She turned 56 years old this week. Sometimes, her birthday has fallen on Mother’s Day, and both days are reason for a large family gathering: smiles, cake, a delicious meal, everyone sitting around the table, talking, laughing, telling stories, accompanied by the giggles and bursts of laughter from the little ones that have come to multiply our joy.
However, there wasn’t the hubbub of children running around the backyard, playing with the water hose or merengues all over their faces, this birthday. Or on Mother’s Day. Her son is far away, in Florida with her grandchildren; like the children of so many Cuban mothers, who now have to celebrate on a cellphone screen, with a videocall, message, from afar.
She is my mother-in-law and she could be your mother-in-law or a friend’s mother-in-law, or your mother or someone else you know’s mother, grandmother, aunt, sister or cousin. She is the image of Cuba, this island/mother that has had to bid farewell to so many of her children, while the majority still here are looking for a way to say goodbye and start all over again in another land. On the other shore, hearts cling to this Motherland full of gray hair and it’s impossible to cut the umbilical cord.
This Mother’s Day (May 14) was marked by a goodbye, by a hug sent from afar, from a kiss on hold. Mothers who are left behind in their empty homes, in their rocking chairs that move on their own, with the wind, telling stories of a past that has become nostalgia. Others, like my own who have had the courage to migrate in old age, carry the burden of all these years and disappointment, which becomes sadness, frustration, and pain when we look to the past and see everything that was shamelessly taken from us.
Cuba is the first mother that lives within me, and in the mothers that also live within me. Maybe this is why I sometimes have a lump in my throat when I must talk about it, or maybe it’s because of the sparrow that sometimes sits in my window frame. Cuba is the mother that watched me take my first steps, say my first words and give my first kisses. Everything begins with her, especially this article that I’m writing today from afar…
In the fore: my mother…
I am the result of all the mothers Fate has put in my path. I am all of these women who have marked each of my years on this Earth. There, in the fore, is my own mother. She never thought that at 55 years old she’d have to run, with a fractured foot, to touch US soil, leaving everything behind. Her home, her friends, her job, her life… She put her internationalist missions, her doctor’s coat, her academic certificates into her backpack, as well as this time that never comes back, feeling less and less young and with all of the fears migration involves at her age, at any age.
My mama managed to get a degree in Medicine after I was already born. My grandparents were her support network. Even though there may have been lots of times in my childhood that weren’t 100% happy, my grandmother looked after me as best as she knew and could, in keeping with her living situation.
I owe this uncontrollable love for literature to her and it’s thanks to her that I found a refuge in books, because she used to read to me ever since I was a little girl. My grandmother also lives within me, a part of her is always with me, especially in my childhood memories. Everything else that has happened and hurt me is just a part of my story, the story that has made me stronger.
When I was a little girl, my doctor mother had to go out with me in a horse drawn buggy to sell clothes, ribbons and anything else she could find. She always carried a large backpack, looking for a little bit of sugar, rice or a bottle of cooking oil for the house from workplaces.
I never could get my head around the fact that my mother, a working professional, couldn’t buy me a doll or a necklace with my name on it at the crafts fair. That’s why I never asked her for anything. I grew up understanding, although not entirely, that something was wrong in Cuba when a doctor has to go out and sell clothes and ribbons with her young daughter in order to survive. That was my first reality check.
I grew up watching her sacrifice herself for everyone, and maybe that has been her best and worst legacy. I don’t always agree with her; we are very different and yet, we share so much in common. However, she has always been my role model, my support and friend. I lived inside her for nine months, but she will always live within me.
My other mother: Life’s gift…
She says she never had children, but she’s my other mother. She came into my life when I was barely six or seven years old. She was a young guajarita (rural girl) who barely spoke. She came looking for my mother so she could help her get an appointment because her and her husband wanted to be parents but she couldn’t fall pregnant. She never imagined she’d find two children in this doctor’s house, who became a sister over time.
She was my refuge, my shoulder to cry on, my therapist, the person who was always close by to indulge and spoil me. I ran to her when my heart was broken, when I felt like the world would fall on top of me and when Life became hard. The best cook of stews and the grandmother that loves my children like her own grandchildren, even a little bit more. She also lives within me. Her generous smile, her friendly hand, her love are an essential part of who I am and my life. She is the person I miss the most ever since we migrated.
Her humble home was always my greatest refuge. During the pandemic, we only broke lockdown rules to go to that farm in the outskirts of Santiago de las Vegas which was my paradise. Daniel grew up happy there, running through fields of lettuce and bathing in watering canals. Dirty, full of earth and falling off the back of his grandpa Fuqui’s tractor, he would hug his mami, which has been his name for her ever since he started talking. There’s nobody better than him to prove that she is also our mother.
My fairy godmother
When we grow up, we’re told that fairy godmothers don’t exist, that pumpkins don’t turn into carriages and that nobody is going to turn up to transform our old rags into an elegant outfit or our boots into glass slippers. But when she showed up in our lives (by chance, by a miracle almost), everything was magical.
Our first conversations were by email, but I felt like I’d known her forever. I liked to write to her, to get everything off my chest with her, to ask her for advice, and she helped us to make lots of our dreams come true, even from a distance. I thought she was incredible.
She was always looking out for us, she advised us and every one of her words was part of this spell that brought me back hope. I just wanted to hug her, to know that she was real, to share with her and thank her in person. She was the one who supported us, helped us, lent a hand, legs, and entire body when we arrived in the US. She opened up the doors of her home, her family and her heart.
She has been another mother to give life to me. The person who, when I was pregnant for the second time and terrified, called me on WhatsApp and told me that a beautiful girl was on her way, and for me not to worry because everything was going to be OK. That’s exactly what happened. Now we have Emma, her beloved goddaughter, the girl with sky-blue eyes, to remind me of everything she means to us. Like a prophecy, her love has been conviction, comfort, and shelter. She is wisdom, generosity, love. She is also silence, calmness, and fortitude.
We have learnt a lot next to her these past few months. When something happens to us or we have a new idea, she’s the first person I like to go to. She always has a solution to every problem, and she feels our happiness as her own. She is the other mother who lives within me, even way before we met in person. Her family is our family.
Emigrating is a difficult process, it’s very lonely a lot of the time; and with two young children and so many concerns, it’s a real challenge. But she has known how to guide us, accompany us and has even thought out the simplest of details to help us forge our own path.
Alongside her, other mothers have appeared who accompany us on this process of starting over, who came like in a fairytale, and have helped us with love-filled gestures, especially towards the little ones. I’m very grateful for that, every day.
Myself as a mother: living within me…
Sometimes, I can’t quite believe I’m the mother of two children. Everything has happened so fast that we’ve had to accept these changes by living them, one by one, with bumps, tears, and smiles along the way.
If somebody were to ask me what the greatest challenge is to be a mother, I’d tell them it’s making peace with my inner child. Motherhood has taught me to know myself like never before, to recognize my flaws, my traumas, my greatest sadness, my emotional triggers; to look at my “I from the past” with more compassion and empathy; and to heal, so I can give my two little ones a happy mother, to also help them grow up happy.
I still can’t believe that the friends I used to share so many crazy moments, parties, and beers, are now the ones I share motherhood advice, late nights of colic and growth spurts with. Somehow, they also live within me, like aunts, cousins, sisters, mothers-in-law who have also been like mothers. Every woman who has come into my life and is here to stay forever.
I feel like I’m in a movie and this adult that now greets me in the mirror is in fact the child on a scooter and ribbons who used to help her mother sell clothes in the neighborhood. The same girl who used to exchange dolls she’d win in contests for cars for her brother, so her mother could save that money. This maternal instinct began then and has now extended to my children.
Parenthood has been the most beautiful and hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken in my life. Experiencing it in the middle of migrating is something that has marked my life. There’s a lot of mourning, a lot of stages and crises that we’ve had to face, while trying our best for the children not to notice these concerns and changes as much as possible, looking after their childhood and respecting their own growth process.
In terms of Mother’s Day, I can’t forget my husband. Everything has been much easier to deal with by his side, he’s dried my tears, he’s healed my wounds and we’ve forged this path together to make our dreams come true. Thanks to him, I’m also a better mother. He pushes me, inspires me, and helps me to recover my own confidence when I feel like I can’t go on. In the end, I can, we can, we did do it…
Would I do the last few years in the same way if I had to do it all over again? I think so, I think all of these experiences are part of a jigsaw puzzle that sometimes we don’t know how to piece together, but every piece has its place. If I had to describe this period of life as a mother with infinitives, I’d include start over, decide, breastfeed, migrate, cry, laugh, love. Especially love, this is our driving force. Ever since I’ve become a mother, I’m still me, just a different version, a better version, made of love which is my strength and adjusts so I can also give shelter to all of these mothers who live within me.
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