Helen at our common table, telling about her life, septiembre 2013
This is not a cheery story even when it starts out, so maybe don’t read it. I just saw her about every day so want to note it. (I moved out of the house described yesterday, as planned.)
Helen Hines was the first person to officially meet us here in Oaxaca. Her house shares the courtyard with ours, the whole compound owed by her partner Agustino’s daughter, Cathy. Agostino appeared earlier in these postings, sunning himself outside in a nice hat and a shawl.
Helen at Mercado Sánchez Pascuas, septiembre 2013
She met us when we arrived in early September, gave us keys and a tour of the whole two-room house.
We have gotten small bits out of her, mostly practical information. She informs where to hide the small plastic-wrapped 5-peso coin for the collector when putting out trash, which restaurants she likes (very similar menus at each of a consommé, spaghetti, and one kind of meat or another, with a special fondness for fish, conclude with “and for only 40 pesos!”), and where I might find some special thing I have asked about, though maddeningly she can’t recall street names, and “it’s right past that other place” that I have never heard of either. You know the type.
Helen is apparently quite old, but won’t talk numbers. (She said she once fired a lawyer who disclosed her age to someone.) Also, every conversation starts with a lot of “What? What?” and a moment or two of firing up the hearing aid before proceeding.
Once in September, I asked her over to the table in the shared patio space, and offered a bit of the wine I had opened.
“Why not?” she said. And in that quiet one-on-one I heard a bit of her life. She has been in Mexico, specifically Oaxaca, a long time, more than twenty years, but other versions have put it much longer than that.
She must have been a bit of a seeker — after growing up in New York, there was time in San Francisco, then Guatemala, where she was asked to use her background as a librarian to start a library. There was a marriage, which ended badly, and Helen has a son in New York City. “But that was with another guy,” she said, waving her hand loosely at some dismissed relationship.
At some point, she met? fell in love with? hung on to? Agostino, Mexican, once an accomplished archaeologist in Mexico City. He went to study in the United States, and somehow his career went awry.
So there’s searching, finding, scholarship, romance in the past, now making way for aging, immobility, dementia, deafness and other troubles. Who knows what else. And you can see from the picture that she was beautiful, with fine features and gestures.
They live in the house behind the gate we share and now owned by Agostino’s daughter in New York. Helen tries admirably to be the on-site caretaker, but the daily skills don’t come so easily any more. To use the washing machine, we follow fairly straight-forward instructions, read to us over and over, with the warnings of the bad things that will ensue if we do it wrong. When the water pump to our house suddenly went out, she yelled increasingly loudly to turn off the pump, ignoring William’s yelling back that it was never on. And more like that. Frustration and fear. Shouting at Agostino and his shouting back.
Her joy remains the Oaxaca Lending Library, a part of her life for all these years. Through the original and long-time librarian there, Ruth Gonzalez, came her attachment to this house. Everyone at the OLL has great esteem for Helen, invariably grateful for her volunteer time there and praising her intelligence. Until recent weeks, she has performed her job there organizing all the periodicals.
Sadly, in the short time we have been here, we cannot help but notice a huge decline. Daily trips to market, just around the corner, are harder and she needs help with the small package and with clearing the obstructing stairway that’s always been here.