Her mother was once strikingly beautiful, but not just to her. She often caught men sneaking a glimpse, turning their heads almost involuntarily. But women were usually the first to notice her, often admiring her features, making a point to comment on her shoes, or a bag she chose. Any excuse to get a chance to speak with her as she peaked their curiosity. She stood out with an unassuming grace like that. She wore her long black hair in a high bun and her big almond eyes looked right through you but always welcomingly. That beauty coupled with her kind nature made people feel good about themselves, that was one of her gifts. She managed to bring out manners, the niceties of society that sometimes were forgotten in a factory town. The neighbors and church goers were their best selves around her, afterwards looking a little stunned as if they had awoken from a spell. Surprised the encounter was so effortless, after all this was a Mexican woman. She carried herself with a worldliness that was a complete mystery to Nicki, her teenage daughter. Afterall her mother had grown up in a broken home in south Chicago during the depression. She had finished high school but certainly never attended a college, nor were her parents educated that she knew. She wasn’t a reader or a traveller, yet always conveyed her sentiments so well. She could come alive for any stranger who bothered to strike a conversation or even call on the phone. Often Nicki would just stare in wonderment.
It was very unusual for men to leave their wives and families back then, especially Mexican-American Catholics, but her father did just that when she was just a young girl. She imagined it was very difficult on her mother. Mentally, Nicki’s grandmother did not survive that split. Although Nicki’s mom rarely shared information about her own mother, it was clear she was deeply depressed and unstable, possibly checked out during major parts of her childhood. When her grandmother came to visit, Nicki remembered she would sit for hours arguing to herself, often had to lay down in a dark room due to severe migraine headaches and no one ever seemed too excited she was there. Nicki tried to get to know her but she didn’t speak English. However she would stroke Nicki’s hair, while spouting what sounded like foreboding tales that sometimes ended in soft laughter and more emotional head patting. Nicki eventually came near her only to bring food or as she was told.
It was unclear why Nicki’s mother gave up on all of her beautiful qualities when she did. As if someone literally yanked the joy right out from under her. Who could blame her? Nicki thought. She didn’t go anywhere because there were no days off. Their work week never ended and they were years into this routine. Eventually she would cut off her long hair wearing it very short for convenience. It was so hot in that kitchen, she claimed. Little by little she abandoned her makeup efforts as well. It’s a waste, she’d just sweat them off, she said. She was sometimes still very present though for her daughter, her focus unyielding at times which made Nicki wonder if it was out of her control. When she did have her attention, her mother doled out great pearls of wisdom that elevated her stance on life, real pep talks. She spoke as if she was pulling from a higher source which impressed Nicki to no end. She was so wise and fair, so good at resolving problems and softening the lessons for you. Where was this amazing logic in her own life? Nicki asked herself.
But so many other times, with eyes too far away she would drift on and on for long stretches, her voice lowered and deadened. She didn’t stop or give Nicki an opening to give aid. These conversations always began two-sided but soon a switch would flip and she was overcome by a negativity that Nicki could not penetrate. Her mother was a ghost ship overloaded with worry floating in an endless sea. Her face began to sink and look worn more often. She wore a scowl most days, her ill fitting work clothes thrown on without thought, dressing only for function. Her shoes a horrid tan color who’s only quality was they wouldn’t slip on greasy floors. She needed them for restaurant work, they were a necessity. But apparently this was no longer true of her smile or happiness. She encouraged Nicki during thrift store excursions to buy pretty things but only found warm flannel shirts for herself. Her glitter shoes and lace dresses now hung in the closet untouched like a museum.
Nikki started to become furious with her mother, listening to her hopeless rants about how unhappy she was day after day, Always the same, coming home to rest up before returning back to work with her husband. They shared a business and came home only to count their till, and write checks. Her mother had fallen out of love with her husband as far as Nikki could tell and the snuggling on the couch that happened years passed, had long switched to resentment, distrustful looks and backhanded comments. Nicki wasn’t sure of the origins but knew enough to sympathise. You felt the rage building if you were paying attention and Nicki was. Her mother hated her job and the people in it if you took her for her word. She was the main cook in their restaurant, nothing she ever wanted. She admitted to even hating the food she cooked, which was a shame because it was amazing, and loved by so many. She often ate standing up in the back, from a small plate of just tomatoes and avocado slices, always something light and fresh. She loved vintage clothes and furniture, interior decorating and gardening. Colorful, romantic settings, not the back of a kitchen, where her only visitors were delivery men.
Nicki often felt her mother was too good for the world they lived in, like she was in one of those movies where the princess must live as a peasant. So it was painful for her daughter to see her give up or give in. Which was it? How hard it must have been to live someone else’s dream as she did. Not only that but to be such a silent partner working just as hard, as many hours but with none of the satisfaction or accolades. Not that she was interested in any of that. But to just keep working, never knowing if there would be relief to this neverending constant. Were these the reasons she abandoned her own voice, Nicki wondered, the one that allowed her to be exquisite, talkative and so alive? Could the acts of others do this to you?
Her kids provided no comfort apparently but she loved them as much as she was capable Nicki believed, especially after she confided she never wanted children, something her daughter swallowed down like a big pill. In Nicki she confessed all of her worries and disappointments, like you would a best friend. But Nikki had very little life experience to pull from and always came back to the same angry question, Why doesn’t she just leave this horrible life if it’s torturing her so much?! What kept her here like a caged dog? Nicki saw that her father was oblivious to his wife’s mental state. You could see the separate realities they were living from the view in the middle of the dining room table. He would be hustling to get the deposit ready and receipts in order, smoking. You wouldn’t say unhappy. If anything, even though tired, he was sort of a giddy that it was all finally happening. This was his dream, his mother’s recipes, his ideas. Meanwhile on the other end of the table, her mom there speaking endlessly of slimy, sneaky men, capable of horrid things, of the gloom of never ending problems, hopeless issues that have no resolve.
Leaving a marriage seemed so easy to a 15 year old girl, a series of simple steps, she thought. She could never fathom the complex set of issues that a woman of this time period struggled with, that she could never bring herself to seriously contemplate leaving. So it only lead to constant frustration when conversations with her mother continued for more years describing this familiar misery, each day a repeat of the one before. She felt the depth of her mother’s sacrifice but would not accept the hopelessness.
She couldn’t save her mother and many years later witnessed her dying in a sense, while very much alive. She often wondered if it was dementia or instead the slowest suicide ever recorded. If only Nicki could have convinced her mom what she believed, that we all hold some control over our happiness in the millions of tiny moments we choose to live and love. That all the worry in the world never helped any cause and all you have to do is step outside of it to see that is true. Her mother could never hear her words, as if Nicki was silently screaming into a black void at the edge of a giant cliff instead of sitting right next to her at that dining room table. All she ever wanted was for her mom to snap out of it and see all the beauty that Nicki saw in her face, let alone her brilliant presence and mind. She needed to believe that the God her mother prayed to so faithfully would never want her to live in suffering.