Saturday, May 28, 2011

Part 21: Bindings that Save

Part 21: Bindings that Save

We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies. ~Shirley Abbott

It was obvious that Annie didn’t quite know where to start so I told her, “Relax. Start your story where you think it starts. Tell the truth, not just what you think I want to hear.”

She gave me a “you’re really strange” look but took a breath and began. “We call my dad Poppy and his dad we called Poppa. Poppa died when I was younger but he was pretty cool even though he was old. He was Columbian and came to the US for political asylum. His wife and older two sons were killed in the fighting that was always going on down there. Poppy wasn’t even a year old when he and his father immigrated. Poppa married a woman when he got to the US to help take care of Poppy and because he was lonely but it didn’t stick and she left to go back to her family so it was just Poppy and his dad. You probably think that’s pathetic.”

“If you want to know what I think then ask, but don’t assume. I don’t think it is pathetic. I think some of it is tragic but based on what you’ve said your grandfather was just doing the best he knew how to do,” I told her reminding her not to automatically think the worst.

She shrugged, still not sure she could trust I meant that. “Poppa worked really hard all the time but he and Poppy got along. Poppy said it was because his father knew what was most important and that is what they focused on and let God take care of the rest. All I know is Poppa was a bear about work … work and school seemed to be what he thought most important; oh and mass on Saturday nights. Poppa was an architect in Columbia but the rules are different here in the US and Poppa didn’t have the money to go back to college and get the degree and stuff that he needed to be an architect here; there wasn’t money for much of anything. So he went to work in a grocery store but he also worked at a restaurant at night that let him bring Poppy with him. He also did landscaping work when it was available. Poppy is really smart; he graduated highschool near the top of his class and the only reason he didn’t make valedictorian was because he had to work and sometimes didn’t get enough sleep and would miss a quiz or something. His SAT scores were real high and it got him a scholarship to a state college but he still had to come up with money for books and a car and gas and insurance and …”

Nodding in empathy I told her, “Been there, it isn’t easy. I worked my way through college too. Even with scholarships there are still things you have to pay for and my parents couldn’t help except to give me a place to stay and to help with the smaller stuff. But really, and I’m sure your dad probably said something similar, sometimes you only appreciate what you have when you have to really work for it.”

She nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, that’s what Poppy always said. Thing is Poppy earned his AA but couldn’t afford anymore after that because Poppa had an accident on the job – a kid backed into him with a forklift and broke his hip and a place in his back that took a long time to heal.” Suddenly she checked her enthusiasm. “Poppy took on a couple of more part time jobs to help pay the rent and put food on the table because they were giving Poppa a hard time about workmen’s comp. They kept trying to say he was an illegal but that wasn’t true. He’d get them copies of the paperwork that said he was in the US legally and it would get lost … sometimes on purpose.”

I noticed a righteous indignation just beneath the surface of her assumed stoic outlook. Poor kid, it didn’t seem her family could catch a break.

“Anyway, on one of these jobs Poppy met Mommy. She was a nice girl from a nice family and even though Poppa asked them to wait her parents were all for it thinking that Poppy was a citizenship ticket for their daughter. Poppy didn’t know it at the time, he was just in love. Mommy was … well, she was easily led by her family and got pregnant right away even though Poppy and Mommy had an agreement that they would wait. That was Raphael, my big brother.” I wanted to ask where her brother was but she went on too quickly. “Poppy had wanted to go back to school but now all that was changed. Mommy also did some other stuff that Poppy wasn’t happy about … she signed up for government benefits, would take us to the free clinic even though Poppy told her to use the walk in clinic. Then I came along right after Raphael and that wasn’t planned and Mommy was already regretting getting pregnant so soon and so young … she went a little crazy after that.”

Hesitantly I asked, “Post partum depression?”

“No,” she said barely concealing a sneer. “The I’m-too-young-and-pretty-to-be-a-mother syndrome.”

“How young was she?” I asked.

“Not that young. Twenty, just like Poppy. And Poppy was working three jobs and she had Poppa around to help but that only gave her the excuse to run out to the store only she’d be gone for hours and hours. She’d leave Poppy and then come back when her family got tired of her or she couldn’t find some man to take care of her. Poppy would take her back but she’d only leave again. Eventually Poppy smartened up and wouldn’t let her come back anymore and he got a divorce and she did something stupid and she ran across the border to live with some relatives. Poppa convinced Poppy to move to Florida so that Mommy couldn’t keep disrupting our lives anymore and things started going really good.”

I could see that she was looking back and trying to put everything in order. From the look on her face she was trying to decide just how much personal information she needed to give me to tell the story. I let her do the deciding without trying to influence her; what she would tell me would be just as important as what she didn’t; I would figure out the rest eventually.

“By that time Raphael had started school and I was in kindergarten and then Poppy met Rosa.” She stopped again but before I needed to say something to start her back up she said, “She was pretty but sad too. Poppa liked her a lot; he said that even though she was sad and had rich relatives she still worked. That was a big deal to Poppa. And Rosa did work, her pretty looks and just the way she was made you want to buy whatever she was selling. You wouldn’t think she would be good at it but she was and she sold a lot of houses to the well-to-do people who liked her because she looked so classy. And right when Poppy decided that it wasn’t a good idea to see her anymore for some reason Abuelo came to talk to him and Poppa and everything was all right again. They got married and we went to live in Rosa’s house because it was bigger and paid for and so that Josef wouldn’t make such a big stink. He was the same age as Raphael but even back them he acted like he was older and the boss of us all. The only time he wasn’t like that was when Poppy or Abuelo was around. Poppa just ignored him, but Abuela would get after him too if she caught him at it; but Rosa just would throw up her hands and let him do whatever he wanted rather than have a confrontation. That was the unwritten rule around our house, no confrontations.”

Sighing I said, “Then I suppose it irritated you when I asked that we not …”

She interrupted before I could finish. “The fighting? Naw, that’s no big deal. I hate it too, it gives me a headache when the boys go off on each other all the time. I mean Rosa couldn’t stand having any kind of confrontation at all. I mean she would take to her bed saying she was sick or would act like she was going to faint … stuff like that.”

“How on earth did she make it in real estate then?”

Annie shrugged. “She had a good broker and a good secretary that handled all of that. Or if the clients got to be difficult she simply gave them to another realtor to deal with. She would rather give up the commission than deal with difficult people. She was just that way, there was nothing you could do to change it. I guess you can be that way when you are a grown up but that’s no way to make things work with kids. The only time I ever saw her disagree with Poppy was … look … oh crud.”

Startled I looked at her and waited for an explanation. “Look, it doesn’t matter to any of us … well, not now that Josef is … anyway …” She huffed to a stop and then rushed on. “Right after Poppy and Rosa got married they had Raymundo … we call him Ray.”

“But isn’t he … the eleven year old?” I asked slightly confused.

“Yeah, the real quiet one that is Robert’s shadow.”

Even more confused now I was trying to reconcile the ages of the boys. “You’re seventeen, Roy is fifteen, Robert is fourteen, Ray is eleven then Ricky is … nine?” At her nod I added, “Ren in five and then there are the two girls who are five and three.”

“Now you see it,” she said nodding. “Robert is … well … you know how I said we moved to Florida so that my mother couldn’t find us? Well, somehow she found us anyway. She showed up only long enough to drop Robert into Poppy’s lap. Poppy was really, really angry and refused to believe that Robert was his … she’d never said anything and had hidden him. He was going to get a paternity test but Mommy ran off and if it had been shown that Robert wasn’t his there wasn’t anyone to take him. Poppy … it is the only time I had ever seen him so … so … forbidding. And it was also the only time I ever saw Rosa fight with Poppy. She wouldn’t let him take Robert away. She said it didn’t matter, that Robert was ours now and we needed to fix it so that Rosa couldn’t change her mind and take him away. She was almost hysterical and it took Abuelo pulling some strings but the papers all got signed. Abuela talked with Poppy and nothing more was said. Poppy treated him the same way he treated the rest of us from then on. My mother did came back one more time after that even though she’d been warned off, it was late at night and Poppy wasn’t home. She wanted to see Robert. Rosa … Rosa told her to leave or she would call the cops. That my mother had run out on all of us kids and we weren’t hers anymore and that she … Rosa … was our mother and wouldn’t let trash like my mother be in the same room with us. Rosa wouldn’t even let us out of the house for weeks after that. I think she was afraid my mother would try and steal one or all of us and take us across the border with her.”

“It isn’t unheard of,” I told her.

“Yeah, I know. But it was just weird. I hadn’t decided yet whether I liked Rosa or not. Sometimes I loved her but sometimes she would make me really angry. I mean she was OK and all that and seemed to make Poppy happy but she never did anything but look pretty. Every time she tried to cook she would burn something and stink up the house. Clothes … everyone’s underwear was always pink or blue because she would forget and put the whites in with the colors or the blue jeans. Her idea of cleaning … Abuela would come over and clean and Abuelo paid for someone to come over once a week and clean. The worse thing was sometimes I think she did it on purpose. Rosa … Poppa told me I could love her without always having to like the way she did things and that’s pretty much the way it turned out to be. Even though she wasn’t my bio mom she … she fought for me. I didn’t have to like how she did everything but I could honor the good things that she did do for our family.”

Already knowing the answer but trying to give her a direction after she had fallen silent I asked, “So Ren and Sylvie are fraternal twins?”

“Huh?! No … uh … no … er ... they … well … they were Poppy’s boss’ kids and I used to babysit them.” At my still confused look she said, “Look, it’s complicated. See right after Ricky was born Poppa died and then right after Ren was born Abuelo died. That left Poppy with a lot of responsibility and Rosa was a mess. If it hadn’t been for Abuela the mess would have been even bigger. If we had lived in another country I probably would have quit school and stayed home to take care of things but Abuela and Poppy said no way no how so we all just kind of pitched in to make things work. Then the economy got bad and Poppy lost his job as a contractor and Momma Rosa … that’s what Raphael and I eventually started calling her … couldn’t earn any more commissions. Then Rosa got sick only she wasn’t faking like she used to and doctors cost money even if your grandfather used to be one. Raphael and Josef worked as much as they could but there wasn’t a whole lotta work for teenagers when old people needed the jobs; you couldn’t even get a job as McDonalds or Walmart anymore without being a retiree. I was like a part time Nanny for Sylvie and Evie when their parents had to let their full-time Nanny go. A lot of Abuela’s investments tanked and she moved in with us to save the cost of that retirement community she was living in. Things were tight but we were getting by, lot’s better than some of the kids we were going to school with. Then Josef started bringing home groceries and stuff and shoes for the boys and other stuff when we needed it. He said he was doing some work for some guys up in the rich part of town that paid him in stuff instead of money and I think Poppy and Rosa wanted to believe him because they didn’t want to believe it could be anything else.”

I winced knowing what was coming. “Yeah,” she said seeing my wince. “Turns out he was working for some black market dudes. I mean it could have been worse, they could have been drug dealers, but Poppy was still pretty bent when he found out.”

“Did Josef get arrested?”

“No … worse. He got promoted. One of those UN groups that came in hired him and since he already knew the ropes and where people were likely to hide their valuables … who had what and who only acted like they had something … he scored lots of brownie points. But …”

“But?” I nudged.

“He couldn’t score enough to get a doctor for his Momma and … and … and he got in a fight and then we all got thrown into this refugee camp even though Josef didn’t even live at home anymore. He was really broke up over it. Then some kind of sickness went around the camp and Rosa … she …”

Unsure whether the gesture would be appreciated or not I nevertheless went over and sat by the girl and put my arm around her. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah,” she whispered. “Me too.” She didn’t cry and it made me wonder when was the last time she had let herself cry. “Poppy and Abuela, they were messed up but it was Josef that really … he … he changed. He got involved in some bad stuff … underground anarchist stuff that was going on in the camp. Stupid stuff like if not everyone can be free then no one should be free. Really weird and demented kind of stuff that made even less sense than the bad stuff we were already dealing with. Poppy’s boss’ brother was into that stuff too and it made everything so hard. We were all just trying to stay alive as they fed us less and less and asked more and more work out of us. That’s when some of the adults realized the people running the camp weren’t US soldiers but something else and that kind of lit a flame. Then the camp just … just blew up. People went crazy and guns started going off and buildings and tents caught fire. It was … I don’t know if I’ve got the words to describe what it was like. Josef was one of the first people to die; he ran into the gun fire like a crazy person and … and … I mean like right in front of us. The boys had nightmares for a long time. Raphael ran out to help before Poppy could stop him and he got shot but it took him … took him two days to die and we didn’t have doctors or any medicine to help him. Poppy and Mr. Wayne … that’s Poppy’s boss … they got whatever they could grab and our families took off. We ran out where the fence had been knocked down by the people trying to get out ahead of us. The fighting seemed to follow us and Poppy, Mr. Wayne and some of the other adults tried to hold them off and then Mr. Wayne asked me to look after his daughters – Mr. Wayne’s wife died not too long after Rosa did – and we just ran. We were supposed to meet back up at Mr. Wayne’s old house but no one ever came and eventually the other families drifted away looking for some place to go to be safe. We waited and waited … for two weeks thinking Poppy was just … you know … late … but then these men came and ran us off saying that it was their territory. Besides we were starting to run low on food and we’d heard that there was some further on down the road.”

She hunched her shoulders. “No matter who tells it, the rumor is that it is always somewhere further down the road. Sometimes there was but most of the time it was just more hard times and people telling us we had to move along.”

“Didn’t you ever hear about the good refugee camps?” I asked wanting to know.

“You hear lots of things but you learn not to believe anything that you haven’t seen with your own eyes.” Her face said it was more like she had started to give up that there was ever going to be any place better no matter how far down the road she travelled.

I nodded. “My father used to say ‘believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.’ “

“Yeah, pretty much. We learned to avoid people after a while. There … there were some that wanted … nasty things from me … or the boys. They would always push Abuela around, tell her she should just go ahead and die – she’d had her chance - so the younger generation could survive. Nearly everyone wanted the cows so we learned to travel at night and be real quiet.”

Feeling pretty bad I said, “I must not have made a very good first impression.”

“Eh, not so bad. Don’t mind Roy, he’s just … he’s too young to be the man but he tries anyway and sometimes it makes him run his mouth.”

“I wasn’t talking about him, I was talking about to you,” I told her with as much honesty in my face as I could put there. “Even knowing your story I’m not sure I would have acted any different but I am sorry that you’ve been through such hard times.” I patted her back and got out of her space. “But I will say that I’m willing to put the effort into it if you are. I can’t promise I won’t act like a mom on occasion … it has turned into a habit I’m afraid … but it won’t be because I don’t think you aren’t a capable young woman.”

She gave me a rather strange look and then said, “You sure do say strange things. But if you mean that we don’t need to call a truce because we aren’t at war with each other to begin with then I’m cool with that.”

I nodded and then she made her escape having had just about all of the full-disclosure as she could handle for a while. As I turned I was startled to see Roy leaning against the corner of the house in the shadow of the loquat tree.

“You need something Roy?” I asked trying to act nonchalant.

“She still thinks that Jorge is alive and is going to come rescue us. She leaves him signs and stuff like that. But he’s dead. I know he is. No way would he have left us this long if he wasn’t.” His face was like granite … not angry, not sad, just set.

“Very few girls would be able to give up on the idea that their father is going to come rescue them. I know when my parents died I was pretty shattered. It took a while to go through the grieving process and there were times I still expected my daddy to stride in and tell me everything would be ok.”

He sighed, “Yeah. But if he was dead then he didn’t and Jorge isn’t either. I know that and if Annie doesn’t figure it out … I’m … I mean …” He sighed. “Please just don’t go filling her head with stuff. Jorge isn’t going to come walking up the road like Mr. Jakob did for you. We’ve only got each other to count on and the sooner she figures that out the better.”

He moved to leave and I said, “Roy, you’re here now. My husband can’t replace your father and I can’t replace your mother. But we would like to be … something to you if you let us. What that is I’m not sure yet but we aren’t the enemy and we aren’t out to … to imprison you or enslave in any way. We aren’t out to break your family up. Frankly I don’t want to see any of us hurt. Until we figure out things why don’t we just say we are on the same side of trying to survive … friendship will come I hope and with that … who knows … maybe more. Can we just start with that? A little bit of trust to get us through the day?”

He looked at me then shrugged and said, “I guess.” He turned to walk away and I couldn’t help but smile.

“Maybe I made a bad decision after all.” Mateo nearly scared me out of a year’s growth by coming out from behind one of the covered beds behind me after Roy had gotten out of earshot.

Looking at him I asked, “What makes you say that?”

“All that you offered that boy and he still shambles off like that,” he said indignantly.

I had to smile again and I gave him a hug. “Mateo, you were either a very strange teenage boy or you just don’t remember how you were. Two words and a shrug is practically War and Peace for most fifteen year olds. Getting anything at all out of him under the circumstances surprises me. It couldn’t have been easy to come upon his sister basically airing the family’s laundry in public.”

“Still,” Mateo huffed.

“No ‘still.’ He’ll come around, he just needs time. He’s been thrown to the wolves and never had to be the oldest brother until the worst possible time to be forced to do it in. And Annie … bless her but she is a bit of a control freak which reminds me of how someone else I know used to be. Can you imagine trying to grow into a man under those circumstances? Poor boy probably doesn’t know whether he is coming or going what with all the raging hormones and responsibilities and little to no outlet to get away from them.”

“Ah, that I do understand … quite, quite well.”

From the look on his face I realized pretty quickly we were not talking about the children any longer but about Mateo’s own raging hormones. He was expressing himself quite well on the subject when there was a chorus of “Ew’s!!!” that made us jump apart.

Robert and Ray were just coming around the corner of the house and were running over to Ricky and the other little kids all lined up watching us. Ricky though didn’t want to be dragged away from the spectacle we had been making and asked Nydia, “They do that all the time?”

The little devil said, “Uh huh, that’s how we got Neeno.”

I don’t know who was blushing harder Robert and Ray or Mateo and I. Finally the hilarity got to me and I laughed, “All right, shows over … for now. All of you scoot so that I can fix dinner.”

That was enough to get them all scooting and even Mateo left though he still looked a little shell-shocked. Poor man, his life was going to change a bit more and in different ways than he expected. Privacy had already started to become an issue with Nydia getting older but adding eight more pups to the litter was certainly going to complicate that even more.

Somewhere along the last two days I’d lost my original concern and resentment about bringing the Fuentes-Trespalacio family on board our little lifeboat. It wasn’t that I felt sorry for them exactly though I did feel a lot of empathy and compassion for their plight. No it was more that I recognized that their family met a need in me that was part of my personality. I needed to be needed in a very real and concrete way in order to be happy. It is what had brought Mateo and I together, and some small voice inside me told me that while it wouldn’t be easy these children had been led to us for a reason as well. Maybe they would never be “our” children – and I could live with that – but something told me that the potential for a relationship was there. They needed us and we needed them, perhaps for Mateo and I it was for different reasons but the need was just as real all the same.

Where this would lead us however was something that only time would tell.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Part 20: The Ties that Bind

Part 20: The Ties that Bind

In every conceivable way, family is the link to our past and the bridge to our future.
- Alex Haley

I spent a very restless night and several times woke up to write down ideas that had occurred to me as I dreamed. The next morning when I read what I had written not all of it made any kind of logical sense but there were a few in there I intended on investigating post haste. As dawn approached I stepped outside to put some tea on and nearly jumped out of my skin to find Lena dipping some water out of one of the rain barrels.

“I’m sorry my dear. I didn’t mean to startle you. You said that we might … the water … if … if I …”

Quickly getting my thundering heart back into my chest from where it had jumped out of I smiled in understanding. “Oh, of course. Go right ahead. Mateo mentioned he wanted to move that particular barrel over to your place today and it will certainly be easier to do that if some of the water is used up. Do you need some help?”

“No. The children are still asleep. It has been a while since they’ve had the luxury of a full night’s rest, much less a little extra.”

Looking at her closely I said, “I hope you don’t mind me saying so but you look like you could use some extra rest as well. I have chores to do in the gardens of course but I think the primary thing Mateo wants to focus on today is getting the house secured and see what you need and making some kind of plan to get it. I tell you what, why don’t you go get a little more rest and I’ll send word when breakfast is ready. I hope the children will eat what I’m making.”

Lena shook her head. “Don’t you dare worry about that. They’ll be thankful for what they get or I’ll know why. But I’m not going back to bed; I couldn’t sleep anyway. Once you reach my age sleep feels rather counterproductive; so little time left but so much left to impart. Just tell me what I can do to help.”

Knowing from the look on her face that reminded me rather forcefully of my mother’s Aunt Flossie when she got obstinate I didn’t protest. I handed her a bowl of kiwis that I had pulled from the vine the preceding day for her to peel while I took a casserole dish of mush that had set up firm and cut it into slices for frying.

We were silent while we worked but it was a comfortable silence that Mateo didn’t break when he came outside to grab a mug of tea before going off to take care of the hogs, fowl, and to check on the other animals and their needs. As I started to mixed some bean patties up that I flavored a bit like sausage she sighed, “You’re not being very curious about us.”

I shook my head. “Actually I’m as curious as a cat but it is your business and you’ll let us know when you are ready.”

She sighed, “I … I appreciate the sentiment but truthfully it might just be easier for the children if I told you myself now. I’d rather you hear it from me before the children start giving you their versions.”

“Versions?” I asked.

She chuckled wearily. “I love my grandchildren more than my life but I’m under no illusions that they are perfect. If I had been, certainly this past year would have made me aware of some of their … their challenges.”

I smiled, “It’s all right. I know how teenagers can be.”

“Hmmm,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “It honestly doesn’t look like it was that long ago that you were one yourself.”

I laughed quietly in appreciation. “It used to be I felt that way too but motherhood and … and other things … has changed that.”

“That is a sentiment that I can certainly understand having felt it myself.” She seemed to look back in time and then proceeded to tell her story.

“My parents were missionaries to the Moskito Indians in Honduras. My mother was the daughter of a preacher but never felt the calling herself until she met my father. Her whole family was shocked and pretty dismayed that the young girl they had been scrimping and saving to put through medical school during a time when very few females chose that path suddenly decided to toss it all to the wind and follow my father into the jungles of a country that could be less than hospital for whites … especially white Americans. It was very difficult for a while. My parents lost two children to fevers and they didn’t expect to have anymore and ‘adopted’ a local boy that had been abandoned due to some physical deformities he was born with. After that life became better for them but not necessarily easier, either economically and politically, and it was a little after that time that my parents were surprised with me as a blessing. Looking back I can see that we lived a rather innocent existence separated from the modern world. I was twelve when a missionary group from the US came to help build a church that our village would be able to use. With this group was a doctor and their interpreter was a young Honduran that was studying medicine in the US. This reignited something in my mother that had gone out long before I was born. It made my father uncomfortable and I remember there was a terrible argument when my father found out that Mother was corresponding with the doctor and young intern. It was not what my father thought it to be; she was trying to arrange for a medical mission trip to come out to that part of the jungle and to get medical supplies shipped to our village for they could at least perform basic first aid.”

She shook her head. “I loved my father but he could be rather set in his ways and he had a difficult time with my mother suddenly getting ideas of her own and feeling called to grow their mission into more than it already was. Eventually though he seemed to come around and even acted like it had been his idea in the first place. Being a teenager I was horrified by this and asked Mother why she didn’t say something when Father would take credit. She would just shake her head and smile and say that she had no care for credit, she just wanted it accomplished.”

Then Lena seemed to put sadness on like a cloak. “My brother, the one my parents adopted, was named Eduardo. He was born with a facial deformity, blind in one eye, and he was hunch backed. His biological parents said they would have kept him if that had been all but he was born with but because he was also born with one leg considerably shorter than the other making his ability to work at any speed was impossible. He wasn’t even walking when they gave him to my parents before moving to the city. With my parents’ care and love however Eduardo seemed to come alive and started to thrive and walk and my parents found he was not mentally challenged at all as everyone had thought. He was almost ten when I was born and he was everything you could hope for in an older brother … but he too seemed to have an unreasonable prejudice against my mother’s US friends; it is like he and father were jealous of them. If there had been more time I’m sure it would have resolved itself but that wasn’t to be.”

“There was a hurricane, a very bad one. Usually hurricanes only brought true destruction to the cities with their mudslides and destruction of the shacks of the poor that dot the hillsides around the overcrowded urban areas. But this time it brought coastal flooding and the storm made an unexpected last minute course change. Our village was completely unprepared.” She closed her eyes briefly. “The storm came in the middle of the night. It kept getting worse and worse. My mother woke to find several inches of standing water in our house which was basically little more than a lean to made of leftover materials from the church construction. By the time she woke the rest of us, others in the village were waking but the water was rising so fast. Even had my mother woken earlier I’m not sure if there would have been enough time.” She shuddered at the memory. “The water was waist high, very muddy and full of debris, and sweeping the village away as everyone started running to the canoes. My parents were older and it would have been impossible for them to run in the jungle, at night, and someone had taken our canoe before Eduardo could secure it. We all climbed a large tree trying to get away from the raging waters but the wind tore at us. I’m not sure what happened exactly but the tree we were in snapped and … and …”

She wasn’t crying but her story was so intense I nearly burned what I had been cooking. “Eduardo saved me. He told me to stay on the roof of the church while he searched for our parents … but no one ever joined me, no one came … they were never found. I don’t remember much of that time. Roberto, the young intern I told you about, had been visiting his mother and sister and became worried when nothing was heard from our village after the storm. He personally gathered some men and came looking to see if we needed help. It took them three days of searching before they found a landmark they could follow, all of the other ones had been washed away. I remember him calling my name and when I didn’t respond, climbing the roof and bringing me down. I was in shock for several days after that. I came to myself tucked up in a small room at his family’s coffee plantation. Roberto had to return to the States for the next semester of schooling but promised to look for any relatives that would take me in. It was a search in vain but I wasn’t to know that at the time. Apparently my parents had not been very good at keeping up with their stateside families and my grandparents that remained felt they were too elderly to take in a young and distraught girl they didn’t know. Roberto’s family was more than happy to have me stay with them as I was a good companion for his mother and sister who were both frail and in ill health. I was happy not to leave the only country I had ever known as home.”

She sighed, “The rest of my story is rather obvious I suppose. I felt honor bound to stay on and help take care of both Roberto’s mother and sister and became a de facto part of their family. As I grew up I became infatuated with the noble and dutiful younger son though it was a secret not even torture could have gotten out of me … and rather openly frightened of the austere older brother who ran the family plantation with an iron hand. Eventually Roberto finished his schooling and returned to Honduras to go into practice but found he and Juan were completely incompatible. Juan was horrible to Roberto … he was resentful of the money his parents had spent on his education rather than putting the money into expanding the plantation, resentful of their mother’s favoritism, and resentful of his good looks and who knows what else. They fought constantly but maintained a fa├žade of politeness for their mother’s sake. Then their sister died and shortly thereafter their mother passed away in her sleep. There was a horrible fight when the will was read; two-thirds of the estate was left to Juan including the plantation but a third of the assets were to be cashed out and given to Roberto. Juan was livid and created a local scandal when he accused his brother of matricide to get his inheritance. When that didn’t work he started taking his anger out on anyone that Roberto cared about … eventually getting around to me, though there was nothing to except simple friendship. Roberto had gone to the city to treat one of his patients when Juan accused me of theft, beat me, and then threw me out of the house with barely the clothes on my back and a small bundle of pictures and a Bible that had been salvaged from my village after the flood. I was barely seventeen and terrified. No one in the area dared to go against Juan as he was the primary employer in the area. A priest from the local church secretly gave me bus fare and told me to go to Roberto in the city and he would know what to do. I was so inexperienced that it was only by the grace of God that I got there unmolested.”

“In fairytale like fashion Roberto insisted that his personal honor required that he marry me. It was convenient for him as well as it meant he was able to have a home in the city without having to hire a housekeeper and cook. Roberto promised that Juan would never hurt me again and that I would never have to see him if I did not want to. We lived in that fashion … a marriage of convenience … for nearly two years until one day Roberto came home from the hospital and I could tell something terrible must have happened. I did everything I could think of but it was still some hours before he would speak. He told me he had been met at the hospital by some policemen and asked where he had been at such and such a time and date. He provided them with the information which they quickly verified, and then they informed him that Juan had been murdered. In the next few days we learned a man he had fired had come back and killed him in revenge.”

I poured her cup of tea and told her, “How tragic.”

“Yes … and no. Juan reaped what he sowed. His son, who had taken after him quite a lot, had been killed in a fight at one of the local cantinas and his wife divorced him not all that long after Roberto and I had married. Roberto had been resigned that he would never see any portion of the estate and we were busy saving every penny we could because he wanted to immigrate to the US and join in the practice of one of his mentors there with whom he remained close friends with. But now he had inherited everything and he was at a crossroads. For the first time he asked me what I wanted to do … he didn’t tell me what we would do but asked me what I wanted to do. It wasn’t just a crossroads for him but a turning point in our marriage and in our relationship. In all honesty I would have been happy to remain in Honduras but I knew Roberto wanted something else. I told him we should pray about it and God would open the door to the path He wanted us to take. The very next day Roberto received a handsome offer for the coffee plantation that would cover all of our moving expenses, allow him to buy into the medical partnership without a loan, and leave enough to have a nest egg to start our new life in the US. As if that were not enough all of our immigration papers came in approved on the same day. The answer could not have been clearer.”

“And I have to admit, life was very good for us once we immigrated to the US. Our marriage improved and we became closer. We had a son. Roberto became a well-respected member of the medical community and our financial rewards were great enough that we could give back by providing pro bono medical services to families that really needed the help. I could not have asked for more but God provided it anyway. We had a wonderful church family and I had a personally fulfilling job volunteering in our special needs program among other things.”

I smiled as I nodded towards their place drawing her attention to all of the children tumbling out the door and in this direction at the smell of the food that was finally ready. “It sounds like you had a wonderful life.”

“It was … until our son was about sixteen and suddenly discovered his ridiculous politics.”

That had me raising my eyebrows but she fell silent on the subject as her grandchildren and Nydia and Neeno garnered all of our attention as we fed them. I remembered at the last moment about the goat cheese I had tried to make and I brought it out. “Look, this is a first try for me so I’m not at all sure that this is fit to eat. I know it looks … different … so don’t force yourself to be polite about it.”

To my surprise Annie used her knife to take some and said that she thought it tasted almost the same as the stuff the deli which had the other kids lining up for a taste. At my look she said, “Abuela used to buy it from a Greek deli near our school. It really isn’t bad; you probably just need to add something to it.”

I told her I would look in my recipe books to see what I could find and she seemed a little surprised that I didn’t make a big deal out of her critique. I hoped I had passed her first test and I was sure there would be a few more to make it through before she made her decision about whether she could trust me or not. Neeno kept me busy while we ate, he was at the stage where he wanted to help feed himself most of the time and it was a challenge to make sure he ate more than he wore on the outside. Food couldn’t be wasted and I had to reign in my desire to simply force him to be neater. Looking over I noticed not even a crumb escaped from the other children and it reinforced my awareness of their plight.

I looked at Mateo, signaling him to please take the lead which he did with gusto. Soon I was alone with Neeno who was distraught at being left behind; even Nydia had gone to help Lena and the children clean and sort and get their place set up. Despite the fact that he was getting a little big for it I put Neeno in the sling and then put him on my back and started working in the garden.

As I weeded I pulled whatever was ready for harvest. Rather than letting a bed of beans completely dry on the vine I pulled the bushes completely and used clips to hang them upside down on a length of rope I had strung from one end to the other of the barn. The ground in the raised beds was such that it could be worked by hand if I needed to so it was fairly easy to replant the bed in more beans and add a pre-fab trellis on one end where I planted several zucchini seedlings. I noted, after looking at my planting schedule, that the tomatoes I had planted were probably the last until the next season so I paid careful attention to them and pinched a few places on some of the plants to encourage extra bloom ends.

I found a couple of horn worms on my pepper plants but luckily they hadn’t done too much damage before I got to them and through them to the ducks and geese that were wandering about. It was then I saw some chickens running in the direction that I’d thrown the last worm in and turned to find a couple following me around scratching, looking for other nuggets of protein. Watching one scrawny hen do her best to catch a young locust had me laughing aloud at the pitiful but humorous picture she made.

“Don’t be mad at them. They’re just happy to be out of the cage.”

Turning further I saw the youngest brother, the one they called Ren, standing there looking afraid. “I’m not angry. We just need to teach them the difference between the bugs and the vegetables. Bugs are OK for them to peck … the tomatoes, not so much.” I winked trying to draw the fear away from him.

“Annie says if we aren’t good you’ll tell us to leave.”

Annie. She and I would definitely need to come to an understanding … and soon. “Well, everyone makes mistakes sometimes. It happens. But I hope we’ll all try and be good as much as we can. If Mr. Jakob and I don’t behave well then you and your family won’t want to stay.”

That confused him a little but I think he got the general idea because his little shoulders didn’t seem so tense. “So it’s OK if they walk around like the ducks?”

“Sure, but the ducks and geese – those are the bigger, louder ones – know the area and where to go and where not to go. They know to leave the hogs alone, and what to do if there is a hawk flying around, and they know if there is a gator around not to go near the water soooo it might be a good idea to keep an eye on them until we can find a place they’ll be safe.”

“Will the big dog eat them?” Ren asked wide eyed.

“I don’t think so but he’s still mostly puppy so his manners might not be the greatest. Let’s not take the chance until we know for sure. The dog’s name is Genty and he had to learn the hard way that ducks and geese can pinch and he leaves them alone but he may not know what a chicken is.”

The little boy nodded and then so expertly it caught me off guard picked the chickens up and carried them back towards where I knew their cage had been put. Not long after that a long shadow falling over me had me turning again to find Annie standing there with her hands on her hips.

“Your dog is scaring my brother.”

“Which one?” I asked calmly.

“You have more than one dog?” she asked.

“No. I mean which brother.”

“Ren … and the girls too. They’re little and …”

I sighed. “OK. Let me guess, he’s circling around them and butting them with his head.”

“So you know your dog is dangerous,” she asked a bit menacingly.

I shook my head. “Genty isn’t … well, he could be dangerous I suppose but that’s not what he is doing. He’s herding them.”

“No, he’s not hurting them yet but it is only a matter of time.”

“Not hurting … herding. Genty does the same thing with Nydia and Neeno. They’re smaller than he is and I think he has a wire crossed and thinks they are one of his charges. If you watch, Genty does the same things to the goats. He’s gentle about it but firm; he simply doesn’t like it when the children get out of his sight or look like they are about to wander off.”

She wasn’t believing me so I stopped what I was doing and walked back over. Sure enough Genty was being Genty and I smiled. I turned to Annie and said, “They’ll get used to it. As soon as they learn to be firm with him he won’t worry over them so much. But it isn’t such a bad thing … Evie is the three year old right? … we’ll be able to put Neeno and Evie down in a play yard and he’ll be as good as a babysitter about making sure they stay where we put them and keep an eye on them. I watched Genty go after a fly that was bothering Neeno yesterday, he got a ridiculous look on his doggy face when he caught it and didn’t know what to do with it in his mouth.” Annie was reassured but refused to be amused by the fly story though it was pretty funny at the time, or at least I thought so.

Refusing to let her attitude perturb me in the slightest I smiled and walked over to where Mateo and Lena were discussing a list of furniture they would need. “Leah, beds … we have no mattresses.”

I thought for a moment and then said, “Those tiled floors are too hard to sleep on, and what I’m going to suggest may not be much better but it will at least get everyone up off of the floor. Bed frames … we’ve found several in garages and attics and in the abandoned houses. Put the frames together and then cut a piece of plywood to fit and then put the bedding on that. We’ve got plenty of linens. If we can’t find anything else in the area we can sew some flat sheets together and make straw ticks until we save enough feathers to make duvets for every bed.”

Lena turned to Mateo and said, “You are right, she is very resourceful.”

I blushed at the unexpected compliment and Mateo ran a work-roughened knuckle down my cheek. “Very resourceful,” he murmured before calling for the boys to help him gather the bed frames from the barn where we had them stored.

Lena turned to me smiled and then sighed. “Did Annie give you any trouble?”

“Hmm? No. Why would you say that?”

She smiled ruefully and replied, “Because I know my granddaughter. She is very protective. She had to take on a lot of responsibility when she was much too young and it aged her.”

“This situation we find ourselves in would age anyone,” I told her.

“Ah but this started well before the world decided to go crazy. Come, I believe the children have things well in hand and I would like to see your garden up close if you don’t mind showing me.”

Sensing that she was more likely to be open if we had some privacy to talk I was more than happy to show her around. I walked slowly in deference to her age and fatigue so it took a bit to get over to the far gardens that were nearest the orange grove.

She noted, “These trees were hurt by last winter’s cold.”

I agreed and added, “And by the bombing we experienced around here and by the other unusual weather we’ve had. We haven’t been able to keep the grass down in most of the grove either, only in this area that we are fencing in. There is only so much we can do.”

“I’m not criticizing dear; you’ve done an amazing amount of work all things considered. Mateo told me you were alone for a long time and even had the baby alone. I’m not sure I could have done as well and I’m not sure Annie liked having her notion of you refuted.”

“Her notion of me?”

“I believe she thinks you are a bit spoiled and helpless as her step mother was.”

I shrugged not sure what to make of that but knew that I was going to knock that idea right out of the girls head as soon as might be. Putting it aside however I said, “Lena, I hate to ask but I’m still not sure how the kids all fit together. Annie and Roy say they are brothers but they don’t share a surname. I’m a little confused.”

“I don’t blame you. It is quite a saga of how we became a family. I see you have a nice bench out here and hope you don’t mind if we stop for a moment and rest. My old bones aren’t as eager as they once were.” If she needed an excuse I was more than happy to give it to her.

“My Roberto and I, we were only blessed with one. There was no reason we could not have had more; we simply didn’t though I would have loved to have had at least one or two more. I suspect it had a lot to do with Roberto’s workload and our age difference but God had His reasons I’m sure. We named our son after Roberto’s father … Fidel. In hindsight it may not have been the best idea but it was such a common name where we came from that we didn’t give any thought to possible repercussions. It was years before we even became aware that he was teased rather unmercifully for it in school. Fidel and Roberto were like two peas in a pod they were so alike … until Fidel turned sixteen. We could afford it so we sent him to a private school but even there mistakes were made. There was an extracurricular club whose membership revolved around Hispanic heritage. I was all for Fidel learning about his heritage but Roberto wasn’t quite as thrilled with it; he said his son was an American not some hyphenated mixed breed pup. There was a huge blow up with each of them on opposite sides of the argument and neither one willing to budge. It was like living with two lions, one old and one young, both determined to rule the pride.”

“I’ve heard that analogy before,” I told her.

“Yes, and I felt like a piece of meat caught between the two. Eventually however Fidel went too far and completely alienated his father by getting into the very politics that tore places like Honduras, Columbia, and Venezuela apart. And when Fidel proceeded to call his father a dirty capitalist and refute all of our family’s religious beliefs my husband refused to support him any longer, told him that since he thought the money he worked very hard for was dirty then he could go work for his own.” She shook her head sadly. “It was a painful learning experience for Fidel. All of those so-called friends he had been making fell away when Fidel no longer had access to his father’s money. Many in fact called him a fool for not being more careful about hiding his beliefs. He learned what a bunch of hypocrites most of them are. Fidel’s outlook began to change as well but because he had to work so hard his grades suffered and he lost his academic scholarship in the middle of his sophomore year. He and Roberto were still not talking and I only found out accidentally when I tried to drop off some groceries only to find he no longer lived on campus. He was living with Roy’s mother against my wishes and she became pregnant shortly thereafter. That changed his outlook as well; now he had a family to support.”

She shook her head. “Fidel came to his father and they reconciled but things were never quite the same. He married Rosa – she was from a good family, just flighty and easily swayed by my son’s silver tongue – and they had Josef a few months later. Fidel had settled down considerably but he was still idealistic and would get involved with his old friends who would look him up from time to time. Then Rosa became pregnant again and along came Rojelio – he prefers to be called Roy by the way. When Roy was two Fidel got involved with some unionists and went to Mexico to help do some what he called organizing. He and Roberto had huge fight about it. The last words my husband and son said to each other were words of deep anger and resentment. Fidel was killed in a cross fire between some federales and drug cartel members when it was found that the company was actually a front for moving drugs into this country. We never found out whether Fidel knew or not and it left a deep hole in Roberto’s heart, one he never recovered from. He had a heart attack a couple of months later and then Rosa came to us saying that her brother threw her out when he found out she was pregnant again. Roberto and I took her and our grandchildren in but given the stress and strain it was not unexpected that Rosa would lose the baby. She was inconsolable and fell into a deep depression and stayed that way for a long time but eventually we were able to get her out of the house and encouraged her to get a job and to meet new people. To make a long story short my dear, Rosa met a nice widower with two children of his own … Annie’s father Jorge … and Roberto and I liked him immediately. He wasn’t … well … he didn’t have a lot of money but he was such a hard worker, and so polite.”

A voice rang out, “Abuela?! Are you out here? Are you all right?”

Annie. Again. I called, “Over here Annie. Your grandmother just wanted to sit down for a moment.”

“She shouldn’t have been doing all this walking. She could have tripped, or fallen, or …”

OK, enough was enough. “Annie, give both your grandmother and I some credit; we are adults after all.”

“Meaning I’m not,” she said belligerently.

“Meaning that you are being insulting. And whether you meant it or not I suggest you stop before you lose our respect for the maturity you show most of the time.”

She stood there trying to figure out whether I had insulted her or not and then Lena added, “Annie, while I appreciate your concern I no more appreciate being treated like a child than you do. And now I’ve kept Leah from her work while avoiding my own for too long. Walk with us back to the house.” I felt some sympathy for Annie. Lena had it down perfectly reminding me of how my mother could pull that act with me. Although Mom was much earthier than Lena, she was just as regal and I always knew when I’d taken things too far.

Mateo looked up when we came back into the yard and watched as Lena walked with Annie back over to their place. He turned to me and raised a concerned eyebrow. “Everything alright Corazon?”

“I think it will be … with time and careful handling.” Then I sighed and stretched. In the middle of my stretch Mateo swooped on me and drew me close.

“My goodness, you seem to be in a good mood,” I told him noting his smile.

“Those boys are eager to please and even the youngest ones seem to take instructions well and have some experience with tools. This may work out better than even I had hoped.”

“You can probably thank Annie’s father for that. I don’t have the whole story but apparently Roy’s mother married Annie’s father when he was quite young so that all of those younger than Roy are Annie and Roy’s half-siblings. There are two older brothers that are missing from the picture I’m building but Lena seems to be giving the information as she can. Oh … and Roy’s biological father is dead so that might need to be taken into account as well. And I still don’t know about the two little girls.”

“The boys let slip that they are children of their father’s boss but that’s all I’ve heard. I’ll stay out of it until you can put it all together. I do not wish for us to get involved in a soap opera.” I laughed as he shuddered. Mateo may have become more tolerant of having people around all the time but he still detested an excess of drama.

Neeno began to complain and I gratefully handed him off of my back and into Mateo’s waiting arms. The breeze was cool against my sweat-dampened skin and I stretched once again to remove the kinks before proceeding to prepare a large pot of rice and beans and a second pot full of greens. I mixed a little fruit punch together that I’ll admit to watering down a bit to have as our drink with lunch and then called over to the boys to tell their grandmother and sister to come sit for lunch.

Once again the children seemed dazed upon seeing the food I was ladling onto the plates but ate with a little less hesitation than the night before and at breakfast. Mateo said grace and while everyone was eating a sudden thought struck me. “Oh my!”

Mateo and Lena looked at me in alarm and I told them, “I never even asked if anyone was allergic to anything.”

Annie smirked and said, “Then I guess it is a good thing for you none of us have any.”

Mateo, bless him, said, “On the contrary, it is a good thing for you that she cares enough to ask. If you had any and hadn’t shared that information with her then it would have been your own fault.”

I saw Roy smirk and I rolled my eyes and put down my fork. “Annie … Roy … you do recall that one of the few things I asked was that we would be respectful of each other?” I saw Lena quickly cover a smile with one of the cloth napkins I put out for everyone. “I glanced at the younger ones as well who gave me a wide eyed look as if they weren’t quite sure what to make of me. I was beginning to suspect their mother, though well meaning, may not have been much of a disciplinarian. I knew I would need to be careful not to be overbearing but I absolutely refused to live in a war zone, especially not a passive aggressive one.

Clean up was quick despite all of the extra dishes. It appeared I had Annie to thank for that and I made a point of saying so which again surprised her. I had laundry to do but there really wasn’t time to do all of it so I just boiled the socks and underclothes and then hung them on the line. I turned to see Annie hesitantly standing nearby.

“Hi,” I said casually.

“Um … Abuela said that I misread … out in the orange trees. I’m … I really didn’t mean to be … um … rude. Just Abuela is all we have left and … well …”

I smiled softly. “Annie I understand, I do. But I just wish you wouldn’t automatically jump to the conclusion that I’m out to do you or your family some kind of harm.”

“Oh … well … I don’t mean it that way.”

I nodded, “I’m glad. But if you do become concerned about something then ask. It will save misunderstandings.”

“Sure.” She just continued to stand there and I asked if there was something else she needed. “Well, I was wondering … since you have the fire and water and pot if … you know … if I could …”

Realizing she wanted to do a little laundry I told her, “Of course. I plan on doing a big wash in a day or so and if you’d like to throw everything together …”

She smiled shyly and said, “Yeah … that’d be good.”

I was prepping stuff for the dehydrator while Annie did her washing. I watched her surreptitiously watch me as I interacted with Nydia and Neeno. I wasn’t sure what it meant but I wasn’t going to put on an act so when both started acting like they needed a nap that is exactly what they got. When I came back outside and resumed what I had been doing she was more obvious about her watching. I let her and finally she said what was on her mind. “You’re … different than I expected.”

“How on earth did you know what to expect?”

She shrugged, “I guess I just ... I don’t know … Mr. Jakob says you were a teacher before you and him got married.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that but sure, I was a teacher. A highschool teacher as a matter of fact. I loved my job but God had other plans for me.”

“You said you got laid off. You must have been young ‘cause like Nydia is Ren’s age.”

“Nearly, but not quite,” I said concerning Nydia’s age. “Actually Mateo and I adopted Nydia. She is biologically Mateo’s niece’s child.”

“Is that part of the complicated part?”

“Yes, I’ll tell you about it sometime if you’re interested but it I don’t think that is part of what you aren’t asking me.”

She sighed and muttered, “Just like Abuela.” Then in a louder tone she asked, “I guess my grandmother has been explaining things.”

“Some,” I said refusing to lie or act embarrassed. “She told me a bit of her personal history and that her son died and her daughter in law … Roy’s mother … married your father but that is about as far as she got.”

She looked briefly uncomfortable then asked, “Would you like me to … uh … fill in the rest?”

I told her, “If you think it would help me to understand. I don’t want to appear nosey but I would like to know so that it would help me with the boys do you think?”

I let her decide and then she sat on a blank I had laid across a couple of cinder blocks and said, “I suppose it would be best. Abuela might tell you the rest of it later but I better go ahead and tell you now, just in case the boys start talking about it.”

The way she said it I got the impression that the story wouldn’t be pleasant so I prepared myself as I began preparing dinner.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Part 19: Of Old Women and Shoes

Part 19: Of Old Women and Shoes

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.
- Unknown (first published in 1794)

Smiling, yet he wasn’t alone … it mitigated my alarm but it didn’t take it away completely. As Mateo once again raised his arm in greeting the sun escaped the clouds but an unusually chill breeze seemed to barrel up the street ahead of them. I sent the Nydia and Neeno into the house while I stepped out to the gate to meet the two people with him.

I knew it looked like I was playing troll-at-the-bridge and didn’t like the feeling it gave me so I tried to compose my face into something less forbidding than what it probably looked, and be reasonable but cautious in my attitude. See, to my surprise the two people that walked forward with Mateo were younger than I expected. They were sizing me up at the same time as I was trying to do the same to them. Mateo said, “Leah I’d like you to meet Annie Trespalacio and Roy Fuentes. They are brother and sister.”

Just looking at the two I knew there was a story in there somewhere but probably not one that could be told in a handful of words. I was trying to be cordial but I was unsure and I know my tone came out more guarded than I had meant as I said, “How do you do.”

The boy suddenly got a mulish look and blurted out, “See! She doesn’t want us around. She’s just standing there and she sent the little kids in the house like we were contagious or something. And …”

No way after dealing with teenagers at that inner city school was I going to let his emotions intimidate me. Besides, the teacher in me automatically kicked in without asking my opinion on the outcome. Calmly I said, “Excuse me but that is a lot of assumptions based on so little information. I asked a polite question and that’s it.” Turning to my husband I asked, “Mateo?” as a way to get a further explanation of what was going on and to figure out what on earth they meant by “wanting them.”

Mateo shook his head looking both exasperated and amused at the same time but it was the girl Annie that responded, first by pinching her brother’s too thin arm and then by saying, “Rojelio if you can’t control what falls out of your mouth, don’t open it.” Turning to me I got my first good look at her and I took in the face pinched and thin that was frail, vulnerable, and resolute all at the same time. “Mr. Jakob said that you and he might be able to help me and my family.”

I blinked, looked around, and asked, “Family?”

“They are sitting a ways back, watching after our Abuela … our grandmother. There is …” She gulped, obviously worried about something. She squared her shoulders against the worst and continued. “There’s me and Roy, Abuela, and then the four younger boys and two little girls. There was more of us but …” She simply shrugged to finish the sentence.

Roy glumly said, “Nine. Too many? Right?”

Annie looked like she was going to pinch him again so Mateo stepped between them. “Annie is seventeen and Roy is fifteen. The other brothers are fourteen years of age down to five and the two little girls are five and three. Then there is Mrs. Flores-Olancho. They are in need of a safe place to live where they can survive the winter.”

“We don’t want charity,” said Annie exhibiting a boatload of pride and defensive attitude. “We all know how to work, we just need a chance. And we aren’t illegals. We’re third generation. Our grandfathers immigrated.”

That let me know they’d faced the stigma of that problem in some way more than once and likely quite recently. I looked at Mateo, trying not to show how overwhelmed I was and then shrugged. “A little more information is necessary here.”

Mateo stepped over and pointed over my shoulder. “Gerald’s house. He’s not coming back and I doubt his family will get back around to it in time to avoid our assertion of ownership when the time comes. The house is smaller than some in the neighborhood but it has good windows except for the broken sliders in the back and those need to be changed to doors anyway. The fireplace isn’t huge but it is dual sided and isn’t just decorative. The sleeping arrangements will be tight but with four bedrooms plus a small office it can be made to work. For our help the boys can help me with the fence while Annie, Mrs. Flores-Olancho, and the younger children can help with the garden and other things.”

I was silent so long as I tried to digest the information I was receiving that even Mateo’s smile faltered. Finally I nodded and asked Annie, “What if you get tired of the work? Or …”

Roy interrupted again and said, “Work isn’t a problem. I’m pretty strong. But what happens to us if you get tired of us being around?”

Getting a little fed up with his brand of adolescent machismo I was tempted to tell him if they all had a mouth like his it was a real possibility but I didn’t. Instead I said, “Rojelio … or do you prefer Roy … very well Roy. I’m going to be as honest with you as I can given how fast you all are asking me to deal with this. I’m not looking for slaves, but I don’t need guests either.”

Roy crossed his arms defensively. I glanced at Mateo and his eyes held caring but at the same time caution. He wanted these two and their family. I was no fool; I had just been contemplating the fact that the work could very well be more than just the two of use could handle. But I could see he was giving me the right to form my own opinion and have a say and I suspect that it was in part due to the number of children involved.

I looked back at Roy and then at Annie and then sighed. “There’s going to be a lot of work.” Nodding my head in the direction of the house I added, “It needs work. Structurally it is OK or Mateo wouldn’t suggest it but the walls need to be wiped down, carpet pulled up, floors swept, bathrooms cleaned, and that doesn’t include finding adequate furniture and bedding for you and your family … and other things like household goods and probably winter clothes as well.”

I looked at Mateo and continued. “Food for an additional nine people, several of them growing boys, is almost more than I can contemplate. We don’t have enough … enough anything for that number of additional people. It will deplete everything we have stored right now so what we can raise, forage, and hunt is going to be absolutely even more critical.” Returning my gaze to the teens I told them, “Living is about more than a roof over your head and a full belly.” Then after a brief pause and a deep sigh I said, “But I suppose it is a place to start.”

Mateo’s shoulders relaxed. Roy’s mouth fell open and his arms uncrossed in surprise. Annie’s reaction however was telling. She said, “There’s a catch, right?”

Mateo looked at me closely but didn’t stop me. He later told me he knew that I’d have some rules that would need to be agreed to up front and he’d even come up with a few of his own. I looked at Annie and admitted, “Yes, there is a catch but hopefully nothing you can’t live with. Can we sit down and discuss things for a bit? Or do you need to get back to your grandmother right away?”

Biting the inside of her cheek she finally said, “Just give me a basic rundown. I can’t make any decision without Abuela being here but … but I’m pretty sure she’d be OK with anything reasonable.” She emphasized the word reasonable.

I cracked my first small grin. “Look, I have no idea what kind of life you are used to but we can’t make this work if all you kids are constantly at sixes and sevens with each other and with us. I’m not asking to be your parent, but I’m used to a certain … certain … look, it already feels like a zoo around here on some days I would just prefer it not to feel like that every day.”

She nodded, “Sure, I get it. Keep the noise down to a dull roar and watch the mouths.”

I nodded and said, “And with that … I’d prefer not to hear kids cursing.” She bowed up but I stopped her. “Annie, I was a teacher; a highschool teacher. I got laid off due to budget cuts but I taught in a pretty rough school. And I’m not deaf. I heard the music, saw the “art” or what passed for those two things and I know what passes for casual conversation with a lot of young people these days. Slips of the tongue happen, I’m not perfect myself, but just like with the issue of putting the effort into getting along I’d like some effort put into how we all talk to each other in general. To me cursing is a sign of disrespect to the person you are speaking to as well as a sign of disrespect of the speaker for themselves.”

“What else?” she asked. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking but I know in her place I would be wondering what kind of people I’d stumbled across.

“Probably nothing that you wouldn’t expect there to be but if you want it on the table we’ll put it there. I’m not saying this is a problem or will be a problem but no stealing, no lying, no cheating, yada, yada, yada. And you should know that you have the right to expect that same level of respect from us. We stick to our word and Mateo will likely talk to the boys about the work and what he expects. I don’t want this to feel like a prison or an orphanage or a place with a million rules … just some basic, respectful expectations on both sides.”

Annie’s lips were a bit tight but then she squinted at me and shrugged. “You sound like Abuela. I think she’ll like you … and not because you are both gringas. But … look, Abuela is pretty strict about some things. We don’t work on Sundays … regular chores sure but not work, work. And she expects us to sit and read the Bible after dinner every night. I might be able to talk her around about the Sunday thing but not the Bible. Her parents were missionaries to the Miskito in Honduras, that’s where she met our grandfather. It’s just … you know … it’s …”

I gave her and Roy a genuine smile. “That you don’t have to worry about at all. You’ve got a safe haven here, no one is going to take that away from you. But we’re all human. It won’t work if we don’t put work into it. Mateo?” I turned to look at him. It was totally unlike him to be silent for so long. “Shouldn’t you …?”

He shook his head. “It will wait. It is getting late and their grandmother will be worried. She wasn’t too happy to have them going off with me in the first place. We’ll go get them, bring them back, and give her time to be involved with any other discussion.”

I nodded and knew we had things to discuss tonight. “I’ll have something ready for everyone when you get back … in say an hour?”

“Add another thirty minutes to that. They have carts with their belongings. You’ll have to see this to believe it.” I knew I should have been curious with such a statement as my goodbye but I was much too busy to waste any time on it.

Nine more people to feed. Nine MORE people to feed. NINE more people to FEED. I shook my head realizing I was making myself worked up when it was the least constructive activity. I quickly walked back to the house and told Nydia that we’d be having guests for dinner.

“Did Miss Liz and Juliet come back?” she asked hopefully.

“No Darling, these are new people. And apparently there are several children your age with them.” That didn’t even seem to compute for Nydia and that added to my worries. Nydia had never had much opportunity to socialize with children her own age. We tried having park days and of course she saw and played with children her own age during church and church social activities but then when gas became so expensive and I became pregnant our world began to shrink. I couldn’t even remember for sure when her last exposure to children her age had been. She was socialized more towards adults and though she played at age-appropriate activities I was still concerned that this was going to be a shock for her.

Deciding that it was just another thing I would have to put on my can’t-think-about-it-right-now list I turned to creating a menu. Nine more people, all of them children no matter what Annie and Roy thought of themselves as. I had no idea what they had been eating or how much but I suspected they’d just been getting by given how then they both were. Everyone was thinner than they used to be but those two looked like they were struggling to barely maintain their health they were so thin; if I had to guess, what vigor they had was strictly a function of their age and hormones. That meant something that was both calorie and nutrient dense. I really wasn’t sure what the children were used to eating but I was praying they weren’t picky eaters or spoiled with lots of sugars and sweeteners. I was really hoping they weren’t thin simply because they had turned up their noses at food just because they weren’t familiar with the taste or texture.

Time was not my friend so I asked Nydia to scrub a large malanga root while I buckled Neeno into his chair. He hated being controlled like that but I figured it was better than putting him on a leash and tying him to a tree to keep him from toddling off on his own. I put the chair with him in it under a tree where Genty could come over and tickle his toes with a lick and gave him some things to play with that were too big for him to swallow. After Nydia was finished scrubbing the malanga she started to clean the plank table we had been using while Tag’s people were here. I was glad I had not gotten around to taking it apart earlier in the day as I had meant to.

I peeled and shredded the malanga and about a third as much raw pumpkin and mixed them together in a bowl. I tossed in an egg and a little flour to act as a binding agent and then covered the bowl until my pot of cooking oil came to temperature. Quickly I also made up some tortillas. They came out more like a fry bread but Neeno didn’t complain when I taste tested one on him and Nydia. A huge pot of wild and domesticated greens with garlic mixed in was another addition to the table. I made some rice balls as well and gravy to put over them using more flour, a little dried meat, and some of the broth off of the greens. The protein came from a pot of black beans well seasoned with more garlic and some onions that, due to time constraints, I was forced to prepare in my pressure cooker. I added a boil of seasoned olive oil to the table for good fat. I was just taking the beans off the stove and finishing the malanga fritters when I heard noise in the front yard.

I heard Mateo call and Nydia shot away from me before I could stop her. I’m going to have to have a talk with that child; first the cheekiness, then ignoring me when I asked her to stop running into an unknown-to-me situation. I know it is the age, she is no longer a baby and is starting to assert more independence, but her independence and my sanity do not occupy the same dimensional plain at the moment and she’ll have to wait a bit longer to grow up.

Mateo came around the corner guiding an older lady that was dignified but obviously frail and I was embarrassed at the messy sight I knew I presented. It got worse when the older woman promptly burst into tears. I looked at Mateo helplessly for a moment before rushing forward to lead her to a chair that Mateo was bringing for her to sit in. My mouth opened and closed a couple of times before Annie noticed. Annie sighed but then smiled. “I think she is just relieved Mrs. Jakob. She’s very tired and has been worrying about what we would do since we nearly had a run in with some guys on motorcycles a couple of weeks back.”

I looked at Mateo who nodded. He’d find out from the boys if it was possible they were the same ones that we had put to rest with the help of Tag’s group if I would deal with the females. I asked Annie, “Would your grandmother like something to drink? We don’t have coffee but tea or juice or water or … or there is a little goat’s milk but I was thinking to leave it for the youngest children.”

That got the older woman’s attention. “You … you have goats?”

As she tried to compose herself I explained how they were a very recent acquisition. She in turn smiled, albeit a watery one, and said, “I took care of goats until my husband and I got married and immigrated to the States. It seems every where I turn it is as if God was saying to me, ‘Didn’t I promise to take care of you? You are safe now.’ I cannot tell you … it … it is …” She wasn’t crying buckets but she was certainly emotionally overwhelmed.

I looked to Annie again and whispered, “I have dinner ready to be put on the table but if you think it would be better for your family to have some privacy we can …”

“No.” The older lady … Mrs. Flores-Olancho though she was soon to ask that I call her Lena … said with finality. “This is ridiculous. You must think me touched in the head … loca or something similar.”

I shook my head and smiled gently. “What I think is that you’ve been under a great deal of stress for who knows how long. If you really do not mind dining … Mateo calls it en familia ... with the whole family and casually … then if you will give me a moment I’ll get everything ready and we can eat before it gets dark. I hope you don’t mind but I set up a children’s table.”

Annie, after assuring herself that her grandmother was really OK, quickly rose to help me. We set the silverware and cups on the table but the plates we sat beside the food I had arranged buffet style on the outdoor bar. I told her, “Weather permitting we prefer to eat outside. It cuts down on the cleaning I have to do inside.” She nodded her understanding and then after we had finished I showed her the area set up for washing before meals and she quickly had the boys lined up though they look rather surprised and irritated at being asked to wash up when in the words of one of the younger ones “they were only going to get dirty again and then have to wash up for bed time.”

Dinner was served and I believe it was a success, or at least a success of sorts. The children at first were distrustful though polite about it and didn’t know whether to wolf down their food in fear that it would be taken away from them if they weren’t quick enough or to savor each bit as if it was their last. Either way by the end they were all overwhelmed and subdued, as if there was some high price to be paid. I wasn’t sure how to set them at rest when a sudden clank at the children’s table had me swiveling in that direction only to find that the five year old boy had fallen asleep and as a result fallen out of his chair. Annie was caught between being stunned and mortified and quickly jumped up to help her grandmother get him upright.

“Well that settles it,” I said with a smile to put them at ease. “I had wondered what to do next but I think that I should show you through the house before it gets darker. Mateo, perhaps you can show the boys where … to … I’m sorry. Did I just hear …?” I stopped because I had heard a strange sound.

Annie took charge. “Roy, you deal with Spot and get him settled. Robert, you take care of the pollos and Conejos … and don’t forget to change their water. Ricky, you keep everyone else out of trouble and help Mr. Jakob.” Ricky didn’t look pleased to be stuck babysitting but the only relief he got was when Annie added, “I’ll take Evie but you keep Ren and Sylvie on a leash.”

There was absolutely no refusing her command and apparently the boys knew and understood it. Evie apparently was the three-year old girl … she had white blonde ringlets that were in stark contrast to how the rest of the family looked but I didn’t feel I could express any curiosity about that yet. I led Lena and Annie over to Gerald’s old house and through it to give them an idea of what needed to be done.

“I’m sorry. I knew this place needed a good cleaning but I hadn’t realized just how bad it was. It’s been vacant for a long time. There’s no way you can stay here tonight. We’ll have to figure something out.”

“Nonsense,” Lena said stoutly. “This is a palace compared to some of the places we’ve been forced to stay. The room with the fireplace is large enough for all of us to stay tonight and since there is no carpeting in there will be easiest to clean up. Now stop worrying, just having four solid walls and a roof over our heads is a relief … add windows and good, solid doors and this is the lap of luxury.”

Unable to change their minds … and in truth in relief … I let it go and Nydia and I helped them get the room a very cursory cleaning. When the boys started carrying in bundles of belongings I went outside to find Mateo talking with Roy. “Leah?”

I walked over and saw two cows … I mean real live cows … being led into the shed to stay alongside the goats. “Oh my,” I breathed in near disbelief.

Roy smiled at the look on my face, “It was Abuela’s idea. It took Robert and I two days to figure out how to make them go the direction we wanted them to but after that it was a breeze. We’d been taking turns … Annie too … pulling the carts. We barely got anywhere before the cows came along. We’ve had them for nearly two months now.” I was still looking at the apparitions when Roy caught my attention and added, “Um, thank … thank you. I mean if you really mean for us to stay here. Abuela … well she just … she’s been real weak for a while and Annie was worried about her and the little kids.” He ended on a shrug that I interpreted to mean that the rest of it was just more than he knew how to convey.

Mateo said, “Roy, we mean for you to stay but it is important to get your abuela’s say so before we right it in stone.” At that Annie could be heard calling for Roy’s help to set up the beds and he scooted off, reassured but still obviously uncomfortable.

For the first time Mateo and I were alone; I had sent Nydia and Neeno to the house to get ready for bed and to wait for me there. “I know Leah, and we will talk. But let us get them settled for the night first.” Knowing I had no choice I nodded and we completed the task with as much speed as was seemly and then we retired for the night ourselves after I found Annie had sent the boys to clean up from dinner and Nydia had done her chore of stacking things on the counter after they had been cleaned.

Mateo wandered back into the kitchen after tucking the kids in with a story to find me sliding the last item into its space in the upper cabinets. “Are you angry with me?” he asked seriously.

Thinking about it but not because I was teasing him I said, “I … no … not really.”

“Then how do you feel about this?”

It was my turn to use the shrug. “What do you expect me to say? What’s done is done.”

He stepped over and took the dish towel from me and hung it to dry. “That’s no answer.”

“I’m not sure I have another one for you. I can’t turn all of those kids away. And Lena … she’s been giving all of the food to the kids and taking next to nothing for herself. And she’s been doing that for a while. Did you notice how she seemed to have to force herself to eat tonight?”

He shook his head. “No, but I will take your word for it. It doesn’t surprise me though. She seems the type that would rather martyr herself than take any risk that the children might experience want.”

I sighed and rubbed my temples. “I know you couldn’t turn them away Mateo but nine extra mouths to feed … nine. I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I can stretch things that far. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves, how am I supposed to …?”

“Easy mi Tesoro, mi Corazon, mi Vida. I know I’m asking a lot but it feels right. I know they are all children but it actually feels more right than if they had been a group of adults. We’ll be able to set the rules with the kids and things will run more smoothly than with adults with their own ideas on how things should work.”

At that I had to laugh ruefully. “You haven’t had much to do with teenagers have you?”

He stopped his thinking and looked at me, then grimaced. “Perhaps smoothly wasn’t the best word but I still think it was the right thing to do. You set the proper tone anyway … mutual respect. I think that will be very important for the boys, especially Roy who strikes me as a young man that only recently took over the place in the family that he is in.”

“Have they given away any of their history? Annie did mention there had been more of them.”

“They are a mixed family … a his, hers, and theirs type thing. Lena is Roy’s father’s mother but I got the idea that Roy’s father has been gone for a number of years because it is Annie’s father that helped them to escape when their refugee camp exploded in violence a few months back. They lived in Palm Beach County originally but I’m not sure where their camp was. The two little girls … I’m honestly not sure how they fit in, maybe you can find out.”

“Anything else?”

“That Annie … she’s too old for her age. She’s used to carrying a lot of the burden in the family but I can’t tell if it is something she has taken on recently or one that she’s always been forced to do.”

I nodded, “I’ll need to be careful with her, make sure she knows that if I tell the boys to do something it isn’t because I’m trying to take her place … or her mother’s place.” I shuddered, “Mateo I have a hard enough time managing our two, what on earth am I going to do with eight more children?!”

Friday, May 20, 2011

Part 18: That Fork Wasn’t Marked on the Map

Part 18: That Fork Wasn’t Marked on the Map

The road of life can only reveal itself as it is traveled;
each turn in the road reveals a surprise. - Unknown

The silence was comforting when our guests first took their leave, but when Mateo also left earlier than usual to go check some of the traps he had set the lack of human voices became a little unnerving and oppressive. The children were also more quiet than usual, missing their new friends. I couldn’t have been the only one to sense the change because Genty the furry, gentle giant objected to the children going too far away from where he was. I have to admit that despite my mood his antics made me smile when I realized he was herding the children as much as he was herding the goats. The geese and ducks weren’t quite sure they approved of the dog or the goats as their new neighbors and seemed to intentionally snub the whole lot as they waddled to the pond for their morning constitutional adding a little more humor to the situation.

My smile was quick to melt however. I looked around at all that had been here before Tag’s people had arrived and what had been added since with their help and my chest felt weighted with anxiety. I was torn. I felt blessed to be in the shape we were in. I never dared to imagine when I first started the covered gardens experiment that I would ever have this many to tend. On the other hand having this many to tend was a good part of the anxiety. I was alone once again in taking care of everything and wondered if I would be able to manage all of the raised beds, trees, bushes, fruiting vines, and animals by myself. I already missed Liz and Dog’s camaraderie that eased my load and made the day go more quickly even when Mateo was away. I really missed playing teacher to Juliet and Joseph even if it did add to my work somewhat. They were like sponges, absorbing not only the agricultural lessons I gave, but the history and science that I included with them. They made me remember how much I missed teaching my highschool students even if about three-quarters of them preferred to act like brain dead zombies most of the time.

Noticing that the goats were beginning to eat the grass too short right behind the house in the only small patch of lawn that remained, I decided to move their picket lines to the area in front of Gerald’s house. Actually I needed to stop calling it that. Gerald was never coming back; the man was dead due to his own deeds and there was no sense in memorializing him. We’d never been friends and it was rather macabre and hypocritical to make him out to be something he was not just because the man no longer had Earth as an address.

While I moved the pickets I began to seriously consider the plans Mateo had for our long term security. The first stage was to build a tall fence that encompassed our yard and the yards on either side of us as well as a portion of the orange grove. The work we had already done on our yard would be the “inner courtyard” of the compound. The walls that we raised around the outside would act as a curtain wall or palisade. But the first task of the first stage would be to increase the security of our primary entrance gate. Rather than a swing gate we were going to install a track gate which would be much more difficult to push through. A house around the bend of our road has that very system so we are going to salvage it and move our current swing gate someplace else. That project is easier than it sounds, certainly easier than building the walls will be.

Lucky for us all of the upright posts are already in place for a tall fence. The ones from our yard are concrete block pillars that we poured solid. Two-thirds of the remaining posts are also concrete pillars including the ones around the portion of the orange grove that we intend on enclosing except unlike ours they are hollow. I’m fairly certain that it is possible to pop off the capping stones; it is just going to be a question of what to fill the exposed cells with. I’m thinking tightly packed sand will be the best option. Gerald’s yard – no, the goat’s yard – is the remaining third that we plan on enclosing and it is surrounded by a vinyl fence that looks really bad. The fence used to be one of the most expensive and well-maintained in the neighborhood but expensive or not in the beginning it looks terrible now. The vinyl will definitely have to go, but the uprights are more than just decorative as they actually cover heavy duty, metal fence posts sunk in concrete left over from the old fence the vinyl fence replaced. The uprights therefore aren’t the problem, it is what to put between them.

Mateo thinks to start with using wooden decking off of the roofs of some of the partially destroyed houses along the road. The collapsed roofs will be easiest to cut sections from … shingles, tar paper, and all. We’ll be forced to hook up the Saws-all for this but I don’t see any other viable choice. Good thing Mateo found all of those extra batteries. Transporting the sections will be further work but we’ll have to manage it. One of the things that Mateo brought back with our visitors’ assistance was a rolling pallet jack and it should definitely help. We’ll hang a section of roof decking on either side of a pair of posts and then we’ll fill the void between with sand, broken blocks and bricks, and whatever else we can find. It’s going to be far from perfect but better than nothing; more importantly no one will be able to crash through them with impunity and they should deflect bullets somewhat … or at least stop them from coming through at full velocity.

The main problem isn’t the lack of ideas nor even the lack of raw materials to work with; it is the costly work hours involved. Most of my time still needs to be dedicated to growing and preserving our food; however, Mateo cannot build the fence by himself. What a quandary. Do we stop growing food, risk the disaster of hunger this winter, to build the fence to protect crops we had to stop growing? Or, do we grow food to prevent winter hunger and risk the disaster of theft and vandalism because we didn’t build the fence? If only Greg … but there’s no profit in saying if only.

The time problem was being compounded by the fact that August was sliding into September and already the nights were taking on a very different feel to them. The humidity level is dropping; not precipitously but it is dropping which makes for cooler days and nights. During the day I’m still in sleeveless T’s and have a bandana to wipe the sweat from my brow, but at night I usually throw on a long sleeved cover up and it isn’t just to keep from being eaten alive by the mosquitoes and no-see-ums. During the day I can run around barefoot if I choose and can even get overheated working the garden … at night I have to wear socks or slippers in the house or risk a chill.

Unbelievably the governor’s plums made despite my expectation that the bushes had been ruined. I will be giving them protection for this coming winter because I’m finding I grow weary of only having citrus and tropical fruits on the menu. The next crop of pineapples are almost large enough to harvest as well. Most of them are about half the size of the ones that I would have bought at the grocery store in times past but they are twice as sweet so there is a real trade off; with more taste you have to lose less to get the same flavor. I’ll save the tops from the pineapples and pot them to make an even larger patch in the future. The limes and lemons are almost ready to pick as well as are the mangoes, papayas, and the fruit from my potted guava tree.

I’m sad that my hurricane lilies don’t look like they are going to bloom. I loved the bright dancing heads; the spider lilies didn’t either. My daylilies have been blooming but are about finished and I’ll probably pick the last of the buds and pickle them instead of letting the cold kill the flowers when it arrives. But the marigolds and calendula continue to bloom and I’ve learned to take note of the squash and pea blossoms in the garden to replace the perennials and annuals that I used to plant in abundance around the house. It is cool enough at night that I may start planting some of the cold tolerant greens like collards and kale but I’ll keep a sunshade handy just in case I’m wrong.

For lunch – a meal that Mateo barely sat still long enough to eat before heading right back out – I used a cooked but cool mixture of grains leftover from dinner last night and did a funny kind of pilaf with a minty side salad. Even after splitting some of my mints and other herbs to send back with Liz and company, I’ve got so many that some are starting to go woody and I need a way to including them more often in our meals. At lunch Mateo told me there would be no fresh fish or crawdads for dinner since the traps were empty which they are on occasion, well more often than not to be honest but he said it looked like someone had been checking them out though because of the closures he uses on the traps he could tell it hadn’t been to take anything out of them. That means people. We know that people come through the area, we’d have to be blind as bats not to see some of the evidence -not to mention the two raids we’ve endured - but I’m not sure I like the idea of anyone being so nosey that they would actually discover where the traps were; it isn’t like Mateo hangs a sign that says, “Hey, here’s a trap.”

I wanted Mateo to take Genty with him when he went out in the afternoon but Mateo said he felt better with the dog staying with us and doing his job to protect the livestock. At first I wouldn’t have known what to do with one dog and now I want two. What I would feed another dog the size of Genty I have no idea but I’d be willing to figure something out if it keeps Mateo safe.

After lunch and after I had put away all of the morning harvest I decided to look at the clumps of bamboo in the area. I had more than one reason for doing so as I do with just about everything I do these days. I put on gloves and rubber waders which made Neeno laugh and want to “play dress up” too. Nydia, by contrast was not pleased; she does not care for the swamp because it scares her. Since she was getting a particularly mulish look on her face I decided to give her a choice; she and Neeno could stay home as long as they stayed inside with the house locked up or they could come with me. Nydia chose the house as I knew she would and said they would play upstairs in the hidden room; even better.

I could have waited for Mateo to come home and give me a break from the children but I wanted to find answers to some of the questions he had put to me when we were talking about security measures. Mateo thought we could create a barrier in the swamp by transplanting some of the water-loving bamboo that grows in the conservation areas; however thinking something and it really being an option is two totally different things. I know the clumps grow quickly and are impenetrable in short order because of throwing a half dead pot of bamboo out into the swamp. It had been tossed on my parents’ graves by someone cleaning out a mausoleum near their plots. I have no idea what possessed me to bring it back with me that day but I did. When what I had done finally penetrated, I quickly disposed of the tangled mess. That half dead bit of trash is now its own ecosystem and sends out runners all over the place. So that little accidental experiment told me that Mateo’s idea was possible, just that we’d need to be careful about intentionally introducing an invasive species to a new location.

Now onto the next reason for my traipsing around looking at the different types of bamboo in the neighborhood; as a food source. No, I’m not kidding. I know a lot of people think of bamboo just like they think of banana foliage - as trees - but both are actually just oversized grasses. In addition to the water-loving varieties some people in the neighborhood planted bamboo that preferred drier land and used it as a type of privacy hedge or as an ornamental landscape element. One house in particular had a well established mini-forest of a type of bamboo I had identified as phyllostachys nuda … not that the name is all that important, just that I had properly identified it as a type of bamboo that you could eat using my handy dandy field guide book.

It isn’t the “woody” parts or the leaf parts of the bamboo that is edible but the new shoots. These shoots are edible in the same way that palmetto shoots are edible. The bombing runs combined with the unusually cool season had disrupted or partially destroyed the normally fast growing palmetto stands in the area and I’d used up a lot of the new shoots of those plants while Tag’s people were visiting. But lucky for me I thought of the bamboo that I enjoyed with the Asian dishes Mateo would occasionally bring home when he was “courting” me after our marriage.

The harvesting of bamboo shoots is pretty straight forward, similar to harvesting other types of “shoots.” You don’t want anything that is damaged or soft, moldy, cracked, or that looks like an animal has either used it as a latrine area or nibbled on it. The best bamboo shoots are short with a wide base and are solid and heavy for their size. I suppose they look a bit like a small cypress knee. The bamboo hedge where I looked had a pretty good number in all stages of growth. I’m not sure if that is normal but it meant I had a variety to choose from, even some that hadn’t broken the surface yet.

To prepare them my Asian cookbook said to peel the brownish husk off the outside of the shoot. Good thing that my ceramic knives are still my go-to tool for this type of work as a dull knife just won’t cut it … literally. I slit the shoot up the side and then peeled off the layers of husks a bit like you would an onion. Once I had exposed the pale section I cut off the pointy top and the fibrous base, neither of which are edible. It takes at least two boils to make the shoots edible. The first one is for twenty minutes to remove the hydrocyanic acid and the second one is a boil-until-tender effort. If the shoots are still bitter after that, boil them for five minute intervals until you get the flavor you are seeking; you can even put a little salt in the water if you want to. My book says that bamboo shoots are ninety-four percent water but they are rich in Vitamin B and phosphorus which I worry that Mateo isn’t getting enough of.

I was drying my hands from cleaning the small batch that I had brought home and thinking how to fix the bamboo shoots for dinner when Nydia came up with a bucket of what I realized was milk.

“Nydia! We are supposed to milk them on a schedule,” I told her, appalled that she would do something like that without my permission.

“Daisy was um-com-for-bull. She was making a lot of noise and getting cranky. She stopped making a fuss when I milked her.” Well, done is done but now I was rather stuck what to do with not one but two pails of milk; I had nearly three-quarters of a gallon of it now and had hoped to have a little more time to figure out what I was doing. “Well, we need to save some for the kid and …”

“I fed her already just like Juliet showed me.”

“Ok.” My little girl seemed to be a lot more in tune with the horned beasties than I was. I told her, “Let me mark it down on the calendar so that we know what time …”

“I already did Nonny,” she told me with slightly exaggerated patience, like I was a dense child. “I remember what Miss Liz and Miss Juliet said we had to do and I know how to read the big clock in the house.” Ah … she was a little offended that I thought she couldn’t tell time. I decided to let her get away with her sass this time but a look from me told her she was skirting a little close to the line. I took the pail of milk while the Little Dickens scampered away leaving me holding the bag … or in this case bucket. Shaking my head at my own foolishness, I let her get away with it again and then took the milk over to my food prep area.

There were so many things that we missed having ready access to but two that I personally missed the most were fresh cheese and butter. My mother had given me a copy of the Encyclopedia of Country Living (ECL) when I graduated from highschool. At the time I thought it was a sweet but eccentric gift, the kind my mother was prone to give me to put into my hope chest, but the blasted door-stopper sized block of paper was something I referred to practically every day now and I’d give a whole lot to be able to tell her I was sorry for not being more appreciative of her thoughtfulness. It wasn’t the only book either my mother had given me that was now dog-eared with use. The only problem with the ECL is that it really wasn’t designed for our specific geographic region; but, there was enough information and wisdom in that book that I used it as a spring board for things and other books that did apply more directly. And in the ECL were some directions for caring for goats and dealing with what they produced.

According to everything that I had read in the ECL and in other books on the subject goat milk is rich in calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12 potassium, niacin, copper, antioxidant selenium, and folic acid … more in fact than the cows’ milk has … and all are vitamins and minerals that I’ve been worried that we aren’t getting enough of in our diets. Since much of our food now consists of bulk staple items, food from our own garden, or the remaining storage items that Mateo and I were able to squirrel away before everything fell apart I’m having a difficult time judging whether Mateo and the children are getting enough of what their body’s need. While it is true that they are healthy and growing I’ve noticed on the growth chart neither of the children are measuring quite to the fifty percentile on the growth charts from the baby books I have. I know for a fact that Nydia used to measure way into the eighty percentiles in height and weight. Kids do grow in fits and spurts but I also know that when someone grows up during times of war and economic stress they tend to be on the shorter side compared with a generation that grew up in times of plenty. Add into this the lack of direct medical care and it is scaring me plenty that my children will have deficits in areas I can’t even imagine yet.

So the addition of the goats to our livestock is a blessing. By looking at them I think they are Nubians. I don’t mean they come from Egypt or anything like that, just that is what the breed is called. From what I’ve read they seem like a real package deal when it comes to goat breeds. The does are friendly, it is just our lone male goat that is a pistol; he’s not ornery, just determined to do what he wants when he wants. Of course he minds Genty and strangely enough he listens to Nydia more than he listens to me which sent Mateo off into an fit of laughter when I complained about it. Nubian goats are supposed to be good for both dairy and meat. While I might be aching for BBQ – especially if the Billy decides to go after my laundry again – I hope it is a while before it comes to that; we want to grow the herd so long as we can provide for them and care for them adequately.

I decided that I had time for one more experiment before I had to see to starting dinner; I was going to make a soft goat cheese, or give it my best shot. I took a half-gallon of the unpasteurized milk and heated it on medium heat until it was one hundred and eight-five degrees using a candy thermometer. Then I took it off the heat and stirred in the juice of two lemons and stirred that around until the milk curdled. Once it curdled I added one-half teaspoon of sea salt, stirred it a little more to distribute the salt, and then strained it all through a cheesecloth-lined colander. I pulled the cheesecloth up by its edges and clipped them together with a couple of clothes pins and hung it to drip for a few hours where the flies couldn’t get to it. I was hoping that we would be able to have cheese and crackers for dessert tonight.

Feeling pretty good about what I had accomplished and looking forward to surprising Mateo and the children, I headed around to the front of the house and saw Mateo coming. He was close enough that I could make out that he was smiling and the wave of his arm was pretty jaunty as well. Problem. Big problem. He wasn’t alone. Looked like I was the one in for a surprise.