From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Mama Can’t Read

Last night, sitting with a group of friends who share my love for words, someone wondered what my mother would think if she read a silly thing I had written.

“My mother doesn’t read or write,” I told them. I saw their shocked expressions.

I’ve never been ashamed of my mother’s illiteracy. Never. They could assume it was some kind of culturally deprived circumstance or a measure of my family’s lack of intelligence. I knew better. I tried to explain.

“She’s not ignorant or lacking,” I said. Then I caught myself. Why should I explain? Yes, I wish she could have had the chance to read, but that’s the way it’s always been. In spite of the hardship not reading has been for her, what was missing ended up bringing us closer. Some of my most cherished memories are of sitting in the kitchen and reading the newspaper to my mother. How could they possibly understand this special link, my personal bond to my mother?

“How awful it must be to not be able to read,” one woman commented.

I glanced around the roundtable of educated faces and saw disbelief and pity in their eyes. I didn’t want to glorify my mother’s lack of education or be insensitive to it, but I resented having to defend my mother’s illiteracy. Then I thought about my own love of books. As a child, I escaped my hopelessly poor surroundings through the magic of reading. From the depths of our struggling existence, reading was my ticket out.

But what about Mama?

I wondered if Mama’s life could have been different. If I should have at least asked how she felt about it or offered to teach her. I was filled with guilt and sadness, and I longed to be with her, feel her arms around me.

I remember waking up early and reading portions of the newspaper to Mama in the kitchen. She’d always have a cup of steaming atole for me. I felt closer whenever I read to her: Her interest or excitement was mine. Her eyes lit up in various shades, depending on the subject. If it was a killing or scandal, her eyes got wide as silver dollars. She’d raise her hands to her cheeks and cry, “Ay, Dios mío!” She’d want to hear every detail twice. If I read news of something especially nice, her eyes would melt into tears of happiness, “Ay, qué suave, m’ijo.” She hung on every word, savored every line. I became her eyes, her window to the world.

Mama’s favorite part of the newspaper was the obituary section. After the main news, she’d always press me for it. It was a game I played. Save the best for last. “Who died?” she’d ask anxiously. To an outsider, it might seem like a depressing way to view life, but to me, and especially to her, there was something about the obits section that brought great anticipation.

My own anticipation came from watching her reaction. I must admit, I’d get caught up in the drama, too. As I read, my mood would change, and my tone would soften, almost to a whisper. I’d solemnly read the list of deaths, pausing briefly for effect. If there was one even slightly familiar, I was to go over and over it until we understood exactly where the connection was. My mother’s heart would race, she’d shake her hands, wipe her brow and talk about how we knew this person. If it was someone very close, or worse, family, then she’d grab for her apron to wipe away the tears of sadness and shock.

Eventually, I grew up and moved away. I wrote letters to Mama whenever possible. Sometimes I’d write a short story about our family and send it to one of my sisters with instructions to read it to her. I knew she’d cry because my stories were gentle slices of our family, reminders of our lives. I pictured exactly how she would hear them, the words winding their way into her heart.

“Look, Mama, this is about us, our stories,” I’d write. Her face would light up, tears in her eyes.

“Read it again, m’ija,” she’d beg my sister. “I want to hear it again.”

Last week, I drove home to visit her in the early morning. She no longer stands over the table patting masa for tortillas, as she’d like to do, to please me. Her hands are wracked with arthritis, barely able to hand me the cup of atole as I sit down and unfold the newspaper. Her figure, once proud and upright, is now slumped, and she uses a walker to move slowly across the kitchen. It hurts to see her this way. I wish I could buy something to rejuvenate her tired body, to keep her with me.

Our days are slipping away.

I stop, look lovingly at her and ask, “Mama, did you ever feel bad because you couldn’t read?”

She stares at me, then scolds, “Don’t be silly. I have you to read to me.” Then, with that familiar twinkle in her eyes that magically erases all doubt, she asks, “A ver, m’ijo, tell me who died.”

Charles A. Mariano

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