Sunday, May 12, 2013

Writing an Obituary on El Día de Las Madres

by Amelia M.L. Montes (

Hoy es Día de Las Madres and mi mamá has asked me to write her obituary.  On Wednesday (May 15th) she will be 90-years-old.  She’s not in hospice, not sick, still walks (with the assistance of a cane, a walker, another person), has excellent memory, continues to make us laugh with her wit and jokes, and she continues to enjoy a bit of brandy—especially while watching telenovelas. 

Every May, mi mama (Emma) y step-dad (José, who will be 96 this month) spend the week with me to celebrate their birthdays and wedding anniversary. Yes, they still travel.  When I book the flight reservation, I check the special request box that says “meet and assist.”  This means that as soon as they get to the airport, they are “met” by airline personnel and placed in wheelchairs, assisted through the check-in process, and wheeled to the plane, off the plane, etc. 

Every year, when they first arrive and we are all sitting in my living room, I ask them what, in particular, they would like to do on this visit.  This week’s request:
“I want you to write our obituaries.” 

Amelia M.L. Montes, Joseph Montes, Emma Montes 
 Since childhood, I have written and translated a lot of formal documents, letters, invitations, and “thank you” notes in English for my mother. It’s what children of immigrants often do.  My mother left Mexico and came to this country in the 1940s when she was in her early 20s.  As a new immigrant, she found work at a Thrifty’s drug store in Los Angeles.  She learned English from her fellow workers and community college English classes, and to this day, is hesitant about her English, at times still insecure about her accent. 
Mi mamá, Emma Montes, before she left Mexico.
A teen-ager in Gomez Palacio, Coahuila

You learn a lot about your mother when you translate things for her:  details about why she, her brother and mother left Mexico; attitudes and cultures that distinctly came from her region in Mexico (Coahuila); descriptions of the places/houses where her family lived in Leon, Guanajuato and Gomez Palacio, Coahuila; you learn about all kinds of family and acquaintance scandals (divorces, familial spats, illness, domestic abuse, difficulties of all kinds, despair, and joy); you learn about her desires for others, for herself.  All these details would take up volumes, not the few requisite paragraphs an obituary outlines.

An obituary is one last “notice,” one last description of facts and “highlights.” On a simplistic level, the obituary explains: “I was born. I died. In between, here are some of the things I did.”  However, in between “the forceps and the stone” (as singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell wrote) is a person’s “authenticity”—the choices my mother made to create her own “essence” and meaning in life after, according to Jean-Paul Sartre, she was thrown into this world.  I have always thought “thrown into this world” an interesting visual. It brings to mind Ben Okri’s Booker Prize winning novel, The Famished Road – the character of Azaro (a kind of spirit child) who refuses to return to the “other” world because he is the witness, the recorder of so many lives. Through Azaro’s eyes, we also witness the choices people make, which, in turn, creates their essence. 

As I’m writing this, I keep thinking, “ai tu”—que intellectual girl you’re being when tu mamá just told you she wants you to write an obituary. Aren’t you sad? 

Pues, hell yes, I’m more than sad.  It’s a continual grieving (shall we call it “pre-grieving”) before she even dies.  I can’t stand this phase in my life which many of my friends and loved ones have either already experienced or are experiencing:  elderly parent caretaking, end-of-life planning, witnessing their quick or slow death, burying them, scattering their ashes, grieving. When my mother dies, my direct connection to Mexico—my umbilical cord from “el norte” to “el sur” will be forever severed.  I have recorded her, filmed her, written down as much about our family tree (el arbol familial) as possible, and still—just yesterday, she told me something I hadn’t known, just a small detail that sent my heart racing, sent me right to my journal to record it. 

My mother reminds me of how I felt during the writing of my dissertation.  At one point while writing the last chapter, I remember looking up, feeling very sad, and saying:  “I will never know everything.”  I will never know every single detail about my mother’s life, about all the many experiences she’s had which have contributed to why she acts a certain way, or believes a certain belief.  The grieving is coming to terms with what we will never know about our mothers, what we didn’t say, what we wished we had said, or what we wished they’d said to us, what we wished they’d have been for us, what we wish we could have been for them. The depth of grieving is so varied. I am trying to be satisfied with what I know, what I have received from her, and letting go of the rest. 

In seventh grade, I was insistent in demanding answers regarding the after-life from my teacher.  My seventh grade teacher was a brilliant philosopher and artist.  Perhaps this is why she was my very first crush.  It was she who gave me Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and, after school, would engage me in lengthy discussions about it, while she’d multi-task, oil painting on large canvasses.  On this day, I kept at her:  “But what happens after?  What really happens?  Don’t give me the heaven story.”  She looked at me very seriously.  “We are all energy.  And when we die, the energy disperses. It’s all around us now.” The strong tenor of her voice saying those words has stayed with me. 

In the meantime—before mi mamá’s energies disperse, I have a task to do for her. Perhaps writing this little post is giving me the strength to fulfill her request:  "Con gusto, mamá. Andale." 

On this “Día de las Madres” I also send you a poem by Pablo Neruda (in the original and translated).  It’s one of my favorite Neruda poems:  “La Mamadre.” 

"Por Las Tardes Le Gusta Bordar" by J. Michael Walker
And I also include in this blog, the wonderful painting by J. Michael Walker, entitled: “Por Las Tardes Le Gusta Bordar.”  It’s a painting that reminds me of my grandmother, Juanita, who loved working with her hands. 

Felíz Dia de Las Madres to you all!

La Mamadre

La mamadre viene por ahí,
con zuecos de madera,
sopló el viento del polo,
se rompieron los tejados,
se cayeron los muros y los puentes,
aulló la noche entera con sus pumas.
Y ahora,
en la mañana de sol helado, llega
mi mamadre Doña
Trinidad Marverde,
dulce como la tímida frescura
del sol en las regions tempestuosas,
menuda y apagándose
para que todos vean el camino.

¡Oh!  Dulce mamadre
--nunca pude
decir madrastra—
mi boca tiembla al definirte
porque apenas
abrí el entendimiento
vi la bondad vestida de pobre trapo oscuro,
la santidad más útil;
la del agua y de la harina,
y esto fuiste: la vida te hizo pan;
y allí te consumimos,
invierno largo a invierno desolado
con las goteras dentro
de la casa
y tu humildad ubicua,
el áspero cereal de la pobreza
como si hubieras ido
un río de diamantes.

¡Ay¡  Mamá, ¿cómo pude
vivir sinrecordarte
cada minuto mío?
No es possible.  Yo llevo
tu Marverde en mi sangre,
El apellido del pan que se repartee,
de aquellas dulces manos
que cortaron del saco de la harina
los calzoncillos de mi infancia,
de la que cocinó, planchó, lavó,
sembró, calmó la fiebre,
y cuando todo estuvo hecho,
y ya podia yo
sostenerme con los pies seguros,
se fue
cumplida, oscura,
al pequeño ataud
donde por primera vez estuvo ociosa
bajo la dura lluvia de Temuco.

--Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)


The more-mother

My more-mother comes by
In her wooden shoes.  Last night
The wind blew from the pole, the roof tiles
broke, and walls and bridges fell.
The pumas of night howled all night long,
And now, in the morning
Of icy sun, she comes,
My more-mother, Doña
Trinidad Marverder,
Soft as the tentative freshness
Of the sun in storm country,
A frail lamp, self-effacing,
Lighting up to show others the way.
Dear more-mother,
I was never able to say stepmother!
At this moment my mouth trembles to define you,
For hardly had I begun to understand
Than I saw goodness in poor dark clothes,
A practical sanctity—
Goodness of water and flour,
That’s what you were.  Life made you into bread,
And there we fed on you,
Long winter to forlorn winter
With raindrops leaking inside the house,
And you, ever present in your humility,
Sifting the bitter grain-seed of poverty
As if you were engaged in
Sharing out a river of diamonds.
Oh, mother, how could I not go on remembering you
In every living minute?
Impossible.  I carry your Marverde in my blood,
Surname of the shared bread,
Of those gentle hands
Which shaped from a flour sack
My childhood clothes,
Of the one who cooked, ironed, washed,
Planted, soothed fevers,
And when everything was done
And I at last was able to stand on my own sure feet,
She went off, fulfilled, dark, off in her small coffin
Where for once she was idle
Under the hard rain of Temuco.

--Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)
Translated by Alastair Reed


Melinda Palacio said...

Beautiful post, Amelia. My family is also from Coahuila.

Belinda Acosta said...

Welcome to the club. Be happy she is able to speak with you. This is an HONOR. Treat it like one.

Deborah A. Miranda said...

Thank you, Amelia, you put so many powerful emotions into beautiful words here.

Barbara Renaud Gonzalez said...

When my mother died, I wrote it. Later, Sandra and I talked about it. Helluva writing exercise, she said.

Barbara, San Antonio

Amelia ML Montes said...

Gracias Melinda. I so look forward to finally getting together in person. So much to talk about! Gracias Belinda--totally an honor! And gracias Deborah and Barbara (so kind!). Yes-- "helluva writing exercise" is right. Abrazos!

Linda Rodriguez said...

Lovely, poignant post, Amelia!

And thank you for the painting. I was not familiar with it. Dazzling!

Unknown said...

For some reason I'm the predesignated obituary writer in my extended family.
Your touching post captured so many feelings I'm going through just thinking about my own soon to be 86 year old mother and writing her obit, especially the 'pre-grieving.' Thank you for sharing your story. PS> my mom's parents are from Silao, Guanajuato-small world.