By Kelly Clem Ruiz
I had always thought Abuelita Amable liked me. She had been nothing but nice during all of my years here.
Chicomuselo, Mexico, 2009
She was having trouble breathing.
My two-year-old was choking on the hard, round, drop of sugar she’d swiped from the counter when no one was looking.
While my husband was at work, I was with my two small girls at his grandmother’s house. The house was chocked full of family as usual. Two teenage grandchildren were doing homework at the kitchen table while another fed the dogs in the backyard. I sat with two of my husband’s cousins while several young children ran from room to room chasing after one another. Spanish voices echoed from the walls of every room and some more filtered in through the open windows from the street.
With all the visitors milling about the house, I was the only one that seemed to notice the panic on my small child’s face as she desperately tried to take in air. I had no idea what to do. I tried frantically to dislodge the candy from my daughter’s throat while searching for the Spanish word for choking to ask for help. The word never came to me, but thankfully my husband’s cousin, Mariola, saw what had happened. She was used to taking charge and I was happy to let her do so. She knew what to do, and was calm enough to remove the candy.
The longest fifteen seconds of my life passed before the solid, sticky, pink treat popped out of my daughter’s mouth and hit the floor. She took her first big gulp of air. I hugged my child and sobbed uncontrollably.
That’s when all the commotion in the house stopped.
Every family member was staring at the spectacle. My little girl quickly recovered from and ran off to play with her second cousins. Her baby sister continued to sleep in the stroller by my side. Her little breath had never changed rhythm during the entire event.
I needed a moment to regroup, to breathe normally myself, and wipe away the tears, when my husband’s grandmother, Abuelita Amable put her hand on my shoulder. In my state, I hadn’t noticed that she’d left the room, but all of the sudden she was back by my side holding a glass bottle containing a clear liquid with bits of twigs and leaves floating around inside. The bottle looked like an aged vodka bottle, so old all the writing had rubbed away. Abuelita was asking me to drink from it. She repeated herself twice before I was able to understand what she wanted me to do. I tried to politely refuse.
I gently pushed the bottle away because she was already moving it toward my mouth.
“No thank you, Abuelita,” I whispered hoarsely. In my head I screamed, Give me a minute, I’m recovering from a trauma right this second if you didn’t notice! But I was too polite to speak those words aloud.
Abuelita would not take no for an answer. She kept insisting. To my complete surprise, she grabbed the back of my head and tipped it back with her left hand as her right hand poured some of the liquid into my unwilling mouth. No choice but to take a drink, I swallowed as little of the fiery potion as possible and looked up at her in bewilderment.
Apparently not satisfied with the small quantity I had consumed, Abuelita took a big gulp from the bottle herself and then, to my utter amazement, spit the liquid all over my body, spewing it through her teeth with such force it was like being hit by a garden hose on full blast. I was wet from head to toe.
Shocked, I sat as she continued to spit. She even pulled open the back of my shirt to let the spray hit more of my skin directly.
What chain of events in my life led me to this place where I was just spit on by an ancient, four-foot-tall Mexican woman?
My husband I had been living in Mexico for nearly five years, since our Kentucky wedding ceremony, without word from the US Immigration department as to whether they’d finally issue him permanent US resident status so we could resume our lives again in the States. Up until this point in our journey, I had always thought Abuelita Amable liked me. She had been nothing but nice during all of my years here. Now, I was in the twilight zone.
I managed to stand from my chair and walk a couple steps toward Mariola, my only hope of sanity. I raised my eyebrows in her direction and waited to see if she could offer any explanation for what had just happened.
“Amable believes she is curing you of the scare you just went through when your daughter was choking. Her belief is that a great scare can cause you damage. That liquid is the cure.”
Droplets of my grandmother-in-law’s spit fell from my jeans and T-shirt, leaving a trail across the floor of her front room. My child had almost choked to death and I was still emotional from that, let alone the absurdity of what had followed. Still a little confused and unable to respond, I weakly said my goodbyes to the family and even thanked Abuelita Amable while she rattled off words so fast in Spanish I could only understand snippets like “not good” and “this will help.” She patted me on the back and I could hear the squishing of my wet shirt in between our flesh. I hung the diaper bag on the stroller, told my little girl to put her shoes on and hop in and we strolled out into the night.
By the time my husband came home from working the late shift that night, I had put both of our babies to sleep and in bed was reading by flashlight, the overhead lights off so as not to wake the girls in our shared room. I kept quiet while he changed into his pajamas and crawled into bed.
“How was your day, babe?” he asked after a quick kiss. He settled his head down on the pillow.
“Your grandmother spit on me,” I said dryly.
He sat up straight and looked directly at me. “Oh no, did something scare you?”
Kelly is the author of On the Other Side, a memoir chronicling the five years that she and her family spent living in Mexico while wading through the U.S. Immigration process in hopes of an American VISA for her husband. Visit Kelly at: KellyClemRuiz.com.