This weekend my family celebrated my mother’s sixty-ninth birthday. It was a great night, which is somewhat of a milestone for my family. Usually, we have to carefully navigate topics, stepping over the brittle bones of past grievances. Thankfully, this night was an incredible relief of easy laughter and relaxed interactions. We need more of those kind of nights. Either way, that’s not what this is about.
As a gift to my mother, I made a photo montage of her, beginning when she was just a girl in Chile, living in her beloved house with its Spanish tile barrel roof and its endless sea of grassy land and trees. Grainy black and white photos fading in and out to Nat King Coles-For Sentimental Reasons, show her smiling wide with her arm draped over her brother’s shoulder, or sitting next to my grandmother, both looking so beautifully young. Their crinkled eyes smile into the miles and miles of future that lay before them.
She came to the United States in her early twenties, on a whim, at the urging of a friend who was moving here. Seeing the photos of her in bell bottom jeans, mini skirts and long sweeping false lashes, I recognize that same wispy sense of adventuresome boldness that carried me away from home at that age. She worked as a live-in maid for a wealthy couple in Coral Gables and her employers encouraged her to get out and explore her surroundings on her day off. She didn’t have a car so she called a cab. My father, the young handsome cab driver, showed up at her doorstep that day. As the story goes, he was so enamored by her, he made a deal with the dispatch person to have all the calls from that address routed to him from then on.
By the next song, the photos tell how she marries my father in a hot pink mini-dress and show him, Elvis style pork chop sideburns and all, leading her up the aisle into a flurry of marriage, babies, graduations, mother of the bride moments, and a wild precession of grandchildren, all culminating in this sixty-nine year old moment of life, surrounded by all these people who exist, simply, because of her.
Putting it all together was overwhelmingly emotional for me. There were mountains of photo albums to look through. Once I narrowed down which ones would be in the montage, I had to analyze each photo frame, timing it exactly to coincide with the song choice. I replayed each part over and over wanting to make it perfect. Little by little, I was swept away in gentle waves of memories of relatives long gone. Before I knew it, I’d dissolved into a weepy puddle of tears at my desk.
I wept for my Grand-daddy who passed when I was a junior in high school. I rarely saw him wearing anything other than dark belted trousers, a nicely ironed, white, short sleeve button down, and his shiny black gentleman’s shoes. When I was a little girl, he’d take me on long walks which inevitably took us passed Bart and Slart’s house, names we’d made up for two puffy black chows who’d rush their side of the chain link fence, barking up a storm, each time we’d walk by.
I wept for my Abuelita, who once, during one of our many card games, reminded me she wasn’t a rabbit when I asked her which she preferred for lunch, a ham sandwich or a salad. “No soy conejo,” she said curtly behind a slow teasing smile. We all chuckled. Then, it seems in the blink of an eye, she was also snatched away and suddenly it’s hard to breathe.
I wept for my aunt, my dad’s sister, who always fascinated me. The way she held her cigarette between her long, slender fingers, the same as mine. The way she seemed to prefer being barefoot and kept her long toes pointed. The way she laughed at serious things and how there seemed a hidden wildness in her that could escape at any moment. The same year she died, I watched her hold my baby girl in her arms. I admired her Greek olive complexion and the way some of her hair, piled in a loose bun, fell around her pretty face.
I wept for my Abuelito, who once invited my cousins and I on a short walk to the corner store and then, along the way, chased us with the dry, stiff, flattened corpse of a toad that’d been run over in the street. I can still see his devious grin, holding the slightest pinch of it between his two fingers, while we squealed and ran for our lives.
My heart was wrung out in front of the screen this weekend and I can’t unrealize how fleeting life is. How these important moments float by like feathers on a hurried breeze. Life reveals it’s meaning in a mere whisper buried underneath a chaotic surface. Listening for that whisper, noticing those floating feathers, takes an effort. Most of the time, we miss it. How easy we are lulled by all the noise. That’s the great tragedy of life, isn’t it?