All Mommy Chronicles: I | II | III | IV

She came, she conquered, she threw herself – body and soul – at Costa Rica living, then she left. I’ll get the most obvious problem out of the way first: me. Me ‘n her.

If my mom and I were the same age and not related, we’d be best friends. Along with Gayle, her actual best friend who I also adore. The three of us would tear it up.

But we aren’t the same age, and she is my mommy. A relationship I will probably never understand until years after her death. If then. That’s the heartbreaking part… I look at my children and wonder. I can’t even touch that topic, makes everything blurry.

Mom didn’t really want to live with us. She’s very independent, stubbornly so, if the truth be told. (Since she’s not here reading over my shoulder correcting my English and saying obnoxious stuff like, “don’t put words in my mouth,” I can say what I like.) I invited her because, in her last place of residence, in Kentucky where all my siblings live, she was working herself into an early grave at 77 barely making ends meet.

She was working 40 hours a week on her feet in the kitchen at a Whole Foods for slightly better than minimum wage. She has social security ($600 a month) and, between her children’s contributions, she had another $500, plus we paid car and extraordinary expenses. She has Medicare with the various add-ons for health care and drugs. But life is expensive in the states and that money just didn’t go very far.

SIDEBAR: Life is just as expensive here with the following exceptions.

  • RENT: $950 here for 3500sf as compared to $2,200 for 1700sf in our last Key West house.
  • UTILITIES: Our electric bill is less because we don’t need heat or air-conditioning, but the kwh is exactly the same as Key West.
  • HEALTH CARE: Compared to the U.S., health care here is so cheap, it’s practically free. It’s gone up 50% since we’ve been here, just like eggs and chicken (which costs the same as in the states.) But still cheap.

Otherwise, cost of living is the same: food, gas (which is actually more here). Auto repair guys and the plumber are less than half, but “materials” are at least twice as much.

Living with us, mom didn’t have to work. But she did. Did she ever. She worked with Gail (different Gail) in La Carpio teaching the women there to make bags they could sell to tourists, so they could have a degree of self-sufficiency. You remember La Carpio? The place to which I cannot return because it is so horrifying? Because I am a wimp and unable to face such a harsh reality? My mother went there twice a week, at least, teaching those women to sew.

SIDEBAR: My mother cannot sew. She has never made so much as a hotpad. I inherited that DNA from her. If a button falls off something, I throw it away and buy another one. She taught herself to sew right along with The Ladies.

When Mom wasn’t at La Carpio, she was shopping for material and beads and thread. Then spreading it all out on the ping pong table in the upstairs living room (yeah, two living rooms for our $950), then hovering over that table matching colors, cutting material, sorting beads.

Between Mommy’s beads and Mo’s air-gun pellets, you don’t dare walk barefoot anywhere in the house. One of those things in the right place and you could be crippled for life. Ok, hours. At least a minute. Anyway.

She was hovered over that table every minute she wasn’t sleeping or shopping or at La Carpio.

She was tireless in pursuit of the bag business. And successful. She and Gail took the bags to several gift shops around San José where they sell for 8,000 colones each ($16). This photo was taken at Galeria Namu in downtown San José last week.

I am in awe of my mother for getting this all together. Not only seeing a need and creating a solution out of thin air, but doing it under such conditions. She doesn’t speak Spanish, she doesn’t have a car, she’s old as the hills and not physically fit (although healthy for the most part). And she had to do all this in La Carpio.

La Carpio is enough of a challenge. Add to that working with women who are not that motivated (to put it mildly) and you have a real job on your hands. They loved the attention, they loved Mom – everybody does. They loved the idea, they loved the bags, the material, the beads. They love money. But motivation, that work ethic we ‘mericans are so proud of… it just doesn’t exist here. There’s a disconnect between hard work and money. There’s a disconnect between hard and work. I’m not just talking about ticas: La Carpio is mostly Nicas. I can’t explain it, but that’s how it is.

My mother is an extraordinary human being. I want to be just like her when I grow up. Unfortunately, I’m exactly like her now. Except I don’t have her kindness, her unflagging cheerfulness, her ability to see past the mountain of heartache that makes up La Carpio and charge ahead.

Otherwise, talk about two peas in a pod. Determined. Committed (as in ought to be). Willful. Controlling. Only she’s more. She’s better at it. Hey, she’s been at it longer. This was a grand experiment, but living together is out for us unless we had completely separate living spaces. Otherwise, one of us will not make it out alive. Probably me. Like I said, she’s been at it longer.

There were other factors. She doesn’t speak Spanish. When it came right down to it, she didn’t want to learn because she just didn’t like living in Costa Rica enough. She couldn’t afford a car here without working. She used ours but, you know, the women in my family are car people. I wouldn’t want to be without a car either. And she couldn’t work for pay here, not even part-time.

She found Costa Rica too dirty for her liking. It is dirty. Trash everywhere and absolutely no awareness or regard for the topic. Ecologically, Costa Rica is waaaaaay behind the times.  Add to that the sick and starving dogs and the grinding poverty – not limited to La Carpio by any means.

And she was lonely. She lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for several years. She loved it there and she couldn’t help but compare here to there. San Miguel boasts a large expat community involved in arts, get-togethers… it’s different here. Expats don’t seem to bond here like they do there. I’m all involved in my little family and the band, otherwise I’m at my computer so I’m little company. She is very social, likes to chat, go to the movies…

Oh yeah: movies. Whereas we love movies, my mother lives for movies. By the time a movie gets to the cine [SEE-nay, cinema] here, it’s already available at the video store. We rarely get a first run movie and there are many movies we don’t ever get at all. So.

Mom was here for a year, she gave it a good shot. She is back in the states. With her car which completes her. She went with a loose plan… here’s the tale:

Greetings from the REALLY deep South: Andalusia, Alabama. If you’re asking what I’m doing here… I’m still thinking of an answer. In early August, I left Costa Rica and set off for a 10 day Buddhist retreat, then planned to volunteer with VOA in New Orleans for a couple of months .

If you’ve known me for a while, you know my life doesn’t necessarily go as I plan… sometimes better… sometimes not so better. In this case it began with an attack by fire ants at the retreat; not little burny, itchy fire ants like from Florida, but vicious man-eating fire ants that laid me low. Too ill to meditate, eat or even walk, I left the retreat and began to drag myself towards New Orleans. Actually I drove (notice I’m never to sick to drive.)

As you approach New Orleans you realize there is water everywhere: the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, the Atlantic Ocean. You cross dozens of bridges and causeways one after the other. You get the full sense of how vulnerable this city is.

When I arrived, my first thought was, “What a tragic city.” It is hard to believe that this was, not so long ago, one of the most beautiful and wonderfully decadent cities in the Old South. The huge, gorgeous anti-bellum homes are still standing, three or four stories tall, often taking up an entire block, with carriage houses, guest cottages and servant’s quarters. Centuries old trees rising beside them, flowering trees and shrubs spread across the grounds.

Uniformly they appear to be ghost houses, even though people still live there. They reflect an aura of grandeur long past. Many are for sale, some have been restored. Most stand as sad reminders of what once was.

The intricately laid brick sidewalks are so buckled and broken that to walk them poses all the dangers of a wilderness trek.

Everywhere in the city are reminders of Katrina… whole neighborhoods of abandoned homes, the devastated infrastructure, the ruined houses still inhabited. I’m not talking here of the Ninth Ward, which bore the brunt of the storm and is largely unlivable. This is all over the city except the parts that have been rapidly restored to encourage tourists. A look behind the curtain.

The French Quarter is a fake-it-til-you-make-it-real-again series of bars and souvenir stores jammed with sunburned overweight tourists sporting beads out of season, going from souvenir store to souvenir store. Prices are outrageously high, service non-existent. There is no gaiety, charm or warmth, once the hallmark of New Orleans. There is a strong sense the Quarter is limping along into what hopefully will be a resurrection, surviving on the now tattered reputation of the past.

The newspapers warn daily that the supposed safety of the levees is, in fact, untrue. Study after study reveals New Orleans as vulnerable as ever. The people choose to believe otherwise. They gallantly rebuild among a sea of ruins and for-sale signs. Yet the sour smell of fear and despair in the air cannot be disguised.

The housing for volunteers [for which she was paying $100/week] was a bug-ridden flop house, with no visible sign of volunteers. I had the feeling I had come too late; at this point they only need construction workers. They had to try to find work for me. I stayed a week, roamed the city and talked to people… got a view of New Orleans today.

I felt so sad and sorry I wanted to run… and I did.

To where? It occurred to me I had no money, no home and no job. Pressing needs even for my gypsy lifestyle, I picked a little town in Alabama to get my ducks in a row, as Mom used to say.

Andalusia means: “drunken Indian.” I find that fitting and comfortable. Everyone here calls everyone else Miss Alma Mae or Miss Peggy Sue or Mr. Jack. Is that not sooo southern! I am working at Walmart as a cake decorator (not a very good one, but fun to learn) and we pay homage all the time to Mr. Sam.

The future? My goal is to live alone in a warm climate, have my dogs with me, my friends and family not far away, to keep my good health, have my loved ones safe and become Walmart’s premier cake decorator. I miss those of you I haven’t seen for a while. My “golden” years are just that for me. I am grateful. I love you one and all,

Nancy, Mom, Nana

And I got a recent follow-up note:

All is going well here, Miss Sally. I cannot believe how well run this company is.  In the world of Families, this is surely Big Brother. Each employee must take about 15 computer tests during each two week period about service, sanitary and emergency policies, attitude… you name it, theres a test for it… and they are serious. Yesterday, a follow-up supervisor appeared in our department to test us individually about the five steps that MUST be followed when washing dishes. I’m not a very good cake decorator, but I’m good at tests!

After leaving New Orleans, Mom had disappeared for a couple of weeks. She wouldn’t answer her phone or emails. Turns out, this is when she was settling herself in Andalusia. She picked the town because it had a warm climate and a Super Walmart. She found an apartment, got some furniture and an address… She told me later she was anxious to see if she could get all this done, if she could still take care of herself. She’s the only one who had any doubts!

We talk on the phone all the time and she is in excellent spirits for an old lady living in a town with no cine. I don’t think she will ever ask for help. Ever. I think she’d live in her car first. I think she’s afraid if she asks for help we’ll put her in a home. Actually, as long as we assure her it won’t be my home, she might go for it.

But, for today, she’s good. Better than good. Icing Walmart cakes. Wonder what kind of discount she gets on those cakes?

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