I heard her jewelry first. It sounded a little bit like change moving around in someone’s pocket. The rustle of her skirts, her silver and gold jewelry like tiny bells announcing her arrival.
I took a cab from my apartment on Avenida Revolucion to the Casa Azul in Coayacan. The Casa Azul is a museum now, but Frida Kahlo was born there in 1907 and she lived there for the final 13 years of her life.
The house is a dark blue that feels alive. There is a green garden in the center, a magnolia tree, pink blossoms popping out from between green leaves, and rooms all along its perimeter. The sun is out.
I could hear her coming, just like they said. I sat in the middle of the garden, next to a tiny pool with two conches in the middle, a pair of vulvas announcing rebelliously the presence of femininity in this place. Femininity, when claimed, is no longer the negative space that masculinity has left behind.
I was writing in my little brown notebook, sketching something I had seen written in her diary:
muerte, madre, mar.
I was thinking of the video of her that played in a little cul de sac in the museum. In the video she’s drawing near a little lake, her feet up. At first, she is unaware that she is being watched and then she senses it, turns over her left shoulder, a smile spreading across her face like a ripple of water in a pond. She talks, but there is no sound. What did she say? Who was filming her? Why did she want to be a mother so badly? Why don’t I?
When I told the cab driver I was going to see Frida’s house, he said:
“Frida Kahlo (like her name was made out of warm taffy that made his teeth stick together). I call her Sufrida. What did she even do? It seems to me her primary role was to inspire Diego Rivera. He was the true talent. She produced much less work than him.”
My Spanish isn’t good enough to have given him my feminist perspective on the matter, but I did manage to tell him that in many parts of the world she was far more famous than Diego. He seemed politely unconvinced.
In the 1940s she wore flowers and Tehuana dresses to claim identity, loud jewelry to announce that she was alive and she was formidable. She was the great grandmother of selfies.
I had come to Casa Azul to find her. I brought some gifts:
a tiny seashell I'd found at Ocean Beach that was cracked open revealing its inner pink coil, my favorite fuscia lipstick from the wig store in West Oakland, and a tiny purple tin of lavender-flavored mints.
“You’re bleeding. I can smell it.”
This didn’t seem like the oddest thing she could have begun our conversation with. It was intimate from the start, just the way I prefer it. “I know the smell of blood better than I know the smell of roses.” She sat down, slowly, gathering her layers of skirts, and then smoothing them down around her curatorially. She looked down at her hands as she did it, and when she was done she looked at me with a warm sternness.
“What does it feel like to want to be a mother?” I asked her.
“It feels like hunger, in your stomach but also in your bones. It’s a small sadness, a nostalgia for someone you don’t know. You can imagine what your life with them would be like, you love them, a little ghost, and they haunt the memories of your future.”
“I don’t know what that feels like.”
“Yes, you do.”
“I can’t imagine hurting someone the way that my mother hurt me. I couldn’t live with myself if I ever sensed that I had betrayed my child.”
“Betrayal is inevitable. In a child’s eyes you are the queen of their world. Until one day their life cannot sustain this belief any longer. This is the first betrayal: that you are not a queen or an angel, but an animal who shit and bled while you were birthing them. You are not bigger than the life you were given. Neither are they.”
“Do you ever wonder if you wanted to have a child for the wrong reasons?”
“Desire is bigger than reason, and error is built into reason. Reason is a creation of man. Desire is a creation of god, like children. Doubt is reasonable, but you talk in a way that seems to indicate that you have a control that you in fact do not.”
“What does 'madre, muerte, mar' mean?”
“Madre. Mother. The beginning of all things, powerful, loathed, love. I don’t know that we ever forgive our mothers for bringing us into this world, but we share an intimacy with them that is so great, that is unbreakable. Many women see the way that children treat their fathers, and they envy an admiration that is bred of distance. A mother does not have that distance. A child will always be in love with her mother, and that kind of love is wild, filled with pain and shame, rage and reconciliation. There is no love more animal than this kind.
Muerte. Death. In our children lies the truth of our mortality. The pain we feel when we birth them bears down on us, reminding us we are flesh that tears and bones that ache. Death is both the parent and the lover. We are afraid and in awe.
Mar. Sea. This is the salt of our tears and the strength of our resilience, our ability to expand and comfort as well as to harm. The sea is our humanity, vast and humbling and dangerous.