Letter to My Fifteen Year-Old Self
(Part of an memoir in-progress)
Alma Luz Villanueva
(For every pregnant teen who thinks, feels, she’s alone.)
San Francisco, the Mission Barrio, 1960-
I see you standing at the very edge of the rooftop, gazing down into the darkness. The garden below. Where the roses are blooming. Your step (real) father, Whitey, tends these roses. Your mother doesn’t believe in roses. You lean into that darkness. No fear. Not really. You were the tomgirl who jumped/leaped roof to roof to avoid the streets for blocks. And just for fun. The thrill shot through your body. You leaned. You leaped. Sometimes barely making it. Barely landing. Fear. Then laughter. Your tomgirl pal following you. Roof to roof. San Francisco, the Mission. Your childhood city.
Why are you leaning at the edge of the rooftop, gazing down into the darkness? The roses blooming. No scent from the edge, but you can see the blood red petals shadowed in moonlight. Some are fully blossomed, ready to shed their beauty. To touch the earth. Die, transform. Some are tight, baby blossoms; tiny slivers of blood red barely revealed. Still in the womb. They sing their whisper song of blood red. Beauty.
You’re pregnant at 15, gazing into darkness. Listening to the songs of the blossomed roses, and the whisper songs of the baby bud roses. Still in the womb. You’re pregnant at 15, alone, at the edge. Leaning. Into the darkness.
Stars pulsing overhead. Some brighter than others. Alive with light. Your favorite place. The roof. View of the city lights. Silence. You sit down at the edge, letting your feet dangle. Night breeze on your sweaty face. You wishing, suddenly, that you still passed as a boy on the city streets. Your night time visits to Dolores Park, sitting high in the pepper trees. The Bay Bridge a shiny necklace across the dark water. A few times you had to run for it when a pervert spotted you, perched so high and happy. Sometimes you sang the old Baptist church song, “I have a joy joy joy joy down in my heart…” And sometimes you sang parts of “Canta, No Llores...Sing, Don’t cry,” the parts you remembered that Mamacita knew by heart. You whisper sing those parts now, your sandaled feet dangling over the edge. And you smile because you see Mamacita, so clearly, in the alive stars, lifting her long skirt. Dancing. You join her, dancing.
You remember the morning ritual of sharing dreams, the hot chocolate, cinnamon on top, steaming your face. You almost always woke up to Mamacita praying, singing to the Child Sun in Yaqui. Her rattle. Tears and joy in that strange, beautiful language you never learned. But you loved to hear. She told you it was a song to El Niño Sol, to be born safely every dawn. You thought if Mamacita didn’t sing that song every morning, there would be only darkness. Night. No Child Sun. Birth. Dawn.
You didn’t know what birth was, being born. Except your mother, Lydia, once told you she almost pulled a sink out of the wall, in the hospital, when you were born. That it hurt like hell, that’s what she said. You asked Mamacita once, “Does it hurt the Child Sun’s Mamå when he’s born?” She laughed, “Every birth has pain, niña, but when la Mamå Tierra gets to hold her child, el regalo de luz...the gift of light, that warm little body, she laughs. Now, tell me your dream, mi Alma.” (All conversation in Spanish, Mamacita never spoke English.)
You would tell her your four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten year old dreams, and she would tell you hers. When you were six you told Mamacita you kept falling in your dream. She gently, then firmly, touched your shoulder blades, left and right, massaging them.
“These are your wings, niña. When you begin to fall in your dream, remember them, where they are. Right here.” Left and right, massaging each one firmly. Gently. “When you begin to fall, remember your wings, open them wide.” She’d spread her arms wide, smiling, her eyes on fire. “You’re ready to fly, niña, remember, open your wings wide. Your wings. Right here.” Left and right, each one.
You remember stealing your first bike as the pre-dawn wind begins to chill you on the rooftop. You lay on your back, the old blanket you hide up there under you. Some of it covering you as you gaze at the brightest star, so alive with light. You don’t know the star’s name- Venus, Quetzalcoatl. Years later you would call this pre-dawn, dancing with light, star by name. This night you remember seeing a brand new bike lying on the street by itself. You were eleven. You walked by the bike twice. No one claimed it, so you did. Riding to Golden Gate Park with your tomgirl amiga, sometimes alone (instead of boring school); riding down the final hills to the so green forest entrance, the scent of green, felt like flying. The magical fern forest, as tall as trees, the sun barely peeked through. Damp earth. The tall fern trees, large flowering plants beneath them. Large purple flowers, the size of a baby’s head, always made you laugh. And when the fairies welcomed you- their small, tinkling voices- you knew you were safe. If they didn’t, you rode away as fast as you could. Flying to safety.
You woke up one morning- your first flying dream- the large mirror over the bed you shared with Mamacita. She was singing to the Child Sun. You stood up and looked down at the bed and saw your self sleeping. You felt so sorry for her, that she had a to be in a body, that you knew how to fly and didn’t need her body. In fact, at that moment, her body disgusted you. You didn’t want to return. You looked into the mirror and didn’t recognize your six year old face. What scared you back to life. Back into your sleeping, dreaming (flying) girl body.
When you told Mamacita your first flying dream, she made you cafécito con leche with still warm pan dulce from the store down the street. But you never told her about the girl in the mirror that didn’t need a body- who returned to live. Your life. Who saw your life and stayed. You sipped your cafécito con leche and ate two fresh pan dulces, celebrating your first flight. At six. With Mamacita.
* * * * * *
You wake up to warmth on your face. The Child Sun licking you with warmth. The bright star fading. You sit up, facing the Child Sun and begin to sing your own song to his birth. And the baby bud roses join you. Still in the womb. You’ll wait for your mother to leave for work, taking your baby brother to his sitter. Then you’ll go downstairs to Whitey’s house (your step/real father), use your key to enter. Fix hot chocolate with cinnamon on top in his clean kitchen Some toast with jam. Go down into the garden to pick some blossoming roses, leaving the baby bud roses to dream. Still in the womb.
“I can’t marry you. My parents say you’ll have ten kids in ten years.” The boy is crying as you both walk to your favorite restaurant where no one goes. For tea, coffee, a piece of pie. Sometimes the dinner special. He pays. He has two parents and their house is always clean. You go there once. His parents are white and their eyes say, Dirty Mexican. Sometimes you and the boy walk clear to the ocean, talking, laughing, sometimes crying, telling sad stories, and funny ones too. He tells you, “My mother used to tie me up in a chair with clothesline and gag me. She made me stay there for hours and sometimes I’d fall asleep. I learned not to cry or scream, just wait. Till she untied me. When I cried and screamed the rope made me bleed. She’d say, ‘Are you ready to behave?’ I’d nod my head yes.”
Then you and the boy take the trolley back to the Mission, from the ocean. Home. Promising to meet at the corner of 16th and Guerrero. Then one time he doesn’t come. You see him at school and he turns away, his friends laughing. Years later you find out that the word Guerrero means warrior.
Your mother, Lydia, tells a neighbor, “She didn’t want to marry him.” The neighbor smiles kindly into your eyes, “Only the good girls get caught, honey.”
You’re two weeks overdue. The doctor at St Mary’s Clinic, just three blocks from your place, tells you, “It looks like your baby’s small, so that’s okay. Plus, you’re just a kid yourself,” kind smile. But the nuns hate you. They can barely contain their contempt. An unmarried fifteen year old, pregnant, about to give birth in their Catholic hospital. The nuns want you to give your baby up for adoption. They bring in a different nun each time after the kind doctor leaves.
“How do you plan to take care of this baby, child?” Thin lips, contempt. Eyes hard, trying to kill you. You hate them back, refuse to cry. Guerrero, warrior.
“You’re going to suffer for this sin and your baby too. Do you want this for your baby?” You just smile and they finally leave you alone. You also give them los ojos de bruja...the witch eyes. The eyes you’d give to the old church ladies when they’d call you gringita and you knew they went home and broke an egg over their head for protection. You pictured the nuns breaking an egg over their bald heads, and you had to keep yourself from laughing. Guerrero, warrior.
The pains begin around your belly, and your best friend, Judy, is there at your mother’s place. Whitey cooks you special food so the baby will be healthy, and you go upstairs to his place to eat. You also bring your baby brother, John. It’s always clean, some music playing softly, his voice, “Ya look pretty damn good, kid, must be the food so chow down, and your favorite dessert, cherry cake. Hope that baby likes cherry cake, kid,” he laughs.
You’ve been taking care of John, cleaning the apartment, cooking breakfast and lunch. Dinner at Whitey’s. You even go to open house at John’s school, and a field trip to the zoo. When you and John enter the Lion House, just as they’re feeding them, and they begin to ROAR so your bones rattle, he begins to cry. Scream. You pick him up and run for it, like fuck those lions, caged. Their only moment to pretend they hunted, killed that raw mound of meat they’re devouring. That roar. John clings to you, safety. Fuck those sad assed lions.
The pains get worse, so Lydia brings you a ‘screwdriver,’ she calls it, and one for Judy. Orange juice with something funny in it, but it tastes pretty good. You have two. Judy barely finishes hers. You, Judy and Lydia walk the three blocks to Saint Mary’s, joking and laughing all the way. Even the pain is funny (still). John’s with Whitey- “I’ll be up ta see ya, kid, and don’t you worry, women been having babies for-ever!” You think of the baby, the tiny rosebud, trying to be born. Come out of you. You felt her move just once, but clearly, from one side of your stomach to the other. Her foot, that bump. You dreamt her, so you know, her. Her name, Antoinette Therese. You want her to be a queen. You tell no one about the dream, especially the nuns. If Mamacita were alive, you’d tell her of course. But you know Mamacita knows everything anyway. You heard her voice deep in your right ear. Guerrero, warrior, “No te dejas, niña.” She’d toss you out the door when you’d come in crying, to take care of yourself. Fight back. La vida. Guerrero, warrior.
The nuns are shocked, your laughing face. They take you to a room, all by yourself, and leave you there. There’s a window to the street. Guerrero Street. Some trees. You push the window open. Wind. The birds are singing to the Child Sun grown old, tired. Stretches of blood-red-violet. Mamacita had a song for the Child Sun grown old, tired. You hear her voice, the rattle, but not the words. The pain in your belly comes and goes, making you double over and moan. You begin to walk the room between pains and it helps. You’re still a little dizzy from the orange juice drink but fading- no one to talk to, joke with.
You remember how Mamacita floated you when you were sick, so you focus on the fluttering leaves, the sound of the wind, and begin to sing softly- “Old Child Sun, don’t be afraid, go to sleep, dream, in the morning you’ll be born again, Child Sun, don’t be afraid.” Then you double over with the pain but keep floating like the wind, straighten up to breathe the fluttering leaves and walk the room. “Don’t be afraid, old Child Sun, don’t be afraid…”
The door opens. “You should be lying down, not walking around, what are you doing!” the nun shouts. She shuts the window, hard, and leaves.
You get up and open the window, begin to walk again. The pain is like dying lying down, and you’re all alone, but not really. There’s the wind, the trees, the birds still singing, and Mamacita’s rattle filling the room. Her voice. Flotating.
The nun returns, her face full of hate. “I thought you’d be up again, you people!” And you know she means Mexicans, you people. She’s very white, she’ll never have a baby, she thinks God loves her better than you, a fifteen year old girl giving birth, alone. You hate her back, don’t cry. And you think of the baby Jesus born in a manger, his parents poor and wandering. The story goes in the Baptist Church. And you always loved the baby Jesus, and you think of his mother, Mary, giving birth in the cold ass manger surrounded by stinky farm animals. You smile.
The nun slams the window shut, hands you a tiny paper cup. “Here, take these, it’ll make you sleep, it’s bad for you to be walking around like a wild animal.” Face of disgust, hate.
You give her your best malo ojos de bruja and think, sleep. The room is dark, a thin light from the bathroom. Sleep.
You wake up to such pain you scream once, catch yourself and begin to moan. You can’t help it. You wonder how this baby, your daughter you’ve dreamt, is going to come out of you. At this moment it feels like she’s killing you, and, again, how will she come out, you wonder as you moan, the killing pain the killing pain the killing pain…
Years later this 5lb 4oz daughter, Antoinette, as Head Nurse Critical Care, will come upon a fifteen year old girl on her rounds, giving birth all alone, screaming. They can’t sedate her. She fights them off. My daughter, to the doctor’s shock, climbs into bed with her, behind her, wrapping her arms around her, telling her, “Breathe, breathe, I’m here with you, you’re not alone, breathe…” The doctor orders her out of the bed. She tells him, “I’m Head Nurse, Dr_____, and you can fuck off!” The birthing girl laughs, relaxes, and gives birth, screaming as the crowning begins, while my daughter holds her tight. “Breathe, breathe, now push…” Later as the girl holds her daughter, she tells her, “My mother was your age when she had me, and you’re going to be fine. You’re a fighter like my Mom, so you and your daughter will be just fine.”
Saddle block. Numb from waist down. They wheel you into a bright, white room. “Turn the mirror, she shouldn’t watch this.” The birth. Your daughter. You’re too young to insist, “I want to watch.” You finally see the doctor holding up a blue baby by her ankles. You felt nothing. Where she came out of. But there she is and she begins to cry, a thin wail. Her tiny body pulsing pink, alive. Later on, your Tia Ruth tells you Antoinette was born on Mamacita’s birth day. A sliver of Mamacita’s spirit, la curandera, the healer, this daughter.
You begin to cry. You want to hold her, but you’re too young to insist. They take her away. He stitches you up. No one speaks to you except for the doctor, once. “Are you glad it’s a girl?” He tries to be kind, but his voice conveys duty. Not the same one you saw in the clinic, whose hand felt warm on your shoulder, kind.
You nod your head yes. The nurse nun says, “She refuses to speak, doctor, don’t waste your breath.” She wheels you into a room with other mothers and she asks, “Do you plan to breastfeed?” Your mind whirls, breast feed, as in how in the fuck do you do that?
“No,” the word comes out of you.
Look of disgust, the usual hate. She returns and wraps thick bandages around your still-girl breasts. “So your milk dries up,” voice cold.
They promise to bring your daughter the next morning- the Child Sun’s warmth filling the room- you’ve been waiting for hours. One nurse nun said she was bringing your daughter right away, but it’s been hours. You finally insist, “I want to see my daughter.” The woman next to you says, “They promised to bring her baby a couple of hours ago. I’ve already held my baby many times.”
“You’re breastfeeding,” the nurse nun says, warmly. Warmly. The woman is older and white, and she later tells you this is her sixth baby, that she’s Catholic. And she asks, “Are you going to keep your baby, hon?”
She’s so tiny, your daughter. You open the blanket. The wonder of her perfect body. She’s perfect, her so tiny, pink rose toes. Her perfect, translucent hands, each delicate finger. There’s a wound on her belly button, still bloody. You open her diaper- a girl a girl a girl.
A young nurse nun brings a bottle of milk- you’ve never seen her before. “What’s her name?” she asks, handing you the bottle.
“What a beautiful name for a beautiful baby,” she smiles. “A friend is here to see you, so when you finish feeding Antoinette I’ll let her in.”
“Thank you,” you smile into the young nun’s kindness. Sweet face. She’s probably eight years older than you, her twenties, you realize, and you wonder if she’ll become a nasty ass nun when she’s older.
As you feed your daughter, your breasts begin to ache under the tight bandages. It would be this way for the next four days, as they change the wet, sticky bandages. The young nun nurse changes them twice, each time tears come to her eyes. She bathes your girl-breasts in warm, soapy water- the other nurse nuns with cold, soapy water- and she strokes your hair.
Your mother, Lydia, finally comes on the third day after work. “You’re a mother now,” she says coldly. Just those words.
A week later, when your daughter’s wound on the belly button falls off, you think she’s falling apart. You bundle her up and run to St Marys crying. The kind doctor explains, “That’s where the cord was between you and your daughter when she was inside of you. That’s how you fed her, that cord. She doesn’t need it anymore, so it fell off. Now you feed her without the cord, isn’t that right?” He touches your shoulder, that warmth.
You stop crying, nod yes, and walk back to your mother’s place, holding your daughter tightly. So you don’t drop her, ever.
Your daughter would have colic and cry/scream for a long time after you fed her, every hour or so, in the beginning. You found that laying her on your chest, your heart, she’d fall asleep, and so would you.
One night, she was in her bassinet- the one you decorated with lace and ribbons (yes, you stole them from the five and dime store). You woke up to Lydia’s voice yelling, “SHUT UP SHUT UP!” She was shaking the bassinet, hard, yelling. You were up in one movement, throwing Lydia against the wall- you’d not ever touched her this way.
“If you ever touch my baby again I’ll kill you!” you screamed. You picked up the bassinet with crying Antoinette, taking her to the front room with the sad assed couch. Brought your blankets and slept on the sad assed couch with her on your chest, your heart.
The next morning the cops came. She told them you threatened to kill her. You told them why, crying- your baby, your daughter, barely a month old. Both cops looked at you with pity, telling your mother, Lydia, to work things out and left. She banged things around; it was Saturday, no work. She didn’t touch the bassinet, but she banged things so loudly your daughter woke up crying.
You took your daughter, your baby brother, up to Whitey’s place. He fixed you all a pancake breakfast with bacon. “You could live here for awhile, kid, I’ll take the couch. There’s no talkin’ to that woman, I know.”
You tell him what happened, why you threw her up against the wall. His face goes red. With anger. “Yeah, you and that baby stay here till we can work something out, maybe your own place.”
You’d go to welfare, holding your daughter tight. You’d stay at Whitey’s for a while, taking care of John, but not going into Lydia’s place. You’d never return to her place again, to live. To trust her. She was your birth mother, that’s all. She was not Mamacita.
When you finally got your own place with a roommate, one year older- she worked as a waitress and she was Mexican like you. You stopped taking care of your baby brother- and that broke your heart, but you couldn’t be your baby’s mother and his at the same time. She would yell, “Shut up!” when he cried and forget he was just hungry. You told Whitey to make sure John ate, especially dinner.
“Don’t you worry none, kid, I’ll be on it.”
“Even when you drink cause I’m coming back to check on stuff.”
“Dinner’ll be ready every night, so you and John eat here, you understand, Pocahontas.” This made you smile, your old name. “I’ll make sure things are okay before I get friendly with Jack Daniels, don’t you worry, Pocahontas.”
Whitey would pay your part of the rent and bring groceries every Saturday when he wasn’t being friendly with Jack Daniels. And when he and Jack got together, he made sure to bring you money before he did. And he’d bring your baby brother, John, leaving him for the day. Your daughter in a stroller, your brother in a swing, laughing. Hamburgers, fries and a milkshake later with the $20 Whitey gave you. Later, he’d give you $60 more for the week.
You don’t tell your roommate, Jeannie, about the Child Sun. She wouldn’t understand. She lived in an awful foster home and ran away. She tells you she was beaten with a belt all the time and shows you the scars, and you cry with her. And sometimes you have to throw out some guys she’s drinking with, and you know you have to move again. One of them grabs you by the arm and calls you a fucking bitch, and you won’t allow them in the apartment anymore. So now Jeannie’s mad at you too- “So what if he grabbed your arm, what are you a princess?” Her scars. The one on her face from the belt buckle.
You begin to plan, the edge of things. But not the roof- you don’t want to jump into the darkness. You want to live in the light, the Child Sun, with your daughter. The blossoming bud rose. Antoinette.
Guerrero. Guerrera. Leap into the light.
Alma Luz Villanueva is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently, 'GRACIAS,' and four novels, most recently, 'SONG OF THE GOLDEN SCORPION.' This non-fiction piece is from an ongoing memoir she’s writing, piece by piece. She’s taught in the MFA in Creative Writing Program, Antioch University Los Angeles, for the past seventeen years. She has lived in San MIguel de Allende, Mexico for the past ten years. Visit her Authors Guild site at www.almaluzvillanueva.com