Saturday, July 11, 2009

Are You Out Of Your Mind? June 2004

“Mom, we need to have a serious conversation,” I said, as I helped her very old bones settle into her favorite chair.
“Ok,” she said apprehensively.

“We can’t afford to live in California any more. You‘re having to sell stocks to pay your utility bill, and I’m working three jobs. This is no kind of life.”

“I know, but what do you think we should do?” I heard the fear.

“I think we should move to Mexico. I’ve heard about a place called Ajijic that is supposed to be beautiful and easy for Americans to live in, what do you think?”
I was prepared for every answer, except for the one I got. “Sure, honey!”

Mexico had been my favorite country ever since I stepped out of a Volkswagen bus on the Baja Peninsula in the Summer of Love. I flew out that weekend to look at it through the eyes of my 94 year old mother. Oh, did I mention she was legally blind?

It is fair to say the first thing I noticed about Ajijic was the climate, then the beauty of the lake and villages, and finally—but most profoundly—the friendliness of the Mexican people. I peeked in on the medical clinics and perused their price lists. I spoke to everyone and asked many questions. I walked and I took the bus. I met an immigration lawyer and bought an hour of advice. I sampled the restaurants from Greek to Chinese. Ultimately I stumbled across the perfect house and signed a lease.

I called home. “Guess what?”

“I’m afraid to ask.”

“I rented a house.”


“It’s beautiful, mom, it’s 2 bedrooms and baths, 2 fireplaces, furnished, gated and secure, big yards and garden, 2 patios, nice kitchen, guest room, telephone, satellite TV, nice neighbors, and it comes with a gardener!”

“How much?”

“Four hundred dollars a month,” I said.

“What? What did you say? Four hundred dollars a month?”

“Yep, guess what else?” I asked.


“You know that Talking Books program you belong to from the Library of Congress?”


“Well, they have a branch of it in Ajijic, the only one outside of the US. You can get your books on tape here too, free.”

“I don’t believe it. When are you coming back?” She was anxious to know more, that was a good sign.

I photographed everything: the house, the furniture, the lake, the mountains, the flowers, her favorite foods at Super Lake, even the friends I had made in my week in Ajijic, and then flew home for the inquisition.

She loved the pictures and poured over the ones of the house. She chose her bedroom and pretended she was already in it. “What shall I bring?” She asked suddenly.

“Only the things you absolutely love and only what will fit in your suitcases for the flight, I said, I’ll take my things and the stuff we’ll need for the house in the car—along with the dog. All you need to do is decide what you want to take, and what you want to leave. I’ll do everything else” I said.

I quit my jobs and prepared for the garage sales. I packed boxes for the car, for friends, and for the thrift shops. I built piles in every room of my house and kept checking my mother’s house to see how she was coming

“So, mom,” I asked, “how’s the sorting coming?”

“Oh, it’s coming,” she said.

Since my mother was to fly down with an escort, and I’d need someone to help me pack the car and drive from San Francisco to Ajijic, I put the word out to friends. In exchange for all expense paid vacations in Mexico, Chuck and Susan volunteered to help and two major hurdles were now behind us.

When the passports finally arrived we set out for the first of three appointments at the Mexican consulate in San Francisco to obtain our FM3s (immigration booklets) and other legalities. Lots of official paperwork and a few hundred dollars later, we were good to go.

“You’re taking Maria WHERE?” My aunt (her sister) shrieked into the phone.

Mexico.” I shouted back.

“Are you out of your mind?”

“She wants to go, it’s all planned, she’s got her passport and everything,” I said.

“We’re driving up!”

Oh joy. I had heard that relatives would be the biggest challenge, I was prepared to hang tough.

“Mom,” I said, “Chuck and I will be driving out in two weeks. Have you sorted your things yet?”

“No, not yet.”

“You better hurry up; the garage sale is next weekend!”


My overwhelmed mother adamantly refused to throw anything away—including the 1000 twist ties I found in her kitchen drawer during the garage sale. Walking around her house attempting to help her make decisions produced nothing but tears and stubborn indignation. Uh-oh, dangerous territory. “Mom, you have to make these decisions, I’m leaving in a week!” More tears.

The saving grace was she would have the two weeks it would take for Chuck and me to drive down and get the house set up before she flew down, and I figured she would be able to sort her stuff after I left. There was a small thought hiding in that deep dark part of my mind that I was accustomed to ignoring. What would I do if she changed her mind and refused to move to Mexico? I wondered if the airlines would take a bound and gagged 94 year old woman. . .

“Don’t forget to decide what you want to take; the Salvation Army will be here tomorrow. I love you, bye, see you in a couple of weeks.” Chuck and I hugged her and drove away waving. In the rear view mirror I saw an ancient woman standing on her porch, leaning on her cane, looking tiny and terrified. My heart broke, but I had faith that it would all work out and she would love Mexico as much as I did. Or, I’d be the dirty dog who dragged Maria to Mexico against her will where she promptly died of a broken heart.

The first thing I did the day after we arrived in Ajijic was to check my email at the internet café. “Your mother won’t throw anything away,” Susan wrote.

“I know,” I wrote back.

“What should I do?”

“Whatever you have to.”

Then five days later she wrote, “Your mother still wouldn’t throw anything away, so yesterday I rented a dumpster and had it put in the yard outside the window and everything she wasn’t taking in her suitcases went out the window. She never noticed. Good thing she’s blind. See you Monday.”

To say my mother loved Mexico would be an enormous understatement. “You mean this is our new house!” She exclaimed as we drove into the driveway from the airport.

“Yup, I said. Wait ‘til you see the garden.”

Before she went to bed that first night she said, “Thank you for doing this, you went to a lot of work. I love it here.”

Mom spent her days in Ajijic lunching with friends, going to concerts, exploring villages with me, listening to books on tape, and learning Spanish from Chencho our gardener.

Two and a half years after moving to our house, I called to renew the lease and learned our beloved house had been sold and we would have to look for other options. By this time, my mother’s health had deteriorated and she confided one night that she thought she was winding down. Jean Dresslar, the director of the Lake Chapala Society Talking Books Program, and a treasured friend, called me one day and said she thought she could get my mother a casita at Casa Ancianos. “Why don’t we three take a ride out there and we’ll see what Maria thinks,” she suggested.

Mom became the queen of the Casa Ancianos. She blossomed into a social butterfly: visiting the other residents, chatting up the maids, and eagerly awaiting every celebration

and fiesta. On her 97th birthday, they threw her a surprise party. She had the time of her life.

One morning, a few months later, she called to say she was sick so I drove out and took her to the doctor. She was hospitalized for three days, most of the time unconscious, but roused occasionally for short periods of lucidity where I had the opportunity to tell her again how much I loved her, what a good mom she was, and to thank her for coming to Mexico with me. The morning of the fourth day we brought her home to the Casa and she died in my arms the following morning.

A few weeks later my best friend and I climbed out on the southern point of the playa at La Manzanilla and scattered her ashes at sunset.

Postscript 2008:

This was our story and how we did it. Now that I’ve been here for a few years, I’ve heard several other family stories and I’m happy to say most went well and few had regrets. For young and old alike, I believe it takes a positive outlook, flexibility, empathy, and an open mind to make a successful transition from a developed and sophisticated country like the US or Canada to Mexico. But then, are those not success traits for life in general?

Many people have asked me how I did it as they contemplated doing it too. I can honestly say there is nothing I would have done differently. Many have watched their elderly parent blossom here in Mexico, as mine did. So, if you want to move to another country, and are still caring for an elderly parent, don’t let it stop you. It will require a little more work on your part, helping them get orientated, getting legalities in order for them, and setting up a safe and happy environment for them to thrive and to enjoy their new life.

Some of the pros are:

  • Designer weather
  • Great fresh food
  • No stress
  • Friendly and helpful people
  • Many English-speaking people to socialize with
  • Lots of activities and things to do
  • Low-cost and loving home health-care help
  • Less expensive and caring senior facilities
  • An overall lower cost of living and a high quality of life

Some of the cons are:

  • Cobblestones
  • Irregular curbs and sidewalks
  • Low hanging signs
  • Unhealthy tap water
  • Scorpions
  • Gastrointestinal infections
  • Unlit or dimly lit streets
  • Having to disinfect raw produce before eating
  • Dealing with a strange culture, language, and currency


  1. Marilyn,
    What a beautiful story. It brought tears to my eyes and the memory of my wonderful mother and how we bonded during her last months of her life. You were lucky to have your mom for so long. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Marilyn,
    What a touching and inspiring story! Thanks for sharing it. Wish I had known your mother. She sounds like a very adventurous woman.

  3. Marilyn,
    i have teary eyes of joy reading this. Maria had a wonderful long life after Larry passed thanks to your caring.Such a tiny fragile bird she reminded me of. She always worried of you when she would come into the artist guild or i would go over to farmer's market for my weekly bunch of gardenias and the shop she last worked in...can't recall name but ... antique furniture? and was always so happy when you came back to the islands for a visit. thanks you for sharing . what a great ending to a graceful life!

  4. So well put, Sonja, thank you for your kind words. Mom said you were her favorite, I told you that before. She loved you.

  5. Marilyn,
    I loved this story!
    My Dad passed away April 4th of this year. I was granted the blessing of taking care of him the last 2 years. So being able to reconnect, love him & care for his day to day needs was a gift I will always cherish. He too died at home with his 3 daughters at his side.
    I have connected with Jonnie Harker through my sister Nora (they have known each other for several years)now at 61 I am ready to find a new spot on earth.
    Your blog is a thread in my tapestry. I plan to read the entire journal. Thank you for sharing & I hope to be able to meet you someday soon.
    Georgeanna (George) Ocasio
    Native San Franciscan living in Houston for 19 yrs.

  6. Oh, George, thank you for your comments. You were lucky too!
    Look forward to meeting you here.

  7. Came upon your Blog via Steve Cotton. Wonderfully written, poignant and fun. I would like to link from mine but always ask.

    Saludos - John Calypso

  8. Aw, thanks Calypso! Muy amable. I would be thrilled to be added to your site. And would like to add your, ok? Am enjoying reading it! Very interesting to me, one of the few areas of Mexico I have not explored yet.