My Peruvian grandmother had a favorite and it wasn’t me. Her favorite grandchild was Talia, one of my seven cousins. Talia was part of the “second batch” of children my aunt and uncle had after they learned from doctors that an older son’s headaches were caused by an inoperable brain tumor, a tumor that would kill him. I’ve often wondered if they deliberately had three more children after hearing that news, in an attempt to compensate for the coming loss of one of their sons.
The first of this second batch, a child born to fill an unfillable void, to lighten the heaviest of burdens, Talia was nonetheless neglected by her parents. My aunt and uncle were too focused on the beautiful boy, the surfing teenager, the one with his mother’s black eyes and easy smile, the one with his father’s broad forehead, the one who would soon die. Enter our grandmother. A longtime widow, she lived between the home shared by her four spinster sisters, where she had a room of her own, and my aunt’s house, which was built with a wing especially for her. When she stayed with her daughter, in her own suite, my grandmother invariably shared her bed with Talia. My grandmother doted on this granddaughter. She cared for her and spoiled her. She put up with her restless thrashing at night. She took her to the dentist when her teeth showed signs of too much Coca Cola and too little brushing. She gave her spoonfuls of fragrant agua de naranja before bed to calm her hyperactivity. She was a mother to her when Talia’s own was obsessed with another.
Because of this dotage and this bond, I know my grandmother imparted the same words of wisdom to Talia as she was growing up that she gave me whenever she visited my family. I know with a confidence born of watching my grandmother raise this favorite grandchild that she told Talia at least once, but probably many times, that una mujer no es completa sin esposo y hijos. A woman, according to my grandmother, could never be truly fulfilled without a husband and children. Born and raised in the early 1900s, in a Peru defined by a passionate South American brand of Catholicism which idealized the Virgin Mary as passive receptacle and pious intermediary, it’s no wonder she believed a woman’s purpose in life was to become a mother. As I grew into a teenager in the United States, I started to protest this blanket definition of ideal womanhood I saw as quashing my ambitions. I knew of no one, for example, who felt that true fulfillment for boys depended solely on marriage and fatherhood. My long-widowed grandmother, always faithful to her doctrine of womanly happiness, dismissed my protestations with a wave of her hand, a hand increasingly wrinkled but always bejeweled with gold and diamonds, and including, always, her wedding ring. She believed a woman without a husband, without children, sin una familia, was lacking, wanting, a puzzle with a piece missing, forever incomplete.
When Talia was sixteen, she and my grandmother visited my family in California. One spring evening my cousin and I sat in the back of the car, while my mother drove with my grandmother seated beside her. We were going to the city, to San Francisco, to have a drink at the top of the Fairmont, an iconic hotel with a glamorous history which matches its elegant décor and breathtaking views of the city and the Bay. On display as if for our sole benefit would be the blunt beauty of Coit Tower as well as the pagoda roofs of Chinatown at our feet and the shimmer of Berkeley and Oakland in the distance. Talia and I chatted in the dim warmth of the backseat, and somehow our conversation turned toward ambition. What did we want for ourselves? For our futures? Perhaps this conversation was triggered by the problems, related to me by my mother, that my cousin was having with her boyfriend. I was a college student then; I spoke of higher education, university degrees, and fulfilling work that would grant me independence. Talia spoke of getting married to someone rich, someone who could “take care of her,” so that she wouldn’t have to work and be able, instead, to stay at home in her large house with her many handsome sons and pretty daughters. “¡Ay, yo no!”she said in response to my talk of having a career. “Yo quiero casarme y quedarme en la casa con mis hijos.” Her dream in life was to get married and raise her family at home, with, of course, cooks and chauffeurs and maids.
At first, I was astonished by her commitment to a fate I then believed should be avoided or escaped. Only later did I realize she was speaking as a younger version of our grandmother, who believed that the pinnacle of success for a woman was an idealized maternity, a pampered domesticity. At that point, Talia had never lived outside the Peru which shaped my grandmother; she had grown up among the elite of Lima who felt happiness lay in frequenting hair salons and golf clubs, owning expensive high-rise apartments in the city and large estates on its periphery, wearing Gucci and Valentino, Rolex and Cartier. Men made the money, mostly in family businesses which included plentiful leisure time in between going to the office and making deals, while women hosted dinners and parties, attended charity luncheons and museum fundraisers, planned their children’s extravagant christenings and graduations and weddings. My surprise that night at my cousin’s aspirations did not, however, prevent me from observing with envy her outfit – fitted jacket with gold buttons over a sleek matching mini skirt, sheer black hose, stiletto pumps. The frizzy-hair gene I inherited from our grandmother had somehow bypassed Talia and her long thick hair hung glossily over a shoulder. Although younger than me, she looked sophisticated, poised, chic.
A year later Talia was still with her boyfriend, the problematic one, the one with whom there were difficulties. I heard a disturbing story from my mother, who spoke regularly on the phone with her sister in Lima. Talia and her boyfriend were sitting in his sports car, parked somewhere outside of the gated community, among the rocky hills and sand dunes surrounding the lushly irrigated oasis that was their neighborhood. In my imagination, irrationally, Talia wore the very same outfit she did the night at the Fairmont. It was evening. It was dark. They argued. He, in a fit of pique, ordered her out of his car. She did get out, that much we knew, but following what? Disbelief? Anger? Pleading? I imagined her, my cousin, the young woman who, despite her sophisticated look, was strangely naïve, left alone, abandoned in the dark and dangerous landscape which, desolate and uninhabited, must have felt like a wasteland. “¿Te puedes imaginar?” my mother tsk-tsked as she shook her head, frowning. “¡La dejó plantada! He left her stranded!” My aunt was also outraged, but not enough to stop her daughter from seeing this rich young man, an eligible bachelor and a “catch.” I didn’t know how Talia got home that night – did her boyfriend repent and return for her? Had she managed to walk, in the high heels my imagination placed on her feet, on the rocky ground to the road where there might have been a roadside restaurant or a helpful person driving by?
When Talia was eighteen, she visited California once again, this time with her mother. She was pregnant and the problematic boyfriend refused to marry her. The extended family kept Talia’s pregnancy from my grandmother in order to shelter her from the painful news about her favorite grandchild, which would come as a blow. We worried about her, about the connection in the elderly between stress and heart attacks or strokes. When they did tell her about the pregnancy, they lied and implied a wedding, a small, civil ceremony, that had already happened. My grandmother, living in Lima, increasingly confused by time and age, by rapidly growing grandchildren and great-grandchildren, by change in general and the partial diaspora of her family in particular, accepted this version of events, content to believe her beloved happy. On that visit, again Talia and I, the first cousins, sat in the backseat as my mother drove us to lunch at a waterfront restaurant by the Bay, this time with her sister, my aunt, beside her in the passenger seat.
Our conversation in the back turned to my cousin’s future, to her baby. If it was a boy, Talia told me, she would name him Julio Agosto Reyes – the same exact name as his father. Again, I was astonished, dismayed this time, outraged even. Why would she name her child after the man who had rejected her? The man who had mistreated her during their three years together? The entitled, spoiled, rich boy? There was no mention of independence, of ultimatums, of taking control over the situation, of disowning an uncommitted father-of-the-child and turning to her own family – mother and father and siblings, grandmother and aunt and cousins – who would support her and love her child. She was still, I realized, in the same frame of mind as before. She wanted to marry a rich man; she expected motherhood within an expensive home, surrounded by luxury.
I quickly gathered together my imperfect knowledge of child support and child custody, of legal rights and legal obligations, for a single mother of a baby. I knew she was planning to give birth in Miami, away from the prying eyes and gossiping tongues of Lima’s high society. What were her rights? “What if,” I asked her, “Julio never marries you? What if you put his name on the birth certificate and christen your baby Julio Jr., and then the father comes after the child and tries to take him from you? You have to protect yourself and your baby!” Talia dismissed my concerns. I sensed that she, sitting beside me in her maternity leggings and tunic, belly big over her thighs, considered me extreme – too serious, overly political.
Four years after giving birth, Talia was still single. Her ex-boyfriend, the father of her baby, of her little boy, Julio Agosto Reyes Jr., had a new wife. This couple lived in a large house in the same gated community outside Lima where Talia grew up. Because he was rich, Julio Sr. had men who guarded him, his house, his wife, and, later, his legitimate children. During this time, the Peruvian magazine ¡Hola! published a dramatic spread. There were photos of my cousin, Talia, clutching her little boy close to her, his skinny arms around her neck, his bare legs around her torso. There were police cars in the background with flashes of red and blue lights caught by the camera lens, frozen forever in time. There were people everywhere on this beachfront property up the coast from the city. I remember poring over the article that titillatingly described the events leading to these photographs: the kidnapping of the child from the home of his mother and grandparents. The use of armed bodyguards. The sequestering of the child at the father’s beach house. The rescue of the child by the police and the reunion with his mother. It was all pandemonium, all drama; it looked like anarchy. Talia got her son back, but at what price?
Fast forward fifteen years. My grandmother is dead. She has gone, yes, but not before meeting my husband and approving my choice, not before seeing my firstborn and approving his birth. She became acquainted with my husband before she died, delighting in his confidence, his rudimentary but careful Spanish, his family’s affluence. I have a photograph of her with my infant son. Taken when we traveled to Peru to visit family, in this picture my baby is five months old. He reclines on a sofa next to his great-grandmother. She – in a gesture that reminds me irresistibly of Michelangelo’s portrayal of God reaching out to Adam – delicately, almost warily, extends a finger toward him, smiling. Delicately, because she is, as always, dressed in silk and alpaca, her long strand of pearls hanging heavily from her neck, the familiar diamonds on her hands, her silver hair up in its signature bun. Her movements seem to have a certain precision in my memory, her manicured fingers are careful, economical. Warily, because she, I realize only as an adult, did not like children. For children who were not her favorites, she had little time and less patience. She valued the idea of children as “completing” a woman, as giving a woman purpose and structure and respect. In this photograph my small son smiles back with his eyes as well as his mouth – with eyes that are small and dark, like mine, like my mother’s, like my grandmother’s – almost as if he knows her the way I do, intimately, her quirks and flaws, her strength and humor; as if, true to the fresco in the Sistine Chapel, I like to think, there is a spark between them.
Only lately, in my forties and early fifties, am I becoming aware of how I too have internalized my grandmother’s precepts, her teachings, her example, her doctrine. Even though I educated myself, earning my final degree at the age of thirty-two, my grandmother’s ambitions, as well as those of my mother who inherited them fully and unproblematically, were always present, a pressure hovering, inescapable, around me, coloring my thoughts, influencing my decisions. The things they wanted and expected for me – to marry and marry well, to become a wife, cared for and secure, then a mother, needed and fulfilled – were in some shape or form, I understand now, always my own aspirations, merely buried under the surface. More recently, as I follow in many of my mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps, it has been my children who have filled my thoughts, defined my goals, and held my heart.
Today, eleven years after my grandmother’s death, Talia’s son is an adult, brought up solely by her and her parents. Living in Miami, a continent away from Lima and the father of her only child, Talia works full time. She has worked for decades because she has had to. She failed in fulfilling her dreams and accomplishing her goals. Although she is lately married, it is a marriage that reneged on its promise of happily ever after and became instead a punishment, a sacrifice. She is married to an older man, a man who could be her father, a man rich at their wedding but impoverished a few years later by an infamous pyramid scheme. She held the fairy tale in her hand for a moment, like a perfect golden bowl, only to see it fissure and crack through no fault of her own. A life of wealth and luxury as a pampered wife and high-society lady she wished for cannot be.
And I? I gave up my career. Marriage, domesticity, and especially motherhood became too complicated, too demanding. I chose a maternal identity over a professional one; this has been my sacrifice as a mother and woman, as well as an academic and feminist. The decision has been painful – messy, long, and drawn out. It wasn’t one that I made in a single moment, in one place, or through one epiphany, but over time, with experience, in the face of new, sometimes unexpected, realities. I’ve found since then that there is great truth in my grandmother’s words: motherhood has been fulfilling. But also…consuming. Consuming in the powerful, overwhelming, enthralling sense of the word. In my experience it left little space for other concerns, for projects or work, for any substantial time away from my children. Thus if my cousin’s story is a failed fairy tale, a warped telenovela, then mine is a mirror tale of concession and compromise. Although I consider myself educated and intellectual, there has been, undoubtedly, a trade-off. These days I think to myself, who is the kept woman now?