Thursday, September 27, 2018

Adios, Sarita

One sunny morning earlier this month, the phone rang during breakfast. It was Mr. M's brother, calling to tell us that Sara, Mr. M's mom, was suddenly very sick. He said we'd better hop on a plane as soon as we could.

After a long day of logistical scrambling, we set the alarm for 1 am and lay down for a few hours' rest. (Our flight was scheduled to leave very early the next morning.) But just before the alarm went off, the phone rang again. It was the nursing home calling to tell us that Sara had stopped breathing.

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Sara's life was not an easy one. She was born in Puerto Rico, into conditions of dire poverty; abandoned by both parents, she was raised by a succession of relatives. She attended school, but only through the eighth grade; we never learned why she had to stop at that level.

At 16 she married a man eight years her senior; like her, he had been born on the island and raised in poverty. Not long after the wedding, she followed him to the mainland in search of a better life. So short of money were they that she had to sell her wedding dress to help pay the fare.

Once here, she worked hard, helping her husband save money. They were able to buy a home and a small business, to provide their children with material comforts and send them to parochial schools, and, eventually, to retire in comfort themselves. Their marriage, though unhappy, was lasting; Sara outlived her husband by many years.


Sara was a tiny woman, under 5 feet tall, with a wide-flashing smile and a strong accent. Always well-coiffed and carefully dressed, she was someone to whom appearances mattered greatly. Years after we met, I learned that she, having mostly island blood, often felt inferior to her husband's part-Spanish, more Caucasian-looking family. Living as a minority woman in the US of the 1950s, she must have faced formidable cultural and social challenges. I think she spent most of her life here trying to fit in.

Perhaps this is why she was not always easy to be around, and why her character inclined towards discontent. But she also had a sense of humor, and often laughed at herself over her struggles with the English language. She was hospitable, too, and a good cook who greatly enjoyed feeding family and friends.

Like many women of her generation, she was a competent seamstress, sewing her own clothes and home furnishings. By the time I met Mr. M she had a roomful of fabric, patterns, and sewing supplies gathered over many years. When she finally gave up sewing, she generously told me to help myself to anything from her stash.

She was generous in other ways, too. She loved to shop for clothing for her adult children, and to pick up extra groceries as gifts. For years she sent us funny little care packages filled with random assortments of goodies - cookies or granola from Trader Joe's, a few tea bags, a chocolate bar, a packet of guava paste. Sometimes there'd be a package of socks, or a towel and washcloth set. I think, for her, these gifts took the place of the physical and verbal affection she struggled to express. Buying things for people was her way of showing love.


As Sara grew older, dementia set in and steadily worsened. She spent the last several years in a nursing home, gradually losing the ability to speak and respond. The staff there tended her with loving care, speaking Spanish to her and nicknaming her Sarita (which means "little Sara").

Mr. M's brother told us her years there were the happiest ones of her life. Perhaps the dementia played a part in this, but I hope, too, after all she'd been through - poverty, abandonment, instability and change, relentless hard work, lifelong feelings of inadequacy - that at long last her fears and insecurities fell away or were forgotten. If old age and dementia are a kind of second childhood, I am grateful that hers was a good one: speaking and hearing her native tongue, understanding and being understood, nurtured as she never had been in her first childhood, and feeling safe and cared for.

Rest in peace, Sarita.

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