Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Life

I want to tell you about Beatrice Muniz. Forgive me, though, because my memories of her are not the beginning and certainly not the ending. You see, when I met her she'd already lived a lifetime. She was 82 in 1996.

I could tell you about her house. All told, it maybe stretched to 1000 square feet. It had one bedroom. One bathroom/laundry room. A kitchen and a closet-like room off the kitchen with space enough for one single bed. And one tiny living room/den area that always reminded me of one of those wacky-floored house of mirror carnival rides because the home's foundation and wood flooring was so messed up that you could place marbles in the center of the room and each one would roll to a different corner.

She never lived in that house alone, though. First, she raised 6 kids and loved a husband there. When Mariano passed away unexpectedly at the age of 42, she made do for several years on her own. Since she didn't drive and didn't work and didn't speak much English (and didn't live off welfare), I don't know how she survived. But I know she added two more to the fold during that time. I guess back then there were lots of different terms for kids out of wedlock. Her kids describe these "new additions" (these 60+ year old women, now) as her "love" children. The way I see it, though - all her kids are "love" children. She always had love, even when she had nothing else. 

And then there was Johnny, her second husband. And two more kids, for a total of ten. Her and Johnny had many good, good years; but she outlived him, too. 

But it wasn't just her kids that she raised in that house. When one daughter, Estella, passed away in 1995, she picked up the pieces for those three children, her grandchildren, and raised them under the same roof and in the same rooms that their mother had known. They were never alone, though. Ten kids begat 38 grandkids and I don't believe there was ever a day when a grandchild (and later a great-grandchild, and later, still, a great-great-grandchild) wasn't in that house with her. At some point, and I don't know if this was after all the grandkids were no longer kids, but one of her daughters, and that daughter's husband and their two kids, and that daughter's daughter's two kids, lived with her there. And they lived with her there until this year.
I could tell you about the porch on that house. It was a concrete slab, with three cracked and slanted concrete steps that led to the front door. It's where I'd often find her sitting when I'd stop by to pick up my daughter on the way home from work. Even if it was 100+ degrees outside. If my daughter, or any other great-grandchild, wasn't on her lap, she might be holding her dog, Valentine. I only knew Valentine. I learned this week that she always had pets.

That porch is where I taught my daughter how to properly hold a Roman candle. Even though we were illegally shooting them within the city limits, we weren't alone. The entire neighborhood was shooting them off. Puro West Side, baby.

If she wasn't sitting on that porch, she was working in the yard. Tending something she'd planted, helping it to bloom. Or plucking weeds by hand, one by one, until she'd gone over every inch. Sometimes she'd start over at the beginning just to be sure.

And if she wasn't in the yard, she was in the kitchen. Cooking in it or cleaning it spotless.

I could tell you about the New Year's Eve parties I experienced in that house. Every room filled to the brim with coats and kids and people and music. And the tequila toasts and the homemade ceviche. While I don't have detailed memories of those nights, what I couldn't remember would always be retold to me the next day. Because New Year's Day was when we'd return for the best hangover remedy I've ever known: her menudo and those toasted, buttery bolios.

I could tell you about how amazed I was to see her, on her 90th birthday, drinking Budweiser straight from the can. How she cooked. How she loved Mariachi music and introduced me to Vincente Fernandez. How she lived. How she loved.

I wasn't hers, but she treated me as though I was, "Come see me, mija" and "Te amo." 

Today, for the first time in at least 70 years, that house is empty. All of her kids have their own places now. All of her grandkids have families/lives of their own. This Christmas, there will be no Valentine nipping at cousins and children and family members over the din of a celebratory toast. And there will be none of her New Year's menudo.

But, because of her, there will be family and laughter....celebration and music. And for years beyond my ability to comprehend, much living. And so very much love.

And that's exactly how she'd want it.


  1. That is a wonderful tribute. I am glad I clicked over from Twitter to read it. My condolences on the loss of your friend.

  2. What an absolutely stunningly beautiful every way. And what a touching remembrance.

  3. I grew up with strong Latina women like this, she sounds wonderful. My friend's tia's and with them...learning how to make tamales and lingua...and seeing how they loved their families...walking into their homes and the wonderful smells that always greeted me...

    My grandmother was the "white" version of her, from what you described...Worked hard (manual labor), always had room in her tiny home to move some homeless or sick relative in until they could get on their feet....

    Good memories from reading your tribute...thanks for the good tears this morning.


  4. Guys - I really appreciate all of you reading and commenting. Means a lot. We all have people in our lives who mean so much to us, don't we?

    Thanks again - sincerely.


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