A tribute to my mother-in-law for Costa Rican Mother’s Day, August 15, 2021.
Mothers-in-law might have a bad reputation, except for in the popular song traditionally sung around New Year’s in Latin America - how the “old year” brought me a “buena suegra” (a good mother-in-law). I have a very good one, though it did take me a while to get to know her.
Now, living in the US, I miss doña Elizabeth. She is coming to visit this month just in time for Costa Rican Mother’s Day, and I’m planning to pull out all the stops for a celebratory meal at home on August 15.
Not all daughters-in-law, in the US or in Costa Rica, might spend as much time and Elizabeth and I have spent together. For better or for worse, my husband was never in the habit of frequenting his mother’s house the way that some sons might do in Costa Rica. We would see the family the reasonable amount of around once every two weeks (or maybe a little more), for family birthdays or quick visits.
In fact, when I first met Elizabeth, it took several months before we would greet each other with the customary kiss on the check. Doña Elizabeth does not necessarily show a lot of physical affection, though her love for her children and family knows no bounds. This is made abundantly clear by the sheer amount of work that she puts into her family: cooking and baking amazing food, keeping her house and everyone’s clothing and belongings sparkling clean, keeping track of everyone’s health and safety, and, of course, praying for everyone on a daily basis.
When I found out I was pregnant with our first son, Elizabeth immediately declared that she would take a year off of her duties at her evangelical church, where she was a holder of the key and in charge of communion and all social and prayer activities, in order to care for our newborn when I went back to work.
And so, when my maternity leave began (in Costa Rica, obligatory maternity leave with full pay begins one month before the baby’s due date, and lasts for three months after the birth), I started to visit doña Elizabeth every Tuesday so that we could get to know each other better, and so that she could get to know the baby after he was born.
This one-on-one time with my mother-in-law was very precious, as I understand now that we don’t have it much anymore. Elizabeth told me about her own childhood, as well as her experiences with childbirth and raising children.
“As a girl I lived with my father and step-mother, who sold tortillas and cajetas (candies made with sweetened condensed milk) at the market. We would wake up at 2 in the morning in order to make these items, except for one day a week when we would wake up at the same time in order to carry the laundry down the river for washing.
“I had a lot of hard work as a child, but I am eternally grateful for the mother that raised me, because she instilled in me a strong Christian faith,” Elizabeth told me.
“When my children were born, the husband wasn’t allowed in the room. The mother would just come home with the baby, and the father would have no idea what the mother had gone through.
“I was always so busy with the housework, and having my first two daughters within one year of each other was difficult. I was fortunate that their father could take them outside to play while I did the housework when they were small. Of course that included washing cloth diapers, which required soaking and bleaching them, and hanging them out to dry with the other clothing. We would even iron them.”
In my 8th year of living in Costa Rica, I ventured to the northwestern region of Guanacaste to study the opinions of “peasants,” campesinos in Spanish, toward globalized agriculture.
I was conducting interviews for my master’s thesis after the birth of my first child, so traveling to the village meant bringing my nursing baby with me. I figured I could handle the nights with him, sleeping in the borrowed double bed at the home of the rural family I usually stayed with while in town. But I wasn’t sure how I would get quality interviewing done during the day without help, so I enlisted Elizabeth to come with me on two or three occasions. Perhaps she said yes in part because my study was taking place only 10 miles from the place where she herself had grown up, not far from the Tempisque River, inland from the famous tourism resort beaches of the northwestern Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
It turned out that having her along was a benefit on more than one level. In addition to some extra eyes on my unstable toddler as he chased after the chickens in the yard or investigated the broken ceramic tiles on the kitchen floor, I got to listen to Elizabeth and doña Hortensia, our hostess, reflect on life in the old days. They told of single kerosene lanterns in the middle of their homes, filling the house with soot, because there was no electricity. They competed with each other to claim who was the earliest riser, either to make tortillas or cajetas to sell at the market, or to get the household and farm chores done in the wee hours.
I saw Elizabeth sit on the floor in the sticky Guanacaste heat with her shoes off and pants rolled up, something I had never witnessed in the cooler and more formal setting of San José, the capital. Maybe it was the temperature, or perhaps she felt like a child again, after all the talking about it.
I have two master’s degrees, and I’m from a culture that now-a-days assumes a woman works rather than stay home with her children. Elizabeth did not complete high school, and she has never had a paid job outside of the home (except for the years that she picked coffee during the harvest for extra income). Our lives are very different. And yet, her example has been invaluable to me in many facets of my life, particularly now that I stay home with my children. Cooking and cleaning, which always seemed like boring (at best) or demeaning (at worst) activities for a woman, take on new meaning when I think of Elizabeth and how she expertly transforms her housework with purpose – it has structure, successes and failures, colleagues (family, friends and neighbors), investments, and future plans. Every time that she is able to make an upgrade on her house using money that she has saved due to her frugal lifestyle, I take a second look at my own habits, spending, and vision for the future.
Her faith has also been an inspiration: when Elizabeth speaks of trusting God in moments of difficulty or confusion, what she says makes sense to me. When my son was born and Anthony and I discovered the anxiety that comes with being responsible for another human life, Elizabeth’s advice to trust a higher power in order to survive started making a lot of sense.
Elizabeth married Anthony’s dad at young age, 19 years old, and had her first child when she was 20, and her second child when she was 21. They lived in the northwestern city of Liberia, in Guanacaste, not far from where she herself had grown up, he an evangelical pastor and she the pastor’s wife and soon mother to two daughters.
The young family did not have any luxuries, but the members of church looked out for them. With two babies only 11 months apart, Elizabeth took care of the family, washing clothes and dishes by hand (no dishwasher or even washing machine), and cooking each meal from scratch (no refrigerator). A church member did give their family an oven, something that not many families in Costa Rica had (most people had stoves, but not an oven for baking).
One of my favorite stories about Elizabeth is how she taught herself to make cake using that oven. Never having used an oven before, Elizabeth describes how she found recipes and tried them out, wasting expensive milk and eggs on burnt or undercooked cakes while she learned how the oven worked. Entirely on her own, she perfected the cake recipes. Today, her daughters are all excellent cooks, including three of them who have sold cakes and other baked items as small businesses. I am convinced that the family love of quality food and beautifully baked treats comes from Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s experiences and her expertise have also taught me about what can be accomplished with a small amount of money and a large amount of energy, ingenuity, and faith. Here are a few of Elizabeth’s practices that humble, amaze, and instruct me:
• She captures the grey water coming out of her washing machine after the wash cycle, and uses it to mop the floor (she sweeps and mops twice a day, given the dusty tropical conditions of San José)
• She uses modern medicines sparingly, and maintains her health with physical activity, rest, and healthy food, including teas and fruits to maintain her blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels.
• She plans ahead and is able to prepare delicious and healthy meals on a shoestring budget, taking advantage of sales at the grocery store, and not wasting ingredients or leftovers. Case in point: one day Elizabeth pointed out to us that the tasty and fresh meal of rice with meat and vegetables we were eating for lunch was made entirely out of leftovers - it was meant to be a lesson in homemaking, and the lesson was not lost on me.
• When she started caring for my newborn in her home after I went back to work, she would carefully tear his wipes in half in order to save resources.
• Doña Elizabeth knows, appreciates, and has a healthy relationship with food. She stops for coffee breaks mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and eats healthy meals three times a day, in small quantities. She taught herself to cook fancy meals with delicate sauces and intricate flavors using cookbooks she found or was given, but she never overdoes her own portion sizes. When Elizabeth has eaten meals that I cook, she sits quietly until she can identify all of the ingredients that I used, and then shares her guess. She is nearly always right.
We have had fun sharing experiences of our life in the US with doña Elizabeth. She has come to the United States twice, and both times has experienced snow. It is a concept so entirely foreign to her, a native of the lowland tropics, and it is fun to hear her questions about how snow comes to exist. “Does snow start to fall on a specific date?” Elizabeth has asked. We have explained that snow is basically rain, but the air temperature is so cold that the rain falls as snow. This explanation doesn’t seem to convince her.
My mother-in-law is a pretty serious person, not unlike myself. One of my favorite things is when she laughs. This often happens when someone shares a story about bodily functions at family gatherings, which seems to happen quite often actually (is it just our family???). Or a story about a someone’s embarrassing moment as a child, or the fibs and tall tales told by one of the family’s favorite uncles. In one such story, Tío Genaro (whom we named our second child after, he is so famous and loved in the family, and never had any children of his own to receive his name) was in Panamá at the hospital of the banana plantations, having some kind of prostate procedure done. Because he spent time in the recovery room with women who had had their uteruses removed, he would refer to his experience as “the time I had a hysterectomy.” This story gets her every time.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for being my mother-in-law, for accepting me into the family, sharing time with me, telling me about your life and teaching me your philosophy and practical tips on raising a family. I miss you, and I’m so glad we get to spend Mother’s Day together this year. I can’t wait to hear you laugh.