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Wisdom thru MadLibs

Somehow, MadLibs triggered a nugget of wisdom.

It all started with a Mad Libs puzzle. We took the Mini Teenager out to dinner to celebrate a big birthday. This was after the big birthday bash, complete with water slides, friends, sun, fun, cake and “I don’t wanna go yet!” Next day was the actual birth-day, so we took Mini Teenager out to her favorite (well, second-favorite, first being frozen yogurt). While we wait for the waitress, we find a Mad Libs sheet in the back of the children’s menu (don’t tell anyone, we’re too old for children’s menu).

“Give me a plural noun,” commands Mini Teenager.

“Cats,” blurts out mom.

“Now I need an adjective,” turning to dad.

“Ubiquitous,” the smart-alecky dad over-enunciates, rounding out the vowels.

“What!?,” Mini Teenager scratches her head and looks at me to explain to dad that all she asked for was a simple adjective. “What’s ‘U-tick-utous’?”

“Can we stick to third-grade adjectives,? I say blinking to him. “He did give you an adjective, just a very big one,” I say to Mini Teenager. “And now HE is going to explain what it means.”

I throw the ball back in his court because I often get stuck with the difficult questions. Like where do people go when they die, and why does dad’s handwriting look the same as Santa’s.

They work it out and we finish the Mad Lib with something that sounds like “The ubiquitous cats went flying over the grilled chicken and shot red beams out their elbows.” A likely highlight of a rollercoaster birthday week.

It was not until the next day that I realized I have now entered the realm of the slightly displaced and no-longer-omnipresently-needed mother. See, Mini Teenager is growing fast. She’s putting things together. She knows she’s not an extension of me. She knows I have a life outside of my mothering role. When I explained the whole dad-Santa handwriting, she said she already knew, she was just playing along so that we, the parents, did not feel bad. (I told her that’s the real magic of Christmas.)

So, now that we’ve gotten this far without major physical or emotional injury, what secrets are there to keep? What bumps are there to avoid? Why keep trying to be in all places at all times trying to catch the Mini Teenager before she falls off that tree branch/rail/couch? Why keep trying to be the omnipresent, omniscient, supermom?

U-biq-ui-tous: Being or seeming to be everywhere at the same time; omnipresent. Ubi means where in Latin. Which explains the Spanish word ubicación, or location. Maybe we all need to realign our location. As Mini-Teenager grows up, I find myself slipping into a more comfortable place. Letting go. Relaxing. Letting the wise child lead the way.

I think I’m gonna like the next phase of motherhood…Wherever my new ubi puts me.

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My Little Girl is turning into a Mini Teenager. To prove it, yesterday she had a bout of existential anguish. She pined over lost time with Raggedy Ann, who was lovingly made and given to her by Abuela (my mother, a fine artisan from The Island).

Raggedy Ann made by Abuela

Raggedy Ann and the Mini Teenager enjoyed happy days at the park.

How would she ever recover lost time with Raggedy Ann (waahh), she who has been with her for two years (sniff), through two big moves, bouncing from box to closet and closet to box to finally have some attention from her busy little owner?  Raggedy Ann with the delicately embroidered face and a little red heart on her chest that says “I love you.”  Surely she realized that the doll used to be as big as she was two years ago, and now the doll is getting “smaller.” She also realized (and she said so) she wouldn’t want her friends to laugh at her if she took Raggedy Ann to third grade (she used to carry Raggedy Ann to the park and send her flying down the slides). Here’s a self-aware child who realizes she’s growing up.

She said through tears that she couldn’t spend more time with Raggedy Ann because she was “working,” and she said it just like a mother bemoans time lost with her growing child. I know she meant schoolwork and other activities, but, for a moment, I wasn’t sure if this was or wasn’t  a trick-dream my guilty subconscious was playing on me. Maybe the message is that she wants ME to spend more time with HER. Whatever the trigger, or the psychology behind it, this was definitively my emerging Mini Teenager crying over happy days that will never return.

I tried to explain the concept of living in the present moment.  Raggedy Ann surely loves and appreciates her and will be happy for the gift of her friendship any time. “Your friends love you and are happy to play with you whenever you’re ready,” I said, thinking about my own good friends who have been there for me since grade school, and still “play” with me. None of them look like Raggedy Ann, they are much more beautiful and strong (and they read this). I tried to teach her the phrase “Today is the first day of the rest of my life,” hoping she’d remember it someday, even if it wasn’t completely clear now. I’m sure she’ll use it against me whenever I try to remind her about something disagreeable she did the day before. She’s too smart.

She finally gave Raggedy Ann a hug and a kiss, collected herself and settled down to read a book, probably to distract herself from the bittersweetness of growing up. Later, I thought maybe she was remembering that part in the movie Toy Story 3  when Andy has to part with his toys one last time when he goes to college. I also thought maybe she had too much (or not enough) drama at her after-school theatre class and was rehearsing with me. (She sure has a way of making anyone buy into her drama and tug at anyone’s heartstrings.) At a deeper level, I hope she always stays in touch with her feelings, and always feels this comfortable sharing her feelings with her mother. Or at least for a little while longer, before the real teenage years arrive.

La pelea de las migajas started innocently enough. Little girl gets up all cranky, hair frazzled (don’t comb it mom, it hurts), blanket-stuck-to-cheek, undies-in-a-wad. Her mother (yo) drags her out of bed, dresses her like a baby (mom, you’re bending my ear with the shirt!), and manages to get her to the kitchen table – where the real fight begins.

“I got your backpack ready, what are you gonna have for breakfast?

“I don’t know; I can’t decide,” she says to the overflowing pantry looming over her. “All we have is cereal and snacks.”

We do this every morning, and Dr. Bogeyman doesn’t do the trick anymore.

“Cheerios? Waffles? English muffin,toast, egg?, ” I’m hoping something will click.

“I can’t decide!”

The tyranny of too many choices.

“How about egg and bread?” I offer as I notice someone left the bread bag open overnight and that might not be a choice after all. “Your father left the bread open again, me caso en su vida!”

“No, mom, that was me last night. I was hungry after dinner.”

“That’s because you don’t want to eat the good food your mother prepares for you,” sniffing the bread, it’s fine. “And if you can have plain bread at night, why don’t you at least have toast with butter now?”

“Because it’s not the saaaame…

“All right, we gotta go to school in five minutes, what’s it gonna be? 

Silence.

“Well, here’s some toast and a couple of strawberries.”  I’m done bargaining, and we’re out of time.

Little girl stares silently out the glass door, maybe hoping a great egret will pick her up and whisk her away from this appetizing torture.

“Time to eat,” I prompt to interrupt her vision.

“I just can’t deciiiide,” she whines as her toast loses precious heat (it’s 40 degrees out).

That’s it, in lieu of the Tiger Mother, the Boricua Mother comes out: “It’s not a matter of deciding, it’s a matter of opening your mouth and chewing the food you got in front of you! ”  

She gives me the puppy dog eyes. Starts to get teary. I want to laugh, but a flash of my grandparents’ GreatDeppresion-AND-Two-Hurricanes-Devastate-The-Island stories (Lares, PR, circa 1933, sopa de gandules for breakfast, lunch and dinner) toughens me up.

“¡CO-ME-TE  EL  PAN!”

She knows I mean business now. Spanish comes out when I’ve had it – another absurd twist of Living La  Vida Traducida. 

She proceeds to put the cooling piece of buttered toast in her mouth and take a tiny bite. I look away before I lose it. I hear munching on strawberries and then breaking of bread. When I look again, she’s got the bread over her head, back turned to her now-really-captive audience and is performing a strange  puppet show with the bread dropping crumbs on her hair.

“This is you,” she enlightens her audience. “And this is me,” shaking the other half of the bread.

“Eat, so you can grow!”  “But I’m not hungry!”  The dueling bread halves yell at each other, all while continuing to drop crumbs on her head.

She turns around just in time to see the right corner of my mouth struggling to contain a smile. Satisfied with the shadow of a half-smile, she quietly eats both halves of the bread, leaving only crumbs on the tablecloth – and on her head.

When she’s finished, I toss her hair with my fingers and get a few breadcrumbs off. “Remember to explain to your teacher that those breadcrumbs got there after a breadcrumb fight with your mother…”

We actually make it to school on time. She gets out of the car, and with her most beautiful smile says “Have a good day mom!” 

I shake my head, half reproaching, half proud. “I love you,” I wave from the driver’s seat.   

And off I go to my daily work of translating medical brochures, cleaning, editing an M.D. interview, cooking…and other things mothers juggle to put breadcrumbs on the table.

7:30 a.m., kitchen table: “Little girl, you have to eat breakfast before I can send you to school.
— Mom, I’m NOT hungry.
— Cereal or bagel? Egg? Waffle? You gotta eat something!
— I told you, mom, I’m NOT hungry!
— At least eat this organic chocolate chip breakfast bar and have some cereal (pleading).
— Chocolate? Okay, I’ll eat it.

2:45 p.m., exam room at unnamed multi-specialty children’s clinic, neurology consult.
Really tall doctor wearing tie: “ …and another thing you can do to avoid headaches is to eat breakfast every day.
— Little girl looks up at mother with guilty eyes. Makes puppy face and says nothing.
— Mother looks back with “I told you so” at the tip of her tongue, but refrains…

With my apologies to my doctor friends, and especially to our wonderful pediatrician, Dr. Monsalve in St. Augustine, this scene illustrates a parent’s daily struggle. Maybe we don’t invoke the Bogeyman anymore, but we invoke the authority of the doctor. “Dr. M is going to ask you if you’ve been eating well.”

If you have a good child who is respectful, and only a little hardheaded, this simple phrase works better than “Santa is watching.”

When I was a child, my grandmother used to threaten me with the Bogeyman, and sometimes with the garbage collector. Depending on the infraction, either El Cuco (the Bogeyman; it was never a bogeywoman) or the garbage collectors would cart me away. For the record, my parents never mentioned the Bogeyman; this only happened when I was at my grandparents’ house in Arecibo, PR.

I would never threaten my child with the Bogeyman. But the Bogeydoc? Only if it prompts her to eat nutritious food. It made me eat better between blood sugar checkups when I was a teenager trying to avoid juvenile diabetes. I knew Dr. I would lecture me if my blood sugar was too low.

In the age of nurture-parenting, when we reject the notion of the Tiger Mother (upcoming book), and over-rely on positive reinforcement, what’s a mother to do?

Let me rehearse my line: “Eat your veggies, or the Bogeydoc will call to check on you!”

Nah, our doc’s too nice for that.

In the weeks prior to moving with my family to our new home, my 8-year-old child came to me and confided a big truth. “Mom, before, only half of my body wanted to move to the new house, but now my whole body wants to move to the new house!”

I did a double take from behind a pile of boxes and dropped the pan I was trying to pack. “What do you mean, oh wise child?”

“Well, um, before, I didn’t know if I would like going to a new house; but now I like it [the house] and I’m sure I wanna move.”

I hugged my child and thought about the lesson in her simple comment. As children, we knew how to think with our bodies. It was not until we were indoctrinated into Western traditions of separation of mind and body, and the supremacy of the mind over the body, that we forgot that we ARE inside a body that feels and absorbs all our emotions. Stress is the result of the body’s inability to assimilate all the stuff we pile up on ourselves. Symptoms such as chronic backaches, headaches and heartburn are signals your body sends to remind you that you have overdone it.

This is not just new age theory, the American Academy of Family Physicians recognizes the effects of stress on your body’s wellbeing. They go as far as to point out that even “good stress,” such as having a baby, can affect your health.

Humans are creatures of habit and any change can bring about emotions that we think with our Western minds that we can control, only to have our bodies tell us otherwise.

We need to remember to listen to our bodies – our whole bodies. Like my 8-year-old.

Bald cypress, RGR.I’m getting ready to move to a new house. As I pack, I reflect on all the other places where I’ve lived and what each place felt like. The “spirit of place” at the house where I’ve lived for the past year lives in an old, huge, bald cypress tree. It dominates the yard, the canal and all other mature trees around. It has its own symphony of birds, ants and wind. In its shade, time slows down. A microclimate envelopes and nourishes everything around it. This is what this tree gave me on the eve of my move:   

…I’m just out here playing on the margin, walking the fence. I’m a human bridge between the old and the new. I’m a transition. I’m the amorphous seed holding together both the old brown leaf and the new green leaf on the cypress tree. I hold both firmly and keep them alive.

One morning, I was wondering how people write so personally about their ancestors; as if they were narrating their own lives. Then I opened the back door and walked to the bald cypress. The tree extended one branch and handed me a brown leaf. It’s summer, the brown leaf should have fallen off months ago, so I thought I’d help by pulling. The brown leaf, the white seed AND the new green leaf all came off in my hand. Now I’ve done it. I started to ask forgiveness of the tree. But this tree is 100 feet tall, is probably about 100 years old and has seen it all. He meant to bend down, hand me that leaf and answer my question. I kept the leaf to help me reflect on my mother and my grandmothers. Later, I started to feel like the seed in the middle; holding past and present (and future?) in one firm grasp.

“No waste of space in Texaco. Every last centimeter was good for something. No private land, no collective land, we weren’t the landowners so no-one could pride [herself] on anything besides the number of hours, minutes, seconds of [her] arrival…In our mind, the soil under the houses remained strangely free, definitively free.”

(Noutéka of the Hills is the purported name of a community of squatters in Martinique. When I first read Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco(quoted above), I drew a pencil sketch of my grandmother’s parcela in Arecibo, PR, on the book margin. It looked just like Esternome’s house in the noutéka, except her place was a government parcel. In the book, the Noutéka of the Hills was settled by former slaves decades before the shantytown of Texaco (Fort De France, Martinique) was founded. Both communities make a strong case for claiming your own space. The noutéka would be like Bajadero in Arecibo, PR, and Texaco would be more like Barrio Obrero, Arecibo or La Perla in San Juan, PR. )

My noutéka of the hill (if you can call it that) was in a deep forest, house painted brown to blend in, hidden from the road behind the oak, the mimosa and the dogwood. Four steps up into my resonant floor. (Don’t forget to duck past the spider web.) The living room was at ground level, the kitchen and the rooms flying up into the air, looking down at the slope.

My spacious house in a noutéka of the hill in North Carolina had a big kitchen with a nice view, and two bathrooms with skylights, where my orchids bloomed on command. The neighbors came to dinner and were envious of the oak floor. The Ukranian landlords were thankful I took good care of this refuge. It wasn’t mine, but it was mine. The space and the moment were mine. The bird chorus was mine. The deer who interrupted my dinner each evening. The hawk who perched on the hickory tree. The yellow hickory leaves in the fall. The gum tree and the oaks going up in flames. The sticks that were left in winter. The red-bellied woodpecker, always constant, always mine. The squirrel and the raccoon who stole cat food. The slippery slope and the impromptu creek. The fawns feeding on their mother. Everything was mine to care for, to take in and enjoy.  The early summer fireflies belonged to my daughter – that was my legacy to her and she chased after them daringly.

My grandmother Tata’s noutéka was on a different hill. It was parceled and bare; deforested to match the valley below, where the sugar cane used to grow. You could see her yellow house from a mile away, perched like a canary on the back side of the hill. Sometimes we would drive to the bottom of the hill and climb 100 crooked steps to her house.

Four narrow steps (sized for her small feet) led you inside to her uneven floor boards. (After you ducked under the line from her nephew’s house that supplied illegal electricity.) The front door was at ground level, the rest of the one-room house suspended precariously by thin stilts.

Her tiny house on this noutéka had wood slats you could look through to the cliff below. You could see two goats pacing under the shade of the house. Light seeped in through the walls too, which compensated for the lonely window opposite the front door. The window was a square with shutters that swung open in the morning and closed nightly with a hook and eye lock. There was one light bulb hanging from the ceiling, with a long cord she could reach. There was a curtain slung over a clothesline which served as a partition between her bed and the rest of the refuge. She used a basinet to pee. She walked two houses down to her brother’s house when she needed to use the bathroom and the kitchen. He had a regular latrine and an outdoor pipe that brought in water through the kitchen window.

Everything was hers – and the government’s.  She took good care of it. The cute shack painted yellow, the plants she grew between the rocks out front, the goats under the house, the karst rocks that I used as chalk, the fossils she found and saved for me (once we found a sea star up the hill from her, at the top of the mountain). The steps were hers, the gravel road was hers, the neighbors hollering a greeting as she walked by. I saw her sign an X at the housing office when she got her parcel. That X meant it was all hers, even if she couldn’t write. She refused to leave even after someone beat her up (she never said who) for the few dollars she had in her pocket. She refused to leave even after she no longer could climb down the 100 steps into town, much less come back up.

She only left her noutéka for the same reason I left mine: to benefit her daughter. Thirty-something years later, her parcel must still be there, no doubt holding a much bigger and sturdier house.

I’m closing on a new house tomorrow, thinking about the “free” noutéka I traded for this luxury with strings attached. Regardless, I’m glad I can do this for my daughter. But I’m even happier I can do this for Tata and through Tata. I thank my grandmother for the free spirit she granted me by living her life as she chose, and for the borrowed treasures she taught me to claim and enjoy. She filled my path with fireflies.

Back to the beginning

…That was the year the Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men who bring gifts on the eve of Epiphany), left a book under her bed. It was big and colorful and it had a sturdy cover. The title was Héroes en Zapatillas (a 1974 Spanish translation of Varona and Olivar’s Eroi In Pantofole, Edizione Paoline, Roma, 1971). Every European hero from Aníbal to Ulises, and with the generous inclusion of Gengis Khan, was there in caricature form. No mention of women.  Still, the book provided hours of entertainment and later she would beg her mother to keep it for her when she went to college. (The book is still around for the granddaughter. It’s yellow, not as colorful, and the pages are coming off the unstitched spine. It will be a supplement to the heroine stories they’ll read.) 

By the time she was in eleventh grade, our girl barely recalled the details of the medical kit from Christmas Past. But she remembered the feeling. Everything started to come back to her as if in a tunnel when her guidance counselor refused to give her an SAT application.

“Una niña como tú debería quedarse aquí (en la isla) con su mamá y su papá.” (“A girl like you should stay here (on the island) with her mom and dad.”) He wanted me (you already knew it was me) to concentrate on taking the College Board exam and forget about the SAT. I guess La Academia (my parochial private school) was more interested in raising overall scores than in placing their students where they wanted to be. I switched high schools my senior year and chose not to graduate with my friends over this. I did great on the College Board, got into UPR Rio Piedras, and Sagrado Corazón just in case, then turned around and left for FSU. It wasn’t easy. No one wanted me to leave. Many said I wouldn’t make it past the first semester. Too young, too sheltered, too attached to family. I went around all objections. Found a friend who went to school at Fort Buchanan to get me an SAT application, took the test at her school without any help. Then I took things one step at a time. My parents saw how determined I was and rallied behind me. My whole family sacrificed a lot to send me to college. Every semester was a small miracle. Twenty-something years later, my life is a miracle. The doors that seem to close just lead me to better things than the ones I imagined for myself. And really, I have a lot of say on which doors close.

So, listen to your children. Pay special attention to the girls and take their dreams seriously. Don’t tell anyone, boy or girl, how to play –let them teach you how to play. And for the record, I don’t want to be a boy anymore. Life’s more interesting as a girl.

All this writing about cross-dressing female doctors from the 19th century got me thinking about another story. Habia una vez una niña que queria ser niño. She did not dislike herself, she just wanted to be more than what people told her she could be.

It started one Christmas morning when she was three. She tore open the last present to find a strange red box inside. It was plastic and it looked like a lunch box, only bigger and with a curved top. Inside the strange red box she found small white instruments. There was a long cord with a plastic cone at one end and two plugs on the other which her mother said went in her ears.  “To listen to your heart beating.” There was a thin plastic cylinder with some lines on it, to take your temperature.

Her grandfather offered himself as a patient and she eagerly went about the task of becoming a doctor. But after she had examined her patient and decided which small bottle contained the right medicine for him, grandfather said “you will be a good nurse someday.” The game suddenly stopped. She wanted to cry, but she didn’t know why. The lump in her throat turned into a yell as she threw the medical bag on the floor and said she didn’t want to play anymore. At three years of age she knew that if she couldn’t play doctor, the role she chose, there was no sense in playing the game at all.

Later, she played Zorro with her neighbor Jorge and with her younger sister. The long pods from the flamboyant tree (a royal poinciana) made good swords and sabres. She didn’t listen when she was told to take the old blankie off her neck. That made a good cape. Zorro made a good role model, for lack of any female ones. There was much jumping off tree stumps and swinging from torn clotheslines, unsheathed sword (pod) cutting a Z in the air. 

On January 6, 1978 she would have been nine…

(Second part.)