Is it Too Late to Express Gratitude?

I know, I know, I’m coming late to the gratitude party.  Nevertheless, we all know that feeling and expressing gratitude matter at all times of the year.

I am not going to make a gratitude list here, although I certainly feel profound gratitude towards many people in my life from the past and present.  I am going to thank one group, and I’m going to keep it short.

This giant, big-ass shout-out of gratitude goes to my Spanish 204 class from this term.  Why them?  Because they are freaking adorable.  They are the most adorable class I have ever taught, and I have been fond of very many classes and students over my (gulp) 30-year teaching career.  Not one of the students in the class will read this post, but I certainly hope they all know how much I have appreciated sharing every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning with them.

These 15 students, every single one of them, have said “hello” and “goodbye” to me every single day—always in Spanish, always sincerely.  They have greeted and taken leave, sometimes in their tired, unshowered, groggy, and decidedly collegiate states, but always as a sincere, kind, slow gesture.  I ask how they are doing, and they actually tell me, always in Spanish—not always the most perfect Spanish, but always their most perfect Spanish—and then, unfailingly, to a person, they ask how I’m doing and listen to the answer.

As the semester has advanced, the students have also asked each other—strangers at first, but now, I think, real friends—how things are going.  They listen to the answer and take note.  I find it particularly significant that, when they emerge from group discussions and report back, they almost always report on each other, rather than speaking first about themselves.  They are extraordinary in the care they take of each other and of me.  This class has a community-based learning component, which means that each of the students works for at least one hour a week in our Latinx community.  Maybe this means the class somewhat self-selected in terms of interest in others and general big-heartedness.

We have laughed heartily together—over their hilarious skits, our silly plays on words, and experiences they have had on campus or in our community.  I laughed all the way to tears one morning when a group presented their newscast, complete with a commercial with a musical performance to sell cat food.  Is it not also adorable that, in an effort to say “wait list” (lista de espera), a student said “hope list” (lista de esperanza)?  I just love these things, even after so many years in the teaching trenches.

We have also huddled together on some days, hushed and chastened by tragic national news of more violence and death, more separation and anguish, and by local news of more overt expressions of racism.

This lovely class has made me think of a kind of a formula, something like “self + going beyond self + other = love,” or, more simply, “self + another = us.”  I am more than grateful to have been able to spend every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of this term with this special group of students.

Two Months and Five Days Later

My mother passed away two months and five days ago. (*See May, June, and July posts for references to this.)  The morning of July 14, Bastille Day, my friend Tanya’s birthday, the odd little contours of remembrance of a date, a number, that becomes too significant all too quickly.  In these two months, big, gulping tears of despair have overtaken me at certain moments, like when I suddenly come upon a photo of my mother at my house, or talk with my dad on the phone and he can’t pass the phone to my mom, or have a visual memory of holding my mother’s hand and whispering “goodbye” over and over (trying to convince myself it really was goodbye).  I have been taken by surprise by the force of my own body, bending over in its sobbing, slowly feeling relief in the humid release.  I have also been taken aback by experiencing what I call soldier days.  These are the days when I’m too occupied to feel the loss or at a loss, when work presses in and the kids need extra attention and dinner’s not yet made.

Many of my Spanish friends, when they expressed condolences, used the same phrase, reminding me to “crear un huequito para mi mamá,” to create a little space for my mom.  I loved hearing this phrase repeated by different people, all of whom were encouraging me to establish a new relationship with my mom, the reality of her absence, and my upside-down pyramids of memories of her.  The more I think about my friends’ suggestion, the more I understand the substance of that word “huequito.” A hole, a hollowed-out space, a gap, a place of time and space.  It’s all too facile to see this word as womb, but I do—a hollowed-out, protected space waiting for something to exist or grow there.  The gulping sobs on slower days and the secret rivulets of tears on busy days seem to come from and return to the huequito.  When I slow down enough to remember my mom, to think about her ghostly presence at her and my dad’s house, to wear a ring she gave to me, I don’t know, to just feel her around me, I’m so grateful for my heart and mind to have the huequito, a space sometimes left alone and sometimes filled to overflowing.

When my father’s mother died decades ago, I remember the wake and not wanting to go into the parlor to see my grandmother’s lifeless body.  Older relatives and priests were hovering over her body and chanting somber prayers in Lithuanian.  I wanted to remember my grandmother alive, with her big ears and dangling earrings, her mod glasses and dentures, and her interrogations about grades and musical instruments.  I was more interested in hearing the Lithuanian than paying homage to what seemed a lifeless form.  I was 23 years old.  When my own mother died, I was 51.  I no longer see the body as a lifeless form, but rather as a culmination of a full life lived and a memory that belongs forcefully in the huequito, alongside all the other memories of a body in motion and expressing emotions.  My sister’s insistence that we all share my mother’s little things—her rings, purses, scarves, and hats—helped me to understand how we fill the huequito and then visit it, with physical items whose texture and smell invite us to feel and remember.

I walk around every day looking at other people and wondering how they seem so impervious to loss, or so strong and resolute in the face of a loss.  I think, oh, my gosh, how many people have lost a parent and are successfully walking around here.  How do they do it?  And how do you carry on after losing your partner after a lifetime together?  How are people so strong? I imagine each of us has, to some degree, created the little space and spent time there, an intimate, private time that is a part of pain and, maybe, healing.

When I was quite little, my family and I watched the films “Death Be Not Proud” and “Brian’s Song” together.  I remember feeling unable to bring all that sadness into my body, unable to watch the whole film in the company of others. Over these past months, I’ve read Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death and Cory Taylor’s piece in The New Yorker titled “Questions for Me About Dying” (from Dying: A Memoir).  A few years ago, I also read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story.  I’ve been working on translating Rosa Montero’s La ridícula idea de no volver a verte (The Ridiculous Idea of Never Seeing You Again).  What I understood before July 14th has multiplied, and the appreciation I have for these authors who have so poignantly described their own illness and approaching death or the loss of loved ones has multiplied as well.

I had planned to write about Betsy DeVos and Title IX two weeks ago, and then last week, and then this week.  But somehow I am just not up to the task.  Lexington-style turmoil at work and Trump-style turmoil for our nation got the better of me, and I turned to the small space, the protected space of the huequito.

(Photo from the credits of the Netflix series “Fire Chasers” [Executive Producer Molly Mayock thanks our mom])

Mi mamá me mima mucho

“Mi mamá me mima mucho”—a silly tongue twister that I use to have my students studying Spanish practice the five vowel sounds.  We practice it slowly, emphasizing the tight, precise pronunciation of the vowels; then we practice it with speed, attempting a fluidity we hope to capture over time.  We use this easy tongue twister at the beginning of class for the first week or so, and I tell the students that they can call me, stop by my office, or find me around campus to recite it perfectly for extra credit.  Like most tongue twisters, the emphasis is on the sound, not the meaning.  Nevertheless, the “my mother spoils/pampers me a lot” meaning of this tongue twister has kept entering my mind over the past few weeks.  While I am not entirely comfortable writing about my mother being sick or my feelings of gradual, and now imminent, loss, I also feel like I can’t write about anything else right now.  Not about terrible governance, unfettered violence, bad politics, or rife social injustice.  There will be no informative links today, no self-assured comments about everything I know I’m right about.  I mostly just need to keep raining, at least for a little while, even if this isn’t really the point of the Gender Shrapnel Blog.

Last week I dreamt of being chased by a large bear, whose cubs seemed underfoot the whole time I ran.  I ended up in a beautiful treehouse enclosed by glass, scrambling to an uppermost branch which appeared also to be a coffee table.  As I peered down from this perilously high perch, the cubs were playfully trying to join me, and the mother bear was nowhere in sight.  When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t shake the dream.  I kept mulling it over, ignoring the obvious signs of what the dream was trying to work out.  When I googled “dreaming of being chased by animals” and “dreams about bears,” the quick results managed to take me by surprise and bring a fresh well of tears to my eyes.  I was dreaming about my mother, worried about her cubs, one of which I was (or am).  I was dreaming about slow decline and hospice and loved ones and fear and loss.  I was dreaming about this end stage of life that is such a challenge for us and those around us.  I was dreaming about our perilous perches that barely hold us against the devastation and desperation of the biggest loss of our lives.  I suspect I was dreaming, too, about my own fear of death.

After I gathered myself and moved towards getting work done, images of the dream kept returning, and with them came some kind of odd release.  Suddenly I experienced memory after memory of my mother, who is still here with us, and I gloried in these memories.  My mother casing a thrift shop for great looks and bargains.  My mother as the matron of honor in her youngest sister’s wedding.  My mother with a knife in her hand, looking threatening as the dog took off with one of the 24 sandwiches made for that day’s lunches.  My mother pulling me into a hug after I had a tough day at school.  My mother dressing up for her first day back at work.  My mother in the laundry room on Fairhill Road, surrounded by racks of drying jock straps and baskets of freshly folded laundry.  My mother testing me on vocabulary words for school.  My mother’s ankles creaking as she walked up the steps to tell us all to get to bed, that she had had it.  My mother’s eyes narrowing dangerously as she heard someone mention “a dumb football player,” with her sharp words not far behind, wondering aloud why people don’t talk about dumb tuba players.  My mother going to Europe for the first time at the age of 70.  My mother at 72 climbing the Segovia tower and vowing to learn Spanish.  My mother serving another homemade birthday cake to another excited child.  My mother looking beautiful for a party.  My mother telling us we couldn’t watch t.v., and giving us a list of things we could do (“You may talk with your brothers and sisters.  You may do a puzzle.  You may bake a cake.  You may play a game.  You may knit a scarf.  You may read a book.  You may do an extra credit project for school.  But you may not watch t.v.”).  My mother giving my father a good morning kiss.  My mother saying that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all (we have had several debates about that one since).  My mother holding my husband’s and my firstborn and our second-born and helping us to figure out how to bathe them (we managed to forget in the time between their arrivals, but somehow she didn’t).  My mother creating a special jelly bean box for each of the 15 grandchildren and hiding the boxes just before the youngsters’ arrivals.  My mother laughing a big laugh, cracking a big joke, living a big life. The image of my mother from the time I met her when she was thirty to now, at 82, always small and beautiful and strong, always smart and funny and over-the-top kind, often stubborn as hell.  Thank goodness for that flood of memories, which carries more along with it.  Thank goodness for today’s new memories, too, and, well, thank goodness for my mother.

Isn’t it amazing to think about how one life touches so many others, not just in that one lifetime, but way beyond it?  I guess this is the theme of at least one-third of the literary canon.  In the last few weeks, I have shared stories with my mother (“Remember the time, Mom, when we hit a deer?”  “Remember when we went to see flamenco at midnight?”  “Remember when you and dad roadtripped with Pat’s parents to meet our son?” “Remember when I worked at the hospital with you and we drove that old bomber of a car every day?”). I’ve also shared stories about my mother.  I’ve had the pleasure of sharing memories and tears with some of my mother’s dearest friends, who are wondering about her and loving her as they approach the mourning process.  My brothers and sister and I have sat with our dad and told more stories, always with that multiperspectivist view—the cubist painting that is a family.

Of course, a life is the sum of these moments and of the unnarrated spaces between the moments.  How to tell the rest of the story about this beloved and loving person?  Well, it’s impossible.  The rest of the story resides in our laughter, tears, quivering hearts, and little personal memory boxes.

A month after a former colleague lost his mother, I asked him how he was doing.  He said, in his gentle, lilting, extrasyllabic Alabama accent, “Well, you know, it’s your mother.”  That about sums it up, doesn’t it?

Loving People

When I was young, my family of nine had little money.  This meant a lot of things.  It meant that “making it to month’s end” was just a way of life.  It meant that all clothes were hand-me-downs.  It meant that birthdays and Christmas brought necessities—underwear and socks.  It meant that my brothers and sister and I saved the brown paper bag in which our lunch was graciously and lovingly packed by our mother for the first day of school, and we saved it every day thereafter until the threads could no longer carry a sandwich.  I don’t think we thought about this much back then.  It’s just what we did, how we lived.

What this mostly meant, though, was giving a lot and not expecting much in return.  Then you would be surprised by how very much you got in return.  We had (and have) loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and siblings.  That is the biggest gift of all.  We played all the time when we were really little.  We always had companions.  In fact, quiet space was at more of a premium than companionship, which was freely and abundantly given.  When we were a little bit less little, we started to work to earn money for clothes we would buy ourselves and for going to the movies and such.  We did so willingly and capably, and then we were grateful for every moment of spare time we had to read, play, and hang out.  Our parents told us about this thing called college—my dad had gone, and my mom had worked to pay for two brothers to go—and they told us it was worth saving our money for it.

When I was in college, I ended up majoring in French and Spanish and minoring in Italian. Somehow I knew that all the people with whom I wanted to speak in the world and all the texts I wanted to read would not come from the English-speaking world.  I didn’t know how to be career-driven, to think that I could or would just have any career I wanted.  I didn’t know what an internship was because I still worked my minimum-wage job in the hospital microfiche department during every school break.  I didn’t know how to “package” or “sell” my experiences to make them a coherent whole.  I was a coherent whole, the sum of my loving family, my experiences, and my developing opinions about the world.

I did, however, imagine the wonders of studying abroad, of living in Canada or France or any one of the Spanish-speaking Latin American countries or Spain.  Financial aid didn’t travel abroad back in those days, so I made do.  Making do was hearing a language I spoke and wanted to speak better and going to speak it with the person (intrusive, I know, but I didn’t see it that way back then).  It was reading books in French and Spanish out loud to myself to practice my accent and think it was normal for me to be speaking in another language.  This was long before the Internet would explode with resources for people like me.  Making do was seeing college friends study, work, and travel abroad and tucking the possibility away for a day when I could pay my way.

I remember when I was asked in the interview for my first job after college what I thought of all the students at the school being wealthier than me.  I shrugged (not a great interview response) and said I didn’t give those things too much thought.  The person who asked the question and I both laughed about it months later when my first car ever, a boat my dad insisted I buy so that I’d be “safe” on the roads, needed a jump in the school parking lot long after everyone had gone home.

At the age of 22, I went to a Grateful Dead concert.  I had spent my life listening to Motown, funk, rap, and Latino music.  While kids at my high school sported black concert t-shirts from iconic ‘80’s groups, I was forbidden to go to rock concerts because they were “a den of iniquity” and “a waste of hard-earned money.”  To this day, though, I’m both amused and thankful that I was allowed to go to all the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts I wanted.  This got me going into a lively city and realizing I had a city vibe waiting to be awakened.  It got me trying new things with dear friends for life.

As I was saying, though, Grateful Dead space jams were decidedly not my thing.  Nevertheless, when I arrived at the concert, I was taken by all the loving people.  I really was.  Everybody just sporting their tie-dye, weaving and dancing, wishing each other “a good show.”  Tens of thousands of people (yes, drunk; yes, stoned) peacefully gathering together made an impression on me.  I guess it made me understand the giant flowers my mother’s young sister had painted on the walls of her room in the late ‘60’s and the stolen kisses she shared with her then-boyfriend, now-husband of 40 years.  I did also develop an appreciation for “Shakedown Street,” which is by far the best and funkiest of the Grateful Dead repertoire.

I’ve buried the lede here because, as you can see, I’m profoundly grateful for the family, friends, teachers, and colleagues who shaped my early life.  At the same time, as a mature adult, I’m deeply distressed by how much hatred I see in the world.  Besides the abominable political scene, which this blog takes to task for many of our politicians’ cavalier, me-first, discriminatory, and violent practices, I have been so distraught by the continued violence against black lives and the now-entrenched marginalization of people who are not white, male, or Christian.

I also have read the accounts (ABC News; The Chronicle of Higher Education) of the most recent hazing incident at Penn State and I can’t shake the images of the night’s events.  (Here is an ABC News piece on hazing incidents across the U.S.)  The “brothers,” now charged with involuntary manslaughter, seem never to have loved anyone, never to have given without expecting something in return.  Their hazing practices are not rooted in true brotherhood or humanity or love for another.  They are rooted in hatred and violence, and I just don’t understand these systems that foment violent, white male power and enact it in cruel and deadly ways.

What makes people open to loving others and adventurous about who the others might be?  What makes people assert their own domination over others, never learning to truly love?  How does this translate into a world view, a way of loving people and knowing people who love?  How does it translate into the work we do, the work we do beyond the work day, the way we love this work because it makes a difference for people?

Is this not a way to exist in the world? And, if so, why aren’t we electing more of these loving people who will give and give and not expect much in return, only to find that they get very much in return?