I ask my abuela if she still loves her husband. We are walking along the cobblestoned streets of Cuenca, winding our way around colonial buildings, flower markets and our first personal conversation. I remember thinking how beautiful it was, the affection that lingered in all of our words. She has already asked me why I don’t have a boyfriend, a question I am faced with far too often. Something is different in the way she asks it though, somehow I don’t hear the familiar echoes of demand. She has just told me that she has not seen her husband for 26 years, ever since he left our home-pueblo of Sinincay for New York. Theirs is a marriage woven from a distance, time apart eclipsing memories together by far. I ask my abuela if she still loves her husband. She doesn’t miss a beat. “How could I? I barely know him”.
It is my first week in my new home. I am not yet bouncing around the kitchen, habit guiding my hands to the rice or pots. Somehow, I burn a towel and feel an icy terror compress my heart until Mayra sees it and laughs. I trip over my conjugations and rely more on my hands than my tongue as we talk over boiling peas and sizzling pollo. She tells me about her plans for the next day. Of course, she’ll wake up at 6 to prepare breakfast and take care of Juan Pablo and Justin and Rogelio until they go to school and work. Then, she’ll go to the fields “para sembrar” (to sow and plant). She’ll cut grass for our cuyes, feed all of our livestock and then feed us. I think of all the skills she has mastered, from farming to cooking to creating, and tell her that I think she’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. I don’t think she takes me seriously. In all my creativity, I ask her what her hobbies are. The question seems to be surprisingly difficult to answer and hangs, suspended, in the air. She tells me she doesn’t really have time for hobbies, but sometimes she likes to knit scarves for her family. I think back to this moment on the bus one day, as I see her pull her knitting-sticks (can you tell I know nothing about knitting?) out from her purse and disappear into another world, knitting with ease as I cling on to my seat for dear life. 3 months later, I receive a blue scarf for Christmas and it warms my heart more than my body.
We are sitting at the kitchen table in abuela’s house; my two tías and I. I am oblivious to the fact that the rest of my family is out, preparing to surprise me with a belated birthday cake and I happily let my aunts sweep me away into their conversation. Mi prima Paola has recently discovered the rush that comes with using me as her personal playground, throwing herself onto me and climbing my back like the montañas that grace Cajas (our neighbouring national park). Her ñaño (brother) Marco, the baby of the family, is falling asleep in my arms-but he’s not going down without a fight. Every now and then, he jolts back to semi-consciousness and mumbles something about his papi. I see my tía’s heart take a hit every time this happens, but her voice never wavers as she speaks. She tells us how empty the bed feels without her husband now. She jokes that she needs someone to keep her warm and my other tía chimes in that blankets are easier to find than good men. We find love in tragedy and support in soft laughter. They ask me if I have a boyfriend and I answer that I am never cold under my three alpaca blankets and Mayra’s scarf.
The ecua-women in my life are forces to be reckoned with. Their grit and determination can not be reduced to mere words and no description that my feeble English could ever conjure up would do them justice. Selflessness is not just appreciated, but demanded from them. We so often grab at the chance to glorify the self-sacrificing, altruistic nature of the women in our lives-but do we give them the choice to be anything but? I think of my own mother, who’s act of sacrificing anything and everything for me mimics muscle memory, as natural and obvious as a reflex. I urge you to reflect on what you demand of the women in your life. I challenge you to give them the opportunity to be selfish and open up space for new adjectives. There is no limit to what a woman can be.
my two mamis!
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