The night my mother threatened to kill me, she stood in the doorway of the shag-carpeted room I shared with my little sister. Silhouetted against the hall light, her long hair falling out of its bun, she said once I fell asleep she would stab me so quickly I would never know that I had died.
My mother and I were living on borrowed time. According to a tarot-card reader, my mother was not supposed to live past 30. Yet here she was, alive at 33, and still with a predilection for knives. She often threatened suicide by pulling out a steak knife to press against her belly. But that night it was me she threatened to slice open like one of her baked eggplants.
I’m sure that any sin I had committed at 8 had to do with not giving her enough attention. She needed me to regularly praise her dinners or to acknowledge that she had made my bed. The night I was supposed to die, I stared out my window at the star-flecked sky, trying not to fall asleep.
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A poet once promised her daughter to paint the entire solar system on the back of the girl’s hand so that she could proclaim: I know the entire universe like the back of my hand. I wanted a mother like that. In my world, stars exploded in anxiety attacks. In my world, I was keenly aware that the stars shining brightly in the sky had actually died eons ago.
When I woke up the next morning, I didn’t know if I was dead or alive. My mother, still in her tattered pink-and-white check housecoat, had fallen asleep on the living room sofa.
I’ve always excused my mother’s bad behavior as homesickness for Cuba; she grieved for the place. In the middle of a Connecticut winter she’d moan, “Hay Cuba como to estraño.” Because she missed Cuba so did I. It didn’t matter that at that point I had never been there. Cuba was like my mother—inaccessible, exotic, ruined.
I’ve never told my 20-year-old daughter about my mother’s homicidal tendencies. I don’t have to. She has her own reasons for mistrusting her grandmother whom she calls Abu—short for abuela. Abu favors her 17-year-old brother over her because he’s a boy. She says it outright and without apology. Abu has never said she is sorry to anyone.
Abu, beautiful and flirty and stormy when she was younger, still carries a torch for her first boyfriend that ignites heartache over and over. The former beauty queen, the aspiring university student, came to the United States in 1958. She was 22 and rented a room in Brooklyn from distant cousins. No amount of coaxing would get her to go to out on a Saturday night. Only unrefined girls attended singles dances—chusmas who wore ankle bracelets and painted their toenails red. Instead, she danced alone, her hand over her heart and her hips swinging to the tinny music on The Lawrence Welk Show.
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It would be another year before my father zoomed into her life in a new yellow-finned Chrysler. When he did, my mother was smitten with the idea of an older, Ivy League–educated man, his hands soft, his nails trimmed. He looked like Harry Belafonte. He drank too much, but so did most Americans.
My mother was the oldest daughter of a violent alcoholic father and a depressed, hypochondriac mother, frequently hospitalized for mysterious ailments. Raging father and absent mother. I called him the kissing Abuelo—sloppy, gummy, mouthy smooches. I ran circles around him as he tried to chase me. It was my saving grace that if he did anything more than shuffle—it triggered his angina.
My mother has created an entire mythology about her life in Cuba. She said she lived in Old Havana in a grand apartment with a marble staircase. A maid cleaned each stair into blinding shininess. In America my mother said she was the maid in her own house. ¡Soy la criada!, she screamed as she furiously scrubbed toilets in her housecoat and the dark-framed, thick-lensed glasses she switched out for contacts when she was in a good mood. She was feral when she cleaned.
But the central narrative of my mother’s life is pure fabrication. She claimed to have attended the University of Havana where she was a social-work student—a saint of a girl who, over the objections of her supervisors, bought her clients food and clothing. These stories were the fairy tales of my childhood.
The dates that she said she went to the University of Havana did not align with history. On the day that she said she heard gunshots while taking a quiz, the university had been shut down for over six months. The University of Havana never had a school for social work. And Fidel Castro could not have been the man sitting on the bench who invited her for coffee. He was still in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.
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Facts have never counted in my mother’s stories; rules have never stood in her way. She only listens to curanderas and women who read las cartas. She believes in the power of healers and signs from tarot cards. They give her the confidence to ignore reality. In one spectacular instance of self-assurance my mother applied to a Masters program in Spanish Literature and was admitted without proof of educational credentials. This was the mid-’60s and the rusty iron curtain had completely hidden Cuba from the world. My mother rode a wave of educational amnesty. Her university transcripts, she said, were hostage to Castro’s government.
In pictures of my mother the graduate, she poses in the driveway in full academic regalia—a black robe with wide masters sleeves—as if she is about to fly away. A mortarboard and tassel crowns her head. She does not smile. She never smiles.
At her graduation, she pulled out the cheat sheet my father wrote for her so she could sing the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Patriotic American lyrics eluded her. “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” turned in to “My WTIC”—the call letters of Hartford’s most popular radio station. When she switched on the radio music seeped into every corner of the house. The “Big Band Show” was her favorite and she danced to it with the ghosts of the boys who adored her.
For years my mother taught high school Spanish. She spent most of her career forcing kids to conjugate verbs and memorize vocabulary. Teaching was performance, but occasionally my mother broke from character and had outbursts on her classroom stage. How could her students not care about stem-changing verbs or the history of her Cuba before the Revolution? Being the child of a tempestuous teacher is membership in its own hellish club. We, her children at home, were one and the same as her school kids who answered back and talked out of turn.
In the assisted-living home where my mother now lives, she teaches a weekly class in conversational Spanish. As I wheel her to the dining room, she waves to her students like she is the mayor of a small town, Her new students, in their 80s and 90s, are more respectful and doting than anyone has ever been to my mother. They tell her that, at 79, she is young. Delighting in her relative youth, my mother tells me that her mind is good. The only thing wrong with her is that she can’t walk, which maroons her in a recliner or a wheelchair.
My mother has not left the assisted-living complex in months. We drive a hundred miles each way to see her, delivering diapers and snacks. During those visits we watch Univision or game shows with her. If my children are with me they try their best to pay attention to their Abu even though she says the same thing over and over. Don’t I look good? I’m still sharp, aren’t I? We tell her that no one can pull anything over on you, Abu.
When she inevitably falls asleep in her chair, I picture her throwing the remote at one of her aides. (It’s the latest incident in a string of her bad behavior.) All I have to do is think back to the dishes she threw against the wall if we dawdled too long at the dinner table to believe it’s really happening all over again
My mother almost always ends our visits by asking me if I think she’ll live to see 80. I don’t need a tarot-card reader to tell me that she will die teaching Spanish well into old age.