“What will he call you?” my mother asked when my wife, infant son and I visited her earlier this year. She wanted to know how our son, Ilan, would address us.
My mom is 82, an exile, a flexible Catholic like most Cubans, but I’m pretty sure that she -- like me -- never imagined asking such a question.
“Well, I suppose he’ll call us whatever he wants,” I said, grateful for her interest, “but for now, we say ‘mama’ for Megan and ‘mami’ for me.”
My mom nodded. Such a simple question, really, but such a milestone. My wife Megan and I had already noticed that, good intentions aside, the elderly women in my family -- and there are many -- were struggling with how to articulate my relationship to my son.
They all, like my mom, understood immediately and without hesitation that Ilan, who was carried by my wife, is family. In my mom’s bedroom, he has a place of honor in the grandkids’ photo gallery. Aunts, by blood and by choice, who might not normally come over to say hi when I visit my mom now dash over with gifts and kisses for Ilan.
But their tongues trip and tangle sometimes. Before he was even born, an aunt of mine sent a congratulatory note addressed exclusively to Megan, whom she’d met maybe a handful of times at that point. On another occasion, very early on, when Ilan was still a nugget, he reached over to me for comfort, and one aunt exclaimed in delight, “Oh look, he recognizes his ma -- fa ... family.” She just couldn’t quite place me in the boy’s cosmology, not without some discomfort, although it’s through me that she makes familial claims on the boy. Another time, as Ilan screamed his little head off in my arms, another aunt looked me dead in the eye and said, “He wants his mother” -- meaning Megan (and her boobs).
There is no malice in any of this. The clumsiness is part of an evolution, a learning curve. In fact, I’d argue that their behavior -- however much it may contradict how they vote and worship – is fundamentally decent and overflowing with love.
But it wasn’t always so. Especially in the case of my mom.
When my father was alive, I would have argued, and passionately, that he was the accepting parent and that my mom was the one with prejudice. My father and I never discussed my private life, but he interacted with my lovers and me much more, and without the kinds of devastating judgement my mother provided. It wasn’t until he’d passed -- when suddenly my lovers and I were welcome to stay together in my mother’s home -- that I began to appreciate that her behavior had been rooted in gatekeeping for him, and also in reasonable fear about her immediate community’s response.
Things started to change when I decided to get married, an event my mother treated with sarcasm and derision. My cousins, of course, signed up not just to come and participate, but to rejoice: They unabashedly love Megan. They want me to be happy. But my aunts and uncles, great practitioners of don’t-ask-don’t-tell, continued as always: ignoring my heartbreaks, ignoring my joys.
But on the visit to Miami to introduce Megan to the extended clan – a wide circle of elderly Cubans who are as inspirational as they are maddening -- my Tía Yolanda broke the spell of silence. As Megan and I were leaving, she grabbed us by the hand, yanked us into her bedroom and handed us a check as a wedding gift. “Sean feliz,” she said – be happy – and hugged and kissed us. Another aunt grabbed Megan’s face at the door and said, “Come back: You have family here now.”
My mom didn’t come to the wedding, and neither did any of my aunts and uncles, but there was a sea change. Later, when I called my mom to tell her Megan was pregnant, I waited, ready for the spearpoint of her barb, only to hear her say: “Bienvenidos los niños” ... giving an open arm, open heart welcome to our child.
My son turns one on Saturday, and we have visited my family more than ever this year. My Tío Manolo was sick and died in February; we wanted to see him before he left us, and we’ve wanted to be there for my Tía Yolanda and my cousins, my mom and the rest of the family.
But mostly we’ve wanted to let my mom and Ilan forge a relationship. We Skype sometimes, and they talk on the phone. And when we go to Miami, he always recognizes her and is happy to see her.
And she is overjoyed. I can honestly say that, in spite the pain of her arthritis and the indignities of old age, I’ve never seen her happier. “Es un sol,” she says of Ilan. And then she tells him that his mama and mami are busy and he’ll have to play with her for a minute, maybe watch a politically incorrect episode or two of “Tom and Jerry.”
I joke with friends that a baby appears to be the vaccine for homophobia but the truth is that I feel an overwhelming tenderness for my mom these days. I could say she’s really trying, but I don’t think she is. Her behavior is effortless, her love flows to Ilan, to me, to Megan. Instead of waiting for a cue from my aunts, she leads the way: “Ilan, come see your mami,” she says, meaning me. “Where’s your mama?” she asks, meaning my wife.
Sure, at 82, death is an unavoidable concern. And a baby – a beautiful baby who loves you unconditionally – provides an opportunity to reconsider life’s trajectory. But I suspect this loving and generous woman is who my mom really is, who she really was, all along.
She would say it’s me who’s changed – that I’m not as defensive and hard as I used to be around family. And I think that’s true. But there’s no need to be defensive and hard about anything when you – the real, full, honest-to-god you – is, finally, held in the full embrace of love by your family.
That’s the amazing gift my son has given me on his first birthday.