From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Things I Learned from My Mother

The stars are constantly shining, but often we do not see them until the dark hours.


When I was sixteen, my best friend and I went to the neighborhood Woolworth, crammed ourselves into a tiny, curtained cubicle and, after paying a quarter, mugged wildly while a camera took four consecutive snapshots of us. The resulting pictures, a strip of black-and-white photographs of inferior quality, made us laugh for hours. Much later, when Marilyn and I were examining the pictures for what seemed to be the hundredth time, she said something that made me question whether the pictures were as amusing as I first imagined.

“You remind me of your mother in these pictures,” Marilyn remarked.

I went home and threw the pictures into the trash.

Back then, there was nothing that could insult me more than being compared to my mother. The truth was, and it hurts me to admit it, I was ashamed of her. And so, throughout my teen years, I did everything possible to prove that I was the antithesis of what I perceived her to be.

I had not always felt negatively about Mami. As a little girl, I was nicknamed “El Chiclet” because one of our neighbors observed that I stuck to my mother much like a piece of gum stubbornly adheres to the bottom of a shoe. Whether my mother was shopping, washing clothes or catching a TV show at our neighbor’s apartment, I was there with her. I was so attached to her, in fact, that I often spent hours perched on a stool watching her iron the men’s shirts she took in to earn a few extra dollars. I would be mesmerized by the fluid movements of her hands as she spread each shirt flat, smoothed it with her palms and rhythmically ironed the wrinkles away.

Most times, Mami hummed or sang as she worked her way through dozens of shirts, but on occasion, if I begged long enough, she would tell me a story. Mami would entertain me with stories about Juan Bobo, the famous Puerto Rican simpleton, or her own versions of fairy tales. My favorite was one about a damsel who rode on the back of a mythical creature to rescue her true love. Mami loved board games and could play Parcheesi or Chinese checkers for hours. She always beat me at Chinese checkers. I asked her once why she never let me win. She said that when I finally learned to play well enough to win on my own, I would appreciate it all the more. To this day, I can’t recall if that ever happened.

I don’t remember exactly when my feelings for my mother changed. I do know, however, that by the time I was in high school, Mami and I spent most of our time bickering. I resented everything about her, even those things she had no control over. I was embarrassed by her appearance because she was short and overweight. I was ashamed of her pitiable lack of education and broken English. I was mortified whenever she went through other people’s garbage and salvaged things like toasters and irons so she could fix them and have a “new” appliance. The things I resented most of all, however, were Mami’s rules. At eighteen, I still had a midnight curfew, and I was never allowed to sleep over at any friend’s house. I fought her on every rule she imposed. Our home was a battlefield because she would not give in to me, just like she’d never let me win at Chinese checkers.

I moved out of my house eight months after I graduated from high school. In the years that followed, my mother and I lived in relative, distant peace. We talked on the phone occasionally; we saw each other even less. I never revealed anything about my life to her that would cause conflict between us. We both liked it that way.

It was not until I had my first child that my relationship with my mother began to change. My sister’s daughter, my mother’s only other grandchild, was already ten, and Mami was thrilled to have a new grandson to play with. We started visiting each other more often, and I discovered that Mami instinctively knew how to grandparent. She gently guided me when I asked for advice, but she never interfered.

Shortly after my son celebrated his second birthday, Mami was diagnosed with acute leukemia and was hospitalized for eight months. Weakened by chemotherapy and now confined to a wheelchair, Mami was no longer able to live alone. My husband and I offered to bring her to live with us.

While my sister and I were sorting through Mami’s possessions in anticipation of her move into my home, I discovered the sepia-toned strip of pictures that Marilyn and I had taken at Woolworth. Somehow, Mami had rescued them from the trash and saved them in her photo album. As I grinned at the silly snapshots, I still could not see the resemblance between Mami and me that had been so obvious to my friend.

If I were ever to categorize the periods of my life that have given me the most grief and the most joy, I would have to say that the time my mother lived with us would count as both. During those years, my husband and I sacrificed our privacy and built our lives around my mother’s comfort and care. We took her to all of her doctor’s appointments, drove her to chemotherapy sessions and shopped for special foods. I monitored her medications and learned to inject her with insulin to control the diabetes she developed from the chemotherapy drugs. And yet, I have many wonderful memories of that time as well.

I can remember Mami’s excitement when my son, Nick, and I gave her a wheelchair tour of the Bronx Zoo, and she spotted a baby giraffe. I can still recollect her exhilaration when we took her to visit her family in Puerto Rico. And best of all, I can still recall the bickering between Mami and Nick when they played Chinese checkers. She complained that he cheated, and he whined, not surprisingly, that she never let him win.

Two years after coming to live with us, Mami passed away, leaving me with an unbridgeable chasm of grief that, in some ways, I still carry with me today. Every once in a while, I pull out my mother’s old album and stare at that yellowed strip of photographs that my friend and I took so many years ago.

The young girl in those photos who was ashamed of her mother has grown up. Today I search to find a similarity with the woman who taught herself to read and write, who had to iron men’s shirts to make ends meet, and who was the best darned small-appliance repairman on La Salle Street.

Sylvia Rosa-Casanova

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