Marcos Bretón

My mother deserved more from me, too

Elodia Bretón Martinez with her son, young Marcos, in 1966 in San Jose.
Elodia Bretón Martinez with her son, young Marcos, in 1966 in San Jose.

If my mother were alive today, I would say to her: "Mom, I have not appreciated you enough for much of my life.

"I did not recognize you enough for the sacrifices that you made. In the time we had together, I did not fully appreciate how women of your generation and culture were marginalized and, yet, you rose above gender limitations and biases that even your own kids expressed in complete ignorance."

These thoughts are like a drumbeat in my mind at this time of year. In quiet moments, or at the oddest times, I wonder if my mom can hear me from wherever her soul may be today.

It would be nice. The Catholic boy in me would like to believe that somewhere, in the heaven I nurture in my mind, that my mom is still connected with everything I think and do.

I was 35 when she died 20 years ago next month. Not for everyone, but in general, your mid-30s are some fairly obtuse years in a man's life. You're still young enough to believe that you are really are all that, just as your mom made you believe. You're still probably too young to possess the introspection and emotional maturity needed to look your mom in the eye and pay her the proper respect for everything she did and everything she was.


Personally, I was too self-absorbed and insecure to recognize all that my mother was while she was still here. That perspective wouldn't come until my hair turned gray and started to abandon me.

It's been better late than never, but too little too late.

It's why Mother's Day always brings a twinge of guilt to my soul for what was left unsaid and undone between my mother and me. And for all times I fell short with the woman who gave birth to me, and with the woman who gave birth to my children.

This sounds like a story of self indulgence and, in a sense, it is. But haven't our recent times proved how commonly men have fallen short? And even as plenty of men deny it, or rail against it, aren't we experiencing a cultural reckoning, an assessment and reassessment of in real time of men's behavior toward women?

Elodia Bretón Martinez with her son, young Marcos, in 1966 in San Jose.

I was a loving son, a respectful son, but for many years I was a guy brainwashed by the patriarchy within my own culture – and American culture at large. My mom could have worked when I was young, she wanted to work, but she was essentially forbidden from doing so because it just wasn't done. Our family financial situation would have vastly improved if she had.

She had the intellect to be a significant breadwinner. But in her day, while raising two boys in the early 1970s, most women weren't supported if they wanted to further their education. I'm old enough to remember when girls the age of my spouse weren't allowed to play sports. I went to weddings where women vowed to "obey." I enjoyed movies where women were sexual objects or were subjected to harassment. I used to think Bill Cosby and O.J. Simpson were the coolest guys ever. A whole country did.

My mom did to go to work later, when I was a teenager. My dad, brother and I offered no support. Just the opposite. We were the three stooges who didn't know what to do with ourselves when she wasn't around to cook our meals and make us feel better about ourselves. To her everlasting credit, she ignored us and told us to get over it.

Why didn't we support her? Why didn't one of us say: "Hey mom, you're really smart, why don't you go back to school and get a degree to fulfill your passion for business?" Following all the developments and stories under the heading of #MeToo, after years of reflection, I can objectively review my past behavior toward my mom, connect the dots of the conventional wisdom of the time, and see, well, that was just the opposite of wise.

By the end her life, my mom was spending her summers working in a San Jose fruit factory where other Mexican women worked. They called her every summer because they appreciated her organizational and leadership skills enough to put her in charge of a crew of women working there.

I wish I had told her I was proud of her for this, because now I am. Then, it never occurred to me.

We awaken in small personal ways and in large public ones. The downfall of the powerful have nothing to do with my memories of my mom, except in those winces of regret, and in seeing how all our interactions are pieces of a behavioral puzzle. If we are not acting, then we are condoning or ignoring. In our society at large, most men a year ago would not have thought about the abuses by super powerful guys such as Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Tavis Smiley. I used to love the films of Annabella Sciorra, Ashley Judd, Uma Thurman and Salma Hayek. As we all found out, their careers ceased to thrive because of Weinstein. I was actually upset when Rose's show went off the air until it was revealed what a pig he was to women who worked for him.

By the time the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Junot Diaz was outed for his past behavior by a growing group of female writers, whatever my past reservations about #MeToo had disappeared. It's about valuing women, yes. But it's more than that. It's about valuing humanity. It's about treating people well. It's about respecting and supporting human beings.

And through that, you can flip the phrase, look in a mirror, and say, I need to reassess me, too.

In that sense, I didn't give my mom everything that she deserved when she was here. She never knew that my actions have always been guided by not wanting to let her down. Even now, if I'm disrespectful to someone, I apologize because I can feel her disapproval.

She did that for me – she did a million things for me. I wish that I had returned the favor as much as I should have. I loved her, adored her, sought her approval always. I doted on her on Mother's Day, but that wasn't enough. Mother's Day, too often, could be re-dubbed: Empty Gesture Day to the woman who deserves more.

My mom did and she should have heard it from me in full in the time that we had. If you still have time, do this. When time runs out, all you have are your thoughts and hopes for what should have been.