Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Parting the Skin Sea

Today: a day of contrasts.

Death sometimes takes away the person you'd least expect. Three days ago, one of my husband's aunts (his father's cousin) was hit by a drunk driver gunning his car in reverse. One minute Emma was out buying tamales for her family, and the next minute she was in a coma with massive head injuries and almost every bone in her body broken, while the driver paid off the police and slipped away.

She lasted two days suspended between life and death in the hospital before crossing the threshold yesterday. So today we went to the funeral Mass, and Baby Olivia's cheerful cooing echoed across the church like a promise of new life.


Later, we had to make an appointment, so off we went, navigating the city's twisty streets with the thousand stoplights and slow-moving buses farting out thick clouds of exhaust.

"We're going a different way this time, aren't we?" I asked.

"I just felt like going this way today," said JC.

Then we got to a major intersection where five roads come together in a kind of circular roundabout and my husband groaned.

"This," he said, gesturing at the crowd of 400 almost-naked men clustered on both sides of the road ahead, "is why I wanted to go another way. I knew they'd be somewhere around here, but I thought I was going to avoid them going this way."

It was a protest against a Mexico City politician named Marcelo Ebrard. We are not exactly sure why they were protesting a Mexico City politician in Xalapa, which is five hours away. But protesting they were. In their underwear.

Not boxer shorts, mind you. Speedo-type undies. And each protester had stapled a picture of Marcelo Ebrard's face just over his loins.

Doing the two-step without a smile.
Nothing says contempt like putting someone's picture over your loins and then dancing the meringue semi-nude in the street. The music was playing and the sea of skin was moving in waves. Young and old, fit and barrel-bellied, they were dancing along the sides of the street.

You'd think men would have to be drunk to try a stunt like that, but they were stone cold sober. Even their faces spoke of sobriety. Not a smile to be seen.

Except for on my face, of course...I didn't mean to be disrespectful of their protest of Marcelo Ebrard as "The Oppressor of the People." But... who thought of it?

"Hey guys, I have a great idea!  Let's all go out in our underwear!"

"Yeah, yeah!  Let's staple the SOB's face to our underwear! That'll show 'em!"

They had to be drunk when they came up with that one.

Grumbling all the while, my husband parted the Skin Sea with his Mitsubishi, bringing his wife and infant child safely to shore.


After the doctor's office, we made another stop (going by a different route) at JC's grandmother's house. She is actually Olivia's great-grandmother, and has reached the ripe old age of 95 with few encumbrances save the occasional fall, from which she recovers quickly. She's a trooper.

Lolita is a rarity in Xalapa, with blue eyes and what used to be blonde hair. She was considered a beauty in her time, as was her sister. Her brother was a Supreme Court justice in the nation, and was widely respected for his integrity and honesty. Time strips away all honors, and now she lives in a very simple house crowded with pictures, shuffling about in what looks like a nightgown. With her stoop, she is about four feet tall. Her hearing is nearly gone, but her eyes are alert and interested, and they homed in on The Baby as we walked through the door.

Once a mother, always a mother. Once a grandmother, twice a mother. And once a great-grandmother... ni se diga.

With the sense of ownership that comes from being a grand matriarch, Lolita leaned over and planted a delicate kiss on Olivia's cheek.

And my baby... let out a wail of fear and began sobbing into my chest. I felt so sorry for Lolita, but her indulgent smile said that she understood everything.

So we gave Olivia time to adjust, and in about five minutes she was proudly showing her great-grandmother her prowess at shaking her rattle. In ten minutes, she was smiling and gurgling. Lolita never took her eyes off her.
95 years and (currently) 9 months.

Old people-- very old people-- seem to have a kind of otherworldly simplicity. Maybe living for so long and witnessing so much life and death simplifies your perspective. Or maybe as you grow very old, you acquire the right to be at peace.  Let the young people do the heavy lifting of worrying and protesting half-naked in the street. Now is the time to live in the hand of God, like a passenger ready to board a ship for the western seas, enjoying the scenery until the whistle blows. Or maybe the mind begins to lose its grasp of all the minor details, and only the important things remain.

In any case, by the time we left, Olivia and Lolita were good friends, having bonded over the essential: play.


A strange day, with the tragic and the comic side by side, populating the same streets.

And later that night, our dinner was-- entirely by coincidence-- tamales. 

Rest in peace, Emma.

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