Discovering the cache of Kodak slides in the basement could have made me feel bad or guilty or filled with regret. Instead, I laughed. I threw back my head and laughed out loud, like l-a-u-g-h-i-n-g out loud, spelled out. Then I said to no one except the cobwebs, “Okay, Mom. You’re in.”
I had noticed the honey-colored wooden box on my cluttered work bench, amongst the rusty channel locks, duct tape and socket wrenches, laying where they were dropped by careless kids with no concept of putting things away. Shame on me for not raising them better. I’d gone to the basement to fetch a stack of Christmas linens –the obligatory poinsettia painted dishtowels, plaid tablecloths and cute little finger towels with appliqued Santas.
I studied it for a moment, thinking it would make a nice jewelry box for my youngest son, a budding journalist who has just accepted a new job as a radio reporter in Kansas. I thought it would be a sweet reminder, of the grandmother whose ofttimes unedited barbs, were really well-intentioned motivational speeches aimed at making him aim high. He credits her with setting the bar. But the box doesn’t close anymore. It has gotten so warped over time, the top and the bottom clack together like ill-fitting dentures. With 90-thousand things to do to get ready for my four grown kids who would be arriving in waves from coast-to-coast the next day, I tossed it off as beyond repair under deadline. I walked away. Then I paused, thinking I might be able to shave off some of the inside or sand it down. I went back for a second look.
What I discovered inside was Christmas 1975. Christmas, 1975, Albuquerque, New Mexico — I was 20 years old and here in this old, wooden box was a haystack of Christmas day slides I had never seen before. Oh, there were also some random photographs in the mix; my step-father’s compadres from the G.I. Forum, an Amish-inspired quilt, with its garish reds, oranges and black, hand-pieced by my mom and hanging on the wall behind the piano with a James Taylor songbook propped on the stand, a desolate looking photo of a lawnmower, bagger attached, parked in the middle of a powder-dry, completely barren back yard of New Mexico dirt with nary a blade of grass to cut, but with a fiesta dress my mother had sewn, drying on a coat hanger in a tree.
The smattering of completely unrelated photos tossed into the same box along with a hair curler was signature Beverly G. Garcia. She never was much for organization. Still, most of the photos were from Christmas ’75. Why she had separated those out from enough boxes of Carousel slide trays to fill-up a UPS truck, I will never know. It mattered not, as I stood there in my slippers, in the cold, spider infested basement, holding up one slide after another against the dusty florescent shop light to see what I could see.
There was Mom, trying on her new green robe on Christmas morning, pouring batter into a Bundt pan on the Nehi-soda orange counter tops of her newly remodeled kitchen. There she was in the dining room, sporting some horrendous, gold paisley maxi-skirt that looked as if it was made from upholstery fabric, wearing glasses as big as Charles Nelson Reilly’s.
There was a photo of our living room, a Christmas still life: in the foreground, the somewhat pitiful blue spruce with gaps wide enough to drive a toy truck through, draped with hundreds of icicles to cover the bare spots, on top of the giant color console TV in the background, were giant tissue paper flowers she’d bought at the mercado in Juarez, positioned next to my high school senior picture.
Beyond that, on the other side of the huge picture window of our front porch, lay a southwestern winter wonderland, the brown, flat roofed adobe across the street, framed in snow, vigas barely visible. The last photo I held up to the light, was a picture of my mom in Mexico, in a short skirt and sexy, black stockings, laughing, having fun, being who she was; vibrant, commanding attention, ready to make an entrance. She always wanted to make an entrance.
Thirty-eight years later, in a forgotten box, nearly lost amidst my own unorganized basement full of meaningful and meaningless things, Mom had swooped in with style. I immediately took the slides to the photo shop to digitize them and planned a little slideshow as a special Christmas surprise from Gram. Even though Albuquerque was a thousand miles from where we lived in St. Louis, the kids were always closer to their maternal grandmother. Matriarchy runs deep.
One by one, as my children arrived from Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Memphis and the teeming metropolis of Monticello, Indiana, after we’d feasted on traditional New Mexican Christmas Eve cuisine of tamales and carne adovada, had enough margaritas to last us until Cinco de Mayo and played a raucous game of Cards Against Humanity (I highly recommend it for you and your adult children) I brought out the slide show and it brought down the house.
Bittersweet, that’s the only word to describe it. I am eternally grateful that it wasn’t simply bitter. Over the years, our mother-daughter relationship, had been spiked with battles. My dear mother Beverly, could be mean, downright caustic. Of course, I knew everything there was to know about everything. I was raising my kids the right way, showering them with the love and approval I craved but never felt I got from her. I resented the hell out of her unsolicited advice on everything from how to keep a marriage alive (the nerve! She was married four times!) to losing weight. I would get so stressed out every time she came to visit, my ex-husband would threaten to leave town before she ever arrived. The kids looked forward to and dreaded her visits at the same time. They knew I’d be biting their heads off inside four hours of her plane touching down.
In one particularly heated dust-up, I left her carping, criticizing ass out in the parking lot at a JoAnn’s Fabric Store and simply drove away after she’d told me my kids were brats. I circled back around to pick her up, eventually. Another time, when I overheard her calling the airlines on the second day of her visit to find out if she could book an earlier flight home, I grabbed the phone and asked the reservation clerk if she had any flights that same day! You could set your clock to the “Day Four Blow Up,” that’s about as long as we could last. And if she didn’t get her licks in during her stay, she’d try to cram in some parting shots as I drove her to the airport, bound and determined to make me crash the car so we’d both die screaming at each other.
But, in the years before she did pass away, my mother and I mellowed out. We became closer than we had ever been before. It was precipitated by the death of my brother Garrett in 2002. Something in her changed after that. Who has time for rancor when you’ve lost a child? And what kind of daughter would pick a fight with her broken-hearted mother? Difficult days for me and my kids followed shortly after my brother’s death, ushering in a prolonged hardship that none of us could have ever imagined.
It made permanent my mother’s change of heart, as it became clear to her it was time to close ranks, to protect and support her daughter. What at one time had been her critical nature evolved into unbridled compassion. She had been the divorced mother of five in her own life, slogging her way through a full-time job and full-time single parenthood. Now she was watching her daughter repeat the same dance step, a single mom with four kids, under duress, a life in shambles, something she never would have choreographed for her little girl. What grew out being laid bare, each of us in very different ways, was mutual admiration. We held an intimate understanding of each other, in which squabbling was rare, stories of better days regaled and often embellished, wisdom and laughter, all the more rich, because it was drawn from a well of shared experience.
The last words I ever heard my mother say were, “here comes my darling daughter.” She announced my arrival to the two nurses who were tending to her as I walked into her room at the nursing home. After her stroke, she could barely talk. But, in this declarative statement, she had given me an entrance. She passed away two days later.
My mother spoke to me in a voice as clear as a bell this Christmas. Six years since her passing, Mom wanted to be with us. She wanted to be with me to greet my far-flung kids, her darling grandchildren, as they made their entrance.
At this time of year, when we’re looking back at all that we’ve done and all we have failed to do, I offer this one little piece of advice: make peace with your momma. Do it now. That way, when she comes around to visit years from now, you won’t be afraid to let her out of that box because all you’ll do is rejoice.