The women who came forward when my mother was gone

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Over the past year or so, I have thought a lot about my mother, who passed away in 2008. I have often wondered how she – an older Latina with underlying comorbidities and a deep, constant love of socialization – would go through. a global pandemic?

More recently, with the hope of increasing vaccinations, I thought about how glorious this weekend would have been, how many selfies we would have contributed to the constant stream of gratitude and joy that floods my diet. on social networks every second Sunday in May.

Since her unexpected death 13 years ago, Mother’s Day has lost some of its brunch and flower innocence for me. I still spend the day celebrating with my son, who was born four years after my mother died, and honoring the other moms I know and love. But more so, maybe, it’s a day I spend thinking about the group of women who showed up on the day my mother left and have cheered me up ever since, more than they realize. probably.

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This group of women – I have come to call them Las Amigas – were my mother’s dearest friends. And while, of course, they could never replace her, they served as proxies, providing unfettered, unconditional love when I needed it most.

Sara González holds her little child Isabel

Isabel González Whitaker, a small child, with her mother Sara.

Courtesy of Isabel González Whitaker

Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, who helped create the Head Start program in the United States under President Johnson, said: “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her. To my siblings and I, this irrationally insane adult was our mother. With my older brother and sister in tow, she fled Cuba in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro took power during the revolution. Seeking refuge in the United States, they took a ferry from Havana to Key West, then traveled by train to New Orleans, eventually settling in New York.

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Throughout our lives, our mother has showered us with relentless love and support. And every professional success I’ve had is due in large part to her fierce belief in my potential and my own internalized desire to make her proud. But when your biggest cheerleader dies, who takes the megaphone?

As I struggled to regain my balance after losing it, I looked for people who could fill this void – people who would support me, but who could also share stories I had never heard about my mother. I found a support group in Las Amigas – five incredibly cool, independent and strong women who knew me as a facet of my mother’s multidimensional life.

In Cuba, my mother lived in a multigenerational house, as was the norm. In her case, she was raised by aunts and great aunts. Years later, while my family lived in Atlanta, my grandmother occupied the ground floor of our townhouse. I suspect that growing up with older parents predisposed me to being able to navigate adult spaces as a child, and this might also explain the ease with which I was able to contact Las Amigas when I needed their support.

Even as a child I realized my mom’s friends were both a book and smart, glamorous and social street. I knew that when Mireille left Cuba, she was working at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. She had married a film distributor, spent time in Cannes and refused to quit smoking during her later years. She was my mother’s oldest friend, two lovely girls who met in kindergarten at Merici Academy in Havana, where the strict Ursuline nuns left a lasting impression. When my husband’s book came out in 2013, my mom wasn’t there to share our enthusiasm. But Mireille was. She asked for a personalized copy and after finishing it wrote me a lovely letter detailing her favorite parts.

Mom met Celie as a teenager in Cuba. After the revolution, Celie moved to Madrid. Visiting him was our first trip to Europe, a gift from my brother. My mom and Celie had partied with Hollywood stars like Kirk Douglas in 1950s Cuba, so when Celie found out that Bruce Springsteen was in Madrid and staying at the Ritz hotel, she took us there. As we sat in the marble lobby, The Boss stepped out of an elevator with his wife and teammate Patti Scialfa. My charming mom dressed in a remarkable Krizia costume called him like they were old buddies. Startled, he turned around, waved his hand, and offered the stunned teenager, standing next to two striking tall women, a huge smile and an everlasting memory. Years later, as I struggled with infertility after my mother’s death, it was the devout religious Celie who prayed for me at Our Lady of Lourdes.

“My charming mother dressed in a remarkable Krizia costume called him like they were old buddies.”

One of the first friends my mother made when she arrived in New York City was Zigrida, a Latvian woman who fled the Nazi occupation as a child by walking west for months and hiding in a network of shelters. Zigrida and Mom were going on a cruise together – they loved a multi-course meal lasting several hours. When we could no longer break bread with my mother, my husband and I would cook elaborate meals for Zigrida, who listened intently as we discussed our jobs and dreams.

My mom met DeeAnne at the University of North Carolina library where they both worked – and where they were sometimes mistaken for models due to their penchant for wearing miniskirts and platforms. My father was pursuing his doctorate in college, and my mother and DeeAnne came together to marry unstable men who were praised for their brilliance. It was in the 1970s, and they explored feminism together, guiding each other through the process of finding their own voices. When my brother passed away a few months after my mother, it was DeeAnne who helped organize her memorial service at her church in Miami, near my brother’s house.

Sara González sits on a boat in a low-back swimsuit

Isabel’s mother, Sara.

Courtesy of Isabel González Whitaker

Once my mother found her calling as a minority and immigrant rights advocate in Atlanta, she also found a soul mate in Aida, a glamorous, politically left-wing Puerto Rican philanthropist. Aida and my mom loved to dance salsa and recap stories from The New York Times, troubling itself over Republican agendas and Latin politics. Together, they stood up for the Latin people of Atlanta – a community that, especially in the ’80s and’ 90s, lacked representation. When I had nothing black to wear at my mother’s memorial, it was Aida who bought me a dress, a perfectly chic black DVF that I loved as much as I hated. I never wore it again.

I came across a study recently that suggested that having friends who are at least 15 years older helps people enjoy life experiences. On the other hand, older people report benefiting from the new perspectives offered by young friends. I have learned firsthand that there is so much more to these unique relationships beyond the transaction. Over the past decade, I’ve stayed in touch with some of these friends – they’re mine now too, not just my mom – more than others. But I hope they all know how much they mean to me. On this Mother’s Day, I am grateful for Las Amigas, women who, in my mother’s absence, gave me an “irrational madman” that I so needed.

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