I have stared at this blank page for weeks finding it difficult to concentrate on movies much less writing about them. My mother passed away on December 14, you see, and my heart is broken. At the suggestion of my friend Theresa Brown, who blogs at CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch, I’ve come to the realization that perhaps paying tribute to my mother here, a person who played an important role in my becoming a movie fan, would be appropriate. And so I do.
My mom, Marta Flores, was born in San Cristobal, Pinar del Rio, Cuba in 1931. She married my dad, Rolando Bugallo, in 1955 and together with my brother and I (Lázaro and Aurora), emigrated to the United States landing in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Both Marta and Rolando (who everyone knew as Nenito) forged a loving home as part of a close community in their new city. They moved to Miami in the late 1990s, but Washington Heights remained near and dear to their hearts, as did their native Cuba. When they became American citizens, however, both Marta and Rolando wore it proudly.
My mother had a great sense of humor. She was warm, nurturing, strong, generous, and never lost the exuberance of youth even as her body so often failed her. She loved to cook, loved to dance, loved movies, loved children, loved Western pulp novels, was a good friend, loving wife, mother, and grandmother. She also had the greatest laugh I have ever heard.
My brother and I are lucky, we were taught to look at people for who they are. No judgment, no prejudices. Just friendship and warmth. We grew up in a modest, lower-income home, a basement apartment with an open-door policy where everyone was welcome and where food was at the ready for them when they entered. No matter the time or circumstance. No matter who walked in that door, which was never locked. Literally.
My mother never quite learned English despite spending more time in the U.S. than she did in her native Cuba. One recent exchange went like this…
My mother: ¿Como se dice ‘rana’ en inglés?
My mother: ¿no ranation?
The language issue had a lot to do with why action pictures were tops on my mother’s list. Movies that have a lot of dialogue were lost on her. The Godfather is the exception. She adored that film and watched it numerous times. Then again there are lots of murders in it, a requisite for her. If somebody didn’t die in the first five minutes of a movie my mother was usually ready to move on to another. The ones she never got tired of were Charles Bronson movies.
My mother: I want to watch that Charles Bronson movie.
Me: I think you’ve watched them all.
Mom: no, not the one where they kill all those people.
Me: blank stare.
My mother could and did watch Charles Bronson on a loop. Death Wish 23? Absolutely!
My mother: Charles Bronson was a much better actor than John Travolta.
Me: I got nothing
My mom was also a fan of Jimmy Cagney who she said could do anything. She was right. She also enjoyed the work of Al Pacino, Denzel Washington, and Gene Hackman to name a few more contemporary actors. It was the physical comedians though that made sure language was never an issue as did silent movies. She never tired of Jerry Lewis’s movie antics and loved John Ritter on TV. Of the silent comedians she liked Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy best. For some reason she was not familiar with Keaton or Lloyd. My mother truly enjoyed rewatching movies she had been able to see as a child in Cuba. Chaplin movies were usually accompanied by precious memories. American movies were all the rage in Cuba as they were all over the world and when she could afford to escape, not easy during the Depression, she would. Sometimes she went to the movies as a chaperone for some relative who was on a date, which ensured her ticket was paid for.
Anyway, Charlie Chaplin she adored. The Spanish-language Laurel and Hardy pictures were also enjoyable for obvious reasons. The duo would speak Spanish phonetically in these 1930s productions, which allowed me to expand the number of classic talkies we watched together. Of all the activities we shared, watching movies was top on the list. And she was always funny with stuff she pulled out of nowhere. I remember one of our movie days when we’d finished watching one and were ready for the next. I asked, “What do you want to watch next,” and she replied, “anything but those devil worshipping movies you love.” What? Other random thoughts included, “I like Bruce Willis better with hair” and “By the way, Robert DeNiro is not funny.” We were not watching Willis or DeNiro on either occasion.
Sometimes it wasn’t easy to keep my mother entertained. We spent more time than usual together the last two years during COVID. One day I asked if she’d want to watch a presentation of 1930s fashion. She replied, “no. I was there.” Touché. We watched a movie instead.
My mother’s English was good enough for her to understand every American movie she watched throughout the years she spent in New York but for some reason her English skills deteriorated in Miami which meant she watched more Spanish movies and TV shows as well as old favorites she knew by heart. While there are many great movies produced in Spanish-speaking countries, and anything with Argentian Ricardo Darín or Cuban Jorge Perugorría were favorites, we also watched plenty of clunkers I simply didn’t get.
Me: (confused) who’s that?
Mom: I don’t know.
Me: is that another son?
Mom: I don’t know
Me: well, is that the same woman?
Mom: I don’t know.
Me: what’s this about?
Mom: I don’t know.
Me: you want me to put another movie on?
Mom: no, this one’s good.
The tried-and-true entertainment at my mother’s house were American-produced TV shows. You could never go wrong there even if she’d watched them a million times. That would be true especially of the action shows she adored, shows like Starsky and Hutch, Kojak, In the Heat of the Night, Walker, Texas Ranger, and Miami Vice. I only learned exactly how much she enjoyed Miami Vice about two years ago when she told me she’d had a dream that she left my father for Don Johnson.
A rather funny thing was that she never understood the concept of syndication. For instance, despite my explaining this to her, she always believed Carroll O’Connor played Archie Bunker since 1971 and when she ran across the show on TV, she thought he was still playing him. M*A*S*H was another show she’ frequently comment on. Good God how long has this show been on? So yes, when she watched those action shows I mentioned, they were still happening for her.
In my constant quest to keep my mother entertained, I decided to introduce her to Bosch on Prime. The show was right up her alley with cops and killers running rampant. She was really into it. But there was one issue she was never able to get over. That is, the replacement of an actor from season 1 to season 2. The character of Constance was replaced in the second season.
My mother: who is she?
Me: the Chief’s wife
My mother: no, she’s not
Me: yes. It’s a different actor.
An hour later…
My mother: did they get divorced?
My mother: that woman and the man?
Me: (took a moment) oh. No. It’s the same character but a new actress was hired to play her.
An hour later…
My mother: how can they do that?
My mother: change his wife
Me: they didn’t change his wife. To him it’s the same person
My mother: how can that be?! she looks completely different!!
Me: because it’s the story. They are acting.
A bit later
My mother: Did she move away?
My mom also loved game shows. Of those her absolute favorite was Family Feud from Richard Dawson, who she called “the kisser,” to Steve Harvey. She watched Family Feud every single day for many years. What’s hilarious about her love of Feud is that she had no idea what they were saying.
Her: oh my God, that’s the worst answer I’ve ever heard.
Me: you don’t even know what he said.
Her: well, it sounded dumb!
That exchange happened often.
My mother had varied tastes and she loved having a good time. She absolutely adored music, which she said gave her life. The memories she talked about most often with joy were of when she used to go dancing as a young woman especially before she met my father whom she adored, but who did not like to have a good time. One of my favorite stories was of a dance where they had a dance contest. She was not yet married, and my mother’s older brother won first prize which was a pair of red women’s shoes. He took the shoes home and they fit my mother to a tee. She was excited about the prospect of sporting the new shoes to the next local dance. That was not to be, however, because my grandmother sold the shoes to get some extra food on the table that week. My mother was a great storyteller but many of her early memories made her sad, so I didn’t ask her many questions. Recounting the loss of those red shoes and the promise they held made her sad.
I should mention that my mother loved the way Dean Martin sang. His smooth, cool voice got her every single time but when she reminsced it was always about times gone by, about Cuban bandleader, orchestra leader and songwriter Beny More, and of dancing to the Orchestra Aragon and Sonora Mantancera in Cuba. Back in the day those popular bands would travel the country making it easy for people of lower means to enjoy their music live. Although my parents moved to a suburb of Havana after they were married because my dad managed one of his uncle’s bar/restaurants there with one of this brothers, the famed Havana nightclubs of the pre-Castro era were not part of their world.
Of all her interests, my mother’s absolute love of Spanish Western pulp novels crossed over to obsession. My brother and I spent many hours searching for new ones for her to enjoy. After having read these novels – written by the prolific Marcial Lafuente Estefanía – for over fifty years, it was a real challenge finding any she had not read. She adored those things. When she stopped reading about a month before she passed, we knew the end was near.
My mom also had a deep love for cooking and was aces at it. She never wrote down a recipe, never measured anything but I know I will never taste Cuban food like hers again. My mother worked as a maid for well-off relatives as a teenager. She credited having learned to cook from the aunt who employed her. My father used to kid that had she not known how to cook so well he wouldn’t have married her. I think he was kidding. One of my cousins wrote that my mother loved through food. She was not wrong. My mother adored cooking for people, making people well with her food, and she absolutely loved having people over to eat. Her deserts are legendary and anything she made was delicious.
That is who my mother was if one condenses a life into a few choice words, into a few random thoughts. Among the many things she left me was a love of movies. She is the reason movies will always be bonding experiences for me, not solitary endeavors. In fact, movies are integral to who we are as a family. Memories of going to the movies with her at a small local Washington Heights theater, which showed second run pictures with Spanish subtitles are among my favorite childhood memories. I am always grateful to the movies. My mother did think I was a bit nuts to collect physical media but loved it when I popped in one of those gems she enjoyed. And the sense of humor. Another memory worth sharing is how she used to yell out to my brother from her bedroom for her medication, “bring me the pills” and we’d all laugh at her fake stern tone. As a result, he started responding, “yes, Mother Bates” or “No, Mother Bates” referencing Norman’s mother in Hitchcock’s movie, which made her laugh with trepidation as she was never quite sure if he was telling her off in some way.
My mother was the strongest woman I’ve ever known and not just because she could open a bag of M&Ms and only eat 4. She overcame many physical challenges through the years and always had a fierce determination to go on, to have fun. She was always at the ready.
My mother was widowed in 2017. She left behind her two children, a granddaughter, two great grandchildren, extended family, and many friends she thought of as family. We will all miss her laughter, her hugs, and her compassion.
It wasn’t long ago that my mother shared with me a simple dream she’d had. It was a voice that told her, “Myrna Loy has helped and guided you a lot.” Maybe that was why my mother was so accepting of people, maybe that was why she was a progressive thinker defying her culture and generation in many respects. I was lucky to have her as my mother. I will miss her every day for the rest of my life. I thank Myrna Loy for guiding her, another random thought that will always make me smile.
Thank you, Theresa.