My mother could have taught a much better art class, I think to myself while I look at the dozens and dozens of bouquets of flowers in front of me. My mom, with her bright red hair and soft blue eyes and big smile, could have taught us kids how to fold paper planes. She was magic, which no other art teacher could claim, and her paper-folding took us kids to another world.
I stood uncomfortably, regretting my choice to wear heels to my mother’s funeral. Twenty years after my fourth grade art class, my mother just passed away from a cancer that took advantage of her womanhood- breast cancer. All the chemo in the world couldn’t save her. I start to cry thinking about all the things that couldn’t save her. In black from head to toe, I thought back to Mrs. Ysaguirre’s fourth grade art classroom.
She was a boring teacher, only giving us coloring sheets and crayons, never thinking outside the box or teaching anything that challenged us artistically. One day, in my fourth grade art class, my best friend Jake and I were fed up with coloring. We wanted papier mache, we wanted to sculpt clay, and we wanted to be the next Van Goghs or Picassos. Jake and I, in an effort to stay occupied and with bitterness toward our teacher, started grabbing crayons and lining them up three at a time, holding them out in our hands and taking turns chopping the others’ crayons in half. We giggled, and this continued for a few minutes until Mrs. Ysaguirre caught us, yelled something angry in a language we didn’t understand, and sent us both trying to stifle our giggles to the principal’s office. The principal dealt out the normal punishment, a call home to parents and a day of after school detention, or more likely helping the teachers grade papers because they didn’t get paid enough to do it themselves.
Lost in thought, I shifted my weight, hoping that my dad wouldn’t call me to the stage to speak about my mom. After high school, I hadn’t really been in contact with my dad; he had divorced my mom and was a very private person, so if felt like I didn’t know him much at all even though he raised me for 18 years. I continually tried to choke back tears as I thought about that phone call home. The details were vivid in my mind.
I was sitting at the kitchen table, doing homework when he called, and I heard my mother’s end of the conversation. “Hello principal! She was what?” My mother stifled her own giggles. “No, no sir that is very serious, thank you for telling me. I will punish her accordingly.” I looked up from my homework, at my mom’s curly red hair and her friendly smile, and I waited to be sent to my room as punishment. She sat down beside me, and said, “Let’s make a paper plane,” I sighed in relief. If the principal had called my father, he would have been livid, and likely would have grounded me for misbehaving at school, seeing as he wasn’t much of an art person and didn’t understand my frustrations with my foreign art teacher.
My dad still doesn’t understand, I thought. I am a thirty-year-old woman and my dad still doesn’t understand me. I must have been fidgeting a lot, because my brother nudged my arm with his slick black tux-wearing elbow, “Hey, you okay sis?” he asked me compassionately. “Yeah, I’m okay. Just remembering mom’s paper planes.” He immediately understood and squeezed my hand, relieving the pain I was feeling.
Mom began to fold a paper plane, and told me to close my eyes and think about flying. When she finished folding and told me to open them, the room transformed into a clear blue sky, and I looked down and realized my mom and I were flying atop a giant paper plane! Giggling in delight, I hugged my mother and said, “Let’s fly over the ocean!” She replied, “Okay, but I want to show you something first.” We imagined all this together.
Standing hand in hand with my brother at her funeral, all of the memories of my mom’s magical qualities came back, stronger than ever before. Her frizzy red hair, just like Mrs. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus books, her artistic ease and ability to create something beautiful out of nothing, her imagination… she was amazing, and even as a thirty-year-old, I thought back to all the adventures we would go on after that first paper plane ride, every time I would get in trouble at school, every time I was sad or depressed or lonely, and even into adulthood when I went through the toughest times in life. When I got pneumonia. When I was mugged in Europe. When I had a miscarriage. Mom was there through it all, and we would always sit down and make paper planes, pretending to fly other places away from our pain, worries, and fears and starting new lives elsewhere. It didn’t matter how old I was, we would pass the time, folding paper planes and talking and throwing them into the air, pretending we would be on an actual plane flying to Paris or Jamaica or New Zealand, where we could just vacation and not be sad.
That day with my mom, the first day we folded paper planes when I was 10 years old, I started to see that imagination could take you anywhere. From that day forward, I taught all my friends how to fold paper planes, starting with my best friend Jake. “Jake, come here!” I half-whisper, half-yelled to him across the hall the next day at school. He groaned, “Kara, you got me in big trouble yesterday!” I hugged him, “I know Jake, but I’ll make it up to you, come on let me show you something!” We ran hand in hand to the cafeteria, where we found an empty table and I helped him fold a paper plane. I told him to use his imagination, and at first he was skeptical but then he finished folding and opened his eyes, and we were flying over a battlefield in what looked like a video game, reaching back to our bow and arrows to shoot into snarling monsters and fire-breathing dragons.
Finally letting go of my brother’s hand because of the pooling sweat, I wiped my hand on my pant leg. My dad was finished speaking finally, and we were to walk through the grass back to the building to eat together and share memories of my mother. I didn’t hear a word he said, but I know it was something generic about how she would be rejoicing in heaven and how she was a good person while she was on Earth. I took a deep breath, and to avoid talking to my dad I ran as quickly as I could while wearing heels to my car to grab some paper, then ran again to catch up with my brothers and their kids. We got into the building and all sat together at a large round table, like at a wedding. My younger brother, Gabriel’s kids were six and ten years old, and I wanted to teach the younger one how to make paper planes.
Jake looked over at me soaring on my paper plane through his imagination, passing treacherous caves in mountains and roaring monsters, and he yelled, “This is so cool!” I smiled, and flew next to him, silently thanking my mother for providing Jake with this magic she had so selflessly shared with me. Jake had a hard time at home, and it didn’t help that I got him into trouble. Jake laughed, and I could see in his eyes that he had forgotten about his own mother, who hits him and calls him mean names at home but treats him really, really nicely in public. We flew and flew until the sun started to go down in Jakes imagination, then when we finally landed we were back in the cafeteria, flying our paper planes around the building.
I leaned over to Isabella, my youngest niece. “Hi sweetie, do you want to do some arts and crafts?” She smiled and said, “Yes Auntie!” I helped her fold a plane, and told her to close her eyes and think about her Barbie movies. She did, and giggled as the magical paper plane took her to another place. Tatum, my other niece, was already a pro, and her grandma had already taught her. She had the magic in her too, just like Isabella and just like me.
Jake was able to escape his mother’s torture from then on, and my mother actually wound up adopting him three years later, when we were thirteen. He became my younger brother, even though it was only by a few months, and his daughters became my nieces. Even though he was not blood related to us, Jake unknowingly was passed down the magic from our mom, and as we all sat at the table waiting to eat food and remember our mother’s life, we made paper planes and remembered her kindness, her love, and most of all, her imagination.