My mother insisted on visiting me in Guatemala, where I was working as a Peace Corps volunteer, despite my exaggerated warnings about how difficult — how incommodious, how dangerous, even — life there was. I knew my scare tactics would fail; had I been a soldier in a war, my mother would have parachuted into my foxhole.
In Guatemala, I was always conscious of being a privileged North American with access to material goods few people in Santa Cruz Verapaz, the small mountain town where I was living, could even imagine. So instead of flaunting my relative wealth, or even purchasing the occasional luxury item I might have found in the capital, I strove to live with what I saw as the same dignified simplicity as my friends and neighbors. I wasn’t sure my mother, who hadn’t had the cultural-awareness training I’d received in the Peace Corps — who had never lived anywhere outside of the eastern United States — would understand the life I’d embraced.
I’d told my mother about the eight girls and three boys who lived next door to me. They were from three indigenous families who maintained Mayan traditions. The girls wore cortes and güipiles, the native skirts and blouses, and spoke Pokomchí, the local Mayan language, in addition to Spanish. It had taken me a long time to win their confidence. Only after I’d lived next door for two months had they spoken to me. And only after four months had they felt brave enough to accept my invitation to pick roses from my garden, which they’d seen over my courtyard wall.
Soon, they became regular — and observant — visitors. They examined every object in my house and on my person; they watched my every move and could tell me what time I had come home from working in the fields on a particular day, or what hour I’d turned off the light in my courtyard on a certain night.
After announcing her intention to visit, my mother said, “I’ll bring the children a present or two.”
“Don’t,” I said.
“How can I come with nothing? I have to bring them something.”
I knew that if she had her heart set on bringing gifts, she would bring them, no matter my objections.
“OK,” I said, “but bring them something small. Very small.”
“OK,” she agreed. “Something small.”
“Please,” I added.
“All right,” she said.
From the balcony above the customs area at the Guatemala City airport, I spotted my mother immediately: the gray-haired woman straining to pull the two suitcases she’d brought. When I met her outside, I asked, “What have you got in there?”
“A few things,” she said. “A few small things.”
I lifted the suitcases. “These are heavy,” I said, “for only a few small things.”
“Don’t forget, I brought my clothes, too,” she said.
“Have you started wearing bricks?” I asked.
I’d told the children from next door about my mother’s visit, and they were waiting for us on my front stoop when we arrived. They were curious about my mother’s suitcases. “What’s inside?” asked five-year-old Olga, the youngest of the girls.
“Clothes,” I said. “My mother’s clothes.”
“She has a lot of clothes,” she said.
I asked the children to come back in half an hour. After they left, I could hear them in their courtyard, counting down the minutes.
“OK,” I said to my mother, “let me assess the damage.”
She’d brought Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs, and a dozen sets of scented markers. She’d brought coloring books and construction paper and candy. (“The gum is sugarless,” she said in response to my protest.) She’d brought three recorders — the instrument — and a battery-powered keyboard. Worst of all, in my view, she’d brought eight Barbie dolls, glaring symbols of North American excess and cultural imperialism.
“Mom,” I said, “you’ll have to take it back.”
“Take what back?”
“All of it.”
“I can’t take it back,” she said. “I don’t even remember where I bought everything. I had to go to six or seven stores to find it all.”
“This,” I said, gesturing toward her gifts, “will ruin me.”
“You can give them whichever toys you want,” she said. “We’ll take the rest to an orphanage.”
I knew that the children expected some gift, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I also didn’t want to disappoint my mother. “We’ll give them the coloring books, the markers, and the sugarless gum,” I said. “The rest will have to go somewhere else.”
When the countdown in the yard next door reached zero, the children raced back to my house, banging on the door as if they intended to knock it down. My mother spread the coloring books, markers, and gum on the dining-room table, and the children dove in.
They spent a long time coloring in the books and chewing the gum. When I announced that it was time for them to go home, Elvira, the second-oldest of the children, sidled up to me and asked if this was all my mother had brought.
“I think so,” I said.
“Hmm,” Elvira said, looking at me skeptically.
The children lined up to say good night to my mother, each one hugging her before they left. Receiving their hugs, my mother beamed.
Later, from my courtyard, I could hear the children talking next door, repeating my mother’s name like the secret password to unlock a room full of treasures.
“I had a great time tonight,” my mother told me before going to sleep.
“Same here,” I said, which was only partly true. I was worried about how the children next door now saw me and her and the U.S., even if they’d only received markers, coloring books, and gum. At the same time, I knew how pleased my mother was, and I couldn’t help feeling happy about that.
My mother has always been a big gift giver. Every Christmas, the floor under our tree would be piled high with presents. Sometimes there would be too many to fit. My father used to label this “wretched excess,” and over the years he became an increasingly reluctant participant in the gift giving. For one thing, he could never compete with my mother: whatever he bought, she bought five of it, or bought the better brand or the newer model. He also believed in the “less is more” philosophy of gift giving. For him, one small gift, carefully chosen, was worth more than twenty gifts bought to fill the space beneath the tree. Their differing approaches to gift giving were undoubtedly one of the many reasons their marriage fell apart when I was fourteen.
My mother often said she didn’t want my sister and me to have the deprived childhood she’d endured. When she was a teenager, her father had put her to work helping her brother with his newspaper route, sweeping stalls at a horse stable, and busing tables. She’d even had to buy her own prom dress. Giving to us, she acknowledged, was her way of compensating for what she’d lacked growing up. But she never saw it as overcompensating.
As children, my sister and I loved presents — the more, the better. We used to compete to see who got the most gifts. As we grew older, however, we became worn down by our mother’s generosity. She gave us so much that it was difficult, if not impossible, to reciprocate. Whatever we bought her looked minuscule and cheap by comparison. We also began to see our mother’s generosity as not entirely selfless. This was especially true the year after the divorce, when, at Christmas and on our birthdays, we received more gifts than ever before. In giving to us, we suspected, she wanted something back: loyalty, emotional support, and, when she introduced her boyfriend to us, acceptance.
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of an electric keyboard in the dining room. My mother was entertaining the children from next door, whose knock I hadn’t heard.
“We’ve run out of coloring books,” my mother explained.
My mother didn’t speak Spanish, and the children spoke no English, but the language barrier didn’t seem to hinder their play. Everyone was taking a turn banging on the keyboard.
“You didn’t give them the keyboard, did you?” I asked her.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“But I’m afraid they know about the Barbie dolls.”
“What?” I flushed with anger. “How?”
“They looked through the bedroom window,” my mother said, “and saw them beside the bed.”
A few moments later, after finishing her turn on the keyboard, Elvira came up to me. “Marcos,” she said, “are the dolls for us?”
I knew I would have a hard time explaining whom the dolls were for, if not for them. Besides, I saw something plaintive and yearning in Elvira’s face, and I knew how quickly and easily I could turn her expression into joy. At that moment, I felt the power of the gift giver, and it was irresistible.
“Yes,” I said, “they’re yours.”
I immediately regretted it.
Barbie dolls were not unknown in Guatemala, but were sold only in the capital and at more expensive prices than in the U.S. The dolls, I knew, would mark me as someone of great wealth. In addition, buxom, long-legged, blond Barbie dolls represented a stereotype of North American women that did nothing to encourage pride in dark-skinned children.
As my mother handed out the dolls to the girls (she gave the boys the recorders, Play-Doh, and Lincoln Logs), I wondered about the consequences of her gifts. My mother would be gone in a week, but I had more than a year left in my Peace Corps tour. Yet, even as I fretted over the message my mother was sending, I couldn’t help but feel touched by the scene. My mother smiled as she handed the dolls to the girls, and they giggled with pleasure at receiving them. And when, one by one, they stepped up to hug her in thanks, I saw again the joy in my mother’s face.
That evening, the children returned to my house with their mothers. I’d never met the three women, only seen them washing clothes. Although they’d probably been curious to see the inside of my house and to meet me, it would have been unseemly for them to enter the home of a single man. My mother’s presence now made it permissible.
Conversation between my mother and the children’s mothers was slow because of the language barrier. Olivia, the oldest girl, had to translate from Pokomchí into Spanish, and I from Spanish into English. The three languages played in the air above my dining-room table like a trio of instruments.
The women’s questions to my mother were simple and polite: “How is your trip to Guatemala so far?” “What do you think of Santa Cruz?” My mother’s questions to them were equally restrained. Nevertheless, it was a real conversation.
Trying to be hospitable in the best Guatemalan fashion, I prepared lemonade for everyone. During my work in the villages around Santa Cruz, I’d often been given such drinks by my hosts. Worried about drinking impure water, however, I frequently looked for an opportunity to pour them into the bushes. There was no danger of my lemonade containing impure water, as the mothers knew, but the taste was another story: I noticed Olivia slipping under my dining-room table to consume both her mother’s and her aunts’ drinks in quick, sacrificial gulps. Not all gifts went over as well as my mother’s.
I was awakened the following morning by a loud banging on my front door. Outside, a dozen neighborhood children stood in the sunlight, looking hopeful.
“We heard your mother came,” one said.
“We heard she had presents,” said another.
By this time, my mother was standing behind me, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “What did they say?” she asked.
I told her.
“Oh, God,” she said. “I think I’ve run out of presents.” When I gave her an angry look, she said, “We’ll have to buy more.”
“We can’t buy more,” I said. “If we buy presents for these kids, more kids will come. Don’t you see?”
I turned to the children. “Sorry,” I said, “there are no more presents.”
“Why did your mother give presents to them?” a boy asked, pointing next door. His question bore no anger or resentment, only a sad curiosity.
“Because,” I said, “they’re my neighbors.”
And the boy asked, “Aren’t we also your neighbors?”
At the airport, as my mother was about to board her plane back to the States, she said, “I’m sorry about the presents. Did I make it hard on you?”
“No,” I said, lying to protect her, “it’s no problem.”
We had spent a pleasant week together. After a few days in Santa Cruz, we’d traveled to Antigua, Guatemala’s old capital, and walked around the ruins of sixteenth-century churches. We’d stayed up late, laughing over old stories. Although a part of me still resented what she’d done, another part of me was glad she’d come. It had been good to see her. This, I supposed, would always be my paradox: even when I felt embarrassed by my mother — or overwhelmed by her, or misunderstood by her — I wanted her with me.
When I returned to Santa Cruz, the children from next door were waiting for me on my front stoop. “Is your mother gone?” Olga asked, and when I nodded, they all sighed with disappointment.
“When,” Elvira asked, “is she coming back?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Next week?” Olga asked hopefully.
“In two weeks?” she tried again.
I laughed. “Probably not even in three.”
In the evening, we played Red Light, Green Light in the street. When it was nearly dark, I said I had to go home.
“One more game!” the children cried, but I told them I was tired.
“Besides,” I said, “you can play with the toys my mother gave you.”
“Oh, yes,” Olivia said, “except our mothers sold four of the dolls.”
A woman from one of the town’s wealthiest families, Olivia explained, had heard about the Barbie dolls and had come to each mother with a purse full of quetzales.
“Why didn’t they sell her all the dolls?” I asked.
“Olga pulled the heads off two,” Olivia said, sighing, “and Elvira dropped one in the outhouse.”
Olivia’s mother had put the last Barbie doll in a glass case next to a statue of the Virgin Mary. “It is something only to look at,” Olivia said, “not to touch.”
A week after my mother’s departure, I tried to make up for her inappropriate generosity by giving the eight girls what I considered to be culturally suitable gifts: new cortes. I didn’t know whether they needed new cortes. The ones they had, while not new, looked fine, and cortes, which are made of durable fabric, tend to last for years. But, determined to right a wrong — the thought of a Barbie doll sitting like an icon in their house was especially disturbing — I piled them onto a bus to Cobán, the big town to the north, and escorted them into a store.
The girls looked hesitant and ill at ease, but I pressed on, encouraging them to select whatever they liked. The salesman, a small, mustachioed man, dumped corte material on a table and said to each of them in turn, “You like this one, don’t you?” Only Olivia refused to be swayed by the salesman, considering a few patterns before deciding on one; the rest chose the first material he showed them, even though I tried to prod them to be more choosy.
When I’d imagined this moment, I’d pictured the girls satisfied and proud, grateful that I’d shown respect for their culture and traditions. But when we left the store, they seemed only relieved.
Six months after her first visit, my mother returned to Guatemala. This time, she brought no gifts. I’d wanted it this way. When I met her at the airport, I congratulated her on her restraint. “I’m just following orders,” she said. Looking at me critically, she added, “You know, I only wanted to make them happy.”
I pretended to be understanding, but secretly I gloated. I had blunted my mother’s excess. I had gotten her to act the way I wanted.
When we arrived at my house, however, we found the children waiting for us. I began to worry that, once they saw that my mother had come with nothing, they would go home disappointed. I was afraid my mother would feel rejected. Suddenly, I wanted her to have gifts — a suitcase full of them. I didn’t want her to feel unloved.
As I lifted my mother’s single suitcase into my house, the children followed us. “What’s inside?” Olga asked, and when I said, “Clothes,” she didn’t challenge me with a doubtful smile or an incredulous look.
I wished the clothes would turn into teddy bears.
I looked to see if my mother’s face showed any concern or anxiety. She seemed content, although I couldn’t be sure: she was good at disguising her feelings. She sat down at my dining-room table, and the children gathered around, gazing at her, waiting. There was a long silence, and I wondered when, bored and discouraged, the children would file out the door. I wondered what words I would use to console my mother. Sitting at my table, she looked old and vulnerable. I realized how selfish I’d been to deny her the chance to give.
At last, breaking the silence, my mother said to me, “Ask them what they’re studying in school.”
I asked, and Olga replied, “I’m learning to write the alphabet.”
My mother said to me, “I remember teaching you to write the alphabet. I used a baking pan and cornmeal. Do you remember?”
“No,” I said, “but I remember you telling me about it.”
“Do you have a pan and cornmeal?”
I had a pan, but no cornmeal. My mother said flour would do. She poured a covering of flour into the pan and asked Olga to come sit with her. Olga climbed into her lap.
“We’re going to learn how to write letters,” my mother said, and she placed her hand over Olga’s. Then, gently, my mother guided Olga’s finger to form the letter O.
Seeing her creation, Olga laughed with pleasure. “Look!” she said to the others. “Look!”
I let out a breath — of relief, of pleasure — as the children formed a line. Giggling with excitement, they waited to be the next to sit in my mother’s lap and trace the alphabet with her in a flour-coated pan.