Something wakes me up and I open my eyes. I’m ten years old and see mom knitting with a dim light overhead. It is dawn and she has thrown an old blanket over her shoulders and is wearing lots of layers over her nightgown. Her right eyelid has fallen down the way it does when she is exhausted but her fingers keep moving rapidly.
“Go back to sleep,” she whispers. “I’ll shut the light in a minute.”
“But it’s so late and you look so tired…”
“Hush up. I have to finish these sweaters or we won’t eat tomorrow. Be careful not to wake your brother and don’t move around like you have ants in your pants or something.”
I smile at her and she reciprocates with that sad smile of hers and blows me a kiss. I cuddle under the covers and touch my brother’s chest at the bottom of the bed. He feels warm and cozy and I rest my foot there, right under his chin till I fall asleep again.
“What time did you finally go to sleep, ma?” I ask the next morning when she gives us our usual breakfast of hot porridge. I pray she forgets the odious cod liver oil she shoves down our throats religiously every morning, but she doesn’t; the big spoon with the thick, green liquid is coming inexorably at us because she has convinced herself that a spoon of cod liver oil cures all the ills of the world and that is the reason we are healthy and I’ve gotten so tall. Amid lots of tears and revulsion we swallow the drink never failing to heave and sweat with her standing guard over us to make sure we don’t miss a drop of her precious tonic.
“Stop grimacing,” she snaps. “I’m not giving you poison. This stuff is worth its weight in gold. I wish my mother had cared enough to give it to me when I was growing up.”
I stuff the porridge in my mouth desperate to get rid of its taste but it’s impossible. I taste the cod liver oil with every bite and I know I’ll be repeating it hours later.
“What time did you go to sleep?” I ask again wiping my mouth with my hand, fighting an overwhelming desire to throw up. I know I have to keep this down or she’ll force me to swallow two big spoons in punishment.
“I went to bed late Vicky, lost track of the time. And you were talking in your sleep again; talk, talk, talk like a parrot. You should learn from your brother, he sleeps like an angel and never talks gibberish in his sleep.”
“Can you show us what you did?” asks my five year old brother, Oscar, dabbing his eyes, still heavy from sleep.
She pulls two sweaters with figures of hand carved rabbits holding a ball on each side of the sweaters, and we touch the little furry figures delighting in their softness.
“When are you going to do something like that for us?” asks Oscar, innocently.
“At the rate I’m going when I hit the lottery, son.”
Oscar presses the sweaters to his face and she quickly takes them away with a frown.
“We can’t make them dirty; it’s hard enough selling them when they are spotless. If they see saliva stains on them they will never buy them. People are always looking for an excuse to pay less and we mustn’t give it to them.
Oscar looks disappointed but he obeys her quickly going to play with his “cachina” [small ball].
This morning we’ll go to see Seňora Gotia who is mom’s biggest client and owns a children’s store in the center of town. Seňora Gotia is a tough, robust, middle aged businesswoman with thick glasses, red hair and a very short haircut that mother says reflects the severity of her character. She has two children and a very meek husband, but the store is her life and she is always shortchanging mother, claiming that the people who buy her clothes find them beautiful but impractical; stressing that her figurine carvings don’t wash well and necessitate quick replacements - a lie in mother’s eyes because she has tested and retested her merchandise and nothing ever shrinks or fades if washed properly with cold water.
Yet despite her greed, mother feels Seňora Gotia has a compassionate heart and is always giving us advances. Today we get lucky, she has sold some of mom’s dresses and we get paid in full. Mom is happy, she tells me we’ll stop at Mercado Camacho [“Camacho Market”] and we’ll purchase meat and potatoes for lunch. She loves to eat beef, especially the fat parts, and we haven’t eaten beef in a long time.
We come down from Avenida Lazárnaga and head straight to Mercado Camacho, located about six blocks away from our home. It’s drizzling and we don’t have an umbrella but mother says it doesn’t matter, a little rain never hurt anyone and it’s good for the skin. The rain wets our faces and she squeezes my hand with delight. I already know we’re going to have a special day, she’s going to be in a good mood all day and not even this dreary day that usually puts her in a bad mood because of the dampness in our room, is going to spoil it.
I can’t wait to get to Mercado Camacho because maybe she’ll buy me some chocolates too. I always know how to get around her when she’s in a good mood, and even though she hates to buy me sweets for fear they will ruin my teeth the way they ruined hers, I know she will give in and I will hide them under my pillow to savor them by myself after lunch. When she’s happy like this she doesn’t remind me that she lost most of her teeth by the time she was thirty due to malnutrition as a child, and that I don’t want to go through life wearing dentures because they make you look like a rabbit and are bad for the soul