The phone rang at 5:30 a.m. – never a good sign. Billy went into the office to take the call, but I could hear him saying, “Please repeat! I’m not understanding. Please repeat!” I hurriedly put on my robe and went to the office. Billy handed the phone to me and said, “It’s Flor (my best friend’s daughter). Something is wrong with Mama Victoria, but I can’t understand her.” I quickly understood why… Flor was crying and panicked and going back and forth between Spanish and Quechua. “You have to come now. Mi mamacha (‘my grandmother’ in Quechua) is bad. Mama Victoria is bad. She’s really bad. Come now!” I assured her that we would rush to them, fully knowing that “rush”meant that it would take us a full 40+ minutes to get to the other side of the valley and up the mountain. We quickly dressed and woke my mother to fill her in so that she could stay behind and watch Sarah, our daughter. As we headed for the truck, the phone rang again. “Don’t come. She is worse. They are taking her to Huancayo to the hospital. They are coming to the hospital by your house. Wait for them! They are coming!” And so we waited. And we paced the floor. And we wondered, what could have happened? We were just with Mama Victoria yesterday afternoon. She was running down the path with her 4 year old granddaughter and the sheep, laughing and fussing at the same time – she did that so well! What on earth could have happened between now and last evening?
Mama Victoria is the matriarch of the community of Patarcocha. In her late 80s (conflicting information has her at either 86 years old or 89 years old), she is as bubbly and alive as anyone I know. She spends her days sitting in the fields being a shepherd to her sheep and cow. Most days, her grandchildren play at her side as she watches animals and spins wool or knits or harvests crops in the fields. She is always happy to have company, including “gringos” who don’t always speak the best Spanish or Quechua but absolutely love to be by her side. She is a storyteller, and she welcomes the opportunity to tell about the community, her life as a girl, or about her family. She is also comfortable with silence – we have sat together in silence
many times, just working quietly and watching the sheep. On numerous occasions, she called me “hijita”, the endearing term for daughter in Spanish. Her real daughter, Elva, is my best friend. Mama Victoria worries over me, always being sure that I have a hat on to keep the sun from burning my head, or making sure I have a “manta” or wool blanket around my shoulders so I don’t get too cold and get sick. She plays with my daughter and fusses at my husband and I if we are too parental.
Just a year ago, Mama Victoria accepted Christ. I won’t take credit for that. I know that Christ was always in her heart.
Someone had planted that seed long, long ago. But, through a series of life events, that seed had grown and withered,
grown again and withered again, over and over until it just lay dormant within her. I just happened to have the honor of being a part of the new growth that began in her as a result of God leading us to this community two years ago. Through the relationships that developed during our time in Peru, Mama Victoria became a full believer and a witness for her community.
Also, just a year ago, we had the honor and privilege of celebrating her birthday with her and a team of short-term medical missionaries who were here working in the area. In her always-welcoming fashion, she opened her home to this team of
North Americans that she hadn’t ever met and offered that we have a traditional feast. We had a birthday cake and sang to her, and it dawned on me that on this birthday in her 80s, she was actually celebrating a New Life in Christ.
All of these thoughts were going through my mind as we waited for their arrival. I continued to worry and think through the possibilities of what could have happened? Did she fall? That wouldn’t surprise me…she’s spunky and always trying to do everything herself. What is taking so long? There probably weren’t any taxis. We should have gone out there to get her. Then I started to second-guess my Spanish and my understanding of Flor’s phone call. Did she say that we needed to come and take her to the hospital? Did she say that we should meet them at the hospital? What if we misunderstood?!
We’ve been sitting here waiting for almost an hour! What if we made a mistake!!!???
Billy grabbed the phone and tried to call back. Flor answered, and I could tell from Billy’s face that he definitely understood this conversation. He sank into the chair and his lip began to quiver as he tried to hold his voice steady to calm Flor. Mama Victoria had died before they got to Huancayo. Flor said that Elva and Elvis (Elva’s oldest son) were on their way to our house, please wait. And so we waited, numb from the news and confused by this new realization that our Mama Victoria was gone. And, we were suddenly panicked and confused, too… we know nothing about what happens in this culture when there is a death! What is our role in this? What should we do or not do? What will happen in the next couple of days? How can we help and be supportive, yet culturally sensitive? We had no idea!
Elva and Elvis appeared at our home and fell into our arms. We cried and cried in our living room as we held our friends and tried to comfort them and support them in their grief. Elva composed herself enough to say, “You are family. I need you. Please come home with us. We have lots to do. How am I ever going to do this? How can I live without Mama Victoria? I’ve never lived alone. She has always been by my side. Now what? You are family. You have to come home with me. Come be with us, please.” We agreed to go with them immediately and be with the family.
Thus began the funeral process.
Immediately upon leaving our home, we drove Elva and Elvis to the town where Mama Victoria had died. The body was still at the health post (there isn’t a hospital here) and the post was waiting for the funeral workers to come get her. We went with Elva to find the mortician. He wasn’t home, so his daughter ran down the street to try to find him. We waited in the street next to a snack vendor and a group of men who were mixing cement. This seemed so surreal to me and I felt so bad for Elva. Her mother just died and she is standing in the middle of the street waiting for someone to find the mortician? When he finally arrived, the arrangements were made while we stood in the street. He asked Elva questions and she made quick decisions. He barked out orders to some young boys who began filling a truck with a casket, candles, kneeling bench, and flower vases. Elva left her son, Elvis, with the mortician to help guide him to the house and we left with Elva in our truck. We went up the mountain to the rustic adobe house that had been Mama Victoria’s birthplace and has ever since been the family home. We
found Flor crying on the porch with one of her brothers. Cielo, the 4 year old, came up to me and said, “My mamacha was sick. Now she’s dead.” I bent down and picked her up and held her. And we talked about God and heaven. I was so glad at that moment that Cielo had been a part of our education ministry for the past two years and she knew God and Jesus and heaven!
Elva franticly began barking orders at the older kids, “We have to clean up the downstairs porch. Sweep this area. Get all of
this cleaned up. We’ll set the casket here,”as she motioned to the children. Did she just say ‘we’ll set the casket here?’ The
mortician’s truck slowly made it’s way up the mountain and we went out to meet it. The mortician and his helpers and Elvis got out and began unloading. Billy went up to help carry things. There were stands for the casket that needed to be set in place first. Then the candelabras were set. Then the casket was unloaded and carried to the porch, but it was set on a table, not on the stands. What is that about? Why didn’t they place the casket? I would find out the answer as soon as I turned around.
The last thing to come out of the truck was Mama Victoria’s body, wrapped in wool blankets that Elva had taken to the clinic in
the wee hours of the morning when Victoria was so sick. Her body was carried to her bedroom and laid in the bed. Several women from the community had gathered by now and they went straight to Mama Victoria’s body. Crying and reminiscing, they slowly began the task of undressing the body. They bathed her. They washed and combed her hair. They selected her best clothing and dressed her for the casket. Then someone called for a needle and thread to close her eyes and mouth. The whole time, they cried and talked and remembered the wonderful woman that she was. I participated, but my mind was screaming a thousand thoughts. “I’m not sure how I feel about this. It seems like too much to ask the family and friends to be responsible for this. To wash her and dress her. Would I want my friends doing this for me upon my death? Do I want Billy or my children to be responsible for this? In a way, this is very beautiful. The idea that the community is here for Elva in this time. The idea that these women are so closely knit that they are even together in death. The idea that the family is involved and not secluded. I don’t know. What do I feel right now?”
When Victoria was ready, she was placed in the casket and the casket was placed on the stands at the end of the dirt-floor porch under the exposed eucalyptus beams that only an hour before had been the drying place for several hundred ears of corn.
The community women began their tasks and went their separate ways with, what seemed to me like, very little planning or
communicating. But they knew their tasks well. Some went to begin cooking for the next stages of the funeral process.
Some went to gather the rest of the community and give out information. Some made plans for the vigil and visitation. I was so confused as to what my role was at this moment. I had been told that I was family, but what does family do right now? So I just asked. “Elva, I don’t know what to do. Tell me what I need to do, what happens next, what you need from me. I want to understand and do the right thing, but I don’t know. I’ve never been to a Peruvian funeral before.” Elva just hugged me and said not to worry. “It will all just happen. We’ll do it together. Right now, we have to go back to town to buy some things that we will need tonight for the vigil, and my culture says that I have to wear black for the next year. I don’t have any black. So we need to go shopping.” So off we went.
An hour or so later, we had 100 pounds of potatoes in the truck, some other food items, a black hat, a black sweater, a black apron, and some black shoes. Back up the mountain we went, to deliver Elva and the food items to the house. That night, and every night until the burial, Mama Victoria would lie in the casket on the porch while family and friends would come to pay their respects and sit with the family. It is culturally inappropriate for the family to sleep until the burial, so as not to leave the
deceased alone. A most beautiful thing began to take place for us… since we were obviously the “adopted family” and we did not know the customs surrounding the funeral process, the community began to gently teach us during every part. They would tell us what was going on, why it was done that way, and what we should do. For example, the deceased can’t be left alone because bad spirits could come and enter the body. For this reason, the family and friends take vigil around the body all
day and all night until the burial. Cigarettes are passed around the circle, but not actually for smoking purposes. When the cigarette passes to you, you are to draw in a mouthful of smoke and blow it out into the air of the circle of family, friends, and the deceased so as to confuse the spirits so they can’t enter the area, and more importantly, so they don’t enter you as you stand vigil. There is a liqueur passed around in tiny doses (maybe a teaspoon or two) that you are to drink to kill off any bad health issues that may be hanging in the area and entering your mouth as you stand vigil. Also, the liqueur is to help warm you during your vigil, as the temperatures in the night drop to freezing. We were so honored by the care that the community took to share their customs and ideas with us. But, even more honoring, was the fact that they told us on numerous occasions that we could pass on any of these customs without judgment. As we watched, we noticed that several people in the community passed on the cigarettes as they traveled around the circle, or politely held up their hand in a gesture of “no thank you” when the liqueur came by. The community was not giving us the okay to pass just because we were outsiders. No, it was okay for anyone to observe the custom or not – no judgment from either party.
And so went the days until the burial of Mama Victoria on the third day. The burial was preceded by a funeral service performed by a priest that another family member brought to the house. The service was small, attended by only family that gathered on the small, dirt floor porch. During the funeral service and the family lunch, community members gathered at the
cemetery to dig the hole for the burial. Again, I was struck by the sense of community and how everyone gathered and helped with the process. The burial ceremony was much like the last two days, with a circle of family and friends that stayed with the body as the greater community gathered in outer circles. They continued to blow smoke around the body and pass small amounts of alcohol, only this time, the alcohol had a different ceremony and meaning attached. As the alcohol came to you, you turned to the next person in the circle and blessed their health so they wouldn’t be the next one to follow in death. This drink was more of a “toast” to the health of the person on your immediate right. And again, it was perfectly acceptable to bless the person’s health but pass on the drink – no judgment.
The day after the burial was a day of celebration, of sorts. On this day, the family took all of Mama Victoria’s clothes to a special place on the mountain. In this place, the clothes and personal items (blankets, pillows, etc.) were sorted. Some were placed in a burn pile and a huge fire was lit. Some were placed in the stream and the best friends of the family washed her remaining clothes and placed them in the sun to dry. There was a time of fun and games during the day, more memories and
reminiscing and laughter. There was more explanation to us regarding traditions and culture and beliefs surrounding death and spirits. Everyone took it upon themselves to tell us about their ideas and beliefs. We were the learners and the community members were teachers. I prefer that! We have so much to learn.
Throughout the days that followed Mama Victoria’s death, we were overwhelmed. Overwhelmed that we were included in such a special, emotional time as death. Overwhelmed that people opened up to us in a way unlike ever before and openly shared with us about their traditions and culture and beliefs. Overwhelmed at the incredible insight we had to this Quechua Wanca culture because of the relationship we had with Mama Victoria.
It seems surreal to look back and say that Mama Victoria’s death opened the door for us in the community, but it seems as though it was her last gift to us. Through her death and our inclusion in her family, we were finally given the recognition as members of the community. We suddenly moved from “missionaries” and “gringos” to a new, more intimate role. After two years of working in the community every day (but living 45 minutes away in the city), we were granted permission to actually move here and LIVE in the community and become one with them. We had been asking for that opportunity and expressing that desire for a long time, but the doors were always closed. Then, mysteriously, after spending those most intimate days with the family and community during Mama Victoria’s funeral process, we were seen as ‘worthy’ and a house was found for us. The community rallied around us and helped us make plans and begin to move in. We became neighbors and friends. We began to work on community issues together. We began to have community struggles together. And we bonded in a new way.
We went from being a part of Mama Victoria’s family to being a part of the family of Patarcocha, Peru.
Mama Victoria’s death was perhaps the most difficult and sad time we have spent with the people here on the mountain and in the ministry, but it was a most remarkable gift and some of the most touching moments we have had. Life changing. Thank you, Mama Victoria! You were a beautiful woman in life, your beautiful life continues to touch us even after your death, and we look forward to seeing you again one day. I’m sure that you are sitting with the Great Shepherd enjoying the time together, telling stories, or perhaps just enjoying the silence. Thank you for the blessing that your life, and your death, have been for us.
Who am I? In my USA life, I was a teacher in Texas for 15 years. I was also a professional photographer, a Southern Living / Martha Stewart wannabe, a soccer mom, and a short term mission team coordinator / intern director for missions in Mexico... you name it, I probably tried it!
In 2006, my husband Billy and I became cross-cultural workers (CCWs) with TMS Global. For five years, we served in three rural Quechua Wanca villages in the Andes of Peru. And when I say rural, I mean RURAL - like no potty! We have three incredible children... two adult boys who live in Texas, and the Sarah (14) lives with us in whatever country we are serving. I'm still teaching, still taking photos, still leading teams and mentoring, I just do it all in full-time service now! And I'm working hard at giving Southern Living and Martha Stewart a run for their money! I spent my days in Peru learning to live a Quechua lifestyle in a rustic adobe house - cooking Peruvian foods, sewing with Quechua women, raising my chickens and goats and pigs, and planting my gardens. Now I live my life in small town Spain, serving other cross-cultural workers and immigrant peoples, writing, and trying to figure out what life looks like for a Texas girl serving Christ in Southern Europe. Life in His service is AWESOME! I'm happy to share it with you here... Enjoy!