Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Happy birthday, Mother

Had my mother not died in January of 2005 as a direct consequence of a hip and shoulder broken in a fall, she might have turned 97 today. Given that her last years were very painful ones, due mostly to severe osteoporosis and arthritis, and made more difficult by gradually diminishing hearing and other faculties, it may not be such a bad thing that her life finished when it did.

Middle age was difficult for her as well, but in other ways. Most of the years she was married to my father were unfulfilling at best, and very unpleasant at worst. But there was a period between her happy childhood in Puerto Rico, where she was raised, and the declines of old age, that I think were probably her best. The following is from my story of my own life, and reflects a recurring event of significant happiness for me as well: my regular annual Christmas trip to visit her in Puerto Rico, where she returned after divorcing my father in 1972.

"Each Christmas break we spent in Puerto Rico with Mother, who thrived there. She was teaching oral English at the University of Puerto Rico in the collegial Department of English. She easily resumed friendships with people she had known since childhood; these included Domitila (Tila) Belaval, the chair of the English department who had arranged her appointment; her friend from earliest childhood, Jean Knight Cheneaux, and Jean’s Swiss husband Georges Cheneaux (later murdered in his own back yard in front of his wife by burgling invaders); and the large Megwinoff-Mayoral clan, and their children and grandchildren, also hearkening back many, many years. She also quickly made new friends, some of whom became very close, among her fellow professors at the university. The students loved her and she regularly received teaching honors. She enjoyed her little rented apartment on Calle Ísabel la Católica in a pleasant neighborhood of single-family homes near the university called, of all things, Hyde Park (the same name as the Chicago neighborhood I have lived in since 1968). The apartment, with its private entrance, was on the ground floor of a larger house owned by a simpática widow, Raquel de la Torre. In Puerto Rico, outdoor space, which she had a little bit of inside her gate, makes life extremely sweet. It wasn’t long before one of the stray cats she fed had kittens underneath the drainage grate. One Christmas when [my former husband] and I arrived she asked us to fish the kitties out of their safe haven. I took advantage of their curiosity by irresistibly wiggling my fingers through the opening at the end. One by one they came to investigate. We grabbed them and their mama, and Mother took all but one to the shelter. The one she kept, a pretty calico, she named Misita (“little kitty”).
She’d also noticed that if she put cat food down after dark the bowls would fill with immensely fat toads that enjoyed the cheap generic canned food. Even after the stray cats were given up for adoption she continued to fill the toads’ bowl each night.
We loved sitting outside in her little patio, having a drink in the balmy evenings. She had a hanging fern that attracted the endemic Puerto Rican tree frog, the coquí. The coquí has a distinctive, very loud “bob-white” whistle at night, and anyone familiar with Puerto Rico is instantly transported there by its sound.
Mother cooked Puerto Rican food for us that we immensely enjoyed. She had always been a good cook, and we all liked the “cocina típica” with its rich garlic and sofrito flavors and delicious ingredients like pumpkin and plantain.
Mother also bought herself a little Datsun that we traveled in all around the island. Several years in a row, we crammed our three selves, luggage, lawn chairs, sheets and towels, a broom for sand control, the coffee maker, and a big cooler with Mother’s red potato salad, gorgeous boiled ham, her bottle of rum, and my bottle of J&B, and took off across the mountains to the southern coast and then west via Ponce to a cinder block cabaña in the tiny beach town on Bah
ía Boquerón. In the mid-1970’s, the area was barely developed. The government of Puerto Rico had organized the construction of the little cabañas using prison labor to provide very inexpensive recreational facilities for families. The cabins had a couple of bed rooms, one with a double bed and one with bunks; a living area, with a bare-bones kitchen consisting of a rusting refrigerator with a freezer that did at least produce some ice, cold running water, and a little gas stove. The bath had a cold-water shower and a flush toilet, so it was all very civilized. The indoor-outdoor table and chairs were picnic bench style, made of heavy lumber and not terribly comfortable, but highly serviceable. The cabins were literally steps from the warm, palm-fringed, gentle beach. We lived in our bathing suits, except when we went into town for freshly baked bread or to one of the little seafood dives (“Boquerón Seafood Rest.”) for fresh lobster dinners.
Because we were invariably there during the Christmas season we were always invited to parties, lunches, or coffees given by Mother’s oldest friends or her university colleagues. [My husband at the time] enjoyed the social life as much as Mother and I did. We drank, we ate, we sunned (and sunburned) ourselves, we went sight-seeing and shopping, and always had a lovely time.
These were, I believe, the happiest years of Mother’s entire life. She was in a place that was comfortable, beautiful, affordable on her modest salary as a respected professora, and surrounded by loving friends. Her health was good, and it looked like my future was safe and secure. These were the things Mother needed to thrive."

Sometimes one has to write things down and view them in a larger context—such as the narrative of one’s life—to understand how things fit together, and what things meant. Until I wrote about this period of my, and Mother’s, lives, I did had not seen how happy she was in those days, how things worked so well for her, and how calm and secure she felt in this interlude.


  1. Very touching. I'm working on a family history-journal now for my son. Some is easy and fun. Other parts very hard.

  2. I loved reading about your Mum. Her interlude of happy times was well deserved.

    I don't think I could write about my own Mum. It still upsets me. She died way before her time, at age 62, slowly and horribly of Breast cancer.

  3. Thank you both for your sympathetic words. I DO recommend writing down one's own - and thus one's family's - history. Though it's a labor of love (or not, sometimes!) it's been a revealing and helpful experience for organizing my feelings and making sure I don't lose track of important events and people. I'm taking it slowly, working on it when I can - in terms both of my time and my mental energy. I'm still months if not years away from writing about the last few weeks of my mother's life. Even though I accepted her death readily (as I've suggested, I know she was ready to go) I harbor a lot of anger towards the doctors and some of the others who "cared" for her.