For mama Chelia
My Mama Chelia was my kind of woman, She was my very own Sophia Petrillo, a tough broad with no fur on her tongue, strong fists and backbone, not a crybaby at all. She was a woman unafraid to punch a man, unafraid to guffaw from her belly, unafraid to tell you exactly what she thought. She could slaughter a hog, plow a field, herd sheep, and cook for a houseful of relatives. Until her eyesight began to fail, she would read her Bible and several newspapers daily. As happens with many immigrants’ children, I was only able to visit Mama Chelia every several years. Thousands of miles separated us. She didn’t get to raise me, cook for me, care for me,watch me grow from newborn to adult. I wish that I had one of my grandparents in my life to coddle me, spoil me, shield me from the pain. I grieve that loss of love,culture, wisdom. I grieve her death but I also grieve her absence. I always loved her and I always missed her..
My favorite memories of Mama Chelia were made during our family trip to Churin. None of us had ever visited. We wanted to experience the hot springs; we hoped they might do my mother’s back some good. After a grueling bus trip over unpaved roads, we arrived at the bottom of a dusty gray hill. This can’t be it, I thought, as locals swarmed the bus with waving arms and shouted offers of lodging. Men and women offered rooms or beds in their homes. They offered meals and warm blankets. They shouted out prices in soles and American dollars. I pulled my bag out of the luggage compartment while my parents discussed next steps. I looked uphill . Wooden signs along the path indicated that the town plaza was up past where I could see.
“We’re not staying with strangers. I’ll find a hotel,” I told my mom in Spanish. I started walking up the hill and half dragged my wheeled suitcase over rocks, gravel, and dirt. My mom panicked and asked my dad to intervene but I was on a mission. I looked for the best looking hotel in the town square and chatted up the front desk clerk as my family entered the building.
“A su madre, que elegante,” Chelia said.She kept making similar exclamations as she admired the hallway and her room. She was impressed and consistently made comments on how nice everything was.
When we visited the hot springs, we decided to enter the community bath. Mama Chelia took to the hot water. She laughed and chatted. When another family entered with their grandfather, Mama Chelia got quiet. The old man seemed nervous and uncomfortable. He entered the water reluctantly. Mama Chelia responded by suddenly splashing the old man several times.
“Mira este chibolito” The old man cowered but everyone else laughed and laughed.
The man ‘s daughter said “Ay, que graciosa la abuelita.”
On the bus trip back to Huacho, my mom’s back pain got the best of her. She began to weep silently as she struggled to find a comfortable sitting position. Mama Chelia watched her, at first with curiosity and then with exasperation. She told my mom she was going to slap her upside the head for being a crybaby. When that failed to get a different reaction, Mama Chelia held my mom close and rubbed her back, shoulders, and head. I have to admit it made me tear up. My mom didn’t grow up with Mama Chelia. She moved in with her maternal grandparents as a toddler. But I know that hug meant so much.
One of my last memories of Mama Chelia are from the summer of 2014 when I celebrated my birthday by taking my immediate family to Peru. How wonderful to watch Mama Chelia interact with M. I loved seeing Mama Chelia smile at my daughter, how she told her to take a cuy home. She told her how to feed it alfalfa and how it could have lots of babies and my daughter could raise a whole brood. My little brown daughter smiled shyly at my little brown granny. These beautiful brown women who are the bookends to my life. My roots and my blossom, the origin and the continuation of a long tradition of strength and sass.
How lucky I was to experience these memories with Mama Chelia. She was a light, a fire, a beacon home. Her eyes told you she was no fool. Her smile told you she was not cruel. Rest well, Mama Chelia. Put up your knife and broom. Put away your dishrag and pan. Here there are no husbands, no warring children. Sit. Have some cancha, some sopa, un te. Rest now. Te lo mereces.