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Looking out my Backdoor: Dona Mary


March 15, 2018

I feel sad. This morning I made a list of things I wanted to buy in Etzatlan. Since I don’t have a car, I rely on taxi service or a friend or one of the workers here on the ranch to take me around.

I had asked Leo, my gardening helper, to “bring your car and let’s go have breakfast at Dona Mary’s before we shop.”

It’s been easy for me to swing into the Mexican way of eating. Early morning coffee with a small snack, fruit or a biscuit. Mid-morning, a breakfast meal, something substantial, and then somewhere in mid-afternoon, the main meal of the day. If I were really Mexican, I would also have a light meal, perhaps left-overs, after dark and work is done. For me, the mid-afternoon meal is enough. I don’t get hungry, or if I do, a piece of fruit or something sweet satisfies me.

Dona Mary’s Restaurante is out of town, on the edge of the Ehido, San Pedro, on the road to Magdalena. It’s an open-sided, ram-shackle affair. The roof, such as it is, has been cobbled together with pieces of corrugated iron and plastic panels. The floor is concrete and the roof rests on concrete pillars. Guessing from the adobe oven and the giant wood-burning cookstove, the restaurant has been in this same place at least 50 to 60 years, generation to generation. There are perhaps a dozen ancient metal tables, each with four chairs.

The first time I ate here, I had carnitas con nopales, small chunks of pork rib browned and stewed in a delicious sauce with slivers of nopale cactus. I was hooked. I’m an adventurous eater. I like to order foods I’ve never before tasted. But I’ve had the same meal every time I go to Dona Mary’s. I go when I get hungry for carnitas con nopales. It doesn’t hurt that she also makes the best hand-patted tortillas I’ve ever had. Makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?

The food is simple and good; the ambiance transports me to yesteryear in Mexico. But what makes Dona Mary’s special is, well, Dona Mary. She is a woman who enjoys feeding people. She watches to make sure we like her food and is inordinately pleased when we eat with obvious gusto.

Each time I go there, Dona Mary sees me get out of the car and her face lights up with a smile of pleasure. One can tell when a smile is genuine. Her eyes smile even more than her mouth. Dona Mary’s welcoming smile always made me feel warm, at home.

Her husband, Jose, would be there too, a nod, a wave of his hand. He kept the wood pile replenished or sharpened knives, or sat with his own cup of coffee. A daughter helped with the cooking and a grand-daughter waited tables. Whoever was available when the plate was ready, served the food. And Dona Mary always stopped by the table to talk.

This morning, Dona Mary was not at her usual place, large wooden spoon dripping juice while she waved us inside to a table. The young woman who cleaned the table for us was not the usual granddaughter. We ordered our usual meal, carnitas con nopales. The sauce was different; still delicious. Today’s re-fried beans were flavored with chorizo. The corn tortillas, were, however, the same delicious, hand ground, hand patted rounds, hot and tasty from the grill.

We felt a premonition but we had to ask, “Where is Dona Mary?”

Dona Mary has cancer, the answer we didn’t want to hear. It seems to have started as a tumor in her brain but has taken over from there. There is no good news. I mourn this woman I don’t really know but whom I like.

Things change. If the restaurant continues, which I imagine it will, the people working will be family, but a different branch of the family. I’ll continue to go. The food is good. It’s just not the same. Unreasonably, I want Dona Mary to be standing at the stove, her daughter patting out tortillas and the young granddaughter slicing oranges for fresh juice.


Sondra Ashton grew up in Harlem but spent most of her adult life out of state. She returned to see the Hi-Line with a perspective of delight. After several years back in Harlem, Ashton is seeking new experiences in Etzatlan, Mexico. Once a Montanan, always. Read Ashton’s essays and other work at montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com. Email [email protected]/.


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