I recently posted a photograph on FaceBook of my mother, Lydia, at 38, and myself at 10- she's wearing a fur(ish) coat from the second hand (but she's wearing it well), and I'm wearing a dress that my tia Ruth talked, begged, threatened me into wearing, with a sweater that had seashells on it. They came from a bag of clothing from our church, and I liked the seashells as they reminded me of the ocean I rode my bike to (tomboy to the bone) on my stolen bike. I wasn't going to get a bike any other way, so when I walked by the brand new looking bike on Guerrero (Warrior) street, the Mission, San Francisco, and it was still there ten minutes later, it was mine. To Golden Gate Park, Playland at The Beach, the piers to fish...
When I first saw this photo, I was literally shocked- I always thought I was 'bigger' than my mother at that time. I always thought I was Super Girl and it was my job to save her, so in my mind I was bigger...but the photo proves I only came to her shoulder. I was wearing a dress and she was dressed up in a fur coat because she was playing the piano for the Spanish Speaking Baptist Church on Capp Street, for the morning service. She was a classically trained pianist and she'd played for her father's (Pablo Villanueva) church in East Los Angeles. I remember waking up to the sound of Chopin when I was six years old, her favorite Moonlight Sonata. I would sneak up and watch her because the peace on her face was very rare, and she played the piano before work almost daily until the rented piano was taken away. I remember when they took it away...I wanted to kick the guys in the shins, but my grandmother, Jesus, hung onto me, my mother was crying. My grandmother, mi mamacita, a full blood Yaqui from Sonora, was my real mother, the one who raised me daily, taught me dreaming and to fight for myself. She gave me my first ulu...when I was five my uncle, her brother, was visiting from Mexico, a well known judge in Sonora, and very fat, enormous. He'd begin to sing a song/poem, "Luna, luna, come la tuna...Moon, moon, eat the fig..." and when he did I knew he was looking for me, to tickle me until I screamed and cried. She tried to stop him, telling him to leave me alone, taking me from him...but he continued, I heard him coming, "Luna, luna..." I ran for my tent under the wide table cloth of the dining room table, where my art supplies were, including my blunt baby scissors- when his huge, fat hand reached for me, I stabbed him, drawing blood. He yelled as I ran for mamacita, hiding behind her full skirt- "Give her to me!" he demanded. She refused, to give me to him, saying, "I told you to leave her alone, now you know." (All in Spanish, she never spoke English, ever.) I remember this moment, these words, the awful song, "Luna, Luna..." and I remember her body ever so slightly trembling with laughter, when he said, "She'll be a bruja like you." And he never touched me again...I remember the blood on his hand, the anger on his face. If she had given me to him, I wouldn't be who I am...instead, she gave me my first ulu and I still carry it, and I've used it many times.
In Don Miguel Ruiz' book, 'The Mastery of Love,' he writes..."The normal frequency of humans before domestication is to explore and to enjoy life; we are tuned to love. As children we don't have any definition of love as an abstract concept; we just live love. It's the way we are." (Then he writes about the child being hit for the first time.) "Your reaction might be fear; your reaction might be anger or being shy or just crying. But that reaction is already emotional poison, because the normal reaction before domestication is that your Daddy spanks you and you want to hit him back." When I read this, I fully realized the gift I was given that day mamacita refused to give me to him; she allowed that 'normal reaction' to live in me, my ulu. Later, when I would come in crying from the street that someone hit me, she'd toss me right back out with, "No te dejas...Do not allow it." And when I'd return, having fought back, victorious, I was rewarded with pan dulce, cafe con leche. She saw my life, that she would leave me soon, and that I would need a very sharp ulu.
Perhaps a year before this photo was taken, I had been living with my mother, Lydia, and her second husband...a violent man who drank...she was almost full term with my brother, and her screams woke me up. He was choking her and her screams were not only for herself but for the life she carried- I tried the glass paneled door but he'd locked it. In that moment, 'the wise voice' (that's always feminine, very soft) whispered, "If you don't do something, you will always remember this." And I knew he was going to kill her- so I put my fist through the glass, not a cut, opened the door. He was drunk and insane and her screams shielded me- I picked up his favorite, marble ash tray and brought it down over his head as he kneeled, strangling her. He fell and I remember hoping he was dead with all my heart, all of my intent- she ran to him, "Are you alright, are you alright...' His chest moved, breath. I gathered everything in one bag and left around midnight to catch the buses to my tia Ruth's house, the projects at Candlestick...but her place was always clean and I could sleep on the day bed. There were other times, once more after this...he came flying through our door on Christmas Eve and I perched on the couch next to the door, swooped down, knocking out a tooth with my fist. I ran out the door, came back with the police, he tried to press charges, and they laughed when they saw 'the culprit,' a skinny kid. And so, this is why I thought I was bigger than my mother, Lydia...why I thought I was Super Girl, my ulu.
I remember Lydia at her sister's wedding at the Spanish Speaking Baptist Church on Capp Street, the Mission, San Francisco, down to the basement for food...no alcohol, no dancing... someone tuned in a ranchera on the radio and she grabbed someone's hat, threw it on the floor, laughing, and started to dance around it, and she did a grito, a loud one of sheer joy, I remember. They turned off the music, she stopped dancing, I saw tears fill her eyes but they didn't fall...instead, she laughed with her bright red lipstick mouth, and she danced out the door, her ulu. And I realize the ulu my mother, Lydia, gave me was that desire, that grito, that joy...Just one more dance. She left the body, transformed, at 93 this month of August, and although she wasn't my 'real mother' emotionally/spiritually as mi mamacita was, she was the one who carried me in her womb for nine months, and I imagined she must have danced many times as I floated in those waters, I remember. She became a medical secretary in her forties and she proudly worked for the Navy for years...playing the piano in the officer's lounge. She was a flirt, she was gifted (but not fully manifested...her composition prizes as a teen...her father died early, she had to leave college and work), she was a dancer, and she may have dropped her ulu but she always picked it up. Just one more dance, Lydia...just one more dance, Mom.
My grandmother, a Yaqui curandera/healer, Jesus, gave me my first ulu...her mother, Isidra (also a well known healer in Sonora), gave it to her...Jesus told me her step-father burned the bottom of her feet with live coals when she tried to run away after he beat her. Isidra saw her feet, heard the story, and threw him out. Mamacita said, "My mother married five times, each time a better man," Isidra's ulu. Mi tia Ruth gave me the gift of stories, many family stories that might have been lost...the story teller's ulu. My womb mother, Lydia, gave me her dancing ulu...mi mamacita gave me dreaming and poetry, my mother tongue, poetry. She read me poetry in Spanish and I memorized poetry for church recitals...I watched her dress entirely in black, her long, grey hair to her waist (usually up in a tight knot, under a hat), as she became Death and recited a long, wonderful poem in a voice that carried throughout the church without a microphone, that voice. Poetry.
I carry my ulu because of these three women, and it is sharp, silver, encrusted with rubies, like mi mamacita's favorite earrings, only earrings she ever wore, a gift from her only husband, Pablo. I know how to start a fire, good ones, blazing ones, small ones to cook a meal, fires to warm you through the winter, fires to warm your bones, fires to burn the lies, fires to illuminate beauty, fires to reach the stars, fires to sing around, fires to dance around...just one more dance, Lydia, mom...gracias gracias gracias por mi ulu, it's in my hand as I dance, for all of you. Into the Sixth World...