My Mother’s Daughter

Family, Relationships

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Written by Djofa Tavares

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Every ding of dishes, bump into chairs, or spill of drinks, my mother still calls out, “Ai, Jizus (Jesus)!”  Each error or blunder I inevitably make, she punctuates with her disapproval.  I am now fifty years old and my mother’s caretaker, but with each “Ai!” I am taken back to when I was a little girl, resurfacing all the frustrations I felt being around her.  Nothing I did was good enough, and she would always say something about it, shrinking me as I lowered my head, hating myself for being such a clutz yet again in front of her. I tried my best to get the dishes from the sink to the drying rack, but each time one would ding on the faucet or side of the sink before I could complete my task, and sure enough an “Ai, Jizus!” would follow. 

Now that she is aging and needs more support, I feel it is my duty to take care of her, but out of obligation rather than care.  Everything I do for her, I do matter-of-factly. I make sure she is comfortable and has everything she needs, but there’s never any emotions shared between us. 

This distance between my mother and I has always been present.  Growing up I never felt that I could go to her for anything, because I felt that every interaction between us was always a way for her to teach me a lesson, judge me in some way or call me out on my imperfections.  Most times when things went awry, she would refer back to the choices I had made, and say that it was my fault. So basically I made my bed and had to suffer whatever consequence.

It was just the four of us, my mother, my father, my brother and I.  Although my father did the disciplining, my mother’s words hurt harder than any belt, and for that reason I would look for any opportunity to be with him.  I learned how to use tools, the ins and outs of a clogged sink or toilet, and even grocery shopping from my father.  My mother would fain jealousy when I chose to leave with him as he received calls for yet another odd job around the neighborhood.  I knew that if I stayed, I would either get into fights with my brother, which inevitably led to my dad’s discipline, or give my mother more chances to call me out on my clumsiness.  When allowed, I always opted to be the apprentice for my dad.

Although I was reminded repeatedly that I wasn’t a boy, I would take whatever chance I’d get to go outside to ride bikes that belonged to neighborhood boys, play ball with hollowed out crates as our net, or play tag.  Out there, without her critical eye, I was very active and confident.  My mother was more concerned about me learning to do things inside of the house than she ever was with what I enjoyed. “Girls are supposed to be inside,’ she would say as I rushed through chores so I could get out.  She would nag me as I cleaned and washed dishes with ways in which I can do better. I would falter with every task trying to be perfect so that I wouldn’t hear her mouth as she monitored me. I would stifle my anger with mumbles under my breath at the fact that she so easily harped on me, but would never say anything to my brother, who barely did anything, but got everything he wanted. With all her critiques, most times with her head shaking, I never heard words of encouragement, approval or pride.  

For a long time, I believed that she was full of disappointment when it came to who I was growing up to be.  There was never a smile or hug when I had good news to share about my grades or activities in school. She never praised or acknowledged me when I did things without my clumsiness getting in the way.  I don’t remember a time when I was just happy to be around my mother.  I was always trying to find my way out or bracing for words or looks of dismay, which most times showed up. 

As a grown woman now, with grown children of my own, I still grapple with the relationship I have with my mother.  When I hear others praise their mother or say things like, “I don’t know what I would do without my mom,” a pang of guilt twists in my belly because I have never felt those sentiments. I know that our relationship or lack thereof, allowed me to be more intentional about how I developed my relationship with my own children, not wanting to replicate how she was with me, making sure that they felt loved and seen.  

Over the years, I have learned to take her upbringing and what others say about her into consideration before I react to her “Ai, Jizus!”.  While she was growing up she had limited emotional connections because she lost her mother at 5 years old, and was raised by a stern father, who had reminded her of the to-do’s and supposed to’s for girls, which she followed to a T, and never even thought about asserting herself. This is probably her highest point of contention with me, because at every turn I questioned why girls were so limited in what they could do or be, and fought it tooth and nail.  

Family and friends eagerly tell me about how my mother is proud or appreciative of me and she lets them know how I help her, or that she is grateful for all that I do for her and my dad.  Praise that I have yet to personally witness, but with countless recounts, I suppose I have to believe it to be true.

As I watch her age and her needs grow, I struggle with the emotional piece of caretaking.  I may not hug her or even share feelings, but I am her daughter and try to be as helpful and attentive as I can. I am more patient with how I interact with my mother, giving her leeway even though those “Ai, Jizus!” still sends chills down my spine. I breathe in the words and breathe out the frustration and let it be, believing that it is her way to show she cares. She sees I am doing the best I can, even if those dings and spills still occur. The distance between my mother and I remains and I don’t think that we will ever shorten it, but I do love my mother and know that she loves me.


Djofa Tavares is a passionate advocate for Kriolu and Capeverdean culture. She’s a writer and teacher of Social Sciences at Russell Elementary School in Dorchester, MA. She founded Kriolu Basics, offering online and in-person classes, and contributes as a copy editor and writer for Mili Mila LLC, focusing on preserving and promoting Cape Verdean Creole. In December 2022, Djofa published “Tiagu and Vovo,” a dual language (English and Kriolu) children’s book to honor her heritage and to support the Kriolu language. Her upcoming projects include a memoir and a collection of dual-language poetry.

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