My oldest sister was already ten years old by the time I was born. She considered me a piece of baggage for which she was not responsible, for she had been born to a different father, a father with whom she repeatedly told me our mother had been hopelessly in love. My sister Amada had only a minimal amount of time for the other four sisters. She claimed to remember her father and how handsome and affectionate he was.
When winter set in and we would sit with our blankets on the kitchen floor near the fire for the light and the warmth, Amada would tell us about her father, Amadeo, (named after a Spanish king) and how he had ridden a big black horse named Obsidian, a horse so fierce that no one but her father could ride him. But Obsidian loved him so much that he would put his great dark head into her father's arms and shut his eyes, willing to submit to anything as long as it was accompanied by her father's hand on his face. Amada ("I was named after my father, you know") would put her graceful hand against her face and close her eyes, and sigh.
Our father worked in the Carniceria Monterey in the little town of Linden. He was a butcher, and spent his days cutting beef and pork into cuts and slices to please the townspeople. He never had a horse; he had never ridden a horse. He said that the carniceria never cut up a horse and tried to pass it off as beef. That was as close as we got to horses.
The house we rented had a big orange tree, three cherry trees, a nectarine tree, and a pair of kiwi vines that covered half the back yard like a gigantic umbrella in the summer. The north side of the house we tilled and planted with spinach and lettuce and onions in the fall, and tomatoes in the spring. In front of the house was a little stand (made of boards fallen from the walls of the garage) where we sold our navel oranges, in bags ten for a dollar, and cherries for seventy-five cents a pint, and kiwis at ten cents a piece. My sisters and I would watch from the windows and run out to help customers if a car stopped in front of our house. All except Amada, who was too busy with homework or sewing or helping Mother fix dinner to be bothered by commerce, her expression regal, far above her duties, expressionless as a skeleton, but with flawless light tan skin and eyes that hid everything.
When I think of my mother, I always see Amada in her. My mother's eyes were cast down, looking at her hands at work, or when she thought she was alone, and no one was watching her, she looked past her hands, past their work. The only times I ever saw her dark gaze eye to eye was when she was admonishing me for attempting some dangerous stunt like climbing the kitchen cabinets to see what was on the top shelf, or the time I decided to walk up the road between the orchards and see what foreign country that dirt highway would reveal. Both of those things happened the year I was five. I remember my mother clutching me by both upper arms, shaking me a little, shouting, "What's wrong with you? Why can't you be like your sisters?"
She meant that I should be like Dolores, who was two years older than me, and as quiet and agreeable as I was not. Dolores didn't like Amada's stories about her father, so she followed our Papi around like a dog when he was home, begging him to read her the newspaper comics or passages from his Bible, depending on which he had in his lap. From her vantage point, she would pointedly refuse to look at Amada, who in her turn, ignored Dolores. The air would be full of little invisible arrows flying back and forth but Dolores would not fight with Amada, or call her "Amada Gordissima" as I did when our parents were out of earshot.
Or maybe she meant that I should be like Maria and Isabel, who at that time were three and a-little-more-than-two, respectively. They were in a phase that made them eager to please -- for them cooperation was the next step in communication. "Mira, look how Maria y Isabel ayuden -- why can't you be so helpful?" she would cry, switching from English to Spanish to English again. I would run outside to stand in the yard, sweating or shivering (depending on the season), fists clenched, not permitted to retort, unwilling to stay in the same house as my reprimand.
I wanted to be Amada. I wanted to have a father so exotic that he didn't drive a battered old Toyota pickup, but instead rode a big black horse that was so beautiful that robbers coveted him but could not get near him for fear of being kicked. I wanted my mother to have been crazy in love with my father, instead of just having married him because she had no other choice.
How did Amadeo die? Consumed by tuberculosis, as so many did in those days? Was he murdered by thieves who carried off his wallet and managed to best his ferocious steed? Amada said that no one would tell his little girl the manner of his death, but that she remembered the sobbing neighbor bringing his hat and his gloves to the door, and our mother sending her from the room. "It's why she is so sad," Amada explained. "Maybe someday she will tell you about him."
I could not ask my mother those questions when I was small: I lived in terror of seeing the sadness in her downcast eyes pour out in thick, transparent waterfalls down her cheeks and under her chin. If she wept, we were all lost, all unwanted, all condemned as could-have-beens.
A boy in a glossy black double-cab F-150 with enhanced speakers that made our ears hurt came to pick up Amada to drive her to school one March morning when she had just turned eighteen. My mother shook her head as the truck pulled out of the dirt yard onto the county road. "I hope she remembers what I've told her," said my mother, as we waited for the school bus that would take me and Dolores and Maria to classes at Linden Elementary.
"She'll remember. She remembers everything," I told my mother, grumpily.
"I remember everything, too," shouted Isabel. "Can I go to school today with mis hermanas?"
"No!" Dolores and I said loudly. Isabel looked stricken.
"Mis hijas," our mother said, hugging poor, unwelcome Isabel, "life is hard enough without fighting and showing each other ugly faces. We don't have much, but we have each other. Mira aqui, look here. See how beautiful the blossoms on this tree are?" She pulled a thin twig of the nectarine tree down to our eye level.
The flowers clustered in pink ruffles, and my mother used one slim finger to count six of them out loud. "You're like these blossoms, all opening up at different times, and so beautiful. You're all different, but you are all attached to the same branch. If you push someone else off the branch, what will happen to them? You all have to hold tight and help the rest hold tight, especially Amada."
"But there are only five of us," Dolores pointed out. "You counted six."
"See this bud?" said my mother, the corners of her mouth smiling, though her eyes were still downcast. "There are six now, and perhaps this one will be a boy."