There are a number of private holidays I observe throughout the year. I’m slowly introducing David to them, and one of them has become particularly meaningful to me now that I’m married: December 26th, my grandparents’ anniversary. This year would have been their 80th. And sure, it’s many months away, but as we get close to Valentine’s Day—a holiday that both David and I find silly and haven’t usually celebrated—I thought I’d share about the one holiday that, to me, means love.
Mamatita y Papaché, as I called them, met in Guatemala City in the early 1930s. He was a medical student and she an elementary school teacher. Her father, a Spanish doctor who had emigrated to Guatemala at the turn of the century, had extended an invitation to a few students to visit his home. My grandmother’s eldest sister was renowned in their social circle as one of the most beautiful young women of the time, and from what I hear, she liked the attention. Their father, who was by then a widower, wanted to make sure she married soon—and to someone of good social standing. It was with that ulterior motive that he’d invited some future doctors to his house.
My grandfather went only because he wanted to get to know the host better, and talk to him about a case study he had recently read about. As expected, my great aunt was the center of attention at the gathering. Papaché, who thought she was perfectly nice but wasn’t as smitten as the others, gravitated to her two sisters, who were watching, amused, from the sidelines. The middle sister was shy and not very talkative. The youngest seemed friendlier and was (as he later told me) by far the most beautiful.
My grandmother stole Papaché’s heart that very day. She was thoughtful, and their conversation, as he remembered it, was riveting. She had been studying English, and he was fluent (his father grew up in New York), so he used that to impress her. He, in turn, was impressed by her desire to learn a new language. Papaché always said that he left that gathering convinced that she was who he wanted to marry. “From that night on,” he wrote decades later, “there was no other woman in the world for me.”
But there was. At least for a couple hours. Papaché had a girlfriend. He’d forgotten all about her! She didn’t even cross his mind until he was almost home, having already dreamed up a lifetime by Mamatita’s side. Having heard the story a million times, I have a perfect picture of him in my mind, freezing half-step in the middle of the street. He turned around, walked in the opposite direction, and went straight to the girl’s house. He unceremoniously broke up with her that same night.
Mamatita was nowhere near as certain as he was that they were bound to get married, but she liked him well enough. She allowed him to call on her again. He did, several times, and eventually, she fell in love too. They didn’t get married right away because Papaché was adamant that he wanted to graduate before embarking in married life, and he still had three years left of medical school. He wasn’t sure she’d want to wait because she had good prospects, and by the time he graduated she’d be in her late 20s—which was late for marriage back then. But she understood the reasons, and trusted that he wasn’t just stringing her along.
They got married on Dec. 26, 1937. I was lucky to be raised by parents who have had a good marriage (they have been together almost 53 years now), but everything I and everyone in my family have learned about love and marriage comes from Mamatita y Papaché. They are my role models; their marriage is what I’ve always wanted to emulate.
They lived a long, happy life together—they raised a family, traveled to every continent, and went on countless adventures. But what I appreciated most about them was that their love was honest, and they were as open about the good times as they were about the difficult ones. In his memoirs, for example, Papaché described 1938—their first year of marriage—as one the worst years of both their lives. He was working long shifts at the hospital while trying to build his own private practice. She went through a difficult pregnancy, with him away working most of the time. And testing their marriage the most, their firstborn died when he was less than a month old. In the years that followed, obligations to their extended families sometimes caused friction, and I know they weren’t immune to a variety of marital conflicts. But the fidelity and love they had for each other and the like-mindedness with which they made decisions kept their marriage strong.
Their connection was so strong that when, in his 90s, Papaché started saying that he was ready to pass, Mamatita developed cancer. And with the reverence he always treated her, he let her go through death’s door first—quickly following. One of my favorite memories of them is from those last few precious months we had them. Mamatita was coming home after two days in the hospital. It was the first time in more than 60 years that she’d been hospitalized and he hadn’t been able to be at her bedside. I was with him in the living room when we heard the car pull up. He’d been using a wheelchair, but in his excitement, he just got up, and walked up to the door. She all but jumped out of the car to greet him. They ran (well, shuffled) to each other, held each other tight, and kissed.
I always laughed at Papaché for the certainty he claimed to have had about Mamatita since the first time they spoke. But I suppose I can admit now that the joke was on me. I remember thinking, that first weekend I spent with David, “Well I guess I am my grandfather’s grandson after all.”
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