I lost my mother, Maria Teresa Páramo Luna, to cancer in 1998 and saw her take her last breath. She was given six months to live when she was first diagnosed with colon cancer. She ended up living for six good years to the age of 65.
During those six years she got to see her grandchildren grow and thrive, her own faith grow, and accomplished a list of things she’d always wanted to do.
My mom has always been my inspiration. Her deep love and dedication for her family will always stay with me. She taught me to treat people right, be fair, and always protect one’s family.
She often told me dichos (sayings) and was pleased when I learned a host of new ones during Spanish class in high school.
Dime con quien andas, y te digo quien eres. You are known by the company you keep.
El pez y el huesped lleden al tercer dia. Guest and fish smell on the third day.
Her unfailing love and dedication took a toll on her since she was a child growing up in Uruapan, Michoacán in Mexico. Her sister died when she was a young girl and her mother took the death hard and could no longer get along on her own. My mother left school during fourth grade to care for her and the rest of the family. At that young age she was tending the house, ironing shirts for her older siblings and wondering when she would go back to school. Once her mother was able to take care of herself again, she found that she was several years older than all the other kids in her grade.
When I was a grownup, my mother admitted to me that she never returned to school not because she needed to keep caring for her mother, but that she was too embarrassed to go back to school and be a “burra” in a grade much lower than the rest of her friends.
Despite not continuing school, my mother read in Spanish and later read enough in English to earn her citizenship. Becoming a US citizen was one of the things she accomplished on her bucket list in her last years of life. She was also very proud that her father (who lived to 92 and also died of colon cancer) was a learned man, having been educated by Jesuits in Mexico.
Earlier I said that my mother was my inspiration. She inspired me not to make a lot of the choices that she made. Instead of giving up my life for my family, I would purposefully set out to do all the things a young Latino from El Sereno (an area in Los Angeles) was not supposed to be able to do. I was an A student in junior high and high school, was president of the church youth group at 15 and active in its community as a lector, and started working in good jobs at 14. She was able to see me graduate from Stanford University and was proud when I started teaching at age 22.
I wanted to accomplish the things she felt she had to give up for her family. I’ve found that in going off to college at age 18, bouncing around between Northern and Southern California and Colorado, I also gave up a lot and missed out on my family. Of those last six years, I only lived near her for one year and had moved to Denver for a job weeks before she passed away. I was never around during her surgeries or accompanied her to chemotherapy. My father and other siblings would do those things for her.
As much as part of me feels she was “stuck” caring for her family and that kept her from growing, I also realize that she was able to manage a family of seven on a custodian’s salary and keep us all fed and clothed. She also ran the family business of buying and selling items at the swap meet on weekends. She was a confident savvy business person who always knew how to look after money and stretch it to its utmost.
She loved collecting beautiful plates and figurines. She could spot good crystal from a mile away and knew the difference between kitsch and collector’s items by looking at the details. “See this figurine. You can tell this is a quality piece because of the detailing in the eyes.” she would say. Or, “This isn’t just cheap metal, look at the small label on the back, this platter is Sterling Silver. I can get $20 dollars for it.”
One day, I was around 10 years old, we were selling at the swap meet and two women approached and started looking through a box of clothing. They obviously liked the items and asked the price. My mother told them “Pifty cents” in her heavy Spanish accent. The women were please and said, “Wow, only fifty cents?” I stepped in and said “No, no, fifteeeen cents.” My mother gave me a mad look then later said I was bad at business like my father. I held that rebuke for a long time and accepted it as true. I finally “released” the notion when I used it as part of my MBA application essay. My conclusion – ethical business is good business.
I also realized that my mother made probably one of the most courageous moves by leaving Mexico and heading to Los Angeles as a young twenty something year old. She worked in a sweatshop sewing thumbs on leather gloves for cents on the hour in downtown LA. She toiled there under extremely dangerous and sweltering conditions for some time, in the 1950’s.
I once asked my mother about the story of La Llorona, an ancient story about a mother who drowned her children and walks the Earth looking for them in eternity. This story goes back as far as La Malinche and the Spanish conquest of Mexico. I wanted to hear her take on the details of the story. My mother shocked me when she said that the drowning happened in Chavez Ravine there in Los Angeles, before the Dodgers built their stadium in that same location.
Eventually all but one of her siblings made the same move out to Southern California. They would all get together on weekends and I’d get to play with tons of cousins. Usually my mother and her siblings would get into marathon sessions of card playing. My mom loved playing poker and would do things like make a knot in a napkin, shake it across the cards then say some kind of good luck incantation. This served to make some siblings laugh and annoy others.
My mother also brought other traditions from Mexico. Whenever we broke out in a bad fever, she would put lard on paper towels then apply the lard side to our feet then put our socks on. This actually helped reduce our temperatures by keeping our feet cool. When we had sore throats we knew we were in for some pain as she would rub our forearms, just over our wrists, with Vapor-Rub. Apparently there are nodes in that area and rubbing them helps.
After her cancer diagnosis, my mother heard about a tree bark that was supposed to reduce the effects of cancer. She would make tea out of this South American tree bark called “Uña de gato” and would drink it religiously. She believed this tea helped her live those extra years. Towards the end of her fifth year with the diagnosis, she decided that she had had enough of treatments, surgeries, and chemotherapy. She also stopped drinking the tea and passed away a few months later.
It’s been 14 years since she passed away and she still lives in my heart. Whenever I get into a position where I have to make tough choice or have to have a courageous conversation with someone else, I think of her great strength and she helps guide me.