My mother was among the first wave of women in the mid-1960s who went back to school for a post-college degree. Her goal was to earn a Master’s degree in Spanish literature along with a teaching certificate.
But before she took command of a classroom, my mother had to get through a disorienting year of reading Don Quijote. No matter that she was a native Spanish speaker from Cuba, Cervantes’s saga was the longest, most difficult book she had ever attempted to read. But my mother was story-driven. She delved into the work as she stirred pots of hapless beef stew that she made with ketchup.
For my mother, a non-cook, the most important utensil in the kitchen was a gunmetal cookbook holder. The small stems held down the stories she read to me. I was five when she began her Master’s degree and loved listening to her pretty voice even though I barely understood Cervantes’s seventeenth-century Spanish. Yet I grasped that Don Quijote was a fellow fantasist. A character who thought of himself as a gallant knight in shining armor when he was little more than a deluded man with a rusting coat of arms.
My mother, who finessed an autobiography in which she, a Sephardic Jew, was a descendant of the Duke of Albuquerque in Spain, had no paper trail leading back to a Bachelor of Arts degree. She only had her illusions about studying at the University of Havana. When Don Quijote’s library burned, she said, “He was too influenced by his books.” As if that observation also explained our charred dinners, the exoskeletons of which we scraped off Pyrex pans.
My mother’s school books came to us wrapped in brown paper bearing postage stamps from Spain. These were books with ragged pages bound together that had to be parted with a letter opener. They felt more precious, more delicate than the bulky Michener paperbacks my father read about Iberia, the South Pacific, and Hawaii.
But no matter how much literature my parents read about exotic, unimaginable places like Spain, they never wandered far from our home in Connecticut. My father was tethered to routine and mid-life fatherhood. My much-younger mother was trapped in the dining room in a blizzard of balled up papers and false starts. Books were haphazardly piled atop of one another. The most impressive of them was The Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy—a door-stopper of a book that also came directly from Madrid. Every word in the Spanish language was defined between its brown marbled covers—words waiting to be arranged into the labored term papers my mother was required to write.
On Sunday nights the house was abuzz with the sound of her typing on the baby blue Smith Corona. The white onionskin paper in the typewriter was as fragile as she was. The return carriage grazed the typewriter’s metal teeth at full speed as she raced to meet a deadline. The house filled with the insistent rhythm of type and return. Type and return in between mom’s crying jags. Type and return as my father tried his hand at boiling hot dogs or sculpting meatloaf. Type and return until I fell asleep underneath the vibrating dining room table. Type and return until my mother accumulated five pages of haphazard analysis of Don Quijote.
My mother successfully typed her way to graduation. On the day of the commencement she posed on the driveway in a rented cap and gown. The tassel on her mortarboard was as jittery as she was. The new pocketbook that hung on her left arm was a graduation gift from her parents-in-law. Beige and square and anchored with her initials in blocks of silver, the purse was empty save for a couple of white-and-blue-lined 3×5 index cards on which my Americano father had written out the words of The Star-Spangled Banner.
In addition to being newly graduated, my mother was a recently minted American citizen who pledged allegiance to the United States of America haltingly despite intense coaching from my father. In the dining room cum study hall for my mother, they went over the pledge.
“Even Judy knows the words,” said my father.
I was fluent in my father’s patriotism, reciting the pledge flawlessly and always with my hand over my heart. My mother, however, devised her own strange mnemonics to the national anthem. “Oh say can you see,” became the call letters of the local radio station, WTIC. “Oh say TIC.” WTIC was also very much on her mind when she sang, “My country TIC, sweet land of liberty of TIC.”
But it was La Bayamesa, Cuba’s national anthem, that my mother knew perfectly from start to finish. “That’s not the song that’ll be played at your graduation,” my father scolded.
Days before she received her diploma she gave up on The Star-Spangled Banner like a petulant child and sang La Bayamesa constantly, brazenly in her best patriotic Spanish: “To live in chains is to live in dishonor and ignominy. Hear the clarion call. Hasten brave ones to battle.”
“Stop with the fiction,” my father countered. “The only anthem they’re belting out down there is The Internationale.”
For my father Cuba was a cautionary tale. For my mother it was a fairytale. Once upon a time there was a beautiful blue green jewel of an island—the star of my bedtime stories and the inspiration for my mother’s term papers. She resented that she had to palm an index card with lyrics about the dying light of a twilight’s last gleaming as she received her diploma, her first, on a warm day in May—a diploma from the same school from which I would graduate a dozen years later.