My mother was not a warm, demonstrative woman; some people even thought she was cold, but even as a child I knew better. I knew she kept her feelings hidden. What I did not know was why? Years later as an adult, I learned of her difficult childhood and understood a little more. But as a child, I never questioned her frowns and heavy sighs or the darkness that seemed to follow her from room to room. Mami was the way that she was because she was Mami and that was always good enough for me.
For as long as I could remember, my mother would get us both up an hour early each morning before school just to have enough time to comb my hair in a Shirley Temple style–long, corkscrew curls. Luckily for both of us, I loved the fuss and bother because it meant I had my mother’s undivided attention. It was the only time during her busy day that my mother and I spent together. When each curl was carefully in place, she always sighed with satisfaction and sent me off to find my father who would clap and whistle his approval before he left for work.
Naturally, my little brother was jealous of all this extra attention. He pointed out to Mami one morning that he had the same curly hair and that if they would let it grow, she could comb his hair like Shirley Temple, too. That evening my father had a long talk with little Ralphy, man to man.
After their talk my brother swaggered when he walked.
“I’m a man,” he boasted. “You’re only a girl.”
“Girls are better than boys,” I replied with the confidence of a ten year old.
“Not so,” he said solemnly. “Boys are bigger and stronger and smarter than girls. Papi told me so.”
I looked down at his upturned face and laughed. “You don’t look bigger and stronger than me, little Ralphy.” I stressed the word little and giggled when his composure seemed to slip. “And I know you are not smarter,” I added.
“That’s because you’re older, but one day you’ll see. I’ll be strong like Papi, but you’re going to be like Mami.”
I turned to watch my mother carry the heavy laundry basket from the bathroom to the kitchen where she would wash the clothes in the sink. Twice a week she scrubbed our dirty clothes, then she wring them out with the all the power of her thin arms and hung them on the clothes line outside the kitchen window. The idea of growing up to be like Mami did not look very appealing just then. As if he had read my mind, my brother swaggered away, chuckling and celebrating his victory in our small argument.
I went into the kitchen to complain to Mami about this unjust state of affairs. She was already at work scrubbing the chocolate milk stains out of my dress. As always when she worked, her eyebrows were knit into a frown and she had pressed her lips into a thin line. For a moment I was afraid she was angry with me for spilling the chocolate milk on my school dress.
“Mami,” I said, half afraid she would yell at me.
When she turned her head, a bright smile had replaced her frown and her green eyes glowed softly beneath the heavy fringe of her dark eyelashes.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Mami,” I said, “When I grow up I want to be just like you.”