I write this in the period in between el Dia de las Madres in Mexico and Mother's Day in the United States. On the border, we celebrate both. I was born 61 years ago in this in-between period and for most of my adult life, I have spent these days thinking about my two mothers: Guadalupe who gave birth to me and Esther who gave me life. Perhaps "remembering" is not the right word: questioning my life, agonizing over my birth, and feeling sad and angry are better descriptions. For many decades this time beginning with el Dia de las Madres and Mother's Day brought me great pain.
I remember as a young woman vowing that I would not be like either of my mothers. I would never abandon my child and I would never do anything to make my child feel unloved. I would be a mother that mothered in opposition to the way I had felt mothered.
By the time I was a young girl, the mother who raised me was bitter and defensive. As I came of age, her anger became more apparent; her fear engulfed her. I didn't understand why and I felt unloved. She often blamed me for her fear. As a teenager, I experienced her telling me many times that she had not wanted to adopt me. She cautioned me not to smile too much because God would punish me if I seemed too happy.
The family assured me that it was simply "su caracter," the way she was. When she was in her 80s and I took her to her doctor because she believed people were trying to kill her, he told me the same thing. "That's just how your mother is."
My relationship with my birth mother was equally frought with pain. When she sent a message through her sister that she wanted to meet me when I was 14, having not seen me since I was a newborn, I didn't have to think twice. No. No, I do not want to meet her. I was hard and judgmental. No real mother would give up her child, I told myself. When she was murdered seven years later, I was stunned but still angry.
I don't write this to paint them in a negative light. Rather, I write this to reflect on my own limited compassion. My own limited understanding of their suffering. My own self-centered perspective.
Every May for much of my life, I was sad and angry. Then everything changed. I forgave and I was forgiven. I loved them and suddenly, I understood their love. It was a miracle. It was the healing I ached for but didn't know how to achieve.
I longed for my mother Esther's love. I didn't understand until the last years of her life that she equally longed to be free enough to show me that love. Her life-long suffering had been intense. Born in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, what she remembered as a tranquil and comfortable life in Chihuahua was disrupted when her family moved to El Paso for safety. Orphaned at age 14, she was left to help her two older sisters raise her younger brothers and sisters. She remembered caring for her baby brother Salvadorsito who was just a few months old when his mother died at age forty. She dropped out of school in sixth grade. She felt responsible for him. She fed him and bathed him. She cared for him day and night and he became "her baby." Then he died a few months after his mother. She remembered finding him lifeless and she always blamed herself for his death. She went on to suffer nine miscarriages and that initial loss of "her baby" replayed itself through decades of her life.
When her older sister was repatriated along with her family during the Great Depression, she was devastated and abandoned. In Mexico, her baby sister died. Loss after loss defined her life. When I was born to her young niece when she was 44, the walls she had built around her to protect herself were tall and almost impenetrable.
Yet, she took me in and the first photo that my new parents ever took of me when I was several months old shows her holding me, looking at me with love. I'm smiling up at her face. I know that in the early months after they brought me home, she sat with me day and night, afraid that if she left me alone, I might die. Two pounds when I was born and two months premature, the doctor said I probably would die. What courage she had to take me in knowing I could be yet another baby that she could lose. I didn't understand that for much of my life.
When she said she didn't want to adopt me, I believed she was telling me that she didn't love me. What she really meant was she was profoundly afraid. And still she took me in. In the months before she died, she often told me that she loved me and that she didn't know what would have become of her if she had not adopted me. I had never heard the words "I love you" from her growing up. The first time she told me, my heart melted. She died in my arms at age 88.
It was after her death that my relationship with my birth mother was healed also.
My birth mother Guadalupe was born into a physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive home with a violent father who often told her he didn't believe she was really his daughter. When I met her sister twenty years ago, she confirmed the stories of violence and abuse that I had heard from family members. Lupe was 18 years old when she became pregnant with my sister and me. It is only recently that I found out who my father was-- a 19 year-old airman from Kentucky. I doubt he ever knew he was going to be a father. He went on to marry a Kentucky girl and had several children. From what I know, his life was good, filled with family and community, work and church. Lupe was left behind to figure out what to do, pregnant and poor. After my birth, she moved to Tijuana, living a chaotic life until she died at age forty. In letters she wrote to her sister, she always asked for me. Now, I can't imagine her suffering, knowing where I was and rejected by her only living child.
I was always angry that she gave me away. Intellectually I knew that she had no way to support me. I knew she did what was best for me. Yet, I hated her. When her sister gave me a framed photo of her, I stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it.
Then it all changed. I was invited to the home of a well-known writer who had built a beautiful chapel to the Virgen de Guadalupe with a spectacular stained glass window. In the afternoon sun, the light shone through the window and illuminated the brown, adobe walls of the chapel. I had brought some roses to leave for the Virgen, who I had been devoted to since I was a child. I was staring up into the face of la Guadalupana when I heard a voice. "Forgive me. I love you. Forgive me. I love you." I knew immediately it was my mother connecting with me. My heart jumped, my breath stopped, my eyes filled with tears. It was all I needed to hear from her. All I needed to know. An hour later I spent half an hour vomiting bile and with that burning, yellow liquid went the anger and the hate. I came home, took her long-forgotten photo out of the drawer and placed it on my childhood piano.
After so many decades of anger and guilt and sadness, I had learned to forgive my two mothers and I had been forgiven. I understood how they loved me despite their own suffering and in turn, I learned how to show love to my son.
Anger and hate are powerful but so are forgiveness and love. It took me decades to understand this and to accept the love that Guadalupe and Esther offered me in the only ways they could. "I love you" and "Forgive me" became the healing that allowed me to finally learn to truly love and truly forgive.
Today, the in-between time between el Dia de las Madres and Mother's Day is filled with gratitude for the two mothers who each gave me life.