How do I begin telling you about what my mother has been to me?
Felicita Nazario–who everyone called Fela– was a 5 foot tall firecracker. She was born in Guanica, Puerto Rico on Sept. 13, 1950. Her family eventually moved to New York City in 1951 when she was just a year old. My abuela moved to find work which came in the form of a job in a laundry warehouse. Mom Dukes and her eventual three siblings all grew up in The South Bronx on 138th St. between Willis Ave and Alexander Ave. She went to Dodge Vocational High School, close to The Bronx Zoo.
She was a storyteller and would tell stories in really funny ways, a bit scatterbrained. When she forgot the exact wording she wanted to use she would say, “Youknowwhatimean!” I would tease her and say “Nope, I do not. Please figure the word out.” Mom Dukes had my sister in 1971 (when she was 21) and I was born in 1977 (when she was 27). She was a great mother and grandmother to my son and nephews. She instilled this incredible sense of adventure, loyalty and love within me that is unquantifiable. But she knew when to check me, too. She definitely was a mixture of abrasive and nurturing; loud mouthed and reserved. The same hand that hit me was the same one that held me.
Mom Dukes wasn’t always a delight to be around. Growing up she could be hard on us. I don’t blame her for it now. She was a single mom who had no real help from anyone. Working eight-hour shifts/five days a week at a hospital for 35 years grinded on her. She taught me so much in her values and in her flaws. I definitely appreciated her more as I got older.
To be fair, I know I wasn’t an easy child to raise. I got into trouble often. I worked at a nightclub when I was 15. I smoked a lot of weed and was out at all hours of the night. By time I was 17 I had been arrested a few times. But Mom Dukes never gave up on me. I’ve heard stories about parents kicking their children out for the things I had done. But she didn’t. That’s where my deep appreciation for her comes from. In return I knew I was never going to give up on her.
The birth of my son and nephews changed Mom Dukes immensely. She spoiled her grandchildren. Watching my son call her “Wela” was beautiful. It was also a little strange to see how gentle she was with her first grandchild. I can count on my hands the number of times she raised her voice at him. She was more understanding, patient and loving than she had ever been with me. It was an eye opener. For the years they were together, they were a very cute pair. When he moved away from New York City it broke her heart. But they would talk every Sunday for almost 10 years. I would visit her specifically on Sundays, so we could all speak to each other. When I didn’t she would text me or leave a voicemail “What? You forgot you had a mother?”