When we lived in Quito, I used to ride the school bus home for lunch. My mother would sit at the table and watch me eat.
“Sit up straight,” she would say, followed by:
“Don’t put your elbows on the table.
Chew your food well. Digestion begins in the mouth.
You’re slouching again.
Don’t scrape your knife on the plate.
And take the hair out of your eyes. I want to see your forehead.
Why are you hunched over?”
At this point, even the afternoon algebra class began to seem appealing. “I have to go now,\” I would say, getting up, \”or I’ll miss my bus.”
“Put your chair back where you found it. Wipe your lips. Fold your napkin. María! (calling the maid) Take the child across the street. Her bus is almost here.” I was almost an inch taller than tiny Indian María, and I have to give her credit for keeping a straight face as she wiped her hands on her apron and walked me across the street.
As justified as my mother’s admonitions were, I did not take them with good grace. The brand-new hormones coursing through my veins, while giving me the external attributes of a woman, were doing nothing to turn me into a lady. Instead, for a last, blessed reprieve, I clung to my childish conviction that I was fine just the way I was.
But my mother was an optimist. No matter how much I resisted her, she was convinced that she would prevail. In fact, it was her duty to prevail. “Do you think I enjoy having to correct you so much?” she would say when I complained about her constant monitoring. “I do not! I would much rather be doing something else, like going for a walk, or reading a book.” I was skeptical. I couldn’t believe that anybody could devote so much time and energy to something they didn’t enjoy at least a little.
“And your grumbling and protesting,” she went on, “do you think I enjoy that? Don’t you know how much more pleasant my life would be if I let you do as you please? But what would happen if I did? What sort of person would you become?” She would shake her head sadly, indicating that she didn’t have much faith in my future if I were left to my own resources. “No! I am your mother, and it is my sacred duty—sacred, do you hear?—to correct you when I see you doing something wrong. Even if it means that you love me less sometimes. I must put my own feelings aside and do what I know is right, no matter how much pain it brings me.”
This usually shut me up. How could I argue with her sacred duty? How could I complain when she, who loved me more than anything in the world, was willing to sacrifice herself in order to do the right thing? In her youth my mother had studied law, and she brought her best courtroom technique to these confrontations. Like an ill-prepared defense attorney, I capitulated before her prosecutorial skills.
But I had to do something to get her off my back, at least temporarily. If I couldn’t defeat her in argument, I might be able to negotiate with her. So I offered her a deal: I would accept her corrections without complaint every day of the week if she would agree, on Wednesdays at lunch, to let me eat without comment.
To my amazement, she gave in. When Wednesday came around, there was soup for lunch. I tucked my hair behind my ears, bent over the bowl and, as my mother watched in silent disbelief, lapped up the soup like a dog. The soup was hot, and it dribbled down my chin and onto my uniform blouse. There were chick peas and chunks of meat floating around, and it was hard to catch them without using a spoon. It felt disgusting, but I was intent on demonstrating to my mother that she had to respect our deal no matter what, and I persevered until the last drop was gone.
The next Wednesday, assuming that I had made my point, I intended to make full use of my silverware, and simply looked forward to a critique-free meal. But as soon as I picked up my fork my mother said, “I know it’s Wednesday, and I’m not supposed to say anything. But do you realize that your left elbow’s on the table?” I rolled my eyes, dropped the elbow, and continued eating. My mother cleared her throat. I looked up and she pointed silently at my napkin, which I had neglected to place on my lap. The next time she opened her mouth, before she could even speak, I sat up straight.
It was no use, and so I gave up my campaign. For the first time ever, I saw my mother not as someone who, along with my father, stood practically next to God in goodness and omnipotence, but as a woman who was helpless, because of some quirk of her psyche, to quell the urge to polish me until I gleamed like a mirror in which she could see herself.