There is a palpable exhaustion in the air. Many of us are beginning to emerge from the constraints of the pandemic. I am going to ask you to sit in my mental boat, and gently rock from side to side, and endlessly ask yourself, “Who do I want to be in this version of the world?”
I have been thinking a lot about birth, being reborn, changing identities through various stages of aging. When I first read the description of Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener’s memoir on motherhood, Nine Moons (published in paperback this year by Restless Books and translated from Spanish by Jessica Powell), I knew I was not in for any kind of traditional narrative.
As I read this book, which tracks the nine months of pregnancy over the course of nine chapters, I kept correlating her gestational progress to the timeline of change I felt in the pandemic. It is a far stretch if you think too much about the two different subject matters, but Wiener is not just talking about getting ready for motherhood—she is diving deep into the expectations of who she is expected to be now that she is becoming one. On a cellular level, I felt the detachment, scientific inquisitiveness, fear, and bewilderment Wiener felt as she became the vessel, the world for her baby. But for me, it was also for my world changing around me, closing in, and becoming a host for something scary and strange.
Near the beginning of Nine Moons, Wiener writes, “Books don’t prepare you for what’s coming.” She may have been talking about pregnancy manuals, but holding her book in my hands, I thought that if they didn’t prepare you, they could at least comfort you in a sea of uncertainty.
Grab an extra cup of coffee and enjoy your Small Plate. See you soon.
— Ashley Perez, Small Plates Editor
In the first image I have of my mother, she’s aiming a gun at me. It’s not a metaphorical image but a real one. She’s about ten in the black and white photo and my grandfather is helping her hold up the gun and she’s looking off into some point in the distance and the gun is aimed straight at the camera. My old photo album begins with that photo. I don’t know why it’s in there. I think I stole it from my grandfather’s photo album. I liked the irony of that image: a little girl in her Sunday best learning how to shoot a gun with her father. A girl who would become my mother. In the next photo in the album, there’s the same girl, with almost the same sweet expression, nursing a baby. A baby that was me. They took that photo of my mother in the hospital, the day after she gave birth. My mom looks tired but happy, like in diaper ads. While I nurse intently, my tiny, dark hand clutching her breast, just a small, black head squeezed between a teat and the world, she’s looking at my father, his hair in a 70s style, and she’s saying something to him.
In another photo, I had transformed into a flower with pink petals and a red stem for a school play. I remember that my mother had made me that costume and, since she hadn’t been able to find the regulation green tights, she had lovingly made me a pair of green crepe paper pants that ripped the first time I bent over, thus revealing my red underpants. I was very embarrassed but what kid dressed as a flower isn’t? I finally found the photo I was looking for: the one of the field trip to Chosica in first grade, the photograph of humiliation. In the background are my classmates, including my best friend, enjoying a swim in the pool and laughing raucously; in the foreground: me, fully dressed, with two pigtails and the saddest face I’ve ever seen in my entire life, hugging the bronze statue of the little angel who’s watering the pool with his penis. I had a cold. I remember that my parents had generously agreed to let me go on the field trip but they didn’t want me to swim in the pool for fear I’d get worse.
I decided several things about my future that day: I would never make a costume for my child, I would never send him on a field trip with a cold, and I would teach him how to shoot.
The symbolic return to my mother’s house grew intense when a slight pain in my back that I’d had since Barcelona turned debilitating due to inflammation of my sciatic nerve. Sciatica is fairly common among women entering the third trimester and up to thirty percent of pregnant women suffer from it. It’s a pain that begins in your butt and radiates down your leg. Apparently, the muscles in my back had contracted because of the sudden excess weight, and my sedentariness had only made the problem worse. My fetus was putting pressure on the nerve and I was being torn apart. Added to this was the intense pain in the so-called “pelvic floor,” that is, the pubis and the vagina, due to the twisting of the ligaments. In other words, my pelvis was expanding thanks to a hormone called “Relaxin,” in order to prepare the way for that big head. The average space between the bones of a non-pregnant woman is between 4 and 5 millimeters and, during pregnancy, it’s normal for that space to expand by 2 to 3 millimeters. An insignificant figure that nevertheless made me go berserk.
It came as no surprise to me that my mother would take over responsibility for the lame daughter who must once again depend on others after years of self-management abroad. The first thing she did was to take me to her most trusted doctor’s office: The Peruvian-Japanese Polyclinic. After a decade of fujimorismo, certain habits had become very deeply entrenched. The main one in this situation was that the clinic wasn’t expensive and they offered physical therapy. So there I was, at the climax of my vacation, waiting my turn and talking to my mother in a room filled with people who used orthopedic products.
“You were born with jaundice. Your entire body was orange and they took you away from me and I didn’t see you until the next day.”
Jaundice causes an abnormal yellow color due to an excess of bilirubin in the blood that a newborn’s liver is unable to process. It’s treated with phototherapy (exposure to light) and, in its mildest form, it lasts only a few days. Almost all babies have it, and my baby probably would too.
“I didn’t know what I felt when I saw you.”
“You didn’t feel love right away?”
“No. I just wanted nothing bad to happen to you and I waited for you so I could hug you and protect you.”
“Sort of an animal reaction…”
“Yes, like an animal with its young. I’m sure that night you spent without me you missed me and that’s where the poet was born.”
My mother has always believed that I’m a poet. Even though she would give anything for me to go back to writing poems and cultural pieces, I always end up giving her to read the dirty things I write today in order to hide my sappy side. Back at home after the clinic, I started looking through one of my trunks again. Finally, I found the yellowing piece of paper, jaundice-colored. It was a letter that my mother had written to me in utero while she was pregnant. Now she believed in the Virgen de las Manzanas, the Andean Apus and Deepak Chopra, but in those days when she was carrying me in her belly, she was a die-hard union leader who fought alongside my father in some leftist political party and I was the seed of that revolutionary love, merely an idea to believe in, another utopia:
The letter said:
Son or daughter:
Your parents are political, they are policy makers, but things aren’t easy on this front, as we’ll explain; I’ll tell you that this quest is what drives and marks our lives. Forgive us, then, if the emotional tension, the burdens and anger that men and women of action must suffer, have affected you. But we don’t want you to be a sad boy or girl; your father and I are not sad either. We know, and you will have felt this, that there are times when we behave like children, we fool around, we laugh, it makes us happy to see a lovely flower whose shape and color give us a feeling of sweetness. I hope that you will experience many more of these moments than solely the ones we give to you. But do you know what should make you truly happy? That neither your dad nor your mom live a bland life; we are passionate, we cannot tolerate injustice or treachery and, especially, cowardice. What will you be like, my son or daughter…?
In my mother’s letter full of idealism, affirmation and hope, I am the only question mark.
At night, I limped to her room and got in her bed. She was asleep. I whispered in her ear or dreamed that I was whispering: “This is how I am, Mom, it doesn’t make me happy to look at a flower, I’m not a woman of action but I’m not sad either.”
She woke me up very early to do my physical therapy exercises, which consisted of bouncing on an enormous ball. I don’t know what, but something didn’t hurt so much anymore.
And that’s how I lost my sovereignty and, from that moment on, gave myself over completely to the game of being hers once again.
The bad part was that we didn’t have much time left. In three days, I was going back to Spain. Once again, out of her strawberry patch forever.