When I was very young, maybe three or four, and playing with the bigger kids in a neighbor’s pool one hot New Jersey summer afternoon, the plastic tube around my waist that kept me afloat in the deep end flipped over in all the ruckus, and I couldn’t right myself no matter how I tried. I remember thinking, for one brief moment: That’s it, I’m done for.
Fortunately for me, my big brother, who was charged with my care, was one of those big kids, and he came to my rescue before I swallowed too much water. Did he save me out of love? Or out of fear that our father would have killed him if I’d drowned? I’ll never know. All I know is that throughout my life, whenever I’ve needed real help in a moment of need, someone has shown up, just in time.
Take, for instance, these past two weeks, as I’ve been preparing to move from my “penthouse” in el centro into a new studio apartment only about a mile away, here in San Miguel de Allende. (See last week’s post, “Another Lily Pad,” for the backstory.) It’s not that I felt I was literally drowning. It’s just that with all the stress and sleep deprivation (thinking, planning, thinking, planning through the long nights), I was losing my equilibrium.
Then along came Carmen, as if dropped from the sky.
Carmen had been recently hired to do housekeeping and garden chores at the apartment complex I was packing to leave. Except for one other, reclusive, person, all the other residents had already left. So it was essentially just Carmen and me.
She brought me much-needed supplies of cardboard boxes. I gave her things I didn’t need: a down jacket that never fit me right but fits her perfectly, dry goods and canned goods that would be too much for me to carry, some ceramics I would have no place for at the new place, and much more. She baked a little cake for me for Mother’s Day (el dia de las madres) to thank me. And this went on for days – I would give her something of mine, and she would thank me with a big smile, kind words, and a cutting from her garden to plant when I got to my new departamento.
We talked to each other in Spanish. For the first time in the more than four years I’ve been here, I was having real back-and-forth conversations with a Mexican person! Carmen spoke to me slowly enough so that I was able to grasp most of what she was saying; and when I groped for words (and filled in the blanks with hand gestures), she somehow seemed to understand me.
Little by little we learned more about each other. I showed her framed photos of my family, and she showed me hers on her phone. She has two tall-and-handsome sons, in their early twenties, who are both restaurant workers but who have been out of work for the past two months due to the coronavirus shut-downs. She is the sole breadwinner now. She works as a diligent and capable housekeeper all day six days a week and bakes fancy cakes to order in her free time.
The morning of my move – this past Friday – Carmen helped me carry my boxes and bins down the stairs, across the courtyard, and up other stairs to the parking lot, where a friend would arrive at ten with his small truck. Carmen is only about 5 feet tall and weighs not much more than 100 pounds, but she carried boxes on her shoulder that were much too heavy for me to lift. She made it look easy.
“ Mexicanos son muy, muy fuertes! (Mexicans are very, very strong!),” I said.
She told me: We have to be.
As Carmen and I waited for my friend, who was late arriving with his truck, we talked about men. I learned that her husband left for the States twenty-four years ago, when she was pregnant with their second child, and he never returned. She has raised her sons on her own. I told her I’ve been divorced from my daughter’s father for fifty-four years. Carmen and I agreed that we actually prefer to be sola because we’re freer to make our own decisions.
The truck finally arrived, and my friend took this photo of Carmen and me, breaking the social-distancing rules:
Carmen promised she would visit me at my new departamento soon, and I promised her I’d plant all of her cuttings in the rooftop garden here. I can’t wait to show her how beautiful it is and to tell her again how much I appreciate her being there for me in my time of need.