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Epiphany: The Third Gift

Ever since I was four years old, women insisted on giving me dolls. By age seven I had an assortment of them, made of papier-mache, clay, and cloth. Using my older cousins' torn silky stockings, my grandmother Nicolasa had also made a few of them for me. And one of my mother's friends had brought me a porcelain "little lady" from Mexico City, which was kept in my mother's wardrobe so I wouldn't break or damage it.            

            As a child I didn't understand why everyone around me insisted on giving me dolls, especially since I had made it clear that I really didn't like playing with them.

            I much more enjoyed climbing trees and running around with the boys-my older brother, a cousin and their friends. I loved playing marbles, spinning tops till they hummed. Playing walk-the-high-wire on a narrow brick fence or, in Tarzan-like fashion, swinging on long vines from the rubber tree to the fence thrilled me no end. But most of all I preferred reading. During recess and after school, I would go into the area in the principal's office that doubled as the school library. There I would look at the illustrations and read over and over the few natural sciences and biology books on the table. At home, after doing my homework, I would avidly consume any text lying around.

            At the time, my father, who worked for the Mexican National Telegraph Company, had undergone a cornea transplant and had to wear a patch over of his eyes for a while. Straining his other eye, he slowly read the daily reports coming into his office, but by the time he went home, that eye burned inside its lid. Since I read well, he asked me to read selections to him after supper from La Opinion, the regional daily newspaper. I was happy to do something for my father, whom I loved very much, but reading to him also gave me an opportunity to learn new words, for he would patiently explain, when appropriate, anything I didn't understand. Although I didn't fully grasp the issues reported in the news articles, my world expanded. I began to learn about international, national, and regional politics, geography, poetry and folklore.

            Naturally, reading and looking at my small tropical world from high above the tallest trees became more exciting activities for me than playing with those cute celluloid creatures that could do nothing but stare into empty space. Every so often I'd rub my face against the silky surface of the cloth dolls, feel the warm terseness of the papier-mache under my fingers or the smooth coolness of the porcelain whenever my mother allowed me to hold the doll in her wardrobe. But most of the time and to my mother's chagrin the dolls rested one upon the other like fallen dominoes alongside a wall in my room.

            For a few months after my seventh birthday, no one-including my mother-had given me any dolls, and I thought the adults around me had finally gotten over their need to do so. But I was wrong, for the sixth of January neared. Like millions of children in Mexico, at home, we received presents on the Twelfth Night after the birth of Jesus Christ-Epiphany-a time to commemorate the revealing of baby Jesus to the Magi and their offering to him of myrrh, incense and gold.

            On that January 6, 1952, my parents gave me three gifts: a doll (no great surprise!), a doll's house, and a book-a children's version of The Arabian Nights, which came wrapped in red tissue paper. I used the wrapping tissue as a book cover and was just getting ready to read when my mother walked into my room.

            "Isn't your doll just beautiful?" my mother asked.

I looked at the doll (I'll call her She because I never gave her a name). She was a fair celluloid creature with light brown hair and blue eyes that matched the color of her ruffled dress. Her apron and socks were white. I puckered my lips then raised my eyebrows, not really knowing how to let my mother down easily.

            "But this one is different," my mother explained, trying to talk me into playing with the toy. "Look. This doll talks; she says, ‘Mommy.'" Then she turned the doll over, raised her dress, and pulled on a chain to wind the doll's voice mechanism. But something must have been wrong with it because the noises She made sounded more like a cat's cries than a baby's babbles.

            My grandmother had often told me that our neighbor's cat cried like that because it needed love. "Anda buscando amor-it's looking for love," she explained, purposely neglecting to elaborate on the kind of love a cat in heat desires.

            Interpreting my grandmother's comment literally, on several occasions I had tried to hug the cat to give it love, but it had scratched me and run away. Sure, nonetheless, that the doll needed love, I hugged her tightly for a long time. Useless, I said to myself finally, for the doll kept making the cat-looking-for-love noises. I decided to play instead with the doll's house, which my father had set down on the front porch, where it was cooler in the afternoon. I went to play with it. But since inspecting and rearranging the tiny furniture seemed to be the only activity possible, I quickly lost interest.

            I could hear my friends in the yard talking and egging each other on to walk the high wire. Bending over or squatting to play with the doll's house had left my body and spirit in need of physical activity. So I went into my room to put on my shoes and join my friends in the yard. I was tying my shoelaces when I saw again the third of my gifts, The Arabian Nights, wrapped in the red tissue paper, and I began to read it. From that moment on, the doll and the doll's house began to collect dust, and Scheherazada became my constant companion.

            Every day after doing my homework, I climbed the guava tree my father had planted a few years before. Nestled among its branches during the next three weeks, I read and reread the stories in The Arabian Nights to my heart's content. But I was unaware that my mother had become concerned because I wasn't playing with either the doll or the little house.

            My parents had always encouraged us to read. My mother wouldn't have dreamed of asking me to give up my reading session, but she began to insist that I take the doll up the tree with me.

            Trying to read on a branch fifteen feet above ground while I held on to the silly doll was not an easy feat. Not even for an artist of the high wire and the flying trapeze. After nearly falling off the branch twice, I finally had to devise a way to please my mother and keep my neck intact. Cutting two thin vines off a tree, I removed the skin and tied them together into one long rope; then I tied one end around the doll's neck and the opposite one around the branch. This way I could just let the doll hang in midair while I read.

            I was looking out for my mother, though. I sensed that my playing with the doll was of great importance to her. So every time I heard my mother coming, I lifted the doll up and hugged her. The smile in my mother's eyes told me my plan worked. Before suppertime, I entered the house through the kitchen so my mother could see me holding the doll.

            For the next few days, my mother, the doll and I were quite happy. But the inevitable happened one afternoon. Totally absorbed in the reading, I did not hear my mother calling me until she was right under the tree. When I looked down, I saw my mother, her mouth open in disbelief, staring at the dangling doll. Fearing the worst, I climbed down in a flash, reaching the ground just as my mother was untying the doll.

            "And what is this?" she asked as she smoothed out the doll's dress.

            My mother always asked that or a similar rhetorical question when she wanted me to admit to some wrongdoing. From that point on, we would follow an unwritten script. After my giving the appropriate answer for the particular situation we faced-"It's a doll hanging," in this case-my mother would then ask me a second question, like "And why is this doll hanging from the tree?"

            To my surprise, however, in this occasion my mother wasn't following the script. She just kept on staring at the doll, and then she glanced at me. I swallowed hard, as I realized that I had just accomplished the impossible: I had rendered my mother speechless! I also sensed for the first time in my seven years that I had done something terribly, terribly wrong, perhaps even unforgivable.

            Making me carry the doll in my arms, my mother led me back to the house, still without a reprimand. But I was sure that I would be paying for my transgression by nightfall when my father came home. By suppertime, I feared, the storm would hover right above my head. But my father came home, and supper came and went, and I went to bed at my usual time with my ears, hands, and butt untouched.

            The day after the hanging-doll incident, my father came home early and suggested that he and I play with the doll's house. He had stopped by my grandmother's house a block away and had picked up some tiny clay bowls, cups and pots she had bought for me. Among the kitchenware there was even a tiny metate, in case we wanted to grind corn to make tortillas, he said.

            Dust had already collected on the roof of the little house and on the tiny furniture. It took us awhile to wipe everything clean before we could begin to put all the furnishings back in the rooms.

            When everything was finally ready, I realized that playing with the doll's house this second time was just as boring as the first. But my father seemed to be having so much fun I didn't have the heart to inform him that I wasn't in the least interested. So quietly I slipped back into my room and picked up Scheherazada on my way to the yard. Absorbed as he was in arranging and rearranging the tiny furniture, he didn't even take notice of my quick exit.

            At suppertime, again, I expected a harsh reprimand-a jalón de orejas. Instead, waving a finger but smiling, my father said, "Ah, mi chaparrita traviesa--my naughty little girl."

            "Miguel Angel, you're spoiling this child," my mother protested. My father's only reply was a chuckle.

            Almost twenty years passed before I found out from both my parents why the hanging-doll episode had been so significant for them. By then I had already moved to Berkeley, California, my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I was a parent myself.

            After recounting the episode of the hanging doll amid my father's and my laughter, my mother, teary eyed and sentimental, confessed that all those years she had been afraid I would turn out to be an unnatural mother because, as a child, I had hung the doll from the branch. She was delighted I had turned out to be a most loving and understanding mother to my then three-year-old son Arturo.

            During my nineteen years at home, neither my father nor my mother ever gave up trying to socialize me-"civilize me," my mother would often say. Throughout those years, they inculcated in me that intellectually and artistically I was as capable as my brothers. So they provided me with the best education they could afford. They made clear to me, nonetheless, that all this was being done not just to satisfy my own needs as an individual. Above all, I was being educated to serve the needs of the family I'd one day have.

            "When you educate a man, you educate an individual. But when you educate a woman, you educate the whole family," my father would often tell my younger sister Conchita and me. Lightly caressing my sister's cheek then mine, he'd add, "I don't remember who said that a child's education begins twenty years before he's born. But whoever said it was surely right. My grandchildren's education begins with yours, mis chaparritas."

            It wasn't unusual for Mexican fathers, almost regardless of class, to deny their daughters the advantages of formal schooling on the false premise that as women they would always be supported and protected by their husbands. The important thing was then to get a husband as successful as could be found for the girls in the family. Problem solved, my uncles perfunctorily stated.

            My father was not quite the typical Mexican father in this respect. But even this atypical man, who has been and will continue to be one of the most influential people in my life, was subject to the social norms and pressure that made the education of a woman a separate (if equal) experience. Consistently throughout my life at home I was convinced by both my parents that what I truly wanted, a career in medicine, was not what was best for me.

            "As a medical doctor you'll have to care for and examine male patients; you'll be subject to men's low designs," my father warned.

            "And you will suffer," my mother added, waving her finger admonishingly to emphasize what she really wanted to say: "Conform!"

            With impeccable logic my father would state the advantages of a career in dentistry for a woman: independence (not working for a man), flexibility of schedule (time to take care of a family as well), and great financial rewards (in case I became a widow and sole supporter of the family). 

            Seen from his point of view it all made sense, but I could not see myself as a dentist. Relentlessly, I would plead for a career in astronomy then. My father would caress my cheek gently and say, "But, my little woman, an astronomer has to work at night. When would you spend time with your children? And your husband? Surely, he would find someone else to keep him company at night."

            "And you will suffer," my mother would interject in her usual manner. "Your children will grow up having a zombie for a mother, and you'll die young," she would state, adding strength to her argument with a stern and sad face, as if I were already the victim of an ancient curse.

            Because I wanted to pursue a career, I eventually agreed to attend the school of dentistry in San Luis Potosí, where we had moved when I was eight years old and where I received most of my formal education. I was happy the first two years since as a student in dentistry I carried the same subjects as medical students, in addition to dental labs. But when I stared into a real open mouth for the first time, I began to suspect that I was not cut out to be a good dentist. The first time I sweated out the extraction of a molar, my suspicions were confirmed. And I knew I would surely go insane one day.

              Since I was sixteen years old, I had been going steady with Guillermo Hernández, who was preparing to move to Berkeley, where he hoped to attend the University of California. As painful as it was to leave my family and my country, I had no qualms in quitting dentistry, marrying him, and moving to California. Through my relationship with my husband and his own interests in literature and philosophy, I rediscovered the pleasure of reading for my own enjoyment and personal growth. Although I would not start writing poetry for another five years after my arrival in Berkeley, I knew I wanted to make the study of literature my life's pursuit.

            By the time I began writing poetry, I was already undergoing a painful separation from my husband, feeling cut off from the cultural and emotional support of family and friends, working as a bilingual secretary to support my son and put myself through college at U.C. Berkeley, grieving for my late father, and expressing my daily thoughts and experiences in a language not yet my own.

            For the next few years, in an almost manic manner, I wrote at least one poem a day, possessed by the terrifying notion that if I stopped writing I would stop breathing as well.

            Every so often when I visited my mother in San Luis Potosí, she would recall the incident of the hanging doll and thank God aloud for making me a good parent. Then she'd sigh as she inventoried my vicissitudes in life, pointing out that I would be a rich dentist and a happily married woman living still in Mexico. Instead I'd had to struggle as a divorced woman and a single mother, a poor schoolteacher, and a Chicana poet in California.

            I often look back at that same childhood incident, recall my third gift, the book I wrapped in red tissue paper, and for a fleeting instant I, too, take inventory of the experiences that have made me who and what I am. I pause to marvel at life's wondrous ironies.

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Choices and Gifts

It's ironic how often our choices become our gifts to ourselves. True, your family might have been satisfied to see their daughter a successful dentist, married and close to home, but the gift of literature allowed you to choose the path that led to your own self-discovery and joy. Although we parents prefer the smooth path for our children, it is often the hard road that leads to their ultimate fulfillment. Wondrous irony, indeed.

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Gracias for your comments, Stephanie. I indeed feel lucky to have found literature and found out that writing is what I was born to do in this life. I've been passionate about it as I've been about teaching, my second vocation, though I'm now a retired teacher. My father died a long time ago but he always let me know how proud he was of the person I'd become. My mother died this year. In her nighstand drawer I found my first book of poems (which I write in Spanish and are translated into English), dog-eared, its spine broken, and two words written on the title page in her handwriting: Mi hija! (My daughter!).

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the third gift

I like the connection that you make with the connection of family to the larger culture, and your own strong individuality within these spheres. How fortunate to have a father like yours! I loved the image of the doll house, and your father's absorption with the miniature furniture (presumably to help inculcate you with the proper role for a woman and mother!) while you slipped out to read ARABIAN NIGHTS!