Doña Carmelina was one of my best friends in the village where I lived in Guatemala from 2003 to 2005.
Tonight I found out that she passed away after talking with a friend. Even though she was only about 60 years old and looked like she was at least 73, she seemed so full of life that age would never suffice to describe her.
I think fondly of the nights when she’d show up at my door with fresh, handmade tortillas wrapped in a dirty towel, ‘Coma su tortilla, Don Ronaldo’ she would implore. And then we would have a chat about the weather and she would stroll back to her house. This is a brief story I wrote up about her back then.
25 August 2005
With a smile like the sun she waits in the fields watching her sheep as another day closes. Carmelina is an old woman with weary eyes ringed by wrinkles from years of happiness in the face of a rather tough life.
She’s only 55 years old, but her eyes and languid gait make her seem decades older. She’s tall and rail thin in contrast to the majority of stocky indigenous women in the area, and her black hair is tied back in two foot-long ponytails with ribbon woven through.
Every day on my way home from work I pass through her family’s backyard. Their home consists of one small adobe building with a terra cotta roof next to another small adobe with a thatch-roof. Black, inky creosote dappled with condensation hangs from the ceiling after years of cooking over an open flame on the dirt floor. Carmelina lives with her husband Pio, two sons, Faustino and Jesus, her daughter-in-law and her two grandchildren.
Each day I pass through her yard and Carmelina ducks out the front door and beckons me with, “Ma’ tzuli!” (You arrived’ in Mam), then she smiles and lets loose with a chest-rattling cough brought on by years of cooking over an open fire indoors.
Carmelina delights in hearing me struggle to speak Mam, the indigenous language, and so every time I pass she asks me questions and I stammer and stutter. Then I ask what she said and she tells me. And then I ask her how to reply and I reply. And the next day I forget how to reply and we do it all over again. But every time I say a single word in Mam her face lights up and she gives a hearty laugh before breaking into her trademark cough.
Carmelina’s family is typical of the poorer families in town. They cultivate 1/2 acre of potatoes a year and own 19 sheep of a dubious lineage. The family survives on less than $50 a month. Each day Carmelina’s husband and son hike over the hill to the forest to look for wood for fuel. Occasionally they slaughter the sheep for food, but usually they hold onto the animals in case of an emergency when they sell them for quick cash.
But there are no complaints of how tough life is. She doesn’t complain about the years she had to work for nearly nothing in coffee plantations when her husband couldn’t work because of a hernia. The hacking cough from cooking over that open fire? It’s okay. God knows and God is good because we’ve all lived to see another day.
And so she smiles while holding her grandaughter’s hand. Carmelina and her granddaughter are always together. Some days they’re in the backyard watching the family’s sheep eat. Other days I return and they are sitting at the top of the hill looking out over Chiabal as the sun sets.
And that’s where I would find her, like most days, waiting in the sun.