Happy Birthday, Mama

Too soon. If you had left yesterday, I would still say it. Too soon. But it’s been 20 years since you passed away.

Today is your birthday.

Happy 90th, Mama.DSCN8493

I wasn’t ready for you to go. None of us were. But the hard part–and it was achingly, stabbing-pain hard–was that by the time you died you were already gone. Alzheimer’s had stolen your memory, your thoughts and your good sense, leaving you vacantly confused and angry. The light in you snuffed out.

Never to see your grandchildren grow up. How you loved them all. They called you “Abuela,” remember?

How you cried when you heard I was to have a girl! I could hear your voice break as I told you the news. Qué emocionante, you said.

A girl!

You rejoiced for me. Now, you said, I’d know what it meant to raise a daughter of my own, to teach, inspire and mold into a strong, smart woman. You were right, Mama, and I thought you’d be part of her life, too. I wanted you to tell her the countless family stories you’d told me about your life in Caracas. All those beautiful, captivating stories that I remember wanting to hear again and again. It was her turn to hear them.

I remember how I wouldn’t want you to leave me when I took my afternoon naps. I was three or four and I’d say, stay with me, Mama, don’t leave. And you’d let me play with your jewelry. My favorite was the glass-beaded necklace, which when I’d hold it up to the light, I could see a rainbow of colors that took my breath away.

I remember going with you to your beauty school and sitting in a salon chair as I watched you learn how to cut, style, and perm hair. It’s where you took me that time to get a haircut and I ended up with a pixie cut. Everyone said I looked like a boy, and you bought me an Archie comic book to make me feel better.

I remember the house dresses you’d wear, especially the one with all the signs of the times printed on it–Make Love, Not War, Everything’s Groovy, Give Peace a Chance and Life’s a Blast. We called it your “hippie” dress and it made us laugh, especially when you wore it well into the 80s.

I remember the scent of vanilla that stayed with you. You’d bring back from your trips to Venezuela amber bottles of vanilla so you could bake cakes and cookies for us with real, flavorful vanilla, not the cheap kind other families would buy at the grocery store. This was the real McCoy. Then, you’d cover my face with kisses and I’d wrap my small body around you, feeling the warmth of your return.

Mama, I loved you so and wanted to hold you forever!

I’d draw pictures for you and write, “Love and kisses for Mama” across the top. Drawings of little girls with their mothers, smiling at each other, in fields of colorful flowers.

I’m sorry I said those things to you in high school. It was my hateful period when I felt lonely and lost, like I had no one. But you were there, always there, and when I went off to college you’d write me every week long letters from home and folded carefully in the envelope were clippings from Newsday of stories you knew I’d find interesting.

You took care of me after my first child was born. The emergency Cesarian had taken it’s toll on me and so you helped bathe and feed me, so I could save my energy to care for my son.

A boy. A grandson for you. I remember how you didn’t want me to call him Joshua at first, because you were having trouble pronouncing it and because you had never heard the name before. But then, as I was awaking from surgery, you said it was okay. That your sister, Yoly, told you the Spanish pronunciation, Josue. Besides, you’d also just seen the film, “South Pacific,” and it was directed by Joshua Logan, so now you knew the name. Call him, Joshua, you said.

I remember you, Mama. I can still breathe you and feel your worn hands. I can see the toe that you stubbed as a child, the nail never growing in right after that. I can taste your bread pudding, and run my fingers along the fabric of the many dresses you sewed for me. I remember your furrowed brow and the worry lines above your nose, as you scraped money together, just so I could have piano lessons.

Most of all I remember reading to you. I shared with you whatever I was reading for school and would read aloud while you scrubbed the kitchen cleaned and darned my father’s socks. Together we cried over “A Lantern in her Hand,” about the pioneer woman who sacrificed everything for her family, much as you did for us. We cried too, over “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” when Francine’s father died from alcoholism. Poor Francine, we said, when it looked like she’d have to quit school to help support her family.

The last time you visited me, was right after I moved to San Diego. My little girl was just six months old. You traveled across country, taking two planes to get here, with your mother’s large porcelain vase in your lap. The vase was the only possession you had left from your own childhood and you carried it all the way here, for fear it might break if you packed it, so that I could have it.

I remember that vase from my own childhood, and every curlicue in its design, Mama. Growing up, it had always been filled with pussy willows. Now it sits in my living room, and I’ve filled it with pussy willows. Your mother handed it down to you, and you to me. It was the last, most precious gift you gave me.

For on that trip I sensed something was wrong. It’s when you started to leave us, your memory drifting away, like the scent of your morning coffee. I didn’t know then how little time we had left. That the one thing I dreaded most was just around the bend. Within a year your memory would be gone. A distant memory, if you will. Within three, we’d be at your graveside, watching as they lowered your casket into the ground. Losing you was the hardest thing I’ve had to bear so far, Mama.

I chose a beautiful red dress for you to wear that I found in your closet, still with its tag on. It had a white Peter Pan collar. Who knows when you bought it or why you’d never worn it. Perhaps, the hippie dress would’ve been more appropriate, as you’d worn it so many times in life. Perhaps, it might’ve given us a laugh, but it was long gone.

Don’t go, Mama, I whispered. Open your eyes once more, and stay a little longer. I have so much to tell you. So much.

More than anything, I remember you, Mama. I always will.


35 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Mama

  1. Absolutely beautiful and heartfelt. I’m smelling the vanilla – testament to some great writing, lady! Thank you. I am now reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, and am already endeared to Francine. Now, I’ll read the remainder with a new urgency, knowing the special memory it held of the time with you and your mama. My mother is still with me, but I worry most about that in-between period of grief, should it ever come – that time when she is still physically there, but her memory has left her – I sometimes think that that might be more painful to bear than the physical loss itself.

    I appreciate the beauty with which you rendered this piece. I could almost see you, with quiet deliberation, unfolding a well-stitched, timeworn quilt, opening it one section at a time, to reveal the whole of it.

  2. Beautiful and loving story Monica! There is never enough time and so much we wish we could share so I like to think they are watching us as we move forward. Thank you….

  3. The scent of vanilla, the house dresses, etc. — issn’t it always the little things that leave the most profound impact? Although when it comes to memories of mothers, there’s so much that is forever with us.

    • Yes! So true. And whatever became of house dresses? They don’t make them anymore, do they? I certainly don’t have any, do you? Cracks me up, the thought of them and how popular they once were. I just wear sweatpants and a tee when I’m puttering around the house. 🙂

  4. So beautiful Monica. The Amber bottles of vanilla stayed straight away. And I know the value of good vanilla. How wonderful to have a mom like you did. Even though Alzheimer’s robbed her memory, you have the most special ones to tuck away, to keep you going, to remember her by. Miss my own mama so much. Love.

    • This is the best vanilla. When I went to Venezuela a few years ago, I brought back some bottles of it. I still have one left in my fridge. From time to time, I open the bottle and inhale. The sweet fragrance is so distinct. She always said to half the quantity needed for a recipe because it was so pure, that’s all you’d need. And she’s right. That’s what I do. Give your mom a call. Skype, whatever it takes, and please tell her I said hello. That I think she did an amazing job in raising you. You’re a good person, MM, and it’s because of your mother that you are raising two beautiful, smart girls.

    • Thank you, Val. Something I just remembered was how when my friends were over, I wouldn’t want her to speak because of her accent. It embarrassed me. Now, the thought that I did that to her makes me feel bad. Why did I care so much about what my friends would think? In the end it meant nothing.

  5. This is so tender and beautiful, Monica. On the 31st of this month my own mother will have been gone for 40 years. She died when I was only 23 so I missed so much of what you had with your mom. “I’m sorry I said those things to you in high school. It was my hateful period…” I’m grateful to know I’m not the only one with such regrets.

    • I’m so sorry, Jayne. I feel for your 23 year old self. It’s always hard losing a mother. But to lose her so young, that’s hard. I feel bad for my sister, too. She’s younger than me and was barely 30 at the time.

  6. Tears to my eyes. So beautifully written from the heart. Every daughter can relate who has lost her mother…..like ‘yesterday’ the feeling is, no matter the number of days or weeks or years. Bless her soul up in Heaven and yours here on Earth below.

    • Thank you so much, and thank you for reading. I’m glad you think it’s something others can relate to. It is when we pour our heart and soul into our work that it can resonate for others. When we are truthful, and I’m pleased that my authenticity came through. I say that with all sincerity.

      • So beautiful. I cried, thinking of my own mother, of course…..while feeling your feelings. Your mother is proudly celebrating with you. 🙂

  7. Monica, this is a beautiful tribute to your mama! I can almost smell the vanilla, see her in her “hippie dress,” feel her worn hands — and I can tell how much you still miss her. Mamas shouldn’t leave this world early. Their kids still need them, even as adults! Happy Birthday to her in Heaven!

    • Debbie, the hippie dress was trippy to say the least. Here was this sensible, shy even, woman with all these blast from the past signs all over her dress. Oh how I wish I had a photograph of her in that dress. But, as you probably know, back then when we took photos, we were dressed up for the occasion. There were no cell phone cameras to take spontaneous photos to post on FB. If there had been, that dress was definitely worthy of a status update. 😉 Glad you liked my tribute.

  8. What beautiful memories. It must have been painful to share them but we are fortunate that you did. Wishing you peace on your mother’s birthday.

    • Thanks, Shary. Not as painful as you might think. It was more like a release. I needed to put these things down, though you should see what ended up on the “cutting room floor.” Sigh.

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