Monday, December 11, 2006

In Memoriam: Lucille Mason

In Memory of Lucille Mason
December 2006

Lucille spent the last few weeks of her life in Rancho Nuevo — an outlying settlement of the Municipality of Pisaflores (“To Walk Over Flowers”) in the State of Hidalgo Mexico. Pisaflores and its smaller communities called ranchos, dot the interior and eastern edge of two mountain ranges forming the rugged Sierra Madre Oriental. To the west, mountains rise and gradually flatten to form the high altitude central plateau that dominates the interior of Mexico. The Municipality of Pisaflores spreads across a small thumb-print valley stamped into the mountainous region on the southeast edge of the State of San Luis Potosi, and the eastern border of Querétaro State. Even today, this municipio remains a remote location with few access roads — and Rancho Nuevo is the furthest and one of the most isolated satellite communities of Pisaflores.

One Canadian student who spent the summer of 1967 in Rancho Nuevo rememers that the only two visible artifacts of modernity in the settlement were a battery–operated radio and a steel pail used to haul water. (Maureen Kelly) At night, the Canadian students sat outside and marveled at the brilliance of the stars, and were given astronomy lessons by residents who knew the names of all of the constellations of the northern sky.

The rio Moctezuma is the main physical barrier blocking Pisaflores and Rancho Nuevo from the outside world. The western mountains are too rugged for vehicular access, and communities of this northern Hidalgo municipio are accessed from the eastern side. The Rio Moctezuma tumbles east and north from its origin in central Mexico near the archeological ruins at Tula, turns further to the northeast as it rambles around the outskirts of Pisaflores municipality and then makes a near 90º turn to continue around a spit of a mountain and past Rancho Nuevo. Tula is the legendary home of the famed Mexican deity Quetzacoatl, the Plumed Serpent, and the river Moctezuma that defines the limits of Pisaflores to the south and east is named after a great emperor of the Mexica people. Rancho Nuevo also lies on the west bank and the river physically separates it from the modern world and the national highway 85 high carved out of the mountainside a few hundred metres above its east bank.

Rancho Nuevo is situated on the northern Hidalgo and the southeastern San Luis Potosi state borders, a short 2 kilometres from a beautiful city named Tamazunchale in San Luis Potosi state. This is deep in the heart of the Huasteca region, and is famous for beautiful flowers, an abundance of birds and fascinating folk music traditions. Rancho Nuevo sits in a pastoral setting with a large meadow on its south, and has an abundance of tropical flowers and amazing variety of birds that thrive in its remoteness and proximity to water. More than 200 species of birds have been identified in this area, including different species of brilliantly coloured Toucans that nest in the trees and gardens of homes. Later in the summer, the neighbouring fields are filled with mariposas — beautiful blue butterflies that make the tropical sky even more azure in the early morning. Not far from here, in mountains to the west, lies the beautiful town of Xilitla (He-leet-la) where the regional abundance of exotic flowers, butterflies and numerous bird species attracted a wealthy Englishman named James Edwards. He came there to create a garden devoted to orchids in 1961— just a few short years before Lucille would spend the last weeks of her life in Rancho Nuevo.

Lucille spent most of her time living and working near the largest wooden building in Rancho Nuevo. It dominated the west side of the settlement and served as community hall, church, school and then as the dormitory for Canadian visitors. The children of Rancho Nuevo were fascinated by the strangers from Canada and early in the mornings gathered outside of the paneless windows of the building and peeked in with amusement. Canadian students who spent time in Rancho Nuevo remember being awakened by the sound of morning roosters the beautiful faces of smiling children outside of the school anxiously urging them to get the day underway.

It was in this beautiful tropical place that Lucille worked and played with the children, taught them in the school, and eventually fell ill. It was from here that the concerned residents carried her up an impossibly steep incline to the highway on the other side of the river so that her fellow Canadian students could transport her to a small hospital in Tamazunchale. When it was obvious that she was very sick, the doctors in Tamazunchale hoped to save her by sending her to Mexico City in an ambulance. But it wasn’t to be, and she died there on June 4, 1967. Her body was returned to her grieving family and friends in Montreal. She was in her 20th year of life when it tragically ended.

The last few weeks of her life were spent in an absolutely beautiful setting sharing the days with warm and kind people who greatly appreciated her presence, and were attracted to her beautiful and welcoming smile. There must be some consolation in knowing that her last images from this earthly world were filled with birds, butterflies, flowers and the smiling faces of children. Her death was a tragedy that affected everyone that knew her and even those who had not met her personally. It especially affected every Canadian student who traveled to Mexico with CIASP and left a deep and lasting impression that has never faded. I am continually amazed at how many people think of Lucille and remember her after all these years.

Recently, I found a poem called From within the Heavens written by a Mexica poet, and in reading it I couldn’t help but think of Lucille. The Mexica, who later were called the Aztecs, produced many skilled and famous poets, and in their Nahuatl language the term for poetry is a combination of two words — flowers and songs. Mexica poetry often presented sophisticated themes lamenting the transience of life and the meaning of death.

Pisaflores Municipal Glyph
From within the Heavens
by Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin
(translated by Miguel León-Portilla)

From within the heavens they come,
the beautiful flowers, the beautiful songs,
but our yearning spoils them,
our inventiveness makes them lose their fragrance,
although not those of the Chichimec prince Tecayehuatzin.
With his, rejoice!

Friendship is a shower of precious flowers

White tufts of heron feathers
are woven with precious red flowers,
among the branches of the trees
under which stroll and sip
the lords and nobles

Your beautiful song is a golden wood thrush

most beautiful, you raise it up.
You are in a field of flowers.
Among the flowery bushes you sing.
Are you perchance a precious bird of the Giver of Life?
Perchance you have spoken with God?
As soon as you saw the dawn, you began to sing.
Would that I exert myself, that my heart desire,
the flowers of the shield, the flowers of the Giver of Life.

What can my heart do?

In vain we have come, we have blossomed forth on earth.
Will I have to go alone like the flowers that perish?
Will nothing remain of my name?
Nothing of my fame here on earth?
At least my flowers, at least my songs!

What can my heart do?

In vain we have come,
we have blossomed forth on earth.
Let us enjoy, O friends,
here we can embrace.
We stroll over the flowery earth.
No one here can do away with the flowers and the songs,
they will endure in the house of the Giver of Life

Earth is the region of the fleeting moment.

Is it also thus in the Place Where in Some Way One Lives?
Is one happy there?
Is there friendship?
Or is it only here on earth
we come to know our faces?

León Portilla, Miguel. 1992.
Fifteen poets of the Aztec world. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

The poet’s lament is an articulate vision about the ultimate meaning of life and death, friendship and memory: “What can my heart do? In vain we have come, we have blossomed forth on earth. Will I have to go alone like the flowers that perish? Will nothing remain of my name?”

The tragedy of Lucille’s death plunged each of us immediately into deep shock and we had no answers that could make sense of such an insensible event. But after four decades, do any of us still wonder whether her life was as fleeting as the beautiful flowers and songs of birds in Rancho Nuevo? Consider this — after all of this time there still are hundreds of people who remember her presence and admire the kindness and caring life she lived. The strength of those memories are a powerful statement that she had a real presence among us, and that there are powerful emotions attached to hearing her name. How can such deeply felt memories be meaningless when they remind of us of beauty, caring, butterflies, flowers, birds and song?

1 comment:

Lorraine said...

Such a beautiful memoriam for a wonderful person. Lucille was from Montreal and we spent a lot of time together throughout the year in preparation for our time in Mexico. Lucille was going to enter Medical school on her return, which was phenomenal for her family. Lucille wanted to go to Mexico so badly. She was so determined to be one of the students in the first group. Her family was not keen on her going as they worried that it was far away and she had never been away on her own before.
We were all so young, in our 20th year, and we felt no fear about this adventure. So I and a few other students went to meet with Lucille's parents to convince them to allow her to go. They finally agreed and off she went. Her initial reports on her experience were wonderful. She loved it. So you can imagine what a shock it was when we learned about her death. I was still in Montreal as I would be leaving soon with the second group. I was stunned and full of feelings of guilt for having convinced her parents to let her go.
You are so right when you say that her life meant a lot because I often think of her whenever I think of CIASP and our time in Mexico. Although I wasn't there at the same time nor in the same locale, she is and always will be a haunting memory in my memories of an incredible experience in San Nicolas, Hidalgo.
Lorraine Beaton, CIASP 1967