Daughter of Invention
She wanted to invent something, my mother. There was a period after we arrived in this country,
until five or so years later, when my mother was inventing. They were never pressing, global needs she was addressing with her pencil and pad. She would have said that was for men to do, rockets
and engines that ran on gasoline and turned the wheels of the world. She was just fussing with little
house things, don’t mind her.
She always invented at night, after settling her house down. On his side of the bed my father would
be conked out for an hour already, his Spanish newspaper draped over his chest, his glasses,
propped up on his bedside table, looking out eerily at the darkened room like a disembodied guard. But in her lighted corner, like some devoted scholar burning the midnight oil, my mother was
inventing, sheets pulled to her lap, pillows propped up behind her, her reading glasses riding the
bridge of her nose like a schoolmarm’s. On her lap lay one of those innumerable pads of paper my father always brought home from his office, compliments of some pharmaceutical company,
advertising tranquilizers or antibiotics or skin cream; in her other hand, my mother held a pencil
that looked like a pen with a little cylinder of lead inside. She would work on a sketch of something
familiar, but drawn at such close range so she could attach a special nozzle or handier handle, the thing looked peculiar. Once, I mistook the spiral of a corkscrew for a nautilus shell, but it could just
as well have been a galaxy forming.
It was the only time all day we’d catch her sitting down, for she herself was living proof of the
perpetuum mobilemachine so many inventors had sought over the ages. My sisters and I would
seek her out now when she seemed to have a moment to talk to us: We were having trouble at school or we wanted her to persuade my father to give us permission to go into the city or to a
shopping mall or a movie—in broad daylight! My mother would wave us out of her room. “The
problem with you girls . . .” I can tell you right now what the problem always boiled down to: We wanted to become Americans and my father—and my mother, at first—would have none of it.
“You girls are going to drive me crazy!” She always threatened if we kept nagging. “When I end up
in Bellevue, you’ll be safely sorry!”
She spoke in English when she argued with us, even though, in a matter of months, her daughters
were the fluent ones. Her English was much better than my father’s, but it was still a mishmash of mixed-up idioms and sayings that showed she was “green behind the ears,” as she called it.
If my sisters and I tried to get her to talk in Spanish, she’d snap, “When in Rome, do unto the Romans . . .”
I had become the spokesman for my sisters, and I would stand my ground in that bedroom. “We’re not going to that school anymore, Mami!”
“You have to.” Her eyes would widen with worry. “In this country, it is against the law not to go to school. You want us to get thrown out?”
“You want us to get killed? Those kids were throwing stones today!”
“Sticks and stones don’t break bones . . .” she chanted. I could tell, though, by the look on her face,
it was as if one of those stones the kids had aimed at us had hit her. But she always pretended we were at fault. “What did you do to provoke them? It takes two to tangle, you know.”
“Thanks, thanks a lot, Mom!” I’d storm out of that room and into mine. I never called her Mom except when I wanted her to feel how much she had failed us in this country. She was a good
enough Mami, fussing and scolding and giving advice, but a terrible girlfriend parent, a real failure
of a Mom.
Back she’d go to her pencil and pad, scribbling and tsking and tearing off paper, finally giving up,
and taking up her New York Times. Some nights, though, she’d get a good idea, and she’d rush
into my room, a flushed look on her face, her tablet of paper in her hand, a cursory knock on the door she’d just thrown open: “Do I have something to show you, Cukita!”
This was my time to myself, after I’d finished my homework, while my sisters were still downstairs watching TV in the basement. Hunched over my small desk, the overhead light turned off, my lamp
shining poignantly on my paper, the rest of the room in warm, soft, uncreated darkness, I wrote my
secret poems in my new language.
“You’re going to ruin your eyes!” My mother would storm into my room, turning on the overly
bright overhead light, scaring off whatever shy passion I had just begun coaxing out of a labyrinth
of feelings with the blue thread of my writing.
“Oh Mami!” I’d cry out, my eyes blinking up at her. “I’m writing.”
“Ay, Cukita.” That was her communal pet name for whoever was in her favor. “Cukita, when I
make a million, I’ll buy you your very own typewriter.” (I’d been nagging my mother for one just
like the one father had bought her to do his order forms at home.) “Gravy on the turkey” was what she called it when someone was buttering her up. She’d butter and pour. “I’ll hire you your very
Down she’d plop on my bed and hold out her pad to me. “Take a guess, Cukita?” I’d study her
rough sketch a moment: soap sprayed from the nozzle head of a shower when you turned the knob
a certain way? Coffee with creamer already mixed in? Time-released water capsules for your plants
when you were away? A key chain with a timer that would go off when your parking meter was about to expire? (The ticking would help you find your keys easily if you mislaid them.) The
famous one, famous only in hindsight, was the stick person dragging a square by a rope—a suitcase
with wheels? “Oh, of course,” we’d humor her. “What every household needs: a shower like a car wash, keys ticking like a bomb, luggage on a leash!” By now, as you can see, it’d become
something of a family joke, our Thomas Edison Mami, our Benjamin Franklin Mom.
Her face would fall. “Come on now! Use your head.” One more wrong guess, and she’d tell me,
pressing with her pencil point the different highlights of this incredible new wonder. “Remember
that time we took the car to Bear Mountain, and we re-ah-lized that we had forgotten to pack an opener with our pick-a-nick?” (We kept correcting her, but she insisted this is how it should be
said.) “When we were ready to eat we didn’t have any way to open the refreshments cans?” (This
before fliptop lids, which she claimed had crossed her mind.) “You know what this is now?” A
shake of my head. “Is a car bumper, but see this part is a removable can opener. So simple and yet
so necessary, no?”
“Yeah, Mami. You should patent it.” I’d shrug. She’d tear off the scratch paper and fold it,
carefully, corner to corner, as if she were going to save it. But then, she’d toss it in the wastebasket on her way out of the room and give a little laugh like a disclaimer. “It’s half of one or two dozen
of another . . .”
I suppose none of her daughters was very encouraging. We resented her spending time on those dumb inventions. Here, we were trying to fit in America among Americans; we needed help
figuring out who we were, why these Irish kids whose grandparents were micks two generations
ago, why they were calling us spics. Why had we come to the country in the first place? Important, crucial, final things, you see, and here was our own mother, who didn’t have a second to help us
puzzle any of this out, inventing gadgets to make life easier for American moms. Why, it seemed as
if she were arming our own enemy against us!
One time, she did have a moment of triumph. Every night, she liked to read The New York Times
in bed before turning off her light, to see what the Americans were up to. One night, she let out a yelp to wake up my father beside her, bolt upright, reaching for his glasses which, in his haste, he
knocked across the room. “Que pasa? Que pasa?”3 What is wrong? There was terror in his voice,
fear she’d seen in his eyes in the Dominican Republic before we left. We were being watched there;
he was being followed; he and mother had often exchanged those looks. They could not talk, of course, though they must have whispered to each other in fear at night in the dark bed. Now in
America, he was safe, a success even; his Centro Medico in Brooklyn was thronged with the sick
and the homesick. But in dreams, he went back to those awful days and long nights, and my mother’s screams confirmed his secret fear: We had not gotten away after all; they had come for us
“Ay, Papi, I’m sorry. Go back to sleep, Cukito. It’s nothing, nothing really.” My mother held up the
Times for him to squint at the small print, back page headline, one hand tapping all over the top of
the bedside table for his glasses, the other rubbing his eyes to wakefulness.
“Remember, remember how I showed you that suitcase with little wheels so we would not have to
carry those heavy bags when we traveled? Someone stole my idea and made a million!” She shook
the paper in his face. She shook the paper in all our faces that night. “See! See! This man was no bobo! He didn’t put all his pokers on a back burner. I kept telling you, one of these days my ship
would pass me by in the night!” She wagged her finger at my sisters and my father and me,
laughing all the while, one of those eerie laughs crazy people in movies laugh. We had congregated in her room to hear the good news she’d been yelling down the stairs, and now we eyed her and
each other. I suppose we were all thinking the same thing: Wouldn’t it be weird and sad if Mami
did end up in Bellevue as she’d always threatened she might?
“Ya, ya! Enough!” She waved us out of her room at last. “There is no use trying to drink spilt milk,
that’s for sure.”
It was the suitcase rollers that stopped my mother’s hand; she had weather vaned a minor brainstorm. She would have to start taking herself seriously. That blocked the free play of her
ingenuity. Besides, she had also begun working at my father’s office, and at night, she was too tired
and busy filling in columns with how much money they had made that day to be fooling with gadgets!
She did take up her pencil and pad one last time to help me out. In ninth grade, I was chosen by my English teacher, Sister Mary Joseph, to deliver the teacher’s day address at the school assembly.
Back in the Dominican Republic, I was a terrible student. No one could ever get me to sit down to a
book. But in New York, I needed to settle somewhere, and the natives were unfriendly, the country
inhospitable, so I took root in the language. By high school, the nuns were reading my stories and compositions out loud to my classmates as examples of imagination at work.
This time my imagination jammed. At first I didn’t want and then I couldn’t seem to write that
speech. I suppose I should have thought of it as a “great honor,” as my father called it. But I was mortified. I still had a pronounced lilt to my accent, and I did not like to speak in public, subjecting
myself to my classmates’ ridicule. Recently, they had begun to warm toward my sisters and me,
and it took no great figuring to see that to deliver a eulogy for a convent full of crazy, old overweight nuns was no way to endear myself to the members of my class. But I didn’t know how
to get out of it. Week after week, I’d sit down, hoping to polish off some quick, noncommittal little
speech. I couldn’t get anything down.
The weekend before our Monday morning assembly I went into a panic. My mother would just
have to call in and say I was in the hospital, in a coma. I was in the Dominican Republic. Yeah, that
was it! Recently, my father had been talking about going back home to live.
My mother tried to calm me down. “Just remember how Mister Lincoln couldn’t think of anything
to say at the Gettysburg, but then, Bang! ‘Four score and once upon a time ago,’” she began reciting. Her version of history was half invention and half truths and whatever else she needed to
prove a point. “Something is going to come if you just relax. You’ll see, like the Americans say,
‘Necessity is the daughter of invention.’ I’ll help you.”
All weekend, she kept coming into my room with help. “Please, Mami, just leave me alone,
please,” I pleaded with her. But I’d get rid of the goose only to have to contend with the gander.
My father kept poking his head in the door just to see if I had “fulfilled my obligations,” a phrase he’d used when we were a little younger, and he’d check to see whether we had gone to the
bathroom before a car trip. Several times that weekend around the supper table, he’d recite his
valedictorian speech from when he graduated from high school. He’d give me pointers on delivery, on the great orators and their tricks. (Humbleness and praise and falling silent with great emotion
were his favorites.)
My mother sat across the table, the only one who seemed to be listening to him. My sisters and I were forgetting a lot of our Spanish, and my father’s formal, florid diction was even harder to
understand. But my mother smiled softly to herself, and turned the Lazy Susan at the center of the
table around and around as if it were the prime mover, the first gear of attention.
That Sunday evening, I was reading some poetry to get myself inspired: Whitman in an old book
with an engraved cover my father had picked up in a thrift shop next to his office a few weeks
back. “I celebrate myself and sing myself. . .” “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” The poet’s words shocked and thrilled me. I had gotten used to the nuns, a
literature of appropriate sentiments, poems with a message, expurgated texts. But here was a flesh
and blood man, belching and laughing and sweating in poems. “Who touches this book touches a man.”
That night, at last, I started to write, recklessly, three, five pages, looking up once only to see my father passing by the hall on tiptoe. When I was done, I read over my words, and my eyes filled. I
finally sounded like myself in English!
As soon as I had finished that first draft, I called my mother to my room. She listened attentively, as she had to my father’s speech, and in the end, her eyes were glistening too. Her face was soft and
warm and proud. “That is a beautiful, beautiful speech, Cukita. I want for your father to hear it
before he goes to sleep. Then I will type it for you, all right?”
Down the hall we went, the two of us, faces flushed with accomplishment. Into the master bedroom
where my father was propped up on his pillows, still awake, reading the Dominican papers, already days old. He had become interested in his country’s fate again. The dictatorship had been toppled.
The interim government was going to hold the first free elections in thirty years. There was still
some question in his mind whether or not we might want to move back. History was in the making, freedom and hope were in the air again! But my mother had gotten used to the life here. She did not
want to go back to the old country where she was only a wife and a mother (and a failed one at that,
since she had never had the required son). She did not come straight out and disagree with my
father’s plans. Instead, she fussed with him about reading the papers in bed, soiling those sheets with those poorly printed, foreign tabloids. “The Times is not that bad!” she’d claim if my father
tried to humor her by saying they shared the same dirty habit.
The minute my father saw my mother and me, filing in, he put his paper down, and his face
brightened as if at long last his wife had delivered a son, and that was the news we were bringing
him. His teeth were already grinning from the glass of water next to his bedside lamp, so he lisped when he said, “Eh-speech, eh-speech!”
“It is so beautiful, Papi,” my mother previewed him, turning the sound off on his TV. She sat down at the foot of the bed. I stood before both of them, blocking their view of the soldiers in helicopters
landing amid silenced gun reports and explosions. A few weeks ago it had been the shores of the
Dominican Republic. Now it was the jungles of Southeast Asia they were saving. My mother gave
me the nod to begin reading.
I didn’t need much encouragement. I put my nose to the fire, as my mother would have said, and
read from start to finish without looking up. When I was done, I was a little embarrassed at my pride in my own words. I pretended to quibble with a phrase or two I was sure I’d be talked out of
changing. I looked questioningly to my mother. Her face was radiant. She turned to share her pride
with my father.
But the expression on his face shocked us both. His toothless mouth had collapsed into a dark zero.
His eyes glared at me, then shifted to my mother, accusingly. In barely audible Spanish, as if secret
microphones or informers were all about, he whispered, “You will permit her to read that?”
My mother’s eyebrows shot up, her mouth fell open. In the old country, any whisper of a challenge
to authority could bring the secret police in their black V.W.’s. But this was America. People could say what they thought. “What is wrong with her speech?” my mother questioned him.
What ees wrrrong with her eh-speech?” My father wagged his head at her. His anger was always more frightening in his broken English. As if he had mutilated the language in his fury—and now
there was nothing to stand between us and his raw, dumb anger. “What is wrong? I will tell you
what is wrong. It shows no gratitude. It is boastful. ‘I celebrate myself’? ‘The best student learns to
destroy the teacher’?” He mocked my plagiarized words. “That is insubordinate. It is improper. It is disrespecting of her teachers—” In his anger he had forgotten his fear of lurking spies: Each wrong
he voiced was a decibel higher than the last outrage. Finally, he was yelling at me, “As your father,
I forbid you to say that eh-speech!”
My mother leapt to her feet, a sign always that she was about to make a speech or deliver an
ultimatum. She was a small woman, and she spoke all her pronouncements standing up, either for more protection or as a carry-over from her girlhood in convent schools where one asked for, and
literally took, the floor in order to speak. She stood by my side, shoulder to shoulder; we looked
down at my father. “That is no tone of voice, Eduardo—” she began.
By now, my father was truly furious. I suppose it was bad enough I was rebelling, but here was my mother joining forces with me. Soon he would be surrounded by a house full of independent
American women. He too leapt from his bed, throwing off his covers. The Spanish newspapers
flew across the room. He snatched my speech out of my hands, held it before my panicked eyes, a vengeful, mad look in his own, and then once, twice, three, four, countless times, he tore my prize
“Are you crazy?” My mother lunged at him. “Have you gone mad? That is her speech for tomorrow
you have torn up!”
“Have you gone mad?” He shook her away. “You were going to let her read that . . . that insult to
“Insult to her teachers!” My mother’s face had crumpled up like a piece of paper. On it was written
a love note to my father. Ever since they had come to this country, their life together was a constant
war. “This is America, Papi, America!” she reminded him now. “You are not in a savage country
I was on my knees, weeping wildly, collecting all the little pieces of my speech, hoping that I could
put it back together before the assembly tomorrow morning. But not even a sibyl could have made sense of all those scattered pieces of paper. All hope was lost. “He broke it, he broke it,” I moaned
as I picked up a handful of pieces.
Probably, if I had thought a moment about it, I would not have done what I did next. I would have
realized my father had lost brothers and comrades to the dictator Trujillo. For the rest of his life, he
would be haunted by blood in the streets and late night disappearances. Even after he had been in
the states for years, he jumped if a black Volkswagen passed him on the street. He feared anyone in uniform: the meter maid giving out parking tickets, a museum guard approaching to tell him not to
touch his favorite Goya at the Metropolitan.
I took a handful of the scraps I had gathered, stood up, and hurled them in his face. “Chapita!” I
said in a low, ugly whisper. “You’re just another Chapita!”
It took my father only a moment to register the hated nickname of our dictator, and he was after
me. Down the halls we raced, but I was quicker than he and made it to my room just in time to lock the door as my father threw his weight against it. He called down curses on my head, ordered me
on his authority as my father to open that door this very instant! He throttled that doorknob, but all
to no avail. My mother’s love of gadgets saved my hide that night. She had hired a locksmith to
install good locks on all the bedroom doors after our house had been broken into while we were away the previous summer. In case burglars broke in again, and we were in the house, they’d have
a second round of locks to contend with before they got to us.
“Eduardo,” she tried to calm him down. “Don’t you ruin my new locks.”
He finally did calm down, his anger spent. I heard their footsteps retreating down the hall. I heard their door close, the clicking of their lock. Then, muffled voices, my mother’s peaking in anger, in
persuasion, my father’s deep murmurs of explanation and of self-defense. At last, the house fell
silent, before I heard, far off, the gun blasts and explosions, the serious, self-important voices of newscasters reporting their TV war.
A little while later, there was a quiet knock at my door, followed by a tentative attempt at the
doorknob. “Cukita?” my mother whispered. “Open up, Cukita.”
“Go away,” I wailed, but we both knew I was glad she was there, and I needed only a moment’s
protest to save face before opening that door.
What we ended up doing that night was putting together a speech at the last moment. Two brief
pages of stale compliments and the polite commonplaces on teachers, wrought by necessity without much invention by mother for daughter late into the night in the basement on the pad of paper and
with the same pencil she had once used for her own inventions, for I was too upset to compose the
speech myself. After it was drafted, she typed it up while I stood by, correcting her misnomers and mis-sayings.
She was so very proud of herself when I came home the next day with the success story of the
assembly. The nuns had been flattered, the audience had stood up and given “our devoted teachers a standing ovation,” what my mother had suggested they do at the end of my speech.
She clapped her hands together as I recreated the moment for her. “I stole that from your father’s speech, remember? Remember how he put that in at the end?” She quoted him in Spanish, then
translated for me into English.
That night, I watched him from the upstairs hall window where I’d retreated the minute I heard his
car pull up in front of our house. Slowly, my father came up the driveway, a grim expression on his
face as he grappled with a large, heavy cardboard box. At the front door, he set the package down carefully and patted all his pockets for his house keys—precisely why my mother had invented her
ticking key chain. I heard the snapping open of the locks downstairs. Heard as he struggled to
maneuver the box through the narrow doorway. Then, he called my name several times. But I
would not answer him.
“My daughter, your father, he love you very much,” he explained from the bottom of the stairs. “He
just want to protect you.” Finally, my mother came up and pleaded with me to go down and reconcile with him. “Your father did not mean to harm. You must pardon him. Always it is better to
let bygones be forgotten, no?”
I guess she was right. Downstairs, I found him setting up a brand new electric typewriter on the kitchen table. It was even better than the one I’d been begging to get like my mother’s. My father
had outdone himself with all the extra features: a plastic carrying case with my initials, in decals,
below the handle, a brace to lift the paper upright while I typed, an erase cartridge, an automatic margin tab, a plastic hood like a toaster cover to keep the dust away. Not even my mother, I think,
could have invented such a machine!
But her inventing days were over just as mine were starting up with my schoolwide success. That’s
why I’ve always thought of that speech my mother wrote for me as her last invention rather than
the suitcase rollers everyone else in the family remembers. It was as if she had passed on to me her pencil and pad and said, “Okay, Cukita, here’s the buck. You give it a shot.”