Here in the Basque Country, the sense of community is very strong. We say we do things in the auzolan way. It doesn’t have an exact translation, but it kind of means that everybody who can help in the community, does. We construct houses, clean the forest, fix the church´s ceiling or take care of our elderly in the auzolan way.
You volunteer to do whatever you do best. If you are a good plumber, you will do the plumbing. If you are good with glass, you will be in charge of the windows. The kids will bring water to the workers and our grandmothers will cook for everybody.
I think this sense of community is related to the fact that historically, the men spent many months away from home, as either shepherds or fishermen. Women were left in charge of everything for at least six months every year. They would take care of the house, the grandparents, the kids, the few animals left on the farm, basically everything. There was too much to do, so women in the villages developed the auzolan way to help one another.
My first community Memory
I remember when I was a kid, our aunt Antonina, who was living in a village, got cancer. As we were living in the city, we couldn´t be there every day.
Once the summer came, we moved to the village to take care of her. To me it was like a miracle, the neighbors used to walk in and out the house like it was theirs. Every morning Señora Adela would bring fresh baked muffins and a pot of coffee for my aunt. An hour later Señora Carmen (the village teacher) would walk in, ready to bathe her and do her hair (the little bit that was left after chemo). Mid-morning three young ladies would show up to clean the house. All the community was helping!
It really was like a dance and my mum was the choreographer. She knew exactly what to do with each one of those ladies. She naturally knew how to greet them, how to thank them, it was magical.
When aunt Antonina died, my mum gave each one of the ladies a small gift on behalf of my aunt. They were not expensive gifts, but small reminders. Señora Adela was given the small silver spoon that she used to feed my aunt. Señora Carmen was given the beautiful ivory comb she used to comb her hair.
Community in COVID times
In early spring of 2020, when COVID was at its highest peak in Spain, my wife, kids and myself moved to the village to pass the lockdown. One morning, my mum called and said, Señora Carmen is sick, and her kids are not allowed to go to the village. Something triggered inside of me, I knew what I had to do. By the time I walked to Señora Carmen´s home, four women were already there organizing everything.
One woman said “I will stay overnight”. Another said “my son will take care of the flock”. The other one said “I will arrange the morning with my daughters, so we will take care of her hygiene and the house”. The fourth one said, “I will take care of the food”. Suddenly the four ladies got quiet and looked at me with an intriguing smile.
As I am a city boy, I was not even considered to be in charge of the animals. These ladies know that I am a tour guide and I am good at talking, so they decided that my job was to talk with her. As she was too tired to read I would read her favorite book, one that collects real love letters written by historical characters. Anyway, my personal goal became to make her laugh at least once every day.
Every afternoon for over two months, I would walk into her home after her nap and entertain her for three hours. I loved it! Not just because I made Señora Carmen happy, but I felt I was giving back all the love she gave to my aunt Antonina forty years ago.
Señora Carmen died on July 17th 2020. Unfortunately, because no more than four people could gather due to Covid restrictions, the family decided to hold off on the funeral. We buried her ashes the first weekend in September. The ceremony was beautiful. Her granddaughter is an opera singer and sang until she made us all cry. At the end of the service, the community paid respects to the family and gathered at their home.
There were muffins and coffee for everybody. There was also a lot of chatting to the point that Father Miguel asked us to please lower the volume of our conversations and try not to laugh… we were at a funeral. I discreetly moved to the balcony for some much needed quiet. While I was looking over the mountains, Señora Carmen´s daughter joined me and thanked me for giving companionship to her mum. She also handed me a perfectly wrapped gift and asked me to open it at home.
Once I made it back home and our kids went to bed, I opened the gift. When I saw it, I couldn´t stop crying, it was the love letters book, the one she had me read to her every afternoon. It is not an expensive gift, but it is the most beautiful memory I will ever treasure to remember Señora Carmen.
PS: I have tried to look for the book in an English version, but unfortunately it doesn’t exist. Here is the link to the Spanish version.