The kitchen’s sliding screen door sticks and I kick it so it will move the rest of the way. Mom’s Duarte townhouse smells of cigarettes, cut flowers, and whatever dish she’s cooking. She’s standing at the stove as I walk in, her right foot pointed outwards in a ballet-like pose, and she calls out, “Hi, mija,” as she stirs the menudo in the pot before her. Today’s lunch is store-bought. From the local supermarket. From a can. She’s always bought the same brand. Once on the table, she’ll squeeze lemon into the steaming bowls. She’ll sprinkle oregano into her palm and rub her palms together to further ground the dried oregano flakes, dropping the spice into the soup. She’ll shake chili pepper into the soup as well.
Then we’ll sit and eat.
We’ll turn the soap opera on. We've always watched soap operas, whether they're in Spanish or English.
But you must understand, the entire time, since I stepped foot into her kitchen, we’re talking. Talking about my work, about the dreams we had last night, about something my mother’s mother said. We’re talking about my brother and sister, about memories, about Papa. We’re talking about A and J who are my only children so far. We’re talking about them at their schools, about how I should have just picked up A from his preschool.
She takes care of A on the three days he’s not in preschool and she’s never gotten used to him being someplace else. She says, “How can you leave the light of my life there?”
We’ll eat and she’ll tell me what she’s planning for dinner and tries to get me to stay. “It’s going to be so good, mija!” I’m tempted because I love the way she makes chicken liver and onions – and she’s only making it as an enticement for me. The soap opera is so dumb we laugh until it hurts. After, I leave the lunch mess on the table because when I’m with her I’m lazy and childlike. Instead of cleaning, I reach into my bag and pull out something I’ve written and read it to her. She says I should record books for the blind. I nod like it’s really possible to do and she tells me about the latest romance novel she’s reading. We decide I could write those for a living.
“They’re so easy.”
“But I want to write like James Joyce.”
“My father was a writer,” she says. She never knew her father. My grandmother tells me he was an abusive bastard, but my mother always says my grandmother lies.
She gets up and I look at her. She’s round in the belly – her hair is colored a dark brown and it’s straight to her shoulders. She hardly has any lines on her face despite her being 61. I can tell she took a shower today because she has traces of make up on her cheeks. She’s got large breasts and they fill the simple tee-shirt she wears with yellow capris. Her toenails are polished…but she uses the word, painted.
We talk and talk. I call my husband and ask if he can pick up the boys from school and he agrees. My sister’s coming over with her little one. She hasn’t yet had kid number two or three. My mother talks about her old boyfriends in Mexico, about the dances she used to go to. I’ve heard the stories a million times. I can’t remember them anymore, not really.
I carry with me a vision of her as a young woman sitting at a table in a crowded room, the music loud. She’s smoking, drinking, and entertaining the long line of admirers, flashing those cat eyes of hers at them. The smoke of her cigarettes wafts around her face, up above her, drifting into the dim lights, and she smiles coquettishly, seductively. The men will do anything for her. She’s a movie star – she’s a model – she’s fabulous and beautiful and dramatic – she’s everything I’m not.
Her small house is filled with Mexican artwork – books, paintings, clothing, and music. Sometimes we sit on the floor of the kitchen and we sort through her cassettes and cd’s and listen to the music. She cries when hears some of it. I know she misses Mexico. She’ll never go back. She makes salsa using a molcajete, something like a mortar and pestle made of volcanic rock. It’s ancient. She wears dresses with the delicate, colorful embroidery of Mexican artists. She cooks Mexican food with passion. Enchiladas, homemade tortillas, huevos rancheros. Many more. She tries it all.
She feeds us these foods, these dishes. Feeds my brother, my sister, myself. It’s her way of showing us she loves us, her way of telling us that she’s sorry for all those lost years.
With the children, with Papa gone, we’ve reached this strange place of peacefulness. Anger leaves when I’m in her kitchen. She’s perfect this way. She’s the friend I remember. The friend that often left and was replaced by someone tormented and consumed by alcohol and drugs and pain. She’s a wonderful grandmother. When my sister comes over, the bliss will continue. We’ll laugh and eat more. We’ll be happy that day. That day I have lunch with Mom.
Today, my house is bereft of Mexican art. For dinners, I cook salmon with lemon, baked ziti with ground beef and a touch of Italian sausage, or roast in a crock-pot. Spaghetti. I can’t speak Spanish worth a damn. I wear jeans and sweaters most of the time. I can’t use the molcajete. It sits next to my sink, holding lemons. My mother’s books are still in storage because we don’t have a place to put them. I do have her curio cabinet. Through the glass, I see a picture of her with me on my wedding day. It’s there next to the Aztec-style statuettes she used to keep in her window. There are days I mourn the loss of my culture.
When I close my eyes at night, when I'm drifting in between dreams and wakefulness, I hear her, her voice.