Saturday, August 11, 2007

Mara (Portrait Story)


She walks among the dead. They don’t scare her, she takes them for granted. She’s been surrounded by dead people since the day she was born. She is still very young, not twenty yet. Her petite figure and her blond-curly hair are in contrast to her somewhat hyperactive personality. She is not aware of how unusual and interesting her life seems to those who were not raised in the same environment she was raised in. What is even more surprising about her is the ability and confidence with which she handles both life and death.
Amararis González, better known as Mara, works in a funeral parlor. She reminds me of Vada, the girl from the movie My Girl. Vada’s family owned a funeral parlor. She was raised and lived in it, but she was scared of the dead people who were brought into her home. The most tragic episode in the movie is when Vada’s best friend dies and the service takes place in Vada’s own home. Mara was also raised in a funeral parlor. She loves it to such extent that she’d rather be working there than staying on Campus with her friends. Although the family has their home at another part of town, they spend most of their time at the funerary.
“We even eat and do laundry here, in the apartment we have upstairs,” Mara says.
Mara’s family has owned the funeral parlor for the last twenty five years. Moca Memorial is the most prominent funeral parlor in the town of Moca. The owners, Mara’s parents, have made it a way of life for the whole family. Everyone shares the work and the responsibility. Even Mara’s six-year-old nephew helps by answering the phone. “Good morning, Moca Memorial.”
The two-story building is located on a hill. It has a big sign in black letters, which reads Moca Memorial, and a cross at each end of the sign. The concrete structure has a modern architectural style. The exterior is painted in light pastel colors. It is a rather nice looking building, and doesn’t look much like a funeral parlor from outside. Every time there is a wake it is very common to see people all the way up the hill, and standing on the stairs that lead to the building. Usually, the people talking outside seem to be sharing pleasant conversations, like old friends who have not seen each other in years and suddenly meet inside a shopping mall.
From inside the view is different. A warm feeling is felt walking into the lobby. A peculiar smell can also be felt. Not everybody seems sensitive to this smell, and imagination probably enhances it. It is the smell of different perfumes mingled with the far away aromas of hot cocoa and coffee, flowers and chemicals used for conserving the corpse such as formaldehyde. The parlor consists of a wide lobby, a small pantry, a flower shop, an office, and three chapels. The lighted and cheerful lobby contrasts with the dark chapels filled with sorrow, sobs and tears.
Mara is frequently seen inside the office, doing the paper work, or bringing flower arrangements to the chapels. She talks to the people and helps to organize lines so everybody gets an equal chance to pay their respects to their loved ones.
“The most difficult part of the job is not dealing with the corpses, they are already dead and won’t question you. The hard work is dealing with the family and friends who come here ordering things to be done their way. Every one of them has a different view of how things should be done, and they frequently fight. The most common fights are over money. At one time it was the ex-wife and the lover of the deceased who argued about who had the right to decide over the funeral. It is a lot easier to deal with the corpses. The only bad habit they have is burping when they still have gases inside them. When that happens, the only thing we can do is laugh, because after all, it is a bit funny.”
Mara works as a receptionist at the parlor. She has had that job since she was twelve. She loves her job, mostly because it gives her the chance to work with people. She is a very active person, and has to be working on something all the time. “The only disadvantage is that it is a 24-hour-a-day job. If a person comes in the middle of the night, you have to get up and help him. You can’t just tell him to come back in the morning. Sometimes my friends come to invite me to the beach, but I can’t leave whatever I’m doing to go with them. The responsibility is too much; I can’t leave it all to my parents.” Sometimes her friends are scared to visit her at the funerary. Unlike Vada, she takes her job very seriously, and doesn’t try to frighten people with scary stories about the dead.
Mara is a regular student at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. She doesn’t like to stay in Campus during the week. She’d rather go back to the funerary to work. She’d like to continue working in the funeral business once she finishes her studies, or even take over the family business. She loves the business, and nothing about it scares her or gives her the creeps. It has been part of her life since the day she was born. She says that it is common to see a crib in the parlor and toys scattered all over the floor, because there’s always a baby in the family being raised in the same atmosphere she was raised in. Death has never been a taboo in her family. She was taught, at an early age, death is part of life. “It is something that sooner or later happens to everybody. Some people think that we feel happy when people die, because that's how we make money, but it’s not like that. Death is inevitable. It brings unhappiness, and it makes us sad, but it all goes away.”
When Mara was ten, her Grandmother died, and the service took place at her family’s funerary. Her Grandmother’s service was grand. Her father bought an elaborate casket for her. Mara explained about a tradition in the Funeral Business.
“When a member of the family in the funeral business dies, every funerary in Puerto Rico sends a carriage filled with flowers to follow the procession.” Mara remembers her grandmother’s funeral from a child’s point of view. “I remember that my cousin paid me a dollar so I would stop talking and keep quiet.” She remembers her aunts crying and how hard it was for her father to try to stay calm. She cried too, but like children often do, she overcame it soon.
Only one death caused her sleepless nights. “Do you remember the accident where the girl from Ponce died?”
That had been a terrible accident, less than two years before. A student from el Colegio went to Moca to visit her boyfriend. On her way back, a truck driver did not stop at a red light and impacted the girl's car. She died instantly.
“Our funerary is the only one in the area with the permission to pick up corpses. I was the one to receive the call, so I rushed there with my brother. It was terrible. I remember the girl, still in the car, with her green eyes open, looking at me. She was beautiful, even with blood all over her. I could not forget the look in her eyes. When we took her away from the car I realized her leg was missing, and we found it in the backside of the car. The memory kept me awake at nights. I couldn’t get over it.”
Even with all the experience she has, she says that she is not ready to face the death of someone close to her. “The other night I dreamed that my boyfriend died. It was horrible. I couldn’t stop crying. Nothing could prepare me to deal with something like that.”
Mara loved the movie My Girl. “I did not realize until now how similar my life is to the character of Vada. It is a very realistic movie, except the girl should have seen death as natural, and not being scared of it. She was old enough to understand death, because at her age, I was. It is very traumatic to face the death of someone we love, but life goes on, and we have to get over it.”

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