One thing for sure, our elderly parents don’t forget distant memories. They may not know what they ate this morning, but they can remember vivid details about some occurrence long ago. And although she wasn’t part of the memory, Mom wants something done about it.
I spoke to the residents @CarriageInn for my monthly presentation this past week. Since I had just returned from San Miguel the Allende, I wanted to share the beauties of the small town with my audience. What seemed most important to me was describing the persistence of the native culture.
As part of the lecture I told the story of my Uncle Artie’s funeral in Tlayacapan. I’ve mentioned it before in past blogs, but Mom was particularly struck by the story. “Where was I?” she wanted to know. She had been very fond of her brother-in-law and she felt sure she should have gone if she had known. I told her we hadn’t known where she was at the time, somewhere unreachable. She asked me to tell her the story of the funeral. It was part of her past. Part of her family story.
Tlayacapan is a small town south of Mexico City that today has become a week-end retreat for urbanites. The majority of the people in town, however, are the descendants of the early Nahuatl natives. They retain the customs, the beliefs and even the language of their long-ago ancestors. And they don’t care much for the week-end invaders.
Uncle Artie was an exception. He moved there upon his retirement and began teaching English to the young girls in the area. Surprisingly, their parents accepted his offer, hoping their daughters could better themselves. When the girls wanted to move to the big city, Uncle Artie helped them find safe lodging in convents in Mexico City and jobs at reputable businesses. He became a much-loved member of the community.
He died early one morning sitting in his easy chair reading just as the sun slipped in the big picture window past the purple bougainvilleas. Would that we could all go so peacefully! The young girls who cooked and cleaned for him found him and alerted the village. Then they called his daughters and me.
The parents of the girls he had helped took charge. By the time my cousins, Andrea and Monica, and I arrived, they had already set in motion their ancient burial rituals. These are five hundred-year-old customs that Spanish priests wisely developed to combine both native and Catholic customs in a unified synchretization. It is also why there is scarcely a town in all of Mexico that doesn’t have a Catholic church faithfully attended by the natives.
The women of the town had washed and dressed the body, preparing it much as the ancient Mexica must have done. No cold funeral parlor. The men of the town had pooled their resources to buy an elegant and expensive wooden coffin which was set up in the living room. By the time we arrived from the U.S., the old women of the town had brought the tall white candles from the church and were sitting as mourners chanting in a mixture of Latin and Nahuatl, the ancient language.
The young girls of the town, many of whom had been his students, sat chatting cheerfully, reminiscing about him. They prepared oranges stuffed with cloves and branches of cedar to be given to those in attendance at the funeral to ward off the scent of death.
The next day, the men of the town carried the coffin on their shoulders all the way to the 500- year-old towering stone church. To the amazement of Monica and Andrea and I, the church was packed with townspeople. The priest’s eulogy about the kindness and help Artie had given the people of the town, with no thought of remuneration or return, evidently reflected the heart-felt views of the people who attended.
After the church service, the men carried the coffin across the street to the government offices. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was where the ancient native temple had stood as the town chieftain began a ceremony in Nahuatl more reminiscent of an Aztec ritual. The men of the town waved an incense burner of native copal, and others blew wailing notes on ancient conch shells and beat a slow tattoo on native drums. It was eerie, I can tell you.
At the cemetery, the priest again spoke while the townspeople brought huge bouquets of flowers. Short, squat powerfully-built native workers mixed concrete, hoisting it in big square buckets onto their shoulders and pouring it on top of the grave. They were paid in tequila. Finally, the flowers were set into tin coffee cans and filled the entire top of the grave creating a huge mound of multi-colored flowers.
At the reception afterward, everyone in town brought huge casseroles of food. I was told I was to be the “Madrina del Tequila,” the Godmother of the Tequila. That consisted of my supplying dozens of bottles of tequila so everyone could sip shot glasses of it throughout the afternoon. It was quite a party.
In memory of Uncle Artie, the townspeople have placed a bust of him on a pedestal in the town hall. The bust is a bronze, life-size cast done fifty years ago by my mother’s sister, Carolyn Gorton Fuller. “Has anyone been down to see it?” Mom asked. “Who is making sure it is preserved? We need to go down and check on it,” she insisted.
The memory of that past life is critical to her. She may not remember the present, but the past, her past, and the past stories of her family, must be preserved. Who will do it? How do we preserve them? If they are not written down will they be lost? What is the duty of the present generation to the past?
It is a question for all of us.