I thought about Mamy those cold rainy nights in the rice paddies of Vietnam, those nights when the rain would beat on my helmet and the cold invaded my bones. As a trained Marine, that was a mild test of my physical ability to withstand the elements. Mentally, I wasn’t prepared.
Maria Erlinda or Mamy like we called her was my maternal grandmother, a humble woman who never learned how to read and write. Even after she married my grandfather, Jack Roth, the gringo who swept her off her feet at her mother Lupe’s diner, giving her a life of comfort, exposing her to a culture she could never quite assimilate, she was happy remaining close to her indigenous roots. She never ate in the dining room with the rest of the family. She was content eating her breakfast with her fingers, in the kitchen, with her maid Maria.
Vietnam was brutal. I held on to her words of wisdom and to her incredible story of survival. I ignored my own perils by imagining how she must have felt those nights sleeping out in the jungles of the sierra del Merendon, when she fled with her mother and little sister, Tina, from their village in fear of retaliation for a family dispute in which her father had been murdered in front of her and her siblings. With tears in her eyes, she described their treacherous journey where they slept off the path in the jungle and at night, terrified they could hear the roar of the leopards and monkeys. Sometimes they would come across a farm where Lupe would work in the field or wash clothes in exchange for food for her and her girls and they would sleep outside in the corridor huddled up together to keep warm. At one hacienda, they served them a dark looking meat with a funny taste. She had seen monkey hides drying out in the sun, so she knew it was monkey meat. She said she was so hungry that she didn’t care. They often chewed on grass stems or pebbles from the many streams they crossed to quiet their hunger. It took them several months to finally come down from the mountain to Omoa, which is close to Puerto Cortez, a prosperous port where the Banana Company exported bananas to the United States.
Lupe quickly found work since there where hundreds of workers who needed ironing, laundry and cooking. Things started looking up for Lupe and her daughters. She managed to build a small shack made with coconut leaves and sticks and made a mud stove and started to cook meals for workers. Mamy and her sister served food and washed dishes.
One of Lupe’s first clients was a tall and handsome gringo from Cleveland. His name was Jack Roth and he held an important position in the Banana company. Lupe and the girls had never seen a gringo before. He was an important and respectable person who brought lots of business to Lupe’s place. She bought a special plate, cup, and utensils just for him. What she didn’t know was that Jack had his eyes on Mamy. A petite Maria Erlinda was smitten by the tall gringo. In those days love was simple, so they got together and they raised six kids.
I will never forget my Mamy. I held on to her legacy of strength and will to survive unimaginable tragedy and extreme poverty, which helped me endure the battlefields of Vietnam as well as the bad times I had later in life.