Noe Valley Voice May 2002

A Mother's Day Remembrance:
'Mami, it's Manini'

By Maria Cuevas Chin

I never laughed so hard, I never cried as much as I did that week.

It started out simply enough. My mom had been ill for several years, with complications from osteoporosis and cancer of the spine, and I was due for another of my visits. When I told her of my plans to travel from San Francisco to her home in Deltona, Florida, for Mother's Day, she said, "What a wonderful surprise."

But by the time I saw her a few days later, she was lying in bed at the nursing home, pale and weak. I was told she had been hospitalized briefly, because of breathing problems. She didn't recognize me or respond. She just gazed vacantly at her surroundings, fretted a bit about her covers, and tried to grab at her bed railing. I hugged and kissed her, and stroked her soft white hair.

I said, "Mami, it's Manini. I'm here, I've come to see you!"

She looked at me blankly, with a puzzled frown on her face, as if to say, "Who is this person?" She was like a gentle newborn baby, unaware of the world spinning around her.

I had brought her a gardenia, one of her favorite flowers. I let her smell it, and then I sang one of her favorite songs to her: "Perfume de gardenia tiene tu boca, perfume de gardenia, perfume del amor...." She smiled vaguely at me and mumbled softly in Spanish, lost in her own dream world. As my dad and I said goodbye and left, she glanced in our direction and gave a little baby wave with her fingertips. I planned to spend the whole next day with her.

Later on that evening, the night nurse phoned to tell us that my mother had been admitted to the hospital with another bout of respiratory distress. The doctor at the emergency room spouted a bunch of medical jargon, then informed me that she had improved, was resting quietly, and would be transferred back to the nursing home. I heaved a sigh of relief.

Later that night came the news: Juanita Cuevas Sanchez passed away at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 12, 2001, the day before Mother's Day. She was 72 years old.

My dad was devastated. He had never expected to outlive her. He had done the math: Women live an average of seven years longer than men. He was 11 years older than she; therefore, he would die 18 years before her. The whole focus of his working life had been to provide for her economic comfort after his demise. They would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in just a few months.

But now he had to deal with the cold hard facts.

The night nurse at the nursing home stated firmly that Juanita's body had to be removed to a mortuary within two hours. My father had made no prearrangements. How does one choose a funeral home at 2 a.m.? I thumbed through the Yellow Pages and chose a location close to my dad's home.

The next morning, my father, ever cautious, thrifty, and vigilant, insisted that I "shop around" and get quotes from several funeral homes. I discovered that the mortuary I had chosen based on its proximity hadn't actually been built yet. Its main facility was miles away. When I talked to the director, I found him to be oddly evasive, claiming he couldn't give us prices over the phone and insisting that my father and I come in to see him. My father was in no condition to go anywhere.

The second funeral director I called freely gave advice and information, telling me how he considered his service to be as much his ministry as his business. He was concerned that my mom's body, wherever it was, be kept under proper refrigeration. "Mother Nature is not kind to us after we pass away."

Then came subsequent phone calls from both of the funeral directors, trying to get my business. My father wisely decided to go with the person who was more forthcoming.

After that came the tug of war over the body. The first funeral director claimed to the second funeral director that he didn't have my mother's body, then told me he'd have to charge a $110 transfer fee to take her body to his competitor's funeral home. This sleazeball maneuver confirmed that we'd made the right choice in going with funeral director No. 2.

My brother and sister-in-law arrived from Brooklyn and were a big help. Maryanne had already been through this process with both her parents and steered us through the rest of the maze. Deacon Gilberto of St. Clare's Catholic Church, my mother's church, suggested we meet with him after mass to make arrangements for the funeral service.

Jerry, Maryanne, and I got there 20 minutes late, hoping to sneak into the back of the church unobserved. No luck, the place was chock full, and people turned around to look at us as we slipped in. It was the annual Mother's Day Mass in Spanish, complete with guitars and maracas and a chorus of five beautiful voices. I grieved that my mother's illness had kept her from enjoying this wonderful church service.

I noticed the envelopes in the pocket of the seat in front of me, suggesting offerings in honor of Mother's Day. I decided to give a donation in memory of my mother, filled in her name on the dotted line, and totally broke down at checking the line underneath: ( ) alive (x) deceased.

The next step was the funeral home. Casket and cremation urn, sign-in books, memorial invitations, and thank-you notes were chosen; clothing for the deceased (including underwear) was dropped off; date and time of viewing was scheduled; a limousine for the five elderly aunties was ordered; details I had never imagined were handled.

The viewing at the funeral home was set for Monday, two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. My father refused to go to the funeral home or church -- he wanted to remember his wife as she was when she was alive. Family and friends arrived and signed in. My brother and I paused at the back of the chapel. We held on to each other's arms. I felt like a travesty of a bride and groom walking down the aisle toward the casket on the altar.

I said, "I'm not ready for this." My brother said, "We have to be strong." We reached our goal and cried.

My brother kissed my mom's cold face. I could not bring myself to do the same. I hugged my mother's body. Her arms felt stiff, like some kind of armature. I stroked her white hair, so soft a few days ago, now stiff and sticky with hairspray. I felt numb. Somehow, my mind simply could not take in this reality.

Everyone said she looked beautiful. I thought she looked ghastly. A photo I had placed on her casket, taken when she visited me in Hawaii 20 years ago, held her image the way I wanted it remembered: young, happy, and energetic. The first of numerous rosaries was said in Spanish. I didn't know the words, so I kept silent in my ignorance and grief.

The next day was the memorial mass at St. Clare's. As one of my aunts attempted solemnly and regally to enter the limo, she bumped her head on the roof, which caused her to bite her tongue. Ouch! On the way to the church, the women cheerfully reminisced about their campesino childhoods in the rural mountains of Puerto Rico. They cracked jokes about their age, and about how their husbands all needed Viagra, one of them exclaiming, "My husband needs extra-strength Viagra!"

The service was lovely. The warm sunshine pouring through the stained-glass windows, the smoky incense, and the intonation of ancient prayers provided a calm oasis, as the choir sang again the songs I had heard on Mother's Day.

The rest of the week was spent going through my mother's things. She had jewelry boxes full of costume jewelry and closets full of clothing, some still with tags hanging from them. My aunties and I kept some as remembrances and gave the rest to charity. We found $10, $20, $50, and even $100 bills tucked into various nooks and crannies, in drawers, in pockets of clothes. We found gold chains, pearls, and wedding rings in empty cold cream jars. My brother and I split the loot and saved the best jewelry for Mami's granddaughters.

I broke down and sobbed as I threw away bags full of ancient toiletries, makeup, face creams -- the detritus of years of penny-pinching born of childhood poverty. As I swept it all away, I gashed the fingertips of my left hand on a shard of glass. My fingers bled and bled, and I wondered whether I needed stitches. Finally, I opted for a Band-Aid and a long, slow healing.

Then we found the red satin garter belt. My brother Jerry, ever the clown, posed for pictures with the garter belt on his head and told Mom-and-Pop jokes in his best imitation Puerto Rican accent. We all howled with laughter, tears streaming down our faces. We joked about "Hurricane Jerry" and all the times Mom got mad at his boisterous behavior.

At the end of the week, we all went home and left my father to his lonely grief. He planned to scatter her ashes on the grounds behind their house, so that when the flowers came up in the spring, he would know that Juanita was all around him.

A year later, the scars on my fingertips are barely visible, but the scar on my heart remains. I dream about my mother at night and think about the meaning of her life.

She loved flowers and plants. Her green thumb made everything grow. I have a photo of her in her Florida garden holding a four-foot-long ñame she had just dug up, a big smile on her face. The ñame vines grew and flowered and twined up all the palms and pines and even along the fence and clothesline, creating a tropical rain forest in her garden. Among my memories of a Puerto Rican childhood is the image of my mother crouching at the side of a cliff off a narrow twisting mountain road, digging up wild flowering plants to bring home to her garden in San Juan.

She was a wonderful cook. Her pasteles and arroz con frijoles were legendary. Every Christmas she made a mean coquito from hand-grated coconut milk -- Bacardí optional. She sewed beautiful dresses for her granddaughter, Elena. She made curtains with matching cushions and bedspreads, and decorated bath towels with lace and ribbons. She was the quintessential Puerto Rican Martha Stewart!

She often put the needs of others above her own, and sometimes her feelings were hurt when her sacrifices went unappreciated. She was sweet and loving, kind and generous, but don't cross her: ¡Juanita era brava!

These are the things I learned from my mother's life:

Cultivate a positive attitude. Dwelling on the bad only creates more unhappiness.

Cultivate relationships. Loving family and friends are treasures beyond price.

Cultivate happiness. Grab joy whenever and wherever you find it.

Cultivate simplicity. Let go of unnecessary things.

I love you, Mom. May you rest in peace.

Maria Cuevas Chin has lived at 30th and Dolores streets for 15 years with her husband K.P., son Daniel, 14, and daughter Elena, 10. She provided child care in Noe Valley for 10 years and now works for the San Francisco Unified School District as a secretary.