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.

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