LOS ANGELES – Maritza Valdes loves elephants. For no real reason. She’s never needed a reason. She loved them when she was a little girl in Havana, Cuba, where she grew up in an apartment with her mother and brother. She kept loving them through college, where she became an engineer. And then, too, when she married and had children, a boy and then a girl, when they lived on the ground floor of a building set amid the sugar cane fields outside Cienfuegos. And so when Mother’s Day – Día de las madres – came, and the neighborhood mothers received pretty paper flowers and cakes and handwritten cards, Maritza would get her elephants, little ones, inexpensive ones, porcelain ones, trinkets for a shelf.
They made her happy for no real reason, which, you think about it, is the best kind of happy.
She was on the telephone this week, four days from another Mother’s Day, remembering about the elephants, how holidays still bring elephants, and how lovely they are, how they never fail to make her smile, except for this Sunday she preferred something different.
“Un jonrón,” Maritza said.
A home run.
“Ah, yes, she told me yesterday,” her son, Yasiel Puig, said. “I am going to do my best.”
“Los elefantes,” he said, feigning weariness. “I think I am going to buy an elephant for my house. The real elephant. … I have never asked her why. I am going to ask her now, why she likes elephants so much.”
Yasiel defected from Cuba in 2012. He’d tried before, many times. The unsuccessful attempts left him frustrated or exhausted or even bloodied and sometimes all three, but not discouraged. Maritza, in those times, admitted, “I was just very nervous. Very nervous.” A year later, she followed her boy to America, as did Yasiel’s sister, Yaima, and his father, Omar. (Maritza and Omar were divorced when Yasiel was in his early teens.)
Maritza lives part time in Los Angeles, where Yasiel is endeavoring with his teammates to pull the Los Angeles Dodgers from their post-World Series lethargy, and part time in Miami. There, she watches baseball on television, an obsession that has brought her to admire the likes of Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen. She has other favorites she identifies only by their uniform numbers, as the names don’t stick reliably in her head, and laughed shyly when revealing, “Jackie Robinson Day, I have to work too hard on that day. I don’t even recognize Yasiel.” She is studying to become a U.S. citizen, a slow process aided by the English she learns on her cell phone apps. Yasiel, she said, also is preparing for the test.
They have a life together again, separated at times by baseball. But as often it is the baseball that makes the life, the new life, happen. That little kid who came home covered in the grime of the sugar fields, who could not ever stand still, who emptied mango boughs with rocks, who charmed teachers with his intelligence and infuriated them with his frivolities, he also was the little kid who chased his future with a whittled tree branch, cleats bound with duct tape and a borrowed glove. The little kid who adored the New York Yankees and spoke forever of the American major leagues.
And that young woman, soon to be a single mother, who worked in those grimy fields, who trudged to the local school to promise the boy would not cause any more trouble, who scolded the boy through the night and in the morning tucked the confections he loved into his paper lunch sack, who took the bus to neighboring towns when she had the time and the money, just to see him play, she was also the woman who encouraged him to dream as big as he could ever imagine. Because what is there in those fields, on that island, other than cane and dreams?
“A normal kid,” she said, then agreed his nickname in adulthood – “The Wild Horse” – has always fit.
“Yeah, he’s always been a horse because he runs,” she said. “And he’s always been crazy.”
So he wags his tongue. And licks his bat. And celebrates his home runs. And, well, you’ve seen. All of which she could have told you was coming.
“It’s a spectacle,” she said. “Sometimes I feel a little embarrassed.”
But not really. She said it with a smile in her voice, like that’s her boy, the one she raised, the one she corralled, the one she laughed with and sang to and fretted over and, one day, watched go. You love them and, one day, hope that was enough. Between the work hours. When the paycheck runs thin. When dad leaves. Between the calls from school. When the baseball shoes are more tape than leather.
Maritza could not recall Yasiel’s first baseball glove, because, she said, “I never bought him one. When he was young I didn’t have the money to buy him anything.”
He never asked for one either, she said.
“He didn’t ask for anything,” she said. “I couldn’t. And he knew that.”
Years later, he shrugged at the memories. He is here. She is with him. They have that new life, the one she encouraged, the one he chased with abandon, the one they share again. She is proudest of Yasiel for his foundation, the one that helps to provide hope and pathways to underprivileged children. Also, gloves and shoes and bats. Whether they ask or not. Yes, you love them and hope that is enough.
On Sunday she will watch him play from Miami. She said she will think the thoughts of him from every day, those not confined to Día de las madres, but of that new life.
“Ayee,” she gasped. “I’m happy that I have a big leaguer as a son. And that he loves his mom a lot. But …,” she laughed again, “he has to hit a home run.”
If not, well, Yasiel sighed at the consequences.
“Si, si,” he said. “Un elefante.”
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