I’m not good with ages, including my own. Hence, whenever bouncers or waitstaff unexpectedly bypass the usual ID-check and ask, “How old are you?” the first thing that comes to mind is, Uh… am I even twenty-one yet…? Fortunately, this number amnesia doesn’t extend to important dates, allowing me to be certain without a shred of doubt that today is my mom’s birthday.
Maman, as she’s affectionately known, is immensely important to me because (as apparent to anyone who’s ever mistaken our voices on the landline phone of our past) she makes up an invaluable portion of both mine and my sister’s identities. And considering all the incredible elements that comprise the Renaissance dynamo that is my mother, my sister and I should feel very lucky to share in that genetic pool. My mom has an imagination that packs a wallop. Her sense of wonder is tangible in the way she approaches every facet of life. Her unyielding desire to learn from each of the experiences she encounters is inspiring. And demonstrating the very essence of the adjective “motherly,” my mom has the unfailing ability to comfort even the most overwrought hysterics.
Furthermore, my mom is a woman from whom natural talent radiates like the awed circles that form around her whenever she takes the dance floor. Among the many skills she demonstrates an aptitude for, she’s the most fastidious and loudest cheerleader in all of North America; an incredible artist and writer whose oeuvre spans the creative gamut from joyously whimsical to powerfully evocative; an aficionado on all things kooky-fresh, such as The B-52’s, Shonen Knife, and Plastique Bertrand; a learned and opinionated voice vying for social, cultural, and political equality; the contender you absolutely want on your team for trivia night; and an altruistic giver through and through.
When I was a child, one of the greatest gifts my mom gave me–despite the hordes of Barbie dolls I pleaded for and miraculously received–was her time. When I came of kindergarten age, my mom decided to take up the helm as a homeschool teacher for a year that may well have been the most formative period of my lifelong personality. Thanks to my mom’s patient and steadfast teachings, I developed a deep adoration for vocabulary, a genuine affinity for reading, and a penchant for writing that catapulted me beyond the school’s benchmark. I can’t begin to thank my mom enough for the educational time she dedicated to her children, and I feel certain that without the lessons she’s continued to impart to this day, I would not have ended up as academically driven as I am. Quite frankly, I attribute my brains to my mom and thank her every day for placing so much emphasis on their fortification.
While incredibly important to my character, this inherited love for learning barely begins to skim the surface of all the things my mom’s doted on her daughters from day one. As children, my sister and I grew up in a home replete with fantastical paintings adorning the walls and floorboards: a cheerful, multicolored snake spiraling on the living room floor, an alebrije-esque lizard spanning the length of the kitchen, a winking fish suspended above the stove inquiring, “Hey good lookin’ whatchya got cookin’?,” and our little bunk bed fortress decorated with Shoobie the flying pup, our beaming faces, and an array of designs and calligraphy unique to my mom’s playful aesthetic.
For birthdays, she gave us not only presents but whole window murals commemorating the occasion and themed homemade cakes that somehow defied gravity with their twisting Seussical stairways. From the time I was nine-years-old my mom devoted hours upon hours to reading us Harry Potter aloud, complete with individual character dramatizations and the correct pronunciation of “Hermione” years before the films enlightened my peers. Her all-encompassing love for animals turned my sister into an atheistic St. Francis incarnate, preaching to kittens and puppies The Word According to a Six-Year-Old. When relationships went south or the transition into college proved dispiriting, my mom gave me ways to combat sorrow and the means to harness positivity in the face of life’s many obstacles. And her multilingualism and sense of adventure resulted in my love for language, graphic design, and cultural history and mythology.
For physical sustenance, my mom gave us the many delectable gifts of moussaka, chipotle chicken, banana bread, and the phenomenal macaroni and cheese recipe she inherited from her father. For mental fodder, she gave us a love for games, even if it occasionally resulted in my sister overturning a card table in a bout of loser’s rage. For 85mph exhilaration, she passed down her love of roller coasters and repeatedly travelled with us across the country to seek new thrills–although the spinning tea cup gene clearly skipped me. And as a strong female figure who embraces her identity and doesn’t shy away from displaying that fabulous demeanor to the world, my mom gave her daughters the ability to be ourselves regardless of any judgment that may come our way.
To top all of that off, my mom has taught me how I want to approach motherhood one day. Thanks to Maman’s example, I want to inspire uninhibited imagination, I want to answer every question with honesty and imbue a love for learning, I want to be a comfort whenever my children are in need. And beyond that, I’m very eager to behold the whoops of excitement my future children emit when I tell them we’re going to their grandma Lulu’s house, a place of wonder, creativity, and warm, unwavering love.
I can’t remember the last time I audibly stammered to someone’s face, but I won’t hastily forget this occasion.
Today as I headed back from work, turning onto Chicago St. in my neighborhood of district-homages and sweating profusely after a two mile hike in the quintessentially dry heat of the southwest, a woman I’d passed once before noticed my friendly smile and returned the favor. Then, she uttered an entire conversation in rapid-fire Spanish. When she paused for my reaction, I opened my mouth and nothing came out… for several seconds.
Now before you go dismissing me as the ignorant Anglo-Saxon I made myself out to be on the corner of Chicago and Michigan, allow me to divulge a little history. Ever since I was mistakenly assigned Spanish Immersion History in the 6th grade, I’ve always taken Spanish classes. Not only was this decision based on the advantages the skill provides in the job market, but it also stemmed from the fact that I grew up in a household that doubled as a mini Mazatlan; bedecked in a vibrant, chili pepper color palette, adorned with a skull-faced Catrina or Frida or collection of alebrijes in every room, and owned by a woman whose obsession with Mexico bridged from her hacienda replica in Portland to a casa auténtica she inhabited for a time in Oaxaca. While I resided in this Latin American lifestyle with mi mamá, Spanish was spoken fluently under our roof, and the approbation I received in Spanish class reflected it.
Once I graduated from high school and money began to dictate my education, language was forced to take the wayside, and the extreme expectations art schools perpetuate extinguished any time or energy I had to devote to practicing a second language. It’s true what they say about retention diminishing once you’ve exited childhood, and I’m the perfect case study. As a high school student, I could understand and speak Spanish, easily read and write in the language, and even think in Spanish, but inconstant exposure has stripped away several of those capabilities, reducing me to someone who can understand what you’re saying, but won’t be able to respond unless you’re only question is, “How are you?”
I have to consider myself fortunate for retaining anything at all though–especially considering the fact that my summer job during college involved teaching art to over 150 Spanish-speaking middle school students. It’s a sure bet that if I hadn’t been able to understand the petty wisecracks my kids initially made behind my back, I would have never earned their respect. Personal experience and three years in the business taught me that teenagers are ruthless enough when they feel age inhibits adults from understanding them, let alone a language barrier. Step back into the shoes of a fourteen-year-old and come armed with comedic ripostes for every snide remark, however, and you’ll earn yourself some incredibly entertaining friends.
Today, years after my participation in the Spanish Honors Society and my stint as a middle school ringmaster, I reside in what several downtown Los Angelenos have described as “the ghetto,” but from my perspective it seems a lot like home–or what Mexico City will be like once I finally travel outside of this country. My community is predominantly Hispanic, the surrounding shops are mostly tiendas and mercados, and thus far only the beaming woman I met in the street today has attempted to make conversation, discussing things I understood (Isn’t it a beautiful, sunny day? How are you doing? Good? Well my dear, may the Holy Father in heaven watch over you and bless you with good health and a wonderful day!), but could only think to say, “¡Gr-gracias!” to in response.
It’s sad to think that a girl so smitten with audial and visual language, who used to sing classical arias in Italian, German, and French and who continues to create multi-lingual artwork, has to stammer her way through one phrase of Spanish. Call it a fluke and blame it on the heat of the day, the two mile trek on blistered, flip-flopped feet, or the preoccupied concentration with what on earth I could discuss in this blog today, but ultimately I think this shameful faux pas is a sign: time to whip out a sombrero in the guise of a thinking cap, seek the counsel of the venerated Rosetta Stone, and get back to broadening my mind, Sybill Trelawney style!