“Let’s go to the protest.” My aunt rolled her eyes. “That’s what your mom said. I told her no. She got arrested and spent a night in the Tombs. When I tell you, the next day she was happy as a baby, like it was her birthday. God, I wanted to slap her.”
“She always searched for something.” Mixed feelings passed over her face like a cloud shadow.
“That was mom,” I sighed.
• • •
My mother died a year ago. I flew to Florida to see my aunt and hear stories I wasn’t told but wanted to know. We stood at the photo wall; I touched the images like puzzle pieces that if connected properly could give me the meaning of her life. Here is a brown girl with moody eyes. Here, she is young and beautiful. Raven black hair. Cheeks like two muffins. Here, she sports an afro, proud and defiant.
Going from photo to photo, I could see her transformation. She was born in 1948, in a Puerto Rican Brooklyn enclave and turned 20 in 1968, the peak of anti-Vietnam War protests, the hippie movement, the Young Lords and Black Panther rebellions. All the marches and slogans scooped my mother like a giant wave and lifted her out of the neighborhood, out of the family, and flung her into America.
The last photo of her life was in my phone; onscreen, I held her hand after she slipped into a coma at Staten Island Hospital. When I pressed it to the wall, a jolt hit me. Many of her generation are dying. Friends and mentors are in wheelchairs or nursing homes. Celebrities from that era like Muhammad Ali and Sidney Poitier show up in New York Times obituaries. Each death means the living memory of those years is lost. At some point, the last person who danced at Woodstock or threw rocks at the Days of Rage in Chicago will close their eyes forever and we won’t be able to see our past through them. And I need it, now, maybe more than ever.
I took the phone down and said, “Love. Love. Love.” It was the chorus from her favorite Beatles song. She sang it to me when I was a teen wracked with doubt about my place in the world. Here I was again, decades later and a thousand miles from home, staring at her photos and filled with the same questions.
• • •
“You went to Woodstock?” I asked my mother during one of our long car rides in upstate New York.
“Oh yeah,” she nodded. “If I tell you, don’t judge me. Pinky swear?”
We knotted pinky fingers and she launched into her off-Broadway actress mode, real Tony award-winning stuff. Her face flowed from her younger self to her suave boyfriend at that time to the small town yokels she met en route to the concert to the famous musicians she met backstage.
“I was dating a Black guy from the West Village; very hip, wore a cowboy hat, had his own jeep.” She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “He drove us to Woodstock and as you probably read, the roads were jammed, so we walked to the event, got separated in the crowd. For the next three days, strangers befriended me — me — this petite Puerto Rican woman. They fed me, let me sleep in tents and vans, gave me LSD and I danced in the mud, in the rain, made my way backstage and smoked with musicians. It was the first time in my life I felt safe and loved, and it was by people I’d never met.”
A light radiated from her face. There it was. The ‘60s, whatever it had been, whoever talked about it, they glowed.
“You have to understand, Nicky.” Her face tightened. “We believed we could change the world.” She snapped out of the spell. “Anyway, at the end, I wandered around and guess who I met — my boyfriend! Not angry at all. Hell, he had a great time. Even threw his cowboy hat from the car and yelled he was so happy. He was chivalrous, made sure I got home safe.”
“Oh hell, why couldn’t he have been my dad?”
“I tried.” She winked, salaciously. “Oh, believe me I tried.”
• • •
What my mother searched for in the ‘60s was herself. She could not find a reflection at home. Grandma saw a girl “too dark” to be her daughter. Grandpa didn’t see her at all; he was old-school, cold and aloof. Which is why in the early birthday photo, I saw a girl filled with questions.
Between the photos are the stories she told. I remember when she grabbed my hand and spun me salsa-style. “We had these traditional dances. Boys in suits. Girls in dresses,” she said. “I hung in the West Village with the bohemians. I’d be at a cafe and see Allen Ginsberg write poems and perform them.” She theatrically fluffed her hair. “I came back to the dance in jeans and an afro. All my friends came up and gawked, asked what the hell did I do.” She laughed. “In a month, they were all dressed the same way.”
“We were serious, too,” she nodded. “We started a storefront housing-rights workshop to help tenants against landlords. Marched all over the city. But you know, it got a little too serious. I held a rent party, everything groovy, everyone dancing and drinking and in comes a nationalist who bombed a bar filled with Wall Street types. Can I tell you, it’s like the needle scratched on the record and time froze. Suddenly, everyone remembered they had kids and had to go home. He left too. But it was a wake-up call.”
• • •
On the flight to New York, I scrolled through photos and saw my mother holding me as a baby. Maybe it was being on a plane, but I remembered when we played, I climbed her feet and she pushed me up. “Fly,” she said, “Be free!” And I spread my arms in a crazy, jerky way to keep balance before falling on the bed. We laughed so loud.
By the time she gave birth to me, 1968 was in the rearview mirror. Mom took the experience of free love and broke with how kids were raised in our family. In her day, children were “seen, not heard.” Very old school. But she poured love into me like a cup filling over. We chased each other with water guns around the living room. She sang and danced. After work, we slept in front of the TV as the national anthem played; the screen became a small static snowstorm in a dark apartment. She talked to me. She listened. Her arms wrapped me like an inner tube. We were best friends.
Long before I learned about the ‘60s, I felt it in her shameless joy. In the photo, she held me like a favorite album, proud and giddy. And I saw on my toddler face that glow.
• • •
“I love your son more than you do.” She pointed her finger like a knife.
“Yes, that’s what I told him,” she said. “His boy has difficulties, probably on the spectrum and the father calls him dumb and a waste of time.” Her eyes squinted. “The thing is the kid’s smart, he just takes information in differently. If the dad gave him half a chance.”
Mom was re-enacting the parent-teacher conference where a man insulted his kid, one she taught and hugged, right in front of everyone. She went to law school and could’ve been a corporate attorney making shitloads of money. Instead, she taught middle-school in Queens. Mostly immigrant kids, like she was decades ago. On house visits, she saw families too poor to afford a two-bedroom sleeping in beds in shifts. She never stopped serving the people. What the ‘60s taught her is that the world needs caring and lesson plans more than fame or wealth.
“Anyway, fuck him.” She patted my knee. “I’m proud of you. I’m proud that you teach, too.”
• • •
In New York, walking past the rubble of the Twin Towers, reading how the president vowed revenge, I realized I did not just hear my mother’s stories, I was reliving them. She had gone to Borough Manhattan Community College. I taught there. She once had an afro. Now, I had dreadlocks. She protested the Vietnam War. I protested the Iraq War.
Rivers of people carrying signs flowed into New York. Whatever one’s ideology, we knew the pain and loss and terror of 9/11 would stay with us forever and did not want anyone else to suffer what we suffered. And the U.S. military was preparing to rain bombs on Iraq, each one a mini 9/11, each one a new crime to avenge this crime.
“Be careful Nicky.” She patted my shoulder. “I know you’re going to protest. They’re better at surveillance now. And don’t assume everyone is a friend. They hire people of color to infiltrate leftist groups. That’s how they got us.”
I nodded absentmindedly and ran into the street, then turned back. She could not come. We walked and talked together for so many years. I didn’t notice that she had slowed down until just then, when she looked at me with a mix of pride and fear.
• • •
When the Covid lockdowns were lifted, she came to visit her grandson but couldn’t make it up the stairs. Huffing and barely balancing on a cane, she called for him. I ran down, annoyed that she strained herself. “Mom,” I said, “Mom, c’mon.” I got her back into her car and brought my son to play with her. I went to the bodega, came back and she sang Beatles songs to him.
• • •
Four a.m., the hospital called. “She passed out during dialysis,” the doctor said. “She choked on her saliva for 10 minutes. She’s in a coma. She may be brain dead. Do you want us to revive her?”
“YES!” I screamed at them. I screamed while driving across the Verrazzano Bridge. I screamed into my hands when I saw her, a breathing tube taped to her mouth. I drove to the beach at high tide and screamed her name.
• • •
In the last seconds of her life, I held her hand as the nurse removed the breathing tube. The heart monitor beeped frantically as the heart rate plummeted. She turned it off, which was kindness. I cradled my mother’s head, kissed her face. She turned to me, wrenching a last second of awareness to see me. “Love. Love. Love,” I sang to her.
I met my friends at the march. The Supreme Court had stripped the right to an abortion, and we flooded the streets in protest. When I saw them, we hugged and hoisted signs above our heads. The sun was a low, bright star between the buildings. It seemed to guide us forward. I knew if my mother was alive and younger, she would have been here because she was in the marches to legalize abortion.
She is gone. Physically. The principles she fought for, they remain. Which is why, I can say here, on this page, where imagination makes anything possible, that yes, she is alive and holding a fist in air. Looking over my shoulder, I see today’s march has grown beyond one day or one cause or one time. Near us walks Betty Friedan and not far off is Pedro Alibizu Campos, Frederick Douglass and Ella Baker. They are lost in the endless sea of faces that form one long endless march. On each face is the same expression of people determined to protect their dignity.
Some pray. Some carry guns. I see my mother and she sees me. We hold hands. We keep going.