Sometimes we need courage to go after we want but some leaps done in the dark have little to do with bravery. It was necessity that made my mother grab her two small children and arrive at her sister’s apartment in the big city. Knowing her, I imagine how devastated she must’ve felt but between living a tumultuous and unpredictable life with my father (once again without a job) or being relocated to the house of her unsympathetic mother-in-law and her unmarried adult children, there was no other option.
“Family helps family, we share the same blood”, I remember my mother pointing this out in times of family distress. It turned out that life gave her many opportunities to apply this simplistic motto, in either side. This concept that you should always count with family introduced me later to a good amount of successful stories as well as several accounts of abuse/misuse of this privilege in our family history. Nevertheless, this is how my existence begun in this world. More precisely, in that crowded one-bedroom apartment.
Our arrival was a circumstantial, under-the-belt blow to the lives of that small cluster of a family in the big city. Our benefactor, an older and single sister (that soon became my favorite aunt) was the pinnacle of a peculiar household that included of her octogenarian mother, a teenage daughter of another sister that she embraced as her own and a grumpy older brother. Oh, plus a cat and a parrot.
Living and protected by the “family blood code”, the sailing in that ship was set to be as smooth as it could possibly be. And it was. Familiarity put everything into perspective to my mother. They were her people, therefore we belonged with them.
Other than the expected routine adjustments due to a sudden overpopulated environment, there were no major issues. My aunt could finally count with someone reliable to be in charge of the house and my fragile grandma, as she worked full-time and was troubled to leave her elderly mother alone during the day. My cousin’s daily activities remained the same and the only man in the house, my jobless uncle, had no saying in the situation since he didn’t contribute in any way, unless destructive criticism counts.
The sleeping arrangements were based on the schedule of my aunt. She gave us the bedroom she shared with her mother and both started sleeping in a sofa bed in the living room. My aunt’s commute to work was brutal; she had to hit the road before heavy traffic and my grandma woke up very early as old people usually do. Nothing changed to the bedtime routine of my grumpy uncle and cousin. He kept the same spot on the floor for his thin and bendable mattress (for some reason the sofa was never an option before) and she had a tiny bedroom, the so-called “maid’s quarters”, in the area close to the kitchen and laundry room.
Looking back I see a happy childhood. I dearly loved my aunt. I remember jumping to her arms every time she came back from work (“like a ballerina” she said every time) and leaning on her soft and plump arm while watching tv at night. My grandmother was a soft presence, often singing and standing by that third floor window people watching. She reminds me of a porcelain doll, being treated as such by all her children, in spite of her idiosyncrasies and nerve wrecking perfectionism. My uncle started as a bully that time revealed to be a mask for his mellow side, a man who showed his affection through sweets, songs and riddles. The only thing that bothered me was the unofficial assignment of errand girl to feed my cousin’s urges for soda and cigarettes but to her credit, she introduced me to books. At the end, I got the better deal of the bargain so it might be worth all those times that I had to drop what I was doing and go to the corner store to buy a sandwich for the sake of “improving social skills”. I wish I could say that I had fun with the pets but the cat trigged my allergies and the parrot trigged fear for my life: that beast could dive on your jugular in any given chance while laughing maniacally. My mom was always busy, especially when juggling her family duties with my father’s unexpected and somewhat frequent visits that never ended well. He didn’t approve her decision to stay but since he couldn’t offer anything better, the situation infuriated him. And he sure knew how to get his message across.
When I was ten years old my father got a nice job in town and was able to get an nice apartment, the conditions my mother needed to consider a future with him. Maybe it was another decision made by lack of options but change was welcome at that point. I don’t recall being sad or even saying goodbye to the family I left (I’m sure I did) but we were still so close – emotionally and physically – that it didn’t feel that we were parting ways. Everyone was excited about the new apartment and the new chapter in our lives. A few years later my aunt retired and moved to another state, taking my grandma, my cousin and my uncle along with her. It was their turn to start over somewhere else.
Revisiting this period of my life made me realize the impact of those small and ordinary moments. Powerful, they still touch me and fill me with wonder and sense of belonging. How a situation far from ideal for a child, for a mother, for everyone involved, was perfect in its own way? I could pinpoint all the “missing parts’ but it doesn’t matter: I can only notice them now and, thankfully, now it’s too late. I focus on the good because the good is what made the difference.
Thanks to my mother, one of my fondest memories is the goodnights. A true ritual of attention with kisses and hugs to each family member individually. The loving gesture she taught her children until it became a habit had a deeper meaning. It was the time of the day to say “I see you, I respect you, I wish you the best.” Through us she was being grateful to the ones that offered her a hand in a difficult time. For me and my brother that interaction meant more than a simple display of affection. We learned a life lesson that ending a day in love and peace was the best way to start the next one.
(Photo by Eric Johnson on Unsplash)