Judy Bolton-Fasman has completed a memoir entitled Asylum. She has published in many literary venues and has an essay in the anthology The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. She has an MFA from Columbia University. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation and Vermont Studio Center. She was most recently the Erin Donovan Fellow in Non-Fiction at the Mineral School in Mineral, Washington. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and their two children.
Here at the Hebrew Home, where my mother is a resident, she has found a way to be patient while commanding the attention that is her oxygen. It is Wednesday afternoon, she is wearing clothes I don’t recognize and I watch her teach her weekly Spanish lesson to fellow residents at the home. It’s an old-style lesson—the same lesson she’s been giving for fifty years. The same lesson she gave to the high school students she thought ungrateful. The same lesson she gave in our dank basement to summer school refugees. I used to eavesdrop on her and her hapless students from the top of the stairs. I could hear the kids, who were a bit older than I was, squirming in their plastic chairs. My mother’s voice alternated between desperation and exasperation.
My Cuban mother’s English is still accented, and I swear her Spanish has a slight gringo inflection. I don’t dare tell her this, I’m still a little afraid of her seismic reactions. Although in her old age and infirm state her temper tantrums sputter out quickly.
My mother has shrunk since I brought her up to Boston to be near me. “I don’t like the food,” she says matter-of-factly. A year into her stay at the home, she no longer asks if she can live with me.
These clothes that are not hers must be castoffs from the Hebrew Home’s laundry. “I guess they belonged to people who died,” my mother says when I point out those are not the clothes I bought for her. She doesn’t seem bothered to be wearing hand-me-downs. There is no longer her sense of pride that my father railed about when they fought.
In her prime, she wielded with impunity the hunter green Lord and Taylor charge card—the card with the white swirl of letters—that was always on the verge of arrears. Lord and Taylor represented the elegance she was eager to achieve. Lord and Taylor offered her the stature she desperately craved. Everyone at the store called her Mrs. Bolton.
Her roommate Sadie, who is 94, is kind to her, always offering chocolate. Unlike my mother, Sadie is ambulatory and somewhat anchored in the here and now until later in the afternoon. They call it sundowning at the home and Sadie takes to wandering the halls in search of her long-dead twin, her best friend Ida. When I visit, her first question to me is always, “Do you know where Ida is?” And my answer is always, “She’s close by, Sadie.”
My mother’s aide, Audrey, festoons her with costume jewelry that’s been donated or left behind. My mother is often wearing shiny Mardi gras beads. Audrey knows that green is her favorite color because it matches her eyes and so Audrey does her best to find anything green and delightful.
My mother was a Spanish teacher for almost all of her adult life. She, the Cuban Jew, taught at a Catholic high school—a place that eventually turned on her. But for all those years my mother was a pedagogical drill sergeant, leading her students in a conjugation of verbs which they did like new recruits, rotely, flatly answering a question when called upon. I’m convinced the rigid predictability of her classroom days kept whatever sanity she had intact.
Here at the Hebrew Home, the weekly Spanish lesson interrupts the endless pile up of days where my mother mostly stays in her room falling asleep to Univisión. For her the lessons she gives at the Hebrew Home are 45 minutes of nostalgia and structure. For her students—almost all of them nonagenarians—it’s a place to come to get some rare attention or a place simply to nap.
At 82, my mother is the baby of the third floor. A series of bad decisions marooned her in a wheelchair and landed her in the Berenson wing. Decisions like refusing to transfer her assets to me. My mother has always been too voluminous to hide anything let alone something as significant as money. My mother stopped walking because she wanted to believe I would carry her into my heart and home.
“I’m on the good floor,” she’ll tell me over and over. “I still have my mind.” Her mind, though, backpedals into long term memory, leaving behind the mundane and the sadness of this life. Leaving behind Sadie who sometimes tries to climb into my mother’s bed late at night, thinking my mother is Ida. Thinking she and Ida are girls again sharing one another’s lives. Not understanding why my mother is pushing her away.
The lessons my mother gives at the home put her in a dreamy state of mind. She is back in the classroom, albeit a makeshift one, which also serves as a rec room and a dining room for the residents. One that smells faintly of stale lunches and urine-soaked diapers and has a big white board. Tedra, who coordinates “life enhancement” activities for the home, is my mother’s helper.
Tedra is in her twenties and so effervescent; she’s always on the verge of little explosions of happiness. Tedra’s job during these Spanish lessons is to write the week’s vocabulary words on the board and to keep the students as awake as they will ever be. The words are always verbs so my mother can the lead the class in her signature drill of I, you, he/she and then the plural forms.
Tedra usually picks the words of the week. But this time it’s my mother who assigns the group bailar and cantar to conjugate. To dance and to sing. My mother is ceremoniously wheeled to the front of the room and gives a short regal wave of welcome. Her other hand balances the Spanish textbook that she used in the 70s. It stays closed on her lap.
At the Hebrew Home my mother has promoted herself to Professora—a fantasy of hers for as long as I can remember. When I was a little girl she said things out loud that other mothers only thought in the black recesses of their minds. “If it weren’t for you malcriados—you brats—I’d go to Spain to get my Ph.D. and teach at a university.”
La Professora is ready to begin. Tedra has written the words of the week on the whiteboard. There is coughing and murmuring as if an orchestra is about to strike up. My mother begins the group conjugation with a wave of her hand as if she’s a conductor. She starts with bailar. Yo bailo, tu bailas, usted baila, ella baila nosotros bailamos, ustedes bailan. My mother the teacher goes slowly. She waits for her students to repeat each conjugation. They are a hoarse and metallic chorus that sound like coins jangling in a pocket. At Tedra’s urging my mother gently introduces another construction—“me gusta”—I like.
Tedra asks the group what is your favorite dance? Evelyn, who miraculously remembers her high school Spanish, pipes up, “Me gusta bailar la waltz.” Someone else offers, “Me gusta bailar la foxtrot.” La cha cha, la rumba, el tango—memories are unearthed. Tedra leaves the board for a few minutes and dances among the students. My mother is silent.
“I always danced with my husband,” says Gloria. This group is mostly women. Lenny is the only man among the thirty of them. I’m sitting next to him and he mutters, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, shit, shit shit,” keeping time to a song only he hears. He drools, his left hand shakes. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he continues.
In her dotage, my mother’s aquiline nose has gone soft and her green eyes have become the indeterminate color of an oily iridescent puddle. Her dentures slip—a sad metaphor that she is toothless. I read the sepia-tinted Sephardic ancestors into her face. Her unbearable violence has dialed down all the way to an uncomfortable docility. But the refrain of my childhood tinged with her cruelty still echoes “I wish I’d had three abortions.” She’d then go off in a taxi leaving us three children and my father bewildered. A couple of hours later she was back with bags full of candy for the three of us. “Dulces para mis dulces.” Sweets for my sweets, she said group hugging us until we could not breathe.
Every time my mother threatened to leave, I believed her. I believed her the day she said she would not be home when I returned from school. In math class, I watched time evaporate on the clock above the blackboard. My armpits went moist. I had never sweated before. When I got home my mother acted as if nothing had happened.
A couple of months later she slapped me when I got my period, screaming that now I could have a baby. “Only putas have babies when they’re 12,” she railed. I was confused, and frightened, but also thrilled. I intuited that now I had a power my mother could not control.
Up front, my mother has now taken to hugging her unopened textbook like it’s a floatation device. I time travel to our kitchen table to see her fingers stained purple from the mimeographs of the latest test she has handwritten for her high school students. I’ve always loved the smell of a fresh mimeographed sheet. The smell was a cross between perfume and rubbing alcohol. I used to sniff the sheet like an addict.
The nuns who supervised my mother’s classroom antics repeatedly told her to type up her exams. Her handwriting was wide and loopy and often flat lined at the end of a sentence as if her mind had drifted away. Drifted to Buenos Aires, drifted to Madrid—just a few of the destinations of her Spanish lessons even though she had never been to Latin America or Europe. Havana is the farthest and most exotic destination of her lifetime.
My mother, La Professora, starts to keep her own time by tapping her hand against her Spanish textbook. I’m sure that she hears Beny Moré singing “Soy Guajito” on another merciless winter afternoon in Connecticut. More often than not loneliness seeped in on a Saturday during tax season, when my father the accountant was out visiting clients an hour away in southern Connecticut.
My mother, who didn’t drive, was stuck at home with the three of us and the only thing she could think to do was to dance with her children. Nosotros bailamos. We dance and then spin in a circle until we have launched ourselves like the Gemini space capsules we watch on television—capsules aimed towards a black, infinite star-flecked space. My mother, her long hair coming out of its bun, is now dancing alone in the living room. “Mi madre baila.” My mother dances with her left hand on her stomach, the other hand up in the air as if she is swearing an oath.
My mother has rhythm, has beauty, and in that moment is the loneliest woman on the planet. Soy Guajito, she cry-sings. I am a peasant. I am just a little girl when she tells me, “Your Grandmother Bolton calls Abuela a guajita—a peasant.” My mother is hissing like an old-fashioned radiator. “Me entiendes?” Do you understand me? “Tu eres una guajita tambien.” You are a peasant too, my mother says. This surprises me since my mother always tells me I am my father’s daughter. “You and your father have one face,” she says when she’s angry with me.
The memory brings forward something I once read about my father’s hero Winston Churchill. Churchill said he may have been half-American on his mother’s side, but he was completely British. On the day my mother dubs me a guajita, my eight-year-old self is thrilled to be wholly her daughter. Like Saturday afternoons during tax season, my father is largely absent during this part of my life.
“We sing,” says Tedra. “How do you say that in Spanish, Professora?” Tedra exaggerates the long sound of the “o” and flattens the “a” in professora. “Cantamos,” says my mother and the class braces for a new verb to conjugate. Tedra writes down this latest flurry of verb forms. “Lenny, do you like to sing?” asks Tedra. To my amazement, Lenny interrupts his blue streak of blue words and croaks, “Yo canto,” I sing. Tedra is thrilled. “Can you teach us a song in Spanish, Professora?” Tedra asks.
Without pausing my mother’s sings “Guantanamera” from the old days of raucous potluck dinners with the many Latinos my parents knew in central Connecticut. From the top of the stairs, where I stationed myself as a little girl, I imagined the living room as a stage. I heard my mother evoking the Cuban diaspora, singing to break hearts all over again, including her own:
Yo soy un hombre sincero
De donde crece la palma
Antes des morir me quiero
Echar mis versos del alma
“I’m a sincere man from the place where palm trees grow and before I die I want to sing the verses of my soul.”
Someone once asked me if I had a special talent. I was a young woman when the question was posed and my mother was still beautiful. Her dark hair was long with strands of gray. My mother was a lioness, ferociously protecting a world of her own reconstructing through song and dance and imagination. For so many years she desperately tried to transplant a sophisticated, tropical Havana into a lackluster, cold Hartford suburb. The effect was like comparing a color photograph to one with gray, washed out colors.
On this afternoon in the Hebrew Home my special talent kicks in. My mother sings “Guantanamera, Guajita Guantanamera.” I can strip away the years and see her as the young person she wants to be remembered as.
My mother is thrilled with the attention as she bares her soul at the Hebrew Home. She is no longer wearing dumpster-dive clothing. She is no longer wearing the widow’s weeds—black dresses and black support hosiery—in the wake of her father’s death and then my father’s death thirty years later.
My mother was at her fiercest after her father died. She was in command of her classroom and she thought she was invincible. She was determined to spread her grief and had her students conjugate verbs that included to die, to suffer, to cry. She taught adjectives such as enferma, triste and aburida. Sick, sad, and bored. Parents complained, the nuns told her she couldn’t wear black clothing every day. “You do,” my mother snapped.
My mother clung to her high school job for twenty years. My father said she was able to stay all that time because of her “native ability” in Spanish. She rarely wrote lesson plans unless she was forced to and she graded tests mostly on intuition. “This kid will always be a burro,” she said marking the paper with a large, Lord and Taylor-like extravagant D. Whenever my father described my mother as a native, it was hard for me not to think of her costumed like the grass-skirt natives that whooped and danced across the television screen of my childhood.
Things finally went south for my mother at school after she found a swastika drawn on her chalkboard. In a panic, she immediately erased it and reported it to the nuns. No one believed her. After all, my mother could be wild, even hallucinatory at times. But I believe that she saw the swastika and I believe someone drew it on her board because she was a Jew. She said she was fired when she called the police about it. That may be true, but my mother was finally cut loose when she became too difficult to reign in.
With my father’s Parkinson’s disease swiftly progressing she was desperate to keep up a house she didn’t know how to take care of. To earn extra cash she accumulated little jobs as if she were stamp collecting. She worked the jewelry counter at Caldor’s and signed people up for a store credit card at Sears. She worked hard to get out of the house where my father walked the hallway swaying to the left and began to miss his mouth when he ate. My mother’s ramshackle life was falling apart.
My mother eventually rallied and returned to what she loved and did best. She advertised for private students. She had business cards made up which said “Native Speaker” under her name. The Spanish lessons took place in our dining room where she taped Spanish travel posters on the peeling wallpaper to give the room a classroom feel. She also hung a large sign in red that screamed “Parking for Cubanos Only.” Kids from the local schools flocked to the cluttered house of the crazy Cubana lady to prep for their Spanish tests. Retirees bent on traveling to Latin America or Spain came to the eccentric Cubana lady to learn “conversational Spanish” for their trips. The retirees sent my mother postcards written in an earnest, clunky Spanish from Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Madrid.
My mother wildly repeated things until whatever she said was worn smooth like sea glass. Repetition for the sake of repetition was what made her an effective language teacher. She also talked and talked to people until they were ragged. It’s how she convinced the parents of her younger students to run errands for her at the Crown Kosher Market. At the same time they were searching the aisles with my mother’s list in hand, their confused children struggled with irregular stem-changing verbs at our scratched and faded dining room table. Focus was never my mother’s strong suit. If the phone rang, she always answered and screeched, “I’m tutoring now I can’t talk to you.”
My mother is still serenading her class with Guantanamera when Sadie walks in looking for Ida. “Has anyone seen my sister?” she asks plaintively. Sadie is lost. Ida is dead. And I am watching my mother singing in clothes that are not hers.