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  • The Window: The Lockdown, My Mother, and Me

    lockdown

    by Emily Blake

    My mother and I had, for many years, an excruciating relationship. 

    My father was a loving, charming and brilliant man, and my mother seemed a repressive, ill-tempered presence in comparison. Her efforts to rein me in were the bane of my adolescence, and our hostility lingered after my father’s death, which devastated us both.

    I moved to France after he died. (He was a French historian, so it seemed like the proper tribute.)  Twelve years later, I received a message telling me that my mother was in the hospital, the ICU, in sepsis, with a tear in her intestine.  I got on the plane immediately, and when I arrived was afraid that the sight of me would push her over the edge.  It didn’t. She recovered and was transferred to a nursing home.

    Slowly, as she healed, she grew sweeter, and all the things I thought we’d lost returned.  She was as affectionate as she had been when I was little.  She began to tell me she loved me, and to permit me to say the same.  I couldn’t believe I had her back.

    In March of this year, when the crisis came crashing down, I suddenly realized that leaving the city to be near her might become impossible if I waited too long.  Perhaps air travel would be curtailed; perhaps it would be eliminated.  In a great rush, I put all my things in storage, packed two suitcases, and flew to the small city where she lives.

    Her nursing home is in lock-down.  No one is allowed in or out.  I quarantine myself — in a modified way, going out only for quick runs to the grocery store and long rides on an old bicycle through the lush park that is the centerpiece of her town, pulling up outside her room to greet her.  When occasionally aides offer to open the window between us, I frantically gesture for them to keep it closed, terrified that microbes will float in and kill not only my mother but ten or twenty other elderly, frail people inside.

    Her bed is flush with the window.  On one side it has a screen, with a faded, rusty smell, which slightly obscures the vision of my mother’s face.  The other side of the window is clear, except that it now bears smears where I have pressed my face against it.  Next to the window is a bird feeder on a narrow pole.  It is filled every week with the greasy birdseed the birds love, and is a joy of my mother’s life, as she can look out and see finches, sparrows, and sometimes a tufted titmouse, eating their fill and fluttering about when she wakes. 

    We are fortunate to have this window. Not all the beds have one, and past the bird feeder she can see a bicycle path with passing riders, trees, a few shops, and the sky.

    We have a daily ritual.  She calls me at ten.  “Good morning, darling!” I cry.  She replies, “Good morning, darling!”

    This by itself is such a change from our angry exchanges of years ago that it lifts my heart at once.  

    We then confirm my afternoon visit.  I cannot take anything in or out of the facility —though I did put together a small Easter basket with a blue bunny, sprayed it lavishly with disinfectant, and handed it to an aide with gloves, who took it in — but I can stand at the closed window and gesture to my heart’s content.  I take my phone. My mother gets out hers.  We call each other.  I jump up and down in delight, and she laughs.  Then, when she can hear —she is quite deaf but can make out singing — we have the song of the day.

    My mother’s repertoire of poetry and music is immense.  I never cease to be amazed at how she can remember every line of Irish, English and Scottish folk songs, Elizabethan love songs, and salty sailors’ shanties.  A particular favorite is The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, most of which I know.  If I have the tune, I will hum along or do harmony.  Sometimes I pretend to know the words, and imitate them. Sometimes I just give up, and wave.

    Through the window my mother makes small gestures as she sings.  She waves her hands, mostly her fingers as her joints are stiff, and makes small conducting movements, as with a baton.  The song may go for quite some time, if she knows ten verses.  She will keep on, even if I say perhaps that’s enough.  (I don’t often say this.)  I will, sometimes, suggest a merrier tune, as the long Celtic folksongs tend to be sorrowful, and I like to end on an upbeat.  

    A song she loves is one I brought home from school in the first grade.  She was charmed by it and has remembered it ever since:

    Horsey, horsey, on your way,

    We’ve been together for many a day:

    So let your tail go swish, the wheels go round,

    Giddy-up!  Giddy-up!  We’re homeward bound!

    We have been together for many a day, my mother and I.  She is 95 years old.  This division of the window, this closing of the nursing home, this shutting-down of daily life, has brought us closer still. 

    Through the window I see, not the repressive parent of my adolescence, not the antagonist of my adored father, but the enchanting, intelligent, childlike person I first knew when I came into the world, the person who rocked me in a great old wooden rocking chair in Maine and sang me the very songs we are singing now, in the same alto voice.  This closed window has sealed the rifts between us.  This shutting down has opened everything up.  

    And if indeed my mother is homeward bound, it’s in this way I’d like to end the journey.

    Emily Blake is an actress and writer who has lived between Paris and New York for the past twenty years. Her theatre studio, Théâtre de la Solitude, is devoted to the development of new work, especially by women. She teaches writing and literature at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

  • A Latina Gen-Xer’s Take on the Half-Time Booty Shake

    We asked for guest posts today about the Super Bowl half-time performance last night, and we were simply inundated with responses. We haven’t traditionally done this — asked for timely responses (some would describe them derisively as “hot takes”) about major cultural events. For me, this time felt different. I had no idea what I was feeling, and I wanted to know why. So I reached out and asked what others wanted to say.

    I know it’s an oversimplification to have one “pro” piece and one “anti” piece, but that’s basically how the responses broke down. In truth, there were many variations of pieces from women who felt supportive of the half-time show and just as many variations of reasons for why others felt ambivalent (at best) and horrified (at the most extreme).

    To read a perspective different from this guest post writer, read this post “I Didn’t Feel Empowered by J. Lo’s and Shakira’s Half-Time Show. Here’s Why.”

    Here’s a guest post by one Latina HerStories community member:

    Before last night, I knew that the gorgeous Latina duo had been chosen to take the stage last month, and they delivered exactly what I would have expected. Their performance was not the least bit surprising to this Latina woman. It was, as expected, a sensual, colorful frenzy of Latin rhythmic expression, choreography, and electric passion that virtually exploded on cue and brought the audience to their feet.   

    Also, as predicted, the armchair commentators had really outdone themselves; leaving seething vitriol all over the web with statements citing the sizzling performance as: “piggish,” “shameful” and “definitely lacking in class.” One faction of the world wide web, mainly mothers, seemed to be particularly bent out of shape decrying the entertainment as “dangerous” to their children’s young, impressionable minds. Some of these “Brenda’s” were so vocal about their disdain, one might think that little “Timmy’s” eye sockets combusted in real time, as Shakira shook her hips and gyrated on a megawatt flashing stage, surrounded by electric backup dancers in red-hot spandex. And let’s not even get started on J. Lo’s pole, ‘mkay? Because I’m not. 

    Unfortunately, as much as our nation strives to be progressive and diverse, we still can’t find a way to get comfortable with the idea that performative dance is a glorious, celebratory expression of one’s body, and all of its incredible power.

    J. Lo and Shakira happen to be two, sexy Latina women wrangling that glorious celebration of physical power — and joyfully shaking it in front of the world, while wearing sparkly outfits.

    Yet, in a sad, ironic twist, many people who decry this epically-charged, ethnically-embracing, female-driven performance; and who were put off by its message of Latina women empowerment and sexuality, are the same folks who excitedly prepared chicken wings and nachos in order to cheer on at least three Superbowl players who have a dark history of domestic violence against women. Weird, right? 

    A dangerous, double-standard is being played out in front of the world, and nobody seems to notice that nearly as much as J. Lo’s sequined booty shake. As a stadium full of sports enthusiasts stand and cheer for Tyrek Hill, the player recently accused of choking his pregnant girlfriend, thousands more stand in harsh judgement and disgust at two, strong Latina women who refuse to tone-down their sexuality, cultural prowess and power in order to satisfy those who aren’t quite “comfortable” with it. 

    Lookee here, “Brenda.” Do us all a favor and take your hands away from in front of Timmy’s face and let him watch J. Lo shake her money maker.

    Then, have a conversation about how he views her performance. Go deeper and ask him how he views her as a woman, and then loudly correct any statement he may make about her being “less than” just because she tosses her head back and shakes her hips. Then go even deeper that that and let him know that a woman who dances on a pole deserves more respect than any man who lacks self-control and humility. Perhaps that is a conversation Tyrek Hill’s mother should have had with him at some point. 

    Keep on shakin, J. Lo!


    JL Nance is a Michigan-based freelancer and essayist. 

  • Embracing Being the Odd (Wo)Man Out

    by Jennifer McCue

     

    “Oh look, the commie has arrived.” “Hey, let me introduce you to my one lefty buddy.” “Here comes the snowflake, we have to watch what we say now!” These are just a few of the comments that have been directed at me from some of my more—how shall I put it?—slightly-right-of-the-Kaiser family, friends, and acquaintances. Most of the time, I take the ribbing with a grin and let it roll off my back, but occasionally it strikes a nerve; that’s when inner-Jenn—the rebel, the actual social justice warrior, the little girl inside me who still wants to change the world—flares to life like a Molotov cocktail exploding in an alcohol-soaked bar.

    Sometimes I wonder how I find myself being friends with people whose beliefs are so fundamentally different from my own, and who are so unaccepting of the beliefs I hold dear.

    And to be clear, I’m not talking about differences of opinion on, say, the deficit, or the electoral college process. I’m talking about humanism, the very embodiment of the Three Musketeers’ rallying cry “all for one and one for all,” and how we treat the least among us, regardless of how they got that way. This leads me to wondering if and/or why any of these differences of opinion matter, but also wondering how I got to be the way I am, and why I think and feel the way I do.

    In the current era of President Trump, political affiliation does seem to matter, even among the closest of friends and family, with supporters and opponents arguing virulently and sometimes violently, with relationships ending or being fraught with tension. In part, this seems exceptionally foolish to me – a relationship should be based on more than politics, no? On the other hand, if the people you’re closest to do not accept, or worse, intentionally insult your values and the way you live your life, why on earth would one continue in such an unhealthy relationship?

    Emotionally, it feels like we are living in the most polarized generation ever.

    I don’t know if that’s true, but it surely feels that way.

    From my earliest days, I can remember learning the lesson that there will always be somebody worse off than us, somebody who needs our help, and that it’s our duty—as Catholics, and as humans—to do what was in our power to help these people. I grew up poor, but my mom still found money to put in our church envelopes each week, and we still donated our gently used clothing and linens and such, first to a group of nuns who lived in a “bad” neighborhood and worked with the residents therein, and later to an agency which operated halfway houses and a shelter that aided the homeless, recovering addicts, and domestic violence survivors.

    I can recall driving there to the agency with my mom on countless occasions. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, their headquarters were in an old building in a run-down neighborhood not far from where we lived, and it was always dark and dank and intimidating. My mom would tell me not to be nervous, that these people were grateful for the help and would not harm me. I mean, she was right, but when you’re a kid? It’s still a little overwhelming.

    Always though, when we would pull up, we’d have our minivan loaded with boxes or bags, and a few grizzled, scraggly-looking men would come over to help us carry our donation inside. I was the picture of naiveté, and was always a bit wide-eyed during these excursions, but looking back on them now, I’m so grateful for having had these lessons driven home. In hindsight, I can see how integral these experiences were toward creating my worldview.

    Add in decades of living and working in some seriously depressed neighborhoods, seeing some of the truly awful things humans can do to each other, losing my faith, finding it again, going to church, abandoning organized religion, and reading extensively about the human condition and the history of “civilized” man as an adult with life experience behind me, and you get present-day me: wanting to feed all the world’s hungry, and house the homeless, and save the addicted, and educate and rehabilitate those behind bars, and provide an education to anyone who wants one, and  give people who need it the medicine they need at no cost, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

    Because my desire to help includes people around the world, I have been called a communist, a socialist, a globalist, a libtard, un-American, a dirty hippie, and many, many other meant-to-be-unflattering terms, both online and to my face.

    For the most part, I grin and bear it. If such remarks come online, that’s pretty much an instant “unfollow” or “unfriend,” meriting no further response from me, with a “block” if it comes from someone aggressive and threatening. In real life though? There is virtually no point in arguing—it makes me upset, and in very few of these cases do I care enough about the other person to want to bother attempting to change their mind. Do I let these differences come between family and myself? Not intentionally, no, but I do tend to gravitate towards people who aren’t going to insult me.

    As Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” so I do my best to live each day in a way that betters someone other than myself. It’s a small act in most cases, but it’s what I can do, my contribution to improving this earth we all share. Imagine if everyone who could did just one small thing for someone else, with no strings attached?

    Can you imagine the positivity and progress that might bring about? I’ll do what I can, and continue to be the best example I can for my children, and hope that those who disagree with me someday see me with love and not disdain.

     

    A Staten Island girl living in a suburban New Jersey world, Jennifer is a stay at home mom to two young boys, but she is also a historian, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, a genealogist, and the ringmaster of the circus she calls her life. She survives, without a doubt, on coffee and laughter.

  • Uncluttering a Life

    By Jacqueline Dooley

    Last month my neighbor (I’ll call him “Dave”) lost his house. A deputy showed up at the house and stood on the curb while two men moved Dave’s belongings onto his front lawn. Dave had been in foreclosure for over a year. I only learned about it in May when a man knocked on my door to see if Dave was still living in the house.

    “Yes, of course,” I’d told the man. “I just spoke with him on, um…”

    I’d paused, trying to recall the last time I’d spoken to Dave. Had it been two weeks? Three? Had it been longer? I looked at Dave’s overgrown yard, at the abandoned car in the carport (it had been there for years), at the sagging awning cluttered with leaves and had felt like the world’s worst neighbor.

    We weren’t good friends–Dave and I–but we were friendly. I knew the code to his house. I’d fed his cat when he’d been away. He had a key to my house and had likewise fed my animals when I’d been away. Our daughters had been best friends when they were younger. Now, Dave’s daughter was eighteen. My daughter would’ve been seventeen, if she hadn’t died from cancer last March.

    I tried texting Dave, but the number didn’t work. I got his new number from a mutual friend, so I was able let him know about the man. I urged him to come back and take what he could because at some point—likely very soon—the bank would send people to reclaim the house, locking him out. A few weeks later, that’s exactly what happened.

    “The sheriff is here,” I texted Dave. “They’re putting your things on the lawn. You have twenty-four hours to come get what you want before they haul it away.”

    “I have what I want,” he’d responded.

    “I’m glad,” I texted, a lump in my throat.

    After my initial text, Dave had come home one last time with some friends. They’d filled cars and pickups with whatever they could carry. It hadn’t been much.

    The remainder of Dave’s things sat on the lawn for over a week—a fully decorated Christmas tree, oversized stuffed animals, his kitchen table (the chairs encircling it like an altar), two dozen black garbage bags stuffed with clothes, books and toys, a wicker side table (broken and covered with dust).

    After a few days, neighbors began dropping by—curious at first, then greedy. They picked through the pile and dumped out the bags. They walked away with armloads of his memories.

    The cleanup crew eventually came—a few guys with trucks—and spent an afternoon clearing out the yard. They were supposed to have it done in a day, but it turned out that the stuff on the lawn was only a tiny fraction of what was piled up inside Dave’s home. One of the workers saw me retrieving my mail and, eyes haunted, he said, “Do you have kids?”

    “Yes,” I said. “Why?”

    “Don’t leave this kind of mess for them to clean up when you die.”

    It was a terrible thing to say to a bereaved parent, but I only nodded.

    Of course, he hadn’t known that my daughter died a little over a year ago and that I’d agonized about what to do with her meager possessions—what to keep, what to throw away, and what to give away. I’d bought her most of her things—her clothes, her furniture, the candles and tumbled stones she’d loved. And, while these things reminded me of her, going through each item—with love and sadness–taught me a surprising lesson.

    We are not our things.

    I tried to remember this as I watched the workers fill the fourth, fifth and sixth truckloads with beer cans, framed photos, the scarlet curtains that decorated Dave’s windows for over a decade, an old piano, the refrigerator full of rotting food (duct-taped shut), mattresses, empty liquor bottles, and bags of junk excavated from the attic and basement.

    There was so much of it, so many things left untouched for years. I wondered if it was for the best that other people were tasked with disposing of it. When the men left, nothing remained, not even the old car that had been parked in the same spot since the day it wouldn’t start seven or eight years ago. They’d mowed the battered lawn and put padlocks on the doors. The house was empty and ready for a new beginning.

    I wondered what it had been like for Dave being surrounded by so much clutter—the remnants of a family that no longer existed. But what did I know? He’d barely lived in the house over the past year. It had become a weight around his neck filled with meaningless things.

    It’s tempting to romanticize someone else’s story—the failed dreams of a broken marriage, childhood toys discarded in a heap, loneliness and loss. But we can’t really understand anyone else’s life—not even when everything they own is piled up on their front lawn.

    I knew Dave had been in a new relationship for the last several years. He had a new job and a new place to live. He’d taken what he needed. Just like his empty house, he was ready for a new beginning.

    Dave’s things told me more about myself than about him. They reminded me of my own grief, how it tends to immobilize me, making even the simplest tasks seem impossible.

    Sometimes there are days when I can only sit, weep, and remember my sweet girl. But when those days turn into weeks, everything in my life becomes stagnant. My daughter wouldn’t have wanted that.

    It’s easy to picture my house never changing, filled with the debris from my past, easy to let my stuff back me into a cluttered corner forever, easy to imagine rotting alongside the things that once gave me joy.

    After the workers took the final truckload of Dave’s belongings away, I walked through every room in my house and tried to imagine strangers putting my things into black garbage bags and tossing the furniture out the windows. I picture the neighbors picking through it, finding treasure amidst my old pain. But maybe that’s not so bad. Do I really need all this stuff?

    My daughter grew up in this house. She died in this house. If I threw everything out, the walls would remind me of her. If every room was suddenly empty, the space around me would be filled with her. If I move to the other side of the world with only the clothes on my back, I’d take her memory with me. What else is there, really?

    I started my own process of uncluttering from an imagined center of open space.

    It’s slow and cathartic—going through each room and uncollecting its contents, letting them fall from my life until I’m all that remains. When I’m done, the house will be much emptier, but it will hold many more open spaces. There will be room for my grief to expand when it needs to and room to display the things that truly matter—artwork, photos, and little else.

    Someday I’ll leave even these things behind and I like to imagine that whoever hauls it away will wonder how I managed to get by with so little.

     

    Jacqueline Dooley is a writer and self-employed digital marketing consultant located in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley. Her essays on parenting a child with cancer and parental grief have appeared in The Washington Post, Modern Loss, Longreads.com, Pulse Voices, The Wisdom Daily, HuffPost.com and others. Ms. Dooley blogs about parental grief at http://www.thehalfwaypath.com and has published three fantasy novels – all of them feature a child with cancer. 

     

     

  • What To Do When Friends Have Inconsistent Birthday Traditions

    This month Nina addresses inconsistencies in birthday “traditions” between friends. Do you give gifts if you’re also taking friends out for a meal? What if some friends in a group get taken out for a meal and others don’t? And in the case of this month’s letter writer, what if the group does gifts for some friends, but not others?

    Nina is always taking anonymous questions here. And catch up on all the other letters Nina has answered here.

    birthday traditions

    Dear Nina,

    My birthday was in July and a small group of my friends took me out to dinner. It’s the first time they have ever done this. I missed someone’s birthday from the group in August and then in September. I took those two women out separately, since I couldn’t make it to the group dinner.

    However, the next birthday was in October, so I showed up at the restaurant and everyone else had a gift. I was so embarrassed because I was empty handed. I didn’t get the memo that gifts were now included in these outings. Isn’t taking the birthday girl out for dinner enough? Apparently at the one birthday dinner in August, gifts were given, but at the September dinner—no gifts. Why one and not the other?

    Recently there were two more birthdays. I refused to show up empty-handed, so I got both women some cute, fun jewelry—nothing too expensive, around $20 each.

    But why must we give gifts? How do we stop the gift giving without hurting others’ feelings? I didn’t get gifts at my birthday dinner, so I never thought to buy a gift for anyone else. I told my friend who sort of arranges these dinners that after our friend’s birthday in Dec, we should say no more gifts unless it’s a big birthday ending in zero or five. Not all the women in this group are super close, so it’s all awkward. I don’t know what the right thing to do is.  Any advice you can lend would be appreciated.

    Thanks,

    Let’s Knock It Off With All These Gifts

    Dear Let’s Knock It Off With All These Gifts,

    You’ve come to the right person. Some may find this particular issue ridiculous to consider a friendship “dilemma” since it means you’ve mastered a question often asked here: How to make and keep a solid group of friends in the first place or at least a few friends close enough for birthday celebrations.

    Friends who take you out! Friends who give gifts! What’s to complain about?

    Let’s call this advanced friendship advice then. These etiquette conundrums and inner drives for practical living fascinate me endlessly. How can any sane and functioning crew of friends give gifts off the zero and five years with such randomness? You are absolutely right that this madness must end.

    Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I think a meal can be gift enough in the off years. Now, if the birthday girl is throwing her own party and you’re attending as her guest, then a gift is proper. If she says no gifts, however, I try to respect that except in cases when I truly can’t help myself.

    I asked my mom what people in her social life do for birthdays, and she said it’s a gift or a meal, not both, even for the big birthdays. Of course each person gets to make her own decision and just because a group of friends has decided not to do gifts, that doesn’t mean closer friends within the group or those for whom gift gifting is their go-to way of expressing closeness cannot privately hand over a present. Maybe those friends can consider not bringing the present to dinner in front of everyone else.

    As for expressing closeness to friends, we each have our methods, whether we’re aware of them or not. Your letter made me think about how my friends know that I love them. I’m not the best about bringing a gift in the non-zero years or even initiating the birthday outings, but I make old-fashioned phone calls and leave all kinds of voice memos, too. I also answer calls, ask for advice, and give advice when asked. I also introduce my friends to everyone I know both to help them professionally and socially. So yes, my gift giving could stand to improve, yet I’ve managed to keep most of my friends.

    My point is, I’m with you that gifts, while nice, are not the only way to “give” to a friend. And I agree that it’s immensely awkward the way your group of friends is giving gifts for some of the birthdays and not others with no discernible pattern. I like your idea of getting the woman who arranges these outings to announce before the January get together that it’s a new year and from now on, people should only bring gifts to dinner for the zero and five years. If she won’t bring up the topic, then you will have to decide if you’re up for doing it yourself. I noted you said this is the first year they’ve taken you out for your birthday. I’m not sure how long this group has been getting together and whether you feel it’s the right time to step in that way. Only you know!

    Or, and this is advice I probably couldn’t take myself, you can also get comfortable with doing things your way (no gift) even when others bring gifts for a friend’s 43rd birthday dinner.

    Good luck! Let us know what happens in 2019!

    Nina

     

  • Latina Awakens

    By Tanya Estes

    In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the closest thing my mother could find to a doll that culturally represented her Mexican-American daughter was the Juan Epstein character from Welcome Back Kotter. Until Cabbage Patch Kids released a tan doll around 1983, he would shoulder the primary burden of the cultural void in my toy box. Despite this obstacle, my mother worked hard to instill cultural pride, to expose me to strong women and raise me without prejudice. Finding multicultural toys was one way she tried to achieve that. Finding diversity in books, however, became her white whale.

    “I just want you to be proud of who you are,” she would tell me after another trip to the bookstore.

    “I’m fine, mom. I don’t see why it’s so important. I like my books.” Often she said nothing. Reading was a cherished value in our household and she didn’t want to ruin it for me. We kept reading “Charlotte’s Web” and “Little House on the Prairie” together and I never felt out of place in those fictional worlds.

    Over time, however, the absence of Latinos in both my education and popular culture evolved into the sort of self-loathing my mother feared without my ever noticing. Like plaque, it was the slow accumulation of an invisible thing.

    Lack of cultural representation became compounded by a lack of female authors in school required reading, which were the books I thought mattered above all others.

    My sophomore year of high school, I tried “Pride and Prejudice” for fun and enjoyed the first few chapters, but it was about love and not the sort of thing I was “supposed” to read. I quit reading it to move on to “serious” novels. Despite my mother’s efforts to get me to read “Jane Eyre,” I chose “Oliver Twist” instead. After two hundred years, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters were still fighting for literary legitimacy and losing in my teenage mind because of a stigma defined by high school reading lists.

    I knew girls that read raunchy romance novels with salacious covers, but Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” taught me what happened to those sorts of girls. I also knew teens were as vicious as Hawthorne’s puritans when it came to a girl’s reputation. Some girls read “Dune” and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” to appeal to skateboarders and guys in garage bands who liked edgier books. I liked those boys too but I was too busy trying, and failing, to decipher “The Sound and the Fury.” I had no time for fun things by Douglas Adams. I felt jealous that boys could read what they liked and their little harlots could too.

    By the end of high school, understanding my place in the world as a woman was discouraging enough. As far as I knew, Latinas had no place at all.

    Hispanics occupied fifty percent of my south Texas town. One would think such demographics offered no room for cultural shame, yet many in my class utilized my same coping mechanism. We ignored our ethnicity. Latino artists, politicians and writers were never discussed at school, on television, or in books, so as far as we knew, our ancestors were simply the “bad guys” at the Alamo who offered nothing else to the world.

    After I graduated, I started to see an accumulation of books by Isabelle Allende and Alice Walker in my parents’ house. My mother’s favorite books in her growing library, however, were by Sandra Cisneros, a small Latina whose stories took place in south Texas towns, places we knew and passed through several times. She wrote about family, childhood and life in a Latina voice that my mother identified with, one that had the respect of other writers. Cisneros had established herself among the literary elite with a Fulbright scholarship and as a distinctive graduate from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She won awards and Oprah loved her. This was the literary voice my mother longed for and wanted to share with me, but I wasn’t interested. Like Austen and the Brontë sisters, Cisneros was still fighting against Melville and Faulkner in my mind.

    One day Sandra Cisneros came to town for a reading and book signing. I didn’t go but mother had a ticket. When it came time for the signing, my mother abandoned all decorum and hurdled across the rows of seats so fast that the momentum helped her leap onto the stage and land the first spot in line. The idea that literature inspired a dignified woman to rush the stage made me question everything. I wanted that sense of liberation and identity that I just didn’t feel with “Moby Dick.”

    For the first time in my life, I needed to see myself in something other than a mirror.

    I began my first semester at the University of Texas a few weeks later. I had never been away from home so, despite years of trying to overcome my hermit tendencies, my first reaction to a dorm full of new people was to hide in a bookstore. I came across a copy of “Like Water for Chocolate,” by Laura Esquivel. Though I knew nothing of the plot, I knew that the popular new film version had the winning combination of subtitles and beautiful people. I bought the book and spent the next two days lost in the taste and romance of Mexico.

    The next few years felt as though the world shared my cultural awakening. Mexican art became the hottest thing on the market, a fresh voice that felt alive in every medium. Books by or about Latino writers, artists and historical figures no longer lived on a single “Latino Studies” shelf in books stores, but actually stood alongside all the others in fiction, poetry, history and even children’s books. Sandra Cisneros quickly found her way into my library after I read Esquivel, as did Cristina Garcia and Julia Alvarez. “Latina Magazine” burst onto the scene and I read it cover to cover every month.

    As I evolved in my self-discovery, I diversified my reading taste to include other cultures and historical periods. I had the confidence to read books I chose rather than what I thought I was supposed to read. My mother’s objective with my toy box and library became clear. For both our gender and our heritage, understanding our contributions to society was critical to our individual success. When we see ourselves reflected in our world, we understand the value of our own voice. We are also more inclined to use it.

     

    Tanya Estes is a writer from Austin, Texas. While most of her career was spent as a bookseller and librarian, she now pokes around old graveyards and archives discovering unknown bits of Texas history for her upcoming podcast, Tales from the Moontower.

     

     

    **New call for submissions**

    The founders and editors of The HerStories Project — a writing community for Gen-X women and publisher of four previous anthologies for women — are seeking submissions for a new essay collection.

    A Fury of Her Own: Midlife Women on Embracing Anger and Changing the World will examine the reasons for women’s anger at this current moment and celebrate the ways (big and small) they are using their rage to create lasting change.

    See full submission details and guidelines here.

    **JOIN OUR COMMUNITY FOR MIDLIFE WOMEN WRITERS**

    Our new writing community, HerStories Writers, features ongoing mini-courses, live chats and co-writing sessions, weekly writing prompts, and more! Come interact and find support, learn about topics that interest you (personal essay writing, building a platform, balancing writing and life), and get feedback on your work in a community outside of Facebook! Learn more here.