At 15 years old I equated love to romantics, naively thinking that love was an emotion reserved for grown-ups and serious relationships. When I thought about love I pictured a cute couple walking down the street hand in hand, stealing small glances in secret and laughing at something corny, giddy just to be there with each other. At this point in my life, I had not completely understood that I could fall in love so young, that it could be felt more than just romantically. I know now that Love is a living energy that gifts itself to us, presenting itself differently for every person we meet and every bond we make.
The day I learned this lesson I didn’t have a boy with a beautiful smile or a girl with a groovy outfit on my mind. I was in the passenger seat of Beastie Girl, a beat-up white GMC my mom had named in her 20s that had stains on the car seats and paint chippings on the exterior. She was driving and my little sister was in the back kicking her muddy shoes up on the seat in protest of being stuck in the traffic. We came to a stop at a red light and the song “By Your Side” by Sade came on and my mom turned it up humming along. I loved this song and always fantasized that one day I would listen to it with someone I was deeply in love with and would feel as though every lyric Sade sang was exactly how I felt for my partner. As the song began, Sade’s soft voice played filling the car with a soulful melody:
You think I’d leave your side, baby
You know me better than that
You think I’d leave you down
When you’re down on your knees
I wouldn’t do that
I’ll tell you you’re right when you want
And if only you could see into me
Except, I wasn’t thinking about love interests. I was thinking about how cool my mom looked with her big curly hair car singing along to the music, about how everything in our lives worked out to be that I would be here right now listening to this song in the car with her, and about how our friendship and love wasn’t an accident–life had worked itself out purposefully so we would share our lives.
* * *
Mi mama hasn’t always been in my life, but she has always been mi mama–I know this for certain. We met one another in an unconventional way. I was 10 years old seated in the booth of a small Mexican restaurant in Old Town Arvada. I sat tucked away between the wall and my dad, prepared and maybe a little nervous to meet the new woman that he was seeing every time he said he was going out for some milk. I had asked to meet her, feeling that if she was important enough that my dad could make time for her then so could I. I wanted to be taken seriously–I was there on business, feeling protective over my dad. This act did not last very long at all, melting away as soon as Grace walked in with a ponytail full of big black curls that bounced along with her steps, a white v-neck with pops of colors splattered on it, flared jeans, and bright blue flip flops. She bounced into the seat across from us, looked across the table with big bright brown eyes, gave me a big nervous smile, and a wink that instantly made me feel special. Her joy was contagious, filling our booth with a pure and welcoming energy laced with lighthearted happiness. I felt instantly comfortable with her, talking with her like an old friend of mine and my protective act melted away in seconds.
We all spent the rest of the evening walking around town looking in store windows, going into the bookshops and bakeries. I skipped around town that night taking Grace’s hand in mine feeling completely light-hearted and full of excitement to be with her. That night when my dad and I got home I knew I wanted her to be in our lives and I wanted to communicate this to her, so I did the only thing that made sense to me at 10 years old and made her a craft as a token of my acceptance.
I used the wax bottles from the packaging that held my soda candy and sculpted her three terribly shaped wax figurines: my dad, her and me. I presented them to her the next time we went to her house and she had the same impulse, surprising me with a gift:a tiny spoon with a curly handle that I saw in a store window and liked from when we first met. This was just the beginning of our friendship, my mom likes to refer to our friendship as a “just add water friendship” because of how quickly we got along. But to say that our entire mother daughter relationship since the day we first met has been this blissful would be twisting the truth. Of course like all mothers and daughters we fought over my teenage attitude, epic mistakes I made, boys, clothes, school and the list goes on. But mostly, we drew closer together as the years went by. We challenged the step-mother daughter narrative, choosing acceptance and love over rejection and hate. Something that made my biological mother and her family very uncomfortable. This is what turned out to be the biggest challenge to our relationship.
* * *
My parents had divorced just a year before and Maria, my biological mother, didn’t like the idea of another woman being present in my life in a motherly role. I was 11 years old seated at my grandmothers table along with cousins, siblings, and other family members. The chairs where to high for my feet to touch the ground and I sat swinging my feet with a book in my hands trying to absorb my mind into another place. Everyone was taking turns sharing something they didn’t like about Grace, like a panel of judges tearing apart someone piece by piece without filter. Except there was no truth spoken at that table–none of them had met her except for my siblings and Maria. All their accusations had to do with her appearance or false claims that my father cheated on my mother with her, despite them meeting a year after the divorce. Their judgements, petty and empty, simply displayed my family’s insecurities– their inability to cope with the fact that someone new was in my siblings and I life and she actually wasn’t a bad person.
Instead of welcoming another influential and strong woman into my life Maria did everything she could to taint Grace’s image by demonizing her as “the other” woman and my family followed properly behind. I was constantly reminded she wasn’t my real mom and that I had an obligation to choose sides after my parents’ divorce–loving both was not possible according to their rule book. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is uncommon for children whose parents divorce when they are young. I know now that her attempts to use fear and deceit to keep me from loving Grace were a reflection of her own insecurities that made her incapable of seeing her daughter give and accept love from another woman.
Yet, despite the lies about Grace that Maria spoke into my life, the love that I grew to share with her grew stronger. I knew who Grace was and she knew who I was. She was unphased by the opinions other people had about her, she had only wanted to love me like her own. I ignored the way my biological mother’s family disapproved of the way that I felt about Grace, ignored the petty side comments about how we weren’t real mother and daughter. Who were they to define the love that we shared? We didn’t give them that permission and protected one another fearlessly. When you choose to love someone despite, when you refuse to give into the hate everyone so desires it sparks fear for other people. Fear of something so strong like what Grace and I had and fear sparks anger. My mother, my family grew to have so much anger with me.
Soon enough conditions were placed on the love shared between Maria and her family and myself: I was only deserving of their love if I rejected Grace, something I didn’t understand and was unwilling to do. In response, they drew back their love. I became dead to them at 13 and they became ghosts to me, coming only occasionally back every now and then to haunt my feelings with a deep sadness for their loss.
I moved in with my dad and Grace permanently, though I didn’t know it was permanent then. I packed only what I needed and could carry from my bedroom at Maria’s and as she drove me to my dad’s house I sat with a ball in my throat trying figure out how to tell her I wanted to stay extra time with my dad, that I didn’t like living with her. She was talking about her new boyfriend, they never lasted but I knew she’d probably give him all the time and love I craved to have. As she pulled up in front of my house I told her in a calm and peaceful way, “I want to stay with dad,” she simply looked at me said, “okay,” and helped me unload my stuff onto the porch. I didn’t see her again for years. It was so easy to walk away — so very easy.
With a broken heart, two duffle bags, and my stuffed animals I came home. I came home to mom and dad. And I needed them, I needed Grace. It’s not that I needed “a replacement mom,” I was never looking for that. I just needed Grace. I needed her love, to know that I was deserving to be loved. That I wasn’t someone people could walk away from so easily. And she was there to be sure that I wasn’t alone, never expecting anything from me, only wanting and choosing to love me.
When you’re on the outside
And you can’t get in
I will show you
You’re so much better than you know
When you’re lost and you’re alone
And you can’t get back again
I will find you
Darling, and I will bring you home
And if you want to cry
I am here to dry your eyes
And in no time, you’ll be fine
* * *
Grace doesn’t love me because one day she decided she wanted a child and so birthed me into her life. We don’t share the same family line, we don’t look exactly alike, she wasn’t there to see me take first steps, hear my first words, or take me to my first day of school. But none of this was necessary for us to love one another. What we have is different and beautiful in our own way, a unique and unconditional love. We chose to love one another when we didn’t have to; she didn’t have to love me like I was her own and I didn’t have to love her like a mother. We choose to accept the love we gave each other because we couldn’t imagine life without making that decision. We are bonded for life and we don’t need biology to tell us that this love, that this bond, is real. Our love goes deeper than the physical. Our love has more proof than biology could ever provide. Our love is a gift that we both accepted openly and humbly, without expectation. That day in the Mexican restaurant I didn’t expect to love mi mama as deeply as I do now, sitting next to her in the car listening to Sade, “I’ll be there by your side.” What a beautiful gift.