I walked down to the center of Boquete one day this week. I needed to fetch some medicines for my dad from Farmacia Any—the local pharmacy. This is no Walgreens or CVS. When my mom was dying in 2011, the hospice team we worked with told us one of the biggest challenges for families in our situation was getting enough sleep. They recommended we go to Farmacia Any and buy “Sedorm”, which they described as a sleep aid. We followed their advice and indeed, got plenty enough sleep during that time. We took turns though, each one of us taking a turn no taking a Sedorm pill to be alert and responsive if my mom needed help in the night. It was only after I got back to the US that I found out it was equivalent to Ambien. Not something you’d buy over the counter in the US, that’s for sure.
I waited my turn at Any’s on a sunny mountain morning this time around. The woman ahead of me asked the price of one of the medicines her baby son needed because he was sick. When she found out what it cost, she asked to buy 4 pills, enough to last for 2 days, though the script she had with her was for a full week. She said she’d be back to buy some more pills when her husband got paid today. There were no questions asked—the sales woman took out one of the boxes of this medicine, opened it and tore off a placket of four pills to sell the harried, worried mama.
Between that customer’s turn and mine, a woman from the Ngobe Bugle indigenous people of the area came in. She was wearing the typical long, colorful garment of her culture and was barefoot. When the saleswoman saw her, she bent down behind the counter and came back up with two phones and a charger which she handed to the indigenous woman. The transaction was fast and fluid and one could tell it was a fairly frequent occurrence. Up in the area behind Boquete, on the slopes of Volcano Barú, where the Ngobe Bugle live, there is very little access to electricity. I gather she had come down to do her business in town and has a standing arrangement to get her phones recharged at Any’s.
To me that is the essence of life on the edges: no power in your home and two cell phones you charge at the local pharmacy; a community that makes do, dispensing with a lot of regulations as it flexes to make medical care available. A poignant generosity too: imagine a store you typically frequent being willing to receive your cell phone, charge it and return it to you as a perfectly natural thing to do.
My mother’s closets are all sorted out now. We took 11 boxes of stuff to donate for a rummage sale that’s being held on Sunday to benefit animal health care programs in the area. There’s some stuff left that my aunt will come collect to pass on to my cousins and their children and I expect that too will be gone by the time I leave. The sorting got harder and harder, as I did my work. It just happened that the last closets I tackled were the ones that had my mother’s crystal and china, some of the most beautiful, magical remnants of mother’s gift for hospitality. You could have made a cartoon out of my packing: how the pieces felt like they wanted to stick to my hands, how I put things into boxes, took them back out, stood there steeling myself, refusing to cry, and then, finally, put them back down. I couldn’t watch as the boxes were loaded up in the car and were taken away. My mind understands fully what a more instinctive part does not—my mom lived in another time and another place. Sherod and I have very intentionally chosen a far more simple life that does not accommodate all those things.
I was also struck, as I went through closets, by how many of my mom’s belongings had never been used. I can’t count the number of times I watched my mom purchase something and come home and put it away, saying, “this is for a special occasion”. To judge by how much was left unused, there were not nearly enough of those.
Instead of letting that make me really sad, I have tried to figure out what it all means. Less encumbered, having lost or had to let go of a fair amount along the way in these past few years, I realized I am don’t set much store any longer on special occasions. This summer, this very ordinary summer in the Alabama countryside, was a miracle because even though I was grieving, even though there was a lot to work through, one moment after another revealed itself as beautiful and overflowed with grace. What took my breath away was light coming through our trees, the sweet coolness of early morning on a farm. The fact that I really could mow a whole pasture with a tractor and capture and store a little bit of sunshine in those cans of peaches I will enjoy with Sherod in the late fall and winter. The new friends I began to make, who checked up on me, who brought watermelons or zucchini bread or asked me how my week was going when I went to have breakfast at the Highway 80 Café. I hope I get to live the rest of my life with renewed wonder for what is right in front of me right now.
My definition of hospitality has changed too, shaped by all the times I made Eucharist, where simple white linens, a ceramic chalice and paten and small bits and sips were more than enough. More and more, I aspire to the hospitality of a small pharmacy in a small town in the Global South where a mom who can’t afford to buy all fourteen pills can start by buying 4 and an indigenous woman is welcome to leave her phone to charge. I started learning about hospitality from my mami and her beautiful things and I will always, always be grateful to her. By letting go of those very things as completely as I’ve been challenged to this week, maybe I can take another step into that other kind of life that says, “there is a place at the table for everyone, every single person, no matter your color, your race, your sexual orientation, your place in society, your education or your political views. Everyone is welcome. And of course. Give me your cellphones. I will get them charged up for you”.