My first language was Spanish. That's right, me and millions of Latin Americans and Spaniards were blessed to be introduced to the spoken word in a lyrical, romantic tongue whose roots are a mixture of Old Castilian and Andalusi Arabic.
Except, here's the thing; I am not Spanish, or Mexican or even Latina I am a just another survivor from the clean streets Beverly Hills whose father happens to be from Brooklyn and whose mother went to Hollywood High. I say went because, she never graduated. And not because she didn't speak English. Hollywood High in the 50's was pretty gringo. And not because she wasn't smart, she was and remains a very intelligent woman. It's because she couldn't. She just didn't have the kind of support she needed to understand what school could do for you and how to get through it. That, and, my mother suffers from mental illness. Manic depression. As a result of it, her life went along a very different, tumultuous, and sometimes disastrous path.
Back to me, well sort of. My mother was twenty-two when I was born. She had already had my brother and my sister, who have a different biological father than I do, although my father adopted them when they were toddlers and has been their father ever since. My mother was fifteen and sixteen when they entered the world. I guess that also explains why she never graduated. By the time I showed up, she was the wise old age of twenty-two, and by now, my mother was "sick" a lot of the time. Her illness manifested itself in a lot of ways: long bouts in mental hospitals, alcohol and drug addiction, violence, deep, thick depressions. During much of the time of my early life, my father was working tirelessly, trying to get ahead in the movie business and provide for the family he so desperately wanted. The only way we, my brother, sister and I, could have survived was to have a live-in nanny. And this is how we come back around to the Spanish.
My parents hired Andrea Soto Reyes when I was a few weeks old. Let me make something clear, she was no "Super Nanny". She was an illiterate Mexican woman who was about five feet tall, well over 200 pounds with a head of wiry, thick black hair who spoke not a lick of English. I can still smell her as I think about her; essence of lemon, corn flour and cheap hair dye are the first scents that come to mind, then there's the ever present Doublemint Gum at the bottom of her black vinyl purse, and, of course, the enchiladas in the oven. She commanded order with a wooden kitchen spoon, but it never came down upon us (with any real force, anyway).
I don't remember the early weeks and months of my life. Truthfully, my early childhood is murky too, but I know Andrea was there. My mother was around as well, but she was often incapacitated. Therefore it was Andrea who took on the day-to-day role of being my shepherd in to life. When I finally got to walking, and my mother's health made it impossible for her to parent, I became terrified of the dark. This is around the time I started heading downstairs to Andrea's room in the middle of the night. Once there, I would slide in to her bed, be engulfed by her warm and ample body, and remain there until morning.
Not surprisingly, I became attached to Andrea even though we should have had nothing in common and were not biologically connected in any way. But, we had a secrete language. Yes, of course, the Spanish, but something even more profound - a connection that I only understand now because I am a mother myself. It's not about words or biology; it's about trust and nurturing and love. It's the cooing and the gaze your baby gives you when they hear your voice, it's the innate need they have to be close to your skin and the crazy craving you have for them, and, it's the feeling of safety you both get from being with one another. It's an amazing bond that allows for communication between a creature that speaks no language, and it's tether to the world. It may be the most amazing experience I've ever had in my life. I seriously cannot imagine anything greater.
After eighteen years in a family that had its ups and its fair share of time in the trenches, Andrea died in my mother's arms. Her heart gave out. She had seen me grow up and go off to college, lived through my parents' divorce and my mother's commitment to sobriety and a life of service. Her work was done. You see, Andrea was not only a mother figure for me, but she was also one to my mother, whose own mother had abandoned her when she was just a little girl. While I know my mother felt intense jealousy towards the woman who clearly had my attention and love when I was a child, Andrea never left. She stuck it through, for better or worse and got to see us both make our way towards better lives for ourselves. That's what a parent does, and that's what the notion of attachment helps promote. Security and freedom.
With my own children, while I can barely stand the thought of them ever leaving the nest, I also want them to explore and to live their lives independently of me one day. I feel that being attached in the way we are now, and have been, will give them the inner sense of security they will need to do that. It may sound crazy but, to create a strong attachment is really the key to fostering a sense of independence.
This Emotional Life is a two-year campaign to foster awareness, connections and solutions around emotional wellness. Join our community at www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife.
Jennifer Gruskoff is the editor in-chief of Goodkin, www.WeAreGoodkin.com, a life-style site for modern, non-tradtional families.