I never set out to write a book about the saints. I was a Catholic convert at 37, after a long struggle with discernment which began in my early twenties. I had never been baptised, never belonged to groups, religious or otherwise—even my friends often didn’t know each other. Over the years it seemed more and more important to be part of something bigger, and the Catholic church, as I grew to understand it, drew me in. I traveled a fair amount—to Mexico, India, the Czech Republic, and then in a period of very few years, to Canada, Peru, Spain, Morocco, and repeatedly, back to Mexico, sometimes several times a year. I usually began and ended my travels in Mexico City, the Districto Federal, which its citizens refer to as D.F.
I usually stayed with friends there, and these friends had a remarkable cook named Chayo. During my first visit, when I was 28, Chayo was introduced to me by Clementina, the matriarch of the family. She told me that Chayo had given her own kidney to her son when he was in dire medical condition. When I met her, Chayo was a little reserved, but soon she opened up, usually with some surprising statement out of nowhere. When I was growing up, I was taught that only criminals get tattoos, but I thought for a long time about getting a stem of flowers right here behind my ear. Or Ugh. That picture of me is terrible. Give it to the robbers. She’d tell me horrific cautionary stories about babies who got their toes chewed by rats in the slums of Mexico City, or she could repeat a gruesome joke about the earthquake, its punchline a phrase from a children’s song: A hand here, a foot there…
I can feel already that I’m giving you some of the wrong details. Her toughness was real, but she wasn’t hardened—Chayo radiated gratitude. She was always singing, with the radio, by herself, sweeping up the living room. She wasn’t just cheerful; she seemed deeply contented. It surprised me when she admitted that, as a girl, she had been very talented at drawing and drafting and had wanted to be an architect. Instead, she had chosen a life of work in the homes of wealthier people. She never appeared dissatisfied or regretful. She had to work hard, coming to work from the North on the bus in the early morning chill, wrapped in a crocheted shawl, cooking and cleaning before most people had woken up. She was good at her job, proud of her food, loved and respected by the people she worked for, and she always made time to teach me how to make one thing or another. And she shared with me her devotion to Saint Jude Thaddeus, who had helped her when her son’s health was failing.
One day, near the end of my trip, Clementina announced that Chayo was to take the day off from cooking and spend it with me at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She navigated our trip to the North of the city by communal van, subway, and a brief walk through one of the city markets that springs up at every corner in D.F. She told me that I’d recognize the Basilica from a distance: it’s the one that looks like a big stupid circus tent, she said. She was right—it wasn’t exactly an architectural triumph—but we rode the conveyer belt under the miraculous tilma of Juan Diego together, and visited the old cathedral, now sinking into the ground and filled with ex voto paintings by cured postulants. It seemed silly, though somehow quaint, to get a photo taken on a donkey, as people were doing on the hillside leading up to the smallest chapel. We walked up the hill to that chapel, and there both Chayo and I stopped to pray.
Praying can be such a private thing—and for each of us, it was—but somehow, I felt that the barriers between us, of language, nationality, religious upbringing, had somehow softened a little—that Chayo recognized in me the rootless quality that made some kind of home so important to me, and that I understood more about her solitary experience of belief. I don’t know if that day affected her feelings about me, but by the end of the trip, she was referring to me as her “American daughter.” It took another decade before I committed to my conversion, but I have always remembered her own example of faith as a model for me.
It was only later that I started to think of Chayo as a version of her favorite saint: the patron saint of impossible causes.
Portrait of Chayo as St. Jude Thaddeus
In a green apron, Chayo stirs chayote soup,
holding her palm taut so she can daub a taste there
to check the salt. Her skin doesn’t feel the heat
though if I try the same I blister myself. She sings
while she chops chives into tiny rings
that oat on the surface of the liquid.
When Clementina first told me about her, she taught me
in Spanish riñones, kidneys, because Chayo gave one
to her son, who almost died when his failed.
In Mexico City she pinned a bean-shaped charm
to the skirt of a statue. Priests, I don’t talk to much,
she says, but San Judas Tadeo, him I trust.
I prayed to him to intercede, to heal my son. She lifts a copper bowl
down from the cabinet and hugs it
against her chest with both arms. Now he works
as an engineer, and lives with his girlfriend. She sets the bowl
on the counter, lifts a stack of plates onto
the wheeled cart she uses to set the table.
She wraps warm tortillas in a cloth, spoons salsa
into a shallow dish, fills the serving bowl
with pale green soup I watched her form
from three chayotes, a potato, and bouillon.
Above her the stove-light burns in its hood,
illuminating each loose strand of hair on her head.
Nothing, she tells me, is a lost cause. This soup,
for example. If you cook it too long, add water and Norsuiza.
If green beans turn dark, a little baking soda keeps them bright.
She smooths her hair and straightens her apron,
ready to serve. And if you use a pressure cooker
for frijoles, they’ll be perfect inside of half an hour.
—from Communion of Saints by Susan L. Miller