The Woman Who Gave Me My Strength
When my mother died of cancer a few years ago, she left me a beautiful silver ashtray and a red notebook in which she’d written her final request in just a few words- that she be returned to Cuba, where she was born. I brought her ashes there, and ran down a hill spreading them into the warm Caribbean air. “I don’t know what is expecting me back home,” she had written. “It might be as simple as a street, a child or a tree, but I know it will make me happy.” That little note was just one of the many ways my mother showed optimism in the face of the unknown.
People sometimes ask where I get the strength to hold on to my dreams and ideals, or simply to nurture hope. I tell them we are all born with courage-what matters is what you use this courage for. My mother, who overcame her own personal tragedy, taught me that one person can change her fate, no matter what the odds. The day I spread her ashes, I wrote her legacy down. Again, it was no more than a few words: “Don’t you dare live without faith.” For my mom, it was her faith in the power of life that got her through some of her darkest moments.
My mother’s story began in a tiny emerald-green house in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana. She grew up with a father who was a handsome mix of Cuban and Chinese, and who, one day, decided to stop talking altogether, although he wasn’t mute. Her mother, meanwhile, was a hard-core gossiper who spent the entire day with rollers in her hair and loved nothing more than makeup, clothes and sexy jokes. My own mom’s dream, she said to me once, was to marry a man who would take her around the world, to raise his children and to be the ground beneath his feet. Indeed, she and her cousins loved to spend time in hotels looking at foreigners-a rather scarce commodity at that time in Cuba-and she met my father in the lobby of the Habana Libre. He was sitting in the lounge, sipping a glass of the local rum and reading a book. With his green eyes and curly chestnut hair, he looked like the leftist European intellectual that he was. The son of a Dutch diamond dealer, he traveled the world to witness the process of potential revolutions, and when Fidel Castro took over Cuba, he was one of the first foreigners to offer his help. He was also a man who suffered from deep depression.
That day at the Habana Libre, my dad invited my mom and her cousins to the hotel bar, with its bamboo walls and mahogany tables. At the end of the evening, he bought two roses. He ceremoniously offered one to each of the cousins to placate them, then turned to my mom to kiss her. “I looked into this man’s eyes,” she told me later, “and I realized he was going to die early.”
But she married the romantic rebel anyway. In 1965, Castro’s revolution was growing increasingly radical, and my parents knew that it would only get worse. They left Havana on a boat to Holland. But when my mother arrived in Rotterdam, she didn’t receive a very warm welcome. No one talked to her, and she couldn’t understand the European aloofness. She had come from a place where everyone commented on everything-from your smile to the sensuality of your walk-and where total strangers called you mi amor. My mom found out that there was a small community of Cuban expatriates living in Paris, so our family packed up and moved there. But finally having friends didn’t help much, as my mother’s early premonition about her husband turned out to be true: My father was suicidal. My mom tried to paste him together with her own enthusiasm for life, but to no avail.
I have often tried to imagine what she must have felt like with a psychologically damaged husband and two small children in a foreign country, and nowhere to go back to, since Cuba had been swallowed by the ego of its alleged savior. But the more my father became obsessed with death, the more my mother grew obsessed with life. As my mom found herself losing her husband, she threw all her energy into making sure my brother, Satchi, and I would embrace life.
Due to my dad’s illness, our family’s financial situation grew precarious. Yet somehow, my mom managed to take care of my brother and me without letting on that circumstances were dire, even if that led to some rather unorthodox ways of providing for her children.
I remember sitting with her one day in the tiny, bare-walled back office of our supermarket in Paris. She had a spaced-out look on her face as she waited for the security guard to stop scolding us for being thieves. On the table in front of us lay the bloody and absurd object of our crime: two huge rib-eye steaks neatly wrapped in cellophane paper; we had slipped them into my mother’s bag. As the security guard rambled on, I knew my mom was thinking of her own mother, recalling the time when she had taken my grandmother, who was visiting Paris from Cuba for the first time, to this same market only a few months earlier. My grandmother had stood in the meat aisle, tears rolling down her sun-wrinkled face, admiring the veal cutlets and pork chops lined up before her eyes. She was so poor, she had actually forgotten what meat smelled like.
In the end, the security guard gave us the steaks. It was one of my first lessons in how utterly determined my mom was to fend off misery. It was that determination that led her to have a very deep, lonely and controversial conversation with my father. On a gray Parisian morning after sending us to school, she sat at my dad’s bedside in the room that had become a forbidden territory for us kids, a cave full of scattered newspapers, scribbled notes and cigarette butts. She told him he had to decide to live or to die, and that she would support his decision either way. “I will hold your hand if you want to live; I will hold your hand if you want to die,” she said. My father chose to die-alone-and took his own life soon after, when the rest of us were visiting Marseille. I was nine, and my brother, 11. Nowadays, my father probably would have been diagnosed with acute bipolar disorder, and he might have prolonged his life with modern medication. At the time, there were not many options.
After his death, my mom embraced life even more passionately, for herself and her family. She became a surrogate mother to friends, and she made people smile when they had forgotten how. Once, when an acquaintance was bedridden, she introduced him to someone from his village in South Africa; they talked of exotic names and places, and I’ll never forget the ecstatic smile on the sick man’s face. She decided to create her own Cuban enclave in Paris, announcing that she would host Cuban-style parties from noon to midnight, with live music, food and drinks. The admission fee was just a few dollars, and everyone was welcome: children, the elderly, the shy, those who couldn’t dance. In a few months, the parties, known as Guateque, became so popular that she started holding them every other Sunday in giant deserted warehouses and garages. Despite her success, my mom refused to raise the price or make a profit; her parties were from the heart.
I went to all those gatherings, and I had never seen so many people so happy. Elegant old couples would start the Guateque by twirling around the makeshift dance floor. Toddlers ran rampant. Sexy young women would heat up the crowd, couples would form, and by five o’clock in the afternoon, there would be anywhere from 500 to 800 guests. My mother watched over everyone, beaming with satisfaction. Wearing a turban and a brightly colored dress, she looked like a down-to-earth queen, an aristocrat of the people.
I would stand by the bar and watch her, marveling at her patience in dealing with people’s petty demands and emotional outbursts. She embraced strangers, and she taught people who had never danced before to dance. She accomplished something unusual in life-she forced a tragedy to retreat. Our memories of the dark times with our dad faded as she created happiness around us.
But the most important lesson of all came on the day that she died, in 1999. My brother and I stood together by her hospital bed. I loved her so fiercely that when she took her last breath, I felt like I myself was swept from the ground, observing from above the sight of my children holding my hands, my daughter bending over to kiss my lips. For that split second before I came back to myself, I felt an enormous sense of pride. I could see things through my mother’s eyes-I could see that whatever awaited the two children below, they would be fine. They hadn’t had a perfect life, but they would make it because they had been taught all they needed to know about courage and hope. They had become people with undefeatable faith.
Today, as a mother myself, I cannot attempt to provide a perfect life for my four-year-old son, Adam. All I want is to inspire him. I try my best to embrace the little everyday battles, as well as the overwhelming challenge of raising him without his father, to display faith and courage and to pass these ideals on to him. And I always feel my mother’s cosmic smile when my son and I, for no reason at all, feel an urge to play Cuban music and dance.