When I think of Mami I see her impeccable posture and sturdy face. Her silver hair shines in the sun. Mami’s voice like fire engines, a rapid blare of too loud. Wild and funny comments, spill out of her mouth like she has a team of comedy writers in her head. Mami says: que no tiene pelo en la lengua. But. Mami’s tongue is a belt, striking with the intent to hurt, refusing to cinch anything. But, as of late I see more than the caricature, villain, and warrior goddess I made my mother. Lately, I see someone whose had so much loss.
Mami never read to us, how could she? But, Mami taught Joann and I to pray, and not that on your knees by the foot of the bed kind. No, Mami taught us to talk to God. And she told us stories. Stories from the book titled: La Vida Mia. Sometimes, not stories, but shards of details, chucked at Joann and I like daggers. While other times she doled them out to us like bits of a broken cracker, as if it was too painful to give them to us whole.
She left her hometown of Chalan at 12 years old to go work de servienta in Barranquilla. One of eight, guilty that she was another mouth to feed, she left her home. Mami enticed by the promise of an education. A tia took her in, with the assurance: school in exchange for help around the house. She lied. Mami was given a rag, a broom, and a cucharon, and not the notepad she hoped for and pencil. Mami was in her early twenties when her father died, killed by out of control car on the road he walked. Grief striken, Mami set out into the world as a nanny, first in Venezuela, then Puerto Rico, and finally Nueva York. Married at thirty-six to Papi, who already taken vows to el trago when they met, Mami was hopeful she could lure Papi away from drinking. A battle she fought, but knew she wouldn’t win. And then, Mami struggled to get pregnant, afraid that motherhood would elude her like education did, she prayed Joann and I into existence. Then, there was the matter of las casas, Mami’s stake in the world. Las casas.
Mami loves to walk. She can walk block after block, with the stamina of a long distance runner. Mami says it’s her meditation and the reason at 81 she’s so fit, a type two diabetic for close to three decades, walking is what she claims has kept her from insulin shots. Yes, Mami never learned to drive, and city buses are used only during cold or rainy days. She walks everywhere: to la misa, Keyfood, the pharmacy, and to her friends. Mami has often walked from Sunset Park to my apartment in Bayridge, unperturbed by the forty or more blocks. I frown and tell her I will pick her up and drive her home, and she is reluctant to climb in my car. And for the longest time I wondered what she sought during these walks.
But earlier this week, a visit to a lawyer and an article shared by my VONA sis, Salima from the New York Times, helped me piece it together. https://www.nytimes.com
We often think of searching as a kind of movement, a forward motion through time, but maybe it can also be the opposite, a suspension of time and memory. Heidegger wrote of a metaphoric pain, calling it the “joining of the rift.” It’s this rift, he said, that holds together things that have been torn apart, to perhaps create a new space where joy and sadness can find communion. This is the space I believed Takamatsu found beneath the sea, where he could feel close to his wife, in the rift between “missing” and “deceased.”
Tuesday of this week Mami, Holden, Rubencito, and I drove to the lawyer that handled the purchase of Mami and Papi’s apartment fifteen years ago. Forty years in America, Mami decided to buy a home, only after losing her casas en Colombia. Mami wanted to put the apartment in mine and Joann’s name, but we had questions before we went ahead. Hector, Mami’s real estate attorney agreed to meet us in the late afternoon.
“Hector, does it make sense to put the apartment in our names now?” I asked. I sat upright across the desk from Hector, my hands folded, and Mami to my left. “I know this should have been done years ago,” I sighed.
“Yes, they look back five years from the date of the transfer.” Hector looked back and forth from Mami to me.
“I told her to do this years ago,” I said in English to Hector. I was intent on leaving Mami out of the conversation, annoyed that she hadn’t listened to me years ago when I suggested this.
“Que fue?” Mami looked over at me.
“I knew we should have done this years ago,” I now said in Spanish. Anxious I bounced my leg up and down.
“Yo no sabia,” Mami said. Her voice a pitch higher.
I braced myself. I needed to ask about Papi and the Medicaid help he received. Papi was now wheelchair bound and diagnosed with dementia for several years. When Joann and I looked to get Papi care after too many falls and a three-month stint in a rehab center, the apartment came into question. Desperate to get him help and unburden Mami we applied for Medicaid on Papi’s behalf. Joann filled out the papers. I was the courier. “My father has full care in the house, seven days a week, twelve hours a day.”
“They wanted to give him twenty-four care, but I said no.” Mami said.
“I don’t want people in the house when I sleep,” Mami explained.
Hector looked at both of us, took a deep breath before he spoke. “I don’t want to sound crude, I will just give you the facts. Medicaid has not touched the apartment because you are still living there and it’s your primary residency,” Hector gestured towards Mami. “But when your father dies they will serve you a bill to pay for the services.”
I swallowed. Leaned forward, my elbows on the desk now.
“Cuanto?” Mami asked.
“It depends on how long he lives. It depends if you will need long-term care down the road.” Hector hands formed a steeple, he rested his chin on the top.
Papi’s care could drain every cent from the apartment.
Mami sat up straighter. ” Dios mio, this is why I pray to God I will just die in my sleep like my mother did. And be a burden to none.” Mami’s lips were set in a thin pencil line.
Hector looked at Mami for a long time before he spoke. “I have no perfect answer to give you. I can’t predict the future.” Hector said. “I wish I could.”
We sat there for another thirty minutes. Hector used words like: capital gains, power of attorney, sole beneficiaries. I forced myself to listen and took careful note of everything he said. I would report back to Joann.
On the drive back to Mami’s, my kids asked: What took so long? Why was I so quiet? Mami turned back in the car and said, “I’ve never wanted a lot in life. I asked God for only mis hijas. Y un trapo de casa. Lo unico.”
Mami wanted and strived for a house to call her own for most of her adult life. It was as if walls and roof would make her whole. Once settled in Nueva York she worked for a doctor as a nanny with three kids. Her goal: buy a house in Chalan. And she did, it was the first house she owned, but desperate to win her mother’s affection she signed it over to Abuela, Repa. Mami so sure that her mother would live the rest of her life there, never worried that the house would not find its way back to her. Her mistake. She underestimated La FARC guerilla, already entrenched in Colombia since 1964, los guerrilleros took to the jungles of Colombia, and small pueblos like Chalan. An invasion by La FARC of the region of Sucre, where Chalan resided, left Mami without a home. And Chalan now at the mercy of los guerrilleros. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FARC
Mami so sure she would return to live in Colombia worked harder and bought a house in Barranquilla. Back in the States and in need of a caretaker, Mami called on her younger brother, Elicer. A newlywed, Elicer and his bride moved in. Now, five children later, and a handful of grandchildren, Mami’s house more his than her’s. Extensions added, a makeshift garage built, and a small business wedged in the back of the house. Repa lived her last years in this house with Elicer and his family, this gave Mami comfort. Comfort that her brother, not unlike the guerilla had taken over her house.
Then there is Mami’s last attempt to buy a house in Colombia. The first time I heard about Chicho I was six or seven years old. Old enough to follow a story, but too young to grasp that Mami was not the hero in this story. Mami who walked in la calle with a straight back and the narrow eyes of a prison warden, had been duped. A victim. I realized this later, when I figured out that Mami carried as much stories as she did bolsas de ropa. Like the brown shopping bags with handles she lugged around Sunset Park. Mami sold clothes to friends and friend of friends at a discount prices. Mami, a traveling boutique, who had a lay away plan and accepted food stamps as payment.
“People have always stolen from me,” Mami said. She looked down at me angry that her friend Moncie had only given her a crumpled ten, though she owed so much more. Joann and I helped her organize the ledger where she kept track of each client’s transactions. Our childish handwriting wrote the names of the clients on the very top, Mami did the mental math of the sales and tallied what they owed, Joann and I jotted it down. The three of us walked alongside the park like a motley crew of business women. We were on our way home from Mami’s Friday payday visits to her clients homes. They all lived in last floor apartments in run down walk ups or makeshift rooms in basements, no one lived in their own private house.
Tired and thirsty I nodded. Mami forbade us to ask for a drink at anyone’s house. And every place we left as soon as we were within ear shot she would say: Ni agua nos ofrecen.
Joann, on Mami’s other side, was silent.
“Do you know we would’ve had a beautiful house,” Mami flung la bolsa across her back.
“The one Elicer lives in?” I asked. I thought of the corner house in San Roque, next to the bakery.
“Not the house where Elicer lives, no this one was in El Norte.” Mami looked ahead as if she was seeing a movie on a screen only she could see.
Shocked, I said, “El Norte?” El Norte de Barranquilla, the Northern most part of Barranquilla. Where los que son de dinero lived, like Ricardo and Cecilia De La Pena. Mami and Papi’s life long friends, who had a cleaning lady named Petra, and daughters that took private swimming lessons.
“I sent money every week like a pendeja for years. The house was built from scratch.” Mami lost in thought looked straight ahead and walked faster.
My small legs trailed behind.
“But, I listened to your father. He said we should have his friend Chicho take care of everything.” Mami jerk her head, as if the image of Chicho was stove hot, and seared her brain. “A lawyer, ha!” Mami twisted her head towards Joann and I. “Un demonio,” Mami bared her teeth.
I wondered if we could get the house back. Somehow. “Where is Chicho?” I asked.
“In hell!” Mami growled.
I looked around to see if people had heard Mami. No, eyes to the ground, purses pulled close to bodies and footsteps darted quick across the street. The sun was ready to set and was ripe with the color of honeydew and mango. Graffiti spotlighted in the glow of the sunset, I wondered why Mami didn’t buy a house here. Colombia was the summer, Sunset Park was always.
“Why did he take the house?” I asked.
“Your father said he was someone we could trust,” Mami said. “And when he asked me to sign papers to make it easier for him to deal with everything. I did. Una pendeja.” She hung her head low.
Mami didn’t say much after that. My heart ached for Mami. Afraid to interrupt the silence that now enveloped us, I ran up to her, and clasped her hand.
A few days after our visit to Hector’s I called Mami.
And if on cue, “It’s in God’s hands let it be His will,” Mami said. Her voice calm like water.
I remained silent on the other end of the phone.
“I have lost so much.” She sighed into the phone. “Dios tiene la ultima palabra.”
We didn’t say much after that.
Mami had talked to God, like she taught Joann and I, when were young girls. And maybe all the hours she spends praying is like that Japanese husband in the article who keeps diving into the ocean to look for his wife so many years after her disappearance. It’s that space between loss and memory that brings him peace. Mami knows how much she lost, she keeps a careful tally, and has no hope to gain what’s lost. But, as she walks through the memories of her life, she searches for that young girl who left Chalan who was so full of hope. And there she finds some peace.