I got home from high school and found my mother walking up and down the hallway behind my toddling sister. My mother was stooped over, holding the baby’s hands to keep her upright. My sister had a determined look in her eyes, but my mother’s face was screwed up with pain. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m teaching her to walk, of course.”
At sixteen, I didn’t know much about babies, but we had studied evolution in school, and I thought that our ape-like ancestors must have transitioned to bipedal locomotion without special instruction.
“Don’t you think she could learn to walk on her own?” I said.
“No, no. She’s too little! She would fall and break a tooth, or hurt her head. I have to do this, even if it breaks my back.” My mother let go of the baby’s hands and straightened up slowly. My sister sat down on the floor and howled.
“See what I mean? She never gets tired. What a child! I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” my mother sighed, resignedly pulling the baby upright and holding her hands.
Leading from the hip, my sister thrust one fat leg forward, wobbled, balanced, then stuck out the other leg. My mother followed, groaning. I went into my room to do homework and reflected, for the first time, on my mother’s hands-on mothering style.
I remembered being spoon-fed by her long after I could cut my own meat. By the time I could recite the multiplication tables she was still combing my hair, washing my face, tying my shoes, buttoning my coat up to my chin and reminding me not to take it off without first obtaining her permission.
She did all these things with a rueful smile that said, “Motherhood! Such a glorious but demanding vocation.” Labor, according to her, did not end with the baby’s birth, but was only the prelude to a lifetime of effort and sacrifice on the mother’s part.
Now, watching her give my sister walking lessons with my critical adolescent eye, it occurred to me that her intense involvement with my sister and me may have had more to do with her tsunami-like life force and its search for an outlet than with our real needs.
The first girl from her village to attend university, she had studied classics and then law. But when she married she gave it all up to do…not much of anything.
With my father at work, a live-in maid to do the housework (we were by no means wealthy, but in Spain in those days you didn’t need to be to have a maid), and just one child to look after, she was starving for challenges—opinions to sway, people to lead, victories to savor. And there I was in the next room, gnawing on the crib railing, waiting to be perfected.
It was probably in her DNA, because my mother’s mother was just as driven and intense. But she at least had a farm to run while my grandfather, a vet with no head for business, was off taking care of the village livestock. She had sharecroppers to supervise; wheat, oats, and olives to send to market; broody hens to coddle; rabbits to fatten, slaughter, and cook; and four children to raise.
But it looks like my grandmother too believed that babies would never learn to walk unless they had proper instruction. Here she is, in her farmyard outfit, ensuring that I will not have to spend my life in a wheelchair. She is holding me upright with a kitchen towel drawn up under my arms. This keeps her from having to stoop, a back-saving technology that my mother would have done well to adopt.
I look pleased to be standing on my own two legs. Probably, I’ll want to keep going long after my grandmother is ready to stop. I can see her now, rolling her eyes, proudly complaining to my mother, “Ai, Maria santissima! What are we going to do with this child? She’s worn me out. All she wants to do is walk!”