A Mothers Sacrifice – A Letter to the Daughter of an Immigrant by Denise A. Castro

I was born into a world of privilege and boundless opportunities. I am free to express myself and now serve as a mother to a two-year-old boy and soon a baby girl. It’s nothing short of one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had. Not like my best actress apprentice award in drama club, or best rated photographer two years in a row or highly effective employee of the year in a construction and real estate industry – highly dominated by the opposite sex. Those are all trifles, yet kind reminders that part of who I was and still am are worthy. I do constantly remind myself at times, about the woman I was; and the woman that stares back at me in the hand smudged mirror. Close up; you can see fingerprints. Tiny traces of toddler DNA that I helped create. I smile; this is Motherhood. A transformative vessel; growing them in your womb; pushing them into a new world with only your familiar heartbeat to guide them. They grow at the speed of light – transforming into beings with their own thoughts and personality. My son was born into a Cuban American family and that swells my heart with pride.

My great grandmother was an immigrant. Born in Amarilla, Matanzas, Cuba, on December 11, 1906. She was the love of my great grandfather’s life. They married and started a new life on the island of Cuba. She had two children and died in childbirth after delivering her daughter at 24 years old. When I was a little girl I used to stare at her portrait. A sepia print taken by a Kodak Graflex camera. She sits to one side in a drop waist dress just below the knees. The pattern gleams to suggest some sort of silk. Pinned on the left shoulder of her dress blooms a chiffon and satin rose. Her feet are crossed, proudly styling her leather Mary Janes. Her face is cocked to one side, and she’s not smiling. Her full lips filled with rouge, but tightlipped. Her eyes are bright and blazing with life. Her hair styled in a wavy bob showing an intricate slicked curl in front of her earlobe.  I always picture her on that chair. Arms apart, right hand holding the arm rest and left hand folded, holding a long necklace of fresh-water pearls. Her hand is folded for a reason, for it was smaller than her right. She suffered from Dupuytren’s disease – a condition that causes hand deformity. Which then turned into a genetic predisposition for my grandmother’s hands. Her thumbs are short and the nail square – identified as Bachydactyly type D. She passed this on genetically. Would my grandmother look down at her hands and think of her? Perhaps it gives her some comfort in its genetic similarity. My grandmother always longed to meet her, see her, feel her and know she did exist. Being separated from your mother after being born is truly devastating. A pain I never truly understood until I became a mother myself.

I try to picture all the adversities my great-grandmother must’ve endured as a woman born into the Victorian era and uprooted on the island of Cuba to escape the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes the eyes in her portrait look into mine almost to say – Motherhood is sacrifice. Childbirth alone in that time was incredibly dangerous. To birth children and remain alive was true luck. My grandmother Delia, her daughter, helped raise me. She migrated to the United States with her husband, two daughters and father. I had the privilege of meeting my great grandfather Calixto and he lived a full life until he passed in 1996. I used to practice my ABC’s outside in my grandmother’s back porch and he’d watch me from his wheelchair. I’d point to my little chalkboard, letter by letter, and laugh. He would only reply the alphabet in Spanish. How silly of him, I’d think to my six-year-old self. He will never learn English this way! When we’d get to the letter L, his mind would pause in reflection, eyes drifting, fighting the fog of his dementia. He’d say L, Lau-de-lina. In my child mind this only meant he was calling my Mom, for she bore her name. Thinking back now, he was calling my bisabuela (great grandmother), Laudelina.

When I was in labor with my son, I was in and out of sleep, drugged with Pitocin and two failed epidurals.  I remember in my hallucinations a sepia like figure standing over me with green eyes saying, “Despiertate niña, ya es hora.” (“Wake up girl, it’s time”) in my mother’s voice. Perhaps it was Abuela Laudelina coming to me in my birthing hour. I was so physically and mentally exhausted that I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. I do remember forgetting it completely after they placed my son on me. My body re-awoke fighting the sedation. My blood turning into hot lava flowing through my veins, enabling my limbs to hold my newborn son. Even while being stitched up and seeing my bloody placenta in front of me – I was unfazed. My baby was breathing on my chest – on his own. In that moment I truly understood the meaning of sacrifice. Being a mother is selfless.

My grandmother Delia was born on November 10, 1930, in Cabaiguan, Cuba. She was delivered by my great aunt, a family mid-wife at my family’s home. Hours later, my Abuela Laudelina suffered an internal uterine hemorrhage and passed away. I think of her often, and now more than ever. I wish I could see her olive-green eyes, which my Aunt Mabel now has. They are kind and expressive. Eyes you appreciate. Love transcends from them as they look down at your child. I wish I could ask her about her beautiful hair and how she managed to look so elegant and composed. Traits my grandmother clearly inherited. My grandmother never leaves the house without lipstick on. I feel as if my great-grandmother was kind like my mother, for my great grandfather used to say that she had the patience of a saint and my mother’s patience is endless. My mother has her name. A beautiful way to commemorate her. I want to hold her hands in mine and tell her I’m proud of her, for not concealing her left hand. Everyone knows that back then any deformities were frowned upon. I wish I could ask her what kind of mother she aspired to be and her true sentiments of birthing a son and later a daughter. I wish I could ask her if she was afraid of childbirth not knowing her own life was the sacrifice. I wish that writing her story it reaches her somehow, showing her how much she mattered.

I may have never met my great-grandmother in the flesh, but I know her legacy lives on. She was a beautiful daughter, mother, wife and immigrant. My grandmother always recounts her story with pride; clutching to the notion that she held her in her arms before parting this world. I will never be able to repay you for all that you willingly gave us. You uprooted your life and started a new one on the island of Cuba. You married my great-grandfather, one of the strongest people I knew, who found the will to raise two children without you. You birthed your daughter who lives and just fought breast cancer this year. You gave your family the strength to immigrate once again to the U.S. and flee a communist regime. All this was possible with your conviction. My opportunities are a direct parallel to your sacrifice. I am here because of you. I honor your motherly abundance – that which breathed life into your children. I display your same genes in my body with great fulfillment. Your heritage and memory live on and when I look upon your portrait your eyes will say, “You will find yourself in the sacrifices you make.”

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