The ancient Greeks believed that bear cubs were born as formless blobs, and it was their mothers who, by diligent and careful use of their tongues, licked them into proper bear shape. As soon as the midwife put me in her arms, my mother got down to her version of the bear’s task: to shape me into the best possible specimen of humanity.
Like a bear cub with its mother, I was seldom out of her sight, or out of her arms. Even after I could sit up by myself and would normally have begun to crawl she held me, because setting me down on the floor even for a moment would have been dangerous and unhygienic, something that only “gypsies and peasant women” did. Inevitably, however, there came a day when my increasing weight and my desperation to get free of those loving arms became too much for my mother. But instead of putting me down and letting me figure things out on my own, she decided to teach me to walk. Bending over at the waist to support my hands and keep me upright, she matched her steps to mine as I tottered up and down the hallway of the apartment. Fueled by months of pent-up energy, I clamored to walk whenever I wasn’t sleeping, and after hours of “walking lessons” my mother’s back hurt almost as much as her cracked nipples had when I was first born (see preceding post).
Years later, when my sister was a toddler and my mother was in her forties, I would come home from high school to find my mother on the sofa, a hot water bottle under her sacrum. “I’m exhausted,” she would say. “I had to spend the whole afternoon teaching Nuria to walk. You can’t imagine what this does to my back!” From my sixteen-year-old vantage point, I wondered why she was always so tired, and whether caring for an infant need be such an all-consuming task. But my mother’s intensive approach to childrearing had more to do with the needs of her temperament than on the real needs of the child.
Her thirst for adventure and her impatience with the ordinary, combined with her parents’ progressive views, had given my mother an education very different from that of her peers, who were expected to learn little more than fancy embroidery and perhaps the piano. At a time when girls were kept close to their mother’s skirts until they married, my mother went away to school in Valencia, Pamplona and Barcelona, places that in the early 1930s seemed as strange and far away from her village as Tibet. She studied law, and then Greek and Latin. She was attending university in Barcelona when, on a whim, she decided to learn to play the violin and met my father, who was her teacher. And when they married, the consensus of an entire culture about the role of women, the advice of the two families, and her own unconquerable dread of examinations led my mother to give up her studies.
After her marriage, despite the five flights of stairs that she had to manage daily on her way to and from the stores, the need to watch every peseta, and the Spartan conditions of the apartment, my mother’s life became less demanding. My father adored her, and expected little more than that she have lunch ready when he dashed home between rehearsals. And she had a maid to scrub the tile floors and do the dishes and wash clothes by hand in the little laundry room next to the kitchen.
While my father careened—by metro and streetcar but mostly on foot–from rehearsals to performances all over the city, she read books, prepared my layette, went to lectures and art openings with her sisters. But the days seemed long, and she was afflicted with an inner demon that gave her no rest. There had to be more to life, more meaning, more urgency, more work. She had dreamed of becoming a trial lawyer, defending the innocent from barbarous injustice, and now here she was, ironing pillowcases….
I was born a year after the wedding, and at my first cry the demon was banished: my mother now had a project, a life-or-death task at which she had the chance to excel, a job more exalted than any career in the courts, and one requiring utmost vigilance, willpower and self-sacrifice. Here in her hands, in the guise of a baby to lick into perfect shape, was the challenge she had waited for. And she rushed to meet it with all the force of her young body and her restless mind. (To be continued)