La Abuela

(“The Grandmother”)

Tuesday 6.8.10

My favorite person so far in my town is Dona María, la abuela or the grandmother of the house. Almost everybody in this town is named María for females or José for males. This is no different for any of the 5 people (excluding me, of course) that live in my house. Grandmother: María, daughter: María, granddaughter: María, dad: José, son: José. The kids go by their middle names, Selena and Danny, which is quite helpful to me when I want to address someone more specific. The abuela speaks mostly K’iche’, but also speaks a fair amount of Spanish although at first it was nearly impossible to understand what she was saying. The people who speak K’iche’ as their first language, which is most people over the age of 25 in my town and many people under, speak with a very distinct Mayan accent when they speak Spanish. They tend to not finish their words; for example, to say “are you going to go to the store?” should be “vas a ir a la tienda?” but often gets shortened to “vas ir tiend?” with an enormous amount of annunciating on the parts of the vowels. This made understanding many people, especially the abuela, very difficult for my first month here but I am quickly becoming accustomed to it. The following paragraphs are various vignettes I have collected during the past few months about my favorite or most touching experiences with the Abuela.

The Abuela spends a lot of time in the home so she has become someone I talk with a lot. It’s still difficult to communicate with her, but the things we can understand from each other are just amazing. She’s a midwife, madrina in Spanish, and has been for 28 years – actually, I’m not sure if she said since she was 28 or for 28 years – either way, it’s quite some time. She still cares for pregnant women in my town and neighboring towns and she’s told me stories about babies being born, ceremonies related to the births, and the process of cleansing oneself after the birth.

She’s also told me some sadder stories. She herself gave birth to 8 children, though only 3 of them survived to grow into adults; the other 5 died mostly due to hunger when they fled to the mountain in the 80s during the war. She also lost her husband 15 years ago tomorrow due to a car accident. The Abuela doesn’t read or write, but she knows the date her husband died and she knows the date today, which is interesting to me. She also lost a grandchild who drown in the fútbol field about two years ago when it flooded considerably during a heavy rain. We walked by that part of the field together a couple weeks ago while she told me the story (for the third time, actually) but this time it was difficult for her to get the words out because of the tears that started coming. It was sad for me to hear this story and not know what to say to comfort her. I’m sure there’s nothing that I could have said, it’s just one of those times you have to be sad for a little.

Our school had a little party for Mother’s Day, the 10th of May. I was responsible for handing out baskets as party favors as the mothers walked in. At that time I had only been here for a little over a month and I was not quite so well know as I am now. Many of the mothers who attended didn’t yet know me nor were accustomed to my gringa accent. Also many of them don’t speak much or any Spanish. I greeted all the mothers with a feliz día de la madre, happy Mother’s Day, and presented them with their basket. Most of them looked very confused and some of them tried to walk off without taking the basket. Running up to me as fast as her little legs and bad hip could take her was the Abuela. She, a little out of breath from sprinting those 10 meters, started explaining to the mothers in K’iche’ what I was doing and why I was trying to give them the basket. They smiled at her, then smiled at me, received their basket and hug, and proceeded into the party. It was really comforting to find out that day that I had somebody really looking out for me.

Sometimes we watch movies together like “Babe” and “Winnie the Pooh” and “Bambie” and a whole host of other kids films. She asks me how to say words in English, so I tell her how to say “sheep”, “pig”, “dog”, and then she repeats them in her horrifically hilarious accent “ship, shup, hahahahah”, “pick, peek, hahahahaha”, “dug, doog, hahahaha”, every time ending with a childish giggle followed by a que bonita la palabra de usted, how beautiful your language is. She then teaches me the same words in K’iche’, and gives me the same incredibly genuine laugh at my equally terrible K’iche’ accent. It’s quite a fun way to pass an evening.

One day last week I was lying on my bed upstairs with my window open when the abuela tapped on my window, really startling me because I scare quite easily, saying “Katy, Katy, we found a little animal, come, get your camera to take your pictures!” I eagerly grabbed my camera and ran downstairs to her gleaming face ready to point out the insect that they found. It’s more that cliché to say “like a child on Christmas morning” but that’s exactly what her face looked like. I assumed it was going to be some sort of beautiful butterfly, or something else injured that it could not fly away and that’s why they found it, but no. I come downstairs to find a 8-10 inch fat insect with two humungous sets of wings and a pair of pinchers (that I later realized could actually do no pinching) three times the length of its head. I, once again, jumped because I was more than a little surprised. The abuela laughed heartily at my reaction and became very active in getting sticks to position the animal in a place where I could better photograph it.

One Sunday a couple weeks ago I went with my family, all six of us, down to the finca to have a picnic. The Abuela had planted her milpa, corn, there so she had also gone down to work. I brought my sketch book because the last picnic we had was a little boring. I went out into the field with the Abuela and started drawing. She was “cleaning” the field, which basically means weeding the little plants that grow around the milpa and removing other brush so that the milpa can get water and grow without any hindrances. I told her I was not very good at drawing but I wanted to practice by drawing some milpa. She, standing in a field of thousands of milpa plants, began to point out to me the buenas milpas, the milpas which were very good to draw. In our immediate vicinity she probably pointed out about 90% of the milpa that she could reach with her machete as buenas milpas, making sure to describe to me in detail just why each one was good. One was very green. One was very healthy. One had torn leaves so it was not good to draw. One was very large. Every time she pointed out a good milpa plant she smiled glowingly, incredibly proud of her work, and even more proud to show it off. One reason I really respect the Abuela is that she always takes time to talk to me. She always takes time to explain things to me that I don’t understand, and if we come across a communication barrier we figure out a way to get over it; she doesn’t just give up like other people.

I’ve got plenty of other stories about the Abuela which I will collect and post at a later time, but I think this is enough anecdotes for one day.

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