I don’t have the words yet to explain why what I want is so important, so I open my mouth wide and yell, and stamp my feet.
“Olé, olé!” my mother claps, “Are you a flamenco dancer?”
If I had been frustrated before, now I am enraged. How dare she? How dare she mock me when I am trying to communicate something crucial? I would like to fly across the room and bite her on the leg. But her ploy has worked, and I swallow my tantrum, lest she laugh at me again.
My aunt swears that she taught me to read when I was three, so this next scene must have happened around that time: I am in a store with my mother. A nice woman, dressed in black (women in black are everywhere in Barcelona in these days after the Spanish Civil War), strokes my cheek and, for some reason, asks me if I can read.
“Yes, I can,” I answer.
“No. You don’t know how to read yet,” my mother says.
“Yes! Yes! I can read!” I insist.
My mother pulls an envelope out of her purse and thrusts it in front of my face. “O.k., then, read this.”
The letters on the envelope are small, rounded, and crowded together–not at all like the big, clear letters of the alphabet that I have just begun to learn. The writing swims and blurs before my eyes, which are filling with tears. How can she humiliate me like this in front of a stranger? Isn’t she supposed to be on my side? And didn’t she just the other day, when I finally made it to the end of the alphabet, exclaim “What a big girl you are—you’re reading!” I feel betrayed and full of spite, and I would bite her if I could….
It seems odd that a little kid would have a fully developed sense of personal dignity, and would react with such force when it was attacked. Where did this come from? Was there an extra gene for dignity in my DNA? Or does the fact that those rages felt so primal mean that they were less about dignity than about survival as my own person?
In the coming years, I learned to divert my rages and do to myself what I would like to do to my mother. In my room, with the door closed, I would roll up my white uniform blouse and bite my forearm hard enough to leave tooth marks.
I don’t think that my mother, who was not a cruel woman, realized any of this. If she had been mean all the time, it would have been easier for me to take a stand, and simply hate her. But hers was the face of love in my life.
The happiest moments–happier even than the morning of January 6, when the Magi brought me gifts–were those occasions when, my father being away, she would let me share her bed and we would cuddle before I fell asleep enveloped in the smell of her skin.
To me she was more beautiful than any woman in all of Spain, possibly in the entire planet. I embarrassed her one day when, coming back from Mass, I confided that I’d been examining the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, demure in her white veil, blue sash, and mild expression, and concluded that my mother was every bit as beautiful as She.
But if in the daytime I found my mother as beautiful as the Virgin Mary, at night I had a recurring nightmare in which a green-faced witch, not unlike the one I’d seen in The Wizard of Oz, drew me irresistibly toward her. The horror of the dream lay in my utter helplessness, in the knowledge that, no matter how hard I tried to oppose her, she could, by the sheer force of her personality, bend me to her will.
To my huge relief, just before I disappeared into the witch an angel who looked to be my own age appeared and whispered, “Stay with me, and you will be o.k.” I did, and we watched together as a gust of wind carried the witch away. I haven’t had that dream in a long, long time, but I remember with gratitude the heaven-sent angel of my childish rage, who, in the nick of time, flew down and returned me to myself.