The flashing silhouette of my frail, five-foot-tall grandmother, dragging her chancletas to the rhythm of her flapping purple housedress, brandishing her cooking spoon as she ran down the steep hill, was a bad omen. This female Don Quijote conjured fears that materialized the moment she stormed through the front door and dropped to her knees in front of the vinyl orange sofa, where my mother laid catatonic, eyes wide as saucers. It was the only time I had ever seen my grandmother run that fast to rescue my mother, who otherwise exemplified courage and strength. Not much taller than her own mother, she defied nature like the old oak tree in our backyard that battled decades of drought, flood, lightning, and hurricanes. Mami sustained the branches of our family, never bending or breaking, always holding strong.
Drought: Defying Traditions - 1963
The tiny town of El Valle is preparing for a wedding. Flower wreaths flank the main entrance to the bride’s house, and the house wears pink. Tin lids hang from the almond tree past the gate and shine against the sun. The pig roasts in the backyard, and the surrounding mountains are impossibly green. The three sisters scurry about like kike mice. The oldest one is to get married, the youngest is to disappear, and Mina is always in the middle.
In the bedroom, Mina’s mother orders her to assist the bride. She picks up the plain white linen dress that rests on the iron headboard and walks towards her sister, who calmly applies pink lipstick.
“Too pale.” Mina frowns, placing the dress on the back of the chair where her sister sits, giving her a tube of bright red lipstick.
“This would make a permanent stain on that.” Her sister purses her lips and points to the dress behind her.
Mina laughs loudly; “I must fulfill my duty as a handmaiden!” She bows. “And to think, we’ve been dating brothers this whole time, and now you and Fran are getting married.” Mina smiles, bringing the dress closer to her heart.
“Yes, and if mom finds out you’ve been dating Vic, she’ll kill you. Now stop blabbering and help me put this rag on.” She impatiently extends her arms toward Mina.
All the furniture has been removed from the small living room. The four mecedoras and the ebony coffee table soak in the sun. The dining table stands against the living room wall, covered by a white crocheted cloth and topped with two vases filled with giant sunflowers. Four rustic blue wooden chairs guard the table in pairs, and their new caning resembles freshly brushed teeth.
The wedding officiant (also father of the bride) summons the attendees to take their places. The 90-degree weather forces many to seek shelter under the almond tree, as inside, there is only room for the bride, padrinos, parents, and the absent groom. People fan themselves with Panama hats, handkerchiefs, and even pieces of cardboard. Across the street, barefoot children and el loco del pueblo crane their necks to get a glimpse.
Mina peers through a gap in the wall in the bedroom and sees the groom arrive late. He half-drunkenly yells for the bride. Her sister sighs beside her for the hundredth time and glances at Mina. “Sinverguenza. Let’s get this over with.”
The father-officiant asks everyone to stand. The bedroom door opens, and the bride takes ten steps. Mina follows her, wearing her pink polka dot Sunday dress and high heels. Mina also wears her own veil—a white mantilla draped over her head. People murmur in confusion as she enters, and she shouts over them. “What? I’ve decided I’m getting married too.” She looks to the groom’s brother, now a groom, standing in as the padrino.
Vic drops his jaw to his guayabera’s pockets. Mina’s mother faints; her father shushes, and the bride shrugs. She takes Mina’s hand, and the two walk side-by-side toward the grooms. One groom awakens from his drunken stupor; the other falls into one. The father throws his hands in the air in surrender and calls both couples to the front. The mother is revived mid-ceremony, and the celebration commences amidst chismes, whispers, dancing, and feasting. Thirty years later, Mina and Vic explode in hysterical laughter when their granddaughter asks them to describe their wedding day.
Flood: Married Single - 1973
Three girls of her own. Same town. Same surrounding green mountains, now brown. Grandma’s house wears another color. Mina sits under the almond tree that stands under the stars. This time, she wears her Sunday dress, sky blue with white trim around the neck and sleeves. Her black, curly hair is cut short and spiked, a floppy afro that fights thinning hair and protests Mina’s lack of money for hairspray. She wears her only pair of heels, white hand-me-downs her best friend no longer wears.
How does she do that? How does her beauty shine brighter than the stars twinkling through the branches of the almond tree?
Her pale skin, white teeth, and the trims of her dress diverge from her dark curly hair, and when she throws her head back and laughs, everyone around her surrenders. Her aura grows and grows.
I’m terribly embarrassed standing next to her. And I think that if it weren’t for us, my mom would be greater than greatness. And I think that I’m holding her back from destiny because no one who looks like that, smiles like that, and captivates like that should be destined to struggle. No one like her should be tormented by her kids’ hunger. No one like her should wait for letters from a husband living 1500 miles away and only have a few dollars to stretch until the following letter. No one like her should have wealthy in-laws turning a blind eye. No one like her should be fending off vultures who prey on her vulnerability. No one like her should have to go through a nervous breakdown only to have her mother rescue her from fighting the windmills. But Mina does. And being a mother is what she is destined to do. And being a mother is what she does best.
Lightning: Mother Knows Best - 1983
After lessons are learned, it is time to repay the sacrifices made. The oldest of four, I am the trophy for her wins. I am decent and respectable, and I am an educated woman. I carry the torch at home while New York is her new battle. Now she is the one 1500 miles away from us, and Brooklyn means nothing but survival.
My siblings and I are now 100 miles apart: sacrifice means education no matter the cost, and the cost is moving to Santo Domingo and living with Tia Morena. My father returns a month into my first semester of college, 1500 miles across the ocean, and decides it is time for my siblings to join me in the capital. We share one room and one bed, but our love for each other can overcome anything. Father leaves again, and Mom calls every day.
I officially started la universidad as my siblings attended a private school for the first time. We soon discover the epitome of a dysfunctional family: a feeble-minded wife, an abusive and authoritarian husband, and six children as discrepant in ages as in emotional imbalance. On the first day, we’re together in Tia’s home, and her children play a strange game: after turning off the lights, they punch each other indiscriminately in the dark. Different things happen in the dark, too: their father’s rage leaves them bleeding, and we learn of his changing moods from the changing colors of his wife’s face. We manage to stay away from the tsunami while my mother’s calls become more frequent and inquisitive. The husband and wife stand next to me when the phone rings and the menacing looks threaten. I don’t say a word, but somehow, across the Atlantic, my mother knows.
“What were you thinking?”
“I thought they should be together,” my father laments.
At dusk one day, I get off the bus at the avenida after a long day at la UASD and sluggishly walk the three blocks to my aunt’s house. My little sister runs to hug me, like every day when I return. My little brother, always glued to my middle sister’s hip, joins in the hug yelling “Mami, Mami, Mami,” while flailing his scrawny arms and wiggling his little body, which does not remotely match his age. I am about to ask for his surrogate mother when my mom yells from the front door: “Let’s go!” And just like that, Mina magically transmigrates 1500 miles to rescue us again.
Hurricane: Bravery is Strength - 2003
The cold, murky water of the ocean defies the August Palm Beach heat. Under a large, floppy hat, I dip my feet in the wading pool and listen to the last remaining voices of children before they head back to school. Among squeals, splashes, and mother’s warnings, I take one last salty breath before heading back. The disarray in the hotel room reminds me of the past week, and I resign myself to start packing, armed with a glass of wine. The phone rings, and I pick up, rehearsing my “we can’t stay another day; you start school Tuesday” response in anticipation of my daughter’s thousandth request to extend our vacation. My sister is on the other side. “You need to come back.”
Time does not stand still; it just vanishes. My mom sits in a wheelchair only after the repeated insistence of the orderly. She searches for my eyes; I desperately avoid hers. In her most believable voice, she tries to imbue me with strength “Con Dios todo es posible.” She stands in the way of the blow and turns her cheek toward the clenched fist of destiny. Yet a language barrier makes me the pilot of this tortuous trip, and every time a doctor describes the indescribable, she looks to me for answers. I am the one protecting her, and English is my shield. I am the one who must be brave. I am the one smiling and translating a death sentence into a hopeful tomorrow.
Three years pretending. Three years praying. Three years hoping. Three years crying. Three years laughing together, begging God for more time. Three years saying goodbye. Her heroism intensifies a hundredfold. It’s irrational to think that I can fool her. She knows. And she does what she has always done. She braves the storm and feigns strength when there is none. Her branches extend, and she hugs longer and harder.
It is her granddaughter’s 16th birthday.
“How many times do I have to tell you, Mina does not wear flat shoes.”
“I will not disfigure this beautiful gown with those hideous shoes. Bring me my heels.”
She struggles to get up from the bed but refuses my sister’s hand. The last round of chemotherapy was just three days ago, and her face is swollen. She looks at the image staring at her in the mirror, and asks me to touch up her makeup. “I need more red on these lips—too pale.” I hand her the tube of red lipstick, and she reapplies it with one hand while removing the headscarf with the other. She slowly places the pixie-cut wig on her head and adjusts it.“El toque final.” I stare transfigured. She shines. She throws her head back and laughs that laugh again, and the blackness of the wig transports me right back to childhood. And at the same time, I return to the day my grandmother ran downhill to rescue her Dulcinea, and see myself as the new Don Quijote.
Mina’s spirit has won her yet another battle. The old oak tree returns to the earth, but its acorns have germinated new ones with branches that reach the heavens. And the future is possible because of her.
Mary Gomez is a Dominican-American writer born in a small, rural hamlet of the province of Puerto Plata, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. She attended La Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo for two years before immigrating to New York. While still learning English, Mary graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor's degree in communications from The City College of New York. She obtained her master’s in school psychology from Long Island University a few years later while teaching Spanish-speaking children, and thereafter worked for the NYC schools as a bilingual school psychologist for almost 30 years.