Carmen Agra Deedy: Once upon a time, my mother ...
February 2, 2005
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!Carmen Agra Deedy
Carmen Agra Deedy's luminous, funny, digressive tales of childhood and adulthood bring out the starry-eyed listener in us all. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
When I knew I was going to come to speak to you, I thought,
"I gotta call my mother."
I have a little Cuban mother -- she's about that big.
Four feet. Nothing larger than the sum of her figurative parts.
You still with me? (Laughter)
I called her up.
"Hello, how're you doing, baby?"
"Hey, ma, I got to talk to you."
"You're talking to me already. What's the matter?"
I said, "I've got to talk to a bunch of nice people."
"You're always talking to nice people, except when you went
to the White House."
"Ma, don't start!"
And I told her I was coming to TED, and she said,
"What's the problem?"
And I said, "Well, I'm not sure."
I said, "I have to talk to them about stories.
It's 'Technology, Entertainment and Design.'"
And she said, "Well, you design a story when you make it up,
it's entertainment when you tell it,
and you're going to use a microphone."
I said, "You're a peach, ma. Pop there?"
"What's the matter? The pearls of wisdom
leaping from my lips like lemmings is no good for you?"
Then my pop got on there.
My pop, he's one of the old souls, you know --
old Cuban man from Camaguey.
Camaguey is a province in Cuba.
He's from Florida.
He was born there in 1924.
He grew up in a bohio of dirt floors,
and the structure was the kind used by the Tainos,
our old Arawak ancestors.
My father is at once quick-witted, wickedly funny,
and then poignancy turns on a dime and leaves you breathless.
"I already heard your mother. I think she's right."
"After what I just told you?"
My whole life, my father's been there.
So we talked for a few minutes, and he said,
"Why don't you tell them what you believe?"
I love that, but we don't have the time.
Good storytelling is crafting a story that someone wants to listen to.
Great story is the art of letting go.
So I'm going to tell you a little story.
Remember, this tradition comes to us
not from the mists of Avalon, back in time, but further still,
before we were scratching out these stories on papyrus,
or we were doing the pictographs on walls in moist, damp caves.
Back then, we had an urge, a need, to tell the story.
When Lexus wants to sell you a car, they're telling you a story.
Have you been watching the commercials?
Because every one of us has this desire, for once -- just once --
to tell our story and have it heard.
There are stories you tell from stages.
There's stories that you may tell
in a small group of people with some good wine.
And there's stories you tell late at night to a friend,
maybe once in your life.
And then there are stories that we whisper into a Stygian darkness.
I'm not telling you that story.
I'm telling you this one.
It's called, "You're Going to Miss Me."
It's about human connection.
My Cuban mother, which I just briefly introduced you to
in that short character sketch,
came to the United States one thousand years ago.
I was born in 19 -- I forget, and I came to this country
with them in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution.
We went from Havana, Cuba to Decatur, Georgia.
And Decatur, Georgia's a small Southern town.
And in that little Southern town, I grew up,
and grew up hearing these stories.
But this story only happened a few years ago.
I called my mom.
It was a Saturday morning.
And I was calling about how to make ajiaco. It's a Cuban meal.
It's delicious. It's savory.
It makes spit froth in the little corners of your mouth --
is that enough? It makes your armpits juicy, you know?
That kind of food, yeah.
This is the sensory part of the program, people.
I called my mother, and she said, "Carmen, I need you to come, please.
I need to go to the mall, and you know your father now,
he takes a nap in the afternoon, and I got to go.
I got an errand to run."
Let me parenthetically pause here and tell you --
Esther, my mother, had stopped driving several years ago,
to the collective relief of the entire city of Atlanta.
Any vehicular outing with that woman from the time I was a young child,
guys, naturally included flashing, blue lights.
But she'd become adept at dodging the boys in blue,
and when she did meet them, oh, she had wonderful, well, rapport.
"Ma'am, did you know that was a light you just ran?"
"You don't speak English?"
But eventually, every dog has its day,
and she ended up in traffic court,
where she bartered with the judge for a discount.
There's a historical marker.
But now she was a septuagenarian, she'd stopped driving.
And that meant that everyone in the family had to sign up
to take her to have her hair dyed, you know,
that peculiar color of blue that matches her polyester pants suit,
you know, same color as the Buick.
Anybody? All right.
Little picks on the legs, where she does her needlepoint, and leaves little loops.
Rockports -- they're for this.
That's why they call them that.
This is her ensemble.
And this is the woman that wants me to come on a Saturday morning
when I have a lot to do, but it doesn't take long because Cuban guilt is a weighty thing.
I'm not going political on you but ... And so, I go to my mother's.
I show up. She's in the carport.
Of course, they have a carport.
The kind with the corrugated roof, you know.
The Buick's parked outside,
and she's jingling, jangling a pair of keys.
"I got a surprise for you, baby!"
"We taking your car?"
"Not we, I."
And she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a catastrophe.
Somebody's storytelling. Interactive art. You can talk to me.
Oh, a driver's license, a perfectly valid driver's license.
Issued, evidently, by the DMV in her own county of Gwinnett.
Blithering fucking idiots.
I said, "Is that thing real?"
"I think so."
"Can you even see?"
"I guess I must."
She gets into the car -- she's sitting on two phone books.
I can't even make this part up because she's that tiny.
She's engineered an umbrella so she can -- bam! -- slam the door.
Her daughter, me, the village idiot with the ice cream cone
in the middle of her forehead, is still standing there, slack-jawed.
"You coming? You no coming?"
"Oh, my God." I said, "OK, fine. Does pop know you're driving?"
"Are you kidding me?"
"How are you doing it?"
"He's got to sleep sometime."
And so we left my father fast asleep, because I knew he'd kill me
if I let her go by herself, and we get in the car.
Puts it in reverse. Fifty-five out of the driveway, in reverse.
I am buckling in seatbelts from the front.
I'm yanking them in from the back. I'm doing double knots.
I mean, I've got a mouth as dry as the Kalahari Desert.
I've got a white-knuckle grip on the door. You know what I'm talking about?
And she's whistling, and finally I do the kind of
birth breathing -- you know, that one?
Only a couple of women are going uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. Right.
And I said, "Ma, would you slow down?"
Because now she's picked up the Highway 285,
the perimeter around Atlanta, which encompasses now --
there's seven lanes, she's on all of them, y'all.
I said, "Ma, pick a lane!"
"They give you seven lanes, they expect you to use them."
And there she goes, right.
I don't believe for a minute she has been out and not been stopped.
So, I think, hey, we can talk. It'll be a diversion.
It'll help my breathing. It'll do something for my pulse, maybe.
"Mommy, I know you have been stopped."
"No, no, what you talking about?"
"You have a license. How long have you been driving?"
"Four or five days."
"Yeah. And you haven't been stopped?"
"I did not get a ticket."
I said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, but come on, come on, come on."
"OK, so I stopped at a light
and there's a guy, you know, in the back."
"Would this guy have, like, a blue uniform
and a terrified look on his face?"
"You weren't there, don't start."
"Come on. You got a ticket?"
"No." She explained,
"The man" -- I have to tell you as she did,
because it loses something if I don't, you know --
"he come to the window, and he does a thing like this,
which tells me he's pretty old, you know.
So I look up and I'm thinking,
maybe he's still going to think I'm kind of cute."
"Ma, are you still doing that?"
"If it works, it works, baby.
So, I say, 'Perdon, yo no hablo ingles.'
Well, wouldn't you know, he had been in Honduras for the Peace Corps."
So he's talking to her, and at some point she says,
"Then, you know, it was it. That was it. It was done."
He gave you a ticket? He didn't give you a ticket? What?"
"No, I look up, and the light, she change."
You should be terrified.
Now, I don't know if she's toying with me,
kind of like a cat batting back a mouse, batting back a mouse --
left paw, right paw, left paw, right paw --
but by now, we've reached the mall.
Now, you have all been at a mall during the holidays, yes?
Talk to me. Yes. Yes. You can say yes.
Carmen Agra Deedy: All right, then you know that you have now entered parking lot purgatory,
praying to that saint of perpetual availability
that as you join that serpentine line of cars crawling along,
some guy's going to turn on the brake lights
just as you pull up behind him.
But that doesn't happen most of the time, right?
So, first I say, "Ma, why are we here?"
"You mean, like, in the car?"
"No, don't -- why are we here today?
It's Saturday. It's the holidays."
"Because I have to exchange your father's underwear."
Now, see, this is the kind of Machiavellian thinking,
that you really have to -- you know, in my mind, it's a rabbit's warren,
this woman's mind.
Do I want to walk in, because unless I have Ariadne's thread to anchor --
enough metaphors for you? -- somewhere, I may not get out.
But you know.
"Why do we have to take pop's underwear back now?
And why? What is wrong with his underwear?"
"It will upset you."
"It won't upset me. Why? What? Is something wrong with him?"
"No, no, no. The only thing with him is, he's an idiot.
I sent him to the store, which was my first mistake,
and he went to buy underwear, and he bought the grippers,
and he's supposed to buy the boxers."
"I read it on the Intersnet. You cannot have children."
"Oh, my God!"
Olivia? Huh? Huh?
By now, we have now crawled another four feet,
and my mother finally says to me, "I knew it, I knew it.
I'm an immigrant. We make a space. What I tell you? Right there."
And she points out the passenger window, and I look out,
and three -- three -- aisles down,
"Look, the Chevy."
You want to laugh, but you don't know --
you're that politically corrected, have you noticed?
Correct the other direction now, it's OK.
"Look, the Chevy -- he's coming this way."
"Mama, mama, mama, wait, wait, wait. The Chevy is three aisles away."
She looks at me like I'm her, you know, her moron child,
the cretin, the one she's got to speak to very slowly and distinctly.
"I know that, honey. Get out of the car
and go stand in the parking space till I get there."
OK, I want a vote. Come on, come on. No, no.
How many of you once in your -- you were a kid, you were an adult --
you stood in a parking space to hold it for someone?
See, we're a secret club with a secret handshake.
And years of therapy later, we're doing great.
We're doing great. We're doing fine.
Well, I stood up to her.
This is -- you know, you'd think by now I'm -- and still holding?
I said, "No way, ma, you have embarrassed me my entire life."
Of course, her comeback is, "When have I embarrassed you?"
And she's still talking while she puts the car in park,
hits the emergency brake, opens the door,
and with a spryness astounding in a woman her age,
she jumps out of the car, knocks out the phone books,
and then she walks around --
she's carrying her cheap Kmart purse with her --
around the front of the car.
She has amazing land speed for a woman her age, too.
Before I know it, she has skiddled across the parking lot
and in between the cars, and people behind me, with that kind of
usual religious charity that the holidays bring us, wah-wah wah-wah.
"I'm coming." Italian hand signals follow.
I scoot over. I close the door. I leave the phone books.
This is new and fast, just so you -- are you still with us?
We'll wait for the slow ones. OK.
I start, and this is where a child says to me --
and the story doesn't work if I tell you about her before,
because this is my laconic child.
A brevity, brevity of everything with this child.
You know, she eats small portions.
Language is something to be meted out
in small phonemes, you know -- just little hmm, hmm-hmm.
She carries a mean spiral notebook and a pen.
She wields great power.
She listens, because that's what people who tell stories do first.
But she pauses occasionally and says,
"How do you spell that? What year? OK."
When she writes the expose in about 20 years,
don't believe a word of it.
But this is my daughter, Lauren, my remarkable daughter,
my borderline Asperger's kid.
Bless you, Dr. Watson.
She says, "Ma, you got to look!"
Now, when this kid says I got to look, you know.
But it isn't like I haven't seen this crime scene before.
I grew up with this woman.
I said, "Lauren, you know what, give me a play-by-play. I can't."
"No, mama, you got to look."
I got to look. You got to look.
Don't you want to look?
There she is.
I look in bewildered awe:
she's standing, those Rockports slightly apart, but grounded.
She's holding out that cheap Kmart purse, and she is wielding it.
She's holding back tons of steel with the sheer force
of her little personality, in that crone-ish voice, saying things like,
"Back it up, buddy! No, it's reserved!"
Ready? Brace yourselves. Here it comes.
"No, my daughter, she's coming in the Buick.
Honey, sit up so they can see you."
Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.
I finally come -- and now, it's the South.
I don't know what part of the country you live in.
I think we all secretly love stories.
We all secretly want our blankie and our Boo Bear.
We want to curl up and say, "Tell it to me, tell it to me.
Come on, honey, tell it to me."
But in the South, we love a good story.
People have pulled aside,
I mean, they've come out of that queue line,
they have popped their trunks, pulled out lawn chairs and cool drinks.
Bets are placed.
"I'm with the little lady. Damn!"
And she's bringing me in with a slight salsa movement.
She is, after all, Cuban.
I'm thinking, "Accelerator, break. Accelerator, break."
Like you've never thought that in your life? Right? Yeah.
I pull in. I put the car in park.
Engine's still running -- mine, not the car.
I jump out next to her going, "Don't you move!"
"I'm not going anywhere."
She's got front seat in a Greek tragedy.
I come out, and there's Esther.
She's hugging the purse.
"Que?" Which means "what," and so much more.
"Ma, have you no shame?
People are watching us all around," right?
Now, some of them you've got to make up, people.
Secret of the trade.
Guess what? Some of these stories I sculpt a little, here and there.
Some, they're just right there, right there. Put them right there.
She says this to me.
After I say -- let me refresh you --
"have you no shame?"
"No. I gave it up with pantyhose -- they're both too binding."
Yeah, you can clap, but then you're about 30 seconds from the end.
I'm about to snap like a brittle twig, when suddenly someone taps me on the shoulder.
I'm thinking, "This is my kid. How dare she?
She jumped out of that car."
That's OK, because my mother yells at me, I yell at her.
It's a beautiful hierarchy, and it works.
I turn around, but it's not a child. It's a young woman,
a little taller than I, pale green, amused eyes.
With her is a young man -- husband, brother, lover, it's not my job.
And she says, "Pardon me, ma'am" -- that's how we talk down there --
"is that your mother?"
I said, "No, I follow little old women around parking lots
to see if they'll stop. Yes, it's my mother!"
The boy, now, he says. "Well, what my sister meant" --
they look at each other, it's a knowing glance -- "God, she's crazy!"
I said, (Spanish), and the young girl and the young boy say,
"No, no, honey, we just want to know one more thing."
I said, "Look, please, let me take care of her, OK,
because I know her, and believe me, she's like a small atomic weapon,
you know, you just want to handle her really gingerly."
And the girl goes, "I know, but, I mean, I swear to God,
she reminds us of our mother."
I almost miss it.
He turns to her on the heel of his shoe.
It's a half-whisper, "God, I miss her."
They turn then, shoulder to shoulder, and walk away,
lost in their own reverie.
Memories of some maddening woman who was the luck of their DNA draw.
And I turn to Esther, who's rocking on those 'ports, and says,
"You know what, honey?"
"I'm going to drive you crazy probably for about 14, 15 more years,
if you're lucky, but after that, honey, you're going to miss me."
Carmen Agra Deedy
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.
The original video is available on TED.com