Updated: Mar 20, 2021
Sebastiana always showed up at 9:00 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, no later. She left her rubber flip-flops by my front door and worked barefoot without my hearing a sound. Shunning a vacuum cleaner, she scrubbed the floors with soap and water on her hands and knees until the ceramic tiles shined so pink and pearly they were nearly translucent. She would look up and smile shyly at me when she heard me come into the room. Because she was so small and slight and looked like a chlld herself, I was amazed when I learned that she had three children of her own; two girls, 11 and 9, and a 3 year old son. She spent all of her time with her children when she wasn’t working. She never left their hut unless the girls were with her.
One Monday in September Sebastiana didn’t show up for work at all. Surprised and worried I asked Eliseo the next day what had happened to her. With a mixture of English and Spanish, gestures and facial expressions, he explained that Sebastiana had taken their girls back to the village near Vailladolid where they were from and where Sebastiana’s parents still lived. When I asked how they got to the village he said he walked them to the bus in Puerto Morelos. They rode the eight hours to Vailladolid without him. Sebastiana would be back the next day, but the girls would stay in Vailladolid until June so they could attend a school that was nearby. Eliseo said it was his idea. He wanted his children to have the education he himself and Sebastiana never had. Sebastiana had objected, but he insisted. Isn’t there a school in Puerto Morelos? I asked. Puerto Morelos is only a twenty minutes' drive from Luis Felipe’s property. Eliseo shrugged. Without a car or a driver’s license there was no way to get the children to Puerto Morelos and home again every day. Staying with their grandparents in Vailladolid was the only solution.
Sebastiana didn’t show up on Thursday that week either, although Eliseo had said she would be there. But the next Monday, I found her in my kitchen standing next to a bucket of water wringing out her squeeze mop into a bucket of soapy water, moving as though all her energy had been sapped from her. When she looked up at me, her eyes were red and swollen, and her lips quiverred, without even the attempt at a smile. She looked quickly away, ashamed to have me see her sadness.
I could feel the wrenching away of her children from her as though those children were my own and her pain was mine. I had grown children back in the States, though she knew nothing of them. “Oh, Sebastiana,” I said. Something in my voice must have made her know that I understood. She glanced at me again and I patted my chest with my right hand over my heart, then traced an imaginary trail of tears down my cheek. She nodded solemnly. I don’t think even if she knew English she could have spoken then. In that moment nothing else mattered between us; not language or money or social standing or education or age. I too had felt the pain of separation, sending my children away to grow in a world larger than myself. But my sons were eighteen when they left, traveling half-way across the country from me to go to college. I had been raised to expect them to go, and they were ready. My circumstances hadn’t forced me to make such a choice when they were still so young as Sebastiana’s. How would she manage without them?
Sebastiana learned to live with her quiet grief. One day she came to work, her face lit up like the full moon spreading its light over the jungle. It was school vacation and her daughters were home.