Same language

by April on January 13, 2012

When I was a toddler, we moved to the West Texas desert, where we lived for more than a year. Mom decided it was no place to raise a child, so we abandoned volcanic cliffs for green hills. Dad says the moment my Mamá (the name I call her because it’s what my mother calls her) and I laid eyes on each other, I went running for her arms. “Without a word,” he says.

Most of the time we aren’t speaking the same language. When she taught me how to make tortillas, her instructions came in Spanish, my questions in English. A neighbor started to translate for me. “No,” said Mamá, “ella entiende.”

I saw a film shot in the 50s by my great uncle. Mom remembers being there. A car crashed into Lady Bird Lake, an oasis devoid of the hike and bike trails that corral it in today. The news of it was as big as a story ever got, and everyone came to see the car as it was pulled from the water. My mom in her doll dress and curls. Mamá, with her furrowed brow.

One of several sisters, her mother died when she was 14, and her father took her out of eighth grade for a hard life on the farm. Then she grew up, then she married my grandfather. A great man by all accounts, a proud father of five boys and one girl. A savvy businessman with a head for real estate, auto mechanics, and antiques. A man who would pass away, quite unexpectedly, when his youngest was just five years old.

Mamá had a nervous breakdown.

Decades later, two sons would be taken by cancer. Each of her sisters, one by one, went before her. “Now I’m all alone,” she tells me. “I’m the only one.”

Photos of us fill up her walls and shelves, rows of framed smiles and weathered portraits. We spend one afternoon helping her make space for more. “She prays for all of them,” says my aunt, referring to all of us.

At 92, she’s out of sorts more and more. The neighbors plot against her, and her husband refuses to call the police. She’s sad; her body aches; she won’t wear her hearing aid. Always complimentary of my curls, one day she tells me, “Usually your hair is beautiful, but today it’s messy.” I smile at my mom, who says, “Now you know how I feel!” Mamá is already off to get her purse so we can go to the fabric store.

She’s trying to give me her things — photos, tea cups, china. I’ll take them to ease her mind, knowing I already have

A revolving door on Saturday mornings, crowded kitchen and pan dulce

The way my smile can coax hers, right before she covers her mouth

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