My mother came from Havana Cuba after a member of Castro’s staff told her to take her son and leave the country. This was 1959.
Ana Srebrenik was a single mother and shop owner. She ran a little lingerie store in the lobby of, what was then, the Havana Hilton. Castro and his team had their offices in the building, and every day (as I remember her telling me), she’d see he and his minions walk through the hotel after their day in the mountains.
She got to know his side men casually. One of them gave her the heads up about the revolution and how her capitalist ways were no longer going to cut it in post Revolution Cuba.
My mother immigrated to the US and settled in New York and built another business. This time it was a dress shop in White Plains. This time she designed some of the clothes and hired a tailor to run them up for her store. I believe she had a partner in this venture because I used to hear about a couple with whom she had to settle when the store closed. Their names are forgotten.
Ana placed her career on a shelf, met my father, got married and had me. Maybe it wasn’t all in that order. I’m never sure. Details got fuzzy. When she was alive, she wouldn’t go into detail. I only knew she always thought she’d get back into her own store again. But she never did.
When she passed away unexpectedly in November of 2009, I had to do what we all have to do once in our lives: clean out the family home, send things to donation, organize estate sales, sell off property.
Among her things, I came upon a portfolio of her fashion sketchings. They were likely done after she gave up her store. She always loved clothes and good fashion although she never allowed herself to buy many things. Mom would re-purpose old clothes, re-design a skirt, or use a scarf as a belt. Like Little Edie Beale of ‘Grey Gardens’, she’d find a perfect outfit for the day.
While going through these drawings, I see a creative side to my mother I had never explored. To me, she was the mom in the kitchen, the mom in the car driving me to school or to the store, the mom in the dark room. Her dreams stunted by responsibility placed upon her as a woman of a certain generation.
Each dressed devised by her hand evoked glamour and chance situations. There was a bit of glory and opportunity with each sash and button. The lines and shading promoted a dream world she wish she could step into, or to allow a potential customer to live empowered through a frock devised by her own vision.
Yet, those ideas were left frozen on a page, hidden in a binder sitting at the bottom of a trunk. So many years ago, measured by the passage of time where she wouldn’t allow her true creative self to flourish. That it was her duty as a wife and mother at the time. That her way of handling a career and motherhood as a young single mother in Cuba caused a riff between her and her son.
Not this time, she likely thought when she had me. So she shut the dream down.
She encouraged me to be successful.
She was proud of my athleticism and independence.
I think back at the times she never brought up marriage and grandchildren. Never guilted me about it.
She once even told me I should run my own business. But the everyday corporate life seemed like a societal obligation, having seen my father find security at IBM for entire career.
How wrong I was. The world isn’t the same.
I think of the song *”Days and Days” from the musical “Fun Home”. It’s sung by Helen Bechdel to her daughter Alison after dealing with her husband Bruce’s closeted life for so many years. She had just asked him for a divorce.
Although the family circumstances are not the same as mine, the feeling of wasted days due to what was expected of her comes to light.
She sings of the ordinary, mundane things, “…lunches and car rides and shirts and socks. And grades and piano…and no one clocks the day you disappear,” and “bargains I made because as a wife I was meant to, and now my life is shattered and made bare.”
Days and days and days. Just like my mother, married to a very nice, sweet, adorable man whom I worshiped, but held her to what was expected of her. He was likely resentful of her depression, not understanding what she needed.
There is no one to blame really. But lessons are learned. Parents strive for their children to have a better life than the one they leave behind.
I can hear my own mother say it in my ear.
“Don’t you come back here. I didn’t raise you to give away your days…like me.”
What are your dreams? What have you sacrificed in order to live a certain way? What creative activity have you allowed to sit on the shelf? And if you brought it out of the darkness to make it a part of your livelihood or your hobby, how will you continue to use that talent and never give up?
‘Days and Days’, from the musical ‘Fun Home’. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Words by Lisa Kron.