My children have a multicolored plush spider that, if you press one of its dangly dance-shoed legs, plays the Lambada. A Spanish-speaking friend of my mother’s got it for our older daughter, shortly after her homecoming. I remember how, when I unwrapped it and showed it to her, I became more animated than she was at the originality and significance of the gift. When I moved to the US (and I imagine to some extent still), people knew the Lambada most commonly by its nickname of “the forbidden dance.” In Madrid, I remember the Lambada being danced at a 2nd grade birthday party. When I would mention this here, my friends thought I was scandalous and no one believed me.
Also, no one believed me when I’d reveal that, at recess in my Catholic grade school in Spain, the nuns sold beer. Or when I’d mention that in Spain, a rollercoaster is known as a montaña rusa (a Russian mountain). This chain of events: remembering, sharing, and disbelief has happened numerous other times since moving here.
I think any mother of young children might be able to relate to the fact that, in the most labor-intensive years of motherhood, your personal past comes to seem like a dream; you think you were there, that things happened one particular way, but with your star in a different orbit, you can no longer say for sure. And I’d argue that this intensifies a bit more when you live far from the land of your birth, when you’re surrounded mostly by people who speak one but not both of your languages. And when you’re a writer and, for better or for worse, part of your job description is to pull material out of thin air. In short, your memories become underscored with doubt.
Sometimes I am caught by surprise by an artifact from my childhood: a toy, a photograph, a shared memory, and it makes my breath catch in sheer amazement that it really happened the way I remember it, that I didn’t imagine it after all. Like this spider serving as proof that in other cultures (including my other culture) the Lambada can be a fun song for children. Proof that I’m neither a liar nor crazy.
I’ve started seeking out more of this proof. On the occasion of New Year’s, I made a reading list of titles I hope to read in 2009, which is something I’ve done for the last four years. This year, for the first time, it includes a number of favorite titles from my childhood: The Antoñita la fantástica series, by Borita Casas, and so many books published by the wonderful Barco de Vapor. Thanks to the marvel of YouTube, I’ve been able to enjoy some favorite TV series from my infancia, such as “Oliver y Benji” (about two soccer playing boys), “Juana y Sergio” (about volleyball-playing enamorados) and “Marco” (about a little boy who travels from Italy to Argentina in search of his lost mother). Each thing I revisit makes me experience the same restorative and inspiring energy the Lambada spider did; a confirmation of experience I’ve needed for a few areas of my life, but mostly for my writing.
I recently read the foreword of Isabel Allende’s book, My Invented Country, in which she writes about the realization that she writes “as a constant exercise in longing.” And I see how I have been hesitant to embrace this in my fiction writing (the writing I am most passionate about attempting); how I have put characters I cared about in settings and circumstances that I didn’t know and didn’t believe in. How these things have been excuses made out of fear…of misremembering, of nostalgia, of vulnerability, if I did otherwise. This year, I’m resolving to overcome this.
In the next few months, our older daughter and son will turn three, and, shortly after that, our younger daughter will turn two. The exhaustion of never-ending physical tasks is already lifting. They are beginning to turn into specific people, talking (talking!) and otherwise manifesting their personalities. I have to admit I love this stage differently and maybe more than I did the sleep-in-your-arms, coo-at-you baby stage. Now, because of their ages, I get to begin to witness and form the shape my children will take in this world. Now, because of my age and the stage I’m in as a bicultural woman, I get to better revisit my own longing shape, and — it’s my unafraid hope for the New Year — set down fiction true to myself.