Boston: Mambo #5 – Lou Bega

A little bit of nostalgia in the sun.

As a kid, I can’t remember a time when my Dad wasn’t carrying his film camera around. This is one of the subtle details that remind me of how similar we are. We’re both extremely sentimental in our own ways, even if its not immediately noticeable in how we present ourselves to the world. He has never been the type to express love in verbal affirmations or loving embraces, so I grew up encapsulating my joy and gratitude into the pages of composition journals. Instead of being open about the sadness I felt, I held my breath until I could lock myself in my bedroom to write for hours on end. The spine of these journals had all the stories I never wanted to forget, including the little minor details that expressed more than I would’ve been able to recall years later. Even in the moments of spiraling depression, being able to revisit the little details captured within these journals reminded me that I still found little embers of happiness in summer days, a perfectly ripened pear, or finding a really smooth piece of sea glass.

The collection of little details also confirmed that these seemingly isolated moments of happiness were so much more, they act as reminders that I felt joy, the more permanent state of being, all throughout my life, even when my present-day memory fails to recognize it. I think my Dad’s constant photo-snapping tendencies helped him remember the same little details too. Last winter we sifted through bins upon bins of old photographs. As I shuffled through countless stacks of photos, the complexities of himself as an individual became more clear. Exploring these bins was an intimate glimpse into the psyche of someone who I never quite understood. His photos capture the connections he has made over the course of his life. He tends to be more introverted, so I found it endearing to hear him talk about digging up contact information to old friends so that he could send them photos.

Anyway, the bins were pure chaos. It took hours to sift through the disarray of muddy motorcycle rallies, restoration projects, birthday parties, random backyards, and other moments that only he would be able to explain. His inclination to always carry this camera and snap photos is his way of expressing happiness, or capturing moments of contentment. Just like my journaling, every photograph became his non-verbal way of emphasizing how much joy and delight he was able to experience throughout his life.

There’s something oddly beautiful about the peachy shade of a photograph fading with age. You can usually recognize the people and/or faces within the photo, but the details become softer and less defined. There’s something that feels so surreal about them, but maybe thats why we have a collective sense of nostalgia for physical photographs. Looking at photos from my Dad’s childhood feels like peeking into an encyclopedia from an otherworldly place. I feel the same way when looking at photos of myself as a kid. I can recognize that it’s me in the photos, but I cannot grasp the idea that we both existed on the same timeline? I don’t really know how to explain it, maybe its another example of my ongoing battle with the idea of permanence? I often look at different periods of my life as completely different lifetimes. The photos of myself as a bucktoothed, blonde wild child are cute, but I cannot figure out how we share the same physical space. I am that child, just older… and less toothy. I suppose I never realized how much I loved the color peach, or why I always found it so comforting until flipping through those bins last winter. Peach will always be the color of nostalgia for me.

Anyway, this post is about the song Mambo #5 and the peachy-colored haze of a Long Island beach day in the late 90’s… or early 00’s. The details of the memory have been altered, both consciously and unconsciously, to maintain its connection to me as an adult today. It all revolves around one day at the beach, but its entirely possible that this memory is the collection of two that have become marbled together. I don’t remember how old I was, but my sister was somewhere between two or three, so I was somewhere between seven or eight years old. Here’s the memory.

The memory begins in the backseat of a rental sedan being driven by my biological mom. My sister was gazing at the world as it flew by through the window. On the floor, there was a pile of beach towels, an umbrella, and a cooler full of deli sandwiches, snacks, and capri-sun. The windows were rolled down and my small little fingers were reaching out into the warm, summer breeze. The first part of this memory feels silent – not in a unsettling or empty kind of way, more like the ethereal silence that exists only after a snowstorm, but ya know, the summer version of that. The radio started to play Mambo #5 and I remember my mother shouting “it’s our song!” as she turned up the dial. We all contributed to the song in our own way. I shimmied my shoulders to the music and shouted my name into several verses because “Aimee” was not one of the names listed in the song. My sister giggled her way through the song as she danced around in her car seat.

I remember sitting on a beach chair sipping on a pacific cooler capri-sun. I wiped the sweat from my brow and threw the little plastic shovel back in the pail. I sat there by myself admiring the sandcastle we all built together. While my mom and Sage were in the water, I was unsettled knowing that this sand castle did not have any windows. I found a lady slipper shell and pressed it into the top of the castle, I figured one window would be enough for now. We could always add more later on. I continued to decorate the surrounding area with various shells and beach glass as an attempt to distract others from the giant hole that existed next to it.

We ate some sandwiches, drank a lot of capri-sun, and laughed as we continued on with our beach day. At some point, my Mom broke out a family-sized bag of cheese-doodles, they were Sage’s favorite so her eyes immediately widened with joy. My mom handed her a doodle without knowing that this would eventually become a pivotal moment in Sage’s life, one that I’d personally never let her forget. Her face glowed as she took the little cheese curl from our Mom’s hand. The cheese curl made it to about 1-2 inches from her mouth before suddenly stopping, the tears began to flow as she tried with all her might to fight against the unknown force of a plastic safety swimmy wrapped around her bicep blocking her from doodly bliss.

To this day, I have no idea which beach we went to. It wasn’t one of the main beaches, it almost feels like the beach was temporary. Like after that day, a giant wave rolled in and reclaimed the shoreline so that we could never return. I never wanted to ask about the beach. I don’t want to know that it actually exists because I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from going back. The beach has been washed away, and thats all that matters. Knowing that the location of this memory actually exists would mean that my version of the memory is wrong. I fully understand that my version is stripped of certain details. Memory is wildly unreliable and inconsistent, so this is the one time I’ve used that human flaw to my own advantage. It’s my memory and it lacks context because weaving those details into it would only discolor the peachy glow of nostalgia I’ve fought so hard to preserve.

The relationship with my mom is irreparably broken, for many reasons, and I have come to terms with that. Sometimes I mourn for the life we could’ve had, but I also know this is a grief that the three of us all share. It’s heavy, but its ours. Treading into these quasi-fictional worlds is dangerous. It’s easy to get lost in the delicate details of where things deviated and how we could’ve done things differently. Memories with her used to ignite pangs of heartbreak because I found myself placing the undeserved burden of responsibility on the shoulders of a seven (or eight?) year old. I systematically ripped apart all other memories that used to glow with brilliant peachy shades and sculpted them into something different, something less vibrant, something more reflective of the anger and resentment I carried within my chest.

There was no way I could’ve fixed the impending fracture that would eventually break our complicated family tree. It wasn’t possible for me to fix the broken branches before newer ones got lost within them because I wasn’t old enough to understand what her issues were, or how they would impact me and my sister, but I still felt the weight of it all. I’ve spent most of my life trying to understand her from a distance as an attempt to decipher the hidden messages lost within her absence. Even when we were in the same room, there was always a disconnect. I used to believe that I was nothing like my mother. I only started seeing the similarities once I began questioning the ways I chose to experience the world. I learned how to navigate her storms from a young age which also taught me how to navigate my own. The lines between mother and daughter were always blurred or reversed, but I always admired her ability to be so open and raw with her emotions, even though it often did, and continues to cause more damage to those on the receiving end.

The women in my family were all taught that mother-daughter relationships impossible to maintain because it was part of some family curse. We were taught that the grief of a broken mother-daughter relationship was simply the natural order of things. How long have the women in my family embraced this grief as something natural?

I’m so angry that we were all taught to believe our fate was sealed just by being born into a cursed family. We were thrown into the world without the skills everyone else seemed to have already mastered. We never had the right templates for what love was supposed to look like. This created a cycle of dysfunction where unhealthy styles of attachment were often mistaken for love. We approached affection with caution because we understood how easily it could become conditional or weaponized. The curse duped us into believing that love was simply incompatible with our biological make-up. I never wanted to leave, but I just didn’t know how to stay. Luckily, I met a few extraordinary people along the way who held my hand as I learned that love isn’t scary. We all have the capacity to love and I am beyond grateful for those who helped me figure that out.

I may not be able to reconcile with my mother, but I don’t, nor will I ever feel hatred towards her. I’m not attempting to justify the abandonment of a child, but I can recognize the conditions that made the obligation of loving another feel so impossible. Our relationship has always been tumultuous, to say the absolute least, but I still have love in my heart for her, and I think she feels the same about me.

She said Mambo #5 was “our song” as if we had a collection of inner jokes and shared interests. Declaring Mambo #5 as our song was coupled with the peachy glow of a beach day on Long Island. Visiting this memory is like returning to a home that none of us knew. It is a glimpse into the life of what existed underneath it all. Under different circumstances, things could’ve been more loving. Under different circumstances, our bond as a family of women would’ve expanded far beyond the time constraints of a three minute and forty two second Lou Bega song. I spent many years focusing on the collective grief we all shared, but there were other moments of happiness speckled around the tumultuous timeline that the three of us exist on. The grief is ours, and it always will be. However, we also have other little sparks of happiness that temporarily brought us together, and most importantly, we still have Lou Bega’s 1999 smash hit, Mambo #5.


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