This isn’t a typical dedication post. It’s not related to a specific ride, but does focus on someone who was taken from us prematurely, and someone who was one of the motivations for our bicycle ride across the US.
Today marks the four year anniversary of my mother’s premature death due to cancer. She was 80 so it’s not like she got totally cheated. But given her overall health, we had all been expecting her to live well into her 90s. This post is also for my six nieces and nephews (Heather, Ryan, Andrew, Nico, Isabel, and Carmen) who are just reaching that age where their interactions with my mother would have shifted to an adult-to-adult relationship.
You only knew Mom, (“Mamacita” to you) as a grandmother. She excelled at that. She was nurturing, gentle, and patient. You mostly knew her as a sensible and grounded wife, mother, grandmother, and dedicated member of her church community.
I know you all enjoyed spending time with her and Pop (“Papacito”), and even though she was fun to be around, I’m fairly sure you would never have guessed that as a child she was rebellious, mischievous, and almost always in trouble.
On rare occasions mom would tell stories of what she was like when she was young, carefree, creating her own adventures, and almost always in trouble. I’m capturing two of these here since you’ll never get a chance to hear them from her.
Reaping What You “Sew”
At the time she was growing up in Mexico it was particularly important for young girls to develop household skills that would serve them well as wives and mothers: sewing, cooking, cleaning, and social skills. Things Mom hated at the time since she was more tomboy and free-spirited than she was conforming young girl. Ironic since by the time you knew here, she had a reputation for her cooking, needlework and hospitality. (She sensibly gave up keeping a tidy house with so many sons running amuck.)
Mom discovered, as so many of us do, that if you are careful, you can take a needle and gently push the needlepoint under the topmost layers of skin on your fingers without pain or blood. Having discovered this trick, she demonstrated this magic to her younger brother (Tio Virgilio). Carefully, carefully, she pushed a needle through the outermost skin of his thumb tip, pushing a threaded needle all the way through. And then she did the same to his index finger, gently pulling the thread through his fingertips until the stitch held his two fingers close. Amazed by this trick, 5 year old Tio insisted that she do the same for the other three fingers. Delighted that all five fingers were sewn tightly together, they did the same to his other hand. And then to the toes on each foot. Tio Virgilio proudly hobbled around the house displaying this magic trick to their other siblings. Until he literally stumbled into my grandmother (“Abuelita” to us).
There is a word people in Mexico use: “cachetazo”. From the word “cachetes” (cheeks), it means to slap someone. Slap someone so hard that your own hand hurts afterwards. At least, that’s how I interpreted the use of the word based on how Mom and Pop used it. Abuelita’s response to this incident was a cachetazo. One for Mom for being mean and a cachetazo for Tio for being such a rube.
You have to remember that when we were growing up, corporal punishment was a basic tool every parent used. It was even an important part of the Catholic grammar school curriculum. Nuns liberally doled out cachetazos all the way through grade school. The last specific incident I remember happened in eighth grade.
During morning prayer, when Sister Felicitas (an ironic name if ever there was one) asked if anyone had special intentions, poor, silly Julie Lynch requested a special intention for her pet rabbit, who had died the night before. I remember the room going silent as we all recognized the mistake she’d made. “Come here!” Sister Felicitas commanded, pointing to spot a few inches from where she stood at the front of class. When Julie arrived at the indicated spot, Sister Felicitas seethed, “Animals do not have souls!” and emphasized the message with a full-on cachetazo that left us all holding our own cheeks in sympathy.
Even Monsignor Moriarty was in on it. If I accidentally stood in his line to get communion, milliseconds after he had placed the Body of Christ onto my tongue, he would give my cheek a tear-inducing pinch or with the flick of his wrist deliver a sharp slap that would sting all the way back to my pew. I’m sure he was trying to impart some sort of wisdom but I never knew what the message was. Perhaps he was thinking, “Remember, boy, Jesus Christ suffered on the cross for your sins. Here’s some insight into what that felt like.”
Fire in the Hole
Once she reached 10, responsibility for getting the fire going in the wood-burning stove fell to Mom. Nearly every morning she struggled to get the kindling and crumpled newspaper burning. One morning, after several failed attempts, Mom decided to cheat by adding a squirt of white gas to the little of stack of kindling. It turns out that she had not been completely unsuccessful. When the gas hit the smoldering embers, a ball of fire erupted from the stove. Afraid the house would burn down, Mom grabbed a dish towel and began attempting to beat out the flames. Naturally, the dish towel she was holding caught fire. Having some sense, she threw the dishtowel out the back door and into the yard. In most cases this would have been an excellent idea. Unfortunately, the family chickens had wandered just outside the back door to wait for their morning grain. Now Mom’s attention was diverted onto a chick that was on fire and running, as chickens do, in circles and threatening to catch other chickens (or the house) on fire. Scooping up the chick, Mom threw the chick into the large wooden barrel of water that served as the family’s source of drinking water. Alarmed by Mom’s whoops and the ruckus the chickens were making, Abuelita appeared. “Why is there a chick … Why is there a burned chick in the well?” At this point in the story, Mom would act out her response. Putting her hands on hips, she would say in an almost sing-songy delivery, “Well, it was the most amazing thing. I was in the kitchen making breakfast when a bolt of lightening struck the yard. I looked out and saw this chick…” Cachetazo.
I’m guessing that none of you has ever experienced a cachetazo. Don’t look for me to give you one. But if you’d like me to pass on some of Monsignor Moriarty’s wisdom, let me know.