EVERY FIRST FRIDAY

EVERY FIRST FRIDAY

From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Every First Friday

La experiencia no es el más amable de los maestros, pero sin duda el más sabio.

Latino Proverb

I looked out the window and couldn’t see a thing. I had to scrape off the frost with my fingernails in order to glimpse the gusting wind and thrusting snow. No one would dare venture out on such a cold winter night unless they had no other choice: My mother was one of those people. Mama was on her way to her job cleaning offices in downtown Chicago. Under her scarf and hat, I could see her tired eyes. Standing next to her was my younger brother, César. He was also covered from head to toe in winter wear, but his eyes sparkled.

On the first Friday of the month, Mama was allowed to bring her children to work. I was about twelve years old at the time; my brother was ten. She worked Monday through Saturday from 11 P.M. to 6 A.M. She had to take three buses to get downtown. On every first Friday, César was right there with her. I, on the other hand, was always too busy. If it wasn’t baseball practice, basketball tryouts or some movie, I’d come up with another excuse. I couldn’t see myself staying awake all night cleaning offices. César and Mama would beg me to go along, but after a while they stopped asking, knowing I’d say no. It was different for my brother. César would come home and excitedly tell me how he had helped Mom vacuum the carpets, dust, and throw out the trash. But the highlight of his night was always playing hide-and-seek with the other workers’ children.

My mother’s coworkers were all immigrants, mostly Polish and Mexican women. Many were from our neighborhood, and they, too, would take their sons and daughters to clean offices on those first Fridays. Most of them labored this horrendous shift so they could send their children to Catholic schools. My mother was no exception.

My parents came to this country from Mexico and at first did not speak English, so the only jobs they could find were manual labor. Remarkably, through it all, my mother never complained about being too tired or too busy. She cooked us breakfast every morning, was always there for us after school and made sure we were safely in bed before she left for work.

How cozy it must be for lawyers and dentists to show off their offices to their children. It’s much different taking your child on three buses on a cold Friday night to help you clean them. But my mother was willing to do it. She wanted our company, but more important, she wanted to show us how she paid the bills. But I never once saw for myself how Mama earned her livelihood.

When I was a senior in high school, I asked my brother why he had loved going to those offices so much. Did he actually like dusting and vacuuming? His answer wasn’t at all what I expected. He said the reason he went was not that he liked picking up after other people, but because he loved spending time with Mom. He said he felt sad each night when she left for work; he was always wishing she didn’t have to go. So for at least one evening a month, he had the chance to be right there with her. I felt ashamed, wondering why I hadn’t seen it that way. To me, it was a chore, something I was too good for. I had the luxury of saying no; my mother didn’t. And my brother had actually chosen to do it.

Ironically, after graduating from college with a degree in accounting, César found a job in the very same building my mother had cleaned years before. On his first day, César wore a suit; he was now a businessman. My mother straightened his tie, kissed him on the cheek and gave him her blessing. But on the way to his car, my brother stopped and rushed back to the house. He set down his briefcase, put his arms around our mother and began to cry. She embraced him even tighter and also wept. The cleaning lady’s son had grown up.

As I watched this display of love and tenderness between mother and son, I realized the full extent of my mother’s sacrifices. And today, I often think of my brother’s warmth and generosity. He understood as a boy what it took years for me to learn. He knew how to express love, gratitude and affection toward his family. He also realized that certain opportunities come only once in a lifetime, and that if you don’t grab them, they’re gone forever. Mama passed away several years ago, and not a day goes by that I don’t have her in my mind and heart.

How I wish I had gone to clean those offices.

Alejandro Díaz

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