Thursday, May 5, 2022

Cinco de Mayo

 

 Cinco de Mayo folklorico dancers

I used to teach elementary school, which colors the way I see most holidays.  In the classroom, my favorite thing to say was: "Let me tell you something the other teachers won't tell you..."  and students would pay attention, as if they were in on a secret.  In a way they were. History is full of secret truths.

Cinco de Mayo is the most misunderstood holiday, and one that deserves some light shined on it. Before I go any further, I should admit, it’s a holiday that has deeply affected my heart, forcing me to make peace with my own culturally mixed heritage—my mestiza identity. 

 It all starts with my childhood in Tracy, California.

My Mexican mother, Juana, had her name Americanized to Jennie when she was entering school. Growing up, I never sensed any conflict in this, and there was not much discussion about how she felt when it happened. She grew up happy, eventually finding employment with the U.S. Government and assimilating into American culture. My Irish-American father, Jack Ryan, blew into the little cow-town of Tracy from Boston in the late 1950’s. He met my mother, sparks flew madly, and wedding vows were soon exchanged. Jack and Jennie Ryan had five stunning little kids, all completely insulated in a very Catholic culture, the chosen and shared culture of my parents. I inherited Irish soulfulness from my father, and a beautiful Mexican heritage from my mother. 

In grade school, all of my friends were Mexican. The first boy I ever loved—with my fourth-grade heart—was Mexican. As I grew, my friends became more white and so did I. Soon, my cultural heritage was a stew, and my life was a myriad of activities: band, guitar, track, writing, speech and debate.

In high school, a few days before Tracy's famous Cinco de Mayo parade (if you've never been to a Cinco de Mayo parade, you are missing a true slice of Americana) I found out, via the Tracy Press, that my sister Shari's friend, Melissa, had been crowned Tracy's Cinco de Mayo queen. She would preside over the parade as she rode on a convertible surrounded by festive color and flowers. I was livid. What the hell?! I thought Melissa was like me: an English-speaking girl from an English-speaking family. What right did she have to be Cinco de Mayo queen? Now she would be adored—like our Lady of Guadalupe—and called a real Mexican-American. 

I threw the paper down and got ready for school. But as I got my makeup on, tears welled up in my eyes. Why did I care about a stupid Mexican parade anyway? It was the first time I felt conflicted about my heritage, and part of me felt orphaned. My perpetually tanned skin and my straight black hair kind of hinted at a Mexican heritage, but what else about me did? 

On the way home from school that day, Melissa's reign as Cinco de Mayo queen was the subject of conversation in our carpool.

"She definitely was the prettiest one,” one of our friends said. Everyone agreed. We all knew that Cinco de Mayo queens were ornamental—no speeches or talent were necessary—the primary job of the queen was to smile and wave, a beautiful Mexican-American girl.

"Hey, Janet," one of my other friends said, "Why didn't you run for Cinco de Mayo queen?" He meant it as a compliment, really.  He didn't know how much the whole thing was a thorn in my mestiza heart. 

"I don't have enough Cinco in my Mayo," I said. Everyone thought that was funny. Even Mom laughed. 

I tuned the others out, recognizing a strange, misplaced identity. I didn't know how to do it: be a real Mexican-American.  At my school, most of the kids I saw as real Mexican kids were Spanish-speaking.  Some were migrants who got free lunches because their parents were working in the fields.  They kept to themselves, and didn't really seek out my friendship. Real Mexican guys wore cowboy hats and drove trucks. The Chicanos, who celebrated their Mexican-American heritage, also looked different from me. The vatos drove low riders; the Chicanas wore eyeliner with wings. I could count my Spanish-speaking friends on one hand. This disparity was killing me. 

***

Cinco de Mayo was a reminder of how homogenized I had become. It was a Hispanic Pride Day where all of the real cowboys got out their rhinestone-studded black suits, big sombreros, and carried Mexican flags as they rode atop horses. Beautiful, traditional folklorico dancers, dressed in over-sized skirts, made hypnotic circles with their hems, becoming symbols of culture and skill. While they danced, I stared. The holiday, for everyone else, seemed to be about drinking.

Cinco de Mayo is an American holiday, celebrated by immigrants who miss their homeland. It’s not Mexican Independence Day. It’s a celebration of victory and surprise and tenacity of spirit.

The real reason it’s celebrated? Because dancing in the presence of the enemy is the best feeling in the world. Now I’ll tell you something the other teachers won’t tell you: why we celebrate.

Anónimo, Batalla del 5 de mayo de 1862
photo credit

In 1862, Mexico found itself in terrible debt to foreign countries—mainly France, Spain and Great Britain—and it was experiencing a national monetary crisis. After a long war, the Mexican government, led by Benito Juárez, admitted it could not even pay the interest on the European loans they had taken. The three countries, all with trained armies, decided to unite and force Mexico to pay back the money it owed. By the end of the year, European ships occupied Veracruz, Mexico's largest port. While Great Britain and Spain were there only to negotiate repayment of loans, or so they said, the French Army was out to enlarge their foreign empire. Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Napoleon III, looking to make a name for himself, gave orders to his army to take Mexico by force. The French army took to the land, and pursued the Mexican army, hoping to defeat them.  

After several skirmishes, the French army officers decided that Napoleon III had officially underestimated the spirit and the power of the Mexicans. They sent word to their new president, who ignored their missive. Then... (wait for it) on May 5 1862, in Puebla, a large city between Mexico City and Veracruz, the French Army faced the Mexican army and were defeated. Badly. Even after retreat, the French army lost five hundred soldiers. The Mexican army only lost eighty-three. Benito Juárez declared the victory at Puebla significant for Mexico, and declared that Cinco de Mayo would be a national holiday.

News of the Mexican victory spread to the western US, where Mexican miners in California were so overjoyed at the news they celebrated by firing guns and singing patriotic songs. Thus, the first American Cinco de Mayo party was born.

The Mexican Army's great show of strength on Cinco de Mayo didn't end the war with the French. It took a lot of time, and many years of battle, for the French to retreat and leave the country. After the American Civil War was over, President Johnson, in order to “protect American interests” dispatched the US Army to the Mexican border. Napoleon III realized his predicament, and withdrew his troops from Mexico. The real story of Cinco de Mayo has a moral: never underestimate Mexico or Mexicans! They will do more with their hearts than most people can do with their heads. 

***

As an adult, I found a way to reconnect with my Mexican heritage, all year-round. I am currently writing and reading more Spanish than I ever have in my whole life. Speaking it involves great bravery--I am still so nervous as the words of my heart come out of my mouth. Español es la lengua de mi corazón...

In my kitchen I really become Mexican. It all started when I learned the secrets of a good enchilada sauce from my grandma, who taught me how to cook all the Mexican staples. I connect with my heritage when I make masa, and when I roll tortillas. I become Mexican American when I assemble tamales, or menudo. With taste and smell, I celebrate being Mexican-American. 

On Cinco de Mayo, I can’t dance folklorico, or braid  colorful ribbons in my hair, but I don't have to be the Cinco de Mayo Queen to know I am a real Mexican-American. I have what I need, here in my hands.



Cinco de Mayo with my parents, 2018


My new family memoir, which addresses the homogenization of my Mexican culture is available here, through Prickly Pear Publishing 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Daniel

 

Daniel and Carli, 2013

Dear Daniel,

Happy Valentine’s Day.

I know it’s a particularly sad holiday for you this year, the first one without Carli. To tell you the truth, I’ve never liked this holiday anyway because it romanticizes love in a way that cheapens it.

You’ve recently seen how love really is—an unpredictable, unfair, rollercoaster, with highs and lows you can’t control. It’s a force that requires everything, and you’ve given everything. At your young age, you’ve just lost the love of your life, the mother to your young son, Micah—your angelic Carli.

If I were callous, I’d give you a bunch of advice, or say something stupid like, “You’ll love someone again, one day, in God’s timing...” but shit, I can’t say that. Please, please, please, dear Daniel...forgive the people who say that to you. They mean well, I promise you.

Daniel 2008

I remember the day I met you. 

You were tall and slim, even back then, a picture of your father. You were tender and felt things deeply, like your mother. All wrapped up in a wonderful, fun, young man who was so grateful for everything. Oh my word...you wowed us even then. Our trip to Bloemfontein involved going to the LTT during the day, and coming back to the VanAswegen house at night, to be entertained by you amazing kids, with plays, dances, and live shows. You taught me how to play board games, and you loved my laugh.

After a week, when it was time to leave, I was loading up our suitcases and had a meltdown by our car. Your mom came out to see what was wrong, and I said, “I can’t go back into that house and say goodbye to your kids.” In one week, I had bonded with you so much, four of the most dynamic human beings I had ever met, I was overwhelmed with love for you.

Through the years, especially during our time in South Africa, your family became ours. We loved you with our whole hearts. You kids continued to grow, play musical instruments, and dance! Do you remember showing me your rock-and-roll dance with Annie (not Anine)? My jaw was on the floor!

After we moved back to the States, you and Carli upgraded your status and became serious. Hearing that you were in love, an intense love relationship, with a girl named Carli, made me both shocked and happy. “Is Daniel that old?” Your mom assured me you were, and she also assured me Carli was wonderful for you.


Daniel and Carli, man and wife

First came love, then came marriage, then came Micah in a baby carriage! The children’s song we used to sing while jumping rope didn’t include what came next: then came sickness.

You, being so musical, can understand what I’m about to say: it was the scratching needle on the album, the sudden stop of everything. Nevertheless, we all prayed and hoped. After all, there were a variety of different treatments and Carli was so YOUNG!

At first, only her appearance changed. The medicine used to treat the disease took more as time went on. Little things, like going to the store, was a big deal. COVID changed even more things, because Carli could not get it. Ever.

Even after you had tattoos, even after you became a hard-rocker, even after you married and were sleep deprived with a young son, you were the same Daniel. After sickness, I saw you change. Something in you hardened...and we all knew why. Why. Why. Why Carli? Why now? Why. Why. Why.

Carli posted this pic of herself, after she shaved her whole head.

Daniel, you know real love. Not the Valentine’s Day version of love, not the romance, not the roses and chocolates, but the chemotherapy kind of love, the aching heart that is powerless to stop your wife from vomiting, or feeling dizzy, kind of love. You know the kind of love that assures your dying wife that her toddler son will be alright if she dies. You know the kind of love that stares death in the face. That’s the kind of love you know. That’s the dark side of love that no one can prepare you for. No one likes to admit it exists.

You know the kind of love that has to listen to ignorant people, suggesting herbal remedies as your wife fades away. Your love stays up at night and has to work the next morning. Your love gets your son dressed, lifts him up to kiss his mother, over the rails of the hospital bed you had to rent. That’s the kind of love you had at the end—the unfair kind of love that steals from you, slowly, so you won’t miss one thing about the unfair theft.

Today, in the throng of Cupids and chocolate, I can tell you that you have seen the kind of love that most people will not ever see. We can surround you, and tell you how much we love you, but it won’t bring Carli back, and it won’t ever make any of this whole thing make sense. What it can do, if you’re lucky, is help you understand the rest of it: the rest of your life that you now have to do without her.

There are no maps. There are no right ways. There’s only you and Micah and God, and all of us, around you, waiting to do something, even the smallest something, that might help.

Sometimes, I wish I were really wealthy. Not so I can wear nice clothes or buy great stuff, but sometimes I wish I could charter a private plane and come over there, just to sit in a chair by you. Here is what I would say: nothing. I love you. Nothing. I love you. Nothing.

You know love, Daniel, and today, on Valentine’s Day, I wish you a day of breathing in and out, and I pray those breaths would be sweet. I pray that you have the strength to chisel your way through the terrible marble-like grief that wants to disable you. I want to say I love you, and then I want to shut up.

I love you.

Auntie Janet

Two weeks before she died, Carli posted this memory of her and Daniel in 2018: 
Going out with this hunk and Jessica Van Aswegan and company (sorry, I don't have him on Facebook) singing Lose Yourself by Eminem at the top of our lungs.”
****

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime
You better...

You only get one shot.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

34

 



I’ve been given a gift.

Every day, for the last thirty-four years, I’ve been given a tree-like blessing, which changes and grows, in season. Like a tree, it produces more than it consumes. It’s lovely. It’s something I don’t deserve, but it’s mine. Every day.

My tree makes its home in the earth, where the roots go down. It holds on to something greater than itself. It stretches itself upwards, and actually believes it is part of the unreachable sky on good days.

Everywhere, everywhere, are threats to its happiness, but the tree grows stronger each day it stands.

My gift, my tree, has survived wood-boring insects, periods of drought, and mighty winds that could have easily toppled it. It’s been threatened by fire, stripped of its bark, and had words of death spoken about it, in front of it, and to it, by well-meaning friends who are “just trying to be honest.” They have accused me of destroying it. Sometimes they’ve been right. Sometimes, after they leave, I lean against it and cry.

This is an organic gift, a living world, a microcosm of the complicated world around it. It’s in my care, a responsibility I don’t take lightly. Today, it celebrates a lifespan of thirty-four years.

I’m not a great gardener. In fact, there are days I’m a terrible one, but the tree is a treasure , and I know I'm entrusted with its care. I believe it lives beyond me, so I don’t treat it like my servant; I treat it like a living thing, in need of me.

I grew up watching a tree like this one grow, in front of me. I have a clear advantage in tending this one just because I know it can be done, it can work, it can survive, against the odds.

I believe it can live, and it deserves to live. I believe in its might.

I believe, I believe, I believe.

 

 

Thank you, and Happy Anniversary,

to my beautiful Mario, who I don’t deserve...

For the tree-like blessing of marriage these 34 years


Tuesday, December 28, 2021

59

 

Today, December 28, 2021, at my desk


Today I am fifty-nine years old, and I will love this year.

Despite what I’d heard, and maybe thought to myself when I was younger, the fifties, as a decade have been amazing. Tonight, I told Mario, “I feel the same today as I did when I was thirty-nine.”

“And now, you’re more financially stable,” he said.

I laughed. Mario and I think so differently. In a gazillion years, I would never have thought of financial stability. Never. Finances and I don’t mingle or mix, so I don’t even think about them. And yet, Mario is right. we have finally reached a point in our lives where we can look ahead. Our kids are on their own, with children of their own, and the joy of grandparenting dominates our lives.

On my thirty-ninth birthday, twenty years ago, I had just run my first marathon. I had read (and finished) Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I was teaching full-time. Vince and Alicia were teenagers, living at home, and David and Joe were in college. I couldn’t see the next ten years ahead of us, and I wouldn’t want to. They would be fraught with disaster, roads so filled with mines, I would never want to cross them. Today, I can say this: I made it through. I’m still alive. My family still talks to me.  

Sometimes it’s best if we can’t see the road ahead.


***


Each birthday, I look up the corresponding Psalm, just to see what God’s word says about the number that corresponds with my birthday year. Today, I read Psalm 59, which begins with these two daunting verses:

1Deliver me from my enemies, O God;
    be my fortress against those who are attacking me.
Deliver me from evildoers

    and save me from those who are after my blood.

Oh no.

I don’t want to think about anyone who doesn’t like me, let alone admit I could have enemies. I love most people, even the ones who don’t care for me. I feel pain deeply, rejoice jubilantly, and I want to talk about friends and promises and a future where I make good choices.

Reality has proven, for me, that the world is filled with people who won’t like me, even some who will hate me. I have a deliverer, and he can deliver me.


***

This year, despite being fully vaccinated, Mario tested positive for Covid in December. Despite testing negative, and never exhibiting symptoms, I quarantined right along with him. His negative test, on the 20th was what we were waiting for, and served as a green light for us to host.

 We just celebrated Christmas, and we hosted, in our house, a beautiful, noisy, chaotic explosion of life. We sang Christmas carols as our grandchildren shook jingle bells and shook maracas. Children wandered around with beverages, in cups with no lids, and ice, sloshing around. It was marvelous. Our fifteen-year-old fake Christmas tree, pulled from the shed, and fluffed up as much as possible, made the only laughable imitation of something real. Everything else about our Christmas was genuine.

Mario bought the tree in South Africa, where I was depressed and told him I couldn’t celebrate Christmas because it was so damn hot. I wept every time I saw a green Christmas tree. I couldn’t find a decent tamale in Johannesburg. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t find any tamales. I asked Mario if he missed home as much as I did.

One day, he bought the Christmas tree. It was white and pre-lit with little white lights, like the ones I admired in the States, but could never afford.

“It’s white,” Mario said, dripping with sweat as he wrestled it from its box. “I know you can’t do green because it’s too much like home, but we need a tree to celebrate and I figured we can do white here, and it can be a new tradition.”

I loved that white tree. I loved South Africa. I loved our new home.

I missed real Christmas trees. I missed our home. I missed our family.

I learned that two conflicting emotions could live side by side, without hypocrisy.

In our Sacramento house, the white tree was used because we were quarantined. Mario had forgotten about it being in our backyard garden shed. He looked surprised when I wrestled it from its box and set it up. It was put in the corner, and looked lonely and out-of-place. It’s pre-lit branches had to be stripped because the RSA uses 220 and the USA uses 110. We strung our own lights around the branches, and decorated it with our ornaments, many with the pictures of new grandchildren on them.

The tree reminded me that our life in South Africa came at a cost to us. It reminded me of the longing I had for tamales and molasses cookies. It reminded me of how the whole country of South Africa took one miraculous month off to celebrate the holiday, and genuinely loved their hot, hot Christmases. The white tree reminded me of our years in Johannesburg, where my heart ached to be near family, especially during Christmas. Oh, Lord, it is a miracle that we continued on, and loved it.

Sometimes we need reminders of miracles.


***


I’m taking a break to write this blog because I am on a major deadline.

I signed a book contract with Prickly Pear Publishing, and I have to turn the book in at the beginning of the year. Getting a book ready for the publisher is like getting a house ready for sale. Getting a daughter ready to be married. Getting a piece of furniture ready to be refinished. No, it’s harder than all those things.

It's literally like getting a book ready for the publisher. That’s what it’s like.


***

           The final two verses of Psalm 59 are encouraging ones, and I’ve quoted them often:

16 But I will sing of your strength,
    in the morning I will sing of your love;
for you are my fortress,
    my refuge in times of trouble.

17You are my strength, I sing praise to you;

   you, God, are my fortress

   my God on whom I can rely.



Without the first two, there cannot be the last two. Like a chef planning the perfect dish, our lives need the balance of salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami.


            This year, I pray for that balance.


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

measure

 "Measure" is a poem about my true love, Mario, and an event that actually happened.


At the Cairo Hospital...looking at my true love.


February is a short month when
couples measure love
in strange ways:
waterfront restaurants, candle-lit dinners, long-stemmed roses,
 diamonds, proposals, making love, roaoring fires...
Measures of love, pitted against
each other, their spurred talons and greased 
feathers flying. I don't want to play.


My true love doesn't do waterfront restaurants.
I once ordered Maine lobster at market price, a mistake
we've never repeated. He would never buy diamonds, 
after seeing the toil of mine labor, 
and gives me potted, living roses, not falling
for overpriced, drying flowers in cellophane.
His idea of a roaring fire is at the end of a good cigar.
But he puts the seat down, does the laundry,
and has strong arms. 

These arms 
once supported me as I
tried to act normal, plodding
up stairs in Cairo—uneven stone
steps in front of a hospital—littered
with candy wrappers. Women in black
wool hijabs looked at me, intense eyes begging 
me not to touch them. They kept hands tucked beneath 
their dresses, not outstretched to me, their figures leaning
away from my shadow as we passed. Wide-eyes, terror filled, stared 
at us, and made me think I was dying. But as we walked, his arms lifted me 
just enough for my steps to feel easier. 

Weak from blood loss, no fluid was staying inside
my eyes, my body, even my blood was sandy. We had to 
could we? stop the bleeding. I  focused everything I had 
to lean on him, his primal scent of perspiration, one hand clasped 
over mine.

So many stone steps, uneven path to healing, stones
between us and the surgeon. I had to stop twice, 
and when I cried, the women hid their faces. 
He kept whispering: “A few more steps, just
a few more steps…” And I took one up, and then two,
and neither of us knew the way, but he whispered just 
a few more steps anyway. I pleaded to stop and lie down. 
He shook his head, and didn't feel sorry for me, and the hospital 
was there, at the end of the steps, just like he said it would be.

My measure of romance will always be this:
The strength of his arms, and his whispers, leading
 me.
When my self is a weak, bleeding, staggering
thing, and the world is a bleak place with
long, stony paths, all uneven, he steadies me.
Moreover, he believes I can do it and says so.
I get there with him, one step at a time.
He knows me and walks beside me
anyway.

On steps like these,
too weak and bloodless 
to stop crying, having nothing 
left to give, he asks me for nothing
and expects nothing. He never leaves.
This is the measure of my true love’s heart.


Friday, February 12, 2021

tigerdragon

 



Chinese Tiger Versus Dragon
by Heatherbeast



This afternoon I took Pippi out to her favorite Chinese restaurant for Chinese New Year. I wanted to celebrate with her on one of her rare days off.   Even with her three-year-old twin boys in tow, I knew it would be a special mother-daughter luncheon.

I was hoping it would be like the old days.

Our family used to live next to Chinatown. Jose and I still laugh, wondering how we raised five kids in that  house in such a questionable area. Penelope was our baby, and our only girl. The boys called her Pippi. When all the boys were in school, we would run the errands together. I'd sometimes take her shopping and then out to eat at one of the authentic restaurants for which Chinatown was so famous. Pippi learned how to use chopsticks when she was five. Her favorite thing was showing off to her father and brothers, who still preferred forks.

“Did you and Mama eat in Chinatown again?” Jose would ask her, as Pippi dexterously used her bamboo sticks to pick up rice and veggies from her bowl. I’d wink at her, as if our trips were secret and special.  In our large family, lunch dates became times of female bonding. 

“Why does she always get to go with you?” Roberto, my youngest son, asked one night. Like his brothers, he never got to have shopping trips and lunch with me.

“Because I’m Chinese, and you're not!” she answered. Everyone laughed. Pippi had my grandmother's almond shaped eyes, my straight black hair, and rosy apple-cheeks, like a painting. "God made me Chinese, and all of you are Mexican. Why do you think I'm the only one who can use chopsticks?"

We never corrected Pippa's misconception, thinking it was cute. Part of me thought it did no harm, since she did anything to distinguish herself from among her brothers. It didn't take long before my thinking backfired.

The next week, Jose joined Pippa and I for lunch at Happy Dragon, one of our favorite restaurants.  Mrs. Lee, our favorite seating hostess, looked at Jose suspiciously when she first met him.

"I thought you were married to an Asian man," she said, pointing to Pippa. "Because of your daughter." 

"We're Mexican," I said. "In some regions of Mexico, the people sometimes have the same physical characteristics as Asians."

"Uh-huh," Mrs. Lee said, handing us our menus. I could tell she didn't trust my explanation.

"I am Chinese, Mama!" Pippa said, loudly. Mrs. Lee looked at her and smiled. As I tried to laugh and explain this outburst, Pippa shouted. "Tell her the truth! Tell the truth about our family!"

 I avoided Happy Dragon after that. 

Pippa grew, and her eyes became her trademark. They were framed with long lashes, and .  Everywhere we went, Pippi was admired.  I wasn’t ready for her adolescence, which came too quickly. It was like Pippa was body-snatched in the middle of the night and replaced with someone who wanted to fight about everything.

She never wanted to eat what I made for dinner. She never wanted to sleep or study. She suddenly withheld her affection. She was convinced I nagged and pushed her too hard. I probably did. In high school, she was an honor student and was in band, playing the flute.  One day after school I made the mistake of suggesting she branch out into different areas.  The remark brought a tearful eruption.

“I’ll never be good enough for you,” she screamed. 

“Why do you say that?  Such drama!  All I’m saying is…”

“I do my best and my best isn’t good enough for you.”

“You will always be good enough for me!”  Before I could clarify my words, she was running down the hall and then slamming her door.

What happened to my daughter?  Would I ever see my little girl again?  The one who loved me and knew I loved her?

Today we had lunch together and our conversation was like the careful, polite exchanges of two people who have only just met each other.  We have learned to be civil with each other so we don’t fight.

“That was good,”  I say, as we finish.

“Grandma,” Jacob asks me, looking at the ceiling.  “What is your favorite thing here?”

“Besides you two?” I joke, looking between him and Josh.  “I think it is….”

“Grandma’s favorite is the eggroll, always.” Pippa smiles, answering for me.  The boys agree that it’s their favorite, too.  I don’t have the heart to tell them that their Mom is wrong.  My favorite is the noodles without dressing.  It is a traditional Chinese favorite that Pippi and I have ordered for years. 

“Mommy, can we play in the kids area now?” Josh asks his mother.  Jacob waits closely behind him for her answer.

“I guess…”

“Thank you!”  They sing in unison and run toward the slides and swings that flank the restaurant. 

“Thanks for lunch, Mom,” Pippa yawns.   I know it’s been a busy week for her.  She and her husband, Greg,  have just landed a big account in their business and they’ve both been working a lot of hours. 

“When are you going to slow down?”

My daughter rolls her eyes.  “Don’t start, Mom.”

“You have twin boys, you know.”

“Really, do I?  Because I forgot!”

I let it drop and there’s a bit of silence as she reaches in her purse for her phone.  After checking her  messages our waitress comes over and picks up the check.


“You want to take with you?” She points at the last egg roll, a juicy temptation left between us.


“Not for me,” I say, raising my eyebrows at Pippi.  She shakes her head and the waitress smiles and walks off with the leather check-holder with the cash inside.  I forget to tell her to keep the change before she walks off.

“The last eggroll,” Pippi smiles as she texts. “You know you’ve been on a diet as long as I can remember?  Why don’t you ever give yourself a treat?”

The remark stings and she can tell.

“Really?” she says. “That offends you?  Admit it, you’re always on a diet.”

“I guess,”  I start to feel her claws against my neck. I feel trapped, unable to say the right thing.   

“Why can’t I say anything to you anymore?”

“You can,” I begin. I want to tell her that I feel the same way. I can't say anything to her anymore without offending. Even those words seem barbed, so I say nothin.


“Whatever,” she says. She finishes her text and puts her phone down on the table. I can tell she feels misunderstood.  I remember a younger version of the same face smiling broadly at me, picking up her bamboo chopsticks.

“Pippi, let’s not fight,” I say. "We see each other so rarely these days. Let's not waste a day with a fight.

“You know, Mom,” she says, “every time I’m with you I feel like a child!  You’re the only one who still calls me Pippi! My brothers, Dad, my husband, my friends? They all call me Penelope, which is my adult name!”

Silence descends again. I'm looking at the placemat in front of me, a paper sheet with a circle in the middle. The Chinese Zodiak is explained in the middle. Pippi sighs. I wonder when we became so distant. How many mothers and daughters, who really do love each other, feel misunderstood or disrespected in their relationship?  I want to ask her opinion, but I don’t know how. Instead, I ask her a simple question.

“You want me to call you Penelope?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Alright, I will.”

“I’ve heard that before,” she says. I look up at her, and she's watching the boys. They're at the waterfall, an elaborate fish and turtle pond in the middle of the restaurant. A small children's slide and swing set is next to it. 

“Do you want some help getting the boys together?” I ask.  “I can load one of them in their car seats…”

“No, they’re having fun,” she says. “Can we just sit here and have some tea?” 

I nervously agree. “Alright, I guess.”  I want to add: “BUT let’s not start picking each other apart, okay?” but I don’t. 

The waitress returns with our change and I tell her to keep it. 

“Thank you,” she says, and smiles. 

“Can we still order some tea?” I ask.

“Actually,” Pippi interjects, smiling broadly. “Since tea comes with our meal, and we didn't have it, can we just have a pot of tea now?”

“Yes, yes,” the waitress says. “Of course. Oolong tea or Jasmine ?”

As I say Oolong, Pippi says Jasmine. We look at each other and smile. I start to defer her wishes, but the waitress laughs.

“I'll bring you green tea?” she suggests. “Green tea is made with the fresh leaf and costs a little bit more but I won’t charge you.”

I look at Pippi, who smiles and nods.  As our waitress walks away, and I think of what Pippi has just said.  Do I really treat her like a child?  Do I really not listen?  

In the ten years she has been away from home, she's become a mother and a wife and a business owner.  In very many ways she’ll always be my little girl.

“What are you thinking?” she asks, suspiciously.

“Nothing, really.”

“What is it?”

“Do you really think I don’t listen to you?”

“Oh, yeah,” Pippi  laughs, as if this is an understatement.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” she says.  “Just listen to me.”

I have to swallow hard to accept her words.  I wonder if she knows how much her words hurt.  

“Here's, your tea!”  The waitress lays clean placemats before us and then white cups with no handles.  In the middle of the table she places a pot of green tea.  Pippi lifts the lid and decides it needs to sit awhile. 

“I’m just gonna check on the boys,” she says, leaving her seat. I sigh, looking down at my placemat. The Chinese Zodiac calendar gives an image of each animal, what year it corresponds to, and a brief description of people born under the sign. 

According to the chart, I am a tiger: a creative individual who is optimistic, resilient, and influential.  It also says I am sensitive and prone to getting my feeling hurt too easily.  Am I?

I quickly scan the chart to find Pippi. It says she's a dragon.  It reads: “Proud, strong, and self-assured, Dragons don’t have to ask for things, they demand them. They can be dictatorial and inflexible in their associations with others, but at the same time be the warmest, most gentle individuals you may meet.”  I smile and look around for Pippi, my Penelope, just to show her. 

She's walking toward me, Joshua following her closely.  “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m going to have to take a rain check on the tea, Josh wet his pants.”  I can tell she frustrated and I start looking around for Jacob, who comes running to her in tears. 

“Why do we have to go?” he is crying.  “Josh wet his pants, not me!”  His sobs echo through the restaurant as his mother tries to calm him. Josh, on the other hand, is ready to leave. 

“Bye, Grandma,” he says, almost too quickly. 

“Is there anything I can do?” I ask Pippi. 

“No, nothing.”

I pick up the placemat and follow her as she marches out to the parking lot. The waitress watches us, nonplussed, as we've left the teapot untouched on the table. I follow her to her car, even though Jacob is crying. He still doesn’t want to leave. Josh jumps into the car and buckles himself into his own carseat.

“Pip… Penelope, do you want to take this placemat home?” I ask. She turns around, and her face is like mine, or like mine was twenty years ago, when I was trying to corral the kids into the car. I numbly lift up the paper placemat, and it flaps in the cold wind. "I thought the kids might like to see it. It's Chinese New Year, after all. I was just reading these descriptions of the dragon and tiger…”  I try to show her twhat I'm talking about, but she looks at me like I've lost my mind.  

“Really, Mom?” she says. She clicks Jacob's car seat buckle and shuts his door.  “Are you kidding me?  Remember how you used to make the waitresses take that shit off the table? Because it conflicted with out beliefs? You didn’t want me being deceived by the Chinese Zodiac? All that stuff  you used to say, and it was so embarrassing. Remember?”

Her voice is agitated. It's drowned out only by Jacob's cries. I suddenly recognize my insensitivity. 

“Sorry, honey,” I say.  “I was just trying to lighten the mood, I guess.”

“Yeah, well, she says, fumbling with her keys. “I can’t understand you, sometimes.  I mean, sometimes I wonder why you used to be so… ”

She looks like she's trying to be careful with her words. I really want to know what I used to be, something that might explain why we're not friends.

“So what?”

“Never mind. Thanks for lunch.”

She gives me an obligatory hug and gets into the car. I blow the boys kisses; they manage a weak wave back. Pippi drives off, leaving me in the parking lot, filled with disappointment, and waving at the taillights of her Rav4 . 

When I return home, I sit at my computer, and start editing a piece for the Sun-Times that is due in eight hours. Instead of giving it my full attention, my mind drifts back to the lunch with my daughter. I start to get tears in my eyes. I decide to draft an email to her. Jose has asked me not to send Pippi emails until he's read them first. I resolve to save it as a draft for him to read later. 

Dear Penelope,

I can’t stop thinking of you. 

You are my daughter, the beautiful blessing that God decided to give me.  Today as we left the restaurant, I wanted to grab you and hold you and scream “I love you! How can I help you receive my love?” Instead, I said nothing and just waved to you like you were any other person I have in my life.
But you’re not. 

You’re not like any other person I have in my life.  You are the one who is so close to me that you can hear me purr or growl before the rest of the world does. You can see right through the wall I've built and know me for who I really am. For all the years we have struggled, we have also understood each other. 

I thought it would be fun to go out on Chinese New Year for the same reason I thought it would be fun to read you what the placemats said about the tiger (me) and the dragon (you).  I don’t put much belief in that stuff, as you inferred earlier, but I thought it brought comic relief to all of the tension we were having at lunch. 

The truth is, every mother and daughter does this dance that we do.  We trade places in frustration, belief, hope and anger.  We sometimes believe (falsely) that we don’t understand one another.  We think we can’t see the other, but the truth is we do. I should say that I want to understand you; I want to know you; I want to love and be loved by you. 

Isn’t that better than thinking we already know each other? 

I love you and I’m proud of you.

Mom

Instead of saving it to a draft, I hit send.

When Jose comes home, I show him the letter and he rubs his forehead. 

“I thought we agreed you wouldn't send letters to Penelope without showing me first?” 

I smile, sheepishly. Then I ask him when he stopped calling her Pippi and started calling her Penelope. He tells me he started when she asked him to, and that was when she was twelve years old.