Lisa Kilhefner and Jackie Fishman


Lisa Kilhefner

Mama Maria
By Jackie Fishman

Inspiration piece

There are many reasons to go to Spain, thought Abby as she zipped up her toiletries case. Climb the steps of medieval castles, bake in the hot Seville sun, eat tapas, drink rioja wine, try out castanets, and attempt to speak Castilian Spanish to haughty Barcelona natives.

But, there was no getting away from the main point of this particular trip. Abby and Max were seeking Mama Maria’s blessing on their marriage.

The 1970s were a tumultuous time for Spain as it was for Abby and Max. While Franco clung to the last edges of his dictatorship over the Iberian Peninsula, Max traveled to southern Spain to develop a cultural anthropology independent study project in in a small village. Abby found her way to northern California where she hitch-hiked up and down the coast seeking views and inner peace. Both came back together after their travels and decided to get married.

During his trip, Max had lived with Maria, a salty- tongued, widow living in the tiny village of La Redondela close to the Atlantic Ocean near the Portuguese border. It was under her tutelage that he studied the vanishing Spanish peasant life in the village. Without references, but with American dollars, Maria provided a sparse and spare bedroom replete with a large and sever-looking wooden cross above the bed. She welcomed the opportunity to make some money. While the rest of the villagers regarded Max suspiciously, Maria recognized his ability to pay her for what she normally could not sell.

“Hurry up, we only have an hour and a half till our flight,” Max said as he urged Abby to stop reviewing her selection of shorts and tank tops. “Hey, you might want to throw in a shawl and maybe a longer skirt,” he said eyeing her abbreviated wardrobe with some concern.

“Why? It is July and it is southern Spain, isn’t it hot as blazes?”

“Well, yeah, but sometimes you have to cover up in the churches and, well, in the village, well, only the kids wear shorts. Most of the women are, y’know, covered up.”

Abby studied him briefly trying to interpret what he was actually saying to her.

As an impressionable undergraduate, Max had quickly recognized Maria as a wonderful informant and accommodating host. She had lived in the village for decades and knew everyone. She liked to cook and gossip. She taught him about life in her village, introduced him to her neighbors and family and tutored him in Spanish. Although the villagers regarded Maria as eccentric, they respected her. She was called “La Portuguesa,” even though she had not lived in Portugal since she was a girl. She wore black long sleeves and heavy dark shoes every day.

During their courtship, Abby had seen slides and heard stories about Maria. Max talked about the simple and earthy peasant life of the village, about Maria’s feistiness, and the mother/son bond they had forged.

Max regarded Maria as a mother figure. Tough, strong, self-sufficient, Maria had been married off at 13 to a widower with children. She became a step mother to her husband’s 10 year-old son and 12-year-old daughter and later also bore her own children. She was widowed in her early twenties.

“I want to take you to the village to meet Maria,” Max would say. “She may be a little upset that I did not bring you to meet her before we were married,” was the only warning he gave.

Abby thought he was kidding, why would Maria feel entitled to give her blessing to their marriage?

A 25 year-old city girl with a taste for travel and new experiences, Abby felt up to the challenge of visiting “the village.” But, she liked running water and sitting down to chicken dinners that did not involve actually beheading a live chicken.

He’s not serious, she thought, when she heard that remark. Abby imagined Maria as a warm, motherly type who would be happy to meet her and would want to invite all of her relatives to meet her. She did not anticipate a hostile, gruff, grinning raisin of a woman who saw her as an American tart who had stolen her son.

The village had electricity but no running water, only a well in the center of town. Television antennas had sprouted like weeds atop of every roof in town, but there were no garden hoses to water them. Villagers lived on a steady diet of grainy, black and white “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Real McCoys” television re-runs which informed their opinion of Americans.

Max had neglected to tell Abby that every toilet flush, every tooth brushing session required a trip to the well in the center of town. Max had neglected to mention that baths required a trip to the beach.

Breakfast involved fetching fresh eggs from the chicken coops on her roof and lunch required harvesting vegetables from Maria’s gardens in the nearby fields.

Maria supported her family by running a store adjacent to her home and the smell of rotting fruits and vegetables punctuated every room in the house. She loved to eat sunflower seeds, spitting the hulls onto the floor and sweeping them up in the evening. Her lined, leathery face spoke of years under the Spanish sun and her chafed hands were strong when she twisted chicken necks, quickly slitting them with a knife then allowing the still-jumping bodies to engage in an energetic and gruesome tango across her front courtyard.

Off the main roads and devoid of tourist attractions or beaches, the village was sheltered from the slew of globetrotters and hippie soul seekers who traipsed across the rest of the country seeking exotic experiences and raised consciousness. This left the villagers sheltered from the outside world and unaccustomed to entertaining foreign visitors. This enabled Max to become a celebrity and that status was also conferred on Abby when they arrived.

Like buzzing paparazzi, or circling buzzards, the village children swarmed everywhere they went. The adults watched them out of the corner of their eyes or stared openly at Abby’s tanned, bare legs and halter neck tops. The heavy, humid summer sun hung relentlessly in the sky, but the village women were covered in black mourning. When death entered their lives after a relative died, it never left. As soon as mourning for a loved one ceased, another period began. After a while, all pretense of dressing for life vanished.

Maria only spoke Spanish, which Abby did not speak.

The first greeting was less than welcoming. “Come let me show you where you can wash your chou-chou,” Maria said in Spanish with a wicked laugh. Chou-chou was a nasty Spanish slang word for vagina.

Great, we are really off to a good start, thought Abby.

She wanted to be understanding and appreciate Maria. But Abby saw her reflection in Maria’s eyes, complete with her jean shorts and wispy shirt. Abby was an intruder, a snag in the fabric of the relationship between Max and Maria. Perhaps she also thought she would have some fun at my expense, thought Abby. I will have to try harder, she decided.

The next morning, things did not improve. Abby awoke with a splitting headache and waves of nausea that the overripe, fruity smells from the nearby store exacerbated. Hanging her head low over the one porcelain god in the house, Abby prayed for the surging ocean in her belly to stop. Each precious toilet flush meant more trips to the village well.

Max consulted Momma Maria for a homeopathic cure. Somewhat sympathetically Maria trotted off to a cabinet in the living room and emerged with a shot glass and a bottle of gin. Abby blanched paler than before and her eyes met Max’s beseechingly, “Do I have to drink that?” she pleaded for mercy. Max declined politely for her. But Abby worried that she may have insulted Maria.

The next day, Maria prepared a wonderful chicken soup. After 24 hours of not eating and barely drinking, Abby thought weakly that the smell was too good to resist. Devouring a fragrant bowlful, she spoke haltingly to Maria and learned it was prepared with olive oil and chick peas.

Well, it’s chicken soup; it is hydrating and soothing… thought Abby. The chick peas will just add some protein, she reasoned. She felt too hungry to worry. Perhaps Maria knew better and this concoction would help her trouble.

After lunch, Abby lied down and felt a little better. Max poked his head into the room, “Hi, honey, how you feeling? Are you up to a little walk in the village?”

They picked their way over the ancient cobblestoned street. With each step, Abby felt a strengthening sensation reminiscent of seasickness. She kept walking, trying to ignore what was undeniably a cry for help from deep within her digestive system. She looked behind her and realized too late that a quick return to safety did not exist. She was doomed.

“I need to get back,” she started to say.

The village children had been following them on their walk and nearby their parents regarded them with curiosity and some suspicion. It was not the audience Abby would have chosen in the moments when her body revolted.

She heaved viciously and the soup reappeared much the same way it had floated in her lunch bowl. After a few heaves, she became vaguely aware that her enraptured audience was not going to desert her, nor come to her assistance. She was encircled by little faces. They watched the “gringa” puke with an innocent fascination that called to mind a visit to the chimpanzee house at the National Zoo. Their laughter still lingers in her memory when she gets sick to her stomach.

Abby returned to Maria’s home in shame and infamy. Maria smiled and shook her head; the Americana was weak and useless. But her celebrity status had ensured Maria months of excellent gossip and story-telling when her neighbors came to her store to buy supplies.

Abby didn’t know who washed away the contents of her stomach from the heated stones on the street. But she did feel grateful that it did not have to be her.

Maria would not give her blessing on this visit. But a tepid tolerance emerged and a mutual respect was reached. Abby had paid an embarrassing price for marrying Max outside of Maria’s approval.
The next day, Max took Abby to the nearby town of Huelva to see a local physician. The doctor leaned in to regard Abby and asked Max to leave the room so he could conduct his exam. Abby clutched Max’s shirt and, through clenched teeth, hissed, “You stay right here.” He did.

Two days later, the medication had returned her to normalcy. She hugged Maria as they prepared to leave, “Hasta la vista, Mama Maria, we will return, I promise,” she said. And she meant it. After all, there was still approval to be gained.


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