Eula died during the rainy season, when the earth is soft and moist and a grave is easy to dig. Esperanza said that the damp weather was hard on the ancianos, and indeed, in those months, many a house in town bore over its gate the black ribbon which in central Mexico signifies a death in the household. Esperanza said that some people just went around looking for new black ribbons so that they could come in and have sweet rolls and rich, dark café de olla and maybe, if it was the last night of the rosary, a shot of something to keep the chill off. After all, the occasion itself was only proof, wasn´t it, that one was never safe from the mal aire.
Protecting the helpless gringo family in her charge from “bad air” was one of Esperanza´s resolutely pursued missions in life. Some of her other callings included planning enormous fiestas for the baptisms, first communions, quinceañeras, and weddings of her numerous children and grandchildren, as well as active participation in various social and religious functions in the barrio. Esperanza lived San Pedrito´s version of a mad social whirl. She was particularly devoted to my own well-being and, although I was nearly twelve when Eula died, still referred to me as la niña. She bundled me into sweaters and scarves on even the mildest of evenings, despite my protests that I would suffocate before I would catch a cold.
My mother, who had never worn anything heavier than a New York Yankees warm-up jacket in her life, never said a word. During all of Esperanza´s ministrations against la gripa, which included foul-tasting teas and leafy poultices, my mother stood by like a first-year medical student watching the chief of surgery in action. My observations that she herself would never undergo these arcane treatments were dismissed with a vague wave of a slender hand. “After all, Melissa,”she would say, “Esperanza has lived her whole life in this climate and she´s using natural remedies which have probably been passed down for generations.” And Esperanza, who did not understand a word of English, would nonetheless assume the smug expression that says I-told-you-so in any language. (Years later, realizing their benefits, I would use some of those same teas when my own children got sick and every time I did, Esperanza would appear in my mind´s eye with a sly, merry wink.)
But on the night that Eula died, torturing me with herbs was not uppermost in her mind. Now we were the ones passing around trays laden with sweet rolls and coffee, and it seemed that half of San Pedrito was in the living room before Eula´s coffin had even been delivered.
Eula was my grandfather´s third wife and at the age of ninety-two, her death could hardly be considered unexpected. My grandfather was only seventy-eight and had met Eula in a nursing home in the States, where the venerable lovebirds had married and possibly even consummated their May-December union. Shortly thereafter, Eula had begun to develop what I now realize must have been Altzheimer´s, wandering at odd intervals day and night and needing special care. This had lowered both my grandfather’s spirits and his finances.
My Aunt Elaine, who had left the States with a Mexican husband years before, made the decision to bring “the whole helpless bunch” down to Mexico where, although no longer with her husband, she had a good position teaching English at the state university. Her widowed sister and “little niece” would accompany Eula and Grandpa on the flight down and settle into a house in San Pedrito, the small town where my aunt lived and from which she made the daily commute to the university. My mother, weepy and morose since my father had died, and used to listening to her older sister all her life anyway, agreed.
I had been a little scared at first, but now, after a few years, I had my friends at school and Esperanza´s various children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews in and out all the time. We lived in a house with a sunny patio and flowering plants in big clay pots and good smells always coming from the kitchen. My mother, with Esperanza´s help, did the marketing and cooking and housework and took care of Grandpa and Eula; my Aunt Elaine went off to the university every day and managed the finances and some nights went out dancing with “novios”. My grandfather was thrilled to be out of “the home” and surrounded by family in a house where he was treated like a king instead of a patient.
Eula seemed to have no idea that she was even in another country. Now she would never leave. A few days earlier she had developed respiratory problems and my aunt had called in a bilingual doctor from the university, just in case anything that anyone said was actually registering, and he had written out a prescription while Esperanza watched skeptically over his shoulder. Now it was nearly nine at night and Eula had died as she dozed and we and several neighbors were drinking coffee and waiting for the coffin.
“Señora Cristina!” Esperanza called from Eula and Grandpa´s room. “What dress do you want me to put on the señora?”
“What did Esperanza say, Melissa?” my mother inquired, head down on the kitchen table, evidently too tired to follow Esperanza´s rapid Spanish. She was surrounded by neighbors murmuring soothingly, while my aunt took a turn at passing the refreshments.
An hour before, the two of them had gone to the funerarios, rung the night bell and selected a coffin. Scarcely a half an hour later, neighbors had begun to arrive. Now the funerarios people were in the living room, setting up the coffin with a large cross at its head and four silver candleholders, one for each corner. One of the neighbors had arrived with long beeswax candles, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, ready to be unwrapped, admired and lit.
There was nothing to discuss regarding “arrangements”; things were moving along on their own just exactly as they had for generations. Esperanza and the neighbors had mobilized; the group of women at the kitchen table was discussing who should lead the first rosary while the men in the living room were moving furniture in order to accommodate the coffin and the crowd that would stay up all night for the velorio. Esperanza´s husband, Don Beto, had gone home to get folding chairs.
My mother looked faint, my Aunt Elaine rather perky and hostess-like with her tray of pan dulce. My grandfather, who had badly sprained his ankle only a week before while getting a lesson in baile tropical out on the patio with Esperanza´s sister, and had been getting around with a cane, was now sitting on the edge of Eula´s bed, his head and hands leaning heavily on the curved handle, sobbing pitifully.
“Mom, please,” I implored. ” She wants to know what to put on Eula. You know. What clothes.”
“No, I don´t know. I have no idea what Eula would have wanted. She hasn´t spoken more than two syllables in the last three years.”
“Well, I know. I know exactly which dress she´d want. She liked that navy blue silk one the best. She liked the way it felt when she touched it. I knew that because of her eyes. I could tell when she was happy because her eyes would change. I could tell lots of things about her that people never even noticed and I want to dress her.”
I could understand the shocked expression on my mother´s face, because I had surprised even myself. I had said what I had before I even knew what was coming out, but suddenly it had become very important to me.
“But Melissa, you´re not even twelve years old!” My mother didn´t seem to know what else to say. Clearly the idea of my wanting to dress a dead person struck her as an aberration.
“Elaine!” she called. “Can you believe this child wants to dress Eula?”
“Well, as long as I don´t have to do it,” came the reply. One of my aunt´s novios had arrived with the first bouquet of many that would fill the room in the next several days and my aunt was getting more hostess-y by the minute.
At that moment, Esperanza entered the kitchen. My mother began to explain my request in her slow, careful Spanish, but if she was looking for an ally she was in the wrong country.
“Melissa is right,” Esperanza said. “She understood the señora better than any of us and she should prepare her. My daughter Maricela will help her. They will make her look beautiful.”
This was my moment: queen of the hop, member of the wedding. I was to play an important role in the events that were unfolding before my family´s rather bewildered eyes. And to be included in the same grown-up category as Maricela! Maricela was five years older than I and had celebrated her quinceañera the summer we arrived in San Pedrito. It had been the first of many social functions in which our family would be included, and the sight of Maricela dancing her first waltz in a big, hoop-skirted dress the same pink color as her five-tiered cake had been impressive. I had looked up to her ever since, trying to copy what I considered to be her sophisticated mannerisms and, to the limited extent permitted by my mother, styles of clothing.
My grandfather was led into the living room, where his eyes lit up at the sight of all the neighbors who had come to pay their respects. I followed Maricela into the bedroom, where Eula was in her bed looking remarkably like she always had while napping. Maricela appraised Eula in a business-like way and proceeded to wad up two small cotton balls, which she pushed delicately into the small, pinched nostrils. She touched Eula´s forehead, lifted the covers to touch her feet and pronounced her calientita, not yet cold and stiff as I´d imagined.
“First, pick out her clothes,” she ordered. “Then we´ll put on the underwear, then the dress and shoes and then we´ll fix her hair. We can put a little bit of my makeup on her.” Maricela seemed so confident.
“Have you ever done this before?” I asked.
“Sure, I helped with my abuelita and also when my cousin Nati´s baby died.” She added importantly, “I can also give injections and put in sueros.” I knew that sueros were intravenous fluids, because one time I had gone to visit a friend from school who was home with a bad stomach infection and had been lying in bed with a needle taped into her arm and a plastic pouch of liquid hanging on a pole next to the bed. I could not imagine trying to get a needle into someone´s vein and silently vowed to exhibit no squeamishness around the accomplished Maricela.
I took a deep breath and reached out to touch Eula´s cheek. It was a bit cool, but not cold and certainly not unpleasant. Something still there and something gone. “Yes,” I said with what I considered to be my newly-acquired sophistication, “She could use a little lipstick.”
A couple of the men lifted Eula into her coffin, where Maricela´s and my handiwork was admired. My grandfather was particularly taken by how “sweet and pretty” she looked. I knew he was proud of me.
The next day, everyone who had been at the house the night before went to the mass and then, following in a long line behind Don Beto´s pick-up truck, which contained the coffin in the back and Grandpa in the front passenger seat, walked to the cemetary. Everyone carried flowers, mostly gladiolas, red and white. I walked next to Maricela, feeling a bit more her equal than I had in the past. My mother and aunt were the only ones carrying umbrellas, which proved to be handy because when we got to the cemetary the skies let loose with a fierce downpour, the kind called an aguacero, where the paved roads flood and the dirt roads turn to mud.
My grandfather, overcome with grief and the pain in his ankle, had to be carried by two of the men to the gravesite, where Don Beto thoughtfully placed one of his folding chairs. Everyone stood in the rain saying another rosary while my mother and my aunt took turns leaning over grandpa with an umbrella and the gravediggers slowly and skillfully lowered Eula´s coffin into the ground with ropes.
As they covered it back over with dirt, someone took out a pack of cigarettes and began passing them around. Everyone, even the oldest ladies who never smoked, took at least one puff, to chase away any bad spirits. Maricela cooly French-inhaled and passed her cigarette to me. Another first! I thought it tasted terrible and passed it to someone else. If my mother noticed, she didn´t mention it then or ever.
Not until the last shovelful of earth was in place did anyone turn to leave, and afterward everyone came to our house to eat hot soup, red rice and one of Esperanza´s guisados, which she had stayed home from the cemetary to cook. That night and for nine consecutive nights neighbors came to pray for Eula´s soul as it made it´s journey, and to eat sweet rolls and drink coffee.
That was in early September. In early November, during the Days of the Dead, Esperanza supervised the ofrenda, an altar set up to commemorate the family members who have died. We set out a picture of Eula, smiling, taken before she started to get sick, and plates of her favorite foods. There was also water to refresh her during her visit back to the family, and incense and marigolds, whose fragrance would lead her to the right home. We all enjoyed setting out special things that we remembered seemed to make her happy during those times when we were permitted a glance into the person behind the illness. Grandpa wasn´t supposed to eat sweets, but everytime he stopped to admire the altar he snatched a few of Eula´s M&Ms and no one told him not to.
To this day, there is a family altar built in our house at the beginning of November. My children are very young, but they understand that we are remembering the people in the pictures. Even when I went back to the States for a few years in a university, I made my own little altar each year. As time went by, more pictures got added, including my grandfather´s.
Grandpa lived for several years after Eula died and when we went to bury him we had a surprise waiting. As the gravediggers dug Grandpa´s spot next to Eula, we were amazed to see that there was another coffin on top of hers, a tiny, homemade box. Anyone´s best guess was that some poor person who had lost a baby and couldn´t afford a plot had paid one of the cemetary workers a few extra pesos to slip it in somewhere. All the neighbors said how wonderful it was that now Eula and my grandfather had their own baby, since they had been too old when they met to have one. And I thought back to the time of burying Eula and realized that Esperanza had never called me niña again..