Death in a Family

I am living with a large extended family, an experience that has been both comforting (people are always everywhere) and lonely (what a social misfit I am living so far from my own strong kinship ties!). Seven siblings (now ages 50–35) inherited the house I live in when their parents died. When one of the brother’s wives died in childbirth, a sister adopted his two small children, and is raising them as her own. Several years back, this sister and her husband moved into the parents’ room on the top floor. Their room is next to the largest kitchen in the house, the one that doubles as the main social gathering space. This sister cooks and does childcare for many of her nieces and nephews, and her husband takes on extra hours of construction work so that there is always enough food to feed everyone (even if plain fried tortillas are served as the main course a couple of times a week). I asked the husband shortly after we met whether his job was dangerous. He said yes, it was, but because of a recent promotion to oversee a construction team, he thought some of the danger had been minimized. He gave a blessing of thanks to God as he told me this.

In April, Emily (the author) returned to New York to attend her brother’s wedding. She wrote the following letter a few weeks later, shortly after getting back to the field.

I returned to the shock of discovering that a couple of Sunday mornings ago, when clocking some extra work hours before breakfast, the husband had fallen from the third floor of a building and died instantly. The grief … the confusion … the moments of laughter-relief release … the unspeakable, unthinkable weight of sadness … the impossible difficulty of rationalizing or making sense of this death against the relentless desire to do so. I’m afraid this sentence must end there, defying proper sentence structure, since right now I’m not sure what structure really gives us in the end. Tonight the dinner table was struck by an unusual moment of stillness that once allowed to enter overtook the space around us. I swear that everyone was thinking the same thing: “At any moment he could walk through the door”—only to have to remind themselves that he would never walk through the door again. How do you believe the unbelievable? There’s a sense of wanting more than anything for time to pass so that the pain is lessened, while also not wanting time to move a second ahead, as this means a second more of life without him.

The grief is not really mine. I only knew him a handful of weeks. I wasn’t here when he died. Someday soon I will need, because of my research, to switch families and will leave again. I’m trying to sit alongside their grief though. Family members have asked me to please stay. I know the $3 a day I give for room and board is needed and I’ve been told that my company is a good distraction; the busier they can stay the better. I have no idea how any of this ties into my fieldwork and it might not. I want to learn from it, but that desire is accompanied with such a strong feeling of guilt (what privileged distance I must have to want to make use of the pain of others). Perhaps the pain in this household right now might help me to better understand this country with the deep, layered, experiences of death and grief that it holds? But am I capitalizing on the pain of those around me by analyzing it, and do I have that right? Would it be better to keep my own mind still, and let the sorrow move around me where it wants to move?

And then, life goes on: a baby was born to one of the cousins in the family the day before yesterday (the first son at the great-grandchild level—I’ll attach a silly picture of me with the baby below). The eldest sister turned 50 a week ago and was celebrated with a huge party. And my days have been completely filled with semi-structured interviews with a range of different friends-offriends here (beauticians, aerobics instructions, “amas de casa” (lovers of the home, or housewives), teachers, students, farmers). I really don’t know where much of it is going yet—I’m going to try to spend more time in some of the outlying rural communities and I’m choosing between a few different clinics, taking my time with this since once I start working there, I’ll have less time with people at their jobs and in their homes. There are some major recurring themes that I’ve been marking: a new economy of time management alongside increased stress, which people say is affecting their appetites and metabolisms; the impact of working mothers on household diets; the general distrust of what is in the country’s food supply.

As for what I’m learning: sometimes I feel like everything is completely obvious and other times I feel like what people are telling me is unbelievable. I’ve been recording almost everything and am leaving some of the processing of it all until I’ve been here for a while longer. I suppose I am trying to do my best to follow the most enduring of our methodological techniques: to listen, although right now it seems as though mostly I am listening to that which is unspoken and which may never be able to be put to words.

Now I’m off to go finish fieldnotes for the night…

Emily Yates-Doerr, wrote this while a doctoral candidate at NYU and conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Guatemala, looking at changes in what people eat and how they understand a healthy diet. The traditional local diet of beans and tortillas is being challenged by imported foods and snacks (soda, chips, sweets, and the like), while medical clinics are spreading new ideas about nutrition and health. Emily is currently a research fellow at the University of Amsterdam.

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