It’s the first birthday in 56 years that I won’t hear my mom’s beautiful voice saying to me, “Pretty Nina, how you changed my life the day you were born. I love you so.”
So, my birthday gift this year is to give voice to my mom and pay a small tribute to her and to some of the lovely birthdays she gave to me.
I was born on a Friday, around 10 at night, nine days premature. My mom’s water broke and she knew she’d never make it to the hospital, but my dad insisted they go. I was born on the gurney just outside the hospital entrance. The hospital was so full that they parked my mom in the hallway with me on her stomach. She said we stared at each other for an hour until she could be moved into a room. We came home the next morning.
On my 3rd birthday, she signed me up for ballet lessons, a gift that would last me nearly all my life. I danced professionally for a few years, then gave it up. But I’ve never lost my love of dance, my love of movement, my love of trying to keep the old bod in shape!
On my 6th birthday, she gave me a Siamese cat. That wonderful kitty slept with me, played with me, was my nurse-maid when I was sick, and she lived until I was 24 years old. We were sisters to the end.
On my 8th birthday, we went to Olvera Street in East Los Angeles for Las Posadas celebration. Olvera Street is the oldest section of L.A. and is essentially the birthplace of L.A. It’s a beautiful old Pueblo marketplace with wonderful, local Mexican restaurants, shops, food and art. It was a little scary in those days to venture into East L.A. at night, but Las Posadas was different; the mood was festive and full of people. The nine day novena starts on December 16 and runs through to December 24. You can read all about the tradition on Wikipedia, but one of the most fun parts was for the children to be blindfolded and try to hit the Pinata to release the candy and gifts inside. I’ll never forget the festival that night; the music and dancing and singing showed me a life I had never seen before.
On my 12th birthday, she gave me the most splendid pair of toe shoes. I had been taking ballet since the age of three and had a new pair of toe shoes every year since I was 8 or 9. But that year, I was ready for the “big time.” We went to Hollywood to an ancient woman who made toe shoes by hand. She was Russian and her tiny store smelled of cat piss and burnt coal. She had only a few teeth left and gray hair down past her waist. She was awesome. Those toe shoes were magical…as you can see, I still have them.
On my 16th birthday, after I got my driver’s license at 8:00 that morning, she let me drive off to school in our family station wagon alone. She waved to me as I dipped out of view around the corner. What trust!
On my 21st birthday, she threw a huge party for me with all sorts of surprises, including a dance with my dad to “Moonlight Serenade.” (My father rarely danced; she must have threatened him!) I felt so grown up and so damn lucky to have the parents I had.
On my 24th birthday, my grandmother (my mom’s mother, Lola) was dying. We went to Utah to be with Lola, a touching and sad reunion as she had had her third stroke and no longer really knew who we were. As I was saying goodbye to my grandma, she had a moment of lucidity and touched my head. “Pretty Nina,” she said, “go now, it’s okay.” And she smiled. That night up at Alta (the ski resort my mother grew up in before there were chairlifts–they had to HIKE up the mountain in order to ski down! Egads.), the moon was ringed with a huge halo, and my mom said, “It’s going to snow tomorrow. Make a wish.” It did, and I did.
On my 25th birthday, she took me in after my divorce and let me stay at home until I got back on my feet. She was truly my best friend.
On my 33rd birthday, she moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She and my father divorced after 40 years of marriage and I took her in. She stayed with me in my tiny apartment in Santa Cruz for a couple of months until she got back on her feet. Then she said, “fuck it all, I’m moving to Mexico!” Off she went and lived there for 25 years until her death on January 2, 2011. What courage and chutzpah! She had the best years of her life in San Miguel, riding her horses, having a 10-year affair with a man 15 years her junior, singing, dancing, living life to the fullest. I was so proud of her!
Over the years on my birthdays, she would send me wild Mexican cards that I didn’t quite understand, but she said they were meant for one’s most loved child.
On my 50th birthday, she sent me 50 roses from Mexico…no mean feat from a Latin country to a Mediterranean one!
On my 55th birthday, my mom was dying. I prayed she wouldn’t die on my birthday and when she answered her phone that night, I was elated. We talked about our special days, the times we had together (including our recent visit in San Miguel that previous June when she was diagnosed with liver cancer), family, cats, horses, marriage, so many family memories, all the stuff of life that comes with the undeniable, impenetrable bond between mother and daughter.
She made it through Christmas and we had some great phone conversations. We made it to the night before New Year’s Eve. She sounded so wonderful and told me she was feeling pretty good and was still here!!
The next night, New Year’s Eve, she couldn’t talk. Her wonderful maid, Ireni, who had been with her for 25 years, said that my mamacita was very ill and couldn’t talk, but she could understand. I spoke to her for a few minutes and told her how much I loved her, how much she had taught me–in fact, every elegant and graceful thing in my life came from her–and how much I would miss her. I spoke of the full moon (her absolute passion) and told her that every month for the rest of my life, she would come to visit me and we would be together. She was only able to say, “Yes.”
She died during the night of January 1st-2nd, the most wretched night of my life. But she was with Ireni and her daughters, and surrounded by her best friends in San Miguel. (After my brother and sister and I had been with her the June before she died, she told us she did NOT want us to come back at the end. She wanted all of us to remember our visit and remember her while she was still somewhat healthy.)
So, my birthday gift this year is what I inscribed in my book to her: “For my mom. You gave me my life and your love. I’ll always cherish both.”
Birthday hugs to all.