Who We Are: This Humble Magnificence

*Trigger warning: this post references miscarriage*

The second Gregorio felt the baby’s hand, he knew Betty had miscarried her first child. The baby had been mischievous, hopping around the kitchen, making a racket, even knocking over a bowl. 

Gregorio had spent the early morning hours alone in the bakery mixing together kilos of sugar, flour and lard until his eyes drooped and his vision became blurry and he just needed 10 minutes on the flimsy metal cot that was set up against the wall for such purposes. No sooner had he laid down and closed his burning eyes than he heard some bothersome clicks and taps come from the sink. Then by the oven. Finally the pantry. But the cot felt delicious and the pillow was soft, so Gregorio decided he’d look into the matter after some rest. His body sank deeper into a cloud and just as he was about to doze off—PANG!—a stainless steel bowl was knocked off the counter and willfully twirled on the floor before it came to an abrupt, hollow stop. Gregorio lay there, eyes closed, his tired body still but alert. 

A spirit had entered the bakery’s kitchen. What message did it bring? 

The baby who hadn’t yet made itself known that it was a baby, pounced on top of the Alpaca blanket under which Gregorio lay. Gregorio kept his eyes shut. Carefully, slowly, he moved his hand over the top of the blanket toward the weight of the spirit. It was poised on top of his thigh. If he… could… only…

Gregorio’s hand snapped down and deftly caught its wrist! The spirit immediately slipped out of his grasp—as spirits do—and fled. But in that brief second before it flew back to Pachamama, its fist slipped through Gregorio’s calloused firm grip, and being the father of five children, he recognized the small fleshy knob as that of a baby’s hand. 

The message was simple:  Betty had miscarried her child. 

I’ve listened to this story countless times growing up: My Bolivian grandfather, the spirit, his prediction of my Aunt Betty’s miscarriage at the exact moment it happened. I imagine my Aunt Betty: one minute thrilled with the anticipation of life growing inside her body, then the next, screaming as her hands squeeze her crotch, a mixture of hot blood and broth leaking from between her fingers. And all the while, her baby’s spirit skips around the bakery having a party.

I lived in Bolivia when I was seven years old. Together with my younger brother and older cousin from Chicago, we were the band of unruly Americans. We laughed and screamed and ran around the sett paved streets and cobblestone courtyards of La Paz. We puzzled our hands together to make buttholes and other indecent body parts. I cried dramatically every time the vile soup course was served during lunch. Once when my lipsticked grandmother was about to push herself out of my uncle’s VW bug and into the city bustle, I reached up from the back seat and grabbed the wig off her head. Another time, we discovered a giant bowl of mouth-watering chicharon placed on top of the refrigerator, out of reach. It only took a chair and my tall cousin. The adults later found us licking our fingers, bellies full, and we looked up at them with wide greasy smiles. 

“There are ways to train them…” my grandmother tentatively said to my mother one day.

“I like them wild,” my mother cut her off. 

But when my brother and I returned to the United States, we were considered more polite than the average kid. We knew how to kiss on the cheeks, frequently say “please”, “thank you,” and “excuse me”, give deference to adults, make sure everyone was offered an additional serving of food or drink. Not only did we bring home Bolivian manners, my mother also carried chalk idols of Pachamama carved by indigenous Indians, ancient rocks and fossils from the mines of Potosí, a miniature Cholo figurine made out of silver, and an antique clock. But there was more; a spirit had followed our trail home. 

Fossils, brought with the author's family from Bolivia, are displayed on a wooden table

My mother had decorated our tri-level suburban house with heavy dark wood furniture with thick, ornate carvings. We had faux gilded mirrors and baroque-style picture frames. A black and white photograph of my dead American father was placed above our stereo and a tired cassette tape of Savia Andina blasted loudly from underneath him. Thrifted prints and paintings of Jesus decorated the hallways even though my mother had denounced her Catholicism years ago.

“What’s with the Jesus everywhere?” my friends asked.

“My mom thinks he’s beautiful,” I said.

Old, traditional Cholo figurine.
See Bolivian Cholo Wiki Here

In this home, my mother also displayed our Bolivian goods. The Pachamama idols and fossils and rocks were laid on an old tapestry on top of a small table. The Cholo figurine was placed by the stereo next to my father. The antique clock hung on the living room wall. At random, it would chime even though it hadn’t been wound in years. 

“Dude, that’s freaking me out,” my brother’s friend once said after the clock had belched four impressive chimes late at night.

“It’s a ghost!” my mother said.

A few years later, the ghost moved into the attic above her bedroom. My mother frequently called me with reports: the ghost slammed a door, the ghost moved her papers, the ghost turned off the lights, the ghost misplaced her keys. 

“The ghost kept me up all night!” she would occasionally say.

Native Latin American religious figurines

When my mother sold the house and moved to Texas, I took her Pachamama idols, fossils and rocks, Cholo figurine, and antique clock. 

“Voodoo dolls,” my husband said looking at the idols.

“That’s Mother Earth. You give her respect!” I said. 

We hung the clock in our bedroom where it behaved, but when our son turned three years old, he became fearful of it. 

“Sian lives in the clock,” he said. 

We learned that Sian (s-eye-an) was a black shadow who would occasionally emerge from the clock and hover next to it. But if the clock was our son’s nemesis, rocks were his totems. For six years, they were his requested gift for his birthday and Christmas. And once our son was old enough, I opened his hands and pressed the ancient rocks and fossils from Potosí into his warm palms.

“Your great grandfather pulled these from deep within the mines,” I told him.

Large rock, fossil, and artifact collection on shelves

My grandfather Gregorio was raised on a farm with soil in his fists and Inti, Mama Killa and Pachamama in his heart. At 14 years old, he left his family with dreams of achieving wealth and respect. One of his jobs was hard labor in the silver mines of Potosí where he had grabbed some interesting rocks and fossils from Pachamama’s vast, dark belly to remind him of his beginning. Before he established his bakery. Then his restaurant. And later his apartments. Before he sent his children, one by one, to universities in the United States with his wealth (respect was trickier; he was part Quechua Indian). Before his grandchildren arrived, speaking another language than his own.

I married an atheist and former anarchist. While my husband never grew attached to the idols, he likes the clock. It now hangs on a brick wall in his office.

“It doesn’t chime. Nobody’s scared of it. It doesn’t act weird,” my husband says. And when asked if he believes in ghosts, he replies, “Not even a little bit.” 

Author's family clock

Perhaps clocks are just clocks. And rocks are just rocks. After all, I’m from the United States, a country of rules and regulations, risk-management and lawsuits. And buttressed by my post-graduate degree, I’ve been taught to follow the sacred linear path of logic and peer-reviewed, double-blind studies. I know how to be the buzzkill. 

“What if the baby’s hand Papito felt in the bakery was a cat’s paw instead of a spirit?” I recently asked my mother. 

How can anyone mistake a baby’s hand for a cat?!” she spat, her accent still unchanged after decades of living in the United States.

She might have a point. A few days ago, my husband announced that the clock sputtered a giggle of chimes that made one of his employees anxious.

As for our son, my grandfather’s rocks and fossils and the silver Cholo figurine sit among his burgeoning collection. Pyrite for strength. Trilobite for protection. Tourmaline for healing. Sometimes I wonder if his love of primeval earth comes from the whispers of our ancestral spirits, the pull of the ancient mines. 

collection of family heritage heirlooms and other life charms

As for me, the Pachamama idols sit bedside underneath my nightstand to give me longevity and ward against cancer. Even if it’s mere superstition, I offer them sage for cleanliness and blessing, lavender for serenity and grace. And when I feel ready, they will be moved into my sewing room, the space where I make clothes and gifts. A cloth bracelet for a dying friend who required fearlessness and power. A robe for another who is sick. And when she unwraps my gift and slips it on, I will ask her what she feels. This divine mystery. This ungraspable spirit. This humble magnificence.

Tell me: Whenever your hand-mades embrace you, what are you truly wearing? 

Do you feel it? 

Denise Archer has been sewing since she was 15 years old when she discovered the magic of her mother’s Singer treadle. Denise is the founder of @thepeoplessewingarmy where she launches missions for sewists around the world to bomb organizations and people with good sewing deeds out of scrap fabric. Her personal garments and projects can be found @pimp_slapped. Denise is always on the hunt for vintage Issey Miyake patterns.