Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Immigrant daughter reflects on mother--a loving memory

As the years go by, I think about all the ways life slips by. I see ads and TV shows geared toward me now, reminiscent of 1980s nostalgia; it reminds me that in the midst of watching the Brady Bunch as it began to rerun, and watching MTV become an obsession, and wanting to be fashionable as a pre-teen, and all the ways my mother chose counter to fashion that frustrated me. Looking back now, I can see she was thinking humbly for us, creating women of subdued taste.

I think of the many ways the 1980s shaped my life--the many ways I learned about what it meant for my parents to live across an ocean from their own parents. For my mother it was the ultimate creativity: she not only had to deal with a stubborn husband and no mother to turn to, but create a home space familiar to her, as familiar as she could get it. In the stores, she did not find allspice or cumin seed or the sausages she craved, so they sent for spices and went out to a farm to kill a pig and create meals for a winter for three families. Blood sausage, linguiça, chouriço--the garlicky, spicy, meaty, rich hand made sausage she and my godmother and great-aunts made from memory, drying hanging from the ceiling alongside dried herbs--and, when ready, frying it up in a kettle on the old-fashioned stove in my godfather’s cellar. The women would gather round the small table in the middle of the kitchen and get their arms almost elbow-deep into mixtures of food, offal, all put to use. My mother could make the best “tripas”--chitlins for Southern folk. She knew exactly how to clean them and make them into a stew so rich and creamy you might miss you were eating cow stomach. Gizzards and livers were the same--and my mother was astounded by the sheer number you could buy at once in the American grocery store she and my godmother would walk six blocks to. Having butchered chickens in Portugal herself, she knew this was a delicacy not everyone at table got to try back home, and now she could feed many at once.

Food wasn’t the only way my mother nurtured creativity--in my remembrance as a little girl, I saw my mother as fashionista, creating outfits for my sister and I that made us even cuter than our pigtails and chubby cheeks did. The pink dress with the princess puff sleeves and the white rickrack that trimmed the edge of the sleeves and the hem was my favorite; the effect was that of icing on a birthday cake, and this offset my red patent leather shoes quite nicely. She consulted the honorary grandmother in our lives--Senhora Marquinhas, my godmother’s mother, who knew about all folks remedies and foodways, and who essentially was Mãe’s--mother’s-- midwife when she had me. The women of our community, left to their own devices, learned how to figure things out from what they knew and what they were coming to know in a new place, with new customs and language and ways of doing things. Sharing sewing patterns, knitting tips, recipes, gossip, and advice about the everyday, these women created as they adapted to the city in which they now lived.

My mother created moments in which we could play--all the while chiding us, fearful we would get hurt or in trouble, she nonetheless created moments we could play in the midst of her busy day. I remember her sitting on the stairs on the back porch, watching us play on the sidewalk, monitoring how close we got to the street, which was to say always too close. Our father would eventually let us bike down this same street, but in this memory I am not much taller than my mother’s legs, and come and hang over them in a moment of rest from running around. I feel the prickly of her legs, unshaved, and think now on how many times I have not shaved my legs for the sake of doing something else. That was her, in her thirties. In my thirties, I look back, and I wonder if I can be that creative woman: and I think I have struck my own path of creativity.

Even this she nurtured: my interest in words, pictures, and magazines came at an early age. In kindergarten, our teacher, Mrs. Berger, would send us home with a construction paper sheet marked with a single letter. We needed to find pictures of objects which started with this letter, and this fascinated both of us. Mãe would sit with me and snip carefully all manner of things from magazines she’d gotten from neighbors or friends and family, or that Dad had found at work. Mrs. Berger sent some home with me, too, knowing this was not a commodity Portuguese families just bought into: Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal, Life, mostly these kinds of magazines. I often wonder if my teacher realized she was teaching two for one--woman and child; watching Sesame Street with me until her favorite soap was on, Mãe would hum and flip through the magazines and get me to point out and explain the country via magazine. Dad helped, too, when he could. His high school experience with languages made him more confident than Mãe, but she was gaining an experience she could share with her oldest--something I think which affects our relationship to this day. Somehow all those battles we got into and the friendship we have now created over time and distance shows a kind of equality between us, which she subtly shows in the way we bilingually chat, share ideas, tousle over details in life, fret over some of the same things. I think even if you give a woman something to worry about she can make it gold: I have come to pray, meditate and recreate my views of worry. I have come to share with girlfriends who have become a strong backbone in my life-- a series of chance meetings, developed friendships, and life lessons which have created a new way to look at worry and sorrow for me. I share this with Mãe whenever I can, because I know she still worries--fears that have root in some of her first struggles as a young mother who could not speak English well in this vast new country.

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