My mother always repeats this story to me anytime she knows I’m upset, and especially when I’m struggling with some difficulty within my family. And there seem to be many struggles between raising three teenaged kids and navigating an amicable separation with their mother and balancing the costs of two households with limited income.
My mother repeats:
“I remember when you were just a little baby. So mean and sour. I remember it was this night I was on the Greyhound bus going from El Paso to Albuquerque, and you must have been seven weeks old. It was late at night, and I was exhausted, trying to sleep, and I heard you making these weird, gurgly noises. I had no idea what I was doing with you. No, you were just so strange. I was only 19. So I reached up and turned on that light above the seat. Like a spotlight, it hit your face, and you stopped everything, and you looked right at me, right in the eye. And you smiled. You smiled at me. I loved you right then.”
At this point in the story, every time, my mother is in tears.
It used to bother me that she told that same story year after year. “I know, Mom,” I’d cut her off, “I smiled at you.”
But now I know that story was a way to remind each other of our bond—through difficulties, we share a history.
Now I listen to how she tells it each time differently, what additions she makes, how little things change or take on new meaning. The tenor of her voice, soft like a hymn. I let the story hit me, making me feel small like that baby, shocked at how vulnerable I feel. I watch my mother’s face, the aging lines deeper, the weight around her brow heavier.
I see how I have learned to do the same thing with my children.
When my middle daughter walks in from school, I tackle her onto the couch, telling her how much I love her. We have this game we play. I say, “I love you this much,” and measure out a foot or so with my hands, and then she says, “Well, I love you this much,” and measures out maybe two feet, and we go on until we can stretch no farther.
After we are done, I ask her about school. In her class they’re talking about the enslavement of blacks, about the ways slave traders and slaveowners would break up families, would breed humans. She’s horrified.
She asks, “What would you do, Dad? Would you let them take me?”
I sit for a second, trying to imagine. I can’t; it’s beyond comprehension. So I relate a story. It’s the one that the book Beloved, by Toni Morrison, is based on.
I tell her about Margaret Garner—when she was about to be returned to slavery, she hid with her children in a toolshed. She then picked up a saw and proceeded to cut off her youngest baby’s head. The slaveowners stopped her before she got to the second child. Needless to say, my daughter is horrified.
“Are you kidding?” my daughter says, “Maybe that’s too much love.”
We sit in silence. I think about what she just said: Maybe sometimes as parents we love too much, we try too hard, desperate to do something to keep at bay pain, loss, change.
I realize now—as children grow older and learn to resist you and your values and ideals, like they should—that families, in fact, have to change. But what bridges the divides are the stories, the memories we keep alive.
Later that night, as I tuck my youngest daughter into bed, I ask her, “Mija, did I ever tell you the story of when you were sick as a baby?”
I think of my mother. I can taste the importance of the story.
I look down. My daughter rolls her eyes and moans, “Yes—like a thousand times,” but she waits for me to continue.
And I do.
I continue to tell the stories.