My daughter and me, c. 1983, visiting my mother in Colorado.
Please Come Home for Christmas. The Eagles song reminded Mom of me, her long-lost first born, her prodigal daughter. It took a Colorado Christmas to show me how the mother-daughter bond can transcend time, space and nature’s whims.
HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. – My mother was at the wheel.
We were on our way to Stapleton International Airport, and she had driven several hours from southern Colorado to get us back to Denver in time to catch three flights back to South America. Despite the snow and icy roads, Mom was negotiating traffic with the aplomb and unruffled demeanor of a native. Sitting quietly next to her in the front seat was my now ex-husband, an American-educated Venezuelan engineer who wanted a panoramic view of Colorado’s Front Range urban corridor.
For a guy who had grown up steps from the Caribbean Sea in Barcelona, the scene could not have been more alien.
The Queen City of the Plains, la Reina de Los Llanos, was buried under snow, and lay muffled in a flat, morose quiet. Denver had not yet been hit by the impending oil bust and “savings and loan crisis,” but it already looked depressed. White plumes of steam billowed from smokestacks, and swirled into a hazy, brownish frost that hung over the city. Deep snowdrifts masked the ugliness of junkyards and abandoned fields, and sidewalks were heaped high with dirty snow. Powdery snow slid over rooftops, and hung precipitously over the eaves of rundown row houses, brick bungalows, and narrow Victorians built by coal barons at the turn of the century.
But this was home, and it was good to be back. I had grown up in the Centennial State. I knew its sights, sounds, smells, history and legends. It was my ancestral homeland, where generations of my family had lived. My internal compass pointed:
N to Wyoming
W to the Rockies E to the Great Plains
S to New Mexico
No matter where I was in the world, I searched for the long, jagged shadow of the Sangre de Cristo range to the west, and the ancient solidity of the igneous rock peaks the Ute called Wahatoyas – the breasts of the world.
Turns out, without those looming chichis, I was lost.
Lauren, my half Venezuelan, half Mexican American 3-year-old daughter, and I were huddled in the back seat of Mom's car that Christmas of 1983. We were bundled up in borrowed winter gear, and were trying not to get carsick from the stifling heater and extra layers of clothing.
It had been three years since I had last been home, and it had been a great trip, one that had immersed us in love, family and tradition. Mom and grandma had outdone themselves by cooking delectable Southwestern fare I hadn't eaten in years: green chile stew, pork tamales, pumpkin empanadas, and biscochitos (cookies) sprinkled with anise. We played in the snow – my daughter for the first time – caught up with everyone's lives, and shopped for the latest American music, books and fashions.
Now it was time to head back to South America, back to the warmth and lushness of a place where we didn’t have to shovel driveways, scrape ice-encrusted windshields or worry about lethal, invisible black ice.
As we drove to the airport that day, I heard the first four notes of the Eagles version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” on the radio, and Don Henley’s mellifluous voice filled my mother’s overheated car with the rock-infused essence of modern Americana.
“I think of you every time I hear this song,” Mom said as she glanced back at me before changing lanes.
“You’re kidding, right?” I responded with irony, flinching at the tone of my own voice.
I was 23 years old, married, a young mother and living abroad, but my teenage voice had responded to my mother’s tender confession.
I glanced at my mother’s rearview mirror, and tried to imagine her hearing the mournful Eagles cover of the 1960 Christmas classic, and thinking of me, and wishing I were home for the holidays. I had my doubts.
My teenage psychological separation from Mom had not been pretty. I still remember the stubborn clashes, scornful comments, and selfish barbs that had punctuated my free-ranging teenage rebellion and angst. Like so many other girls before me, I had pitched myself awkwardly and headlong into the wild world immortalized by Cat Stevens. By that Christmas, I had gained some traction, maturity and perspective. Or so I thought. Apparently, I still had not fully severed the umbilical cord.
I glanced over at my own little girl, who was clutching a new Cabbage Patch doll, and I wondered if I would get pay-backs with her. (I did. About a decade later. Big time. But that’s another story in the mother-daughter continuum.)
Besides stirring old memories, being home had dredged up old wounds, too. As the classic first-born child, I played to type, and was an opinionated and lofty adolescent, sure I was smarter than Mom and her husband. Between the ages of 14 and 17, I had argued constantly with my stepfather, and rejected what I thought were his attempts to quash my budding feminism, and my deep skepticism about organized religion. Even though he had rescued Mom from a miserable marriage to my father, and had agreed to raise us as his own, I saw my stepfather as an insurgent, an emotional usurper who had stolen my mother’s affections.
Lengua de hacha. Hatchet tongue. I remember telling him once scornfully after he had tossed an emotional bomb my way. He had reached his wit’s end with me and my teenage attitude, and had told me I was “just like my father.” Back then, those were fighting words, and I didn’t care that he was a World War II hero, and had served in France and England. This was war. Battle weary after years of trying to create the Latino Brady Bunch, or something like it, Mom had given up on brokering peace between us. It was years before life had humbled me sufficiently enough to appreciate all my stepdad had done for me, to honor the solemn pact he had made with my Mom.
Si, señor. I was home, and apparently had some unfinished business to take care of.
Mom pulled up to the curved entrance and passenger-loading area outside Stapleton, and my husband jumped out, took off his heavy coat and gloves, and tossed them into the backseat before heading indoors to check our luggage and get our boarding passes.
My mother, my daughter and I lingered outside before a security guard suggested that my mother park her car in the covered garage so she could come back and meet us at our gate to say goodbye. It was the pre-911 era, and security was much laxer at U.S. airports than it is today.
As she stood next to her car that winter day in a pink sweater and black slacks, Mom held up a gloved finger and told me, “I’ll be right back.”
My little girl and I watched her pull away wistfully, then went inside to warm up and find my husband among the hundreds of milling travelers lined up at ticket counters.
Mom still had not appeared when airline employees began seating passengers on our flight to Houston, where we would connect on another flight to Miami, and onward to Caracas, before ending our journey in the industrial Ciudad Guayana in the south of Venezuela.
Each flight would take me farther away from Colorado and my past mistakes, and closer to a more exotic, idealized version of myself.
Our row was called, and my husband and daughter boarded the plane. I lingered, hoping my mother would make it in time to say goodbye one last time. The 3,000-mile trips between Venezuela and Colorado were expensive, and I didn’t know when I’d see her again.
Where was she? Had she gotten stuck in a snowbank? Did her car break down? Is she driving around aimlessly looking for a good spot? Had she gotten lost, figured it was too late, and driven home?
Damn it. I needed to feel her freckled cheek against mine one last time. I needed to look into her large eyes to see the unconditional love she offered up so generously. I needed to feel her soft arms around me. Like a baby bat clinging to a rock face in an abandoned Rocky Mountain mine, I needed to hear her voice, and have her hear mine so she could home in on my location, pick out my voice out of millions in the dark and dank, and feed my soul.
I needed to thank her for everything. Coño. I needed Mom now.
An airline employee tapped me on the shoulder and told me it was time to board. Halfway down the walkway, I heard the hollow footfalls of someone running behind me. I turned, and there she was. Mom ran toward me, and as we hugged, we burst into to tears. We clung to each other, frozen in time, my head on her shoulder, and hers on mine. We raised our heads and looked over at the pretty young blonde who had escorted Mom down the ramp. She was crying, too, and the three of us laughed at the sadness of mothers and daughters going separate ways.
I watched Mom walk back to the terminal, and seared the image of her vanishing outline in my memory before turning away.
Mom, I’m glad I came home for Christmas. Next time, you won't even have to say please.