Mama went home to Costa Rica last week after a long-awaited - and far too short -- visit with my younger sister Jane and me in Minneapolis. She's a decade younger than our real mother would be, but she was Jane's host mom on a high-school exchange program 35 years ago, and both of us have called her Mama ever since.
Thirty-five years is a long time to be in touch with someone who lives so far away, but it's testimony to what can happen when student exchange programs really do their job and build bridges between people and cultures.
But the real bridge that has spanned these many years and held our long-distance family together is Mama herself. She is one of the most remarkable women I've ever known. The only other in her class was my own mother, who died 25 years ago this fall.
Both women grew up poor. Both learned very young, as Mama once said, that no one else was going to take care of her, so "I had to take care of myself.'' Both of them raised five children. Both saw their children graduate from universities and embark on good careers.
They met only once, on Mama's first visit, when she came north by bus just to see us. And to see winter, I have to add: Mama had always wanted to see snow. She and my mother even had a snowball fight in the front yard; it delighted them both.
Because both Jane and I were working, our Minnesota mother and our Costa Rican mother spent long days together, sitting at the kitchen table, just the two of them, drinking coffee and happily talking. Neither spoke the other's language.
Their families -- up in Minnesota and down in Costa Rica -- have marveled over their conversations ever since. How had they managed with no one to translate?
"We understood each other perfectly,'' Mama said this summer . "We talked about our children.''
When our own mother died, Jane and I still had Mama for comfort -- a bonus mother, even if we seldom were able to see her. But Mama will turn 85 this fall, and all three of us were aware this might be our last visit. It made her - and her wisdom - even more precious. Here's a sample:
"Pone todos sus problemas en la mesa,'' she once advised: "Put all your problems on the table -- problems shared are problems lessened."
When my job pulled me in conflicting directions, and many people advised me to focus, Mama did it more memorably with a Costa Rican folk saying: "It is not necessary to fatten a lot of pigs,'' she said. "Just fatten one of them well."
"Es necessario tener un plan,'' she said, when I was struggling with the retirement question. "It is necessary to have a plan. Then when you weaken, you can look at the plan and remember what you really want.''
Even her farewells have always been wise, loving and her own: "Adios no existe," she says -- "there's no such thing as goodbye.''
The day before her flight home this time, we sat for a gentle hour in a friend's garden, sipping lemonade, nibbling cookies, and - of course - talking, in an ad hoc patois of Spanish and English. My friend has heard my stories about Mama for more than three decades.
"What we have all learned from you,'' she told Mama now, "is how to love.''
I translated, and Mama replied firmly that life was too short to do anything else.
Now, even though it's full summer, I keep thinking of something she said on one of her earliest visits. It was autumn, and she'd been out in the crisp sunshine, gathering red and gold maple leaves to take home.
"Dias esplendidas!" she had said, "splendid days!'' At the time, I thought she was just talking about that visit, but I see now that the phrase has much more meaning. With Mama, they've all been splendid days.