Norma and her two colleagues sat at my table for a few hours over lunch and they generously recounted one cemetery story after another with little need for encouragement. When I stepped away to prepare tea, I overheard Norma tell the others that she had almost no money. And what she did have was barely going to cover the cost of rice and it would leave nothing for the electric bill. My agreement had been to pay them for their stories but I hadn’t planned to do it until after lunch. How could I have been so inconsiderate and ignorant of their situation? And given the circumstances, how could I not pay more?
I returned to the table with the tea and passed them each an envelope with cash to express my gratitude and provide practical appreciation for their openness and for their great stories. The mood immediately became more vibrant and they had even more to tell. So we relaxed for at least another hour as new stories occurred to them and they embellished the others.
Suddenly in the midst of the chatter, Norma lowered her head and started to cry. Everyone stopped talking and turned to her.
“This last few months has been really hard,” she said. “Very few patrons have come by to pay me lately and I’ve had a hard time making ends meet. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to make it.” She addressed me, “On the morning that you came to the cemetery, I had a talk with my muertitos. I told them that things were really bad and I needed help. I promised that if they would do something for me, I would do an extra good job of cleaning the patio and their individual tombs. I would even climb up onto the roofs and clean the leaves.”
Her eyes were glistening. “And later that same morning, you and your husband came and asked me to tell stories in exchange for money. My muertitos could see how desperate I was. And it was them who brought you to me. That’s how it works.”
Among all their stories, this last one from Norma was the most powerful. It was moving, not only because she was certain that our coming by that morning was no coincidence, but because she was grateful to the muertitos in the tombs she cared for, because they cared for her back.