Most people don't believe me when I say that I have vivid memories from the time I was three years old. But I do: I remember my parents' separation and the "talk" that ensued; I remember the day when my best friend at the time, Carolina, (pictured at right with the bowl cut circa 1980) punched me in the stomach during our lunch break in preschool. I fainted and, next thing I knew, I was on an exam table at the doctor's office (it's OK, Carolina, I forgave you long ago).
But among my fondest and earliest memories are those times I spent with Ramona. She was hired by my parents to take care of me for a few hours after school. Every day, when the bell rang, Ramona would be there waiting for me by the gate, standing alongside my friends' parents. I'd have to walk right up to her and grab her hand, or else, we wouldn't find each other. Ramona was losing her eyesight. Years later I would find out about her condition: Macular degeneration. So, hand in hand, Ramona and I would make our way back to the apartment, with me leading the way.
Ramona was an amazing cook. She made us traditional dishes from Táchira, her home state near the Colombian border. She prepared stuff like sancocho de gallina, a hearty chicken soup, or bollo andino, a cornmeal patty filled with beef and wrapped in plantain leaves. But the picky and difficult eater that I was, I regretfully remember always putting Ramona through hell at lunchtime. After getting home from school and washing my hands, Ramona would grab a bowl of whatever she'd prepared for me to eat, and we would walk down the two flights of stairs to the entrance to the apartment building. Starting at the bottom of the stairs, she would patiently offer me a spoonful per step until we got back to the entrance to our apartment. If I hadn't finished my lunch by then, we would start at the bottom of the stairs all over again.
Ramona would play with me for hours on end, always indulging my desire to build forts out of the living room furniture. I enjoyed helping her clean the apartment, and we'd always laugh when she would sweep right over my feet because she couldn't see me, even as I stood right next to her.
She lovingly took care of me for six or seven years. Then, one day, Ramona placed a bet at the horse races over the weekend, as she always did. And miraculously, she won. Not surprisingly, the money would end up being her ticket out of babysitting and out of Caracas altogether. She returned to the rural home of her childhood in Táchira, bought a few heads of cattle, a washer and dryer, a couple of television sets, and a pick-up truck, and devoted her time to taking care of her elderly mother.
Many years later, as an eighteen year old, I visited Ramona and her mom. She had lost her eyesight completely by then, but she still woke up each day before sunrise to milk her cows. She still lived off of her horse race winnings, she told me, and seemed happy to be out of the city and its chaos for good.
Yesterday I got the news that Ramona has been gone now for over a year. She died in her farmhouse, apparently, not too long after her own mom, who was well over a hundred years old, passed away.