Be A Graciela, And Be Happy
When I was younger, I was that annoying one in the family that nobody wanted to be around. I was FedEx from Cheaper by the Dozen, but we were only half a dozen. My two older sisters hated me because when it was just the three of us, I was spoiled rotten. I trashed their dolls, drawing on them with a Sharpie, and wanted and got everything my sister’s laid their hands on. I wasn’t in school. They were. This meant I got our mother all to myself. We had dates at McDonald’s and visits to the zoo. But when I was only a precious four years of age, the twins came.
Born at 32 weeks in 1980, the twins came in with one foot in life and one in death. They made it, but they stole all our mother’s time and energy, and our lives were turned upside down. Pardon the cliché, but I literally would stand on my head. That or I could often be found sitting in a corner with globs of my own hair in my hands. I attribute this behavior to poor stress management. Sadly, my hair now falls out on its own when I’m stressed. Anyway, it gets better.
The twins weren’t even a year old when my mother learned she was accidentally expecting again.
So now we were six siblings. How on earth do you compete? Your two older sisters are five and six years older than you, and they’re best friends. The younger set not only almost died and scared everyone have to death, but they are TWINS, so they get some pretty cool attention on both counts. And no one can ever argue that the baby of the family doesn’t have this automatic favoritism card.
And it only got worse. My awkward phase hit. Imagine big pink glasses, long stringy hair that I unsuccessfully attempted to feather each day, scrawny little legs and arms, and buck teeth. Oh! Don’t forget the freckles and the little line across the bridge of my nose from pushing up my glasses with my index finger. I still shudder at the sight of my middle school photos.
It seemed that everyone in our family was attractive except for me. I was impulsive, hyper-active… my big sisters only wanted to doll up my little sister. She was prettier than me, had better hair, and she came in a package. It was fun to dress up twins. Then the third guy got added in and they sort of became a triplet package. Imagine my horror upon learning that while I was at school, our mother took the three of them in cute little matching, red, velvet Christmas outfits and had the three of them photographed together. Smh!
Then I developed a sort of twitching problem. That became pretty embarrassing in public. I was also forced to be the third wheel on my big sisters’ dates, promising to keep my silence about their hand-holding at the movies if they bought me a pickle… a promise they fell for and I broke numerous times. Get a clue, right?
Have I painted a lovely enough picture? Did I mention how outlandishly hyper I was? I did? Well let me add to that. Not only did I do a cartwheel using the lap of my sister’s new boyfriend (he stuck around, by the way), but one day my mother had some women coming over to sell her some clothes and jewelry. She said, “Please do NOT do your gymnastics in the house, okay?” Well, I was certain she left out the words, “DO NOT,” because after all, who wouldn’t want their daughter to show off her amazing couch flipping skills? So not only did I kick one lady in the face with my cartwheel, but the quarter in my hand flew into the other lady’s cup of tea. Lord knows how she didn’t realize that, but I did try to tell my mother. The lady found the quarter. I won’t say how.
Don’t ask me how all the above mentioned antics ended up in a polished package of a fine violinist, college cheerleader, happily married woman with five kids including a set of my own twins.
Well, now that you’ve got my back story, I want to introduce you to my latest and most favorite character that I’ve written about. Her name is Graciela. She isn’t me, but she’s pretty darn close. In fact, I wish she were real so I could be her BFFL. She’s got the brilliant older sister and a mother who holds a tight reign. Graciela is kind and loving, but she’s always the underdog.
But her life is about to change.
I wrote, “Margarita Goes to the Dance,” as a Middle-Grade book, and I am in love with that genre. I’m still in it for the long haul with romance, but I had to follow my heart on this one. It’s not published, but I’m including a looksee of the opening chapter because I absolutely want to share it.
In short, I just want girls to know that even though they may sometimes feel like ugly ducklings, doing all the wrong things, they’re really swans. (Thank you, Hans Christian Andersen). Each of us have a beautiful individuality, and we all have something amazing to give to the people around us, to this world. In my book, everyone was so focused on Margarita, that they forgot to see the beauty in Graciela, but that never stopped her from being confident in herself. And in the end, she learns what her gift is, and she’s even more beautiful for it.
What’s your gift?
Margarita Goes to the Dance
Just before dinnertime, my sister slams her book shut and shouts, “Done!” with a satisfaction that makes me bite down even harder on the yellow pencil I’ve been chewing on while I add and subtract decimals. She shuffles papers and zips her backpack down below me in the bottom bunk.
“I’m done, too,” I say very matter-of-factly, but it’s a lie.
“Graciela, you’re such a liar,” she pops her head up to my territory on the top bunk, and I slap my hands over my papers to cover them. I give her a scowl. Sometimes, I wish I were a bed-wetter.
Drip, drip, drip.
I’m only five math problems into twenty, and I still have reading homework. I sigh and watch quietly as Margarita now brushes her long dark hair with our abuelita’s small silver brush. She’s changed into her favorite lavender shirt, some jeans, and the new sandals that I bought her.
I decide to surrender to math and flick my poor pencil from my fingers, and it rolls across my notebook like it wants to escape from my mouth. It’s rough and splintered. Maybe tonight when I brush my teeth, I’ll spit out pencil splinters when I rinse. I dig around in my backpack and make sure I have a fresh pencil for tomorrow. My new victim.
My sister is making eye contact with herself in the long mirror of our bedroom like she’s so in love with herself. Any minute now, I think she’s going to close her eyes and press her face against the mirror and give herself smooches like we see in the movies. But she doesn’t.
I spread out over my math, folding my arms and resting my head. I watch my sister as she slowly brushes from top to bottom, through that thick hair that she claims is dark and rich like our dad’s coffee. She used to brush my hair like that when we were little. We’d sit on our abuelita’s porch and she’d take that silver brush and drag it from top to bottom, yanking on my tangles. I’d let her do anything she wanted, braids, buns, colitas. She was the only one I’d ever let brush my hair. Not my mother, not my grandmother, just Ita.
I don’t call her Ita anymore.
My daydreams of the good old days in Mexico, on my grandmother’s porch, with my very best friend, are interrupted when my ex-best friend, I mean my sister, begins her speaking exercises.
“Beat,” she says slowly, as if she still needs to practice covering up her accent. “Sssspring,” she says, forcing each sound out. I roll my eyes.
When we first came to this country four years ago, she was 11 and I was 9. Our bilingual education teacher told my parents in Spanish, that my sister and I needed to speak English to each other at home. We didn’t even know that much, only what we had started to pick up at school like, “Hi,” and “Good morning,” “Yes,” “No,” “I need to go to the restroom.”
My mother nodded appreciatively at our teacher, but her burning eyes told another tale. When we got home, she put Margarita and I up against the wall in our living room and in her loud, angry, Spanish voice, told us we could never speak English in our home. She said if we did, we would lose the ability to speak in our mother tongue, so we promised her to never, ever speak even one word of English at home, ever. That was fine with me, because we didn’t know how to speak English anyway, but my sister cried about it in our beds that night.
A few days later, Margarita began a plan she said would save us.
Every morning before school, when our parents walked out of the house and down our three porch steps for work, Margarita put that plan into action. She’d order me to wait on our old brown sofa. I’d obey and play with the little burn spots from the last owner’s cigarettes, and she’d go into the kitchen to prepare our breakfast. Then we’d sit on the sofa together with plates of eggs and warm tortillas on our laps and repeat, repeat, and repeat the letter of the day, sounds, and words. If I didn’t do it, she’d hit me in the head. If I said anything that didn’t sound like what Grover said, she’d hit me again.
The characters of Sesame Street, little blue Grover, Maria, who looked exactly like my Tia Patricia,Big Bird, they were our new American family, and spending my mornings with them was the best part of my day. They didn’t laugh at me when I tried to speak English. They didn’t see my brown skin and tell me how ugly I was.
I loved my Sesame Street family very much.
My sister and I still don’t speak English at home, well not in front of our parents anyway, but we know it perfectly now.
“Beat” now sounds like it should instead of “Bit.” “You” doesn’t sound like “Chooo.” That’s a big deal for my sister.
She’s on the last word of her list, “sock,” which used to sound like “eh sock,” when our mother calls us to dinner.
“Muchachitas, vengan a cenar!” She yells from the kitchen.
“Why are you combing your hair for dinner?” I crinkle my nose with annoyance.
Margarita’s reflection glares back at me. “At least I comb my hair,” she snaps.
“I comb my hair, too.” I roll my eyes at her, but while she’s putting our grandmother’s hairbrush away in the drawer, I run a hand quickly over the top of my head to double check for stray hairs. Of course there are lots. Oh well.
Margarita wears her long hair down on her shoulders or up in pretty ponytails and buns that she makes so perfectly. I, on the other hand, keep my hair pulled back with rubber bands, dental floss, string, or anything else that will hold it back when it annoys me.
She presses down her shirt, flicks her hair, and stomps out of our room. I hop off the bed, open her drawer, and I take our abuelita’s little silver brush and shove it into the coolness under my sister’s pillow. “Perdoname, Abuelita,” I whisper up to Heaven, hoping my grandmother is not too mad at me. But my sister deserves it.
A smile spreads across my face as I imagine my sister stomping and yelling while she looks for that hairbrush because she brushes her “eh sthuped” hair every night before bed.
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