A Tale of Two Mothers

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Before I came to Ecuador, I didn’t consider what it would mean to live with
another family. I knew my host family would be important, so I paid more
attention to the descriptions of families than the corresponding
apprenticeships on the site-matching tool. After all, apprenticeships are
part-time; families are full-time.

But I didn’t realize that my host family would be my experience; that they
would guide, frustrate, and love me. Even our Pekingese puppy, Bruce (or
Bruss, according to the dog tag that he doesn’t wear because he doesn’t
have a collar), has inspired affection for and frustration with my family.

Until now, I’d only ever lived with one parent. Her name is Alana
(uh-lane-uh), and she is not a typical mom. So regardless of where I ended
up, I was in for a change.

Back in 2011, we were rear-ended by a 92-year-old who hadn’t been in an
accident since he was 17 and drove a milk truck. We turned into a parking
lot to sort through the details. I was a bit shaken, so Gus walked me over
to the nearby diner. When we pulled back onto the street, showing off our
newly-dented bumper, my mom chimed, “Well, that was fun.”

In September, I was plagued with traveler’s diarrhea. Lots of it. My record
was eight times during one night. As I expected, the doctor said I just
needed to adjust to the bacteria in the food here. Yet my host mom
continued her mission to find out exactly what was making me sick. I had to
beg for vegetables. Paola even called the company that makes the peanut
butter I buy, and they told her it’s not supposed to be eaten like a
spread. (It’s marketed as peanut paste, a condiment that could be used in
sauces, but peanuts are the only ingredient. I was like, I’m pretty sure
that when I eat peanut butter, my body rejoices, I’m home!)

At home, if my mom sees me head for the door with my running clothes on and
phone in hand, she tells me to have a good run. When Paola sees me come
downstairs, my face protected with my sunglasses and Wellesley hat, she
asks, “¿Te vas a trotar?” My ironic self doesn’t always come through in
Spanish, but next time she asks, I want to tell her, no, I’m going to look
at the stars. (The 3-year-old also asks what I’m doing. I ask her, “What do
you think I’m doing?” And she answers “washing clothes” or “playing guitar”
and I’m like, there, you got it.)

Neither my mom nor Paola works. My mom is on disability, and Paola spends
her days cooking and cleaning, two tasks which my mom does her best to
avoid. (Lately, she has been on an Instant Pot veggie chili kick, though,
which makes me proud.) Our kitchen here in Quiroga lacks my mother’s two
favorite appliances: a microwave and a dishwasher. When I come downstairs
on weekday mornings, the kitchen is a disaster from the before-school rush:
bits of bread, soggy Fruit Loops floating in milk, a half-eaten banana. The
mess reminds me of home. But unlike home, it gets cleaned up by lunchtime.

I honestly don’t know what my mom does all day. Researches dead people?
Schleps Grandma to doctor’s appointments? Watches Netflix? Misses me? (Hi,

The older two of my host sisters, who are 12 and 14, were spoon-fed by
their mother until they were 5 and 7. By then, I was eating two meals a day
at school. Debbie the lunch lady, whose slogan was “I’m not your maid, and
I’m not your mother!” would not have come anywhere near my spoon. Here,
though, the school day ends at 12:30 and the girls are home in time for
lunch. Paola could spoon-feed them through high school if she wanted to. I
mean, she still does their hair. My mom hasn’t touched a brush in, like,
fifteen years, since I took things into my own hands.

When I was away at boarding school, I always counted down the days until I
could go home for break. Once I got there and saw the blue couch piled high
with stuff, and the kitchen table hardly visible under piles of stuff, and
counter space eliminated by yet more stuff, I wondered what exactly I’d
been looking forward to.

Likewise, I get frustrated by things that Paola does. Why are you doing
homework for the 12-year-old? Why are you feeding the dog at the table?
When the 3-year-old cries in the morning, why do you let her stay home from
school and watch TV all day?

How weird would it be if a stranger lived with me for a few months and then
started calling me out on my shit?

Yeah. It would make me uncomfortable. And yet I always want to ask why,
because there might be an explanation. Sometimes there is. Sometimes there

The same choque would happen if I joined any random household, be it in
Massachusetts or Imbabura. Families are like little tribes, each with their
own customs and priorities. Here in Quiroga, we serve ourselves seconds
with our own spoons. No one else puts the new roll of toilet paper on the
holder. Carlos blasts music on weekend mornings. In Framingham, we call
blankets “dudas.” We store bread and bananas in the microwave. The light in
my mom’s bedroom hasn’t worked for months.

Like Paola, I always want to know what’s going on. In her shoes, if I saw
me in the kitchen on a Tuesday morning, I would also ask, “You didn’t go to
the bakery?” She has gotten used to my routine, and changes raise
questions. “You ran longer than usual” could be a conversation-starter. Yet
I push back against these inquiries. They’re trivial. But by not offering
information in the first place—“I’m going for a run” or “Maria’s working at
Pandala this week”—I invite questions. My challenge is to start those
conversations myself. If I tell Paola, she doesn’t have to ask, and I won’t
get irrationally frustrated. Everybody wins.

I’ve learned a lot about my own family by living with another. More
specifically, I’ve realized the oddness of my relationship with my mother.
For the most part, we treat each other like equals. We take care of each
other. We listen even when we know how the story ends.

My mom, whose Spanish vocabulary doesn’t stretch far beyond ligamento and
baño, will be here in two weeks. I’m excited to be her guide. On the phone
a couple days ago, she told me she feels like she’s leaving her life in my
hands. I’ll choose where we eat, when we cross the street, what we wear.
It’s my turn to be the mom. I wonder who I’ll be more like.

I’m a Paola. I’m sure.


P.S. I want to share some recent wins: Paola has started taking bread bags
back to the bakery to re-use, and I have bonded with the 3-year-old. Little
kids aren’t my thing, so I didn’t see that coming. But she’s super excited
when I get home, and I love it.