that day and Mother’s Day whenever it happens to fall in this country.
My mother passed away almost ten years ago and I have felt her loss deeply. I used to call her two or three times a day. We were extremely close — she was my guiding light, my confidant, my teacher and, in some ways, my role model. Soon after she died, I wrote a piece that I hoped would be the start of a book on the lessons she taught me that helped me become a success but the book took on a life of its own and the article was orphaned. I couldn’t let it go and want to share it with you. Hopefully this will inspire you to share your story with my readers as others have in the pieces that follow ”
“La Despedida” – The Farewell
A few weeks before she passed away my mother began telephoning long time friends, distant relatives, favorite nieces and nephews, and her immediate family to announce that she would be dying soon. No one believed her. Hadn’t she just taken a long car trip to Phoenix, with my son, Rodrigo, chatting all the way, to attend a family wedding where she looked radiantly beautiful and was her usual grande-dame-self?
But I knew she meant it. She didn’t like what was happening to her mind and body. At 88 years old, she’d had it and was ready to depart with her dignity, elegance and pride intact. It reminded me of what Henry Miller wrote in The Tropic of Capricorn:
The frantic desire to live, to live at any cost, is not the result of the life rhythm in us, but of the death rhythm. There is not only no need to keep alive at any price. But, if life is undesirable, it is absolutely wrong.
Though she thought of herself as the ugly duckling of her family, even in old age mother was a strikingly beautiful woman with sparkling, penetrating green eyes, silky alabaster skin, a lush head of shining silver hair and hands that spoke of hard work but were always perfectly manicured. She took great care and pride in her grooming and was disdainful of anyone who didn’t. She had what we call ‘porte” (a regal carriage), a brilliant, sharp and curious mind, and a captivating personality. She was irresistible. People fell under her spell and she was loved and respected by one and all. To me, she was invincible and immortal, so it was heartbreaking to see her gradually deteriorate
It was particularly difficult because, as forceful and strong as she was in most areas, mother could not tolerate or deal with any kind of pain. Emotional distress threw her into a state of denial and steely resolve to not break down. But in that last month of her life, she shed all the tears she never allowed herself for her losses, disappointments, regrets, and unfulfilled dreams.
Physical aches overwhelmed and made her cowardly.
The feet were the first to go. Mother had a distinctive way of walking –head held high, shoulders thrown back, spine perfectly straight, almost as if she was marching. She took fast, clipped purposeful steps, her legs seemed to move independently of her torso and her arms appeared to swing autonomously of her shoulders, But in her 70s, she‘d taken a bad fall and sprained her foot. It never healed correctly and now arthritis had set in, causing her immense pain. Worst of all, mother could never wear pretty shoes again. She hated her orthopedic lace up shoes, those zapatones from SAS, but that didn’t stop her.
Every afternoon she take off in her car to call on friends, roam the malls to window shop, buy groceries, and her almost daily trips to Barnes and Noble where she’d sit by herself for hours looking through large-print romance novels until she found the steamiest one to take home. Oh, how she loved her light blue Suburu station wagon! She had a long-lived and passionate anthropomorphic relationship with this machine. Fiercely independent, she seldom called for help for anything for herself but if the axle broke or the ignition went out in her beloved automobile she’d call in all chits. She cried and pleaded when it couldn’t pass inspection and finally paid someone $50.00 to get her an inspection sticker. But when she had a minor fender bender, followed by a traffic violation for driving too slowly on the freeway she grew afraid and reluctantly gave up driving which to her meant freedom and she felt as if her wings had been clipped. The odometer read 145,000 heart stopping miles.
Mother loved to entertain. It was a way of life for her. We always had company at the ranch –cousins, aunts, uncles, family friends– who’d stay for a weekend or a month, And people would often drop by for breakfast, lunch and dinner in our city home and sit for hours after the meal haciendo sobremesa (the interlude after a meal when people sit and chat for hours.) Mother had stayed in close contact with her high school friends and in her latter years they’d get together and reminisce at her monthly ladies’ luncheons that she’d plan for in great detail, setting her tables seasonally. But socializing became a chore instead of a favorite past time when her hearing began to fade. Get-togethers often turned into screaming matches because none of her contemporaries would wear their hearing aids. Mother at least wore one some of the time and could carry on her entertaining, provocative conversations in small groups, and still charm any person one on one. She was a master at this art. But she couldn’t go on the road with me (and later as a three-generation bill with my son, Aaron) and be part of my presentations which she loved to do.
Mother was a gifted and adventuresome cook, with a palate so extraordinary that she could duplicate any flavor she tasted, and she loved to eat. She’d get sudden cravings that demanded instant gratification (a trait that I’ve inherited) and would just as easily whip up some crepes Suzette as an enchilada, spaghetti with meatballs or albóndigas, lamb curry or homey calabacitas con queso. Our whole life revolved around food.
But she was cursed by “los dientes Gabilondo” her father’s pronounced overbite which meant that her teeth were never quite perfectly aligned and they eventually wore away, exposing nerve endings and causing tremendous pain. Suddenly she was faced with the decision of living with bad teeth or getting dentures. She opted for the latter but it was a devastating mistake. With her teeth out she looked like an old lady for the first time and it made her deeply unhappy and self-conscious. And she never got used to them. Chewing was so difficult that at the end all she could eat was pureed oatmeal, ice cream and Coca Cola with an Ensure nutritional drink. This most unsatisfying diet dulled her senses and killed her pleasure in eating. The last time we cooked together I had her chop some basil and thyme and she lit up for a moment luxuriating in the aroma of the fresh herbs and suddenly she was hungry again. I had made our friend Peggy Knickerbocker’s roasted asparagus with balsamic vinegar and she sucked on them contentedly. That was the last thing she willingly ate.
One week later she had a heart attack.
She had always emphatically said that she would rather die if she developed two common conditions of old age: incontinence and dementia. She was terrified of smelling like an old lady and lived on TicTacs and other breath mints. She needn’t have worried on this count –she had a most compelling natural smell and every perfume took on a seductive aroma on her skin. I still remember the scent of Prince Matchiavelli that she favored when I was a child and the Red Door of her last years still lingers in my mind. When the ”accidents” became daily occurrences, she bathed constantly, doused herself with talcum powder, and changed pajamas, becoming more despondent with each incidence.
We were all alarmed when we realized she was forgetting things and asking the same questions over and over. Both her sisters have Alzheimer’s and she was deeply frightened of plunging into that abyss. She would make lists, do memory exercises, write down conversations so as to not repeat herself. It was heart wrenching to watch her valiant efforts. She was somewhat relieved but not totally convinced when my doctor reassured her that her memory loss was normal for a woman 88 years old and that if she had dementia she would not be able to sing or play the piano which was her greatest pleasure.
Nothing brought her more joy and solace than sitting at the piano for hours on end each day. Here she could express herself through her singing and playing songs that she’d learned by ear as a young girl. She had a vibrant, dramatic tuneful voice and loved to perform. There is nothing I enjoyed or will miss more than singing with her in harmony to old Mexican torch songs– La Borrachita, Adios mi Chaparrita, Un Viejo Amor, and her favorites Alborada and Marchita el Alma. I sang these and other favorite songs to her on her last night as she lay dying. She would be most happy to know that you too can now enjoy her music in my new CD, Sad Songs from a Happy Heart, available for download at amazon, itunes, and at CD Baby who also carried the hard copy.