I am a writer. After interviewing people and hearing their personal stories, I can usually write a piece that captures their emotions—one that I hope will offer some benefit to readers. But I often put my own feelings about these stories in another part of my brain to deal with later, privately.
Recently I couldn’t easily separate myself from a story, and that has been weighing on me. I made a promise to another mother to tell her story, and I want to deliver on it. So I am in this story—another wife and mother’s story—because, quite unexpectedly, it is also my story.
In December, I traveled with several colleagues to Guatemala. Right now, Catholic Relief Services is in the middle of a year-long campaign highlighting stories from the field about how the changing environment is affecting the world’s most vulnerable people. Guatemala was our first stop. We documented how a disease called coffee leaf rust is changing the lives of farmers, and how families must adapt to increased drought in Guatemala’s Dry Corridor.
There I met Cristina. She and her husband, Porfirio, lost almost all of their harvest to the erratic rainfall in Quiche, where they live. The couple has seven children. Several benefit from CRS’ SEGAMIL program, which provides nutrition and health services for children in their first 1,000 days of life.
I got out of the car and immediately was struck seeing the family’s dead crops. And I was drawn to the simplicity of the surroundings. I thought I knew what to expect going to visit a family impacted by drought and poverty. I envisioned dry earth, sad faces and crying babies. But what I experienced was quite different. Yes, I saw dust and dried corn crops, but I also saw hope—and my own life—reflected right back at me.
I do not live in a house with one bedroom for my entire family and a small kitchen. I do not keep my few possessions outside in a bag. My toilet is not in my backyard. This is what I took in when I arrived at Cristina’s house. But then I met Cristina, a woman very similar to me—a mother just trying to keep it together.
When our car stopped in front of her house, she was at the outdoor stove cooking breakfast for us and her family. She walked away from the kettle just long enough run a comb through her hair and greet us. I immediately liked her. She was doing a lot of things at once, but still managed to be polished and kind to visitors she had invited to her home.
The entire day I was captivated watching her. She fed us, and then she fed her children. I never saw her sit down to eat. She spent time caring for the younger children, while making sure the older ones weren’t causing trouble. I saw her look at her husband a few times, communicating with her eyes. And near the end of our visit, she strapped her baby to her, grabbed a large container and walked off toward the nearest water source, which was about 25 minutes away. She brought her other children along to help. That walk was not easy. It was hilly and long, but I didn’t hear anyone complain. When I looked at Cristina and her family, all I saw was happiness … and my own family.
I am all too familiar with crazy meal times. I’ve changed more diapers than I can count. My husband and I often can’t talk to one another because we are listening to one of our children. Sometimes we share more with our facial expressions than our words.
It’s true we have never had to fetch water to drink, cook and clean, and for that I am grateful. But when I saw Cristina and her children walking to get water, I saw my family—from a mother’s perspective of love and togetherness.
I am sure Cristina can’t imagine my life, just like I couldn’t truly imagine hers before I met her. But I feel I know her now. She cares for her kids. She and her husband are working together to try to build a strong foundation for them. Her family is struggling, but she is focused on the here and now. I know Cristina is a mother who knows love and shares love.
Although I interviewed Cristina about the drought and her family’s struggles, I really saw Cristina when I told her I was the mom of two boys. Her eyes lit up, and she laughed. She told us her family’s life was hard, and asked us to pray for her and tell their story.
During our climate change campaign, we published a story about the struggles of Cristina’s family, but I don’t feel that was the story of a mother’s love. I hope this is that story. Even if you don’t have children, I hope you find a little bit of yourself in Cristina.
Being a mother is hard. We are trying to do the best we can with what we have. And we are trying to do it with love. That is our story.
Rebekah Kates Lemke is the branded content writer for Catholic Relief Services. Previously, she was a web producer and editor for CRS. She is based in Baltimore, Maryland.