MAMA MAKES HERSELF comfortable on the couch, setting her large plastic cup of Diet Coke next to her on the end table.
“Tienes a blanket I can use? It’s a little frío in here mija,” she asks, and I get the light throw blanket decorating the chair in the den to drape it over her midsection and legs.
Despite being deep into the month of July, New Mexico heat pushing itself into the center of each day, Mama asks for a blanket. “Sometimes it’s too cold in your house, mija, probably because of that refrigerator air” explains Mama, and she takes a drink of her Coke.
“It’s ‘refrigerated’ air, Mama,” I correct, and approach her with a light blanket, covered in images of Paw Patrol, one of my son’s favorite cartoons. Growing up, we’d only ever had a swamp cooler in our house, so “refrigerated air” was new. Fancy.
“Eeeee, that’s perfect,” Mama says after I provided her the blanket, and I watch as she adjusts her petite body into the couch—acomodarse, as is the word used in our region—a body nestling itself comfortably, fondly, with great ease, “into” a space. Mama doesn’t know, doesn’t realize, but when I look at her, easing into her late seventies, more and more she resembles my grandmother at that age, hair graying, body shrinking, smaller bites and smaller meals.
Mama makes herself comfortable on the couch. I look hastily for the TV remote.
My husband and young son had taken an out-of-town trip, leaving me alone in the house for a week. Mama offered to come over one of the weeknights to keep me company, to spend time with her only hija.
Mama brought over Panda Express for dinner, and we shared a large “combo” meal, complete with chow-mein, orange chicken, and egg rolls. An ordinary gesture of love. And I thought back to all the afternoons, ordinary as July, when I’d kept Mama wondering where I was—drinking again, off and wandering, pretending to be at work. In the depths of her intuition, she must have known.
“What are we gonna watch, mija?”
“No sé, Mama. What do you want to watch?”
“Eeee, I don’t know.”
“What about a movie?”
“No, pienso que a movie might be too long, it’s already getting late.”
It was already twilight, the summer sun easing its way down, the evening finally cooling from the day’s summer heat. Outside, the crickets had started their calls, and the neighbors were taking their dogs for a walk along the ditch-banks. But Mama and I were settled inside, for once, enjoying an evening when we didn’t have to cook, didn’t have boys or husbands to take care of, and were free for a bit to do what we wanted.
“Let’s watch that show you were telling me about the other day.” says Mama. At first I have to think—which show? But then it hits me, and I smile, surprised but glad.
“Really? You want to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race?”
I am surprised that Mama is open to a show about drag queens. Sometimes I’m also surprised that I’m so open to a show about drag queens. And I surprise myself as much as Mama surprises me. And Papa isn’t around to make fun of us, or make comments, or even give us a carra about what we want to watch. So I sit on the couch, next to Mama but with a few JCPenny pillows between us, and we pick an episode on Season 3 to watch. RuPaul comes on the screen—“Start your engines! May the best woman win!”—and sings the intro. Race checker flags flying behind him, RuPaul is sporting a tight, black, full bodysuit, and by the time his black suit changes to hot pink, both Mama and I are smiling, panzas full with Panda Express noodles, and sitting on a summer couch with ‘refrigerator air’ keeping the house cool.
Since as long as I can remember, despite being her only daughter, despite being her oldest child, Mama and I have had a hard time communicating with each other. I mean really communicating with each other. There is a chasm between us, not of anger or distrust or malice of any kind, but just an unapproachable space, and it seems we cannot really be honest with each other. I try, and she tries, but we can’t quite ever get there. Mama never explained anything about “the birds and the bees” and only very briefly explained what my period was (although she wept right in front of me when I told her I’d started bleeding, and at the time, I didn’t understand why she was crying).
Mama was also an only daughter to her mother, my grandmother.
Summer and Mama and I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, the farm fields of the valley just outside, alfalfa and chile growing with the blessing of water and sun.
Mama’s father was from northern New Mexico, but he moved to Wyoming to find work, and there met a Mexican woman, married her, and made a family. Mama got the hell out of Wyoming as fast as she could, impacted by deep racism in the small town of Rawlins, and she earned a bachelor’s degree, and then a master’s, from two universities in New Mexico.
Mama was/is an only daughter, and she left her mother to follow brighter days in the ancestral lands of her father. She chose to stay and raise her family in the landscape of the American Southwest, a place where her Chicana language and culture were appreciated, cultivated, accepted, and even refined.
As a child, I remember Mama always cleaning house on Saturday mornings—always on Saturdays—while Spanish music was playing in the background, large records spinning until you had to turn them over on the other side. Washing and hanging the clothes, vacuuming, scrubbing toilets and the bathrooms, then the tiled kitchen floor. And on some Saturdays, Mama would make me dust, and I hated it. I’d pout around the house with a dust rag and a bottle of lemon Pledge, wishing I could be outside instead. Mama was not forceful, but she insisted that I participate in housework. Then, by the afternoon, Mama had completed most of what had to be done, and she finished always by starching my father’s blue jeans and button-down shirts.
The episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race keeps both Mama and me entertained, and I look over randomly to see Mama slightly smiling. Men dressed in women’s clothes, heavy make-up, and the most brilliant wigs. “Eeee, look at that one!” says Mama when a very fat drag queen makes his-her way down the runway, his fast strut in high heels flawless, and Mama reaches for her Diet Coke on the end table beside her.
Mama keeps a photograph of her mother in the living room, front and center, perched on the large cabinet that holds a record player and old cassette tapes. The photo of Cita, an 8 by 10, is unmistakable, and Mama often buys a bouquet of fresh flowers, setting it adjacent to the photo, an offering to her mother from this side of the grave.
I have noticed Mama clinging to her own mother’s love, so desperately, so fervently, that I wonder if I, too, will do the same when she is gone. And just as our parish priest likes to remind us, the definition of a mother is the absence of her.
The memory of lying in Mama’s arms while riding the Greyhound bus is sparse. But what I do remember quite easily is watching my father write numbers on a paper, any paper, sitting in his school office, the way his pencil always pressed down confidently and intentionally, the lead tip creating the number two with a curved top and slightly curving bottom. Even to this day, my numbers resemble those of my father, his teachings found in my everyday nuances, my number seven looking just like his number seven, my number two just like his number two. My penmanship resembles my father’s penmanship—this he taught me, and this I made my own. But what of my mother, what did I learn from her? To cry? To remain silent? To worry? Or was it something more than these negative things I’ve always named?
Mama would travel back to Wyoming to visit her mother during summer breaks. Sometimes she would take my brother and me with her, traveling by Greyhound bus on a teacher’s salary, two young children nestled in her arms during the twelve-hour bus ride. Mama would travel back to visit her own mother, this obligation all her own, these memories hers more than mine. I try to remember something about those Greyhound bus rides with her but can’t. Is it time that has made them disappear, or were they never mine to begin with?
What beauty has found you this summer is the question I catch myself texting to Rey, a gay man from our community who is good at giving hugs. When he hugs you, he seems to embrace you with his soul, oddly tight at first, and holding the embrace so that it catches you by surprise. “Oh, I LOVE getting hugs from Rey!” Mama admitted once, and I thought it was just me. Because he holds you in a deep embrace, a kind of hug only reserved for someone like a mother, but he shares these kinds of embraces often, among community members, with Mama and me, and it makes us feel loved.
Am I angry because Mama didn’t really teach me about being a woman? Or did she tell me, in her own way, in an unfamiliar language of subtlety and silence that I had to learn to decipher? Or were my expectations of Mama just too much, too much to expect? I wanted things from her because I am a “taker,” because I am a daughter. I wanted her to be my “best friend” like I’ve heard other women reference their mother. I wanted to be able to talk with my Mama about anything.
But what I’ve come to realize, over time, is that often our expectations of a mother are just too much, too grand, for one human being.
What if I pulled back the binding expectations I’ve often had, and just surrendered to the core notion that she loved me? She loved me. She raised me. And she still gives me love in her own way. And we sit and watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, those flamboyant, flashy, colorful drag queens speaking and acting for us in ways that Mama and I absolutely cannot. We speak in drag. Drag speaks for us. Drag speaks because we cannot.
What they don’t tell you about watching the Season 6 finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race is how guilty you’ll feel, first of all, for watching it, then second of all, for how much you enjoyed watching it. “You should be dusting the house, or vacuuming, or washing the floors instead of watching that garrero,” you imagine Mama scolding, but another part of you snaps back, realizing Mama enjoys the show, too, mesmerized by the flamboyance, the costumes, the overexaggerated and confident exuberance. And most importantly, to not take yourself so seriously (as RuPaul often says), to drop the heavy expectations and seriousness, and to just have flamboyant fun sometimes.
And I remember the remedios of my childhood—Mama rubbing Vicks on the bottoms of my bare feet at night, and on my chest, and giving my brother and me warm 7-UP to drink. A few times, Mama put papas and vinagre on my forehead during a heavy fever. I remember the disgusting scent of the vinagre dripping down my forehead, onto my face. “But it will help,” Mama insisted, and I couldn’t/didn’t understand then. I was too caught up in the scent of the vinagre itself, its disgusting stench driving me to gag and want to vomit.
In a Vanity Fair interview, RuPaul was asked: “You’ve said, ‘We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.’ What does that mean?”
The video of the interview draws in tight on RuPaul’s face during his response to this, and he isn’t dressed in drag, but is instead wearing a black suit and glasses, and not as a flamboyant drag queen, but just as himself.
His reply in the interview as the camera comes in slow and tight on his face: “What that means is that we are all more than just what it says on our driver’s license, or what it says we are in our job description. We are actually, in reality, an extension of the power that created the whole universe … [pause] … Can you handle it?”
I go to bed before Mama does. She stays in the living room, watching the news after Drag Race is over, and I say, out loud, as I head for my bedroom down the hall, “Love you, goodnight.”
We speak to one another, and yet everything remains unsaid. Everything except for the “I love yous.” And this is what mama says to me again and again—I love you—but I am closed off, listening for it when really I need to just see it.
“Good night, mi hjita,” Mama replies affectionately, and as I leave the living room, I see from my peripheral vision the outline of her body. She is shrouded in the evening darkness of a room lit only by the flickering light of a television showing the nightly news. Her body rests this way, in the darkness of day, and she, too, is a flicker of light. I return to the fold of what it is to exist as a daughter, existing just as this, a daughter to this woman who is my mother in the softness of summer.
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