September 17, 2001
It's been so long since I wrote anyone an old-fashioned paper and pen letter, the first thing I noticed was how terrible my penmanship has become. I've relied too long on keyboards and spell-checkers.
I hope you're doing ok. I know I should call more often and feel bad that I don't. I want you to know though that it's not because I don't care or don't think about you- quite the contrary. I think about you all the time and hope you're doing well. It's my own cowardice that keeps me from calling. The thought of you being so seriously ill is more than I can handle. Unless I keep myself very busy- too busy to stop- thoughts of you, your health, and how much I would miss you slip into my mind and then I can't seem to think of anything else, including my job. My friends have figured out it's best not to ask how you're doing, no matter how well intended their question is, because I can't talk about it without crying. So instead, I go about my daily routines and responsibilities and try not to think about it too deeply.
More and more often I find myself thinking about all the things you've taught me that I didn't know you had. More than any words of wisdom, the memories that seemed to have stayed with me most are vignettes of time spent with you. The one that stands out most vividly happened when I was just barely old enough to comprehend events on anything resembling an adult level. I've thought of it so many times over the years that it has come to epitomize your strength and perseverance.
It was when we lived in Los Banos and I must have been around 12 years old. You were hanging clothes on the baling wire clothesline strung up between the small rundown shacks at the back of the property. It was a cold, windy day- the way it gets when the wind screams through Pacheco Pass into the Central San Joaquin Valley strong enough to blow over silos and tear the coat off your back. I had gone with you to the clothesline and I like to think I was helping you by handing you wet clothes from the basket, but more likely I was just there to bug you about something.
I'll never forget your hands. I can still see them in my minds eye, disembodied hands made white by the cold except at the creases against a hard wire clothesline and a gray sky. They were so chapped they had cracked at every crease and in some places the cracks were so deep they were bleeding. I asked you how they got that way and you told me it was because you had to work so hard. You didn't cry or carry on; it was just the way it was. I wasn't mature enough then to fully understand the volume of that statement and it's calm delivery, but I knew enough to know there was something wrong if one had to work so hard it made their hands bleed.
Another happened just recently and you probably didn't know the impact it had on me, but I'll never forget it. It was your last trip to my house. The girls (mostly Hannah) were complaining about the amount of chores I had assigned them to do. You spoke up on my behalf and told them how hard I had worked picking fruit for Fred Aspici when I was only ten years old. I sat speechless and listened, near tears, as you told them the story in a voice that dared them to complain again. I didn't know you had even remembered it or that it had made any kind of impression on you all those years ago. You explained to my children, none of whom have ever done a days work as hard as that, how I got myself up every morning and headed out to the orchards were I worked alongside full-grown men all day. And how when Fred Aspici tried to cheat me out of my full pay reasoning that I was a child and a girl at that, I stood up to him alone and insisted he pay me a man's wages for a man's work and he did. I don't know if I ever heard you speak with such pride about me, or if you had, if I had ever been ready to hear it.
I can see very clearly me sitting across your lap in that big green leather rocker. My skinny legs sprawled out over the arms of the chair and you warning me in a mock serious voice that when they got "this long" it would mean I was no longer a baby and couldn't sit on your lap anymore. Then you would draw me up into your arms, my knees pressed into my ribs until I could barely breathe, but I fit. At four-years-old, that's all the proof I needed that I'd never outgrow your lap. Besides, it was inconceivable that I would ever stop being your baby.
One would think that at thirty-six I would have learned how to make sense by now of most things life throws my way, but I can't make sense of you having cancer. You were, and still are, the most ferocious woman I know. I once saw you hold an escaped lunatic at gunpoint until the police could arrive. You single-handedly lifted a VW bus off a woman crushed between it and a mountain. You waded into a pack of fist-fighting teenage boys and threw them like rag dolls when they went after one of your own. You held the nearly severed ear of your son to his fool head with one hand, drove with the other, and still managed to calm down a station wagon full of kids on the way to the hospital. You gave a Doberman mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. How is it possible for anything to get the better of you? I know it can't be true. I know, because I've tried all my life to do it and never succeeded.
Last Saturday we took the girls to the Harvest Fair here in town. It was the first time we had done anything as a family in a very long time. As we walked from this place to that place, I heard a bluegrass band playing somewhere near. I thought about you. Soon enough we had come around to the place the band was set up and we stopped for a few minutes to listen to them play. I tried to talk my girls into dancing with me so I wouldn't be the only one, but not one of them would.
Then they played a song I knew well, that I had seen you dance to many times, and decided that I wouldn't let self-consciousness stop me. I danced. I was the only one, dancing a jig barefooted on the grass, and I didn't care. When I saw Hannah look around mortified hoping none of her friends were anywhere near to see, I laughed and knew just how she felt and how badly she wanted me to stop right then. But one day she would be glad she was raised by a woman who was brave enough to dance when music played, even if she sometimes had to do it alone. I love you, mom.
Annie Mae, my mom, gave up her battle with cancer December 9th, 2003