About four minutes in, I ask, "How do you want to be remembered?"
A slight pause. A guttural voice erupts and eyes shimmer behind her glasses. "As someone who always worked hard for her children," she says, raising her glasses to wipe tears. "Someone who made a lot of sacrifices for her children and continues to, as a good mother. That is how I want to be remembered."
I take a deep breath, shift in my seat, and look down, now bleary-eyed, at my written questions. I resist the urge to take Mom's hand, wanting to give her the space to feel what she needs to. I bring a sleeve to my eyes, take another breath, and try to keep it together.
Her response about the sacrifices of motherhood leads the conversation to Jason, the little boy she looks after during the week. Her face brightens as she describes bathing him, feeding him, leaving detailed notes for his parents. Mom has shown me pictures and told me so much about this child — how intelligent he is, how he smiles when she enters the room, and about their shared days — that I feel like he's a long-lost brother I will one day meet. She ends by saying she loves him very much.
"Are there things you do with Jason that you wish you could have done with us?" I ask, curious about lessons learned from raising three children.
"I watch him for up to 12 hours a day, see his every gesture, the veins in his neck as he breathes, each time he moves each of his little fingers. That's something I couldn't do with you children. I always had to work. And I have come to know that these people who watched over you children," Mom pauses, then chokes out these last few words, "didn't always treat you right. I feel so—"
"You did the best you could," I interject, before she can travel any further down this regretful road.
Mom later talks about how hard immigrant life was for the family. In Portugal they were poor but could eat from the land. When they arrived in Venezuela, and then in the United States, they sold the only thing they could: their labor. For Mom, this meant piecework as a seamstress, getting paid anywhere from five to 12 cents per garment. "I'd skip lunch so I could sew more pieces," she recalls. "The bosses liked me because they could count on me, but the other ladies called me a crazy Portuguese lady. I was full of hunger, but for work."
Eventually Mom wore out the cartilage in her right knee — like brakes in a car, she explains — and the doctors refused to let her go back to pumping sewing pedals. Until she started cleaning houses, she was sure being a seamstress was the toughest job. "At least with sewing, you're seated," she says. "But with cleaning, you're going up and down stairs with heavy vacuums and cleaning dirty bathrooms and ovens that never stay clean."
I recall that no matter how many times Mom showered during those years and sprayed perfume, a faint smell of bleach always clung to her; and her fingernails, despite wearing gloves, were always deteriorating from the cleaning chemicals.
I attempt to steer the conversation to a lighter place. "What's your favorite memory of me?"
"There are so many, I can't choose, but one of the most painful was…"
I consider interrupting, but this interview seems cathartic for her. Once again there are few, if any, pauses in her answers. These events are what made her life meaningful, and I sit in rapt attention and, yes, some sorrow.