She was raised in both a time and a culture that categorized women as second class, but she rose above it without a hint of resentment.
She could do something that seems simple but is actually very hard: She accepted people as they were and without judgment, even when they were disappointing or hurtful.
Her eldest sister died when she was very young, but if she was haunted by this she never let on.
Her mother went blind as an adult, a dark day in any family, and yet she helped her mom learn how to walk through her house as if it were another task to be performed.
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After that, she never wondered aloud why terrible things happened.
There was no room for sad narratives in her family.
She would not allow her mother – the family matriarch – to lose her place of importance in the lives of a large extended family.
How important was that?
She believed a family should be like a safe and solid home. If it was, those in the family might lose their way in the short term, but find their way back eventually.
The years have proved her right as the newer generations of her family remain connected on social media, swapping grainy photos of her generation of the family.
Petty family squabbles among them didn’t last, but the love did.
So much of what she did and said resonates more deeply with each passing year.
If only she could know now how her nieces and nephews, some worlds away from where she lived, still weep at her memory. And they treat her children with an enduring affection that never fades with time or distance.
She built that bond and laid the foundation for everything that is good in the lives of her children.
From the time her two sons were very little until they were grown men that towered over her, she would say to them: No one is better than you.
She didn’t have a college education, and English was her second language. But she read the newspaper in English from cover to cover everyday.
This deeply influenced her elder son, though he didn’t realize it at the time. When he told her he wanted to be a newspaperman, he had no idea how lucky he was to have this news greeted with joy and encouragement.
At that point, no one in her family from Mexico had ever considered such a career or even graduated from an American university. She had no point of reference to provide practical career advice, but she had something more valuable – the ability to help her son believe in himself. Her son did become a journalist and she cut out and pasted every last awkward article of his formative years in a meticulous scrapbook that symbolized the ascension of an immigrant family.
More than anyone, she made it happen.
Meanwhile, her son came to realize that his mom could take one look at him and know what he was feeling. He knew there were things that he could confide in her that he couldn’t tell his father or anyone else. She kept every secret every time.
She would tell her son wonderful stories of her family that would fill him with pride and see him past the cultural traps of friends of the same ethnicity – friends whose problems were rooted in being ashamed of who they were.
You’ve heard of a “Tiger Mom”? She once stopped a bully roughing up her son with nothing more than a deadly glare.
As a brand-new mom, she cooed to her baby in Spanish on a public bus in Northern California in the 1960s, until interrupted by a stranger scolding her to speak English.
Only 5-foot-3, she upbraided the larger man – in English and Spanish – until he moved silently to another part of the bus.
It’s family lore and who knows how much it was embellished through the years, but that story repeated an invaluable message to her sons: No one is better than you.
Years later, as she lay in her hospital bed, her prognosis mortally serious, her face radiated an unconditional love to her trembling sons and husband. “Look, doctor,” she said to her oncologist with such pride. “These are my men.”
She died nine months before her son’s first book was published, but in her honor there was no resentment over such twists of fate. That would go against her faith.
She died six years before the first grandkids came along, but those kids speak of her today as if she were present in their lives. In many ways big and small, she is.
Some loves never die.
Her sons can still smell her flour tortillas and her perfume in their imaginations. Extended family and friends still talk about the holiday meals she used to prepare. Her immediate family still remembers what an amazing dancer and luminous spirit she was.
She was a treasured eldest daughter, a big sister to a large brood of siblings, a lifelong friend to many, a surrogate mom, a wife and partner to the love of her life.
She was my mother – Elodia Martinez Breton. God bless her, the mother of my children and moms everywhere.
Happy Mother’s Day.