mother’s day revisited

Vanessa Martir‘s Writing Our Lives workshop series offers participants a larger view of mothering within a patriarchal and historical context, as well as within the context of our own mothers’ upbringing. I was able to participate in the worshop when she came down to San Antonio last year and was invited to submit work for this special feature through Intervenxions. You can read Vanessa’s intro and work by other participants. Mine is also there but I wanted to include it here too.

“bitter oranges”

My mother always said she had horse’s hair and I would laugh because I thought horse’s hair was super soft. Hers was more like skunk or goat. Thick. Bristly, but shiny. It moves as one, like an animal breathing—in then out—as fingers pass through. Her skin dewy, fresh from the shower. She smelled like soap, the scent lingering on her skin for hours. When she cooked, her fingertips smelled of sweating onions, or the cold, wet smell of meat. Sometimes a distant cigarette. She always smoked outside, even in the coldest months, stepping away from her own exhales to avoid the lingering scent.

I was born in Minnesota. An outlier, of course. Born in Havana, the island became a myth for my mother. In my life with her I’ve seen her choose other places to temporarily call home. Always Florida, in one way or another. Homestead sometimes, Miami proper when she feels free. We are in Central Texas, which is an endurance. Like bitter oranges which have a tantalizing appearance, but leave an impossible tartness in the mouth. Sour. She’s made do but never cared for this place.

For Christmas, I special ordered a couple of pounds of bitter oranges and was set to make dulce de naranja agria. It’s my mother’s favorite dessert. My grandfather would make it over several hours until the house smelled like orange syrup. I scraped away the orange zest until my hands were sticky with its oil. I scooped out the flesh and membrane to make mojo later. I cleaned the rind out, cutting it into quarter moons. They sat through three cycles of rolling boils for hours, until they became ghosts of themselves. Finally, they could be doused in sugared water and boiled down once more with cinnamon sticks. A sweetness thought unfeasible.

I placed it in a decorative glass container with an orange ribbon. My mother bites into one of the sugared skins and tells me it’s like a gift from her father, my grandfather, who by this time has been gone twenty years. Then she is silent. Her face creases and her look has moved from remembrance to anger. I don’t know what is bothering her. “I shouldn’t have had kids,” she finally says to me, not looking in my direction. She took a role she never wanted and somehow, she thought she was expected to hold the weight of that decision until the lilt of freedom was truly gone. Then she says to me: “You are so nice. I give advice and you listen, but you don’t take any of it. You’ll do what you want, I guess.”

Author: Jo Reyes-Boitel

poet, playwright, and essayist. queer Latinx.

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