In March, Mama Sofia, my husband’s grandmother, died. She was 97 years old. She was able to recognize and converse right up to the end. She was ill for about a week and stopped eating, insisting she wasn’t hungry anymore.
She had been living in Zamora, Michoacan with her daughter since her husband Tio Felipe died. We didn’t find out that she had passed away until the next day. We gathered the clan and headed out immediately from Moroleon. It was a hot, dusty, uncomfortable 3-hour drive.
When we finally arrived, I was a bit taken back by the house where Mama Sofia had been living. Her house in Cerano was only two rooms, but comfortable. This house was made of cardboard with a corrugated tin roof. I knew that her daughter C. was not so desperately poor that this was the only option available. She had run a successful tortilla business for years. But, when I met her husband, things became a little clearer.
C’s husband received us like a sultan on his bed, hidden in the interior of the house that seemed more like a labyrinth to me. He had the only fan in the house directed at him, never mind the mourners crouched around the rapidly decomposing body of Mama Sofia. His entire contribution to the evening’s events was sipping from his tequila bottle, although to be fair, he did offer everyone a shot in their coffee before retiring.
Things in Michoacan are done a little differently. Beneath the casket, there was a cross made of cal (lime) and two bowls of purple onion in vinegar rather than a dirt cross and sliced squash to draw out the “cancer” (bad humors) from the body. Twenty-four hours after death, there must be a misa (mass) said for the departed soul.
Things in Mexico often take longer than it seems like it should. Therefore, there was a hold-up for the mass scheduling and burial. Instead of taking the body to one of the templos (churches) the priest came to the house. And what a priest!
He was young. I’d say no older than 25 or so. He also was from Cuba and had just been transferred to Zamora. This funeral was his first in the community. Much to my surprise, he transformed from a serious young priest into a scolding fire and brimstone preacher in just minutes. Nothing he said during the course of the evening was in the least bit comforting for the family. He scolded them about not knowing the Lord’s Prayer well enough, about having the body placed in the casket before being blessed, about gossiping in the presence of a dead person, about the lack of confessors, about having no woman to lead the prayers with the rosary, about having a rosary that was blessed by the priest on Viernes Santo (Holy Friday) apparently that’s a no-no, about kids having caps on in the presence of death and on and on.
So since Mama Sofia couldn’t get a mass scheduled at the church at the 24-hour mark, the priest did a full mass right there on the dirt street, in front of the cardboard house that sheltered Mama Sofia’s body. He enlisted an altar boy. C. set up the altar on a folding table and hung a large Christ image from the roof. He enlisted a woman to read some bible passages. He enlisted 2 ladies to pass the collection dishes. And he enlisted me.
Yes, me. Somehow I found myself being blessed by the holy father and transformed through the holy spirit into a Catholic. My son said I had a deer-in-headlights look the entire time. That’s pretty much how I felt. My job was to handle the wafers, dip them into the wine, say “El cuerpo y la sangre de Cristo” and pop them into the open mouths of the recipients. Me. I’m still in shock I think. Somehow, I think this wasn’t quite orthodox.
I managed it though. There were more wafers left at the end, so everybody who took communion, and a few who didn’t (like me) were given a mouthful. Apparently, once the wafers have been blessed it would be a sin to waste them.
The priest had the same idea about the communion wine. After the service, he not only polished off the entire bottle but opened a second one. Then he introduced us to his 9 or 10-year-old son who travels from congregation to congregation with him. Ummm, ok.
While we were sitting around after mass, there was a spectacular bike crash between two of the neighbors behind the boards on buckets pews. While these two guys were arguing over whose fault it was, a man with orange and black pumpkin boxers on and nothing else walked through the drama and back with a container of milk. I swear I didn’t touch the communion wine!
Then, somehow during the prayer session (rezar) the priest handed me the rosary and told me to move forward a bead every time he said Amen. So round and round the rosary went. When I reached the cross thing, I tried to go backward, but I thought that didn’t seem right, so I jumped the cross thing link and continued around. I really think I need to do some more research on funeral protocol just in case I’m pressed into service again.
The burial wasn’t until 12:30 the following day and most of the clan weren’t able to take any more time off from work, so we piled back in the vehicle around 11 pm to head home. We missed the exit ramp off of 15D and added about 40 minutes to our trip. We did arrive finally, to the delight of our hungry animals and collapsed into our beds.
We will miss Mama Sofia. She was an indomitable woman. It was an honor to have known her.