Even though we didn't spend a lot of time together when I was growing up, my sister-in-law was a positive influence on me at an early age. She always spoke her mind and knew how to be assertive and self-possessed. On the few occasions when I was being bratty and insubordinate in her presence, she would wink at me conspiratorially, as if saying she understood how I felt. Other times she just laughed at me, at herself, at my father. She was good at laughing, at telling people what she thought, and best of all she was good at standing tall and filling a room with her presence. She was a strong woman who planted a little seed of strength in me at a time when I needed it most.
Oftentimes, we look to celebrities as role models but if we stop to look around, we can find people who provide everyday examples of strength and integrity. Mary was that for me. I will miss her.
Below is a chapter from my book, Violence Girl where I talk a little bit about her.
Mary and her son Charlie, June 1967
Friends and Baptisms
I wonder if I can find a way to blame my parents for my lack of friends. After all, my mom never had any friends. She kept busy by meddling in her children's lives, not that anyone ever complained. My mom was a sweetheart who would give you the clothes off her back if she thought you needed them. She liked nothing better than checking in on her kids to make sure we were doing well. My father had business friends but he only saw them when he was at work and he certainly never brought anyone over to our house. We were an isolated family unit.
My mother's meddling took a bold turn when my brother Raymond married a Protestant woman named Mary. When my mother found out that their child was not going to be baptized, she conjured a successful plot to kidnap the baby and baptize him in secret. Of course, the plot was later revealed and my brother and his wife were very upset that my mother hadn't respected their wishes. My mother was unrepentant, she insisted that she had to baptize the baby so that he wouldn't end up in Limbo, which is a place between Heaven and Hell where infants are trapped if they die in a state of original sin. In my mother's Catholic world, we are all born in a state of original sin, passed down to us from Adam and Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden. The Catholic sacrament of baptism basically gives a clean slate to children who are too young to atone for their sins. My mom's description of Limbo made me imagine a place in the sky with millions of babies and toddlers crawling around on the tops of clouds, never knowing true happiness. I could see them standing on fat, wobbly baby legs holding onto the locked pearly gates, never able to enter the kingdom of Heaven. The thought made me sick. I wasn't disgusted by the babies or the parents who didn't have them baptized; I was disgusted that god wouldn't allow them into the kingdom of Heaven.
My brother and sister-in-law eventually got over my mother's kidnapping and started coming around again. I loved my sister-in-law Mary because she would talk back to my dad and she could hold her own in an argument. She never backed down. Their arguing made others uncomfortable but they seemed to enjoy their heated discussions. I liked to listen to them even though neither ever changed their point of view. It was fun witnessing their verbal sparring but I would later learn that engaging in passionate debates was not everyone's idea of fun.
My parents friends were all family. My brothers and sisters were all grown up and while my mother filled her days with housework, visits to the sobadora and finding ways to help her children, my father read incessantly and kept to himself.
My mom didn't have much faith in American doctors. Whenever she or any of her children got sick, she'd subject us to the ancient cures passed down by healers and sobadores. If I had a stomachache, out came the yerba buena or lemon grass tea. I didn't mind the minty taste of yerba buena or the subtle citrusy hint of flavor in lemon grass or the hot lemonade I had to drink if I was catching a cold but she had a large variety of other, more bitter herbs to choose from. Sometimes she'd come home with little brown bags of dried leaves that I was told would cure my ailment. From them, she would concoct vile tasting medicinal drinks whose chief benefit was that they would induce nausea and vomiting.
I used to make fun of my mother for favoring what I considered to be superstitious folk cures. It didn't boost my confidence when she'd pass an egg or a tomato over someone with a fever so that the foods would draw off some of the heat from the afflicted or that she'd frequent a sobador, a sort of massage therapist whose brusque jerking and tugging could untangle your intestines or align your body for maximum health. Often, these cures were combined with prayer, incense, candles or oils. I called her methods brujeria (witchcraft) which made her pretty angry but she suffered my ignorance. I thought myself so much smarter than her; it was only much later that I would come around to questioning the supremacy of western medicine and admit that maybe my mom's herbal cures and aromatherapy were helpful.
Not all her beliefs grew on me though. I had been raised as a Catholic but as I said before, my mother's brand of Catholicism incorporated elements of Mexican folk beliefs and superstition. On previous trips to Mexico, I had seen people walking on bloody knees, making their way up to the Basilica de Guadalupe to pay off a debt to La Virgen. My own aunt told me that she had promised god to make the journey from her house to the Basilica on her knees when one of her kids was sick. Her faith impressed me but the logic of it all eluded me. My mother told me stories of people she knew who had spent their childhood dressed in a Saint's vestments as a sort of payment for the saint's intervention. Still others were known to place a statue of San Martin de Porres in a headstand position until the saint would find them a suitor. The idea of bargaining with god or holding a saint hostage made no sense to me at all and doubt chipped away at my religious beliefs.
I identified more with my father than with my mom. I too enjoyed reading incessantly and I was comfortable being alone most of the time. At our Bonnie Beach house we had a proper dining table and although we rarely ate meals together, when we did, my dad and I just ignored each other and read our own books while eating. My father read his life away. He always had his paperback westerns with him in the car, the bathroom, at the dinner table, even while watching TV he'd shift back and forth between the screen and his book. My mother never ate with us, she was always busy warming up tortillas or doing something else in the kitchen.
I used to watch Leave It To Beaver and there was a part of me that longed to be like the Cleaver Family, who sat around eating meals together, discussing the day's events. June Cleaver would never kidnap a baby, put a tomato on Beaver's forehead if he had a fever or spend all her time in the kitchen warming tortillas. I bet Beaver would have turned out much differently if she had.