It was about a year ago, on a spring day like a lot of spring days in Chicago; the sky, overcast, the color of slate, the color of mourning doves. The wind was blowing cool and damp, making me shiver. I was standing in Queen of Heaven cemetery, looking down at a mound of dirt, an unmarked grave. It was where Rita Alvarado, my mother was buried. So much had happened between us, so much said and unsaid. I laid down on top of the dirt and opened my arms to try to hold her one last time.
People have asked me how would I describe my relationship with her. I tell them this. A little girl and her mother are flying on an airplane, when something happens and the plane starts careening toward the ground. In a rush, the mother searches for a parachute and finds only one. Placing it on the girl, she carries her to the open hatch. The child wails and screams, begging her mother not to let go. But the mother, with infinite love, takes that last step, and releases her daughter to the open sky, to the world, to her future.
Everything I am today is because my mother gave me a parachute.
The following piece is my love letter.
It’s winter Mamí, and I’m thinking of you. Not Mother’s Day, and not your birthday --- on an icy, white, nameless day in the heart of winter. Through the cold that seems like it will never end, my thoughts turn to you and that memory --- the last happy time.
We’re in Geneva, near the Wisconsin border, tobogganing, with abuelo and silent, angry Daddy. I’m four, I think, and you are kneeling in the snow, your hair in a French braid, your fur coat billowing around you as the wind blows. I’m in my blue snow suit, chubby and smiling, and loving you, loving you so very much. How could I know that you would soon start to leave me by degrees?
Each time I remember the snow, your beautiful face, I ache. I want you. I want a woman. Only a woman. This longing is about the hunger only a woman can feed. I want what I want. I want what I can’t have. I let a woman hold me. It is something. It is never enough.
But I remember you taught me about stories and the power in telling them.
My mother was a woman who spoke little of the past, and when I became a teenager I became more curious about her life before she got married. I'd asked her to tell me the story of how she named me. (In 1956, the year I was born, Lisa was not a popular name.) To my surprise, she told me that it came from Club De Lisa, a popular jazz club on the south side. (I've come to find out that it had a national reputation, and was a hub for cool jazz.)
After some prodding, I found out that she had a very different life then. I only knew her as an unhappy housewife, someone who doted over me when I was little, but disappeared into alcoholism and drug addiction before I was 12. She told me a story of a completely different woman, a model with the Pat Stevens Agency, who made all the rounds at the chic clubs, dated musicians, and was a former print ad model for Maybelline mascara and eyebrow pencils.
One day, after what she thought was her best shoot, the art director told her that it was too bad --that this was as far as she would ever go because she was so Mexican-looking. (The ads only featured a tight shot of her eyes, avoiding her strong Indio nose, and were altered to make her skin seem lighter).
Little details about my childhood seem to make more sense. I remember her crying after making a princess costume for me...she'd cut down her only good suit...silk shantung, which I found out after the revelation was one of the last vestiges of her modeling days. There was tobogganing with her when I was about four. She was wearing a fur coat, impossibly beautiful. It wasn't long after that the coat got destroyed...in a fight with my father, I think.
I had access to some more of her life, her true life, the one she in which she was happy before it all went to hell.
It didn't change how being a Chicana in the 50's limited her choices, didn't change how an abusive marriage trapped her and eroded her soul. Knowledge here, did not mean freedom, either for her or for me.
I was never able to save her.
I am looking for you mother
I am looking for you mother,
looking for you everywhere.
In the corridors of dreams,
I look for the door
that will lead me to you.
I look, but I never find it.
I am looking for you, mother.
On these hard streets and cracked sidewalks,
I run past carnicerías,
babies dressed for bautizos,
family parties in back yards.
But you are never there.
I am looking for you, mother.
I play Billie Holliday just like you did.
I think if I close my eyes
and wait long enough;
I will smell your perfume
and you will finally be here.
But you never come.
Doctors took you away.
You took yourself away
with pieces of paper neatly lettered
with milligrams and the proper dose.
They help you forget that once you were
almost called beautiful
by people who thought it was a shame
that you were so Mexican looking.
So you give the man the paper
and he gives you the pills.
The pills help you.
The pills have stolen you from me.
I am looking for you, mother
A woman kisses my hand,
I think it is you.
A woman holds me,
I think it is you.
My lover tells me
he thinks I am beautiful.
I think about you.
I wonder if I will ever find you.
I wonder if you will ever kiss me.
I wonder if you will ever hold me or tell me
I am beautiful.
I wonder if you'll ever know
that I wrote this for you.
A version of this piece was broadcast on WBEZ 91.3, National Public Radio in May, 2002.