My Other Mother

Christ on the Cross stares down at me. He’s crowned by thorns and his hooded eyes look out from under the blood/red nail polish-like globs dripping into them. He’s at least three feet tall, pinned to His cross by little silver nails hammered into his crossed ankles and both palms. That look on his face makes me think he’s mad at me, so I try to avoid his painful glare.

I look instead at the glass grapes hanging in a cluster right next to him on the wall opposite my chair at Renee’s kitchen table. They are juicy looking, a deep liquid purple, with ivy-like dusty silk leaves tying the bunch to a hook in the ceiling.

Lots of things hanging here at the Romero’s. We’re busy at work, drafting poster after election poster with clever slogans like: “A Vote for Donna and Renee Means the Class of ’60 is on Its Way”, and “Donna and Renee for Prez and Veep – That’s the Ticket You’re Meant To Keep.” Our Lady of Perpetual Help will be covered with these signs tomorrow – just before the historic election of the Seventh and Eighth Grade Officers.

“Can you believe they are letting girls run this year?” Renee has been twisting a strand of her long brown hair and is absentmindedly sucking on it. “Just in time. The boys in our class are so stupid.”

I use my blue and red poster paint to fill in the block letters of my name on the blank newsprint paper of a new poster and reply, “Sister Boniface didn’t seem too happy about it, did she? She is such a ‘rhymes-with-witch’.”

I whisper this last one, because Renee’s mom, Lillie, is in the kitchen cooking up a big pot of beans. Sounds from Dick Clark’s American Bandstand come from the T.V. in the living room right next to us.

Dick warbles, “Here is Ritchie Valens singing “Oh, Donna”. Ritchie croons with the chorus, “OOOO, DAAAhhana,” and Renee echoes, “Oh, Don-Na, don’t say that about Sister.”

We pad over to the TV set, our bare feet cool against the white Terrazzo tile of her living room, to watch the Couple of the Week dance a slow dance to Ritchie’s song. Renee says, “Look at her cute sweater set – I hate that we have to wear our dippy uniforms and white saddle oxfords.”

I look out the window at the rock wall that separates Renee’s sand and crab-grass filled backyard from the lush green Bermuda grass of the public school yard. Little spiders and lizards run in and out of the crumbling masonry of the wall.

“At least we can wear nylons to the Mass this year.” Renee, always the glass- half-full gal.

“Yeah, I guess.” I add, “I wish I could keep the seams straight, and didn’t feel like I am going to fall off my heels every time I go down to Communion.”

Renee is a lucky duck; she gets to wear one and one half inch heels with her very cool boat neck dress with raglan sleeves. What I wouldn’t give to be the oldest of six kids instead of the baby girl of a mom who makes my clothes from Junior McCall’s patterns and would love to still walk me to school. And her mom looks like Sophia Loren, wears eyeliner and mascara, looks glamorous and very, very beautiful.

After American Bandstand is finished, we move into Renee’s bedroom, the one she shares with her two younger sisters, Dorina and Marina. We sit together on her bed piled with the stuffed animals that we have both been collecting since the fifth grade. Every birthday (hers is just five days before mine) we give each other a new one. Then we take each other out to lunch at the Imperial Palace where we order Fried Shrimp Cantonese. We are sure that we are far more sophisticated that most of the other kids our age because we like shell fish.

I pick up her Autograph Dog, a brown dachshund just like the one she gave me. But hers has more autographs, some of the boys even. That’s because she has boobs already, big boobs on her small frame. She finds them mortifying, but the boys like them. And girls like me are jealous about them. She’ll never be president of the Itty Bitty Titty club.

“Get away from here,” Renee shouts at Victor and Marcos and Richard, when her little brothers try to come into the room. They giggle and step back, standing just outside the doorframe, defiantly.

I look out at them. They are all lined up like some kind of Mexican Von Trapp family, first Marina and Dorina and then all the little boys. I feel like they are my bratty little brothers and sisters, too.

“What do you want?” I act tough, like Renee, but I really don’t mind them helping us. They bug Renee and I think sometimes they embarrass her. The younger kids in her family keep appearing at regular two year intervals, proving that her parents still “do it”.

“We have it made in the shade on this election, Renee. Rosemary Rodriguez is such a Goodie Two-Shoes and Alan sucks his thumb when he prays. He rocks back and forth like a retard.” I slip down onto the indoor-outdoor carpet of the bedroom, and imitate a spaz with my long legs jumping around.

Renee cracks up. She always laughs at my jokes and lets me be as mean as I want about other kids ‘cause she knows I just say stuff. I think she is the best friend I’ll ever have.

The smells of tortillas frying in lard waft in from the kitchen and send me on my way home. I’d rather stay because Lillie’s food is better than Frances’ Café but my mom says I stay for food too often.

“See ya’, see ya’ – wouldn’t want to be ya’” I sing to little Marcos on my way out the door, stopping to put on my rubber slippers so I won’t burn my bare feet on the sidewalk, still hot from the desert sun, during my short walk home.

“Later, alligator.” Marcos repeats these words, the last ditty we taught him. So far, we have taught him bad words in English and Spanish and every commercial we can remember. He is a perfect little 2 year old parrot.

The next day, we dare to roll our uniform skirts to make them just a little shorter but not so short that Sister will make us roll them back down. At the first recess, we take our own little Gallup poll and now I am sure we are going to win. Back in class, Sister passes out little slips of paper, instructs us to vote for our favorite candidates and reminds us to be good sports and follow our conscience.

“Christ, she makes a little lecture out of anything, doesn’t she? Oh, Christ, now I’ll have to go to confession – ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned: I took the Lord’s name in vain two times.’”

I tell myself to be quiet and vote.

We file up one at a time up to her desk, just as we do every Friday when we drop our popsicle money into the Pagan Baby box. We all watch carefully as she opens each slip of paper and puts them into one pile or another, very even- looking piles from my angle. At last, she looks up with what tries to pass for a smile, her face contorted into her usual grimace,

“Children, I am happy to say that Rosemary and Alan have each won by only one vote to be your class President and Vice President.”

I can’t even hear the next words because my head is buzzing. How could this be? Didn’t we count the votes at recess? I quickly look over at Renee who drops her eyes and looks away.

Sitting on her back wall after school, I complain to Renee,

“I think that election was rigged. Boney-face probably threw it so Rosemary, her favorite toady, could be president all year. She gave us the royal shaft.”

“Let’s go back to school and dig in the trash,” Renee says. “I bet we did win.”

“And what will we do if we are right?” I ask. “Call KREO and tell them our Sister is a liar? Call the Bishop? Father Rattigan? Nobody gives a good goddam.”

We hop off the wall and start toward Renee’s back door.

“Renee? Donna? Do you two want some quesadillas? Come in here. You girls look like you could use some cheering up,” Renee’s mom puts some food in front of us.

“Thanks, Mrs. Romero. Lillie. (I always feel shy calling her this name, but she insists). Your food always makes me happier.” She hugs me, looking up at me because even though I am only 12, I am much taller than she will ever be.

Then I tell her, tell Lillie, more than Renee wants me to I am sure, “When we are older, we are going to come back to this place and show them how great we turned out, Renee and me. We’ll show ‘em, alright.”

“Oh, Donna,” Lillie says, then cracks up. She hugs me again. “Oh, Donna.”

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1 Response to My Other Mother

  1. barbara toboni says:

    Oh, Donna, what a great story. I can really see these characters, Renee and her big family, the scenes at school and in Renee’s bedroom. Love how Lillie’s food makes you feel better at the end. Love the hopeful ending. Good job.

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