In my writing and reading life, I thank as “family”: Cervantes, whose Don Quijote battled lies with the swords of the imagination; García Márquez, whose notes from life “helped themselves to coincidences forbidden to fiction”; Isabel Allende whose magical humor lends resilience in tragedy. And as I write these days in a vein of the “fantastic” in my novel, I include Julio Cortázar, with his alternating currents of glittering worlds.
But those to whom I really owe my love of literature and writing are my dear parents: my mother Celia, professor and poet and my father Daniel, teacher and scientist. I devote this modest piece to them in thanks.
When I was a preschooler, my parents taught me to read and write in Spanish, my first language. We were an immigrant family, from an agricultural province in Argentina, across the Andes from Chile. Letters in Spanish were a roundtrip to our origins.
Every evening, home from his lab testing the sugar content of oranges, my dear father set before me on our flecked formica table a slim blue Spanish primer filled with rounded letters. We pushed to the limit my four-year-old’s attention span on steadfast Spanish vowels immune to the mutations of English. In the primer, the syllables “Ma, me, mi, mo, mu ” never changed, no matter which consonants they hugged. Mi mamá me mima—these were sounds as unfailing, as loyal and familiar as parents intent raising well their daughter in a new and unfamiliar country.
My father’s approach to education was one of infinite patience—for us both. His modality was tried and true: rote choral repetition, which evolved to involve dictionaries, an infinite number. Every time I open one, I see mi papá: laughing gray eyes, engineer’s glasses, thinning black hair, white shirt with an ivory slide rule in his pocket.
While I started school not knowing English, thanks to my father’s Spanish vowel drills, I became a star speller in Spelling Bees, always picked first.
My mother had a more organic approach to education. At the time of our vowel drills, my mother launched a Spanish preschool in our little stucco house in a sleepy California town. One afternoon mamá, always formal in a waist cinched dress—never in pants—set out a stack of green and yellow Crayola boxes for her new little students due the next day.
“Write your name on one!” my mother ordered, brown eyes enthusiastic. In those days she wore strong red lipstick, which gave her an “official” going to work quality. But at that moment, she had left a red half-moon on a teacup, so she was just natural “mamá.”
Eager to stake my claim in the school we would soon have in our home, I chose a box from from the top of the stack. My mother left me to write as she set up activity stations for preschoolers. I took a black crayon and wobbled letters across the top of the eight crayon box.
Holding up my work for my mother’s approval I said, “This my name, right?” I figured I had written either “Carolina,” in honor of my grandmother— or the English version of my name, “Carol.”.
Looking up absently from a Little Golden book, my mother examined my work, shook her head “no.” I took that to mean I was expected to try again—on a fresh box.
“Is this my name?” I asked again, holding up another Crayola box—with different letters .
Pushing our second-hand beige sofa against a wall to make room for a play area in the living room, my mother studied my “name” over her shoulder. “No,” she enunciated.
I knew it was a matter of time before I hit on the right set of vowels and consonants.
The same painstaking writing in crayon repeated itself. The same abstracted “no” came from my busy mother.
I decided to just tackle every sing box and present them all for inspection in one fell swoop at the end. At that point my mother was vacuuming or running the faucet over the lunch dishes or the teacup with the half-moon of red.
After an hour of making geometric black letters running the gamut of the alphabet as I knew it—mostly vowels, there were no unmarked Crayolas left. I had filled twelve boxes. (They weren’t even actual words, I found out from my father that night.)
My mother sat next to me as I showed her each box, gently but matter of factly explaining that I had not hit on the spelling of my name.
I had failed. And I was old enough to know my future fellow preschoolers wouldn’t appreciate black marks over their brand new crayon boxes.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I see now that I had learned the dogged never say die effort from my dear father’s devotion to rote repetition . Keep going he had taught me. Plod on.
To this day I’m grateful that during those first repeated failed stabs at writing, my mother never sat down to help me write my name. She gave me—and taught me, well before the first class of her long, distinguished university teaching career—the value of freedom in writing, if not “nonsense,” then in Spanish “disparates,”what is different, disparate—yet still significant.
Years later, after publishing several books of poetry in Mexico, my mother found her handwriting in a grocery list in English she thought was a forgotten poem of hers in Spanish. The first line was “Soy sauce”—in Spanish: “I am a willow.” This mix up would teach me that while crucial, reading, writing are not to be taken so seriously that we are afraid of the “disparates.”
Celebrating the “disparate” in Cervantes, García Márquez, Allende, Cortázar— most of all, in the wisdom of my beloved Celia Correas y Daniel Zapata—I thank all who are “family” in the world of letters.
Gracias, mamá. Gracias, papá.