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Chapter 10 “La Despedida” “Se murió Doña Chelo,” I heard my mother say when Doña Fina opened the door. “Noooo. ¿Cómo? Ay, Virgen santísima. ¿Y la criatura. . .?” “La salvaron.” “¿Pero cómo, si todo iba bien? Todavía andaba trabajando en el jape. Le faltaba otra semana para aliviarse. ¿Qué pasó? “No sé. Doña Lupe está furiosa. Que la pobre de Chelo estaba hecha garras con tanto embarazo. Lupe culpa a Don Juan—que no le tuvo compasión. Pos, ya sabes. . .hombres brutos.” “¿Y el entierro? “No sé. Están haciendo los arreglos. Vamos. Hay que ayudarle a Doña Lupe con preparar a Chelo para el velorio esta noche antes de que se la lleven a la funeraria. Tráete trapos limpios y alcohol si lo tienes. Ya les pedí sábanas a Zenaida y a Rosario. Diamantina mandó tres botellas de Agua Florida.” That was not the first time I saw death, who was not an infrequent visitor to the camp. Don Macedonio keeled over in the hop yard; Beto, 372 Three Decades of Engendering History Martina’s brother, died from a ruptured appendix soon after they arrived from Texas; Juanita’s baby was stillborn. But it was the first time I saw the preparation of a body. None of the families in camp had a table large enough to lay out Doña Chelo. My mother took me to ask the mayordomo to loan us the table from the cutting shed. It was big and crude, ten feet long with heavy square posts for legs. The top was full of deep cuts—gouged out over the years by women twine cutters. “It’s piled high with twine,” the mayordomo said. “It’s gritty and grimy. You can’t possibly use it to lay her out.” “Dile que nosotros sabemos cómo la limpiamos, y que sí, sí la podemos usar,” my mother instructed me. She sent Don Tomás and my dad to hose the table down, to scrub it, and carry it to Doña Chelo’s. They set it in one of the three rooms of her family’s living quarters, where other hands had placed two big tubs of ice on a raised platform. The men set the table over the ice, which was to serve as refrigeration for Doña Chelo’s body. They brought in two small tables and set one on each side of the twine-cutting table. Doña Lupe walked in from the back room. She unfolded and smoothed two white sheets over the table, turned and nodded to the two men. All three walked into the back room. My mother came in carrying four wash basins, towels, and bottles of alcohol in an asparagus crate. She covered the two little tables with towels, brought boiling water from the tina bubbling on the wood stove and nearly filled each basin. Slowly, she unwrapped several large bars of Ivory soap and set out the other items—the bottles of alcohol and Agua Florida, two boxes of salarete. She looked up and saw I was still in the room and quietly said: “Anda vete pa’ la casa. Vamos a preparar a Doña Chelo y no quiero que te asustes.” “La Despedida” 373 “No me asusto, mamá. Apoco no he visto muertitos. Me quiero quedar contigo. No molesto. Déjame que me quede. . . “ She looked at me for a while and finally said, “Anda, corre con la Luisa y dile que nos faltan toallas, que nos mande las que tenga. . . y otra sábana también.” I ran out the door to la Luisa’s, who lived at the other end of the camp, to get more towels and another sheet. Big Luisa trailed behind me as I ran back with the towels. She wouldn’t hear of my coming back by myself. “Your mother shouldn’t let you see such things,” Luisa said. “What’s the matter with her?” We knocked on the door and walked in to see four women bent over Doña Chelo, laid out on her back, her long black hair cascading over the head of the table. The sound of quiet voices filled the room. My mother turned, set down her wet cloth, and came toward me to take the basket of towels. She looked at me for a long hard minute then told me to sit quietly at the other end of the room; she would call me...


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