By: Sonia Castillo
Carefully, she massaged Amá’s delicate skin between her fingers with a slight undulation. Her skin resembled that of a pink, baby salamander, transparent enough to see the blue blood in each vein. Vaseline lubricated each circular stroke and made it easy to palm each muscle, even bone. Mom was prudent enough not to dig too deep and create a bruise. A trivial slip of a finger could cause microscopic fissures beneath the skin’s surface that could last for weeks. With each stroke down her feeble body and drawn legs, an overwhelming sense of servitude filled Mom’s heart. Every few moments, she would look up to check for a hint of discomfort. Amá often stared back blankly, but the deep wrinkles around her eyes were an autobiographical road map of fortitude and benevolence. A haze had settled on her canela, cinnamon, irises and had seeped into her mind. Amá regularly was in a trance, in and out of reality, and had returned to infant form. We could feel her despair in those moments. Other nights, we could hear it. Twice a week, mom would pull Amá’s legs down away from her chest to fight the apathy. She howled riotously with pain as each ligament stretched like a weathered rubber band. I would hide in my room and cry. I sometimes still hear her in my sleep.
Midland is quaintly nestled, in the armpit of Texas, the lower portion of the panhandle. Sweltering summers in desert conditions fill the weather calendar each summer in the Permian Basin. Periodically deep, heated winds spin their way through spewing two inches of dirt on every surface and crevice. Children and their families practice ecclesiastical solidarity by attending church as devouts. Famously deemed an oil town in the early 80’s, busts and booms have cycled throughout Midland’s history. My life mirrored these rotations, especially in 1995, my sophomore year in high school. My grandparents moved/busted into our house on Maxwell Drive. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood when we hauled Amá and Apá and their meager belongings across Texas in our steel-gray station wagon. They conspicuously made our corner house a deep-rooted display of Mexican heritage. During siesta, Apá would sit with his ankles gingerly crossed on a weathered bench in the front lawn. He would placidly watch as the hundreds of cars hummed by on the teeming, main road. His creamy, white hair would glisten in the sun as he napped with our family cat, Guero.
Soon, the bedimmed, wood-paneled walls in the living room were transformed into shrines honoring La Virgén, departed family members, and withered memories from the beginning of the century. Glass, candle votives with stain-colored saints, glitzed with a daily benediction in the evenings. At dawn, when the morning dew began to evaporate, they drank stout café con pan tostado. And every evening was spent watching dramatic, latin soap operas called novelas. They sipped velvety atole con galletas, while cursing at the television.
Their presence became ubiquitous and irritating. A cumbersome plastic shower bench frequently impeded my entry to my morning shower. The den smelled like Vicks, mothballs and and a trace stench of urine. And they stealthily colluded in a seditious conspiracy against the life I once knew. At fourteen, family living with family was a difficult concept for me to grasp. So, I kept them a secret. There were no customary teenage sleepovers with scary movies, pillow fights and midnight dancing. I never brought friends inside. As I aged, I regretted my secret and longed for their annoyances.
On Sundays, bubbly beans simmered in an mammoth sized olla, while sad ballads, rancheras, wept from the stereo. Syncopated, slapping dough from hand-to-hand kneading sounded from the kitchen every morning. Amá could grind simple ingredients like flour and corn into a dish that would transport you to her native, indigenous village outside la cuidad León, Guanajuato en México. Tamales, neatly rolled beef enchiladas, and queso stuffed chile rellenos were always proudly served with a heaping side of heritage and pride. Eventually, her cooking slowed and then stopped.
During this time, my mom never left their side. Every day was an homage and gesture of service: bath, food and toilet. I watched as each act of grace was met with applause from Amá. She was proud of my mother’s sacrifice. She was passing on her power as a Mexican matriarch. Mexican women carry a silent sense of pride, ingrained as budding chicas, entwined in our braids at birth. So, family takes care of family, even at the turn of a cycle. Elders are revered as timeless artifacts of your family’s history. The Mexican culture is an immersion of religious-dripping traditions initiated at birth and in a baptism. Anything otherwise is considered blasphemous. The Mayan calendar and the Catholic Church is to be venerated and when appropriate those aging are to be exalted, never nursed.
Congregations of caramel-colored Mexicans celebrate by populating a vicinity for generations. It’s not unheard of to label your neighborhood or barrio by your surname. Witnessing a person’s life is the ultimate, most illustrious honor. There are times when we are the watchers—and others when we are the performers, los bailadores. Towards the end, my grandmother deemed me unrecognizable, but she could, with laser accuracy, recite the Lord’s prayer. A promise, from baptism, she had carried throughout her years. And then, Manuela Escoto cycled through this life on September 20, 1996.
Family takes care of family is eerily whispered by my grandparents in my dreams. At midnight, I sometimes hear the toilet flush and my grandfather’s walker squeak down the hallway. The images of their wilted faces and toothless smiles fill my mind. Now, my father needs me; he’s sick. So, in servitude, I gently caress his gnarled feet and with a firm pressing massage his swollen legs with Vaseline and turmeric oil. Life has cycled and Midland is booming. My meager belongings have made the long trip across Texas where three generations share the water, food and televisión again. This time I am the performer, and it brings me pride and glorious contentment to exist side-by-side with my parents. We’ve now entered a new rotation, much like in the Mayan calendar. There is beauty in age, and it’s located in-between the moments of pain, just past the curve of life.
Sonia Castillo is a writer and Native West Texan living in the panhandle corner of the state in Midland, TX. She writes poetry and creative non-fiction from the perspective of a mother and Hispanic woman enduring life in today’s world. Sonia attended Texas Tech University and has an English degree. with en emphasis on Creative Writing. She has taught literary analysis to high school students across Texas as a public school teacher. Her work has been featured in The Midland Reporter Telegram, Midland College Alumni, and My San Antonio. Additionally, her work has circulated online for Midland Moms Blog, Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, Midland Chamber of Commerce, Midland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Mexican-American Pride, and the American Latino Museum in Austin, TX. She hopes to inspire others to share their craft by listening to their authentic voice that resides within.