18:29
TED2005

Carmen Agra Deedy: Once upon a time, my mother ...

Filmed:

Storyteller Carmen Agra Deedy spins a funny, wise and luminous tale of parents and kids, starring her Cuban mother. Settle in and enjoy the ride -- Mama's driving!

- Storyteller
Carmen Agra Deedy's luminous, funny, digressive tales of childhood and adulthood bring out the starry-eyed listener in us all. Full bio

When I knew I was going to come to speak to you, I thought,
00:18
"I gotta call my mother."
00:24
I have a little Cuban mother -- she's about that big.
00:26
Four feet. Nothing larger than the sum of her figurative parts.
00:29
You still with me? (Laughter)
00:32
I called her up.
00:34
"Hello, how're you doing, baby?"
00:35
"Hey, ma, I got to talk to you."
00:37
"You're talking to me already. What's the matter?"
00:39
I said, "I've got to talk to a bunch of nice people."
00:41
"You're always talking to nice people, except when you went
00:43
to the White House."
00:45
"Ma, don't start!"
00:46
And I told her I was coming to TED, and she said,
00:50
"What's the problem?"
00:53
And I said, "Well, I'm not sure."
00:54
I said, "I have to talk to them about stories.
00:56
It's 'Technology, Entertainment and Design.'"
01:02
And she said, "Well, you design a story when you make it up,
01:06
it's entertainment when you tell it,
01:12
and you're going to use a microphone."
01:14
(Laughter)
01:16
I said, "You're a peach, ma. Pop there?"
01:19
"What's the matter? The pearls of wisdom
01:21
leaping from my lips like lemmings is no good for you?"
01:23
(Laughter)
01:26
Then my pop got on there.
01:28
My pop, he's one of the old souls, you know --
01:29
old Cuban man from Camaguey.
01:32
Camaguey is a province in Cuba.
01:35
He's from Florida.
01:37
He was born there in 1924.
01:39
He grew up in a bohio of dirt floors,
01:41
and the structure was the kind used by the Tainos,
01:45
our old Arawak ancestors.
01:48
My father is at once quick-witted, wickedly funny,
01:51
and then poignancy turns on a dime and leaves you breathless.
01:58
"Papi, help."
02:06
"I already heard your mother. I think she's right."
02:09
(Laughter)
02:12
"After what I just told you?"
02:14
My whole life, my father's been there.
02:16
So we talked for a few minutes, and he said,
02:18
"Why don't you tell them what you believe?"
02:20
I love that, but we don't have the time.
02:22
Good storytelling is crafting a story that someone wants to listen to.
02:25
Great story is the art of letting go.
02:31
So I'm going to tell you a little story.
02:36
Remember, this tradition comes to us
02:38
not from the mists of Avalon, back in time, but further still,
02:40
before we were scratching out these stories on papyrus,
02:44
or we were doing the pictographs on walls in moist, damp caves.
02:47
Back then, we had an urge, a need, to tell the story.
02:53
When Lexus wants to sell you a car, they're telling you a story.
02:56
Have you been watching the commercials?
03:01
Because every one of us has this desire, for once -- just once --
03:03
to tell our story and have it heard.
03:08
There are stories you tell from stages.
03:11
There's stories that you may tell
03:15
in a small group of people with some good wine.
03:19
And there's stories you tell late at night to a friend,
03:22
maybe once in your life.
03:27
And then there are stories that we whisper into a Stygian darkness.
03:31
I'm not telling you that story.
03:39
I'm telling you this one.
03:41
It's called, "You're Going to Miss Me."
03:43
It's about human connection.
03:45
My Cuban mother, which I just briefly introduced you to
03:48
in that short character sketch,
03:50
came to the United States one thousand years ago.
03:54
I was born in 19 -- I forget, and I came to this country
03:58
with them in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution.
04:02
We went from Havana, Cuba to Decatur, Georgia.
04:04
And Decatur, Georgia's a small Southern town.
04:08
And in that little Southern town, I grew up,
04:10
and grew up hearing these stories.
04:13
But this story only happened a few years ago.
04:15
I called my mom.
04:17
It was a Saturday morning.
04:19
And I was calling about how to make ajiaco. It's a Cuban meal.
04:21
It's delicious. It's savory.
04:23
It makes spit froth in the little corners of your mouth --
04:25
is that enough? It makes your armpits juicy, you know?
04:27
That kind of food, yeah.
04:30
This is the sensory part of the program, people.
04:33
I called my mother, and she said, "Carmen, I need you to come, please.
04:36
I need to go to the mall, and you know your father now,
04:39
he takes a nap in the afternoon, and I got to go.
04:42
I got an errand to run."
04:44
Let me parenthetically pause here and tell you --
04:45
Esther, my mother, had stopped driving several years ago,
04:47
to the collective relief of the entire city of Atlanta.
04:49
Any vehicular outing with that woman from the time I was a young child,
04:52
guys, naturally included flashing, blue lights.
04:54
But she'd become adept at dodging the boys in blue,
04:58
and when she did meet them, oh, she had wonderful, well, rapport.
05:02
"Ma'am, did you know that was a light you just ran?"
05:09
(Spanish)
05:13
"You don't speak English?"
05:16
"No."
05:18
(Laughter)
05:20
But eventually, every dog has its day,
05:21
and she ended up in traffic court,
05:23
where she bartered with the judge for a discount.
05:25
There's a historical marker.
05:28
But now she was a septuagenarian, she'd stopped driving.
05:30
And that meant that everyone in the family had to sign up
05:33
to take her to have her hair dyed, you know,
05:37
that peculiar color of blue that matches her polyester pants suit,
05:40
you know, same color as the Buick.
05:43
Anybody? All right.
05:45
Little picks on the legs, where she does her needlepoint, and leaves little loops.
05:47
Rockports -- they're for this.
05:51
That's why they call them that.
05:53
(Laughter)
05:55
This is her ensemble.
05:56
And this is the woman that wants me to come on a Saturday morning
05:58
when I have a lot to do, but it doesn't take long because Cuban guilt is a weighty thing.
06:00
I'm not going political on you but ... And so, I go to my mother's.
06:05
I show up. She's in the carport.
06:09
Of course, they have a carport.
06:11
The kind with the corrugated roof, you know.
06:12
The Buick's parked outside,
06:14
and she's jingling, jangling a pair of keys.
06:15
"I got a surprise for you, baby!"
06:17
"We taking your car?"
06:19
"Not we, I."
06:21
And she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a catastrophe.
06:23
Somebody's storytelling. Interactive art. You can talk to me.
06:28
Oh, a driver's license, a perfectly valid driver's license.
06:31
Issued, evidently, by the DMV in her own county of Gwinnett.
06:33
Blithering fucking idiots.
06:37
(Laughter)
06:39
I said, "Is that thing real?"
06:40
"I think so."
06:41
"Can you even see?"
06:42
"I guess I must."
06:43
"Oh, Jesus."
06:44
She gets into the car -- she's sitting on two phone books.
06:45
I can't even make this part up because she's that tiny.
06:48
She's engineered an umbrella so she can -- bam! -- slam the door.
06:50
Her daughter, me, the village idiot with the ice cream cone
06:53
in the middle of her forehead, is still standing there, slack-jawed.
06:55
"You coming? You no coming?"
06:58
"Oh, my God." I said, "OK, fine. Does pop know you're driving?"
06:59
"Are you kidding me?"
07:02
"How are you doing it?"
07:04
"He's got to sleep sometime."
07:05
And so we left my father fast asleep, because I knew he'd kill me
07:08
if I let her go by herself, and we get in the car.
07:11
Puts it in reverse. Fifty-five out of the driveway, in reverse.
07:13
I am buckling in seatbelts from the front.
07:16
I'm yanking them in from the back. I'm doing double knots.
07:18
I mean, I've got a mouth as dry as the Kalahari Desert.
07:21
I've got a white-knuckle grip on the door. You know what I'm talking about?
07:23
And she's whistling, and finally I do the kind of
07:26
birth breathing -- you know, that one?
07:30
Only a couple of women are going uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. Right.
07:32
And I said, "Ma, would you slow down?"
07:35
Because now she's picked up the Highway 285,
07:36
the perimeter around Atlanta, which encompasses now --
07:39
there's seven lanes, she's on all of them, y'all.
07:42
I said, "Ma, pick a lane!"
07:45
"They give you seven lanes, they expect you to use them."
07:47
And there she goes, right.
07:49
I don't believe for a minute she has been out and not been stopped.
07:52
So, I think, hey, we can talk. It'll be a diversion.
07:55
It'll help my breathing. It'll do something for my pulse, maybe.
07:57
"Mommy, I know you have been stopped."
08:00
"No, no, what you talking about?"
08:02
"You have a license. How long have you been driving?"
08:04
"Four or five days."
08:05
"Yeah. And you haven't been stopped?"
08:06
"I did not get a ticket."
08:07
I said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, but come on, come on, come on."
08:10
"OK, so I stopped at a light
08:14
and there's a guy, you know, in the back."
08:16
"Would this guy have, like, a blue uniform
08:18
and a terrified look on his face?"
08:20
"You weren't there, don't start."
08:22
"Come on. You got a ticket?"
08:23
"No." She explained,
08:25
"The man" -- I have to tell you as she did,
08:28
because it loses something if I don't, you know --
08:30
"he come to the window, and he does a thing like this,
08:32
which tells me he's pretty old, you know.
08:35
So I look up and I'm thinking,
08:41
maybe he's still going to think I'm kind of cute."
08:43
"Ma, are you still doing that?"
08:45
"If it works, it works, baby.
08:46
So, I say, 'Perdon, yo no hablo ingles.'
08:48
Well, wouldn't you know, he had been in Honduras for the Peace Corps."
08:50
(Laughter)
08:53
So he's talking to her, and at some point she says,
08:55
"Then, you know, it was it. That was it. It was done."
08:57
"Yeah? What?
09:01
He gave you a ticket? He didn't give you a ticket? What?"
09:03
"No, I look up, and the light, she change."
09:06
(Laughter)
09:09
You should be terrified.
09:13
Now, I don't know if she's toying with me,
09:14
kind of like a cat batting back a mouse, batting back a mouse --
09:16
left paw, right paw, left paw, right paw --
09:18
but by now, we've reached the mall.
09:20
Now, you have all been at a mall during the holidays, yes?
09:22
Talk to me. Yes. Yes. You can say yes.
09:24
Audience: Yes.
09:27
Carmen Agra Deedy: All right, then you know that you have now entered parking lot purgatory,
09:28
praying to that saint of perpetual availability
09:31
that as you join that serpentine line of cars crawling along,
09:33
some guy's going to turn on the brake lights
09:36
just as you pull up behind him.
09:38
But that doesn't happen most of the time, right?
09:39
So, first I say, "Ma, why are we here?"
09:42
"You mean, like, in the car?"
09:44
"No, don't -- why are we here today?
09:45
It's Saturday. It's the holidays."
09:48
"Because I have to exchange your father's underwear."
09:52
Now, see, this is the kind of Machiavellian thinking,
09:55
that you really have to -- you know, in my mind, it's a rabbit's warren,
09:57
this woman's mind.
09:59
Do I want to walk in, because unless I have Ariadne's thread to anchor --
10:00
enough metaphors for you? -- somewhere, I may not get out.
10:04
But you know.
10:07
(Laughter)
10:08
"Why do we have to take pop's underwear back now?
10:12
And why? What is wrong with his underwear?"
10:15
"It will upset you."
10:17
"It won't upset me. Why? What? Is something wrong with him?"
10:18
"No, no, no. The only thing with him is, he's an idiot.
10:21
I sent him to the store, which was my first mistake,
10:24
and he went to buy underwear, and he bought the grippers,
10:27
and he's supposed to buy the boxers."
10:30
"Why?"
10:32
"I read it on the Intersnet. You cannot have children."
10:33
"Oh, my God!"
10:36
(Laughter)
10:37
Olivia? Huh? Huh?
10:40
By now, we have now crawled another four feet,
10:43
and my mother finally says to me, "I knew it, I knew it.
10:48
I'm an immigrant. We make a space. What I tell you? Right there."
10:51
And she points out the passenger window, and I look out,
10:53
and three -- three -- aisles down,
10:56
"Look, the Chevy."
11:00
You want to laugh, but you don't know --
11:02
you're that politically corrected, have you noticed?
11:04
Correct the other direction now, it's OK.
11:06
"Look, the Chevy -- he's coming this way."
11:09
"Mama, mama, mama, wait, wait, wait. The Chevy is three aisles away."
11:10
She looks at me like I'm her, you know, her moron child,
11:13
the cretin, the one she's got to speak to very slowly and distinctly.
11:15
"I know that, honey. Get out of the car
11:18
and go stand in the parking space till I get there."
11:22
OK, I want a vote. Come on, come on. No, no.
11:25
How many of you once in your -- you were a kid, you were an adult --
11:29
you stood in a parking space to hold it for someone?
11:31
See, we're a secret club with a secret handshake.
11:34
(Laughter)
11:36
And years of therapy later, we're doing great.
11:38
We're doing great. We're doing fine.
11:40
Well, I stood up to her.
11:42
This is -- you know, you'd think by now I'm -- and still holding?
11:43
I said, "No way, ma, you have embarrassed me my entire life."
11:49
Of course, her comeback is, "When have I embarrassed you?"
11:52
(Spanish)
11:55
And she's still talking while she puts the car in park,
11:57
hits the emergency brake, opens the door,
11:59
and with a spryness astounding in a woman her age,
12:02
she jumps out of the car, knocks out the phone books,
12:05
and then she walks around --
12:08
she's carrying her cheap Kmart purse with her --
12:09
around the front of the car.
12:11
She has amazing land speed for a woman her age, too.
12:13
Before I know it, she has skiddled across the parking lot
12:16
and in between the cars, and people behind me, with that kind of
12:18
usual religious charity that the holidays bring us, wah-wah wah-wah.
12:21
"I'm coming." Italian hand signals follow.
12:26
I scoot over. I close the door. I leave the phone books.
12:28
This is new and fast, just so you -- are you still with us?
12:32
We'll wait for the slow ones. OK.
12:35
I start, and this is where a child says to me --
12:37
and the story doesn't work if I tell you about her before,
12:39
because this is my laconic child.
12:41
A brevity, brevity of everything with this child.
12:44
You know, she eats small portions.
12:46
Language is something to be meted out
12:48
in small phonemes, you know -- just little hmm, hmm-hmm.
12:50
She carries a mean spiral notebook and a pen.
12:55
She wields great power.
12:57
She listens, because that's what people who tell stories do first.
12:59
But she pauses occasionally and says,
13:05
"How do you spell that? What year? OK."
13:07
When she writes the expose in about 20 years,
13:11
don't believe a word of it.
13:14
But this is my daughter, Lauren, my remarkable daughter,
13:15
my borderline Asperger's kid.
13:18
Bless you, Dr. Watson.
13:22
She says, "Ma, you got to look!"
13:26
Now, when this kid says I got to look, you know.
13:29
But it isn't like I haven't seen this crime scene before.
13:32
I grew up with this woman.
13:34
I said, "Lauren, you know what, give me a play-by-play. I can't."
13:36
"No, mama, you got to look."
13:38
I got to look. You got to look.
13:39
Don't you want to look?
13:41
There she is.
13:43
I look in bewildered awe:
13:45
she's standing, those Rockports slightly apart, but grounded.
13:47
She's holding out that cheap Kmart purse, and she is wielding it.
13:50
She's holding back tons of steel with the sheer force
13:54
of her little personality, in that crone-ish voice, saying things like,
14:01
"Back it up, buddy! No, it's reserved!"
14:06
(Laughter)
14:10
Ready? Brace yourselves. Here it comes.
14:12
"No, my daughter, she's coming in the Buick.
14:13
Honey, sit up so they can see you."
14:15
Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.
14:17
I finally come -- and now, it's the South.
14:20
I don't know what part of the country you live in.
14:22
I think we all secretly love stories.
14:24
We all secretly want our blankie and our Boo Bear.
14:27
We want to curl up and say, "Tell it to me, tell it to me.
14:29
Come on, honey, tell it to me."
14:30
But in the South, we love a good story.
14:32
People have pulled aside,
14:34
I mean, they've come out of that queue line,
14:36
they have popped their trunks, pulled out lawn chairs and cool drinks.
14:38
Bets are placed.
14:40
"I'm with the little lady. Damn!"
14:42
(Laughter)
14:44
And she's bringing me in with a slight salsa movement.
14:46
She is, after all, Cuban.
14:48
I'm thinking, "Accelerator, break. Accelerator, break."
14:50
Like you've never thought that in your life? Right? Yeah.
14:53
I pull in. I put the car in park.
14:56
Engine's still running -- mine, not the car.
14:58
I jump out next to her going, "Don't you move!"
15:01
"I'm not going anywhere."
15:03
She's got front seat in a Greek tragedy.
15:05
I come out, and there's Esther.
15:07
She's hugging the purse.
15:09
"Que?" Which means "what," and so much more.
15:12
(Laughter)
15:15
"Ma, have you no shame?
15:22
People are watching us all around," right?
15:24
Now, some of them you've got to make up, people.
15:26
Secret of the trade.
15:29
Guess what? Some of these stories I sculpt a little, here and there.
15:30
Some, they're just right there, right there. Put them right there.
15:34
She says this to me.
15:37
After I say -- let me refresh you --
15:39
"have you no shame?"
15:42
"No. I gave it up with pantyhose -- they're both too binding."
15:46
(Laughter)
15:51
(Applause)
15:54
Yeah, you can clap, but then you're about 30 seconds from the end.
15:58
I'm about to snap like a brittle twig, when suddenly someone taps me on the shoulder.
16:03
Intrepid soul.
16:06
I'm thinking, "This is my kid. How dare she?
16:08
She jumped out of that car."
16:10
That's OK, because my mother yells at me, I yell at her.
16:12
It's a beautiful hierarchy, and it works.
16:14
(Laughter)
16:16
I turn around, but it's not a child. It's a young woman,
16:17
a little taller than I, pale green, amused eyes.
16:19
With her is a young man -- husband, brother, lover, it's not my job.
16:21
And she says, "Pardon me, ma'am" -- that's how we talk down there --
16:25
"is that your mother?"
16:28
I said, "No, I follow little old women around parking lots
16:30
to see if they'll stop. Yes, it's my mother!"
16:32
The boy, now, he says. "Well, what my sister meant" --
16:34
they look at each other, it's a knowing glance -- "God, she's crazy!"
16:37
I said, (Spanish), and the young girl and the young boy say,
16:43
"No, no, honey, we just want to know one more thing."
16:47
I said, "Look, please, let me take care of her, OK,
16:50
because I know her, and believe me, she's like a small atomic weapon,
16:53
you know, you just want to handle her really gingerly."
16:55
And the girl goes, "I know, but, I mean, I swear to God,
16:58
she reminds us of our mother."
17:00
I almost miss it.
17:04
He turns to her on the heel of his shoe.
17:06
It's a half-whisper, "God, I miss her."
17:08
They turn then, shoulder to shoulder, and walk away,
17:14
lost in their own reverie.
17:17
Memories of some maddening woman who was the luck of their DNA draw.
17:19
And I turn to Esther, who's rocking on those 'ports, and says,
17:24
"You know what, honey?"
17:30
"What, ma?"
17:31
"I'm going to drive you crazy probably for about 14, 15 more years,
17:33
if you're lucky, but after that, honey, you're going to miss me."
17:36
(Applause)
17:43

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Carmen Agra Deedy - Storyteller
Carmen Agra Deedy's luminous, funny, digressive tales of childhood and adulthood bring out the starry-eyed listener in us all.

Why you should listen

Carmen Agra Deedy is a storyteller and children's-book author. Born in Cuba, she moved to the United States as a child, and her childhood and family provide a rich vein of material for her vividly told stories.

She's a contributor to National Public Radio and has won numerous awards for her writing.

More profile about the speaker
Carmen Agra Deedy | Speaker | TED.com