La familia fuerte
The family of four at the top of the hill
In Finca La Bella a family of four lives in a blue house. Neighbors come and go to watch the sun rise from the front yard. You can watch the sun rise and set from anywhere. The dirt path in the backyard is far more important. It leads to an undying spirit of resilience.
Crouching with a small brown dog, she’s the first person I saw at the homestay. She asks me if I have any pets so I break out one of the only three family related pictures that I have. Her favorite dog, Balu is about 3 months old and was born on her birthday. I can’t tell if she’s being serious or not when she says February 29th. I’m invited inside and set my things down. Laura asks if I know how to play Uno. We take a brief break to eat in which I asked her some questions in English. She was able to answer most. I say that Spanish is pretty hard. The debate ensues.
My opening statement is that the conjugation of verbs is way too confusing. She opens with a compelling argument. The word beach sounds like another word that isn’t so nice. I have no rebuttal.
After dinner we continue the game for me to lose horribly 3 minutes later. She teaches me how to play Monopoly for the first time and I end up beating her. I thought to myself, how noble of a 12-year-old to be so honest even though the game is in her native language and she knows the rules.
Every day I come home she asks if I have homework. The answer is usually yes. However, we have an agreement that I only ever kind of have homework. I notice that she never has homework which is quite odd for someone her age. We constantly ask the age old paternal question “what did you do in school today?”
“Write.” she says
I answer with “Class.”
Unsuccessfully putting two hours into mediocre work tires me so instead we both play Candy Crush. We can’t play Temple Run any more because she beat my high score. The stakes are higher on the last night. The purpose of this game is to see who can go the longest without drinking milk after eating a spicy pepper. I make it two minutes before desperately requesting anything that could put out the fire. She smiles at me while tears run down my face and retrieves milk. I consume half of the glass knowing that she’ll need to drink some too.
With a smile, she rejects my gesture. “No. Todo es para usted”
I first saw her around 8:30 pm the night I arrived to the homestay. She opens the door and takes off her shoes after a long day of work in the UGA kitchen. We greet each other but she does not talk to me very much after initially seeing me. I’m unsure whether she does not like strangers in her house or if she’s just tired. She got up at 5:30 am for work so I assume it’s the latter.
There are other days when she has work later, however she still never speaks much. Adriana is nearing the end of her term at University and is graduating very soon. She’s 23 years old, around the age of my sister Mallory. I’m not sure what’s up with people that age but they all seem to like incense. This was the topic of one of the 5 conversations we have. Palo Santo, a natural incense, is probably better what you find in a store; a trend that I’ve seen quite frequently in San Luis.
We frequently experience moments of silence. Not many questions are asked. I think we are both more accustomed to observing rather than speaking. I notice that she’s artsy. When she’s not at work or sleeping or studying, she’s sitting for 30 minutes at a time drawing something. She keeps her art hidden and I’ve only seen a few of her pieces because Laura showed me while Adriana was away. She likes to pair the colors orange, pink, and yellow. I think it’s her way of seeing something new because the leaves on the trees here don’t change colors. After graduation, Adriana will travel and see something different than the boring lush green forest she knows.
Procrastination. It plagues everyone investing in higher education. This was the topic of the fourth conversation with Adriana. I tell her that I need to write 1000 words for a paper and that I currently have 200. She expresses empathy. Surprising for someone with such a stoic outward appearance. I have this same conversation at home with my sister at least monthly. Our discussion about procrastination is the longest exchange we have. It has been a while since anyone in her household has been able to discuss this phenomenon with her.
Eliza. Pronounced el-ee-suh (make sure you get that right):
She reminds me the most of any of my family members, my mom. When she greeted me at the door for the first time, she was pretty straight forward.
“Hey how are you?”
“This is your room. You can set your bags on this bed”
I wished that I wasn’t the only UGA student that got invited to stay in this house. I am being reminded of why mom was called Scary Cary. After setting my stuff down, she immediately offers me some toast with cream cheese and jelly. Just like my mom made me when I was younger. I tend to keep mental summaries of individuals on file. In that moment, hers changed from: stay on best behavior — to: okay she’s cool.
She encourages me to do my homework as any mother would. I shrug off the suggestion and continue whatever nonsense I’m doing with Laura. I explain that I’ve never been able to do work at home. I usually stay on campus until 1 or 2 in the morning because going home earlier is a death sentence to my GPA. She laughs but still warns Laura to leave me be.
I get up at 7 every morning. She gets up at 5:30 every morning. I usually wake up to the sound of her favorite radio station, 99.1, combined with her singing. I didn’t think they really ate pancakes for breakfast in Costa Rica. On campus, we always have rice and beans for breakfast. I hate beans. I physically can’t keep them down. In the days leading up to the homestay, I tried to practice eating them. I have so much more respect for the contestants on Fear Factor. I don’t think beans are Eliza’s favorite food either. Actually, it’s shrimp. Pancakes are probably her second favorite. She makes them for me three times. The last time, I ask if she can show me how.
The perception that mothers hate using recipes has been confirmed. The typical unit of measurement is “a little bit of” which can range from a spoonful to half of the container. There was a little bit of butter, a larger little bit of flour, and a very small little bit of baking powder. Those ingredients are added to 1 mug full of milk and 3 large spoonfulls of sugar. She lets me cook the first two but offers to cook the rest because she has to remind me every time to flip them. The best part about the maternal hatred of recipes is their confidence. It works out every single time.
“See it’s easy!” she says
I nervously laugh “Right. So easy.”
Eliza does it all. She does all the chores for her family and then some more for her community. She cooks, cleans, cuts the grass, takes Laura to school every day, makes souvenirs to sell to tourists, and then volunteers to house a complete stranger. She runs an entire farm. If there is a leak in the roof, she’s the one to fix it. That goes for anything that isn’t functioning. She always takes care of it.
I never met Eliza’s late husband but he is still here. They were together for over 15 years. She is still very much in love with him. He was a great father, a great husband, a great man. He was never intimidated by Eliza but intrigued. The first time she spoke to me about him was in a discussion about cancer. In his last days, he was tired all the time, unable to be his regular active self.
“It’s tough,” she says.
Here I don’t know if she’s talking about the disease or living without him. I imagine her pain to be like slowly running out of oxygen while his health declined. And now that he’s passed, I think she’s gasping for each breath.
Breathing is easier for her when she can see him. Pictures of him sit on the shelves and hang on the walls. The farm is his family’s tradition. Sometimes Eliza runs off somewhere for long periods of time. I see her walk along the dirt path and disappear into the distance. This is where she goes in the morning. She tells me sometimes she goes to the farm that they still share. She manages the farm all by herself now while Álvaro watches.