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Dreams from My Mother

Lee Smith’s Christmas present (and past)

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By LEE SMITH
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We had hoped that she would live to Three Kings’ Day. My mother loved Christmas and all its rituals, and as a Puerto Rican, she taught us children that the finest day of the season was January 6, when the wise men from the east arrived at the stable in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the infant Jesus. 

Smith Family

The Smith Family

Only as an adult, when I went to study and travel in the Middle East, was I struck by the incongruity of Caribbean islanders’ celebrating the wanderings of Oriental royalty. But all through childhood, when we spent our Christmases in Puerto Rico, the similarities in climate appealed to us. Three magi riding past desert palms made more sense to us than a man in a fur-lined red suit sliding down a chimney. There was also the racial aspect. The kings, at least in the renderings of popular island artists, looked like they might have originated in the multiracial, multiethnic melting pot that centuries of European conquest and slavery had made of this island home of the Taino Indians.

Visiting from New York, my brothers and I would beg our parents to brave the nighttime traffic from Santurce to San Juan to go see the life-sized crèche overlooking the sea, where the kings and their horses and camels stood in the shadow of the 16th-century Spanish fortress, El Morro. Gaspar was olive skinned, like the majority of people on the island; Melchior was fair as a Spanish nobleman; and Balthazar was black, like many Puerto Ricans.

My mother’s retelling of her life was expansive and imaginative, which is to say that what she remembered was occasionally embroidered. I was never quite sure whether the New York dinner party where she said Tennessee Williams taught her to eat an artichoke had actually happened. Maybe it had, or maybe she was simply charmed by the poetry of yoking together what, to a young woman from San Juan newly arrived in Manhattan, seemed like two extraordinary, exotic things—a world-famous playwright and a thorny, edible flower. 

Maybe, as she said (though my father can’t remember it), Harry Belafonte really showed up unexpectedly at a small New Year’s Eve dinner back in the ’60s, where she joked, sang, and danced the calypso with him. Maybe she really did have a longstanding feud with Barbra Streisand dating back to the days when Mom worked as a secretary at London Records and the blossoming megastar slighted her. And maybe, as she once said, we were black.

That revelation came in her kitchen on the Upper West Side. It was shortly after Barack Obama was first elected, and we were talking about identity politics. It was a new twist to our racial heritage, a subject that had come to captivate my mother. She was increasingly certain that we were Jewish and, oddly, seemed to insist on this especially at Christmas, which she still cherished nonetheless. 

Her chief evidence for our Jewishness came from my grandmother, whom we called Mamiña. She had started to relate more of her own childhood, remembering, for instance, that on Friday nights her family used to turn the crucifixes and mirrors to the wall, light candles, and say a prayer that Mamiña no longer remembered. Mom informed her that this meant we were “secret Jews.”

It was plausible. My grandmother’s mother came from Spain, where in the 1400s many Jews had converted, or been forced to convert, to Christianity. Some had secretly kept their own customs and traditions. What Mamiña described sounded like a Sabbath dinner, a custom passed down as an intimate family ritual. My mother couldn’t have been happier. As a Puerto Rican and, she was almost convinced, a Jew, she felt she was doubly at home on the Upper West Side. And now, in her latest telling of our history, her grandfather, Mamiña’s father, was the son of a black man and a white woman. What, I asked her, were we not?

I mostly forgot this fantastic narrative until last Christmas. One of my brothers brought along mementoes from Mamiña’s apartment in Puerto Rico. She died two years ago at the age of 106; then six weeks later our mother died, on January 4, just before Three Kings’ Day. Among the items he brought were pictures of our mother as a little girl that I had never seen. In the photographs, the girl with the sweet and open smile has skin much darker than it became in adulthood, and hair much curlier even than the stylish afro she wore through the ’70s and ’80s. I smiled to see in the features of the little black girl confirmation that this time my beautiful mother had her story straight. 


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