Mother’s Day at the United Church, on Prospect Place in the south Bronx, meant that all the kids memorized poems to be recited at the service on Mother’s Day. We practiced not only our poems, but the choreography that went along with them. Arm motions, vocal inflections, and sometimes even some fancy footwork.
We dressed carefully putting on our Sunday panties, our Sunday socks, and our Sunday dresses before our mother pulled and yanked our hair into place.
All the women received their corsage at the door; a red carnation if their mother was still alive or a white carnation if their mother was an angel. All the kids sat a pew with their Sunday school class and fidgeted until it was time to hit the stage, excuse me, the altar.
With a minimum of nerves, I walked up, and before a full church recited a poem I remember to this day.
Madre mia, Madre mia. Besame, besame todos los dias.
I didn’t get a standing ovation, after all there was a line of kids waiting for their shot at stardom, but my mother and grandmothers all beamed with pride.
And then it was the adults’ turn. I remember sitting there watching poet after poet, some with poems they’d written. They exemplified the rich tradition of poetry, the oral telling of stories, that our ancestors passed down over the ages. Some performed their poems with dance and others with tears streaming down their cheeks. As a child, I was mesmerized at the emotions words could elicit. Now fifty years later, my appreciation of the spoken word has not subsided and in fact has only grown.
After the benediction, all the mothers went up the altar for a blessing and a group picture. The oldest and youngest mothers were acknowledged. And then we all went outside to take family photos. Because cameras and film were still expensive, special Sundays were always photo opportunities. Many of my most treasured photos are black and white and taken on the sidewalk outside of the United Church, the spiritual home of the Rivera and Santos families.
I still wear a red carnation and thank God for the years he has granted to Marie Rivera. I also give thanks for my angels: Crispina Lugo, Belen Melendez, Maria Santos, Ernestina Rivera, Ana Santos, Nereida Santos, Indiana Rivera, and Deborah Reeve.