Reprinted with permission from Ms.
The COVID-19 quarantine has been more than an involuntary lockdown for me: It has become an unexpected opportunity to weave memories, priceless recollections that have revealed the patchwork quilt that has been holding —all along—my feminist consciousness. Engaging in this active recollection of magnified moments has been validating and soothing as a feminist, and as a never-married woman living alone.
In her analysis of advice books for women, feminist sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1994) identifies magnified moments as:
“episodes of heightened importance, either epiphanies, moments of intense glee or unusual insight, or moments in which things go intensely but meaningfully wrong. In either case, the moment stands out; it is metaphorically rich, unusually elaborate and often echoes throughout the book.”
In the unwritten book of my own life story, these magnified moments have emerged through past conversations with my mother—which took place in the context of everyday life, from childhood to present.
In my memory work, I recall her words in Spanish and offer my most accurate and precise translation in English of these brief, but vivid recollections.
“Listen, when you grow up you are going to go to school so you can have a good job and don’t have to depend on a man.”
I remember her giving me a stern warning, crying while washing the dishes and talking to me as I stood next to the sink listening attentively. Sobbing, she complained about not being able to go to school or have a paid job. I was 8 or 9, and I had my eyes wide open not knowing what to say or how to console her.
“No, no, no. Do not put any makeup on her. I think that when she grows up, she going to be like those women who think and write.”
Her words stick with me. She was reacting to my older sister, who was telling me, with an animated voice, to get closer so she can put some makeup on me. I was probably 12 or so.
“So what do you think about today’s mass sermon?”
She surprisingly asked me as both of us walked back home after mass on a Saturday afternoon. I was totally clueless about what the readings or sermon was about—probably I was daydreaming in church— and lost in my shy silence I did not know what to say.
She then told me to remember that “the priest is a man; the priest is not God.” I was in secundaria, the equivalent to middle school.
“Why did you shave your armpit?! Why did you shave your legs?!”
She yelled at me while scolding me and giving me a warning: “Te vas a hacer esclava del rastrillo“—you are going to become a slave of the razor.
“See?” pointing to her arm pit, and showing me unshaved her legs, and explaining that if nature had given me all that hair, there was a reason for it to be there, and I needed to leave it alone.
“Guácala!“—gross! I recall feeling in silence while thinking that something was wrong with her.
“Soy una sirvienta sin sueldo“—I am a maid with no pay.
I remember my mother so well, complaining while cleaning the house. In my ignorance, I used to ask myself in silence, “But why does she want to get paid? Isn’t that what mothers do?”
“Los esposos y los hijos se acaban a las mujeres“—Husbands and children wear out women.
I heard her say this at least once during casual conversations.
“May I come with you?!” I animatedly asked her if I could join her as she announced that she was going downtown by herself on a Saturday afternoon.
“No, I want to be alone, I need take a break from all of you and your father.”
She was a full time housewife, raising five children. My father was a man of integrity who worked hard as a carpenter and made the minimum wage.
I left the family home, moved out of town, and eventually migrated to the United States in my attempts to figure out life. I had long distance communication with my mother and father.
“¡Tus maestras descubrieron el hilo negro!”—Your women teachers just reinvented the wheel!
She told me cracking up and with a playful tone of voice in response to my enthusiasm as I shared with her all of the wonderful things I was learning from my feminist professors in the doctoral program.
“So, how did you know that you were oppressed as a woman?!” I remember asking her with genuine curiosity. She explained that she always wanted to study and have a paid job and it was difficult “just because she I was I woman—sólo por ser mujer.”
“You may know a lot about women, but you know very little about old women.”
Upset, she told me this after I told her that she could no longer live alone and go to the supermarket by herself. She was in her late 80s.
She recalled stories of her adolescent years—in the mid 1940s— when she altered my grandfather’s pants and wore them with pride, without worrying about what others thought of her.
She loved race running and used to play volleyball back then as well—no wonder why her talent as a player of one of the teams in the nursing home where she lived in her late 80s was celebrated by other residents.
“Cuando era joven, no me dejaba de los muchachos“—When I was young, I did not let young men mess with me.
With a soft smile, she made this random comment during one of my visits at the nursing home in San Antonio. She was already showing clear signs of dementia, and her comment touched me deeply.
Late February 2020
I can sense her warmth presence next to me, listening attentively and with so much devotion in her eyes. She is listening to a priest at a Catholic church in Austin; she wanted to go to Mass today. She is quiet, incredibly mellow, and shy these days, and she does not talk much, but she is very receptive to affection. She is fragile, walks very slowly and relies on a walker, and always gives me a fresh smile when I come to see her to the nursing home where she lives.
“Do I live here?!”
She asked me with surprise as I dropped her at her nursing home after Mass that day. I have been learning to go with her story.
I already forgot when I stopped identifying as Catholic, but her sign of the cross on my forehead means the world to me, so getting that today was especially meaningful. I expressed my gratitude to her for giving birth to me, today, 60 years ago. I cried tears of joy and gratitude as I walked away.
Early March 2020
The COVID-19 crisis is starting to unfold and the social worker at the nursing home is asking me to stop visiting my mom. From my visits in person every other day, I went to not being allowed to see her, but my sisters and I talk with her via Zoom at least once a week. The coronavirus put some physical distance between us, but her presence feels closer than ever in my life.
My mother is now 94, has dementia and her nursing home in Austin is not far from my home. At times, she does not know if she lives in Mexico or the United States. And I do not know when or if I will ever see her soon, but there is one thing I know for sure: She was the first feminist who ever loved me.
Gloria González-López is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin and a Public Voices Fellow with the Op Ed Project.