Several years ago I spent a summer working in a crowded office in Delhi, India. Outside of the city’s rich enclaves, the electric system was overtaxed and unpredictable, and intermittently throughout the day our building would go dark. As our air-conditioning unit came grinding to a halt, my Indian co-workers would stop whatever they were doing and sink to the floor, surrendering to the awesome heat that rapidly engulfed the office. When power was restored — sometimes minutes, sometimes hours later — they’d slowly rise to their feet, rubbing their eyes.
Last year, recovering at home from my second child’s birth in the middle of a sultry North Carolina summer, I was reminded of that summer in India: the hot, thick days blurred together, and my daily activities were constantly interrupted by my son’s insatiable hunger. When he needed to nurse, I collapsed into the nearest comfortable place, surrendering to his demands. Minutes or hours later, I peeled him off me and tried in vain to remember what I had been doing. One day I looked at the calendar and realized almost two months had gone by. I panicked. Where had my maternity leave gone?
The preschool that my three-year-old daughter attended didn’t take infants, so I began a frantic search for child care. The thought of leaving my newborn with a stranger tormented me, and an undertow of dread and paranoia prevented me from making objective assessments. At the first center I visited, a table of two-year-olds stared vacantly at one another, food dribbling down their chins. At the next, children lay curled on thin mats on the floor, looking as pink and vulnerable as featherless baby birds who had fallen from their nests.
When I heard about a brand-new, state-of-the-art day care that had only a few slots left, I insisted my husband take time off work to look at it with me. Approaching the office, we could see the children in their classrooms through a soundproof glass door. The school’s director verified our appointment before pressing a button beneath her desk to let us in. As we toured the sparkling facility, she told us about building security, cleanliness, and child development. She explained that the teachers used digital cameras and frequently posted photos of the day’s events for parents to see. While the director gushed on, a child stood behind her, peeling off his clothes layer by layer. Nobody noticed.
With only two weeks of maternity leave left, I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. She offered me the name of a Colombian woman who had cared for her son for two years. “She might not be a good fit for some people,” she said vaguely as she pressed a torn piece of paper with a phone number into my hand. She also warned me that the woman didn’t speak English. I barely speak Spanish, but, thankful for the recommendation, I decided to call Señora Maria anyway. My husband and I arranged to visit her on the weekend, when her grandchildren would be home to translate.
Her daughters greeted us at the door and invited us to sit down on the couch. The grandchildren chatted and joked in whispers around the kitchen table until Maria swayed into the room, tugging the hem of her shirt into place over her ample frame. She nodded a greeting to my husband and me, and then her gaze landed on the baby in my lap. Her hands came together in a loud clap that silenced our polite chatter, and she began to chant to my son in rhyming Spanish. He froze, his eyes widening to the size of quarters as she swept him from my arms. She handled him the way a baker handles bread dough: patting him, pinching him, tossing him from one hand to the other. She made faces at him, then threw her head back and laughed, her belly rolling beneath him like a stormy sea. My son’s face broke into a broad smile.
It’s funny: after weeks of calling references, reading lunch-menu options, and quizzing day-care staff about child-development theories and hygiene practices, I trusted this woman from the moment I saw her with my son. It may seem irresponsible, but without knowing what she would feed him or how they would spend their days together, I knew I could leave my baby with her. My faith in her had everything to do with instinct and almost nothing to do with fact.
My husband felt the same way. Though he could not speak a word of Spanish, he was assured by Maria’s sparkling eyes, her contagious laugh, the weight of her hand in his. She reminded him of his relatives in Libya, he said. I knew exactly what he meant. When we’d stepped off the plane in Tripoli the previous year, his brother had gathered my daughter from me before even introducing himself. “Ma sha’ Allah,” he cried over and over, praising God and kissing her plump cheeks. Family, friends, and even strangers on the street delighted in our children, hugging them, kissing them, squeezing them, and loudly thanking God for them. Never once did someone ask permission before picking them up or feeding them or whisking them off into another room.
If in the Middle East children are a public treasure to be shared, in the United States they are a private responsibility requiring professional care. Look up “child-care services” in the Yellow Pages and you’ll find innumerable businesses with names like A Bundle of Joy Day Care and Unlimited Love Nannies promising affordable rates and secure learning environments. My daughter’s years in day care had taught me that many preschool teachers are indeed well educated and highly committed to the work they do. But no amount of education or commitment could produce what Maria’s eyes told me she would give my son: her heart. She called herself “Abuelita,” or “Little Grandmother,” and it was true: the moment I entrusted her with my son, she became family.
On her first day of work, Maria welcomed me at the door, taking my baby and handing me a cup of coffee. I sat next to her on the couch and looked morosely at my son on her lap. I had been dreading this day for three months: I was afraid to leave him and go back to work, but also afraid to stay home and quit my job. The newspaper headlines about the war that morning had contributed to my uneasy mood. When Maria asked me how I was, I replied, “Yo tengo miedo.” (I am afraid.)
She listened to me closely, and when, frustrated by my limited Spanish, I repeated the phrase, she interrupted: “No. Cancela el miedo.” (Cancel the fear.) She wagged her finger, as if erasing my fear were as simple as wiping dust from a window. Pray to Jesus for what you need, she told me. Have faith in God.
Her sudden talk of religion caught me off guard, and I had no response. That night, as I sat nursing my baby in the dark while my husband and daughter slept, it occurred to me that Maria was the only openly religious person in my life. My mom had been a good Catholic until, as a teenager, she’d found herself pregnant with my older sister. Nowhere in her church or her Catholic community could she find Jesus’ benevolent love now that she needed it; instead she nearly suffocated under the weight of the judgment heaped upon her. She fled from New York to California, trading her religion for a vast ocean and warm sand under her baby’s bare feet.
Growing up, I never heard the name of Jesus spoken in our house except in bursts of anger. My childhood understanding of organized religion was similar to my understanding of sex: I didn’t know exactly what went on behind closed doors, but I understood that I should know better than to engage in such behavior.
An adolescent rebellious streak, coupled with an outbreak of piety, led me to attend Catholic church for a while; I rode the bus to church on Sundays and dated boys who quoted the Bible in casual conversation — a far more effective rebellion against hippie parents than having sex or doing drugs.
In college I traded religion, with its oppressive rules and hierarchy, for “spirituality,” which slid off my tongue and sounded sensual and intellectual at the same time. While religion demanded solitude and repetitive rituals, spirituality offered exploration and animated conversations. Like a New Age seeker with attention-deficit disorder, I hopped enthusiastically from Buddhism to Sufism to Taoism to self-help. An essay on “The Tao of Surfing” earned me an A in a comparative-religion course. Driving a rented Jeep in the Himalayas, my boyfriend and I picked up a Tibetan Buddhist monk who was hitchhiking on a dirt road; squeezed between the two of them on the front seat, I swear I felt my heart open as Abba played on the stereo. I spent a weekend at a retreat center in California, where people lounged naked in hot tubs discussing God while their private parts bobbed like fleshy buoys on the surface of the water. I’d joined a Buddhist book club, though I was too busy and distracted to complete the assigned readings and hid my negligence behind vague comments about impermanence and nothingness.
So far, my so-called spiritual journey had proven more entertaining than enlightening. When I tried to convert my adventures into the hard currency of faith, I came up empty-handed. None of my experiences had enabled me to look someone in the eye, as Maria did, and say with conviction that God was present in my life. In fact, I hardly ever mentioned God at all. I spoke the words “Jesus Christ” self-consciously, as if they were a foreign phrase I didn’t quite know how to pronounce. Maria referred to Christ daily and with easy familiarity, expressing her impatience with and love for him as if he were just another lively presence in her crowded home.
Maria lived in a large apartment complex and never locked her door. When I arrived one morning and found no one home, I waited on her doorstep with my son. Twenty minutes later she returned from having coffee with a neighbor and scolded me for keeping my baby out in the cold rather than making myself comfortable inside. I had my morning routine calculated down to the last minute and often arrived at her house with only a few moments to spare. But she handed me a tall glass of colada anyway and insisted that I sit and talk. Life in Colombia was better, she said, because people had more time for each other. Distracted by the drink’s sweet, creamy taste, I forgot my frustration. (I don’t know her recipe for colada, but here’s my best guess: Heat one cup of cream. Stir in a half cup of sugar. Serve.)
After trying in vain to get Maria to accommodate my tight schedule, I learned to allow for half an hour with her each morning. She bounced my son on her lap and told me in detail about her physical ailments while I thumbed frantically through my Spanish-English dictionary looking up the words for arthritis, cardiologist, prescriptions. She got out her calendar and pointed to her doctor’s appointments, asking me which days I could drive her to the hospital. She gave me unsolicited advice about parenting, rolling her eyes in dismay when she heard my son was still sleeping in my bed. “That needs to stop,” she told me sternly, making the motion of a knife slicing across her throat with her index finger. She asked me offhandedly if I ever gave my son coffee and seemed amused by my shocked expression. When she was growing up in the Colombian countryside, she said, her mother would line up all the children at the table on cold mornings and serve them steaming cups of cafecito, into which they dipped their morning pastry. She insisted there was no harm in this.
I was able to convince her to keep my son away from coffee, but not sweets. No matter how many times I asked her not to, she continued to feed him warm bottles of colada. When I tried to communicate my concern about the dangers of white sugar, she squeezed my hand and called me “mija” (my daughter), dismissing my alarm as the product of an overactive imagination and pressing sweet buñuelos wrapped in napkins into my hand as I rushed out the door.
Maria peppered me with rapid-fire Spanish, undeterred by the fact that I didn’t speak the language. I’d imagined us meeting halfway — she’d learn some English; I’d learn some Spanish — but from the first day, she made it clear that I was her student, and that her teaching style was full immersion. I borrowed my neighbor’s dog-eared Spanish textbook from the early eighties. On the cover, Latinos with handlebar mustaches and bell-bottoms congregated on the lawn of a college campus under the title ¿Como Se Dice? After my children went to sleep, I pored over its dated lessons:
Pablo and Raul sat in a cafe watching the women walk by.
“Do you think that girl’s pretty?” Raul asked.
“No, I think she’s ugly. I prefer blondes,” Pablo replied. “Say, are you going to Magdalena’s party on Friday?”
“No, her parties are always a complete failure. I plan to go to Irena’s party instead, and dance all night.”
I’d arrive at Maria’s house each day determined to work my new vocabulary into the conversation. Noticing my bleary eyes, she might ask: “How was your night?”
“A complete failure,” I’d reply groggily. “The baby danced all night.” Or, trying to convey how I felt about George W. Bush, I’d point to an image of the president on her television screen and announce, “That man is ugly.” Maria would correct me often, softening her critiques with compliments about how much I had learned.
One morning I sat on her couch drinking coffee as she played with my baby. “Where is your man?” I asked abruptly. I didn’t know the word for husband.
“He’s in Colombia,” she responded. “No U.S. visa.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, making a sad face.
She waved her hand dismissively. “No problem.” She went on to explain that she preferred life as a single woman. And then she elbowed me knowingly and added, “La vida es muy diferente con un hombre en casa.” (Life is very different with a man in the house.)
I had never known a grandmother like my son’s Abuelita. My maternal grandmother had died before I was born, and childhood visits to my paternal grandmother’s house were a formal occasion. She lived in a southern-California retirement community built around a golf course — the quietest place I had ever been. Golf carts and Cadillacs whispered along deserted, palm-lined streets. When I accidentally knocked the slipcovers off the arms of her couch, my grandmother was quick to pick them up and smooth them back into place. We dined at the country club, where my sister and I made faces at each other while the grown-ups drank gin-and-tonics and discussed politics. When we got noisy, my grandmother would smile tightly and say through clenched teeth: “Oh, you little monkeys!” She took pride in her rail-thin figure, maintained through daily aerobics and a careful diet. She was not the hugging type, and when we embraced briefly at the end of our visits, she felt like a tiny bird in my arms — nervous, small boned, ready to flit away at her first opportunity.
Maria, on the other hand, was like a proud mother duck strutting about her domain, drawing her grandchildren under her wing or scattering them with her scolding, depending on her mood. I liked to watch her hassle them, joke with them, or ignore them altogether, the way only real intimacy permits. With my extended family thousands of miles away, I’d forgotten how good a full house felt. I began to look forward to my time at Maria’s and to linger there as long as possible. At the end of my workday, when I held my son and kissed his downy head, he smelled of scented candles and empanadas.
The week before Christmas, I arrived at Maria’s apartment in the morning to find the walls covered with synthetic greenery. A plastic Santa Claus waterfall sat on her coffee table, and she had pushed aside her living-room furniture to make space for an elaborate Nativity scene. There were barnyard animals, wise men, bales of hay, and a small bowl covered in aluminum foil that held several plastic fish. At the center of it all, Mary and Joseph knelt and stared in awe at an empty manger — a small box covered in green felt — between them. When I asked Maria why there was no baby Jesus, she explained that he didn’t arrive until Christmas Eve.
We sat on her couch while I nursed my son, and Maria asked how I was. I wanted to tell her about the day before, when I’d driven to the mall to go Christmas shopping. I’d parked next to a woman whose crying toddler strained against his car seat. “Why did I ever have children?” she screamed as he sobbed uncontrollably. Inside the mall, my young daughter wanted to speak to Santa, and I stood in a long line with parents who cut in front of one another and talked on cellphones while their children nervously confided in a costumed stranger. In the stores I threw gifts into my cart in a nervous rush. On the way home, my daughter asked me to tell her the story of the baby Jesus, and I realized with alarm that I knew little about him. I’d heard a few sermons during my churchgoing period as a teen, but all I could remember was that he was born radiant and homeless.
I wanted to tell Maria all of this, but the only appropriate word I could think of in Spanish was tired, and so, my eyes filling with tears, I told her: “Estoy cansada.” She nodded, and we both stared at Mary and Joseph and the empty patch of green felt between them.
After a moment, Maria began to talk rapidly, her nose scrunched up in disapproval. I picked up fragments here and there: “Scandals in the church . . . too many rules . . . Christmas . . . too commercial . . . people forget.” I struggled to assemble the words like a jigsaw puzzle in my mind. As she slowed down, it became clear what she was trying to say: “Dios no está arriba en el cielo. Dios está en el corazon.” (God is not up in the sky. God is in the heart.) Maria said this last sentence firmly, patting her chest with one plump hand for emphasis. She told me that before she’d met me, she’d prayed for a family to come into her life — a family that would need her as much as she needed them. And God had provided exactly that. “Look,” she said, gesturing at the three of us on her couch. “God is right here.” She fell silent, and at that moment I felt God flow between us like the water gurgling through the little plastic waterfall, like the milk flowing into my son as he lay limp in my arms, his eyes closed in rapture.