If your new here, these are series of letters I started writing to my daughter before she was born. This was the first one, and this is one her Daddy wrote her. I wrote about her birth story here and I seem to write a lot about raising a bilingual and bicultural daughter and hardest part of motherhoods . These are my way to capture and remember parts of her life and I invite you to read along. This may be last “Dear Mija” letter for awhile, but I am sure I’ll come back to it.
In June we celebrated your first birthday. (And our first year has parents! Let’s be honest, both are equally important.)
Elena, you say “Dada” first thing every morning, you are starting to give real besitos and you would eat black beans by the spoonful if we let you. I am convinced the Guatemalan side of you will always prefer to sleep right between me and Daddy and it’s a good thing we live in a country where no one bats an eye if you breastfeed your walkin’, talkin’, toddler because that very well may be us. Your favorite things are doggies, agua and signing “more.” Maybe in that order.
Anytime you see a doggie you make the cutest little “ruff ruff” sound. Oddly in Guatemala, the toilet paper brand Scott has a cute golden retriever as its logo. So you often walk down the supermarket aisle pointing and barking.
Before you said “mama” or “dada” you said “agua.” And it’s still your favorite thing. Washing your hands, taking a shower, playing in the pool…as long as there is water involved you’re a happy camper. We’ve started teaching you signs for “more” and “all-done” around 7 or 8 months and I was convinced that you could care less. And then one day around 11 months or so you ago you just got it! It’s like it clicked and you started signing “more” ALL. THE. TIME. More agua. More beans. More nena. More books. More, more, more.
When I tell you it’s time to go “night night” you grab your monkey or your nena and start to pat their back and say “shhhh.” It’s pretty much the cutest thing ever. You now sleep in a small corner of your room on the floor, surrounded by pillows and blankets. We call it your nest, and ironically you sleep better now then you ever did in your crib.
You wave to people we see on the street and you love playing with and poking other kids. We’re working on more of the former and less of the latter. You have always liked noise and activity and being out and about. When we go to a birthday party or out with friends you’re as content as can be. But the moment I get you in the car you start to fuss and cry and basically melt down. When you meet someone new you usually give them a stare down at first. When someone talks to you, you listen with your eyes. Serious, focused and intent. When you trust someone you usually grab their hand and a cautious smile comes across your face.
Without intentionally planning it we got to celebrate your first birthday in both countries. First in California with your US family and then a few weeks later with your Guatemalan family. At Nana and Papa’s house your Auntie Christine and Stephanie decorated with an etsy banner that matched the circus theme.
Nana bought Animal Crackers and delicious cupcakes and everything was red, white and yellow. We ate grilled cheese sandwiches on sourdough bread with onions and veggies and drank fancy drinks through pretty straws.
You sat on the floor in your red birthday dress and loved trying frosting for the first time. You opened gifts and tore paper and played with the envelopes while I read your birthday cards.
You are so loved by your family in the states. Your Uncle Andrew was there and Grandma Charlotte came by. I so badly want you to have memories in that home where I grew up. I look forward to the day when you say, “I want go to Nana and Papa’s house.”
In Guatemala a few weeks later, I picked up some balloons and a “Feliz Cumpleanos” banner at the Bodegona. I had you dressed in jeans and little blouse, but when we got to Mama Hiya’s house she surprised us with a huipil and corte that she made just for you. Your Aunt Mimi got you dressed and everyone said how beautiful you looked.
You didn’t look so sure about your new wardrobe, but you were a good sport. Your abuela made pepian for the whole family and we drank rosa de jaimca.
We had a huge Winnie the Pooh piñata, which I think your cousins were more excited about than you were. We sang to you and ate cake and drank Pepsi.
I made your “cake” with banana bread and cocoa date frosting and gave you water. Sorry, Mija…if I can hold off giving you soda for a little bit longer I will.
And you are so loved by your family in Guatemala.
I love watching you grab your cousins’ hands and walk around the home where your Daddy grew up. I look forward to you learning things about your Guatemalan heritage, things that I can’t teach you.
Elena, as you get older we’ll probably have our own birthday celebrations here at home. And I have a feeling we’ll take some traditions from both families. I imagine you may always want a piñata and ya know, the Bodegona has some half-decent decorations on the 2nd level. Your Daddy and I may get you a gift or two and let you choose a new birthday outfit. I will probably make some half-healthy snacks and I think pretty straws are sometimes fun. I imagine as you grow up we will keep finding ways to honor and celebrate you, and where you come from and who you are.
Elena, each year on your birthday I want you to remember three words:
strong, kind and grateful.
These are three words I hope to teach you and model for you. Three words that I pray over you and the one day you’ll look back and say, my mama taught me how to be strong, kind and grateful.
I want you to be strong in who you are. I want you to have an inner strength to know where you come from and how deeply loved you are. I pray that your strength comes not from what you do or what you achieve but from a deep trust in God. My hope is that your strength allows you take risks, and be the kind of girl who who stands up for what you know is right and is willing to sometimes do the hard thing.
I also want you to be kind. This is something that I have had to learn how to be. Sometimes I think being a first-born means we learn to be bossy and brave, but kindness gets buried underneath being in charge. Elena, my sweet girl I want you to be kind to people, kind to the boy or girl at school who other kids make fun and kind to the old lady you see in the park. Kindness is kind of like of a muscle, the more you use if the stronger it becomes.
Lastly, and maybe more most importantly, I want you to be grateful. I want you to be grateful when we sit on plastic stools and are served caldo de galina, even if it’s not your favorite. I want you to be grateful for the home we have and the privileges that will have. I think you can either choose to live life complaining about little things, or being grateful for the big things. I hope we can always choose the latter.
Elena, I know if I want you to be a strong, kind and grateful girl, then I need to model that. So on your birthday, this is also a reminder to myself, too. Because the truth is I want to be a strong, kind and grateful mother.
Whenever Daddy asks you, “Cuantos anos, Elena?” you hold up your little pointer finger ever so proudly. Uno!
Yes, my dear you’re one. And sometimes I want to bottle up your little finger, and chubby legs and sweet smile and say, stay my one-year-old baby forever. But then I remember what a gift it is to watch you grow and change and learn. And how being your mom is one of my favorite things ever. So here’s to a lifetime of celebrating your birthday…and making me a mom.
I love you, Elena.
All my love,
P.S. Here’s a little quick 15-second look at the past 12 months, month-by-month!
Most evenings before heading up to bed, I start a load of laundry.
The water fills the basin; I toss in half a cup of liquid soap.
I dump in the pile of dirty clothes and washcloths and towels that sit in the basket. Why are there always so many dirty washcloths?
I close the lid, turn off the light and walk up the stairs, careful not to trip on the one uneven stairs at the top.
At least while I am sleeping one thing will get done.
But I can’t help but feel a twinge of tension. The tension that comes from knowing privilege.
It’s the privilege that allows a machine to do my laundry while I sleep.
It’s the same privilege that allows me to turn on the faucet any time of day knowing very well that water will come out, when many in my community fill up buckets because for them water is not a guarantee.
Or the privilege that comes from living with the physical and emotional security of a door with a lock. I have never lived in a place without both of those.
In most countries, at least the one where I am from and the one where I live, the color of my skin gives me immediate privilege. I know because my husband’s skin color does not afford him the same. We have both felt it.
It would be silly for me to deny the privilege that I have.
Privilege that means I am not forced to choose between buying food for my family or buying medicine. I can have both without so much as a second thought. Can you imagine the heartache a young mother or father must feel when forced to chose? I cannot.
Privilege that means when it rains, it’s an inconvenience for me at best. I may get wet or an outdoor party may get canceled. But my crops or livelihood have never been dependent on the weather. Never.
Maybe the danger of living a life of privilege is how quickly it can disconnect us from the people and the places where we live.
The longer I live outside of the US, the more this tension grows. I don’t think it means we’re supposed to live in guilt and pity. That never helped anyone. However, I don’t think living in denial or ignorance is the answer, either. As with most good things in life there is something about living in between. Or better yet maybe learning to live with the tension.
A Suspension Bridge
I don’t know about you, but living with tensions sounds, quite frankly, horrible and hard.
The only kind of tension that I know is good is the kind that holds up a suspension bridge.
A bridge needs tension to remain suspended. And I often wonder if we need a healthy dose of tension in our life to remain upright. Tension that reminds us that we are in fact connected to each other and the resources in the earth. A tension that pulls on our hearts and minds because maybe that’s how God gets our attention.
What if like a suspension bridge, we were meant to live with tension?
Maybe I need to be reminded of the women walking home from working 10 hours at the coffee plantation behind my house. Maybe I need to feel a tension as I watch her two kids following close behind, carrying wood they just collected on their back. Maybe this should always tug at my heart, especially when I am driving my daughter across town for a pool play date at the loveliest spot in Antigua.
I feel this tension when I hop in my air conditioned car and leave our sweet friends in Coyolate. I drive back to the comfort of my two-story home with a bathtub and they stay in their single room home with a dirt floor and corn stalk walls.
I feel this tension when I buy my iced latte, which I thoroughly enjoy for 12 minutes while pushing Elena in the park. But I know what I just spent on my latte is what a farmer in Santa Maria will make for the whole day, on a good day.
It doesn’t mean I drive around feeling guilty, but it does mean I walk around with a tension. And it’s a tension I am learning to live with. And I think the challenge is not to let this tension paralyze you or fill you will pity, but instead move you to action and awareness.
Maybe my examples are extreme. In the US, you don’t have to feel the tension if you don’t want. Here, I find there is no way to escape it. The discrepancy of privilege and class and gender and race are plain as day here. To me the harder of the two was living in the US, because you don’t have to see the inequality or feel the tension if you don’t want to. It’s fairly easy live within the shelter of our self-contained vehicles, where you can avoid certain parts of town or certain groups of people all together.
Richard Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, inventor, and philosopher from the 1800s said, “Tension is the great integrity.” He was talking about architectural design, but perhaps the same holds true for life.
When we pray before a meal, I have started thanking God for the hands that planted the food and those that picked it. Because in many ways I know my life is deeply connected to theirs. I am not naïve. I don’t think a simple prayer or acknowledgement changes some of the deep injustices in the world. But I think it’s a place to start.
Even just paying attention does wonders on the human heart. At least it has for me. Sinking into guilt is too easy, but what if there was another option? What is it that gets your attention? What is that you notice? Is it the men who pick up your trash? Or the young guy who mows your lawn? Is it the kids that walk home from school by themselves? Or single mom that waits at the bus station after dark? Maybe it’s the farmers that work in the hot sun and don’t have access to a drinking fountain? Or sunscreen?
What is that you notice in your town? Pay attention to that. Because what I have found is that choosing to identify with one person, or one cause, is a thousand times better than feeing overwhelmed by all of the causes.
I Will Keep Doing Laundry at Night
When I close the laundry lid at night I often think about what a luxury it is that a machine will wash our clothes. I am grateful for the convenience, for the ease and for the fact that it allows me the privilege to take Elena for a walk or catch up on emails, because I am not spending hours bent over a pila hand washing our clothes.
I know most Guatemalan women or young girls spend their morning at the town pila. I sometimes wonder if some of them too might want a washing machine to wash their clothes at night. Wouldn’t it be nice? I think…if everyone had a washing machine?
But then other times, I realize that I bet some of them may actually feel sorry for me. Sorry that I live in a home far away from my mom and grandma and sisters and brothers. How lonely to do laundry at night, by yourself. Maybe I am the one missing out? Imagine how different your life or your friendships would be if you spent a hour or two each day washing, scrubbing, talking, together. I don’t really have that.
And yet again, I am reminded of the tension. I may have a washing machine, but maybe I lack something deeper.
Like all things in life, by the very nature of gaining something, you have to lose something as well.
There is a tension.
And my prayer is that I can find a small piece of integrity there.
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