“Mamá, can you help me build my little room?” My eight-year-old is up early, scissors in hand, dark eyes shining. “Do you know where that white cinta is that we use? I think it will stick good on the cajas.”
Yesterday, my son came home from art camp lugging two huge cardboard boxes. He spent the afternoon sketching blueprints for a space of his own. He likes to use objects during transitions, bringing a carrito with him on a visit to his grandparents or carrying a small plastic animal in his pocket. Sometimes, perhaps to hold onto the memory associated with a place or an experience, he will bring a piece of it back home with him: a kids’ menu covered in little drawings and crayon art from a restaurant, or supplies, like these cardboard boxes, to incorporate into his next creation.
Standing amidst the mess of my kitchen, I look at my son: hair sticking up like a woodpecker, dinosaur pajamas half tucked into his socks, beaming at me with utter confidence. In his eyes, I am Mamá: capable, magical, limitless in my ability to bring things to life and make anything work. My son believes I have the power to help him transform his vision, drawn onto scraps of paper, into a perfect “little room” using cardboard boxes, scissors and masking tape.
I take a breath. The kitchen table is piled with papers, half drunk cups of water, a few odd pencils and markers. There are sticky spots where the sweet grape juice of Shabbat overflowed last night when both kids insisted on pouring their own. A couple of stray black beans from our dinner of gallo pinto are hardening in the corner of his chair. Carros are laid out in calles along the floor, foam blocks are built into towers, and a variety of tchotchkes have been left haphazardly on top of the radiator. Once-browning-but-now-black platanos dare me to fry them into sweet maduros.
Overwhelmed by the tasks confronting me, I hear the familiar, inner critic, reminding me of the laundry, cleaning, bills, and phone calls. Yet standing before me is my son, confident that I can help build the little room of his dreams. Out of cardboard. And tape.
At eight, I had a harder time entertaining myself than my son does. “Mom!” I would pester, “What can I do?” I remember her shushing me, the phone cradled between her shoulder and ear, or telling me she was busy making dinner and couldn’t play or help me. With four raucous children to keep track of, my mom was difficult to slow down. I can still hear the exasperation in her voice when—after rejecting an idea she had offered—my persistent questions became too much. Why didn’t she have time to play with me? I would turn away, cheeks burning with rebuke, and head back to my room to commiserate with my stuffed animals.
Yet there were also deep moments of sharing, when my mother, the queen of 20 minute naps, would invite me into her bed, my arms were piled high with books to read while she rested next to me. Other times, we would sit by her desk, her sewing machine humming as she repaired clothes or stitched baby blankets. With classical music playing on the radio, she taught me to sew a pillow, make my stuffed animal, and, when I was older, to create a quilt. The patience that sometimes eluded her while busy with the day-to-day tasks seemed unlimited as she shared her craft.
I cherished those moments when she took time to be with me—or simply let me be with her. Did she know the impact she was having? Could she have guessed that these were memories I would hold onto, so many years later?
Now, as a mother myself, with a full time job, I understand the frustration my mom must have felt, and why she wasn’t always available. Yet the hurt I felt as a child has stayed with me, too. That’s why I push myself to stop and be with my children, even as I grit my teeth and pull away from the everyday tasks that feel so crucial.
Ten years from now, will I remember cleaning the counter, the dishes, the table? Will a trumpet announce that I have finished folding, sorting and putting away laundry? Will my son remember, ten years from now, that I set everything aside to work on that little room with him? Will this be one of the memories he holds dear? Will he pull the memory out, squinting to recall the details, when he has his children and piles of work to do?
So I stop. I leave the food, the dishes, the platanos. I shush the voice and find the tape. Two different kinds.
He blocks the entrance to the room he shares with his sister, using long pieces of masking tape, upon which he writes, “Caution! Construction. Please do not enter. ¡Gracias!” Using his drawings, we start building. First, a wall that must reach and be supported from his sister’s top bunk, all the way down to the floor. “But I want to have the peeking hole, Mamá, and then put this little caja underneath to hold all the supplies…” He pauses, looking at me expectantly, and I try to guide him just enough that he can find the solution himself, watching his brows furrow in thought, then arc upwards as his whole face lights up with realization.
Together, we build a spacious room with a pop-up roof. It has a peep-in window with a door attached, made from the see-thru plastic that held his recent matchbox car purchase. He cuts a rectangular hole into one wall of the house, with a flap that folds to one side, in order to slip his battery-operated fan into place for hot days and then he creates a special storage space for when it isn’t being used. There is a main door for entering. A dust sweeper for cleaning the “window.” A different, smaller box is taped under the tall wall specially made to hold our supplies, “For we don’t lose them Mamá.”
We work for two hours, briefly breaking for a snack of dried seaweed and frozen blueberries. Once we finish eating, I sneak the dried beans from the corner of his chair onto our dirty plates and carry them to the kitchen, indulging the voice in my head with this single diversion. We return to the job site and work for two more hours.
In the end we incorporate three cardboard boxes, two-thirds of a roll of masking tape, half a roll of clear packing tape, ten wooden skewer supports, and one more skewer with a piece of foam attached (the “wiper” for cleaning the windows).
I am in awe at my son’s perseverance, I look at the little room, now occupying a prominent space next to the foot of his bed. He is exuberant, gathering books to read in the little space while he installs and turns on the fan. I lie on the floor next to him, listening as he organizes the space inside, never ceasing his discussion of what will go where, who he might invite in, and whether Himokino, his big orange hippo, will fit inside next to him.
At my son’s request we photograph the little room, both with the fan installed and in its storage space. I take one shot of him alone, and another with him snuggled into Himokino, reading a book. “For I can remember how it goes, Mamá.”
After our photo shoot, I sit on the floor, smiling as I watch him make little adjustments here and there, clucking over details. The inner voice, tired of being suppressed, begins whispering that it’s time for me to get back to all the tasks left undone. I ignore it for now and stop to take a deep breath, content with what we have accomplished. It is enough, in this moment, to simply take pride in the creativity of my son.
As I watch him, I find myself thinking about my mom again. In her final days, as she was slowly slipping away from us, I reminded her of how I used to read in bed with her as a little girl, and what it meant to me. No longer able to communicate with her voice, she looked at me quizzically from the hospital bed we had set up by the window in her bedroom. Maybe she didn’t remember, I thought. Or perhaps she was surprised to hear that those afternoons together held so much meaning for me. Maybe she no longer understood what I was telling her. I felt a pang of regret for not mentioning this memory even a few weeks ago, while she was still coherent and alert—or earlier in my life.
Now, standing outside my son’s little house, I wonder again how my mother felt at the end of our projects. I remember her smiling, her whole face lighting up, and her eyes shining, as we looked over the details of a finished quilt. I’ll never know if she thought about the impact on me of those hours at the sewing machine; but I know that she got lost in our time together, too. She always seemed surprised when she noticed what time it was, her energy shifting into a higher gear, as she packed up supplies and ran down the stairs to start cooking dinner, or pick up one of my brothers from soccer practice. Left alone, I would stay in the warmth of her room, my new quilt draped over my legs, savoring the feeling of accomplishment.
Mentally, I begin making a list of the tasks I need to accomplish tomorrow. But before I get up to start sorting Iaundry and wipe down the kitchen table, I take one last look at the room. Inside, my child is singing to himself as he decorates, savoring his own sense of accomplishment. I head towards the door of the bedroom, shifting into work mode.
“¿Sí, mi amor?”
“Tomorrow, Mamá…can we paint it?”