Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Knowing the Music, We Did Not Agonize over the Words

Stylized drawing of a maid on a <span class=WPA poster." Image via Wikipedia

Saturday we spent four hours at our cleaning lady's funeral. Since she was from El Salvador, we had assumed she was Catholic, which would have meant a nice hour-fifteen funeral and then on to a solstice party in the hills. But as it turned out, she was a store-front Evangelical, as more and more Central and South Americans are these days.

As my wife caught on almost at once, we were not so much at a funeral but at a church service wrapped around a funeral, some of the attendees loud, joyful and exuberant, others perhaps a little contemptuous, arms folded on chests.

We were somewhere in between. Candida's brother-in-law Ernesto sat next to us to translate -- for, indeed, not a single word of English was part of the service. But we did not really need translation. We come from Fundy backgrounds (and that does NOT mean we are Canadian), so we knew what was being said, as if we had spent our lives lisping in the pure Castilian.

The preacher was a lady, and darn fiery. That's a positive thing, don't you think? Maybe the Evangelical urge among Hispanics has something to do with the Catholic church's disempowerment of women. I'll have to Google on that topic, which you can do as well as I -- and why should I enforce your curiosity on the topic?

There was only one musical interlude, early on, but it was quite beautiful. A woman with a very strong very pretty voice -- pop quality, even -- sang with the audience joining in when they were inclined. Her song (or songs; it could have been a gospel medley) went on for 15 or 20 minutes, with key phrases repeated again and again. Ernesto translated those key phrases when he wasn't singing along. I don't recall what they were, though I thought I would.

Something about heaven, I think. Many references to "our Savior." Not being able to understand, I was reminded of how the beauty of religion can be divorced from the substance of religion. Paganism is growing ever more popular in the U.K. I heard on NPR yesterday. How nice to have vague, and vaguely comforting, ritual that is unmoored from the exigencies of a personal god.

Anyway, the hours at the funeral went by surprisingly quickly. We were the Star Gringos, I guess. Candida had cleaned for us on and off for seven or eight years, starting when E. had her hand troubles and had trouble gripping things. Candida worked very hard, excessively so -- and thus was a true soul sister of E.

Last spring she quit working quite so hard. Areas of the house were suddenly dusty for the first time in .... well, seven or eight years. We thought about maybe saying something. Then her niece called to tell us Candida was in the hospital, recovering from surgery for stomach cancer.

We visited her in the hospital. She said -- we were pretty sure; conversation between us was always well intentioned but not always crystal clear to either party -- that she would be back cleaning for us in six weeks. We did not think that was likely, E. whispering to me that stomach cancer is not a "sexy" cancer, not one that has been much studied with a less than impressive cure rate.

So we kept paying Candida. It was pretty clear she did the heavy lifting (metaphorically) when it came to supporting her family. We kept paying her until she died.

As a white Southerner, little makes me as uncomfortable as hiring what they euphemistically call "domestic help." Back in Durham, when I was in grad school and E. was teaching, we hired a black woman for a while to do some light cleaning and some ironing. But we couldn't take it. The inherited guilt was too much. We started overpaying her, and as a result we couldn't afford her.

I wrote the preceding sentence intending it to be funny, but it's certainly not making me laugh. But back to Candida. We kept paying her not out of guilt or noblesse oblige. It was just that we liked her, and paying her was a way of saying we thought she would get well, and telling her that and also that we were waiting for her.

If I were a religious man, at this point I would say: "But now she is waiting for us." I'm not, so I won't. Feel free to imagine it on your own. Enjoy my music even if you don't agree with my words.

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