My Turn/Charney: Memories of a different kind of life


Monday, December 11, 2017

I asked Carmine how her family in Puerto Rico was doing. We were making mashed potatoes for Daniel’s birthday dinner. I was peeling. She was cutting. I am the birthday boy’s mother. Carmine is his mother-in-law. We love and are loved by our boy, still called “boy,” now 46.

Carmine’s extended family lives in Cayey, a mountainous area in the central part of the country. Like the rest of Puerto Rico, it was devastated by the two hurricanes that swept the island and delivered torrential rains, fierce winds and subsequent flooding when an up-river dam broke. Initially, there had been no communication, and much worry here at home. Relief finally when contact with family was resumed, including Ivelisse, a beloved niece. By week three, her niece’s situation had improved, water had been restored, they were still without power, but the family was back at work and school. However, many others in Cayey, two sisters-in-law, a brother-in-law, nieces and nephew, were without power or water.

“How do they manage?” I asked. She shrugged, in a gesture not so much of resignation exactly, but familiarity.

“You know,” she said, “I never had an indoor toilet until I married and moved into town.” Carmine grew up on her grandfather’s farm where she lived until moving to Springfield in 1970. “We had a latrine, and when it was full, my grandfather dug a new hole. It was OK. It was what we were used to,” Carmine said, swept up in childhood memories. “When I was 8 years old, it was my job to take our laundry in a wagon to a river.” She stopped in order to retrieve a specific word, and this time asked for help to translate into English a word and world known so well in Spanish. The phrase, “fresh spring,” was found and the scene rendered. She recalled how clothes were washed in a fresh spring and dried in the sun as groups of young girls worked and chatted, gathering sustenance from each other and nearby ripe mango trees. She sighed, but not a sigh of hardship, one of longing, I thought, that seemed to conjure up a picture of a close community, doing what had to be done. Her young life, the eldest daughter, was filled with hardship and chores: a caretaker of younger siblings, a cook, a laundress and yet remembered as a happy childhood full of value and love.

“Did you ever get indoor plumbing? ” I asked. I admit that I have trouble imagining a life without the ease of modern utilities. “We had an outside faucet,” Carmine explained. “We washed ourselves every day in the cold water but it was warm outside, so that was OK, too.” Carmine described other aspects of her childhood: walking a distance each week to fill cans with kerosene for the cook stove or to obtain the charcoal that was used to heat an iron, so that clothes might be ironed often by her. “The children did a lot of work then and maybe some of it was dangerous but we knew how to do such things.” She was smiling, re-imagining the lush bounty of the land and the closeness of family bonds. Now her grandparents are gone, the farm sold to developers, and their backyard papaya and guanabana trees felled by Maria.

We check that we have peeled enough potatoes and put them to boil. Then Carmine added, “I’m sorry for the young people there now. If it were us, we’d manage. We’d know how. It would be tough, but we’d know how. After the birthday dinner, Carmine returned to painting the walls of their new in-law apartment: a yellow kitchen, a sea-blue bathroom, a green wall, the colors of childhood.

Since listening to Carmine’s stories, I have been thinking about what it means to manage. Whether I, and others like me, would be able to because it seems inevitable, given the frequency of extreme weather events and the undeniable impact of climate change that we may all, at some point in the near future, be tested. We, too, may suffer intense disruptions to our lives.

So, is the ability to manage just about preparation — generators, wood stoves, stocks of canned goods, bottled water? Or is it something else as well? Something that requires mental stamina, when we are so used to a flick of the switch?

For now, my thoughts are with Carmine’s beloved family in Cayey and all the people struggling to recover from disaster. I hope as a nation we come to our senses and enact policies that may save the planet. But I also hope, if needed, we will find that like Carmine’s family, we, too, have the resourcefulness and grit, call it heart, to cope in a crisis.

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.