A Space for Women of the World
A Daughter’s Maternal Instinct – or The Egg-Thief, Great Grandma, and the Woozy Place
When I was nineteen, I dropped my third semester in college to move back to the desert with my then-boyfriend Gabe. I thought of his mom Esme as my mother-in-law because, while she and I were delivering the Christmas tamales that we’d made together that year, I heard her telling her comadre in Spanish that I was her nuera, daughter-in-law. She never said it in front of Gabe though because he would’ve gotten upset. As it was, it seemed to bother him that I hung out with Esme at all, even during the holidays.
“Why’d you go shopping with my mom?” he asked on Christmas Eve after we came home from Esme’s. We were sitting in the only room of his studio apartment watching MTV. “Are you two like b-f-f’s now or something?”
I rolled my eyes. “No. She only asked me if I wanted to come with her to Fallas Paredes to get some red and green towels for her bathroom, and I didn’t have anything else to do. Besides, I like your mom.” The truth was I loved Esme. The truth was I missed my mom. The truth was I was lonely. And I wanted to ask Esme to help me buy baby things, but I was still too scared to mention it even to my own mom and hadn’t told Gabe. I knew what he would say.
He grabbed my waist, pulled me down to the couch cushion, and dug his face into my neck, scratching me with his spiky hair. I laughed out of reflex, spurting, “You’re crazy. What are you jealous or something?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, squeezing my thighs. “You’re mine.” I couldn’t stop laughing, though it hurt.
“Ay. You’re tickling me. Stop it.” I couldn’t pull away. I looked up at the wall toward Gabe’s Budweiser poster of a sexy, black-leather-clad cowgirl in not much more than chaps.
He clutched me tighter, kneading my pansa and breasts like masa before finally letting go, and then he smacked my ass. “Now, go get me a beer.”
“Yes, master,” I said, getting up and curtsying to him. I thought of Great Grandma making chile rellenos for great grandpa, wondering if I could really spend my life like this. Great Grandma had always thought I was a pain in the ass, una traviesa, growing up. Smart as a whip that girl, she’d say, but what a tongue! When I was a little girl, we’d lived with Great Grandma at the house with the avocado tree that threw its fruit down on my head when I was swinging on the set below, before we’d moved to the desert, and she’d call me la abogada, the lawyer, because I liked to argue. Always had something to say. Some comment to talk back. But when I talked to Great Grandma about food, she seemed to listen, excited to share her knowledge with me. The foods she used to cook, before. She’d blacken fat green chiles on the comal, showing me how to snatch them up from the cast-iron skillet so I wouldn’t burn the tips of my fingers because ay! how that stings, she’d say, motioning her clasped hand to the air and wincing. Then she’d show me how stuff the chiles with white cheese and batter them with egg, flour, salt and lay them back in the skillet filled with crackling aceite, oil. Finally, she’d tell me, “When they’ve browned and bubbled, pick them out with a fork and place them on a napkin-lined plate to cool. Serve them to someone you love.”
And I did. Every day. I served Gabe. The one I loved.
Gabe’s deep brown eyes crinkled at the edges as he smiled at me then turned back to the TV. Shakira was gyrating on the screen, singing “My hips don’t lie.” Honey, I felt like answering her, that’s all our hips are good for.
When I was in first grade, I took the Fabergé egg that Great Grandma had given mom to school for show-and-tell and left it in my desk. Mom noticed its disappearance and asked if I knew where it was. I stared at my pink jelly shoes and shook my head. A few nights later, when she went to my school’s open house and rummaged through the “Outstanding” work bulging from the cubby beneath my desk, mom found the egg buried under writing assignments and near-perfect spelling tests (why would I, a bright young girl, need to learn to spell the word “vacuum” anyway?). She stuck it in her purse without my noticing and waited till we were home to ask if I knew how her egg got in my desk. I confessed, despite my fear. I hadn’t wanted to admit I was the egg-thief all along. Mom’s lips curved, unable to conceal her smile. Still, I never trusted the smile beneath the frown. I never stopped concealing the truth from mom when I suspected I’d hurt or anger her with something I’d done, and I never stopped feeling ashamed of myself—her voice, a secret in my soul. My mother who never cussed. Never drank. Who went to church faithfully and swallowed wafers without question.
But later Christmas Eve night, when Gabe’s tickling turned to cerveza induced fist-pounding that near gutted me, I couldn’t help calling my mom, who’d moved back to Los Angeles when I’d started college but wouldn’t return with me to my crackling chicharrones desert hometown when I’d dropped out.
“You don’t have to stay there, mija. Just come home. It’s Christmastime. You should be with your family.” She sounded irritated.
“I can’t leave, mom,” I whispered. Gabe was snoring on the couch where he’d passed out.
“But I know you’re not happy there. This kind of love is addictive, baby. It’s not healthy. Listen to you—you’re miserable.”
I remembered sitting next to mom in church, doodling notes on the back of the bulletin about how hungry I was and asking where we’d go eat after the service and could we please please please go to Friendship Inn for Chinese? Mom would stifle a laugh and scribble back, we’ll talk to your father, but now, pay attention!, with a smiley face and a heart.
And the preacher would preach, your body is a temple.
How many sermons I sat through, guilty. In high school. At my Christian college. My temple had been pillaged. I’d allowed the enemy to attack. I’d allowed myself to fall. Given to temptation. What good was I? I was tainted. I was stained. How could God use an unclean vessel?
“I know it doesn’t make sense, mom. But I still believe Gabe can change. I still believe there’s hope. I see it sometimes.”
“Sometimes is hardly enough, mijita. Sometimes is the same as never, sometimes.”
Mom bought me a wedding dress a few years before, the first time Gabe and I got back together. He came to the house and told mom, in person, he was sorry for how he messed up. He was sorry for how he treated me, and he understood if she never forgave him, but he would make it up to her. He was going to be responsible, take care of me (like I couldn’t take care of myself). And mom believed him. She went online to eBay where she did most of her shopping, all the years she was too large to fit in clothes at the department stores, all the years she had panic attacks in Sears because even those crowds were too much for her. On eBay, all through high school she’d found me the most elaborate, beautiful ball gowns inexpensive to wear for Homecoming, Sadie Hawkins, Baby Ball, and Prom with Gabe. So when he told her he was going to do right by me, mom found me a size 14 pearlescent, crisscross laced, French trained wedding dress. “Don’t tell him we bought it yet,” she said. “But try it on. It’s gorgeous. Fits you perfectly. You’re a princess.” And I twirled and twirled in it, the way I had when I was a ballerina on stage.
Like the year I played a Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker, the year the Yuma Ballet Company came and enlisted my ballet troupe to play parts in one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous pieces, the Christmas performance. And while all the other girls in my ballet class got flowers after the curtain dropped, mom brought me a small giftwrapped box. “Open it,” she said, beaming. Inside was a small, gold nutcracker pin. “You were wonderful,” mom gushed. “My beautiful ballerina.” But I shoved it back in mom’s hands. “Why couldn’t you get me flowers like all the other girls?” I demanded, not caring that mom’s eyes filled with tears. “Flowers wilt, baby,” she responded. “I wanted to get you something that would last.”
Though I wasn’t a little girl anymore, you wouldn’t have known it the way I huddled alone in Gabe’s apartment that smelled of piss and cigarettes, desperate to tell mom the whole truth. I was miserable. I slept with all the lights in the house on because I was terrified. Of ghosts. Of spirits. Of burglars. I didn’t even know what she was scared of.
I wanted to admit that mom had been right. That my older brother had been right. That everyone was right and I’d been terribly wrong. That Gabe didn’t love me, at least, not enough, or not anymore. That really, if I thought deep and hard, I didn’t love him either.
I wanted to go home to my family.
But I was ashamed. My temple had been pillaged. My body had been broken. I had been broken.
Then mom asked me a question I’ll never forget. “Why do smart women stay with men who don’t treat them right? Who don’t deserve them?”
“What does smart have to do with it, mom?” I retorted (I was nineteen and indignant, always). “Power is power. Love is love. Sex is sex. Smart women all the time stay with men they shouldn’t.”
A few years ago, mom told me Great Grandma’s story. A story stitched in our family’s ribs, in the seams of the women, the hearts of the daughters, the granddaughters, the great granddaughters. A wound that wouldn’t heal. A cautionary tale that hadn’t stuck.
Great Grandma loved a man who did not exist. With his bright blue eyes and light skin, he told everyone he was an orphan who’d come on the orphan train from New York to Los Angeles and boasted Irish blood, though the Mexican família Chavez adopted him. The husband had died, and the wife had to fend for herself. She became a prostitute, of sorts, and brought men back to the bedroom she shared with her son because he had polio and could not be left alone. He pretended sleep in the corner while she entertained her guests. When he grew up, he became a smooth, slick traveling salesman. He moved easily between worlds with his charming smile, egg-white skin, and robin’s nest eyes. Trustworthy eyes that called Great Grandma to make a home with him, sitting in a tree, baby carriage and all that—in between long stretching leaves on ‘business.’ He didn’t send enough money, so Great Grandma and her daughter moved in with her sister and nephew.
Great Grandma got pregnant again, but she was already in her thirties and it was hard enough to raise a daughter mostly by herself. She worked in the garment district every day, took the early morning bus because she had never learned to drive, and came home late in the afternoon. She helped her sister make dinner for her daughter and her sister’s son, began all over again the next day. When her husband came home, she made him chile rellenos, roasting the plump poblanos on the comal before stuffing and breading them to dip in the bubbling oil. She homemade tortillas and salsa with big pots of beans when he came home. And when she got pregnant again, she decided she could not raise more kids. But this was the forties. So her sister helped her do it in the bathroom of their little pink house. And her daughter heard her mother crying in the bathroom, went to see what was wrong, saw the blood and screamed. Ran away and hid in the room she shared with her cousin.
Great grandpa never knew. He wasn’t there to know. If he had, he probably wouldn’t ever have come home again.
When he died an old man, when Great Grandma went to the hospital to claim her husband, she met great grandpa’s other wife, Dolores. Pain. Suffering. Dolores. Great grandpa’s wife. The doctors asked who was the real wife because they needed someone to give his body to. They needed someone who could claim his remains. And each woman said, I am his wife. Though in the end, Dolores was his legal wife. Great Grandma was not legally married to him. Had never been, apparently. Or, if she ever had been, she was not then, in the hospital room with her non-husband’s dead body.
The doctors tried giving Dolores, his real wife, his body, but she would not take it. She had not known about Great Grandma. So, because Dolores stormed out of the hospital and would have nothing to do with great grandpa’s remains, Great Grandma claimed him. Took him home. Had a funeral for him. Buried him. The wife who was not the wife. She, the other woman, had made chile rellenos whenever he came home. And after he died, she never made them again though she taught me, her great granddaughter, how to pick up the chiles quickly so that they wouldn’t scald my fingertips.
“Power is power. Love is love. Smart has nothing to do with it,” I told mom, ever the abogada, even when I was arguing myself into a pit. “You think the imagination Sylvia Plath stuck in the oven along with her head in the freezing London flat couldn’t have flown circles above any great poet’s? She was smart as hell, wasn’t she? But sad. Just as sad. You know why. As Sylvia knew. As Great Grandma knew.”
“I never can argue with you,” mom said, sighing again, the same way she did whenever we argued religion or politics. “We miss you. Just know that you don’t have to stay there with him. I feel like he lied to us, baby. To you. To me. And you don’t have to stay. I know you feel like you’re married, and I know, believe I know, it’s hard to leave. To pack up and walk away from someone you love. To say enough is enough. I am worth more than this. My family is worth more than this.”
“I know, mom.”
“Will you come?”
I curled in a ball on the mattress on the floor, staring up at the popcorn ceiling covered in asbestos bubbles that were perfectly safe when glued tight but dangerous when scraped away. I remembered the Winnie-the-Pooh crib my little brother used to sleep in, in the corner of the bedroom we shared. Remembered mom rocking him to sleep, breastfeeding and singing. The mobile above his crib, circling Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, and Piglet: “Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, where Christopher Robin played, there lived an enchanted neighborhood, from Christopher’s childhood days.” I knew Christopher Robin’s map by heart. Knew the 100 Aker Wood. Knew where Pooh Bear sat on a log in front of his tree house, the floody place, Eeyore’s gloomy spot, the place the Woozle wasn’t. I lay still, listening to mom breathe through the cell phone as she waited for my response.
I was lying in the place the Woozle was.
“I can’t,” I finally whispered.
My body was the floody place. The lines had changed. Two blue stripes across a moon-faced stick that stared and stared up from the bathroom tile. The holidays were almost gone. I’d spent that morning cooking in Esme’s kitchen, feeling woozy. I was the place the Woozle was. “Are you okay, Henna?” she’d asked. “You look a little sick. Go lie in my bed and take a nap.” Outside, a neighbor had left chaser lights on, and they were flashing Merry Christmas Merry Christmas, mocking my two lines, solid and still. Gabe did not love me. Not enough. I was Esme’s nuera, daughter-in-law, though her son would not admit it. And I held her grandbaby inside me.
I was a temple. A fat cat. My body had been reclaimed. I was filled to the brim and overflowing. I was “she”—valuable, sacred, worth loving. I was la madre. La madre de los hijos.
Gabe would love me again.
All would be right in the desert because I was pregnant. I had proof. The proof of my body.
But I could not tell mom until Gabe married me. And he would. I knew he would.
I was an egg-thief. My Great Grandma’s great granddaughter. And I couldn’t go home without a baby.
* * *
Jennifer Suzanne Givhan was a Pen Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellow, as well as finalist for both the St. Lawrence Book Award and the Vernice Quebodeaux Pathways Prize for her poetry collection Red Sun Mother. A National Latino Writers’ Conference scholarship recipient, she was awarded a grant to attend the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College and recently landed an agent for her first novel In The Time of Jubilee.
Now she’s at work on a second novel, as well as a second poetry collection. Nominated for the Best of the Net, Givhan’s creative writing has appeared in over forty journals, including Prairie Schooner, Contrary, Rattle, The Los Angeles Review, The Feminist Wire, Fickle Muses, and Crab Creek Review. She teaches composition at several colleges, including Western New Mexico University, and fiction-writing through AllWriters’ Workshops. She lives in Albuquerque with her husband, parents, and two young children. You can visit her online at www.jennifergivhan.com