Mami’s life came with many lessons, many of which I learned after she left us. Today is the May 7th — the 30 month mark (where did 2.5 years go?) and next week is Mother’s Day. So… she’s been more top-of-mind than ever.
Recently I’ve been exploring imposter syndrome with the beautiful souls on my email list, and the question of “belonging” came up for me. So, I thought I’d tell you about the time Mami — my mother — took me to a fancy party.
From 7th to 12th grade, I commuted from the South Bronx into Manhattan and attended fancy private schools with the children of NYC’s wealthy and elite. As a kid from a working-class household, navigating private school often felt like walking a tightrope. And at the beginning of 10th grade — sweet 16 season! — one of my classmates invited our entire grade to a big 16th birthday bash at the swanky New York Athletic Club.
The party was on a Friday after a short school day. I was able to go home from school to the Bronx and stop at the salon before getting home to pack an overnight bag (post-birthday bash slumber party!) and throw on one of my sister’s party dresses — a gold-flecked black slinky number — it was the 80s!
I was a latchkey kid, which means I got home and got myself ready for the party. Once Mami got home from work, I had a little bite to eat. At that time I took the subway by myself to school, but it was a totally different story to allow me to travel that way in the evening in a fancy dress. My parents agreed that it was best for my father to drive me downtown instead of having me take the train by myself.
So I waited. And waited. And he never showed.
This happened sometimes.
Mami was pissed off. But she decided to sacrifice her relaxing Friday evening to take me into Manhattan in a cab. This was before Uber and cell phones and even now, there are no yellow cabs in the Bronx.
Getting a safe taxi in an outer borough at that time meant you needed to call a local car service. So she did.
And off we went.
I was excited for the party but worried about my mother. We didn’t have money — she worked a clerical job at a public hospital. The train was too dangerous to take back up to the South Bronx. How would she pay for the cab ride back home? Mami assured me that she would be able to drop me off and then take a taxi home, and that I shouldn’t worry.
When we arrived at the New York Athletic Club, she insisted on walking me into the building.
I felt very self-conscious.
Mami was older — 57 at the time with a silver head of hair — and she was usually mistaken for my grandmother. Plus she had a thick Spanish accent. And not for nothing: how would it look for my mom to walk me into a party?
We didn’t belong.
Panicked at the opulence of the place and how much I — how much WE — didn’t fit in, I insisted on walking to the elevators without her and told her I didn’t need her to walk me.
I think that hurt Mami. But she respected my decision despite her worry (even the doorman assured us in Spanish that it was really easy to get to the party). So she said OK and after reassuring me again that she would take a cab home, I thanked her and walked through the lobby that was something out of The Gilded Age.
As an adult, I think about that night in that lobby as I walked away from my mother.
- Fearful that I I’d get lost and not find the party,
- Embarrassed that I needed to be dropped off by my mother,
- Self-consciousness about what people might think of me — could they see I didn’t belong?
- And finally, I felt a little proud because I knew I was afraid, but I walked in anyway.
And I also think about what Mami must have felt.
Because she lied. She couldn’t afford a taxi home, so after she left me she made her way to the subway and rode home.
Mami had a terrible sense of direction, so I imagine it was not easy for her to figure out which way to walk. I know she was uncomfortable being in that position — getting into a cab and then on the train after a long day at work on her Friday night, and then walking through our rough neighborhood in the evening as it got dark.
She didn’t admit any of this to me for over 20 years.
Mami was the most well-read person I’ve ever met AND she was an immigrant who spoke broken English.
Those who knew her were impressed at her knowledge, her sense of humor and her intelligence.
But there were always the outliers, people who couldn’t see past the broken English or her support-type job, who made assumptions and comments.
As a teenager, I was keenly aware of how she was perceived.
And I know it made her feel bad. I was born here and I still didn’t feel like I belonged in certain spaces.
Imagine Mami — she got her visa to come to this country on November 22nd, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. By the time she got here, Camelot was over and the tumultuous 1960s were in full force.
Belonging was difficult for Mami in a lot of spaces and places in New York, especially around people with money, or people who judged accented English, or people who just forgot that the U.S. is a country of immigrants.
But despite all that, she sure as hell was determined to give everything she had so that her children could feel at home in situations that included luxurious surroundings and fancy people and wherever else we wanted to be.
I didn’t appreciate her efforts then, like most teenagers. But years later, I thanked her and I still do today.
Because whenever I’m feeling those uncomfortable feelings: imposter syndrome, being a fish out of water, NOT BELONGING… I remind myself that someone loved me enough to get really uncomfortable so that I could go to a nice fancy birthday party. And I had fun while she braved the 2 train home.
This month — the anniversary, Mother’s Day — is reverberating in my head and I miss Mami terribly. She was brave and willing to try new things even though they were scary. So now, I have to forge through uncomfortable feelings and allow myself to grow, too. Because someone loved me enough to make it possible for me to belong at that party.
How about you? Are there places or situations you’re shying away from just because you worry whether you belong or whether they’re “for you?”
I believe that what you are looking for, is looking for you. And whether or not you believe it too, I want you to consider that it might be true for you, too.
There are people who love you, sacrificed for you, and paved the way for you, whether you’re consciously aware of them or not. So feel your fears and move forward anyway, just like I did in that enormous marble lobby and just like Mami did when she got dressed again to take me downtown while knowing she didn’t have enough money to get home comfortably.
Belonging is a verb. So take heart and go do it. You got this.