I have always understood that inside of us all there resides a primal need; a need to return to the place where life began. Today, for the first time in my almost 37 years, it seems that perhaps this might be a possibility. A possibility that has topped my bucket list since I was a young child. A possibility that, until today, my mom had said she would not pursue. The news means little to most, but so much to us. So much to me. So much to her. So, so much.
You see, my mother was born from the ocean, and it is to the ocean that she returns every summer. It is not the same white sand she spent her Sundays sifting through her toes, or the same shore on which she sat with her family, eating her mothers’ arroz con pollo from a clay pot or dreaming of the Coca-Cola and candied orange slices she would get to buy on the way home. It is not the shore her father once floated away from, asleep in an inner tube, unintentionally becoming a permanent part of the Piquero family folklore. Folklore still shared and laughed about today with those who have never seen this exact shore themselves.
But it is a shore connected to her home shore by the sea. And so she goes. Every summer, without fail. She goes, immersing herself in the salty current, dipping in and out between the waves for hours, dreaming of a home she has not seen since was 15. And when I go, I watch her. I watch her to store these visions of my mother – of the child she once was and the woman she now is – into the confines of my memory for safe-keeping.
I yearn for glimpses of the child she once was. A child doted on with stories and food and affection, the language of mothers who come from this shore. A child who loved school, her pet rabbit, and Cary Grant movies with a passion. A child who prided herself in being teacher’s pet, whose own mother was pulled from school after the 6th grade in order to stay home and learn the job of a woman. A child who was so sheltered and so protected, she became fearful of brushing arms with a man in public so as to avoid pregnancy. A child who vividly remembers standing on the streets of Havana, Cuba on January 1, 1959, cheering and applauding as Fidel Castro strode through town to assume the presidency after ousting Fulgencio Bautista in the Cuban Revolution. She, along with the rest of her country, believed he represented hope and new beginnings.
Two years later, however, at the volatile age of 15, my grandparents put my mother on a plane to the United States of America to save her from a life dictated by Communism. A life that had already closed schools and churches, and was threatening to relocate all youth to Russia for systematic indoctrination. A life that was my grandparents’ worst nightmare, one that required them to say goodbye to their beloved daughter and son, not knowing if or when they would ever see them again. At the airport, my mother and the other children who would be boarding the plane with her, sat in one room while the parents sat in another. The rooms were separated by a glass wall. A glass wall that perpetuated the agony of impending separation – to see each other, but not touch in those last moments felt like too much to bear.
And so began my mother’s journey as a survivor. For six months she lived in a refugee camp outside of Miami, Florida, often sharing her bed with girls much younger than her. And then, through Catholic Family Services, she was placed in a foster home in Wichita, Kansas. A home on a farm, hundreds of miles away from her mother and father and her brother, who remained in Miami. Hundreds of miles away from her Spanish, her arroz con frijoles negros, her rumba and salsa, and her pet bunny, who literally died from a broken heart after my mother left. Hundreds of miles away from the shore of her Sundays.
But she survived. And she thrived. And every Sunday for five years, through high school and college, she waited for her weekly phone call from her parents to reconnect. Five years of separation. Five years of American culture – of English and bologna sandwiches and bell bottoms and school dances and “The Sound of Music” in the theater five times. Five years until they were reunited again on American soil – the innocent teenaged girl they had said goodbye to now stood before them a 20-year-old woman on the verge of college graduation and marriage to a Cuban boy she had met who attended the all-boy counterpart to her all-girl Catholic college. My mother was not the girl they had placed on the plane, and this would cause some conflict for years to come. Had she changed too much? Had she abandoned her culture? Had she left them behind? There are never simple answers to complicated questions. Sometimes it takes years to answer questions of that kind.
But the truth remains. Fifty-three years ago, my mother boarded a plane at the age of 15, leaving behind her parents, her home, her school and friends, her language, her food, her pet bunny, and her childhood beaches, all for a chance at education and free thought. She never looked back at what could have been and instead always looked forward at what could be. And despite loss that would paralyze most of us, she forged ahead and modeled resiliency, optimism and passion. She regales in the stories of her mother’s affection, her father’s grace, and of their undying hope and selflessness that lives on in her and in us.
There indeed resides in us all a primal need; a need to return to the place where life began. And she goes, every summer, without fail, to the shores of Florida, 93 miles away from her first home. She goes, immersing herself in the salty current, dipping in and out between the waves for hours, dreaming of a home she has not seen since was 15. I watch her to store these visions of my mother – of the child she once was and the woman she now is – into the confines of my memory for safe-keeping, where they will stay to be passed on to my own children. My children, who live the life my grandparents and my mother sacrificed everything for.
My mother was born from the ocean. An ocean I might now be able to see with own eyes and feel with my own skin. Together, my family has risen and fallen and danced with the tide, surviving and thriving and living each day to its fullest.
Together, we might return to the tides where it all began. Just as I have always known it was meant to be.