No matter how long someone is gone, they can still reach out to you in the most interesting ways. My mother passed away thirteen years ago, yet just today I encountered her as I was surfing the internet. It seems Time Magazine has been working on their archives, and I discovered an article about my mother from March 27, 1944. Though the online version didn’t run the photograph as the print one did, the little personal “facts” they listed about her—equestrian, stamp collector and dancer in the Spanish manner—made me chuckle: they were totally made up. Classic PR propaganda. However I was so proud of the fact that she had won Columbia’s Hamlin award for architecture (she was only the second woman and certainly the first Puerto Rican to win it) and was featured in such a prestigious magazine. But reading the piece about that time in her life made me reflect on a choice she made which, if made differently, would have precluded my existence but given her a fascinating life. It was during that time that she made a choice that led her towards my father (also a student of architecture and a big Swedish football player), five children and a suburban life. But I often wonder (as we all do at certain points) what her life would have been like had she chosen a different path.
The pictures of her from those years are glamorous in the way only images from the 1940s can be: perfectly-manicured nails with blood red polish, the incredibly feminine hairstyle in Rita Hayworth auburn, the clothes that flattered every figure. But my mother was stunning by any standards, and back then she still had her accent, long gone by the time I came around. I’m sure it only added to her seductiveness.
In her early college years my mother’s boyfriend was an Ecuadorian man named Sixto. He was studying under a diplomatic visa, and from all accounts, was very taken with her. When I was 14, I encountered a photo of him taken in front of Columbia’s Lowe Library with my father and a group of their wild college buddies, all in suits (did everyone wear suits in the 40s?). Sixto had swarthy good looks, with a cascade of jet-black wavy hair falling into his dark eyes. I knew only the basic history: my mother had broken up with him, fallen in love with and eventually married my father. Many times I asked her, “Mom, why didn’t you marry Sixto?” and her answer was always the same – a classic response from my mother. “Honey, it was because I knew he was headed for political office, and I couldn’t imagine being a first lady and saying ‘fuck’ in the presidential palace.” I wondered how she could have possibly known that he would be a politician, and dismissed it as one of her colorful embellishments.
In 1992 Sixto Durán Ballen was elected president of Ecuador. Go figure.
In 1994 my mother lay in a hospital bed, suffering from cardiac problems that would take her life six months later. I visited her daily, and on one particular afternoon I stopped by the post office to pick up her mail. I signed for a certified letter, and, as I walked away from the counter, I stopped short. The return address was “the Office of the President, Quito, Ecuador.” It took all my self-control (of which I have little) not to tear open the letter then and there and I sped to the hospital. When I excitedly handed my mother the letter, she, in her typical fashion, feigned indifference, though I could tell she was as excited as I was. The letter was in English, handwritten in a lovely script by Sixto himself. It was an invitation to a class reunion that he was holding in Ecuador for the four living graduates of their class at Columbia. He had heard Mom was in frail health, so he offered to send his presidential plane to Vermont to bring Mom and one of her daughters (!) to the Galapagos Islands, where they would embark on a two-week reunion cruise on his yacht. I think in our hearts we all knew that this trip would never happen, but we lived off it for weeks. My sister and I argued about who would go – “But I speak Spanish!” “Yeah, well I’m a nurse!” – and my Mother spent the week telling all the nurses in the hospital, “My old boyfriend is the President of Ecuador and he wants to fly me to the Galapagos for a reunion on his yacht.” They would pause, and then say, “Sure Mrs. Hagman, whatever you say, honey, now be a good girl and take your medicine.”
The most ironic part of this tale is that Sixto called several months later to see if my mother was coming. He called on the day of her memorial service. The family was gathered at my sister’s house after we left the church, and when the phone rang I answered. He had called himself – no presidential secretaries – and his English was perfect. I wasn’t sure how to tell him, but the irony of his having chosen that day made it seem predestined. My uncle Jorge was there, and, as he was at Columbia two years behind Sixto, they were able to enjoy some reminiscence in my mother’s honor on that day that we celebrated her life instead of mourning her death.
I know that my mother didn’t regret her decision to marry my father. For all her bitching about him, she loved him, and to the day she died she said that the most important things she had accomplished in her life were her children. But though she would never admit it to me, she had to have wondered. I certainly have spent time thinking about who my mother would have been had she ended up the first lady of Ecuador. I’m sure Eva Perón said “fuck” in la Casa Rosada, so why not Mom?