Monday, December 9, 2013

My mom "Mily"

Most people may best know me as a journalist and author. But to my mom, I was simply "Yonito" or 'mi baby'' as she liked to introduce me to people even as recently as three weeks ago.

My mother was my biggest fan and I was hers.  She gladly attended all my Miami book readings where she sat in the back with my father and smiled as I read English words that she probably didn't completely understand. But she knew that they came from my heart. She also happily posed for the camera whenever one suddenly pointed her way which happened a lot during her lifetime.

After a months-long battle this year with colon cancer, my mom, Milagros Diaz, passed away November 15. I still can't believe that she's gone. I keep expecting to see her after work at Mt. Sinai Medical Center or at our home in Miami Beach. I keep thinking she's going to call me to ask me to bring her Cuban coffee like I did every morning when she was at the nursing center at Mercy Hospital this summer. Or that she'll ask me to turn the channel to Mega TV so she could watch Charytin's daily entertainment show.

For those of you who weren't fortunate enough to meet my fun, wacky mom in person, you got to know her through some of my writing. She inspired each of the Cuban mom characters in my four novels. That was her as the overly protective and loving Mrs. Perez, mother of Tommy in Boston Boys Club who sang him Happy Birthday greetings on his home answering machine and who worried whether he was warm enough during Boston winters. My mom served as the muse for Ana Martinez, Ray's mom in Miami Manhunt who gave her son safe sex talks as she shaved some of his upper back hair in their Coral Gables bathroom. (Don't ask!)

My mom was also Maria Martin, Carlos's garden-loving, flan-making mom in Beantown Cubans who died of colon cancer but still visited him in his dreams to guide him in his new Boston home.  And Mami also resembled and acted a lot like Gladys Galan, Gabriel's mom in Take the Lead who kept his childhood bedroom spotless and pristine whenever he visited from Quincy, Massachusetts. She also gladly picked him up from the airport.

My mom played herself in a short story I wrote called "The Cuban Kitchen Dance'' from Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul. In that story, I described how she taught me how to dance in our Miami Beach kitchen even though I was a reluctant dance partner. And she occasionally appeared in this blog either in photographs or in fun entries such as the time she ambushed me and took me to visit una Santera/spiritual reader during one of my Miami trips from Boston. As you can see, my mom inspired and continues to inspire me.

Being my muse could have easily been a category on her resume. In her native Cuba, she did some modeling and competed as a beauty queen in the infamous Carnaval festival. She had a string of short-lived jobs from working in a tobacco company and a doctor's office to a school. In the US, she would be called a homemaker but that's too simple of a label. Mily, as she liked to be called, was a loving wife of 48 years, a proud mother of three, a fun aunt who enjoyed sharing the dirty jokes she heard on Spanish AM radio, a giddy little sister, chatty cousin and guiding godmother.

She was our sun, shining light, love and hope wherever she went. Even at Mt. Sinai these past few months, she charmed the nurses and nursing assistants, some of whom referred to her as "mi reina" (my queen) and "mi corazon" (my love.)
My mom appeared as a candidate for Carnaval in La Habana newspaper.
Perhaps that people-connection had to do with her profound sense of spirituality. One of her favorite things to do was to sit by the window in our pantry or in the living room and listen to Radio Paz, a nonprofit Catholic radio station. She also enjoyed sharing prayers with her call-in phone group. When I wasn't looking, she'd stuff prayer cards with various saints into my wallet and pieces of garlic in my pockets for protection. And whenever I drove away from our house to head to the airport and back to Boston, she'd stand on our sidewalk and gesture a prayer for a safe journey.

It's those little mom-and-son moments that rush back to me now, some of which I shared with her on that recent cloudy November Friday afternoon as I held her sun-freckled hand, looked into her hazel/green eyes and sat by her bedside just a few hours before she passed away, singing one of her favorite religious songs. I reminded her how she didn't want me to kiss her on the cheek whenever she dropped me off at Nautilus Junior High (because the boys will make fun of you!) 
With my mom at Biscayne Elementary's Head Start program.

I described how she called me her "personal chauffeur" who drove her to Publix, Amoco, FedCo, and K-mart after I got my restricted driver's license. I recalled how she waited for me to get home from work in Fort Lauderdale so we could walk down our street to the Pine Tree Drive bridge where we breathed in the fresh sea air and just talked. I recounted the times she called me at The Boston Globe whenever she was alone in the house so she could gossip. How she was so happy to finally visit Boston, see the condo I had called home in Lower Mills as well as her goddaughter/niece Mari's home in Duxbury.  And how could I ever forget the "Yonito, do you like papaya-or-banana-for-breakfast?" jokes.

It was as if we had our own secret code that allowed us to break out in giggles and full on belly-laughs with just one look or gesture. (God forbid if you like my sister or Dad were stuck with the both of us in an elevator, a waiting room or in a line.)

So much love, so many fond memories -  including her beaming whenever my sister Cary treated her to a day at the salon - that they could easily fill up several more books and blog entries. She's physically gone but I know that like the Maria mother character in Beantown Cubans, she'll be in my dreams walking with me on our street or doing the Cuban Kitchen Dance all over again.

In honor of my mom, I wanted to share some of the ways I remember her through photographs and at least one video that she inspired.

@ Books and Books for "Miami Manhunt". Always smiling

After "Boston Boys Club" reading @Books and Books

In 2011, my mom appeared in an infomercial for Miami Beach Medical Group (which still airs the spot). I was visiting from Boston and this is what I woke up to - a camera crew outside our front door and my mom opening and closing the door to do her scenes. She kept playfully shushing me when I began asking "Mami, what is going on?"  She was so happy that morning wearing the jumpsuit that my sister had bought her.

Below is a video that Open Road Media shot of me discussing how my mom and dad inspired me to write Beantown Cubans after they visited me in Boston. The video features pictures of my mom and dad over the years.

Open Road Media: Johnny Diaz on Special Themes from Open Road Media on Vimeo.


  1. Awww, que linda! So sorry to hear about your loss. What a lovely tribute. I can tell what a great lady your mom was by the way you handle yourself. She did a great job.

  2. This is an awesome read. I hope you have 'visitations' with her. that's what I call those moments when you get a 'sign' telling you she is with you. You will know what they are when they are in front of you.
    She sounds like quite a woman. Oh, and by-the-way, you and I will have to go salsa dancing. I'm not kidding!
    Victoria B

  3. This is a great read. She sounds like a amazing woman. I hope you get some 'visitations' which is what I call those unexplained moments when there is a 'sign' that she is with you. It shows up in all forms, physical or otherwise, but there is no doubt she is letting you know that she's around.
    Your memories of her will serve you well. And make no mistake about it, you and I will have to go salsa dancing soon!
    Victoria B

  4. This is such a beautiful column. I'm glad you were so close to your mom and have all of these wonderful memories of your time together right up until the end. Thanks for sharing them with us. You are so gifted Johnny.


  5. Thank you Kenneth, "Frenchy" and Greg for the supportive comments. I really appreciate that you took the time to read this tribute and got to know a little of the the woman behind Beantown Cuban :-D

  6. Your most impactful post ever! Thank you for spreading the love. ♡♥♡

  7. Your most impactful post ever! Thank you for spreading the love. ♡♥♡

  8. A nice tribute to your Mom.