A Glance Back in Time

Today, August 3, would have been my mother’s birthday, and the irony of me once again living in her native country is only one of the many things on my mind as I write this.

The last of four children, my mother, Ligia María, was born in 1930 in San Juan de Tibás, a well planned little town on the northern edge of San José that nearly became the capital of Costa Rica.

Her paternal grandfather was a tall blue-eyed Prussian from Danzig, and her maternal great grandfather was an equally tall blue-eyed Swede. Both men married Costa Rican women, contributing to the multi-cultural heritage that many Costa Ricans claim today. Although my mother was one of the few in her family to have dark eyes, she did inherit some extra height, which would earn her the coveted position of flag bearer in high school parades.

Her maternal grandfather owned much of the land surrounding the central park of what is now called simply Tibás, and each of his ten children received a piece of land on which to build their own home. Most of those homes were lined up shoulder to shoulder on the north side of the park or around the sides of the same block. Many of the back yards connected on the inside.

Because of those ten children, my mother had the privilege of growing up among 41 first cousins, most of whom lived within a hundred yards of one another. I can’t imagine how that must have been! Fun, maddening, comforting, boisterous, irritating—all of the above. Her grandmother lived next door, and was apparently a gentle counterbalance to her mother’s rigid and often hard character.

Her father spoke several languages and attended college in New York before returning to Costa Rica as a CPA to marry my grandmother, a trained seamstress. Between them, they managed to send all four children to private schools, no small feat in their day. Expectations were high, and slacking off was not an option.

Although they were far from wealthy, her family struggled less than many others. Her father had an administrative position in the growing electric company. Hers was a small family. Nothing was wasted, and resources were frugally managed. Extended family members shared a great deal whether it was surplus eggs, fruit, fabric for clothing, or labor when building on another room or fixing a roof.

The farmhouse her mother was born in was across the river on a bluff overlooking Tibás, and there were countless picnics and family gatherings up there. Even though by then her grandmother had been living in Tibás for decades, the coffee farm was still owned and worked by family members.

Huge boulders and one giant flat rock surrounded a swimming hole of sorts in the river below the farmhouse. My mother and her cousins all learned to swim in that cold but pristine water, often under the tutelage of her athletic father.

Ligia the daredevil delighted in telling stories about her childhood. One was of roller skating down a steep gravel hill and slamming into a bull in the field at the end because by the time she saw him, it was too late to stop. She went over the bull and luckily for her, by the time he regained his composure, she was able to put a safe distance between them. It would not be her last encounter with a bull.

Another time she slipped while climbing an orange tree she had just been specifically told to stay out of because it had been raining. For the uninitiated, smooth citrus tree bark gets slippery when wet, and native citrus trees have 1-3 inch long needle sharp thorns on them. You can imagine what happened. She had a hard time getting back out of the tree, and had to limp home trying to hide the torn dress as well as the blood streaming out of her leg. Hiding her injuries from her mother was a recurrent theme.

Although she spent most of her spare time with cousins, she had a school friend who would be a lifelong best friend. Cecilia lived in San José, but her family had a farm in Turrialba where they would go for days or weeks at a time during school vacations. Most of the time they went by bus, then walked the rest of the way to the farm itself.

Horses provided the only transportation once there, and her descriptions of getting caught miles from home after dark and letting the horses find their way back are both exciting and scary. One night they were tracked by a large cat (puma or jaguar), and were barely able to keep the horses from bolting. It scared them badly enough to keep them housebound for days afterwards. This was frontier land at the time—no electricity, no frills.

Her descriptions of the dog howling outside the church when the priest sang (poorly!) were hilarious. Mom and Cecilia seemed to get into more than a few tight spots, and Cecilia recently confirmed that my mother was the mastermind behind most of their adventures.

Her family never owned a car. She and her cousins walked to Moravia to hear Sunday afternoon concerts in the park. She rode the bus from Tibás to San José to attend school and high school.

Although her father gave her money for the cable car (tranvia) to get from the San José bus stop to the west end where her high school was located, she often walked to save the money for edible treats. La Garza, a soda fountain near the National Theatre, had ice cream and pastries that were apparently worth the 1.5 mile walk.

My mother’s high school days at Colegio María Auxiliadora were good ones for her, and she recalled the nuns as being tough but fair teachers. The one she was closest to, Sor María Romero, is currently in the process of being declared a saint by the Catholic church.

During her last visit to Costa Rica, weeks before her death—when she knew she was ill but I didn’t—my mother visited with two of the nuns still there from her school days and prayed for healing at the shrine to Sor María. A lapsed Catholic, this deep connection to her former teacher and her faith gave her strength and peace during her last days.

Her father was an active supporter of the rebellion during the short but bloody civil war of 1948, and my 17 year old mother faced down more than one machine gun as government forces went house to house searching for people like my grandfather. She once stalled them with the gun barrel inches from her face while her father made his escape behind her through the attic to the house next door. She saw people she cared for cut down in the street, and the trauma of those days would mark her for life. She could retell the events as though they had happened that day.

Not yet 20 years old, my mother left Costa Rica in 1950 to attend college in Denver, Colorado. Within weeks of her stopover arrival in Texas, she would meet my dad who she married in 1951. Although she visited Costa Rica often, she would live in Tennessee for the rest of her life, until losing a shockingly short battle with cancer in 2012.

The house she was born and raised in was torn down almost ten years ago, the river she swam in is polluted, and little remains of the Tibás she knew. We often talked of how we both missed the Costa Rica that no longer exists.

Last Sunday, as I walked through the old farmhouse and the room her own mother was born in, I said aloud, “I wish mom could have been here to see this.” In researching our family ancestry, I constantly learn things that I long to share with her.

Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her, of course.  I came back to live in Costa Rica over a year ago, and while I no longer have her house practically next door like I did in Tennessee, she is as present here for me as she was back there; maybe more so. Meeting long lost relatives involves introducing myself as Ligia’s daughter. At family gatherings I am constantly told how much I look like her and how I remind them of her.

During the decades I lived here before, she would come for weeks at a time to see me, her grandchildren, and her mother, but it was also a chance to quench her thirst for the heart and soul of this place that helped shape the person she was.

I wanted to honor her today by taking a look back at the Costa Rica she grew up in. I’d like to think that she is smiling down on me, perhaps content to see me here, finding the beauty in this country that she loved.

Happy Birthday, mom. I love you.