Judith Ortiz Cofer More Room
My grandmother’s house is like a chambered nautilus; it has many rooms, yet it is not a mansion. Its proportions are small and its design simple. It is a house that has grown organically, according to the needs of its inhabitants. To all of us in the family it is known as la casa de Mamá[footnoteRef:1]. It is the place of our origin; the stage for our memories and dreams of Island life. [1: Mama’s house.]
I remember how in my childhood it sat on stilts; this was before it had a downstairs – it rested on its perch like a great blue bird, not a flying sort of bird, more like a nesting hen, but with spread wings. Grandfather had built it soon after their marriage. He was a painter and housebuilder by trade, a poet and meditative man by nature. As each of their eight children were born, new rooms were added. After a few years, the paint did not exactly match, nor the materials, so that there was a chronology to it, like the rings of a tree, and Mamá could tell you the history of each room in her casa, and thus the genealogy of the family along with it.
Her own room is the heart of the house. Though I have seen it recently – and both woman and room have diminished in size, changed by the new perspective of my eyes, now capable of looking over countertops and tall beds – it Is not this picture I carry in my memory of Mamá’s casa. Instead, I see her room as a queen’s chamber where a small woman loomed large, a throne room with a massive four-poster bed in its center, which stood taller than a child’s head. It was on this bed, where her own children had been born, that the smallest grandchildren were allowed to take naps in the afternoons; here too was where Mamá secluded herself to dispense private advice to her daughters, sitting on the edge of the bed, looking down at whoever sat on the rocker where generations of babies had been sung to sleep. To me she looked like a wise empress right out of the fairy tales I was addicted to reading.
Though the room was dominated by the mahogany four-poster, it also contained all of Mamá’s symbols of power. On her dresser there were not cosmetics but jars filled with herbs: yerba buena, yerba mala[footnoteRef:2], the makings of purgatives and teas to which we were all subjected during childhood crises. She had a steaming cup for anyone who could not, or would not, get up to face life on any given day. If the acrid aftertaste of her cures for malingering did not get you out of bed, then it was time to call el doctor. [2: Good herbs, bad herbs.]
And there was the monstrous chifforobe she kept locked with a little golden key she did not hide. This was a test of her dominion over us; though my cousins and I wanted a look inside that massive wardrobe more than anything, we never reached for that little key lying on top of her Bible on the dresser. This was also where she placed her earrings and rosary when she took them off at night. God’s word was her security system. This chifforobe was the place where I imagined she kept jewels, satin slippers, and elegant silk, sequined gowns of heartbreaking fineness. I lusted after those imaginary costumes. I had heard that Mamá had been a great beauty in her youth, and the belle of many balls. My cousins had other ideas as to what she kept in that wooden vault: its secret could be money (Mamá did not hand cash to strangers, banks were out of the question, so there were stories that her mattress was stuffed with dollar bills, and that she buried coins in jars in her garden under rosebushes, or kept them in her inviolate chifforobe); there might be that legendary gun salvaged from the Spanish-American conflict over the Island. We went wild over suspected treasures that we made up simply because children have to fill locked trunks with something wonderful.
On the wall above the bed hung a heavy silver crucifix. Christ’s agonized head hung directly over Mamá’s pillow. I avoided looking at this weapon suspended over where her head would have lain; and on the rare occasions when I was allowed to sleep on that bed, I scooted down to the safe middle of the mattress, where her body’s impression took me in like a mother’s lap. Having taken care of the obligatory religious decoration with the crucifix, Mamá covered the other walls with objects sent to her over the years by her children in the States. Los Nueva Yores[footnoteRef:3] were represented by, among other things, a postcard of Niagara Falls from her son Hernán, postmarked, Buffalo, N.Y. In a conspicuous gold fame hung a large color photograph of her daughter Nena, her husband and their five children at the entrance to Disneyland in California. From us she had gotten a black lace fan. Father had brought it to her from a tour of duty with the Navy in Europe. (On Sundays she would remove it from its hook on the wall to fan herself at Sunday mass.) Each year more items were added as the family grew and dispersed, and every object in the room had a story attached to it, a cuento[footnoteRef:4] which Mamá would bestow on anyone who received the privilege of a day alone with her. It was almost worth pretending to be sick, though the bitter herb purgatives of the body were a big price to pay for the spirit revivals of her story-telling. [3: The New Yorkers.] [4: Tale.]
Except for the times when a sick grandchild warranted the privilege, or when a heartbroken daughter came home in need of more than herbal teas, Mamá slept alone on her large bed.
In the family there is a story about how this came to be.
When one of the daughters, my mother or one of her sisters, tells the cuento of how Mamá came to own her nights, it is usually preceded by the qualifications that Papá’s exile from his wife’s room was not a result of animosity between the couple. But the act had been Mamá’s famous bloodless coup for her personal freedom. Papá was the benevolent dictator of her body and her life who had had to be banished from her bed so that Mamá could better serve her family. Before the telling, we had to agree that the old man – whom we all recognized in the family as an alma de Dios[footnoteRef:5], a saintly, a soft-spoken presence whose main pleasures in life, such as writing poetry and reading the Spanish large-type editions of Reader’s Digest, always took place outside the vortex of Mamá’s crowded realm, was not to blame. It was not his fault, after all, that every year or so he planted a baby-seed in Mamá’s fertile body, keeping her from leading the active life she needed and desired. He loved her and the babies. Papá composed odes and lyrics to celebrate births and anniversaries and hired musicians to accompany him in signing them to his family and friends at extravagant pig-roasts he threw yearly. Mamá and the oldest girls worked for days preparing the food. Papá sat for hours in his painter’s shed, also his study and library, composing the songs. At these celebrations he was also known to give long speeches in praise of God, his fecund wife, and his beloved Island. As a middle child, my mother remembers these occasions as time when the women sat in the kitchen and lamented their burdens, while the men feasted out in the patio, their rum-thickened voice rising in song and praise for each other, companeros[footnoteRef:6] all. [5: Literally, “soul of God.” A thoroughly good person.] [6: Companions.]
It was after the birth of her eighth child, after she had lost three at birth or in infancy, that Mamá made her decision. They say that Mamá had had a special way of letting her husband know that they were expecting, one that had begun when, at the beginning of their marriage, he had built her a house too confining for her taste. So, when she discovered her first pregnancy, she supposedly drew plans for another room, which he dutifully executed. Every time a child was due, she would demand, More space, more space. Papá acceded to her wishes, child after child, since he had learned early that Mamá’s renowned tempter was a thing that grew like a monster along with a new belly. In this way Mamá got the house that she wanted, but with each child she lost in health and energy. She had knowledge of her body and perceived that if she had any more children, her dreams and her plans would have to be permanently forgotten, because she would be a chronically ill woman, like Flora with her twelve children: asthma, no teeth, in bed more than on her feet.
And so, after my youngest uncle was born, she asked Papá to build a large room at the back of the house. He did so in joyful anticipation. Mamá had asked him for special things this time; shelves on the walls, a private entrance. He thought that she meant this room to be a nursery where several children could sleep. He thought it was a wonderful idea. He painted it his favorite color, sky blue, and made large windows looking out over a green hill and the church spires beyond. But nothing happened. Mamá’s belly did not grow, yet she seemed in a frenzy of activity over the house. Finally, an anxious Papá approached his wife to tell her that the new room was finished and ready to be occupied. And Mamá, they say, replied: “Good, it’s for you.”
And so it was that Mamá discovered the only means of birth control available to a Catholic woman of her time: sacrifice. She gave up the comfort of Papá’s sexual love for something she deemed greater: the right to own and control her body, so that she might live to meet her grandchildren—me among them—so that she could give more of herself to the ones already there, so that she could be more than a channel for other lives, so that even now that time has robbed her of the elasticity of her body and of her amazing reservoir of energy, she still emanates the calm joy that can only be achieved by living according to the dictates of one’s own heart.
Reading Questions for “More Room”
1. Identify two techniques that make the introduction effective.
2. Fully explain the comparison of the house to a bird and how this comparison relates to the grandmother.
3. Explain how Cofer’s use of Spanish words in the essay is effective.
4. The essay is divided into two main sections. Identify the transition between them and how it connects to each section.
5. What is Mamá’s “bloodless coup”? How do we know the author does not want us to criticize her for it?
6. Identify and prove the effectiveness of three of the following devices:
a) balanced sentence in paragraph 2
b) analogy in paragraph 3
c) symbol in paragraph 5
d) oxymoron in paragraph 9
e) italics in paragraph 10
f) periodic sentence in paragraph 12
g) anaphora/parallel structure in paragraph 12
7. Explain how the ending is effective in terms of both a) content and b) tone.
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