Tonight, for the first time in all her eleven years, Margarita refuses to stay in our room to bond.
This has always been our weekend ritual. Friday nights, the kids’ beds are hauled from their rooms and, for two nights, all rules are suspended. We eat junk food for dinner. We watch TV all night (even surfing channels is finally allowed), and at 10:00 PM (there still has to be some kind of order, people!), the chips and soda come up! It is overindulgence as a metaphor for love.
But tonight, Margarita locks herself in the room and insists that she will sleep alone and has no need for chips, soda, or TV. Gasp! Her eight-year old brother exclaims, “She must be really mad, Mama!” Why is she upset with me?
Because I am insisting that she attend art class again this summer so that she can practice her oils. The argument has layers upon layers, and I felt that while arguing, a slew of shadow-mothers were behind me and Margarita had her own team of would-be teenagers behind her, and there we all were, re-enacting a centuries-old argument—an argument of who is stronger.
In a way, I should be proud of her. And deep down, I am. I have always wished her to be strong, to know herself, to stand up for herself, to have an opinion. How many times have I intoned to her, when the litany of questions of what she should do would render me tired: “Have a spine, Margarita. Choose for yourself.” This was a daughter who wouldn’t do anything without my approval. Would not move in fear of my censure. And there she was, finally, in all her spinal glory, erect as a magnificent statue, claiming that she did not want to be bullied by me. Bravo, Marty. Bravo, Marty, part of me was saying.
But there is so much that she is not aware of—my own motivations, for example, for why I push. There is of course the obvious reason. Margarita is an artist. She knows it, and I know it. Our home is surrounded by her art. She does oil, pastel, collages, pencil drawings, landscapes, clay figurines, Papier-mâché
, soap carvings. Her school papers are dotted with examples of correct shadings of fruits, vases, and whatnot. Her birthday card to me was a pop-up! Her hands are busy, her eyes distinct, and what she has is enviable—an ability to render reality in a different medium. How can she understand that, living all my life with artists, I can tell when one is just good at it and when one can be great at it?
Before fear had entered her life, when she had first discovered art, she was as fearless as hell. At three, she enrolled in ballet class and did that for six years and declared when she was done that she did all she could but was not a ballerina. At the same age, she took up the violin with my brother Coke and declared after two years that she was not a violinist. A year ago she picked up the violin again and declared that she would do it just for fun. And to help her better understand math too, she proclaimed.
At eight, she was writing essays on my computer, not at all shy to share with anyone her thoughts on her brothers, her dreams, and her country. At five, she was in art school, and her landscapes and still life drawings would always elicit oohs
. Because we are a family of artists, we are the last to declare brilliance in fear that we are merely indulging in wishful thinking. But because we are a family of artists, we are the first to declare when someone is one.
Back then we made plans for how she would pursue her artistry. And it was a joyous planning, always. And I would say such lines as “there is nothing more painful than not being able to be do what you’re born to do,” and she would nod, agree in some real way. That is no longer the case these days. These days, there is only room in her heart for the line “I am afraid, Mama.”
But I know the drill. I know how necessary fear is. It is the necessary impetus for bravery. There are ways around a child’s fear. There’s recognition, and there’s denial or a lightening of the situation. I know that once she is in the art room, all that fear will naturally dissipate. I only need to bring her to the door. But none of these methods work. She has figured our her own weaponry, ranging from “I deserve the summer break to do nothing” to “I can just become better with oils on my own.” And I do what perhaps I should never do. I make it a law, as something she has no choice but to choose. To do this, I use the power of guilt. And that, my friend, is a slippery slope.
My own mother never pushed me or gave me options, and so I took them on my own and consequently found my way, accidentally. I would wish to be more for my daughter. There is so much I want to say to her, but I know it will mean nothing because there are lessons that need to be lived experientially. How do I tell her that dancing was my big dream, but that I was too afraid to try, so that in my dreams, I am sometimes still dancing? How will she understand that I was too afraid to study abroad and how that fear has limited my options in certain ways? How will she know what it means when I tell her that I regret not having pursued the piano because it was easier to use my brothers’ talents as an excuse to not pursue mine? A part of Marge Piercy’s poem Never-Never comes to mind:
But to miss something
that never was;
the longest guilt
the regret that comes down
like a fine ash
year after year
is the shadow of what
we did not dare.
All the days that go out
like neglected cigarettes,
the days that dribble away.
How often does love strike?
We turn into ghosts
loitering outside doorways
we imagined entering.
But I cannot pre-empt her. What I cannot take away is her chance to make mistakes, always aware that her mistakes are hers and hers alone. And even that is wrong. Who am I to say her choice is wrong? I could be wrong.
I knock on her door gently and she allows me to enter. I am pretending to be looking for something—a book I had been reading in her room that afternoon. She is resolute, much stronger than I am at this point. I ask her to go back to our room. She refuses. I ask her what it is she wants me to feel. Does she want to punish me? Does she want me to feel bad? I tell her she has succeeded, and can we now move on and have some Cheetos? I concede defeat. Still she refuses. And I pursue why. I am adamant that she name the darkness in her heart. Finally, she relents. It is pride, Mom. I nod. And then I ask if it would be all right to give her pride a last five minutes, after which she would return to our room. Maybe it is my lack of pride that moves her. Maybe it’s the Cheetos. But finally, she too concedes.
As I write this, she is behind me, watching Nickelodeon. The shift from young lady back to child is disconcerting. Her fingers are orange from eating Cheetos, and she looks only five from where I am. My heart is full of all sorts of things. I want to tell her everything, but we have come to a place where more words can only create more walls. Once in a while, she turns to look at me, probably feeling amiss because of our first real fight. And finally she comes to me and asks, “If I go to art class, can I join the beginner’s class so I can brush up on my sketching?” It is a hand held out to me, and I grab it with all my heart.(Photos courtesy of Rica Bolipata Santos)