Freeways & Mexican Moms
I was in my Chicano Studies class with Dr. George Garcia when I got the call. We were in groups, and my phone would not stop vibrating in my book bag. I politely looked at Dr. García and mimed that I had to take the call. I figured it was important. I stepped outside the classroom in Sierra Hall north in front of the beautiful Chicano mural. There were two voice messages and one text from my sister-in law Jamie announcing that my mother had passed.
As I walked back in, Dr. García’s face asked me silently if everything was okay. I shook my head no. I was still in shock despite the fact that Mamá had been in hospice, and it was no secret she was dying. I knelt down and could feel the tears well up in my eyes. I gathered my books and put them in the knapsack. I looked up at Dr. García hoping to find some calm with which to soothe the emotional blow.
Dr. Garcia gave me a very compassionate look, and said, “Mi’ja, your universe has changed forever. You’re half orphan, so take care of your father.”
Tennessee Williams refers to “the emollient of a mother” in one of his plays, and I understood that. My mother loved us all individually and knew us like we didn’t know ourselves. Even though there were eight of us, she managed to spread that love equally, make it palpable, deep. She sacrificed, worked at a job she hated so that my little brother and I could go to private schools. I knew something was up that morning because I had been at her side. Her breathing was labored, and it scared me enough to call my brother Joe and say “I’m worried about mom!”
Just before calling him, I kissed her on the forehead and said, “Bye mami, I’m going to school. I love you.” She had been in hospice care for a month, and she was letting us know, in her own subtle way that she wanted out of that Alzheimer’s ridden body. Her gaze said “Mi’ja, I love you, but this is hell. I’ve got to go.”
My mother’s facial expressions varied. She could give me an admiring look when I was passionate about something, and it was a look like that meant she believed I could take on the world. I missed that. She could also deliver a stern look when I was impatient and then offer the dicho I hated to hear: “Mi’ja, con paciencia todo es cielo.” Roughly, heaven comes to those who wait.
I remember being seven or eight when she must have been 47 and didn’t have a driver’s license. Most of her life she’d walked and relied on the cable cars to get herself around Los Angeles. My little brother and I did commercials when we were younger, and I vividly recall how she once took us to an audition on the bus from Desoto and Ventura in the Valley all the way to Cahuenga and Ventura. I asked her why I was being forced to wear my brother’s shirt.
“Because they want you to look tough,” she said.
I couldn’t care less about being tough. I wanted that big huge, multi-colored beach ball, a prop in the commercial. The minute they showed it to me, I knew it was on. I really didn’t know why I was there, but play was the order of moment, and I was willing to play. Ironically, we ended up filming the commercial on Alpine St., where my mother had grown up, a neighborhood now identified as Chinatown.
“Why don’t you take the freeway?” my father said to her another time, laughing. “Ay, Mónico, you know how I feel about that. Now, show me the way without it,” my mother said, determined to drive us. My father had always laughed at my mother’s endearing qualities. “Okay. Take Ventura Blvd. to the Cahuenga Pass. It turns into Highland. Turn right on Hollywood Blvd.,” is all I heard. “Ya’ got that?” he said, still laughing. I dozed off. The next day my mother figured out a way to drive us by taking Ventura Blvd. over the Cahuenga Pass and turning right on Hollywood.
We made it on time. On the way back, there where Highland quickly turns into the freeway, instead of veering left onto Cahuenga, my mother thrust us onto the 101 North, a freeway she feared, at a speed she did not like. Now, my mother was always the silent, calm observer who had the strength and will of a saint. “Ahhhh Kids!!,” she screamed in a panic. “We’re on the freeway!! Pray!”
I said, “What?!” Hysterical, she said, “PRAY!” She lit into a Hail Mary, and the next thing you know, we were chiming in. “Hail Mary full of grace. The lord is with thee, blessed art thou…” but since I knew my mother didn’t like to drive the freeways and that she always drove with one foot on the gas pedal and the other on the brake, I figured it could get dangerous.
“I’ve got to get us off this freeway!!” I thought to myself. I became the bossy older sister. “Michael, stick your hand out the window,” I yelled. Why, why, why had I given him shotgun? His little six-year-old hand went out. Huge trailer trucks zoomed past us. Cars honked, and my mom went on. “Hail Mary, Holy Mary Mother of God…”
“Mom! Go now. You can get over! Go now! Michael has his hand out!” I screamed.
We had one lane down. “Alright, you’re free to go for another one!” I told her. She careened into the next lane, still reciting her prayers. Seeing the Barham exit, she said, “Okay. Okay. That’s where we can get off this stupid freeway.” She quickly regained her composure, hooked toward the left like she’d been doing it forever, and presto, we were all in one piece. The three of us looked at each other and started laughing.
“Okay, kids,” she said with a smile. “Let’s go get some 31 flavors.”