Before Don Dehoracio died, he used to drag his feet, mincing his steps like he was wearing a geisha dress, to avoid bumping into things. He was going blind. This is how my mother remembers him; old, fat, blind, scratching his slippers on the wooden floor, making a “swish, shush” sound as he pushed and dragged his feet. Don Dehoracio was married to my mom’s Tia Julia. Tia Julia adopted my mother when my mom’s father, who was Tia Julia’s brother, died, leaving my grandmother Ana destitute. Grandma Ana lived in a little farm-town outside the city. She visited my mother occasionally and at every occasion, my mother begged my grandmother to take her with her. Grandma never did take her away; offering the same reply as always, that Aunt Julia could give her a better life. I can’t imagine my mother begging, she’s always been such a proud woman. I remember in grade school, while other kids bragged about their new Nike shoes and how their mothers got them by trading food stamps, I asked my mother how come we didn’t get food stamps. She said she left that devil back in communist Nicaragua, that she’d rather work for an honest living than live like a parasite sucking off the government. I can’t imagine her begging.
She began sharing stories about her childhood when I started coming home from college on the weekends. I think it started one night I woke to use the bathroom. I usually walk with my eyes half closed because if I notice anything too much, I’ll have trouble falling back to sleep. That night, I was sitting on the toilet with my eyes half closed when my mother came in the same way, her eyes half closed too. She almost sat on me. We both screamed, frightening each other even more and then laughed out loud. It was hard to fall asleep after that. We stayed up drinking chamomile tea while she talked about her childhood.
Sometimes I watch movies where a mother will tell a daughter about how when she was young she had been a beauty queen or won a dancing contest or something wonderful like that. That’s not what story time is like with my mother. It’s not just that my mother had been a Central-American Cinderella. It’s the perpetual lack of love and affection I still hear in my mother’s voice and how she’s still longing for that love that really gets me. I want to hug her sometimes, hold her inner child and begin to break away at that cold, concrete wall around her childhood heart. How do I get into that part of her brain where her pain and lack of love exists and shoo out the demons? I can’t. Instead I reach for her hand to squeeze it and she takes it away because taking my hand and feeling compassion would break her character and she loves owning her pain even as she shares it. All I can do is sit there.
I listen. Listen to how she used to sell liquor for my aunt and Don Dehoracio during prohibition. Mastermind Dehoracio thought no one would suspect a child of selling contraband; my mother became a hustler at the age of seven. The problem was that my mother is the only person I had ever heard say that she loved school. As she says, it was the only time anyone treated her like a child. Her teachers loved her. They loved her enthusiasm. The attention and affection she received from her teachers was addictive. My great aunt agreed to let my mother attend school, however, only if she didn’t neglect her responsibilities; peddling alcohol. So my mother pushed her liquor in the early hours before the sun came up, before she went to school.
It’s no wonder at 16, when she met my father, she got married right away and quickly became a mother and a proud home owner. My dad’s family used to be wealthy so he and my mother bought land from my great aunt. They built a house next door to my great aunt Julia’s house. That’s where we lived till 1984 when my mother decided to leave Nicaragua because my older brother was about to turn 14 and be drafted by the communist army.
In the U.S., living in what I call the Banana Republic of Miami, my mother became a baby sitter, dry cleaning attendant, cafeteria worker and finally, a house cleaning lady. She’s proud her kids had a dream life compared to hers. She’s proud to have four college grads.
The time my mother told me about Dehoracio dragging his feet because he had almost gone blind, she also told me about what happened right after he died. She was in her 20’s with two kids and my sister on the way. A few days after Dehoracio’s passing, my pregnant mother dreamt of him. In her dream she was asleep and heard the dragging of his feet. Faint at first, the steps quickly grew louder and louder; a continuous back-and-forth dragging sound, like a barber filing a razor blade on his leather strap. Swish. Shush. Swish, shush. And suddenly, it stopped. Then, she felt him sit on the bed beside her.
“Violetita,” he said, “wake up, I need you to do me a favor. I need you to go into my bench. There are important papers I need you to look at, I need you to take care of some business for me.” And then my mother awoke, her heart beating in the dead center of her stomach. Startled, she went next door to her aunt’s house. The aunt was still in mourning. She told the aunt that she’d dreamt with old man Dehoracio. The aunt said something about everybody missing him. My mother said no, it wasn’t that, and told the great aunt about the dream. Tia Julia, being illiterate and a superstitious type of woman, urged my mother to go ahead and look in Dehoracio’s ottoman. My mother went over to the bedroom, her aunt followed. She leaned over the bench and pulled the top open. Not knowing what she was looking for, she picked up the first stack of old, stained papers bound by an over stretched, relic of a rubber band and when she pulled on it, it popped, disintegrating in her hand like it was exhausted of keeping secrets it was never supposed to divulge. She slowly opened the documents. The first was a copy of my mother’s birth certificate but my mother’s parents were listed as her aunt and uncle. Then she found another birth certificate with her real parents’ names. She then found the deeds to my aunt’s property stating it had been my grandfather’s house and my mother the sole inheritor of the house and land. My mother’s stomach which had been an empty hole began to bubble with sour juices.
“What is it? What does it say?” she said aunt Julia had asked. My mother, without looking at her, told her the land she’d bought from Dehoracio had actually been my mother’s. The aunt sighed, nodding her head in disapproval, then she took my mother’s hand into hers and told her to read on.
There was a letter signed by grandma Ana stating Dehoracio had paid the hospital bill for my mother’s birth, a large debt my grandmother could not pay and therefore they, my great aunt and uncle, would keep her baby girl as collateral until grandma Ana could pay the debt. My mother went silent. She pulled her hand away from my great aunt’s grip, placed both her hands over her mouth as not to let hell out of there and grit her teeth. Aunt Julia already knew all of it.
“What can you do, my love? Sometimes men get their ideas and you know, we all need a man so we have to go along with them. You understand now that you’re married. Poor Dehoracio isn’t resting in peace knowing what he did to you. Now, if you want him to rest in peace, you have to forgive him. There’s no sense in crying over spilled milk. Come on my love, I’ll help you put this away,” my mother says the great aunt told her.
“Can you believe that?” My mother asked me. “Can you believe what they did to me?” When I tried to reply, I felt the lining of my throat engorged so thick I had to gulp my breaths. Not being able to speak, I nodded no. We fell silent.
For a long time we were silent. I was heavy, too heavy to speak, to get up.
One of my ex’s told me she’d seen her uncle get a “spiritual cleansing.” There had been a ceremony and all the bad energy, all the curses people had put on her uncle were transferred to a pigeon and once the transfer was done, the pigeon was released. But the bird wouldn’t fly away. It stayed on its claws till it dropped dead. That’s how I felt as the sun came up that morning, on that picture perfect day in Miami, I felt heavy with my mother’s misery hanging all over the room.
After a while, I regained my voice. I told my mother,
“Then grandma loved you. She really didn’t give you away.”
“She could have stolen me, she could have run away with me,” my mother said.
My mother has these stories about her life, about her wounds; these open wounds that even time can’t heal.