Thursday, May 9, 2013
A Mom Like Me
One April afternoon, my husband and I walked from our hotel in Cusco, Peru, to the city's central plaza. After living for ten years at or near sea level, Cusco's 10,000 foot elevation had us sucking wind like we had just one lung between us, and the five minute walk had wiped us out. We sat down to catch our breath on the lip of the fountain shown in the above picture.
It was a beautiful day. Temperatures in the 70s, a light breeze floating over the city, children playing -- heavenly. Provided I had an endless supply of oxygen tanks, I really believe I could live in Cusco.
Not long after we reached the fountain, we were approached by a Peruvian woman of perhaps sixty. She was dressed traditionally, and carried a satchel from which she drew a carved gourd. This one, to be precise:
I thought it was lovely, and thoroughly Peruvian. She claimed to have carved it herself, although I suspected they all said that. Still, I was interested in buying it from her, and asked her the price.
Before we could continue, however, a police officer showed up and chastised her for selling to the tourists. Even my assurances that I didn't mind her being there couldn't sway him; he hustled her across the street. But before she turned to leave, she caught my eye, and I winked at her.
The little Peruvian woman understood the signal; as soon as the policeman was on the other side of the plaza, she returned to the fountain and carefully withdrew the gourd. Quickly, I paid the asking price and dropped the prize into my bag. Nothing to see here, officer.
We began to chat, this stealthy gourd seller and me. I asked if Cusco was her home, and she told me no, she lived another mile up the mountain, in the village we had come to Peru to help. She had lived there all her life -- had been born there. She went on to say that she walked to the city every day with her children, who attended the private Catholic school there. While the kids were in school, she sold gourds to the tourists to earn the money for their tuition.
This woman was immensely proud of her four children. They were the first in her family to attend school, the first to learn to read. I told her that I, too, had four children, that two of them were with me in Peru, and that watching them grow into selfless, delightful teenagers was the joy of my life.
Oh, she said, my children are still small. How do you manage them when they are grown? Sometimes, I said, I think they manage me. We laughed at that. She shared stories of her little family, of the daily walk up and down the muddy Andean mountainside, of the constant challenge involved in keeping their uniforms clean, of arriving at the school and scraping mud off the kids' shoes before sending them to class, and before taking up her bag of gourds and heading to the plaza.
I considered the work our humanitarian group was doing. Just the day before, my 15-year old daughter had helped lay pipe for a water system that would eliminate the need to walk a half mile straight up the mountain to the well, and I hoped that somehow it would make cleaning those school clothes a little easier.
Her children were young; the oldest was ten. I found that odd, considering her seemingly advanced age. She was weathered, her skin ruddy and lined from years of exposure to the sun and wind. Had she really not started her family until she was in her fifties? It seemed unlikely.
So, in my typically bold way, I asked her: "How old are you?"
"Forty-one," she said. Forty-one! My age!
"Ah!" I said. "I'm forty-one!"
She grinned. "No," she said, "you look so young!"
"Not so young as I once was," I said. "Kids make you old." She nodded vigorously. We laughed again.
"I will be forty-two in June," I added.
"I will also be forty-two in June!"
Our eyes widened in that "We're so much alike!" look that women share -- that women crave, thrive on.
"When?" I asked. "When is your birthday?"
"June 29," she said.
This woman whom I had taken to be my mother's age, was in fact twelve days younger than me.
"June 17," I said. "See? We're practically twins!"
Could any women have had more different lives, I wondered. I was born in a modern hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. She arrived two weeks later, in a still-primitive village high in the Peruvian Andes. I could read by the time I was three. I had my first job in a comfortable shopping center near my home. Studied music, graduated from college. Drove a car, travelled, swam in my backyard pool.
And she walked down the mountainside every day, to take her children to school and evade the police while she eked out a meager living selling gourds.
So different. And yet, on that lovely spring morning on the edge of a city fountain, we were just two moms, sharing the joys and struggles of raising kids. We were doing what we had to do, day after day, sometimes at a cost, often without giving it much thought.
Life in the Andes is hard; most villagers don't live much past fifty, and this year, she and I will be forty-nine. I hope she's still alive, that her kids are happy, that she's getting her shot at managing teenagers.
She's a long way away from everything I know. But she's a mother.
Just like me.
Posted by DeNae Handy at 2:47 PM