Sunday, September 18, 2005

Every Once in a While

You come across a piece from a blog that must be shared. This from Cuban expatriate and proud American blogger, Val Prieto. His site, Babalu Blog is proudly linked on the sidebar. His piece is a re-post of a tribute to his late Aunt Mary:

Bounty Woman

There are many people that have a special place in my life, among them, my Tia Mary, who was instrumental in my education and upbringing, and who was one of the kindest, most beautiful human beings I have ever been blessed to have been part of my life. Today would have been her birthday and as such, I'm reposting a tribute from last year:


I remember the odor the most. Lysol Disinfectant with a little Jean-Nate mixing in with the smell of decay. The apartment I knew from childhood memory would be the same even though I had only been there once and as an adult. That's just the way my Tia Mary was. Although she had moved to this particular apartment years after that last time I had visited her in Clearwater, the furniture was laid out in the exact same way as always. The sofa against the wall on the right, the coffee table centered with the recliner and the TV. Picture frames in the hundreds placed all around, in the same familiar places as the first time I had set foot in that home twenty some odd years before.

I had just flown in from Miami. Taken a cab from Tampa airport to her apartment only to find the doors locked and cordoned off with police tape. The neighbors had no spare keys and the landlord was out of town. The cop that had responded had not finished his reports and was off duty that day. I had to break into her home. It was rather easy, as if it was meant to be.

"We are sorry about your loss," the neighbor told me. "She was a nice lady. It came as a shock to all of us in the building." He paused for a sec, maybe noticing my hesitation to enter or perhaps trying to find the right words for what he was about to say. "She didn't keep her place to tidy, though," he looked down and away. "There's a dumpster out back if you need it."

I was insulted. Just stood there staring at this guy almost in disbelief. This was my Tia Mary, the cleanest and tidiest woman I had ever seen. She would vacuum my head after a haircut. She would not let me sit on the sofa with my street clothes. She would not let me walk in the house with shoes. She would vacuum the apartment three or four times a day. Clean the bathrooms twice a day. She bought Lysol by the case. I used to think she had a cleaning psychosis, how dare this guy say something like that to me about my aunt?

In a way, he was right though. Even though you could not find a speck of dust anywhere in that apartment, and the furniture and knick knacks and picture frames were exactly where they were supposed to be, it was a mess.

The apartment was a sea of plastic bags. The carpet could barely be seen. Green, black, white and beige testimonies to how she had spent the past several months of her life were scattered about. They were waist deep with a little path cut into them to the kitchen and bathroom and bedroom.

My knees went soft. I couldn't breathe. Tears started to fill my bewildered eyes. I dropped to the floor right there, at the entrance to my Tia Mary's apartment and sobbed. I could not believe what was before me. The condition of her apartment was a notion so foreign to me - so foreign to her - that I simply was not able to accept the fact that I was in her home.

Tia Mary's place was my summer camp. Every year they would drive down on a Friday, stay the weekend at my parent's house, do their visits and see the rest of the family and them come Monday I would toss my bag that had been packed for weeks into the trunk of my uncles car and head for Clearwater. Being in Clearwater meant trips to Disney and Cypress Gardens. Entire afternoons at the movie theater watching every single movie I could watch in one day. Sea World, trips to her cousins farm. Horseback riding. Shopping the five and tens.

Yet there I was, a year or so after I had last been there, having driven my uncle's car up for her after his death. A trip in his Cadillac with Tia Mary next to me, despondent, depressed. Quiet. I had tried for the four hour trip to get her to move down to Miami. To be with the family. So she wouldnt have to live such a solitary life. So she would not get ill without someone around. So she would not die alone.

Yet there I was.

The plastic bags were a mystery. Hundreds of mysteries scattered about a small one bedroom apartment. Each one contained questions and answers. One bag would have another bag in it with a hairbrush and a half eaten Snickers bar inside. Another bag would have a used paper towel and a set of keys. Another would have mail from two months back with a postcard, hairpins and an Amoco receipt. There were hundreds of bags with bags inside and more bags inside the bag inside and each bag would have stuff in it. Little stuff. Little daily routine stuff and life's treasured mementos all together. There was no rhyme or reason to what was in each bag.

The life she'd been living was there before me inside Hefty bags.

I've wondered since if she suffered. Not just while she was passing away but each and every time she walked in the door to her apartment. Knowing her it must have been overwhelming to live the way she was living. We will never know exactly what demons or angels were in her mind or what compelled her to save her days in plastic bags.

Maybe she wanted us to live them with her, maybe she saved them like that just for me. Maybe that's the only way she felt she had of having her family near her all the time. By saving her days one moment at a time in one day at a time each in a plastic bag.

Today is Tia Mary's birthday. I am not exactly sure how old she would have been today, but I wish I could call her like I used to and sing Happy Birthday over the phone. I wish it was the beginning of summer again and I were still a little kid with his bag packed looking down the street for my Tia Mary to come and pick me up for summer camp.

I wish I could still smell her Jean-Nate.


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