Shortly after my mother’s 82nd birthday, her over-beating heart, the one that kept time with the chaos of her family and broke with each disappointment of her sons’ and daughters’ losses, that organ that normally flushed oxygen and blood to her flesh, tightened and stopped. But I would say that Mom’s heart began the giving-up-process a day after my father’s passing seven years prior, when their 59-year union halted.
In love we are told about the seven-year itch, when marital happiness begins to decline. In grief it’s called the seven-year glitch, those years your spirit insists on living in the past, barricading a path forward until every, last cell in your system has regenerated; replacing each piece of tissue, all aches of the heart and flashbacks of the mind until finally, no trace of anything related to the one who left remains in the memories of your DNA. This is, of course, a myth but one can see how it is that we lean in towards the number seven: seven days in a week, seven continents, seven wonders of the world, seven colors in a rainbow, 777 your lucky numbers for today’s lotto!
My mother loved to buy lottery tickets. With eyes fixated on a big box television, she waited in those early evenings for the news to flash winning numbers across a screen; small children posing alongside her seat as she sat on the cushion’s edge. My father looked on in silence, shaking his head. He thought she was wasting his money; she thought she was wasting her life.
She was born Anselma Cortéz Sanchez, her first name a thank you to a German neighbor who was kind to Grandma in the racially segregated Robstown, Texas. As a young mother, Anselma wanted what every parent wants: a finer lot in life for her children. She found this living as ‘Thelma’ and under the 1950s restrictions of a midwestern, Anglo culture. Her high cheekbones and long, elegant hands revealed a Spanish pedigree, a Sanchez lineage that reached back and across the Atlantic to the Castiles and the foundation of the now-defunct Kingdom of Spain. But it was her Mexican ancestry, a mixture of Aztec and Tejano bloodlines, that beget her natural talent for creating Mexican entrees and treats that would shame any culturally appropriated dishes doused in cilantro by modern American chefs.
Anselma was more than a woman hoping for a coyote trickster fortune via a lotto ticket; she was traditional royalty mourning a centuries lost crown.
When I was in my mid-30s and while my parents were visiting Austin, I asked my mother a question as we sat ensconced in rocking chairs on my screened-in porch, a lazy Saturday afternoon lit with sips from wine glasses. Mockingbirds sang of the bounty of food to their winged brethren as Mom and I sat in human silence, comfortable with the absence of words. Her thoughts felt hidden behind a fortress built on regret, or was it unspoken contentment, or perhaps hopeful reticence for those invisible paths her Mestizo eyes continued to see. I hesitated to interrupt her peace, but I was a young woman who had made life choices based on roads forbidden to my mother. To the external world, she and I may have appeared as polar opposites in thought and action. In our internal world, we have always wanted the same thing: freedom. Freedom to do what we want, when we want, how we want; freedom from the say-so of another.
On that porch with words absent from our reverie, I sensed an open moment, when I could ask anything and receive the truth. Without a precursor, I turned my face towards my mother.
“What made you stay?”
Maybe it was because she was 1,500 miles away from the suffocating walls of her small town life; maybe it was because I was an adult calling her “Mother” instead of a child whining, “Mooooom.” Or maybe, it was because Dad was napping in my guestroom and not there to correct her words, nor any grandchildren to interrupt her sentence of thought.
It was like watching a slow-opening curtain of a play that I’d waited my whole life to see. I studied the understanding that rolled across my mother’s face, revealing a character I knew existed but rarely saw. She glanced at me sideways then turned her head to stare with eyes, not that of mother to daughter but of woman to woman. I hurried my words before she disappeared behind camouflage again.
“It was clear to me that you didn’t want to be there,” I said. “I’m not blaming you; from the outside, it looked like a miserable life. But I have to know, what made you stay?”
Without a denial of words, no feigning of ignorance, she said, “I knew I could never live with myself if I ever left you kids.”
Mom was 63 years old then, and it was probably the first time she ever admitted her desire to have disappeared from her Catholic marriage full of cloth diaper changing for the 10 children she bore. Her young motherhood revolved around laundry and sweeping and vacuuming and preparing three-meals-a-day. And all those manual dish-washing hours while trapped at home, because she did not know how to drive. She asked my father to teach her, and he refused her freedom on the basis that he did not want her to work outside of the home. When my older sister turned eighteen, my mother’s patriarchal depression turned outward as she threw off my father’s yoke and demanded that her eldest teach her to operate a moving vehicle.
With renewed confidence, Mom accepted the only type of job she was qualified to have without a high school education, another by-product of U.S. segregation. She became a pickle packer for Vlasic Foods; standing at a manufacturing line for over 25 years, because even that back-breaking work was better than being cooped up in a house with noisy children and a demanding husband. Instead, my mother was surrounded by Comadres, also escaping the limits of 20th-century chauvinism.
The birds continued to sing; we continued to rock in our chairs, both of us breathing deeply.
“Well,” I said. “Thank you for staying.”
A month after Mom died, I dreamt about her. In this other dimension, she and I were visiting a younger age of my father in his solitary abode; a place that did not exist in the waking world. We stood in his living room, a vintage coffee table with sharp edges separated him from us. Mom searched Dad’s face and his gloriously stern eyes that had communicated everything without words when he was still alive. She needed to know that he was settled in okay. Dad assured us that he was fine on his own, tempering an annoyance at our showing up uninvited. He was, after all, in his version of heaven, which apparently included a finer edition of a bachelor pad than he’d had when he met his wife the first time around.
When I awoke from the dream in the light of day, I realized that my mother was leaving him. She was going in search of that adventure which she never took a chance to live in this now; one of a vibrant bachelorette wearing a new dress every day, out dancing every night, with vacations to big cities and secret islands. Mom’s alter reality was maybe a life like her post-retirement years of month-long holidays to Texas until my father’s health declined, requiring her to remain stuck in her Michigan house again, on hand for her ailing lover until he died one winter.
Mom was leaving all of us. It was temporary, of course, because as mundane as her life appeared to me, she had loved us children and especially my father, surprising no one as she silently mourned his absence every day in those last seven years of her life.
Today, probably right now, my mother is traipsing along in wherever-it-is people go when their bodies cease to function, but where their youthful souls seek out delight once more. I want her to have the chance to re-create an existence in which the only needs she is required to fulfill are her own; where her wants matter; and where “Mom” is not her name rather, Anselma.