It was dark when I woke up. Dark and quiet, except for the waves lapping on the side of the boat, and the humming of a motor, somewhere behind me, though, in the darkness and after hours of constant retching, it was hard to know what was up or down, behind or in front of me.
We had left Cuba hours before — I wasn’t sure how many — and nothing felt real. Nothing but the tight grip of my mother’s hand around my ankle.
I lifted my head up, barely, and searched for her face in the darkness. Her eyes were open, and she was looking straight at me.
“What time is it?” I asked, and it pained me to speak. My throat was raw, and my tongue was heavy. My lips were salty. I needed water.
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She said she wasn’t sure, but she thought it was past midnight. That meant it was Sunday, May 11, Mother’s Day. I was certain we had left the port of Mariel Saturday evening, around 6 or 7, right before sundown. From the Mañana, the boat that was taking us to the United States, I had seen the enormous but fading sun effortlessly dip into the ocean like a cookie in a bowl of milk.
“Happy Mother’s Day,” I said and went back to my stupor. My mother squeezed my ankle a little tighter.
Before falling sleep or losing consciousness, I asked about my father. We had last seen him the day before. Unable to come with us, he had left in another boat, which the Mañana had agreed to tow to international waters.
My mother said she didn’t know where or how he was. The Mañana had already let the other boat go. And so, for the first time, we were alone: my mother, who was then 40; my 11-year-old sister, who slept next to me; and me, 16. I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t, because I knew my mother’s character. In the difficult ’60s and ’70s in Cuba, she had proven her mettle more than once.
She was the one who somehow managed to cook a meal for us every night, even when others in Havana were going to bed hungry. She could make me a dress out of the scraps of materials she gathered from her job as a seamstress. She once pulled the orange curtains from a doorway to make me a skirt for a gypsy outfit I needed for school.
She got me into kindergarten when everyone told her schools weren’t accepting children so young (I was 4). She tolerated the taunts of teachers who thought her too refined and who insisted she call them compañeras, which she refused to do. She washed all of our clothes and my father’s truck-driving white shirts, spending entire days with her beautiful pallid hands immersed in soapy water.
When I had exams, it was my mother who followed me around the house quizzing me as I recited the facts I had to memorize. When my teachers forced me to write 500 lines during lunch time of whatever demeaning sentence they could come up with, it was my mother who sat next to me, imitating my handwriting and helping me to finish on time.
She taught me how to clean house, how to set my hair and how to sew buttons and hem the legs of my pants. Through her, I learned to love stories.
In the hot afternoons, we would lie on the cold tiles of the living room with the doors to the terrace and the patio open — the better for the breeze to flow through the apartment — and listen to radio novelas, which, in my childhood and adolescence, were mostly adaptations of classical novels.
Thus, my mother, a woman who barely finished sixth grade, can discuss the finer points of An American Tragedy, The Jungle and Moulin Rouge.
And when other kids mocked me, or worse, because I was a gusana for wanting to leave the country, my mother reminded me to keep my chin up and always do my best. Hard work was her best advice, her only way.
When we arrived and began a new life in Hialeah — later North Miami and, even later, Westchester — she started working in a factory, making less than minimum wage. Her job was to stitch the necks of shirts at 8 cents a piece. To make her daily quota, she would eat lunch in 10 minutes and go back to the sewing machine. I never heard her complain.
Instead, she developed killer migraines.
Along with my father, there were part-time cleaning jobs and sleepless nights calculating down payments for the first house. Then, the second. When the grandchildren came, it was my mother who took care of the first-born boys.
Today, I’ll miss my father’s congratulatory call. He viewed May 11, 1980 as our big family anniversary, the one day that belonged to all four of us, a sort of collective birthday, or rebirth in the country he always admired and didn’t get to enjoy long enough.
But I’m blessed that if I wake up before dawn, as I did aboard the Mañana, I can call my mother and wish her a Happy Mother’s Day, for 34 years after the darkest of nights it is still her fierce grip around my ankle that keeps me rooted, centered and safe.