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Former West Marin resident Dee Goodman now lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which was founded by the Spanish in 1542.

This past week, an old friend, Mac Williams, and I traveled to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and ended up spending several days with a former West Marin resident now living there, Dolores (Dee) Goodman. Dee lives in one of the many colonias (small, semi-rural communities) that surround downtown and are part of the Allende municipality of 139,000 people.

For years, Dee lived in Nicasio and later operated Casa Mexicana bed-and-breakfast inn in Point Reyes Station. Her late husband John spent most of his career working for Marin County Mental Health but after his retirement was in continual demand as a stand-up bass player in San Francisco jazz bands. He was also one of the musicians to regularly play with guitarist Bart Hopkin at the Station House Café. If you ever saw him perform there, you’ll remember him even if you didn’t know his name; for when he was paired with Bart in the Station House, John, a tall black man, played the not-so-common pizzicato (plucked) cello, which was strung like a bass.

Dee, his widow, is now living with a working-class family in a colonia that at first glance might strike West Marin residents as a rural slum. The streets are unpaved and littered with trash. Despite high walls, which hide the residents’ small homes and gardens, families keep dogs on the roof to ward off burglars.

But outward appearances can be deceiving, and Dee has managed to find a bit of paradise where I never would have expected it. Here is her story:

By Dolores Lara Goodman

My husband John died of lung cancer in December 2000, and my loss was enormous. He was the love of my life. We had been together only 10 years, but those were worth a lifetime. He felt the same way about us.

I hadn’t readjusted well to the change and drifted emotionally, feeling lonely among my friends and family. After a year or so, I moved from Point Reyes Station to Petaluma to help my stepfather care for my mother during her terminal illness. My brother Dan lived with me in a manufactured home I had purchased in the same park as Mom and Bill.

With no children of my own, I had given some thought to long-term planning. Assisted-living residences were popping up all over, and they seemed a likely option for me. I calculated what assets I would have and what my fixed income would be and what type of place I would be able to afford so that I wouldn’t become a burden to my family. I was still relatively young, 60, so I wasn’t making any firm plans.

In December 2004, my friend Lana and I took what was supposed to be a two-week vacation to Puerto Vallarta; however, I had a feeling that I would not be returning to the US with Lana. I had, for some time, wanted to stay in Mexico for an extended time. (Two of my grandparents were born in Mexico but were forced to flee to Texas during the 1910 revolution, and I was brought up in Daly City.)

As it happened, I ended up in San Miguel de Allende, which is roughly in the geographical center of Mexico, about 200 miles northwest of Mexico City. San Miguel is a destination for many US and Canadian retirees; our dollars go twice as far here, and we can live more comfortably on our retirement income.

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Imaginative, 60-year-old mural in one of San Miguel de Allende’s art schools.

Gringos have been coming to San Miguel for about 50 years. It started with a group who formed an art colony, and San Miguel now has numerous art schools, galleries etc. The gringo community does a lot for the locals: establishing libraries, scholarships and other helpful projects. And because they help with public matters, along with providing jobs and advancement opportunities, the expatriates are well received by the locals.

100_33672.jpgThe Spanish-colonial downtown — with its park-like square, majestic cathedral, and narrow, cobbled streets — bustles with good restaurants, theatre, music festivals, and barely marked hotel entrances that open into courtyard gardens.

At an elevation of 6,000 feet, San Miguel de Allende has a desert landscape. During winter, middays are warm, and nights are cold. I like the climate.

When I first moved to San Miguel de Allende, I rented in the Los Frailes community at the edge of town. A woman in her 30s named Alicia Gonzalez was the housekeeper at the apartment, and a couple of times I drove her to her home in the Colonia Palmita de Landeta.

The first few times, I met her children in front of their house where they huddled shyly, laughing. They were very curious about me, this Señora Dolores from California. Around the third time I took Alicia to her house, her husband Antonio had just arrived home from work and told Alicia to invite me in. I was led to a front bedroom of their very modest house and was invited to sit on one of the beds.

The visit is still clear in my memory. I remember thinking, “What a beautiful family!” At the time, all five of the family’s children were living at home. (The oldest, Valentina, now 19, has since gone to live nearby with her husband Manuel and his family.)

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Dining outdoors under a tarpaulin (from left): Ernesto, Claudia, Marco, Manuel, and Valentina. She and Manuel, who assembles furniture for a living, are expecting their first child in June.

I subsequently moved from Los Frailes to Calle Recreo in the central part of the San Miguel near Parque Juarez. Alicia and Valentina helped me pack and move. Valentina would spend some nights with me at Recreo, especially when I was sick with a cold or something. And they would all worry about my wellbeing, comfort, and safety.

Unfortunately, the Recreo apartment was intolerably hot, so I moved to a two-bedroom apartment on Calle Agua in the Colonia Atascadero closer to their house. The whole family helped me pack, move, and unpack, the five kids and Mom trekking up and down the path to move my stuff.

If they had their way, I would have just sat back and watched the move go on. After all, I am grande now — that’s when you’re older — like into your sixties (I’m now 66).

100_3371_11.jpgI did a bit of packing but not much moving. Picture the little one, Rosario, five years old, (seen here a year later with her mother Alicia) insisting she be allowed to help carry stuff to the car. Ernesto was eight; Marco, 10; Claudia, 12; and Valentina, 18.

Even before that move, Valentina began to tell her mother and me that I should move in with them, that they could make me a room. The seed was planted, and I didn’t even consider saying no when the Gonzalezes in 2005 invited me to live with them.

In October 2005, I bought a terreno (lot) next to the family for $10,000. In February 2006, I moved into my almost-completed casita, which was built by Antonio, an accomplished maestro albanil (construction worker), and a crew of four. Antonio is incredibly creative and meticulous, and I enjoyed seeing the building materials used here: basically brick, stone, rebar, and concrete. I was able to suggest what I would like to have done and then see it accomplished.

I had initially planned to have a large living area, one bedroom, and bathroom in my casita, but I convinced Alicia and Antonio to accept half the living-room space to make a bedroom for themselves. They had always had their bed in a common part of their house — in the kitchen or living area. We put up a wall to split my living room into their bedroom and a sitting room for me.

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Surrounded by building materials for the completion of their dwellings, Dee dines on the Gonzalezes’ patio with Rosario, Antonio, and Alicia.

Antonio opened up a door in the wall of their house to my casita at their kitchen. I don’t have a kitchen – it’s our kitchen. Alicia is a marvelous cook and for me, eating with the family is better than going to my favorite Mexican restaurant every day.

I participate in the preparation of meals as much as I can and as much as they’ll let me. I’m learning more as time goes by. I also help with the marketing. We go to the plazita market every Saturday, and while Alicia shops for veggies, I shop for fruit: mangos, guayavas, dried Jamaica blossoms etc. I love it! It’s our tradition on shopping days to buy fresh carnitas, bolillos, tortillas, and salsa to eat when we get home.

The daily giving is as important as the receiving. I think the key is being able to share and actually being a member of the family unit — watching the kids get off to school and waiting for them to come home. It’s something I missed out on, not having had children, and it’s a blessing to have been given the opportunity now that I’m grande.

I’m referred to by the family as Tia (Aunt) Lolita and am usually addressed as “Tia.” The parents have given me a grandmother’s authority over the children and have instilled in them a kind respect for me. I love feeling a grandmotherly cariño (affection) for the kids.

Rosario and Ernesto, the youngest two, and I are particularly attached. Mi sombra (shadow), Ernesto, doesn’t let me leave the house alone. When I leave the house to walk Omar, my dog, Ernesto always accompanies me.

100_3377_11.jpgI think the kids were initially told by Mom and Dad to accompany me whenever I went out, and Ernesto (at right with his brother Marco) has taken charge. He says he’ll protect me from aggressive dogs and picks up rocks to throw in the event we run into any, which does happen. He’s my little angel.

I’m glad I said “yes” when the Gonzalez family invited me to live them. We’re a great match. All of us can’t believe our good fortune. I was able to make the move and provide my own space, but had I not been able to do that, had I been totally without financial means, they would have gladly made room for me in their home, and we would all be just as happy, I’m sure.

That’s the way it’s done in the Mexican culture and many other cultures of the world. Older folks don’t have to move someplace with strangers their own age and be cared for by other strangers. There is always room for them in a family member’s home and daily life… until their dying day. I’m still young enough to foresee more changes in my life, and this may not be my “journey’s end.” But it just may be, and that’s great.