Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in one of his short stories, gives life to a puppet for one day. The puppet is surprised by many things. He finds that humans believe that when you grow old you stop falling in love. But the puppet says,”I think it’s the other way around. When people stop falling in love they grow old.”
Does Nelson Mandela ever seem old?
But love isn’t all music and roses. Many years ago, in the middle of the war in El Salvador, a woman came to me for advice. She was a poor country woman, a campesina. Like all her neighbours she was a strong Catholic in a world where secularisation hadn’t made inroads.
“Father,” she said, “I want to ask you something. I’m living with a man and we’re not married. My husband was killed two years ago and I’ve four young childern. The wife of the man I’m living with left him some years ago. Since then, he has been on his own. We can’t get married by the church because his wife is still alive. We want to stay together but we’re afraid, because we know it’s a serious sin and God will punish us. What can we do, Father?”
I looked at her and her two youngest childern beside her. They were very poor. The life of a campesina with young childern and no husband is a near impossible task in El Salvador, at least it was at that time.
Under normal circumstances, the woman got up long before dawn every day to prepare breakfast. First she ground the corn by hand with a large stone. She then flattened the corn, also by hand, to make the tortillas and toasted them on a large tin plate over a wood fire. If there were any beans left over from the previous day she fried them. All this took hours depending on the size of the family. When breakfast was over and the man had gone to work in the fields she then washed the clothes, by hand, and began preparing the lunch. She also helped to collect wood for the fire, which often was an hour’s walk each way.
A single woman had to do all this as well as work in the fields. The corn and the beans don’t grow by themselves. If the man was alone, he had to do more or less the same tasks.
Love is not always as rosy and romantic as it is sometimes painted. If you are poor, love is not just an emotional need but is almost a necessity for survival.
I asked the woman, Was this man good to her?
“Yes Father,” she replied. “He is very good. He puts the food on the table and we have something to eat every day. He is also very good to the children and they like him. He treats them very well.”
“And yourself?” I asked.
“Yes Father, we get on well together. Life is much better now for all of us.”
So what was I to say? Another priest had told them they could live together as brother and sister. That didn’t sound very realistic.
Had I the right to put a burden on other people’s backs and not be willing to raise a finger to carry it? Maybe some of the lawmakers wouldn’t understand the situation. Laws anyway were never meant to favour the poor. And if you have money you can get around most of them. And hadn’t Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath?
I think the puppet in the Marquez story would be wondering what all the fuss was about.
Father Brendan is an Irish priest who has done extensive work while living among native peoples in South America.
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