Books Can Only Take You So Far

Today is my mother’s birthday, and in her honor I’ve posted a short essay I wrote that was inspired by her. Happy birthday, Mom!

                              BOOKS CAN ONLY TAKE YOU SO FAR

for R.E.C.

            My mother was raking leaves in the front yard one late December afternoon, just after a light, sneeze-like rain had fallen over Los Angeles. The sky was pink on account of the sunset, with grey, billowing clouds piled up on top of one another above us. They covered the entire sky, except for a patch or two of dull blue that would uncover itself before being swallowed by the rolling grey.

I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and stepped outside. The air was damp and cold, condensing my breath into long, white puffs. I had caught a miserable flu a few days prior, and had spent the entire weekend rolling in and out of a restless sleep in a vain attempt to get better before the semester started again in a couple of days. I was at university back then, having moved away for school years earlier, but I always came back for a few days whenever I was unwell. Bland, frozen pizzas and memories of my ex-boyfriend waited for me in my cold, darkened apartment; I was in no hurry to get back.  College apparently didn’t teach me how to take care of myself, my mother always said. Books could only take you so far.

The front door quietly clicked behind me as I exited the house. Immediately, my mother protested, shooing me away with the rake.

“You need to rest. All this cold air is bad for you.” She scolded me in a hurried, firm Spanish, pointing at me with one finger.

“Let me help you, Mom.” I wrapped the blanket more tightly around my shoulders as I tip-toed my way to her over the damp grass. “I’m feeling a little better.”

She let her arms fall in resignation and resumed raking. I started picking up handfuls of wet, jaundiced leaves with long, brown veins and threw them into a trash can she had put at the bottom of the driveway. The leaves were limp in my hands, and clung to the tips of my fingers when I’d try to throw them away, as if in protest.

The leaves had fallen from an old oak tree rooted deep in my neighbor’s yard. It was the only tree on the entire block, its full green head of leaves magnificent in the arid summer months. Every winter, it lost all of them. Around Halloween, the leaves would turn a deep crimson, the color of a setting sun, before yellowing in the cool November wind. By the time the December rains came bellowing over the mountaintops, they’d be scattered throughout the neighborhood like remnants of some ticker-tape parade. In the end, the bare branches of that oak tree would pierce the crisp winter air for months at a time. During the day, a raven or two would balance on its uppermost branches, peering below at the passersby; at night, Orion would rise silently through the spaces in its branches. Growing up in Southern California, the tree was the only visible sign of a season slipping quietly into the place of another. Aside from the cooler weather, we hardly would have noticed.

I listened to my mother’s breath become slightly more labored as she began to rake faster. The faded grey sweatshirt that clung tightly to the bulge of her belly and the rounded tips of her shoulders moved in time with the quick, short strokes of the rake. A few strands of her auburn hair escaped from the bun it had been pinned into and fell across her face. Pursing her lips slightly, she blew them away with a gust of breath, without stopping her raking.

Suddenly, I burst into a coughing fit. I had tried to suppress the itchiness that had been building in the back of my throat so as not to invite my mother’s reprimands, but was now coughing quite freely. Each cough brought a stab of pain that pulsed through my head, making me progressively dizzier.

My mother rushed toward me, but I lifted up a hand, insisting I’d be okay. When after a few minutes, the coughing didn’t stop, she leaned the rake against the iron fence and dusted off her hands. She walked toward me and tugged on my blanket, motioning for me to go back inside.

“I’ll make the jarabe for you,” she said, walking in front of me. “It’ll make you feel better.” I nodded feebly and followed her toward the house, beginning to feel sick again. As we squeezed through the overgrown rose bushes guarding either side of the front door, a corner of my blanket got caught on one of the thorns. I gave it a few sharp tugs to get it loose before my mother softly lifted up the branch, setting the blanket free.

The familiar, pungent smell of black beans cooking on the stove overwhelmed me for a moment as I stepped into the house. Having lived in my own apartment for the last two years or so, I hardly ever cooked, aside from an occasional stack of burned pancakes or eggs that swam in cooking oil. I had never bothered to learn to cook from my mother, and I secretly longed for a home-cooked meal, especially halfway through the semester when I was having my umpteenth Ramen noodle soup.

I sat down at the dining room table, facing the kitchen. My folks had recently remodeled it since I had been away at school, replacing the old fashioned 1970s linoleum table tops with smooth, flawless granite, topped with oak cabinets with a dark sienna finish. They’d thrown out the rickety old refrigerator, too, trading it for a fancy stainless steel one that dispensed crushed ice and water that left a salty taste on your tongue. Even the floor was new. My parents had replaced the faded wood paneling with white linoleum tiles. Aside from the rusty toaster oven cowering in the corner, it was a wholly modern kitchen.

My mother shuffled through the pantry, looking for the ingredients for the jarabe. Silently, I watched her carefully stack rows of canned tuna, corn, and scalloped potatoes to the side as she slowly emptied the pantry of its contents. She let out a little yelp of surprise as she found a small jar of honey near the back.

“I just need the lemon juice,” she muttered to herself as she placed the jar on the table next to me. My mom walked back into the kitchen, took a large yellow lemon out of the refrigerator and sliced it in half on the cutting board. She then took an empty cup, a plate, and the lemon halves and placed them next to the honey jar before sitting down beside me.

“It tastes terrible, but it does the job,” she said, picking out the seeds from the lemons with her index finger. The citrusy aroma wafted toward me as she squeezed the lemon juice into the cup. I watched the dark yellow liquid drip into it, leaving each lemon half looking like a dried-up sea anemone. She then slowly added three or four tablespoons of honey before swishing it around for a minute or two, waiting for the lemon juice to slowly wear away at the honey’s viscosity. Finally, my mom placed the cup in front of me and, smiling, told me to drink the whole thing in one quick gulp.

I hesitated for a moment. Swirls of honey floated in the lemon juice, caught at the bottom of the glass in the shape of a spiral galaxy. I tilted the glass from side to side, watching the honey slowly hinge and unhinge itself from either side. My mother’s dark brown eyes peered curiously at me behind the light brown freckles on her face. With a quick tap on my arm, she encouraged me to drink the jarabe in one gulp. I shrugged, and lifted the cup to my lips, letting the sweet acrid liquid run down my throat. I cringed at the bitter taste, but forced myself to swallow it anyway. Moments after I had put the glass down, I felt the phlegm in my throat begin to loosen up as it slid down and settled deep into my stomach, leaving a sweet taste in my mouth. I licked my lips and put the cup back down.

“You’ll feel better very soon, hijo,” my mom said, squeezing my hand softly. Her hands felt rough, and were slightly damp. “Go lie down for a bit.”

I nodded. As we were getting up, we heard the soft pelt of rain against the window. I pulled aside the curtain to see light silver sheets of rain falling softly outside, dissolving the piles of leaves we had made earlier into puddles that would soon run down the street. The wind picked up a bit, knocking the leaning rake onto the soft grass that was greedily drinking up the rain. The branches of the tree had turned dark and were bending slightly in the wind, as if waving goodbye to an era long gone, a time washed clean with the cold rain. Winter had come again, and I was home.

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