I spent most of my 20s breaking myself down, tearing myself apart, ripping the threads off seams, trying to uncover things I didn’t know about myself, trying to fix dysfunction, trying to get to the root of problems, trying to be the best person I could be.
Often it involved tearing apart my parents, questioning how they raised me, questioning the morals and values they instilled in me. I would frequently come to them with questions that many times they didn’t have answers to. I forced them to answer questions about their past and childhood. I would constantly have honest conversations with them about things that I wanted to change in our relationship and how we could all be better people.
My 20s were hard for my family and me as well, as they saw me change and grow and mold myself into a better but very changed person.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what makes me who I am, what am I composed of? What are the contents of my heart? What is my character, my interests, my morals, and what makes me grounded? What is the very essence of who I am? These questions have led me to think about the influences on my life. I tend to focus on the negative ones, but lately I’ve been homing in on the positive ones.
And as I go deeper and deeper in this journey, I am beginning to see just how much of an impact my mother has had on me.
I see just how much I am a reflection of who she is. She’s imparted so much good in my life. Even if I hate to admit that I am who I am in large part because of her. She’s planted seeds for some of my best qualities.
I don’t think inside the box. I never did. I don’t fit in. I never did. I always felt I was destined to experience more than whatever was presented in front of me. & it’s because of her. My most broad interests, my out-of-reach thoughts, my faith in impossible circumstances are from the things that my mother showed and exposed me to from a young age. I think expansively because of her.
This letter is for her.
My earliest memory of smell is that of “nature” because of my mother. She smelt like nature to me, and I would always tell her that. I think that’s what ties me to my love of being outdoors. I love trees. I love having my feet in the soil. I love the smell of the streets after heavy rainfall. Because it reminded me of her scent, I can’t explain it, but that’s what she smelled like to me, she smelled like earth, she smelled pure, she smelled clean, vibrant, safe, nurturing. I would come home from a long day of afterschool activities and she’ll be in bed relaxing or cooking in the kitchen, and I’ll just put my head in her bosom and say, “mommy, you smell like nature.”
I have so many fond memories like this. Her holding me in her chest and saying, “what does mommy smell like?” and I replied, “nature, momma.” I imagine that whenever I chase experience out in mother nature or craving the smell of being outdoors, it is tied to the comfort I feel in the bosom of my mother’s love.
I want to say that my love of books is because I’m this great thinker! That my love of gaining knowledge and new information is because “I’m so deep.” But it isn’t it’s her.
So many of my earliest memories are visiting bookstores across the city with my mother. We most enjoyed centering our dinners in the city around the closet Barnes Noble’s or used bookstores that no one else knew about. We had a routine; if there were a restaurant, boutique, or even a movie theatre we wanted to check out, we would meet first meet at the nearest Barnes and Noble or bookstore. If not before, then we would hold our desire to buy new books until after dinner, so we could walk off our big meals before we got on the train ride home.
No matter where I was coming from, whether it was from boarding school, college, a job, or some academic program, she would always say, “meet me, the Barnes and Noble.” It was our thing. We were a team, how we took down each bookstore aisle. Our method was to look at the “best sellers table, then the newest releases shelf, and then go down each aisle of interest. We checked out the title, the cover, read the summary, and then read maybe a page or two. Within 30 minutes, we would have huge stacks of books in our arms and discuss which ones we would purchase. We didn’t have to talk much either during this process; we had a strategy.
Being bibliophiles was how we bonded. Throughout my life, I have seen my mom read at least a book a week or two a week (on top of reading the newspaper) on vastly different topics. She was always so interested, always so excited, and so enthralled in the subject of what she was reading. Ready to explain what the book was about and why I should read it next.
Something else, I read fast. I think it’s from reading a lot, but maybe it’s a tad bit genetic? If it is genetic, it is from her too. She’s one of the fastest readers I know. Send her a long email…expect an immediate reply with her addressing everything single topic in the email she originally received. Or pass her something to read on your phone or a magazine article. She picks it up, looks at it, and in what feels like seconds, she hands it back. I would always say, “ma! Serious, did you really read that fast?”. She would reply, yes, and then give me a five-minute synopsis on what she just read. She’s brilliant.
Food. Food might be the single most important thing in my life (outside of the people I love, of course). My deep interest in food is a hobby at this point. An expensive one that I take it seriously. This hobby involves learning about different cuisines, sourcing ingredients, taking cooking classes, collecting interesting recipes, subscribe to food magazines, and determining where my next travel destination is because of a restaurant I want to check out (it’s a whole lifestyle). The only other person who takes food as seriously as I do is my mom.
You see, she gets it; she gets that food is intrinsically tied to culture and identity. She taught me that how we eat is a result of our generational history. Food traditions come from struggle and also love.
My mother instilled my deep appreciation for exploring the world and learning about people, traditions, and cultures by exploring cuisines. Whatever she cooked a Panamanian dish, she explained why our people cooked it the way it did and if it was from my African, Caribbean, Indigenous, or Spaniard ancestry.
From a young, I can find pictures of myself and my siblings at different food and cultural fairs and parades throughout the city. I have many memories of going to various festivals in NYC and trying food from multiple tables or carts.
My life is filled with memories of going to bastille day, midtown BBQ food festival, NYC restaurant week, or any obscure random food event.
There are also memories of going to our favorite Malaysian, Brazilian, Ecuadorian, Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, Moroccan, French, experimental fusion, or any other international restaurant in the city. It’s how we explored the world together if we couldn’t physically leave the country to travel. In Middle school, if we couldn’t eat out, then we consumed shows like Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmer. I can hear her now “nagi, Anthony Bourdain is in Singapore; we have to watch it!” I never missed a date to watch his show with her.
I am a student of this world. I feel like I should have access to explore this world if I see fit. I travel because I see it as my birthright. This is from my mother too. She taught me from a young age how it was essential to see and know the world.
That there was a world outside of my neighborhood, my borough, my city, my country. This is partly because she is the child of immigrants, and she grew up in Panama for some of her adolescence and because her parents told her that the world was too big to stay in one place out of fear. She grew up knowing she had family worldwide, people that left what was familiar for better opportunities.
I used to sit at her feet and soak up stories of her visits to Barcelona as a child. I remember her tales of the air in certain streets in Barcelona smelling like olive oil as all the Spanish housewives cooked lunch for their spouses and children. I savored her memories of going to bars during the day in Barcelona, as her uncle enjoyed a quick drink, and she ate from fresh bowls of olives and nuts. Or that her Spanish neighbors called her Pippi Longstocking because of the two plaits she wore her hair in. My mother made me crave experiences outside of my home, outside of my neighborhood.
I explore, not because I was born brave, but because she taught me to be brave. In high school, I watched her put her spirit of exploration to the test. I watched her begin her solo journeys around the world. She traveled from country to country, bringing back stories, keychains, clothes, art, and unique souvenirs to share with me.
She didn’t wait for my dad or a friend to travel the world or to discover the unknown. And neither do I. I can see her now, burying herself in piles of Fodors travel books, with a pen in hand. Or walking around with her little language books practicing Italian or French.
No matter where I am, I peer out if there is a window, and I find myself imagining I was somewhere else. In high school, college, and as I studied for the MCAT post-grad, I would just stare out the library windows and think of myself in a faraway place, just knowing that one day that I would live a life abroad, knowing that there was more for me besides what was familiar. My mother taught me that—the ability to dream and to wonder and to imagine.
Connection. I think we are all connected, despite our differences. Many don’t understand this; they focus on what separates us. Not my mom. She told me this explicitly but also showed me this. In her daily interactions, I saw her connecting with people from a different world than hers. She can converse with anyone and make them feel instantly comfortable enough to share their whole life story. She probably holds a conversation with a log or a rock with enough practice! My mother probably has the most eclectic group of friends on earth: from a quirky 6ft tall woman from Israeli, a Jewish ex yoga teacher turned social worker from the east village, an 80-year-old widow from El Salvador, a God-fearing woman from Jamaica that wears all white, or a Celia Cruz impersonator from Puerto Rico, her friendships run the gambit of possibilities. I love hearing her tell me stories about her friends, like their culture or interesting aspects of their childhood.
If she saw a documentary about Colombia, she made sure to fact-check the film’s information with one of her friends from Colombia. She didn’t take a film makers opinion as fact; she wanted to hear and learn from people themselves. She knows that people are unique. She tells me that every person wants to tell their story, and I have learned to be true. Anywhere I am, I find myself in long-winded conversations, despite language barriers, cultural differences, and religious differences. I’ve learned to connect with almost anyone with a simple question or a simple comment or eye contact. And I knew that from her.
I would like to think that my ability to find humor in almost anything is from my grit and resilience. But that’s not the whole story, is it? I remember my parents having heated arguments, then looking at each other, and suddenly bursting out laughing because one of them else said something hilarious to diffuse the situation. I have memories of my mother laughing and making a joke at almost anything. She can find humor in pain. It’s how we survived; it’s how we got through life’s traumatic moments. Our spirit in darkness has strengthened our bond with each other. She’s funny, she’s witty, and I’ve been told I am too.
Family pride and love of my family’s history is because of her. She always let me know I won’t know where I am headed if I don’t know where I came from. I have probably heard my mom say hundreds of times:
“you must remember [insert ancestors name], and they used to say…”
“…or they use to do this…”
“or they were from…”
“Remember this. This is your oral history.”
From her, I know where my ancestors are from, where they were born, why they immigrated, their personality, their saying. I understand why my granny cooked a certain way or just how much my grandmother prayed daily. I know from her the importance of nostalgia, the importance of giving an ode to the history and culture of people who made me who I am.
It’s no surprise I love writing and storytelling. She is an orator.
My story of how much my mother has made an impact on my life can fill books.
I love research because since she got access to online magazines and newspapers, she has sent me daily New York Times articles or links to websites about random topics to my yahoo inbox (that I have still yet to read through thoroughly).
I love long road trips because every weekend, she made my dad take us on some exciting weekend trip she read about in the New Yorker of some small town or place to buy lobster rolls that we had to check out. Being on the road, crossing bridges, paying tolls, looking up at the sky, debating (arguing) about some random topic in the car was all while we drove in the car for hours to some destination because of her.
I love walking because she always said, “Why take the train if you can walk.” Even if this meant walking in the middle of Paris during its worst winter ever, with Banana Republic shoes a size two small. (I couldn’t feel my pinky toe of my feet for a year after.)
I am comfortable growing my body hair to whatever I please because she wasn’t ashamed of having some leg or armpit hair on the beach.
I love history because of her, I appreciate the need to preserve the past. She taught me this as we went to exhibits all over the world: the MOMA, the Schomburg, OMCA in Oakland, or museums thousands of miles away like in Shanghai or Canada.
I have a voice, a strong one because of her. She taught me to never be scared to ask questions. I remember how she encouraged me to ask questions after academic lectures at places like the Brooklyn Museum or when we had an after-show talk back with the cast of “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway. I would be nervous, but she encouraged me to bold.
I know I am intelligent because she always reminded me.
I have confidence because she showed me how a woman of confidence moves through the world.
I have discernment and self-belief because she always reminded me to follow my gut and that God speaks to me directly.
I learned a job is not just a job, but it’s where you exercise your passion.
Ive been taught to do jobs that give me purpose, that helps others, and enriches the people around us.
For my mother its not about the money, and its the same for me, as I turn down career opportunity after career opportunity because its not fulfilling.
She taught me this, as I saw her get her finish her bachelors degree while raising young children, then gain her Masters in Gerontology and work her way up from a Secretary to Case Worker to homeless seniors then to the Executive Director of a network of senior centers in Harlem.
She moves forward and so will I.
She does not stop dreaming, and neither will I.
She dreams for more in her career, and took the bold move in her 50s to pivot her career into prison reformation.
Then there are tiny but significant things only a mother and daughter can have in common: like our love of colorful gemstones and large sunflowers.
I thank my mom for who she is and who she made me.
Recently, after an emotional conversation we had on the phone, my mother emailed me and wrote, “You occupy part of my soul…” I was touched she felt that about me, because sitting here writing this letter I see that I think that way too. But my mom does not only occupy part of my soul… but she is why I have a soul and the soul that I have. And I thank her for that.