She sits across from me in the Mexican taco shop, eyes full of anticipation for the meal she believes herself brave enough to try. Our number, yelled from behind the counter, prompts her father to retrieve our order: fish tacos for me, carne asada torta for him, a bean and cheese burrito for the younger sister, and a carnitas taco for her. One glance at the taco, and she knows, and I know, that she won’t eat it. Two corn tortillas sit, covered with shredded carnitas, that much she expected. It’s the slather of guacamole topped with pico de gallo that causes her eyes to brim with tears.
I understand this, this mixing of food groups and expectations. And inside myself I feel the same fear of the unknown, the same this-is-not-what-I-bargained-for despair rising, her eyes pleading with me, “please, please, please don’t make me eat this.” At one time, for me too, the food groups were sacred, meant not to be mixed. How many meals I picked at, not wanting to soil my tongue with disparate flavors and textures at once.
For me, the hardest part of parenting is seeing my own weaknesses, my own struggles, my own failures bloom again inside my children. I thought I’d conquered these! And yet, here they are, facing me full on, and not only do I have to shoulder them again for myself, but I have to find the courage to muster her strength, so that she can bear them herself. Tears now slide over the dam.
I’ll be honest. She and I don’t always get along. It’s hard to see those traits that I don’t particularly like in myself manifest in my children. It’s especially difficult when I’ve tried hard to mask them, to grow beyond them, to bury them deep. The traits, that is. Not the children.
Insecurity, lack of confidence, a wish to become invisible at times so I wouldn’t be noticed, an inability to speak up, struggles with grasping mathematical concepts, difficulty making and keeping friends… these are all things I tried to jettison from my own life. Yet they surface again and again in my own life. And these unsinkable buoys are now tethered to her and don’t allow her to swim freely and hold her to the dark waters that can be adolescence.
I see now that these dark waters pepper the length of our lives, and it is possible to navigate through them, beyond them. But when she’s in the midst of them, my maternal advice rings hollow.
A few days later, the car bumps, jolts, picks its way deliberately over a 4WD jeep road up to the Calcite Mine in Anza-Borrego State Park. From my vantage in the front seat, I am nervous but not scared. My dad took my over dozens of roads like this one, or worse, throughout my childhood. I do not see her in the back-back seat, alone, clutching her stuffed panda, eyes alternating between bugging out and squenched shut.
When we arrive at a wide spot in the road, we decide to park and hike the rest of the way to the mine. When we get there, I notice she’s in tears and terrified of the drive back. I offer to walk the road with her while the rest of the group surveys the mine.
We head back toward the main road, walking at a good clip and holding hands. Words bubble forth from her, this taciturn-at-times, only-a-week-shy-of-being-a-ten-year-old girl. I’ve felt that she’s usually only taciturn with me, and this pains me too. But then I recognize that it’s not me, it’s my own insecurity buoy popping up, and sometimes she just doesn’t feel like talking.
We walk on, stopping only to look at the distance we’ve covered since leaving the car, and once to inspect up close the flame-red buds on an ocotillo whose arm waves right at eye-level. We’ve gone a fair way (the road in was a long 1.7 miles) when we notice the car is turning around. It’s at this point that she really starts to haul. She really doesn’t want to get back in that car, not on this road. And I don’t want to either, because at this point, if feels more like I’m walking with a friend than a daughter. The conversation flows easily, especially from her, and I like hearing her talk and express herself. And she keeps grabbing my hand.
Finally, the car catches up to us, but by this point, we’re only about a quarter of a mile from the main road. We climb in, welcoming the air conditioning and the shade.
Afterward, we visit Los Jilbertos again, but this time when she orders the carnitas taco, she remembers to ask for it plain, and she eats it all with a smile on her face. And late that afternoon as she bobs up and down in the pool, the sunlight and water amplify the happiness that glows from her tan face, my carnitas kid.