So, I got home from the Nat’l Book Festival on Saturday. I had dusty toes and a tired back, but my head was swirling with gratitude for the way of the world.
True, the lines inside the Barnes & Noble tent were obnoxiously long, but it was a great event in every other way. My friend Katharine and I set out by train – a pleasant two-hour ride – and spent our day strolling the grounds, eating Snicker bars in the sunshine, and generally marveling at the mass of people who came from all over the country to celebrate the best our country has to offer in terms of books and authors. I got to meet illustrator Rafael López and his lovely wife, Candice, who chatted with us about their mural projects, their new Obama poster, and our shared friends, whose talents we both admire.
But in the afternoon, I received a gift I never expected from this festival. I’d managed to snag a chair inside the tent where Sandra Cisneros was speaking. I read The House on Mango Street in the 1980s, of course, and I’ve been a fan ever since, devouring her short stories, picture books and novels as soon as they’re published. Her voice always rings fierce and true, and like so many other Latina authors, I can point to her work as an influence on why I like to capture Latino culture in fiction. She is, in my view, a literary madrina to our whole country. As soon as she took the stage, I was starstruck.
Her newest book is Have You Seen Marie?, an illustrated short story.”I wrote this when my mother died, and I was feeling like an orphan,” she told us. She’d had a difficult relationship with her mother, and yet, when her mother died, Sandra felt completely lost.
I sat perfectly still.
Some of you already know that my mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer last Christmas and that she decided against radiation or chemo. (“I’m too old to put myself through that,” she said.) Instead, we packed her things in Florida, and by February, she and my aunt (the famous tía Isa) moved in with us in Richmond. Suddenly I was in charge of caring for eccentric elderly women whose bodies were failing and whose habits were slipping into manias.
We go through our days peacefully enough, filling pill boxes, going to doctor appointments, dragging me (there is no other way to say it) through Walmart. There are occasional eye rolls and snappish answers when one of us is careless. Twice I have had full shouting melt-downs. I get endless advice (about cooking, folding laundry, parenting, yes, even writing) whether I want it or not. I get full daily reports on people’s body functions. And I get a lot of new responsibilities – scary ones – for the things that she is appalled to discover that she can no longer manage or remember how to do. Fighting with insurance companies, online banking, official letters in English that she wants carefully translated. Behind everything, though, I know that we are readying ourselves to say goodbye with clear hearts, even if neither one of us dares to say so.
Our relationship was sometimes volatile, often distant, sprinkled with finger-pointing and criticisms. Maybe every mother-daughter relationship is this way. (This is what Sandra Cisneros thinks.) Maybe it’s especially acute when cultural divides come into play. There are times we lived through that I don’t like to remember, if only because I am ashamed of how one of us — or both — behaved. And yet, here we are, our days counting down, and the only thing we can grab on to is that we each did our best. When it’s all said and done, the thought of not having my imperfect and maddening mother makes me feel like an orphan, too.
Sandra finished her reading, an ending filled with acceptance and hope. I was scarcely breathing. In taking questions, she offered this advice to the writers in the audience.
“Don’t write the stories about things you remember. Write the ones about the things you wish you could forget.”
So, here is my first baby step.