November 25, 2016 is a day that I will always remember. We buried my 94-year old Mom, Hilda Maria Ponce Mencía Bravo on this day.
Hilda was a woman who was ahead of her times. She earned two master’s degrees – one in Philosophy, and the other in Library Science. She was in charge of the Philosophy Department at the University of Havana. On those occasions that she took me to work with her, I was amazed at the way that she interacted on a one-to-one basis with the male professors. I gained enormous respect for my Mom as a 4 year-old boy and later realized that she had been one of the early pioneers to break the glass ceiling.
Among the core values that played an important role in Hilda’s personality were a strong love for her family and close friends, as well as a deep appreciation for a good education. While she distinguished between friends and acquaintances, she was always compassionate with all and lent them a helping hand when they needed her assistance.
When the Cuban Government authorities closed all private schools in 1961 (many of them run by the Catholic Church) and forced parents to send their children to government-run schools where they would be indoctrinated in the Marxist-Leninist ideology, Hilda told my father that it was time to leave for the United States. This was a very difficult decision that Hilda made, as she realized that she would be leaving her homeland, her dear mother and sister, and her way of life — with no definite timeframe when she would return again. But she laid out a requirement for her departure: she would leave only by following the legal process and not on a raft. This decision delayed our departure until 1966, and made life difficult for Hilda and my father – as they were both fired from their jobs for opting to leave for the United States. In a socialist country like Cuba, the state is the sole employer – which made it impossible for them to get a job through legal means. With two young kids to feed, my father had to come up with a plan to get a salary. And, he did. He became quite a successful entrepreneur in the black market, and made more money here than when he worked as an accountant for the Treasury Department. But, it was Hilda who gave the family hope that a better way of life awaited them in the United States. She reminded us that all the inconveniences were temporary, and that we should tolerate them with a stiff upper lip.
Hilda often found comfort in her strong Catholic faith. Her family were distant relatives of St. Teresa of Avila. When faced with adversity, she always resorted to St. Teresa’s prayer:
“Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you, All things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things, Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”
She also had a knack for reciting Saint Anthony’s prayer when she was desperate to find a lost item. I don’t know if it was her faith or pure luck, but she had an impressive batting average for finding lost items.
Hilda always instilled in my sister Teresita and me the value of a good education. She indicated that the Castro regime had taken my father’s and her bank accounts, her cars, her clothes, and her jewelry in exchange for letting us out of the country, but they could never take away her university degrees and her job experience.
But make no mistake about it, Hilda liked to have a good time, too. Dancing was one of her passions. You often found her on the dance floor dancing to the Cuban beat of cha-cha’s, mambos, and rumbas. She passed on the dancing genes to my sister and me.
Like me, Hilda had a weakness for anything that had chocolate. And, let’s not forget that Hilda’s sweet tooth made her favor all the Cuban treats. I remember that during her last days, I asked her whether she wanted to drink a chocolate-flavored drink or a Malta Hatuey. Without hesitating a bit, she opted for the latter.
Hilda was highly opinionated about the right way of doing things. At least, she thought so. For example, eating French fries without ketchup was unheard of. When I visited her in Miami and hung around barefooted, she insisted that I wear a pair of chinelas (sandals). Even if I had slept for eight hours, she always suggested that I take a siesta. And, she would frequently tell me that my sister Teresita had such a sweet personality when she was young that everyone thought that she was going to become a nun when she grew up. In her mind, she should have. I always thought that this business about Teresita becoming a nun was wishful thinking on her part.
Learning by rote repetition was second-nature to Hilda. If you ignored her suggestions for the best course of action, she would remind you a thousand times. This served her well when she worked as a Spanish teacher to the Green Berets at the U.S. Department of Defense. Her familiar phrase to her students from the U.S. Army Special Forces — “vamos a ver” — was a transformation of her constant admonitions to Teresita and me of “do as I say.”
Cuban mothers have a history of raising their sons in a way that mirrors the ways of Jewish and Italian mothers. They aim for us to become princes who deserve everything and can do no wrong. This is the way that Hilda raised me in a household where I became the darling of the female members – aunt, grandmother, and nanny. When I got married, I expected my wife to give me the same regal treatment. Needless to say, I had to get a PhD in marriage relations, and, what ultimately saved me was that my wife was also Cuban-American.
Hilda believed in the duality of life. After enduring hardships, good times were just around the corner. As it turned out, on the same day that we buried her, we got the news that Cuban-Americans had been waiting for fifty-seven years: Fidel Castro passed away. Euphoria replaced sadness – at least, for a short time.
I will always remember my Mom Hilda with great love. She played an important role in molding me into the man that I am today. For this and for much more, I will always be grateful to her. She will always “vivirá” in my heart.