To celebrate her 90th birthday, Maria del Carmen sat on the Malecon, the seawall that circles Havana, with her family and friends drinking red wine and singing like a teenager. Now she is 92. She stands about 4 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 98 pounds. Her legs get swollen at times and she takes pills for her pressure, but otherwise she is the picture of health at 92 years old. Maria del Carmen and I keep each other company while Natalia and her daughter, my goddaughter Aurora go off to work each day. She fixes me my desayuno of café con leche with a dry cracker. This morning there is cheese supplied by Natalia’s boyfriend.
After breakfast I write a bit at the table while Maria del Carmen cleans the rice which comes not in a box or plastic bag but in a burlap sack, full of small pebbles and other debris that must be separated by hand. When I lived in Havana in 1996, I was an assistant rice-cleaner to Ruki who rented me a room in her apartment, and I know how hard it must be for Maria del Carmen with her arthritic hands to sort through the rice.
Maria del Carmen never stops working. This morning she got up at 5:30 AM, after staying up late watching movies, to fix Natalia, who is an actress and had a full day of filming ahead of her, some breakfast. I watch her move from task to task—fixing breakfast, cleaning the rice, hanging the laundry, washing the dishes, mopping the floor, making the coffee, fixing the lunch, washing the dishes, making the coffee, mopping the floor again. I offer to help but she won’t let me. “Maria, have you always been like this?” I ask when she stops spinning and sits on the couch for a few minutes. “Si,” she answers. “Since I was a young girl. I get it from my father. He could fix anything, do anything. He was a real trabajador. When I worked in a cafeteria as a waitress I carried heavy trays back and forth all day—I did it for years.”
A mischievous twinkle brightens her eyes behind her glasses and she disappears into the bedroom for a minute, returning with a cane that her neighbor bought for her. Maria del Carmen walks with the sprightly gait of a much younger woman. She is twenty years older than me but I have more trouble lifting my body out of a chair than she does. “Why do you have a cane, Maria?” I ask. “Watch,” she says, and proceeds to hobble across the living room floor, bent over, moving slowly looking like she can barely hold herself up. “When I get to the bodega and there is a line of 40 people, I walk like this with my cane and everyone beckons me to the front of the line.” She laughs the laugh of a little girl who has figured out how to trick the adults and I laugh with her. “You have a magic cane!” I say. “Oh yes,” she responds. “It is magic and it works every time.”