She Slept Under a Tree: My Foremother's Post Natal Self Care



In the year 2000, my mother gifted me a priceless and unforgettable experience. Through her generosity I was able to spend 4 months in the warm and wise embrace of my grandmother, great grandmother, great aunts and loving extended family.
I arrived in Las Marias, Yuquayquin, the village where I was born, unannounced. My Tio Rudis had picked me up at the airport and taken me to a bus that went from San Salvador to San Miguel. There I had met with relatives of my relatives. I got a ride from San Miguel to Las Marias from a young man named Noe and his dad Don Mario. Once we got to Las Marias, Noe was kind enough to carry my luggage all the way down the clay dirt path and across the river to my grandmother’s house.
When I arrived my grandmother said: “I was expecting you, the fire told me you were coming.” And so began a most cherished summer alongside some of the most powerful and influential women in my life.
Time Management:
I used to spend the week days with my grandmother and the weekends with my great grandmother. The reason for this was my desire to attend my church meetings. The closest congregation was in San Miguel. So I would leave on Friday or Saturday on the bus from Las Marias to San Miguel and I would get off at my great grandmother’s home. I believe one of her children owned it, but she lived in the lovely blue house along the main road that buses from the rural areas drove by to get to the station in San Miguel. My Tio Luis had a cement making business next door and my Tio Beto had a bakery attached to the house. By walking along the path toward the back of the property, I could get to Tio Beto’s house, or I could cut through Tio Luis’s business property to get to my Tia Jesus’ (we called her Tia Chewy) home. Not far from there lived Tia Carmen too. During my stay, I also had a chance to visit Tia Canda who lived in San Salvador at the time. That summer I would be blessed to get to know some of my grandmother Mama Rosa’s siblings a little better.
Days with Mama Mercha:
My great grandmother’s name was Mercedes, but everyone called her Mama Mercha. She was a kind lady with silver hair that she wore in a braid to one side of her head or in a bun at the base of her neck. In the mornings, she would get up and make fried eggs, beans and cheese. She served it with fresh pan frances from Tio Beto’s bakery. At the time her appetite was not the greatest but if I stayed for breakfast she would always join me. So I made a point of staying for breakfast whenever I was in her home. She used to get lots of visitors. It may have been the convenience of her location that travelers needing a small respite before heading along their way to market would stop in. I like to think that they did so as a way of checking on her, for she was very sweet. I would collect mangos from the many mango trees on the property and wash, peel and cut to make mango juice for her and her visitors. She loved mango juice and I think I get that from her.
I would sweep and mop her tile floors and clean her bathroom. I tried to keep things tidy in the kitchen, but she was very specific about how she liked things done, so often I would get shoo’d out of the kitchen. Sometimes, she let me put medicine on her scalp, so she could get relief from the sores she had there. I felt privileged to spend time with her. I loved serving her and keeping her company. When we were together, she talked about her youth, her children and her beloved husband. She still had a suitcase with his clothes and his handkerchief that she kept beside her bed on a chair. 

A Special Example of her Kindness to me:

One day when I came home with a fever from an activity, she came into my room and brought agua florida with her. She put the fluoride water on her wrinkled and worn hands and gently spread it over my forehead. I remember thinking how much love I felt from her and how I would never forget the feel of her hands on my face. For a moment I felt the love of my ancestors come through her hands and infuse itself upon me. It was very surreal, and I knew then that was a moment I would cherish and remember always.
One of her Stories:
I think the story that most got my attention was when she shared one of her birth experiences. I can’t remember which of her children she had just given birth to, but she told of a time in her life when she had given birth and her husband had behaved so badly she had escaped his presence. She said that she could always tell when one of his drinking bouts was going to end up in a beating. On this occasion she had recently delivered a baby in her home with only the help of a midwife. Her husband then decided to invite a buddy over for a drink. As the day progressed, he continued to drink and began to get obnoxious. She had a feeling, things were going to get bad very soon and she was livid that he chose that particular day to get drunk.
She took her older children and walked over to her neighbours, her comadre which means one of her children’s (or all her children’s) godmother’s home. There she left them with the instructions that they should not return home until she came back for them. She explained to her neighbour that her husband Reyes was on the bottle again and that she needed to get the children to safety. She asked her to watch them until she came back for them.
Then she returned home with her newborn and waited to see if her husband would tire of drinking or pass out. Unfortunately, although it was getting late, he continued to drink. When his bottles were running low, he yelled to her that she needed to go and buy him more.
She told me that she calmly held her baby in her arms, walked out of the house as though she was going to obey him, and just kept walking. Knowing that when she didn’t return from the errand he had sent her on, he would come looking for her, she did not go to her neighbour’s house to be with her older children. Instead she went to find a spot by the river where she could hide. She decided to spend the night underneath one of the large trees near the river, so she found a soft part where no roots were sticking out.
She slept under the tree all night with her newborn baby. Amazed at her story and recalling all the scary creatures in Salvadorean folklore, I asked: “Mama Mercha, weren’t you afraid to sleep all by yourself under that tree?” She looked at me and said: “I was so angry at my husband that my anger gave me strength. I did not feel fear, I only felt anger toward him. I had to stay safe and keep my kids safe. There was no way I was going to let him lay a hand on me."
I was in awe of her resilience and her strength in the face of adversity.
What I learned:
The time I spent with my foremothers, was the summer before I met my husband. I learned that if my recently delivered great grandmother could have the fortitude, steadfastness and resourcefulness to protect herself and her children during a critical time in her life, when she would have been the most vulnerable, there was nothing I could not face head on and with courage. The courage of my women ancestors would bless me in my future trials and it would be from them and their stories that I would seek for and receive strength. This was just one of the many growing opportunities that I had as I listened to the experiences of the women who came before me.
I learned that marriage relationships are complex and multi-layered. I did not judge her for staying with a man who would beat her when he got drunk. I don’t know what her thinking was, and I believe that for her era and society, men getting drunk and beating on their families was a common occurrence. That didn’t make it right, but I am grateful that she learned to protect herself and her children. I am grateful that I am descended from a woman so strong that when she was in her weakest moments, with her hormones all going crazy because of the birth of her child, she still had the soundness of mind to get out of a dangerous situation.
Society now understands that no one should have to endure abuse or stay in a relationship where their life and well being or that of their children are threatened. As women we must be watchful that we do not make women (or men) feel guilty for leaving an unhealthy relationship. We must support each other and do our part to help those leaving abusive situations find solid footing on which to restart their lives.
I will forever honor my mother, who made sacrifices so that I could visit my family. How many things did she give up so that I could feel the healing balm of my Saviour through the love of my grandmother and great grandmother. How appropriate that I should hear the stories of these women and understand their strength just months before meeting my eternal companion. I feel like I experienced a rite of passage and I was prepared for accepting and committing to the most important relationship in my life after the one with my Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. So many of their teachings have guided me in the decisions I have made as a mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend. I send my love to the women who came before me and to those who will be descended from me.

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