For the March mini-challenge of the Fizzy Thoughts New York Challenge, the focus is women, New York, and history (three things I like reading and learning about).
Jill from Fizzy Thoughts suggests discussing
Eleanor Roosevelt (she was born in NY), Lillian Wald (possibly the first public health nurse, who worked in NY), Zoe (an orange Muppet who lives on Sesame Street), even your great-aunt Gertrude (as long as she has some connection to NY).
I’ve done something a bit different. It’s a creative non-fiction piece, “Old Clothes,” based on the early teenage years of my mother, who grew up in Queens in the ’60s and ’70s. I had written a draft of this a few years ago for a writing class in college, but this mini-challenge immediately reminded me of it–so I found it on my drive, polished it up, and am putting it below. To me, my mom is a New Yorker through and through, and I’ve always been interested in her life here. Hope you enjoy it!
There is a restaurant in Queens. It is called El Sitio. Small, bullied by the stores on either side, El Sitio is nevertheless solid, like it can and will withstand the ravages of a whirling and hungry city. El Sitio—the site. Not a site; the site.
My mother first went there at age fifteen, probably still in her Catholic school uniform, possibly accompanied by an identically-dressed girlfriend. Boys weren’t in the picture yet, although they weren’t far off. My mother’s taste, in both food and men, leaned toward the spice of Latin America. One of her boyfriends will be from Ecuador. Another, from Costa Rica. Her future husband is Mexican. But she wouldn’t know any of that yet.
She may have discovered El Sitio by mistake, or read a newspaper review, or heard about it from someone. No matter how she came to be there, she was there, sitting on a stool at the counter, her image burned into the air like a mirage. Her skinny legs crossed at ankles made itchy by knee-socks, which touched the hem of her long skirt. Her clumsy blazer, worn in the heat of city summers and the harshness of their winters, was buttoned-up tight. Maybe the very top button was undone, but that was it; such a shy, demure girl she must have appeared to be! Catholic school did not encourage boldness. Luckily, because she needed it later on, she was born with bravery burning always like a low flame in her heart. Her name back then was Lorry, light and young, sometimes frivolous, free.
My mother leaned forward on the counter, tucking long hands with tapered fingers under her chin. Her hair was long and straight, parted in the middle, a sheet of rich dark brown like molé that frames her angular face. She cast her eyes down until the waitress, always a stout Cuban woman of indeterminate age, bustled over. Her eyes are large, irises brimming with a blend of grayish-bluish-green. She’ll have a short modeling career when she is twenty-three; my favorite photograph of her, sitting on a rock in Central Park wearing a maroon shirt looking away from the camera, was taken during that time in her life.
The waitress asked for her order in heavily-accented English. Either in English or halting, middle-school Spanish, my mother ordered the same thing every time: ropa vieja, old clothes, yellow rice and vegetables and beef so tender that it fell apart on the way to her mouth. Maybe she would try something different occasionally, a sandwich or croquetas, but ropa vieja was the reason she went back to El Sitio after school, on weekends and weeknights, before shopping for groceries, after filling a prescription.
Would she have spent so much time there if she knew her father would die in only three years? That her mother’s arthritis would twist and gnarl her hands so painfully she couldn’t make a cup of tea? That one of her brothers, only older than she by three years, would be sent off to Vietnam, to languish in Agent Orange-smothered jungles?
No, she wouldn’t have. Her teenage self puts mine to shame; I am selfish. I guard my special things, my places, jealously. I would give up on a good college far away to take care of her, as she did for her mother, with regret and festering bitterness, and I would blame her for diverting the course of my life.
But everyone was gone by the time her mother was struck with arthritis and diabetes and failing eyes; my mother’s two older siblings were married and had their own families now, her brother was in Vietnam and her father was dead. The time she spent sitting at the counter of El Sitio must have felt like a dream, sharply remembered but impossible to have really experienced.
While taking care of my grandmother, my mother commuted by subway to Hunter College, a city university close enough to their apartment in Jackson Heights that she could make it back in case of an emergency. She worked various jobs and didn’t have many friends. She and her mother followed Johnny’s progress through Vietnam with push pins and a map on the kitchen wall. Her name was Lorraine now. Lorraine: sorrow.
In her place, I couldn’t have gone to El Sitio again—the memory of a different time, a better time, blanketing the saccharine smell of plantains. It could only be bittersweet, with an emphasis on the bitter.
When she goes to the site now, because she still does, we all sit at the counter with her. She still orders ropa vieja. The schoolgirl is gone. And yet my mother lingers.