Missing Maria

We were unlikely friends—two women decades apart with drastically different lives. I guess you could say our dogs drew us together. Lucy, her Bijon, barked madly at Mocha, my tiny Pom-A-Poo, when we passed each other on the street.

Maria, scolding, apologized in broken English tinged with Portuguese accent. “Ahh, Lucy, shush! Stop that! So sorry.”

We talked amidst the barking and slowly came to understand each other. Both accents—one foreign and one Southern—may have kept us from comprehending each word, but not the depth of the other’s heart.

Gradually our visits extended to chats in our homes, with dogs secured and separated. Maria lived in a downstairs apartment in her son Manuel’s house down the street. I lived in the house on the corner with my husband, Ricky, our four sons and two daughters—five in high school and one in junior high. Her life was quiet and serene with few responsibilities. Mine was rambunctious and overwhelming, with more tasks than I could possibly do each day. One neighbor boy told his mother, “Every time I see Mrs. Brooks, she’s unloading groceries.” If he only knew how much I could have used his help.  

Each visit with Maria brought new insights. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, her parents moved to Viseu, Portugal, when she was six years old. Her father owned a dry cleaning business and her soon-to-be husband, Joaquin Sousa, a metal worker, was a friend of her brother. They married when she was 21 and came to the United States fourteen years later. While living in New Jersey, she worked as a seamstress in a factory. She continued to use this skill throughout her life—even into her 90s she created clothes for herself and her daughter-in-law. When her husband died 47 years after they married, she came to live with her son and his family. She never learned to drive.

Isolated from others, Maria preferred that I come to her house where she was more comfortable in the role as hostess.

“Ah, Majeanna, you want some tea? Eh? I fix for you.”

Even though I’d consumed enough caffeine for the morning, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. And usually the tea would show up accompanied by a slice of homemade bread or a sweet from a flowered tin. Especially at Christmas. Then the “tea” was a sit-down affair with white tablecloth, linen napkins and full place settings, with her sewing machine tucked away in a corner of the dining room.

Somehow it became tradition for me to walk down the street on Christmas Eve for our special visit. Each year, I struggled to fit this in my schedule on the busiest day of the year. A war ensued in my mind—“I don’t have time for this!” or “I can’t possibly go today.” But the thought of Maria peeking out her window while waiting drew me to her door, with gift and smile intact.

First we’d exchange presents on her couch. I don’t think she used many of mine even though I tried to give practical, yet lovely items—a warm scarf for walking Lucy on cold days, plaid linen napkins with reindeer, or bracelets of gold and red. One gift finally seemed to hit the mark. After her beloved Lucy died, I brought a white, fluffy stuffed dog peeking out of a gift bag. I hoped the visual reminder would help assuage the grief in her heart. The replacement Lucy sat on the couch each time I visited; later I suspect she stood guard on Maria’s bed.

I continued to use the gifts she chose for me—red kitchen towels, colorful Santa and Christmas tree figurines, and a hand-painted ceramic basket from Portugal. (“I want you to have something from my country, eh?”) As I decorated every Christmas season, I unpacked memories with each item.

When I visited on Christmas Eve, my stress level—high upon arrival—would slowly dissipate as I sat on the couch, sipping tea while asking questions about her life. Awkwardly silent at times, somehow we always found things to talk about. She shared the recipe—and a few bites—of the traditional lobster salad prepared for Christmas lunch. I learned about her great-grandchildren, and she rejoiced as I became a grandmother for the first time. She brought out black and white photos from the past; one stunning shot of a woman with braids wound around her head took my breath away. I asked who it was and she chuckled when she answered, “Me.” The mantle clock, a gift from her son, chimed Avé Maria. It lulled me into tranquility in spite of my anxiety about the things still left undone. I was warmed by love, leaving exhilarated and convinced that this was exactly what Christmas was all about.

And I came dangerously close to missing Christmas again that year.

After seventeen years, my husband and I built a new house a few miles down the highway. It became harder to continue the friendship even though it was only a short distance away. Maria said she never got over missing me as she passed my old house. In fact, she quit walking by it because it made her so sad. She was glad when the new owners painted the red brick a startling white because it no longer looked like me.

As I unpack her gifts at the beginning of each holiday season, I revisit the struggle to fit Maria into my life. I had my own elderly parents to care for along with my husband, six children, and my teaching ministry to women in the church. While I cherished the unique friendship she and I developed, it wasn’t always convenient. I hid once from her knock on the door. I’m embarrassed to say that now.

Maria died suddenly in June at age 93. I didn’t know she was sick until her daughter-in-law, Vicki, called with the heavy news. I knew the minute I heard her voice and listened silently, dreading the words. Grief, relief—and regret—washed over me at the same instant. I wouldn’t get to see her next week as planned; my daughter’s wedding had taken all my time for the last few months, but she was at the top of my to-do list when it was over. I would never again hear her say, “I love you MORE!” when we ended a phone conversation. Sad for my own loss, at the same time I was relieved she no longer experienced multiple health issues, making each day a struggle to live.

Her daughter-in-law continued, “Mami was seriously ill, but true to her selfless ways, she insisted that Manny and I take a trip to the beach already planned. Of course we couldn’t go with her in the hospital. She didn’t even want us to stay long—not wanting to be a bother.” So that’s why I didn’t know of her condition. She knew I would come and, at the same time, knew it would be hard for me to do so.

And then she spoke words I suspected all along, “Marjean, you were her only friend. Thank you for your love for her. She loved you dearly.” Despite the turmoil of the friendship, what I offered was enough. I listened. I cared. I showed up.

Even though I was too busy, I found a friend, forever.