Thursday, July 12, 2012

Coming to America

About a year after I started drawing full time, I raised my prices for the first time.  I was tired of hearing that my pencil portraits were “reasonable.”  I like money.  A lot.  I’m not interested in being a bargain.  In fact, when it comes to getting cash for my time, I’m fine with being right on the verge of rude but hopefully not obnoxious.  That's a hard balance to find sometimes.

Rome Gulliford picked up a price sheet at one of my earliest shows during the first traumatic months after I got fired from my corporate job.  For more than a year, she saved the price sheet and saved her pennies. She wanted to give her mother a special portrait of her brothers and sisters… all seven of them.

I kept my base prices the same, but after the first year, I doubled my fee for each additional subject from $25 to $50.  By the time Rome called me over a year later, the price for a seven subject portrait had increased by $175.  It was a Mother’s Day order and I was swamped.  A good business person knows when to make an exception, and when to stand firm.  If it’s pouring rain, nobody’s putting umbrellas in the clearance bin. 

Rome was crushed that she had saved so long and needed to wait until Christmas if she was going to get this portrait for her mother.  I’m not always the shrewdest business person or any other kind of person.  To her relief, I told her I would draw her portrait for the old price. 

When the portrait was complete and I heard her story, I was glad that I did.

Rome was the first person I asked to interview for my book, rather than telling the stories from memory.  She sat on the floor with me at my coffee table and we talked like old friends.  Hers was the story I meant to tell when I wrote about my mom last post, but once we ladies get started on our mothers, it's hard to stop.  Rome knows what I mean.

Rome’s mother brought her six little children to the United States from Mexico in 1975.  They had nothing but the clothes on their backs – no possessions and not a single photograph.  During the thirty plus years they’ve lived in Chicago, Rome’s mom treasured this snapshot that was taken for their visa and the six tiny photographs used for their applications for citizenship.  Times were tough and a camera was an impossible luxury.

“We came to America when I was six years old,” Rome told me.  “My mother was 27 and she already had six children, each born within a year and a half of the next.  She was technically a single parent because my father had been working in the United States as a welder for years.  When my grandmother became sick and died, my mother couldn’t bear to stay in Mexico without her.  My grandmother was only 44 years old."

Wow.  Um, I'm 45.  Just saying.  Also, what if Joey had six kids already?

“Life was so hard there," Rome went on.  "My mom had almost no education.  She was cooking for her family when she was only 7 years old.  She married my father at 18, had her first baby at 21 and also cared for her younger siblings when my grandmother got sick.  There were no washing machines, no running water.  The water for all of that laundry had to be hauled by hand from a well.  My mother had to wash clothes, dirty bedding and soiled cloth diapers on a washboard every single day, rubbing her hands raw.  She works nonstop to this day. I don’t know where she finds her energy.”

Oh Lord, no.  It still stinks.
I shivered at the thought.  I don't have the slightest idea what real labor is like.  Imagining Rome’s mother slaving away made me feel embarrassed for throwing a snit fit at the dryer stink that keeps happening.  When my friend Lauri had her kitchen redone, I thought of her as a desperate frontier woman for several months, especially since she has four kids, which is far too many for me to imagine, let alone six. 

In order to leave Mexico, Rome’s mother dreamed and saved and scrimped.  She scraped up enough from the meager money sent home from her husband to bring her six young children to America.  She joined her husband in Chicago where she knew nobody and didn’t speak a word of English. 

“My mother’s life has always been all about our family.  She never sits still - cooking, cleaning, worrying about everyone.  She was strict and protective; we were never allowed to sleep over anywhere else.  If we asked to stay at a friend’s, my mother would scold us, ‘You have your own bed, this is where you stay.  Why do you need to sleep somewhere else?'"

About eight years before I met her, Rome had returned to Mexico with her mother for the first time since they'd left.  It had been more than fifteen years. 

“Her brother was very ill,” Rome explained.  “My mom had no intention of ever going back there; she had such painful memories.  She wanted to block that part of her life.” 

Rome’s eyes glistened and she swallowed, pausing to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand.  “I don’t like to think about how my mom suffered,” she said quietly.  “I didn’t blame her for not wanting to go back.  But I told her that she might never get to see her brother again.  I told her I’d go with her, although I was nervous about how she would react to facing everything she’d gone through.

“It hurt her deeply to see that life is still so bad there.  The poverty is terrible.  There are kids running around with no shoes on gravel roads, kicking a can because they don’t have a ball.  It’s depressing.  The houses look like they are ready to be bulldozed over."

Rome looked out my window in thought.  I realized the window was pretty dirty and I felt lazy on a whole new level.

“I don’t even know how she got us all out of Mexico.  We were so little and there were so many of us.  Everyone had to walk long distances to get anywhere.  I remember my brother was sick for awhile and my mother had to take us on a long walk to the bus depot and then endure a 2 ½ hour, steamy bus ride to get to a doctor in the nearest city, all while toting two toddlers, a baby in diapers and one on the way.  And then do it all over again to get home.

“It makes me feel so lucky to have this life and so foolish for complaining about the small stuff.  I’m grateful we got out of Mexico.  And yet, at the same time, I feel bad that there are so many people who can’t get out.  They’re stuck with nothing; no resources, and no education.  They are vulnerable and naïve, they believe whatever they are told.  If they were better educated, maybe they could lift themselves up.”

Thoughts swirled in my head, listening to Rome, of the angry disdain some people have about immigrants in our country, despite the fact that every one of us is here because of dreams for a better life like Rome’s mother’s.  I’d heard similar stories about Mexico from our beloved Raquel, who cared for my boys back in my corporate life.  How hard she worked, how shockingly little she charged us, how absolutely devoted she was. 

 “My father goes back to Mexico at least three times a year,” Rome continued.  He brings all the donations he can cram into his van.  He is like Santa Claus.  He drives all the way there from Chicago.”

Since Rome’s story had been mostly about her mother, I wondered about her dad.  Was he still around?  I was getting the picture that perhaps they had divorced.

“No, my father was always around,” Rome said.  “But my mom was both our mother and our father.  She handled the house, our needs, our discipline, caring for us, everything.   After my father put in his 40 hours of work, he figured he was done - he’d put in his time and now he could relax.  But my mom was working just as hard and her job never ended, she never rested.  She was there for everything, attending every parent/teacher conference by herself.  My dad sat back at home, waiting for my mother’s report on what was going on.  It’s part of their culture and their generation.” 

Rome’s mother never attended school in America, there wasn’t any time or money.  But she did put herself through driving school on the sly, without her husband’s consent. 

“When we were growing up in Chicago, we dragged huge army duffle bags full of laundry up three flights of stairs, up and down with the dirty and clean clothes, to a Laundromat three blocks away.  Hispanic men like my father were too macho to drive laundry around.  My mother was tired of waiting for him to drive her, so she learned to drive without him knowing.  He probably was nervous that she’d gained that little bit of power.  She was proud to be able to go where she wanted to go.

“There was always a distance between my parents.  Between all of us, really.  From what I’ve experienced and seen in my parents’ generation, they are not very affectionate.  My mother was all business.  She held the little ones, but once we were old enough to help, we were expected to do our part, to get to work.

“In fact," Rome said, leaning forward, "I remember the first time I gave my mom a hug.  It wasn’t until I was in my twenties.  I don’t remember what prompted me to do it, but I remember making the decision and surprising myself that I was going to try.  I was so nervous getting that close to her, breaking the barrier of her busy, personal space, wondering how she would react.  She was surprised too, but she hugged me back.  While we were growing up, she showed us in many ways how she felt about us, but she never told us.  She never told us, ‘I love you,’ out loud until we were adults.  She didn’t know how; her upbringing was just so serious and hard. 

“Today, my mother is very loving with her grandchildren.  I think that the grandkids have helped her develop the ability to express her love to her own kids.  If I’m mad at my kids and my father hears me, he tells me not to yell at them.  But he always yelled at us!” 

When Rome picked up her finished portrait she was thrilled to see that the six tiny photographs her mother had lovingly saved, attached to an old piece of paper with yellowing tape, were transformed into a portrait that included their baby brother who had been born in America.  Rome’s children played with mine while she and her husband chatted with me. 

“I can’t believe Rome actually spent money on this portrait,” her husband teased.  “She’s so frugal.  I can’t ever get her to spend any money on something she wants.” 

Rome laughed.  “My mom never wants us to spend any money on her, either.  I guess I’m the same way.  She never accepts a gift without complaining about it.  She’ll want to know how much we spent on this portrait and she’ll be angry we spent it on her.  She doesn‘t like to be the center of attention and would rather focus her attention on someone else.  She’s a private person.”

Rome looked out my dirty window again and her eyes welled up.  “She was really very alone, all her life.  She never had a best friend to talk to.  She’s kept everything inside.  It wasn’t until I became an adult and I went through a divorce that I fully realized how she’s always been there for me.  I’ve gotten really close to her and a day doesn’t go by that I don’t call to see how she is doing.  I can always tell if she is bothered by something, but I have to drag it out of her before she’ll tell me.  She doesn’t know how to ask for help.

“If she tells me that her faucet is leaking, we drive the 77 miles to her house in Chicago from Wisconsin.  My husband gets frustrated sometimes because I have siblings who live near her.  But I want to be the one who is there for her.  No matter how minor it is, I feel pressure to take responsibility.  I want things my way, just like her."

Rome holds up her portrait, looking at the faces of her siblings.  “This is so beautiful.  I think she’s going to love it.”  She looks at me and gives me a big beautiful smile.  “I love my mom.  She has been through so much on her own.  I know that she’s tough, but I want her to know that she never has to go through anything by herself, ever again.”

Remind me to give my mom an extra big hug the next time she comes over.


  1. So beautifully written, Wendy! You should certainly send a copy to Rome. She would be so touched at your words.

    Love, Mom

    1. That's a good idea... I'll do that. Love you, Mommy.

  2. Oh Wend! Such a sweet story; told beautifully about the love between a daughter and her mother.

    1. I knew you'd like her story, Vic. The kids remind me of the Crow kids when you were little. XXOO

  3. A parent's love is can sometimes only be expressed in how hard they work to provide for you so that you may have a better life than they had growing up. This is an amazing story of sacrafice and love of a mother for her children and the love that her daughter felt for her mother.

    The story itself is worth far more than the money you made in making that beautiful drawing that Rome's mother will cherish for the rest of her life.

    1. You are so right! I get caught up in the money side sometimes because I have bills to pay and I feel like I'm trying to chase the corporate income that I once earned. But helping Rome make her hard-working mother happy is priceless.

  4. Dammit Wendy! If you keep making me cry I won't be able to come here anymore! Actually, I love your stories...thanks for sharing. Now I want some funny ones over cocktails :-)

  5. Love these stories, Wendy. They really add a new dimension.

    1. Thanks, Pat... I think you might get a kick out of the next one.


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