This year began differently from others. Ever since my husband and I were married, we wished his mother, Carmen, Happy New Year. But not this year.
We didn’t even get to say Merry Christmas or Feliz Navidad to her, because on the day before Christmas Eve, she died unexpectedly. But there is much to be grateful for, since she went quickly without suffering, just two days after she’d seen The Nutcracker with her daughter, Sandra. Carmen was 85.
As with anyone who has lived a long life, her priceless memories died as well, and hers straddled three countries. She was born and raised in Mexico City, where she still lived with her parents as a young woman. They rented a room to a handsome dental student from Puerto Rico. His name was Francisco “Paquito” Canales. The two fell in love, got married, and moved to Puerto Rico.
While Paquito built up his dental practice, Carmen had her firstborn, a son named Francisco. My Francisco. Two sons and a daughter followed, and soon the household was active and loud. When they were old enough, the children joined a swim team, and their father devoted hours with his stop watch at their swim meets. As a decathlete himself, Paquito loved to see his kids compete.
What the kids didn’t know was that their father had a rare heart condition. When Francisco was twelve, his brothers nine and six, and his baby sister four, Paquito died. Carmen became a widow at age 40, living off her husband’s Social Security payments, since the life insurance company hadn’t liked Paquito’s heart diagnosis.
Life as they all knew it came to a grinding halt. Fortunately, Francisco and his brothers had scholarships to both an excellent Jesuit school and also for their swim team. Both became their second family. In time, Francisco and his brother Fernando would swim in the Olympics, Francisco in Montreal in 1976, while Fernando made three teams, 1976, 1980 (the boycotted Moscow Olympics), and 1984.
Despite the hardships, my mother-in-law made sure her sons were up at 4AM for morning swim practice every day, and she fed them dinner at 8PM after their evening practices. The school and swim team were the village that helped raise her children. When Francisco was admitted to Harvard, she said good-bye to her first born. He landed in Boston, a Spanish-speaking boy whose accent and English errors were teased out of him by his college roommates. Soon he was captain of the Harvard swim team. After ten years as a single mother, Carmen could see her firstborn had done just fine. Not long after, her other children would also graduate from college.
When she was 48, Carmen made one more big move, leaving Puerto Rico and her native Spanish language for Michigan. And that’s where Francisco and his siblings, Fernando, Harry, and Sandra, gathered to remember their Mexican mother who had raised them alone.
We’ll never again hear her sweet Spanish greetings or her accented English saying “Thank you for everything.” My own children will always remember their Mexican Abuela who raised their Puerto Rican father and then immigrated to the States. Hers is a very American story.