Tag Archives: Oaxaca

Cafe con Leche

25 Jun

My husband leaves me every year—sometimes twice. He packs his bag, kisses me and our children goodbye and heads back to Mexico to see his other family—the one I stole him away from over twenty five years ago.

When he first leaves me, I breathe a sigh of relief because I am free. I can stay up late watching television with the volume on high. I can spend hours on Facebook without him complaining how I’m ridiculously addicted to social media. I can sleep in late and skip breakfast and eat grilled cheese sandwiches and pickles everyday for lunch. I can bake scones and give them away so as not to eat any (okay, I eat some.) I can work in my garden for hours knowing that no one is going to call out to me and ask me to do something or go somewhere. I can send my youngest daughter over to play at a neighbor’s house and then I can savor my aloneness like a hot Grande Decaf Mocha (one and a half pumps of chocolate, extra whip) with a morning bun on the side, and no one gives me a look that says: Should you really be eating that?

For about three days my new sense of freedom makes me as giddy and excited as a teenager whose parents have left for the weekend. I make plans to clean out closets, scrub baseboards, and organize my messy life into neat little plastic containers. I drool over the stack of books on my nightstand and ponder which one I’m going to read first. I make detailed lists and compose emails and decide to use every hour—no—every minute, to accomplish what I’ve mapped out to do.

And then something strange happens. I end up sitting on the couch doing nothing. My stress level has gone all the way down to zero but for some reason I’m not happy.

I miss my husband.

My problem is that I really like to spend time with my husband. Or at least I do in reasonable quantities. Even though he readily admits to me that he’s high maintenance and difficult at times, his sense of humor, his generosity, and his ability to love is unparalleled. I’ve discovered that I like to hang out with people who have these qualities, even if they drive me nuts at times.

Not only that, he makes me laugh. I cannot stay mad at him for longer than fifteen minutes because he always tries to hug me and kiss me and cajole me out of my snit by teasing me until I finally have to cover my mouth to stifle my laughter. No matter what hurtful things we’ve just said to each other (and both of us are expert button pushers), the moment I crack that smile, he knows that everything is instantly forgiven. Trust me—I’ve tried in vain to hold on to that hot, delicious anger—it’s virtually impossible with Rene.

On June fourth we celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. As money has been a bit tight this year (join the club, right?) we didn’t make plans to go away to spend a weekend in wine country or take a short cruise to Baja. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything anyway—we’ve always been sort of casual about giving each other presents.

But he surprised me the morning of our anniversary by playing hooky from work and bringing me peach colored roses (he actually remembered that peach was the color of our wedding flowers) and then he took me out to a fancy restaurant on State Street to eat French toast with fresh berries and whipped cream.

He held my hand and kissed me, just like he did during our first date, which involved the two of us making out passionately in a seedy movie theatre somewhere in downtown Los Angeles while a Chuck Norris film (dubbed in Spanish) blasted out at an unusually high volume.

In that dark theatre, Rene kissed me liked I’d never been kissed before, so completely paralyzing my body that I literally melted into the squeaky seat and could not move.  I barely heard the screaming  children who ran up and down the aisles throwing popcorn and crying out for their mothers.

Rene and I met at an upscale gourmet hamburger joint in Santa Monica (I guarantee you, there was such a thing in the 80’s) where he was a cook and I was a waitress.  He spoke mostly Spanish and I spoke mostly English. He was a dark-skinned Zapotec Indian from the mountains of Oaxaca whose first language was an indigenous dialect, and who at eight years old, was sent away to work as a houseboy in the home of a rich family in the city. I grew up a semi-privileged white girl from Santa Barbara, California, who had her own room and her own car (it was a beat-up 67 Oldsmobile, aka the Tuna Boat, but a car, nonetheless) and whose parents paid for weekly piano lessons.

Rene worked tirelessly for years, often sending his entire paycheck to his parents in Mexico so that they and his nine siblings could have a real roof over their heads, one that wasn’t made from scraps of discarded wood and corrugated aluminum. While I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in piano performance from a prestigious Los Angeles music school, he was riding the bus for an hour each way to attend ESL classes so that he could to learn English and begin his education. Seven years later, when he was thirty-one years old, he received his master’s degree in Education. At that time, I was seven months pregnant with our third child.

My husband and I are like night and day—we’re café con leche. We come from dissimilar cultures and we don’t like the same music. We’ve had some difficult times in our marriage; the most arduous being the time our youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia when she was two. But through some kind of consecrated grace, we pulled together instead of pulling apart, and we endured. Yes, we still fight a lot, and yes, we say mean things to each other at times. Yet we also say “I love you” every single day, no matter what.

And most importantly, we laugh a lot.

I didn’t plan to fall in love with Rene after only dating him for three weeks, after which he told me he was leaving me to go back to Mexico and didn’t know when he would be back. I was heartbroken and had no idea if I’d ever see him again, but somehow I knew he was the one, and that whatever happened was meant to be.

Together in 1985. The hairstyle proves it.

He came back four months later.

I was twenty-three when he left me for the first time. He’s been leaving me without fail ever since. This time around, he’s only been gone a little over two weeks. Last night he called, the connection scratchy and faint, and told me he missed me and the kids and he was coming home early. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait too long this time.

Still together after twenty five years of marriage.

The Feast

26 Oct

The meal is almost ready. The white tablecloth has been laid on the table, its hand-embroidered flowers against the white background like a snowy meadow of red poppies. Colorfully painted vases that have been placed on the table spill over with bright orange and yellow marigolds, accompanied by tall stalks of scarlet gladiolas which hover at both ends like skinny old women reaching out their long arms in welcome. The piquant aroma of the marigolds combined with the lingering scent of burning incense creates an atmosphere of magic and anticipation in the dark room. Candlelight dances across the faces of the guests, who sit still and quiet in the darkness, their expressions never changing.

All over the table, the abundance of food is evident: bread that has been baked in the shape of corpses lies in plentiful heaps next to the steaming tamales in their tightly-wrapped corn husks. Candy and ripe fruit mingle with the tiny toys and trinkets that have been left on the table to please the children: a toy truck for a young boy, a favorite black-haired doll for a girl of six.

This room should be filled with excited chatter in anticipation of this spectacular meal, yet not one guest utters a word; each one of them waits patiently in silence, staring off into the candlelight. There is a feeling of time slowing down—a sense that no one is going anywhere— that there is no need to hurry.

On this night, despite the festive preparations, there will be no eating and drinking at this table, because in reality, all of our guests are only familiar faces captured in photographs; some smiling, some somber, but all of them are gone forever.

All of our guests are dead.

After all, tonight’s celebration is not really meant for them, but for us—for the family and friends who knew them and loved them and planned this elaborate celebration in order to remember them.

Tonight is the offering. It is “Dia de los Muertos”.

The Mireles Family Altar

As a child, the idea of death confused me, because I really knew nothing about the process of death or the act of mourning. I understood that people died, but my parents, probably in their attempt to protect me, didn’t talk about it, or softened its meaning by referring to it as passing away or moving on. In my child’s mind, I saw these dead relatives passing away as if they were swooping off into outer space like in a cartoon. No one talked to me about what happens when you die. I never once saw a dead body; I never attended a funeral or memorial service, and I never even cried over the loss of someone dear to me—even after my own grandparents died I truly felt no sense of real loss. Death was just some abstract concept that I was never able to understand.

When I was in college, my father, only a few years older than I am now, died suddenly from pneumonia. I wasn’t able to grieve thoroughly and deeply after his death, because real mourning had never been modeled for me. Our family handled his death without fanfare. We had a simple gathering of friends at our home, but there was no memorial service, no funeral, no music played, and no words spoken aloud of who my dad was and what he meant to all of us. Not being able to grieve his death openly with friends and family left an emotional vacancy in my heart and later manifested in a long period of depression and suffering for me. I had lost someone so close to me, yet there was no real goodbye.

Shortly after my father died, I met and later married my husband, Rene, who is an indigenous Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, Mexico. Throughout his life, Rene had been taught to accept the experience of death as a normal occurrence—something that was a natural part of life. Nothing about death was ever covered up for him, and so he was able to teach me that death is not something to keep quiet about, but quite the contrary—it’s a chance to talk, cry, rage, and even laugh about —but mainly, he helped me understand that it’s perfectly natural to feel the emotions associated with losing someone close to you.

Rene comes from a culture where death is not feared, but is considered an important and revered part of life. When someone dies in Rene’s hometown, the prayer vigil lasts for nine days. The corpse, in traditional dress, is laid out at home on the dining room table for everyone to touch and kiss goodbye. This is followed by a funeral procession where mourners walk alongside the pallbearers who carry the casket on their shoulders to the church. The traditional brass band plays somber music as the people cry and wail. Everyone helps out to cook and feed the large crowds that gather, and prayers are said for the dead throughout the night. Tears are shed openly; stories are told about the deceased, and most importantly, emotions are displayed without shame or misgivings.

And it’s not just when someone dies that death is revered. It’s celebrated yearly on “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) with much celebration beginning on November first (All Saints Day).

A cemetery in Mexico on Dia de los Muertos

All over Mexico and Latin America altars are constructed displaying photographs of the deceased, fresh flowers, food and gifts for “La Ofrenda” (the offering). Whimsical skeletons and skulls made of sugar are placed on the altar in order to make death seem humorous and less tragic. People actually go to the cemetery, their arms laden with marigolds and candles to spend the night and pray for their dead family members, encouraging the souls of the dead to visit. It’s a beautiful and moving tradition, but it’s one that I really hadn’t embraced until a great tragedy hit my own family.

The first time Rene suggested that we have an altar in our home was after my brother’s daughter, Gillian died after choking on a hotdog. Gillian was only six years old, and her unexpected death left me inconsolable. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to really experience the grief and despair that comes from the death of a loved one.

Gillian's photo, with one of her dolls beneath her.

Gillian’s death was a sudden, heart-wrenching loss—one that I never imagined I’d be able to face, but I had to. At times, seeing my brother and his wife suffer was unbearable, but having Gillian’s photograph on our altar helped me work through some of the pain and grief that I needed to express. The process of celebrating her on the altar helped me understand that through her death, she gave me a precious gift—the realization that I could let go of my own inflexibility and self-righteous behavior toward my brother, and try to repair our strained relationship. Ultimately, Gillian’s offering was successful—my brother and I are now closer than we’ve ever been.

Death has touched our family many more times since my daughter Isa was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago. The sad truth is that children with cancer sometimes die. When Isa was first admitted into the hospital, we became friends with Erika and Jeff Zamora, whose son Jeffrey was in the room down the hall from us, battling another form of leukemia. Isa and Jeffrey were around the same age and they became playmates. I would often run into Erika at the clinic when both children were receiving treatment at the same time and Jeffrey and Isa would be so happy to see each other.

A clear memory I carry in my mind is a time when our kids spent the afternoon in the same hospital room receiving blood and platelet transfusions. You’d think that with two kids so sick they needed transfusions, this would be a somber affair, but Jeff and Erika brought Mexican food along to share and our room became “party central.” Jeffrey and Isa happily played and watched cartoons while Jeff’s wild sense of humor kept us all in hysterics. Our boisterous laughter soon brought all of the pediatric nurses to our room to join in the fun. It was a joyful afternoon.

Jeffrey died a few months later. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t make it—so many people were praying for his recovery—and I truly believed in my heart that he would live.

After his leukemia relapsed, he had been scheduled to have a bone marrow transplant as soon as the doctors could get him into remission again, but his little heart couldn’t handle the stronger chemo and he went into cardiac arrest. Imprinted like a video clip in my mind, I will never forget walking into the ICU, overflowing with family and friends of the Zamoras, and seeing Erika, unable to conceal the devastation and sorrow in her face as she held Jeffrey’s tiny body in her arms.

A smiling Jeffrey Zamora on our altar

Jeffrey’s sweet smile now looks out at us from our altar, a red toy fire engine placed under his photograph. He joins the other guests: Rene’s parents, my grandparents, my two uncles, and of course, Gillian. My father’s photograph is in the center.

For years now, I’ve carried the burden of resentment in my heart toward my dad and how his struggle with alcoholism affected me as a child. The altar is a chance for me to let those feelings go; a chance to remember and embrace all that was wonderful about my dad—that the reason we live in this beautiful home is largely due to his life’s work.

My daughter, Nora making paper flowers for the altar

Celebrating Dia de los Muertos offers me chance to be appreciative for everything I have and to understand that life sometimes offers bad experiences, and it’s all right to be sad and it’s all right to cry. It’s also all right to remember and laugh about the good times, too. We just have to accept that death is unavoidable and that’s why it’s crucial to take the time to live every moment to the fullest.

Quietly staring at the altar, as I look at the faces of those who are no longer here with us, and although I feel a bit sad, I also feel peaceful. But what I feel most is supremely thankful that I am one of the lucky ones—that Isa is alive and well, and that her photograph is not up there on the altar next to Jeffrey and Gillian.

Through some miracle of the universe, or most likely the loving grace of God, Isa is right here with me and Rene and my other  beautiful children as we gather around the altar to remember our family and friends and to cry and to laugh. Hopefully, our children will continue this tradition with their own families someday.

For now, this is the moment: the table is laid; the celebration begins. We tell our stories and Isa smiles up at Jeffrey and Gillian as the candlelight dances in her eyes.