Pine Trees for Curtains and a “lion”on the Fridge

The man on the phone was telling me: “A woman living alone in the mountains? I would never rent to you. These mountain people would eat you alive!” My first thought:  Isn’t proving that “you can” when they say “you can’t” a true test of character? I moved to the mountains.

Half an hour East of Redding, California, is the mountain town of Oak Run where my youngest son and I lived for a few years. The population of Oak Run was, for the most part, a mixture of friendly hard-working nature lovers who commuted to work in town each day, and drug pushers with their entourage of seamy friends who lived somewhere “back in the woods.” My wish to move from town to the mountains was two-fold: I hoped to provide my son a healthful home anchor during his increasingly infrequent stays at home, and my long-standing love affair with Nature. No matter that the place I chose had no running water or electricity, and that the warning of one landlord was still ringing in my ears. I found a spacious cabin with a loft, two skylights, and a wood stove for heat, with large windows that looked out at nothing but pine trees, and the nearest neighbors were close enough for lasting friendships to be made, but far enough away to afford us each a private niche of our own. This place was great! The hillside that dug deeply into the valley a few yards behind the house became a favorite place for me, where I would often sit on the moss-covered rocks in the fog and breathe in the lush green solitude, listening to the wind singing through the pines and quietly reaching inward to great places that only nature can reveal in the soul.

The cold winters were kept warm by frequent trips to the wood pile to keep the stove burning. I felt like a child flying his first kite, each time I learned something new, like banking the fire each night so that the quiet embers would come to life again with a breath of air and a morning supply of logs. For water, I had acquired six 5-gallon water jugs and I would pile them in my car and drive down the road to where the locals had strung a hose out from a stream back in the woods. There I would fill my water bottles each week and heft them back into the car, occasionally helped by some unkempt, tough-looking bearded mountain guy, filling his own bottles. This respect often shown to me shed all thought of being “eaten alive” from my mind and reconfirmed my lifelong belief that there is good in everyone. Back home, I would lever the heavy bottles up the steps one by one and roll them across the deck and into the kitchen for my weekly store of water. I purchased my drinking water and used the stream water for cooking, household duties, and bathing. I heated water on the wood stove in large enamel pots, and carried them to the sink to wash dishes, or to the bathtub for my bath each morning. I would mix the boiling hot water with cold water from buckets, and ladle it over me to soap up and rinse, recalling my earlier experience of bucket bathing at the ranch house in Veracruz years before.  Practice makes perfect.

A small propane bottle with a radiating cone at the top would be lit to warm the bathroom while I showered and dressed. As for washing the car, I find it rather ironic that it was by far more doable to man the stream-fed hose down the road each week, than it is to wash my car now in the city, with street parking and no hose permission from my landlord!  That was life in a house with no running water! I did the running. I had the water.

The house had no electricity.  Again drawing on my rustic ranch experience, I hung a series of oil lamps on the walls, and lit them each night to read or work by. I had already learned how to trim the wicks so that the lamps would burn clean and not smell like kerosene. That had been our only lighting on the ranch. The lamps created a welcoming, gentle ambiance as I curled up in front of the wood stove in the evenings to read and listen to the changing moods of weather and local fauna outside. When I moved back to the city with its distracting daily obligations, this precious reading time all but disappeared.

No water, no lights. Those were familiar challenges that were bravely dealt with. What other pioneer skills I would need for this little mountain hideaway would be discovered. No electricity meant no refrigeration. I had propane for the kitchen stove so it was easy to segue to the propane refrigerator once I was introduced to this efficient technological jewel from the turn of the century. A refrigerator that runs on fire?  Unbelievable, I thought. But so it does, through the intriguing process of, not adding cold to the box, but absorbing heat from it, through a chemical process that begins with a flame – hence the propane. Ha! My refrigerator had a pilot light.  I call these “jewels” because they are not only highly efficient, they are extremely economical, and the first ones were built with the clean, sophisticated lines of 30’s style. I found one at a used appliance store and missed not a step in storing and preparing food as I moved in. This was one very “cool” refrigerator! So neat to look at, in fact, that my good friends and neighbors across the way invited me along with family and friends to paint their own gas refrigerator with an underwater theme! Art deco a la eccentric. I accomplished my first (and last) oil painting – a lion fish – on one side. This was a medium I had never used before, so my contribution was mostly one of learning as I slowly brought the fish to life, while the other artists and artist wannabe’s deftly painted orcas, schools of fish, and under-sea critters over the rest of the fridge, but I am pleased to say, my lion fish is still looking good after more than 10 years, as is the friendship of my former neighbors!

lion-fish

Why on earth would I want to live in a place that required so many difficult, time-consuming back woods skills! Where a place to live is concerned, one thing alone has always drawn me and occupied my mind through the years that I have lived in cities, only rarely realized – a home somewhere out in nature! Who needs walls if you have woods to surround you or windows if you have never-ending vistas of grass or sea to inspire the imagination! Who needs a ceiling if you have the great expanse of sky overhead, with sunlight to read by and a blanket of stars to cover you at night! I was happy in this home. When, in time, friends helped me upgrade to a generator for lights and TV, and my generous neighbors’ strung a hose across the street to pump water from their well for a few hours each week to fill my water tank, already attached to a fully-plumbed house that had never had a well to draw from, life was indeed easier, but it was never again quite as good.

The trade-off of this rustic life was the quiet that only a pine forest can give you, as anyone who has heard the wind singing through pine needles knows; the dark nights closing up the house before bedtime instead of curtains; the feeling of being “alive” that overcoming new challenges gives you; the frequent visit of a big raccoon that would come up to the glass window in the living room and sit and stare at me, the awesome silence after a snowfall when even the proverbial dropped pin can’t be heard; standing outside at midnight under falling snow, catching snowflakes on your tongue as you watch them streak toward you out of nowhere from an indigo sky; and a once in a lifetime memory that I will never forget!

It was at the time when the news was full of the anticipated arrival of the Hale-Bopp Comet over northern California and I was waiting for nightfall to see if I could get a glimpse of it. If it passed by low, I would miss it because I was surrounded by woods. The only open sky was right above the house. I stayed up late, going outside every half hour and scanning the sky to see if I could catch the comet on its path. Sleep finally got the better of me, and disappointed, I climbed the stairs to the loft and went to bed. I normally don’t wake up during the night, so I was surprised to find myself suddenly wide awake a few hours later. I turned over to stretch, opened my eyes, and there, filling the skylight above my bed from edge to edge, was Hale-Bopp in all its glory, big and bold, with its tail stretching out behind it! I laid there staring at it until it travelled out of view, transported by the moment to some magical place beyond the earth where dreams come true! Who, or what, woke me up? My guardian angel? Those elusive wood sprites of legend? I like think it was intuition, that sensitivity to the unseen that has led me well throughout my life. It is never sharper than when it draws on nature.  Difficulties? What difficulties! I never “saw” them in my house in the woods.

 

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The Hidden Years

As I look back at my childhood, I can see now that I was living a life that was in large part passive. Most of my growing up was going on “inside”. I can recall few distinct memories of when I was actually, aggressively pursuing anything other than playing with my neighborhood friends and watching the world go by. Thinking? – yes. Acutely aware of all that was going on around me? – not a doubt. But actively, purposefully controlling my daily activities – no.

Mom loved me a little too much. and as a result, she was overly controlling where I was concerned. This certainly contributed in part to my passive nature then. Can we debate whether one can really “love too much?” Love is expressed in many ways, but some are healthier than others. When love says: “this is mine and I love it to death, that is exactly what happens” – The object of this love dies. Too much water and sun can kill a growing plant. If this plant did not die, it was because a greater power was already at work and had the situation well in hand.  And I think I sensed even then that I was not to lead, but to follow….that Someone Greater would lead my life. And that was good.

I didn’t talk much. I listened. For this, I must give thanks to my mother, who talked a lot. She had so much to say and it was so interesting, that I had no reason to say much as a child. People said I was too shy, hinted that I might even be “backward”. They said I shouldn’t hide behind the couch when family and friends gathered to talk in the living room. I wasn’t hiding. I was observing the comedy of life at its richest. I would lay back there on the floor with my pillow, nice and comfy, and listen to every word that was being said, undisturbed, and fascinated! I was enjoying it too much to come out and be a part of what was already becoming apparent to me: It’s wiser to speak little and listen much. That’s where I learned the most. They didn’t understand that this was my strength, not my weakness. The truth is that those were some of my wisest years as a child. I was acutely aware of all that was going on, and learning.

I was not afraid to interact socially. It never occurred to me that it was necessary to make special efforts to that end. My world was complete. This “only girl” in the family received more loving affection from Mom’s large traditional French family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second and third cousins, and all their friends, in the first years of my life than some people receive in a lifetime. Daddy had no family: he had been an orphan, but I was “his little sunflower” and his love alone was a worthy match for my mother’s family’s. That’s a source of security. I heard so many fascinating stories over the dinner table and at family gatherings that my mind was full of things to think about. I watched attentively as those around me went through the usual and the unexpected joys and pitfalls of life, dealing with each one in turn. I didn’t have to make decisions about what to wear, how to comb my hair, what time to get up and go to bed, when to eat. Mom did that. Amazingly, I never perceived my mother’s control as a problem. It only became so when I grew up and Mom’s strong spirit would reach beyond the limits allowed. Never was it a problem for the child. Others did the necessary daily chores of raising me. Where I was able to roam at will was within. That was when I learned that no one can touch you, harm you, control you “inside”. That’s the one place over which we have sole proprietorship. Many will argue this fact, but it’s the truth: the actions of others can only really affect us if we let them

This was a big lesson for a small child to learn. If I appeared all too passive on the outside, an activity of a grander nature was nevertheless continuously going on inside. I quietly observed the active pursuits of everyone else, and learned from their mistakes, from their occasional petty or hurtful words, from the consequences of their unfortunate decisions, from their good actions that ended in happy results. By the time I was nine, I had learned much about what to do and what not to do in order to live life well.

Why I write the book – My Memoirs

The Circle is Drawn They called me the “Blitz Krieg” baby. At 7:30 in the evening, Mom and Dad were enjoying a night out at the movies, with a week to go before the anticipated blessed event. At 8:00 PM, Mom and Dad were at the hospital, and the “blessing” was about to arrive. I was not officially due yet and no one was ready for me. However incredible it may seem, a nurse was frantically trying to hold me in until the doctor arrived. Hospital rules “did not allow a baby to be born without the doctor present.” The laws of Nature were not considered. Apparently the doctor and I arrived at the same time. I have a picture in my mind of a fast scrub, a quick entrance, and a marvelous catch just as the ball…er, baby, was passed straight into the hands of the star “quarterback”. A touchdown at this point would have been anticlimatic. I’ve never been a fan of football. I wasn’t paying attention. But Dad was. He had refused to leave Mom’s side for the birth, made a scene when they told him he was not allowed in the operating room, and the nurses finally gave up and made him scrub and gown up. I arrived, the doctor exclaimed to all present that “here’s a fine pair of football shoulders”, then quickly corrected himself: “No, these shoulders won’t play football.” My dad let out a whoop, and that’s the last Mom saw of him until the following afternoon. The story goes that my Dad made some kind of marvelous spectacle of himself upon learning that “it was a girl”. I was born into a large extended family of eighteen cousins and two siblings – all boys! Mom had a bit of a rough time – not surprising when you think of the persistent efforts of that nurse to go against long-established norms of nature. It wasn’t until a few days later that Mom and I left together accompanied by one very proud, smiling father. On the way out, as Mom told it later, one nurse after another went up to her, with eyes rolling, and said excitedly: “You should have seen your husband when the baby was born! We’ve never seen anyone do that before!” Mom’s inquiries as to the exact nature of what Daddy did that day went no where. No one would tell her. Shaking their heads and laughing, they just kept repeating: “You should have seen what your husband did!” And so I was born. ~~~ The Old Testament speaks of “types” – occurrences that precede and testify to the important events of the New Testament. You might say that they complete the circle. For those with an insight into life’s mysteries, these types are taken quite seriously and serve as wonderful prophesies of future events, only truly understood once the events have occured. I can’t help thinking that the year of my birth, and the beginning events of my existence, were types of where my life was to lead me and how it may one day end. I was born in 1941, the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II. The Germans were making rapid, un-anticipated bombing attacks on England at that time that were known as “blitz kriegs”. My insistence upon arriving unexpected and quickly into this world earned me that first title. I have no doubt that there was an agenda in place and it had to be met sooner than later. The type was set. It would be up to me to discover it one day. My first conscious memory is of a warm summer night, dark curtains moving softly in the breeze from the open window over my crib – and the sudden, terrible ululating sound of air-raid sirens. Mom says I couldn’t possibly remember: I was only a few months old! But I do. The memory is so clear to me that I can recall everything about it sixty-seven years later. And what I remember most is my world changing in an instant from a peaceful and secure state, with the sweet cooling breeze lulling me to sleep – to one of absolute, soul-shaking fear! Of course I didn’t know what those wailing noises were or meant, but I knew beyond a shadow of doubt what they represented. I have known such fear only a few times in my life and it was unmistakably the fear of Evil! I believe that when we are born, we are “whole”. The spirit that gives us life is already formed and if the child is limited in his or her abilities to interact with others, the intellect* is nevertheless as habile as it ever will be – perhaps even more so. By the very fact that we are unhindered by the as yet un-learned management of our physical world, we may be even more aware of the spiritual. California was in blackout and sirens were wailing to warn of possible attacks from Japanese war planes, which had already approached our coast. My parents had turned off the lights, pulled dark curtains across the windows and were probably reading stories to my brothers by candlelight to keep some semblance of calm, while fear lurked outside. Mom and Dad were attending to the necessary practical matters warranted by the occasion. My brothers, in the arms of my parents, were perhaps oblivious to danger. I can understand my parents being less concerned about me. Noise was noise, and I had been quite happy up until then to sleep or babble my way happily though all the noises of my surroundings, however loud or unexpected. And besides, what could a baby know about current events. My older brothers, on the other hand, perhaps sensing my parents concern, would need to be reassured. But I was the only one who sensed the nature of what really happening. This was my second “type”. I was, in effect, holding down the fort for my whole family, carrying a spiritual load full of comprehension of things eternal, to which I was still wide open. This tiny baby who had been created “in the spirit” of peace and light, and had known nothing but love from all who had come to welcome me, in one brief moment had perceived the face of Evil. I wonder if anyone can look the devil in the face and not be shaken to the core. We are of course speaking here of what the eyes cannot see. The connection between that event and my present direction in life makes it clear now that the type was set for my place in this world. I have lived more than one lifetime since then and have come nearly full circle to that blessed comprehension of things eternal, shedding, one by one, the material shackles by which I became bound over the years to the world, in the name of “practicality”. I could say here that this is my story. But that’s not entirely true. The story belongs to Another, and I am going to tell it. * To clarify the exact nature of “intellect” – Most of us have come to define it in terms of our “intellectual”, or mental capabilities. In reality, it refers to the highest part of our spiritual nature and is much more difficult to define, as it proceeds from the Creator, whose “reality” is of a higher nature, beyond our limited comprehension.

What goes around . . . goes around

That detergent stain on the floor of the Laundromat had been there for 20 years! I know. I used to stare at it between pages of the magazine I was reading, wishing it away, while waiting for my clothes to dry. I came here often when my sons and I first arrived in the U.S. I couldn’t believe that 20 years had gone by, and I was back at the same Laundromat. And I couldn’t believe that stain was still there.

From the day of our arrival, fresh from half a lifetime in Mexico, with nothing but our clothes, some linens, and a few pots and pans to our name, to that moment when I found myself staring again at the sullied carpet, another lifetime had gone by. But as I looked at that stain, I wondered . . .what had really changed?

Back to our first arrival …

We were “home,” but the future was an empty space… and a lot would have to change for us to settle into our new life in the States. After learning to drive, it was time for me to find a place to settle. I was looking for someplace rural, close enough to a small city for short commutes to town or school for my sons –in Northern California! I wanted no part of the great Southern California metropolis. My cousin and I sat down with a map and put circles around all the cities in Northern California and Oregon that fit my criteria, I shined up his little Volkswagen, packed for my trip and, leaving my two sons in the capable hands of my cousin and his wife, I drove off to explore. My first solo trip presented some challenges of which I will speak later, but as for taking to the road, I loved it!

After visiting several of my “circles on the map,” heading north on I-5 toward Redding, a little more than two hours out of Sacramento on a clear, sunshine-filled day, I had a ‘revelation’. Suddenly on the horizon, there appeared a majestic snow-capped mountain. Alive with reflected sunlight, its lofty cone seemed to reach right up to heaven and everything else “disappeared” before its imposing presence. I swear to this day that the sounds around me disappeared as well, as I traveled the next few miles in awe of this sight. Apparently I was not alone, years later I found this 1874 quote by John Muir: “When I first caught sight of Mount Shasta I was fifty miles away and afoot, alone and weary. Yet all my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary since.”

Mt shasta new 3Although my first impression of the natural beauty of the region was instrumental in my decision, something else far more important would become the reason for setting down roots. It concerns the “types” of my life (from the first chapter written, not yet revealed)

We moved to Redding. We were living from month to month on a small government check while I looked for a job with the right hours so that I could be at home for my children when they were not in school. I cried at every delay of our meager lifeline when the basics of life became untenable, stayed home with my kids while other families were spending their summers at the Lake, used every resource available to obtain food or firewood when we ran out. The only treat I could afford was an ice cream a month for each of us when I went grocery shopping with the newly arrived welfare check. The children were so happy at our shared “ice cream social” you would have thought I’d taken them to Disneyland. God bless them!

The hardest moment those first months was when my cousin came to pick up the Volkswagen he had loaned us until we could get a car of our own. That car of our own was nowhere near possible when he drove away with his little VW. We were living in an inexpensive bungalow behind our landlord’s, out in the country, far from the bus lines. Life had already slowed to a crawl. Without a car, it would virtually stop. But I didn’t say anything. I just smiled and waved as my cousin drove away, and prayed a little harder that night.

My first thought when my cousin left was “how are the kids going to get to school?” There is nothing as inspiring as a problem with no apparent solution: you either give up, or you move. I called the school, and the next day, my sons were waiting by the mailbox early in the morning to catch a ride with a friendly neighbor whose children were going to the same school.

Thanksgiving was only two days away. I was putting the final touches to a big pot of chili beans, whose ingredients I had acquired at the community food bank, when I got a call from my kids’ principal. “Would I be kind enough to share the ride with my sons to school the next day? He would see that I got back home.”

With that feeling of foreboding that comes with constantly being on the defensive while struggling with life’s difficulties (were my kids in trouble? Were they being set back a grade because of language problems? . . .), I walked into the principal’s office promptly at 8:00. I walked out again at 8:20, carrying a huge box full of food , complete with a 15 lb turkey and a greeting card that said: “We know you’re having a tough time right now, so here’s a little gift from us to you. We also know that you will repay in kind as the years go by. God bless you. HAPPY THANKSGIVING . The Faculty and Principal of Buckeye School.”

I had never before been the recipient of charity and it was a humbling experience. I surprised myself by not feeling embarrassed. The need was there – and accepting was the only gracious thing to do. With tears in my eyes, I mouthed a “thank you” as I walked out and got into the car waiting to take me home. Thus began our new life in the U.S. … and a reminder of what we have here that few, if any, other countries have – love for a neighbor in need! When disaster or hardships arise, so does everyone else …to get people back on their feet.

It’s amazing how comfortable one can be in a house without furniture – lots of space, open and clean. Our bed was king size: we had the whole floor to sleep on, with blankets spread out for a mattress and a couple on top to keep warm. The two large wooden packing boxes that I had shipped from Mexico with our few belongings made handy all-purpose tables for eating, writing letters or doing homework, and served as storage when I put the bedding away each morning . What else did we need?

Our life was eventually “furnished,” however, by little miracles, one by one. Someone gave our landlords a huge load of two-by-four end pieces of the finest cedar for their wood-stove. They had wood already. We inherited the load for our stove. By the end of winter, we had wood to spare, so I bought nails and a hammer and nailed a row of the short pieces together onto the longer ones, fashioning legs with the mid-sized pieces. We had a kitchen table and two benches!

That summer, our landlords and their two kids invited my sons to go camping with them for a few days. They returned with a large piece of plywood and two nearly new, five-inch thick foam pads that, together, fit the plywood perfectly. “Found these abandoned in the woods”, they said. “Can you use them?”

I knew just what to do with them. Next day, I rounded up some more fire wood and nailed legs onto the plywood. I put the foam pads on top and covered them with the linens we had brought with us and a lovely serape from Mexico. We had a bed!

I was talking on the phone one day with a dear friend from Nevada and the subject of cars came up. I had to admit that we didn’t have one. Within a week, she and her husband pulled into our driveway – in separate cars – to honor us with a surprise visit. It was a surprise all right! One of the cars apparently hadn’t been used much and they thought we just might give it a home. The price was right – $500 to be paid whenever or however we could. We had a car!

That first year back in the States we went from a tiny bungalow, no car, and not much more than our clothes and a few household items, to a two-bedroom house, humbly but adequately furnished, our first car, a part-time teaching job for me, and the kids settled in with new schools and friends. We had a life.

My sons grown and on their own, facing each in turn their own challenges, I had moved to a small apartment with no washer/dryer, and found myself back at the same Laundromat. Some things didn’t seem that much different. Uncle Sam was again footing the bills with social security and SSI. It was not enough. But when ends didn’t meet – as they never did – I didn’t cry any more. I had seen the “lilies of the field.”
End of the Line? Not Yet

With two chairs in the living room, one inherited from Mom when she passed away, and that plywood and cedar-leg bed ( now cut down to a single) topped by a foam pad, and those blankets that followed us from Mexico, I moved in to my new apartment. With the family gone, I had trimmed my life down refreshingly to the essentials. But the miracles would continue.

I acquired a sofa from a friend who was re-decorating her home, and a rug and two Tiffany lamps from another dear friend “who had them in storage and wanted me to have them.” There was a large wicker storage basket elegantly gracing my beside – another “gift”, along with the hand-me-down bookshelves that hold my books, T.V., stereo and tapes. I had a new computer, from my computer-savvy son, who had an array of them “coming and going” on his work table to choose from. The two “reject” tables that my youngest brought me from the throw-away bin when he worked for the cabinet makers were perfect for my artwork. The flaws that made them unfit for sale weren’t noticeable – a nice return on that cedar-pieced kitchen table that holds so many memories: he was using it still in his apartment.

The large square basket sitting upside-down by Mom’s big chair came to me from another friend who was moving to a smaller place. It used to hold her firewood. It made a great end-table. I stored things under it as I did with those first packing boxes. A computer table, with place mats neatly stored on the slide-out keyboard shelf, was in the kitchen, graced by two bamboo decorator chairs that my former land-lady was getting rid of. Around these humble furnishings, everything was bright and homey with colorful home-made throw pillows and lots of plants . . . and my walls were covered with original, expensive artwork. I’m the artist, so I could afford them. When friends came to my home, they would tell me that my place looked just like a page from a decorator book. I was amazed. They didn’t seem to see it as a humble array of hand-me-downs. I’m convinced that what they were seeing is the love that brought them all to me.

I never forget the miracles, nor the guardian angels who have appeared in so many forms to bring them to me, for believe as you like, they were there!

My thoughts return to the Laundromat and that detergent stain, but now I was seeing it with new eyes. On the outside, maybe nothing had changed: the money was short and the miracles never seemed to stop. But that stain knows something that puts it all in perspective. It has seen and heard a thousand stories like mine, as single moms with their children, immigrant workers, struggling students, traveling nurses, sundry apartment dwellers, and even a few homeless have shuffled over it from washing machine to dryer, sharing their stories with each other as they passed through. That’s the key phrase: “passing through’.

We are only passing through. The “things” that we use as we go are only as valuable as the spirit within them – the giving heart, the friend in need, the grateful prayers and the helping hand extended in turn. What goes around, must go around in turn. This is what sustains us. I hope I’ve learned my lesson: the stain on the carpet doesn’t matter any more. It’s the stains on our souls that need attention. And I think the miracles and the grateful prayers have already helped wash many away.

And now….. Ten years in San Diego and new adventures to relate. The story isn’t over!

Home again?

We were met in Los Angeles by my cousin. I was met by “deja-vu”: the bus pulled in and let us out behind the train station, where I had once gone with my family as a little girl, for my brothers’ and my first train ride. Children remember the most unexpected things. As soon as I walked through the doors into the grand hall of this fabulous Art Deco station, I had an instant vision of a five-year old little girl, dressed in a red coat and matching red felt hat, sitting with her family in a restaurant whose big glass windows looked out on the highest ceiling she had ever seen with people scurrying in all directions, staring in amazement at the steaming cup of hot chocolate with a mountain of whipped cream and the hot cinnamon roll, topped by melted butter on a thick beige “cafe plate” set before her. A fork and knife were nicely laid out on a cloth napkin to one side. It was all new. It was all wonderful. Every little detail of that adventure returned to my mind, fresh as the day it had occurred. That magical moment for me had remained in the back of my mind, and had found its way back to me only then, as if to say: “Nothing has changed at all.” My years growing up, my travel to France and later to Mexico to marry and raise a family, the joys and heartbreaks of half a lifetime, seemed to be wiped away by this memory, as if something deep inside were telling me: “It’s OK now. You’re back where you belong.” I had, indeed, made full circle. After hugs all around, my cousin whisked this bedraggled group of bewildered travelers off to his waiting Cadillac and then to his house in Glendale, no more than a few blocks from the hospital where I had been born! We were “home”, but if anyone needed a decompression chamber to return to normalcy it was I. I had traveled to other countries, and been met with enough unexpected challenges in my life to be able to handle anything that came my way – I thought! Here I was at the end of a journey, and should have felt safe and relaxed. Instead, I felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under me. I didn’t “feel” American. All too easy for me to understand the bewildered, lost look on the faces of the growing number of immigrants from more humble origins who come to live in America. In the following months, my cousin would proceed to “re-Americanize” me, despite my reluctance to go out into this – inexplicably for me, given my origins – strange new world! The first thing I noticed is that there were no people. Indeed, the streets were bare of this life form and I couldn’t understand where everyone had gone. In Mexico, when you step out the door, you are “in people”. The streets are full of them coming and going, stopping to chat or exchange news. The sidewalk cafes are full of them at all hours of the day and night, and the stores, banks, churches, arcades of the government palaces, parks and plazas – you name it! – are full of them. It’s a very social place. As my cousin took us to all the required places in my re-Americanization process, I did my best to discover people along the way. The only ones I saw were in cars – backing out of driveways, going back and forth to town and racing madly along the many freeways that crisscrossed the area. One day after driving us all around town to get social security numbers for the kids, register them in school, catch up with their vaccinations, open my first ever bank account, apply for my first ever driving permit, sign up at the Social Services Department for welfare to help us get started (remember my savings never made it across the border), and pick up maps at AAA, my cousin said: “Let’s go get something to eat before we go home.” Straight ahead was a huge building, several city blocks square, with an interesting architecture but no windows. My cousin pulled into an opening to one side and down we went, three dimly-lit floors to find a place to park.. Aha! An underground parking lot. Across a dark, lonely passage between countless lines of parked cars, to find an elevator, and up we went. We were going to “The Mall”. What was my surprise when the doors finally opened to an impressively large open space, bright with skylights, when I saw – people! There they were. Hundreds of them – young families hanging on to restless children tugging at their arms or running to catch the “one that got away”, teen-agers gathered in front of the shops, bags of sundry sizes and colors hanging from their arms as they laughed, oohed, and aahed while sharing their “finds”, elderly gentlemen sitting silently in comfortable armchairs, waiting apparently for “Mom” to finish her shopping. Every inch of walking space was covered with people coming and going between the shops. So that’s where people go, I thought. Novel idea to meet under a big roof with the sole intention of buying their little hearts out. This was a first insight into a different America than the one I had known while growing up. It became obvious to me that social life in America was very much dependent on buying. I tested this out, hoping that other more cultural pursuits were harboring life, but inevitably I found the parks nearly empty, the playgrounds with only a few children, the library all too vacant, and even an occasional concert sadly lacking in attendance. My apologies to those who were living in more culturally/socially-inclined American cities. Remember this was my first impression of the States after living half a lifetime in cultures where people are everywhere to be seen. At least in Glendale, they were not. The kids assimilated well into their new schools, I began my search for work, and we spent the first few months enjoying “family” dinners with my cousin and his wife, chatting and watching movies at home in the evenings. I was starting to feel more confident, except for one thing – driving! I was 40 years old and had never driven before. This of course, needed fixing. You can’t live in California without knowing how to drive if you expect to live a normal life. So my cousin took me out several times a week in his little Volkswagen to learn. He was a good teacher. I did well as long as he was in the car and soon learned to get around in town and on the freeways with confidence. Learn to drive in Los Angeles, and you can drive anywhere! Then one day, he handed me the keys and said: “Go drive. You don’t need me now. It’s time for the bird to fly.” I was petrified! Alone? All by myself? But I did it. At 40, I learned to drive. I’m not the typical Californian. I am still “discovering” America, and I remain a “round peg in a square hole”. I guess I AM home.

California – or Busted!

I remember growing up in the U.S., so I guess you can say than I am altogether American, but as I look back, what is most significant about my growing years is that “I didn’t fit”. I like to think that I was the “round peg in the square hole” as opposed to the “square peg in the round hole”: as time would reveal, I fit “Everywhere”. After living half a lifetime in foreign countries and discovering that I “fit” comfortably with just about any world citizen that I had the pleasure to meet along the way, I decided that I was more than American: I was “Worldly”. Strange word that – as it is defined in our culture, it is the farthest from describing what I am that any adjective could be. Let’s take it at face value and understand that I have always felt comfortable with people of other nations and believe that you could drop me into any country on Earth, and I would soon be at home with the “natives”. So, what was my surprise when, returning finally to my country of birth, I found myself, unexpectedly, a “stranger amongst the natives”. Circumstances. Nothing more. But the fact remains. And now we were back in the States …
Brownsville! We were safe! We were still three days away from California and my cousin’s house where we were to stay until we could find a place of our own. But as far as I was concerned, the next part of the trip was already a piece of cake. A huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I could “feel” that freedom just as if I had arrived at Ellis Island after a three month sea voyage on a tramp steamer from some far away troubled destination.

Brownsville didn’t seem like much of a town. A few nearly-empty streets greeted us as we dragged our suitcases behind us looking for a place to rest for the night. We were too exhausted to consider hopping on a Greyhound and heading out again. I didn’t care what the town was like anyway, so I wasn’t looking. I remember that the streets were nearly deserted. Whatever part of town we were in, it wasn’t where the action was. For all I know, we weren’t even in Brownsville proper yet. Not wanting to use our diminished resources for a taxi, we had walked from the border toward the only distant buildings we could see. Mom became ‘very American” right away, refusing to cross a street on a red light when there was no traffic to be seen for miles in any direction. “It’s against the law to cross on a red light”, she said, and wouldn’t budge until the light turned green. There we stood like worn-out statues waiting for a light to change in the wee hours of the morning, everything closed, streets deserted and no cars in sight, while I kept thinking “yeah, sure, the law… as if we hadn’t already sorely tried the legal system just to get there.”

After walking some distance, we found a hotel that was in keeping with our meager purse and settled in. Mom and I each took a bed and a child, while the cat purred contentedly in her travel cage, and we settled in for a long afternoon and night. As far as I could see, there was “nothing” to do in this town and we had no money anyway. We had picked up some crackers and cheese in a little store near the hotel and took care to set down a bowl of the cat food we had brought with us for Estrella, along with her bowl of water. She was the only one of us who had no reason to worry. Food, water, a place to sleep and plenty of love was all she needed.

The morning found us very early in a line at the bus station waiting to buy our tickets for the final part of our journey. We were tired – tired from our “fantastic” trip to the border, worn out emotionally, physically fatigued from want of sleep and a proper breakfast. We could hardly wait to get on that bus! There we could settle down to sleep securely while “leaving the driving to us”, as the ad says, and from there all the way to California, everything would be all right! With our “direct” tickets in hand, we climbed aboard and proceeded to the back of the bus. I had wrapped Estrella in a baby blanket to escape detection. The plan was to stay out of range of the driver’s rear view mirror and to leave at least one of us with the cat each time we made a snack stop on route. You see, “DOGS, CATS AND OTHER DOMESTIC ANIMALS ARE NOT PERMITTED ON THE BUS. ANYONE TRYING TO BOARD WITH AN ANIMAL WILL BE REFUSED PASSAGE.” That’s what the sign by the ticket window said, in big, bold letters. How was I to know! Such was not the case in Mexico, and I had been gone from the U.S. for too long to be aware of such things.

By now, all things legal had become of second importance to me. We’d made it this far by bucking the rules. What was one more rule. And this cat was special. From the day she was brought to me by a fellow worker who was looking for a home for this little stray, there was no escape. She proceeded to curl up in my “out” bin on top of a pile of papers, and spent the whole day there while I worked on my art projects, looking up at me with those big, tender kitten eyes. I took off work early and made the rounds of the institute, while she cuddled in my neck, asking everyone I met if he would adopt her. Each time I approached one of my co-workers, she would climb to my shoulder, dig her claws into my collar, and hang on for dear life. She was mine!

Estrella was nearly a year old when we made arrangements to leave the country, so much a part of our family, that there was no thought of leaving her behind. I had taken her to the vet’s for the required shots, received the health certificate that would assure her passage across the border, and purchased some Dramamine, tiny portions of which I was to give her to help make her trip more comfortable. She was, as a result, a bit sleepy when we boarded, and it was quite easy to carry her about as a tiny baby. We looked every bit the loving, although somewhat bedraggled, family – Grandma, Mom, two kids, and a “baby”.

Thus began the last leg of my trip “home”. I finally felt secure. We were on our way, and the cat had boarded quite unnoticed by the driver. There was nothing to worry about. We made a stop around noon. Most of the passengers got off to buy some lunch. We stayed on the bus with our cheese and crackers. The driver let us know that the next stop would be at 6:00 that evening. I figured that it would be dark enough for us to get off, give the cat some food and water and let her do “her thing” and we could carry the “baby” back on without notice. It was not to be so easy. The 6:00 stop was not just a food stop. We were to change buses. Worried now that someone on the bus would see through our ruse, we soon learned that we had nothing to fear from the other passengers. They would wink as they walked by, or sit next to me and sneak a stroke of the cat’s head. As for the bus authorities, that was another matter. I was again, in a state of perpetual anxiety at the prospect of being discovered. We had to wait an hour for our replacement bus, while I sweated it out.

Bus came, we boarded, no problem. Whew! This was anything but a relaxing trip home. Two more bus changes followed, and each time, I was a bundle of nerves. It all came to an end when we stopped at Del Rio, Texas, for dinner the next day. We should have stayed on the bus. I had, however, gathered up the change in my purse and decided to blow it all on some well-deserved dessert. So we went into the café, “baby” in arms. One rich, Texas-sized, luscious slab of cheesecake and four forks found themselves to our table. It was enough to give me courage! And with this newfound courage, I took the “baby” out for her food and “business”, while everyone else was dining, rewrapped my “baby” for the boarding, joined my family, and started to step on the bus. Suddenly, a strong arm reached out and stopped me in my tracks, and an angry voice said. “Lady, you can’t take that cat on this bus!” Busted! I do believe in miracles, so undaunted, I smiled my best smile at the driver, who had been waiting for me, and explained: “the cat has come this far with no problems. She was quiet as a mouse. I even have her health papers.. You can’t take the kids cat away from them – it would break their hearts!” I should have saved my breath. He wouldn’t budge. It came down to this: “Either you get rid of it now, of you stay here.” I was given 10 minutes to decide. He wasn’t kidding. Everyone was in their seats, and he “had a schedule to keep.” It was leave the cat, or bye-bye bus! Simple as that.

I went back into the café and asked if there was anyone there who loved cats – I needed a home for Estrella. The cat was adopted on the spot by a waitress with a big smile and a cowboy hat who said she had six cats at home and would love her like her own. The warm little “baby bundle” too quickly exchanged hands, along with the health papers. I got a Texas-sized hug from the waitress, and I high-tailed it back to the bus, fighting back the tears. The silence in the bus as we pulled out was so strong that you could have easily punched a hole through it. To add to my pain, my kids were looking at me as if I had suddenly become evil personified. I saw the silent looks from the other passengers and was sure that meant that they were in league with the driver. I had become “the bad guy – that one trouble-maker that you find in the back seat on every Greyhound trip!” As it turned out, they were fuming mad at the driver. For the rest of the trip, we were the object of everyone’s attention, receiving kind words, shared food and pats on the back. I’m not sure if my sons ever did forgive me. That was the most painful. My only consolation was that Estrella would be loved. To this day, I often think of my “baby” out there, somewhere in Del Rio, Texas, no doubt long gone by now with no thought to the distant separation.

By the time we reached L.A., there wasn’t much you could have done to me – except to take my children – that could have caused me any pain. I was emotionally worn out. We suffered a total of six bus changes over three days, with long waits in between. This was the “direct ticket” to L.A. that we had purchased. Our food ran out on the last day and the kids were practically not talking to me anymore, certain that losing Estrella was all my fault. With the exception of one breathtaking view, far in the distance, of a sun-blessed Santa Fe, backed by distant dark clouds, most of the trip was through flat, dusty brown, tumbleweed-strewn desert for as far as the eye could see, a striking change from the lush green sub-tropical vistas we were so accustomed to in our home in Xalapa. It was like going to the moon.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of Coming Home….

Going Home … The Hard Way

It was on a beautiful tropical night in May that my two children, my mom, our beloved cat, Estrella, and I found ourselves squashed together in the back of a jeep, crouching under a layer of blankets amidst an array of suitcases, peeking out at a glorious full moon and a star-studded sky. The driver kept reaching back and pushing our heads down to make sure no one would see us. We were leaving our home in Mexico on our way to the United States, hidden in the jeep of a government agent, a friend of my mother’s, who had rounded up her chauffer and arranged for this unusual departure at the risk of her job, had it been discovered. The kids were wide-eyed, the cat was purring and my elderly Mom was having trouble staying in crouch position. I, quite frankly, didn’t know what to think. It was all too fantastic! We bumped and jolted over the cobblestone streets in this position for half an hour as we sped out of the sleeping city at just past midnight.

It was a rough start to my homeward voyage. I had been born in California, studied a few years in France and upon my return to the States, re-connected with a college friend from Mexico. We fell in love and decided to marry and make our home in his country. I lived 17 happy years there – and three not so happy ones. I suppose I never really intended to return. Mexico had become my country. But here I was, leaving with more than that familiar lump in my throat. I was heart-broken!

My oldest son had gone to say some last good-byes and was going to catch up with us at Mom’s friend’s home. We were scheduled to leave from there at midnight. My son showed up just minutes before – with a girlfriend, no suitcase, and the surprise news that he was not going with us. I have been broken hearted many times in my life over the departure of a loved one, but that moment when my son said he was staying, I felt as if I had no heart left. I knew that one day the umbilical cord had to be broken, but I never expected it to be yanked out so brusquely, leaving a gaping wound. I had to fight hard to overcome that sudden feeling of profound loss while attending to the practical matter at hand – getting us all in the car and on our way before anyone missed the chauffer or the borrowed government jeep. It was our only ticket home and we were running a tight schedule.

We left the city all too soon for me: only one thought was running through my mind: “How can I leave my beloved son, my first child and loyal friend behind?” Would I ever see him again? Where was this 18-year-old, whose home had been dismantled and swept clean of family and familiar belongings, going to live?” My bridges had all been burned. I could never have imagined that I would be “burning”my first-born, and a huge piece of my heart, with him.

I had secretly managed in the space of a week, to pack and ship the two big crates that would travel ahead of us to the border, sell all our furniture and the personal things we couldn’t take, clean and vacate the house, obtain a permit for my resident status to travel outside the country, say good-bye to friends, and forge my husband’s signature on the papers that would allow me to take my Mexican-born sons with me. The home we had lived in for several years was now empty. We had been living on the historical “Callejon del Diamante”, the first street built by the Spaniards when they founded the city, right in the center of town. “Everyone” in Xalapa ventured down this street right past our front door, a couple of times a week or more – on foot, as it was closed to traffic. How I managed to do all of this without anyone, not even the landlord knowing it, was a feat in itself and accomplished with no little fear. If our plans had been discovered by my husband, he could easily make sure we would never cross the border, by squashing the legal arrangements I had furtively made.

Our original plan was to travel to Mexico City and take the train to California, but my then-estranged husband had discovered my forgery attempt, found our house empty, and I fully expected his brother in Mexico City to be watching for us there at the train station. My sons had been born in Mexico, and registered at the U.S. Embassy. They held dual citizenship, but by Mexican law, as long as they were minors and lived in Mexico, they were officially Mexican citizens. They couldn’t leave the country without both parents’ permission. Rules are rules! I knew that. But there had been so much pain in the preceding years that I could think of no better solution than to leave and start over. The future in Mexico promised nothing but heartache for me. I was beginning to lose my way, and I could foresee only an unstable future for my sons. It was “do or die”.

Picture again the hasty departure: Two women, two children, a cat in a cage, a variety of suitcases and one collective broken heart – all hiding under blankets in the back of a speeding jeep bound for – not California as originally planned – but Texas! The closest border from the state of Veracruz is of course, Texas, and the chauffer had to be back with the jeep before his work day started or heads would roll.

The relief was short-lived when we reached open countryside and were allowed out of our hiding. Things didn’t get much better. Mom had to use the bathroom, but the chauffer would not stop for “anything”. He was on a non-stop race to the border and that was that! To make matters worse, he took the longer inland route over seldom used roads in various states of disrepair – to avoid the ferry crossing at a river delta on the main highway where the official jeep might be recognized by the toll guards. Imagine my mom trying hard to ‘hold it in’, as we drove across some of the worst roads in Mexico. Our heads touched the roof as often as our bottoms touched the seats, as we raced over chuckholes and rocks and bumpy back roads for hours! Mom kept saying “You have to stop. I can’t wait”, to which the chauffer kept replying in a gruff voice: “Sorry, lady, you’ll just have to hold it”. The kids were eating the snacks and drinking the soda pop I had prepared for what I thought was going to be a normal trip. My youngest son lost his soda pop at one particularly wicked pothole and spilled the sticky stuff all over everything. It wasn’t long before the kids ‘had to go’ too. Everyone was concentrating hard on ‘holding it in’ when the cat decided to throw up – all over Mom. There was nothing to do but resign ourselves to our sorry state for the rest of the trip: we were not in control of the situation.

Exhausted and reeking of cat puke, sugary soda pop and a slight hint of urine, we were one motley crew when we reached the border in the wee hours of the morning. Well, almost the border. The chauffer deposited us unceremoniously with our pile of luggage on the side of a deserted road two blocks away from the border. He was not going to approach anyone or anything official. Using the one English word that every Mexican is sure to know, he shouted “Bye!”, and took off in a cloud of dust, leaving us to walk the rest of the way, dragging our luggage behind us.

Mom and the kids were bursting at the seams, I was in a state of disbelief, and with one bewildered cat in a cage, we reached the border guards on the Mexican side. I let out a interior sigh of relief as my ill-gotten travel papers passed without notice and my kids and I were almost home safe. The relief was short-lived. I looked around to see why Mom wasn’t coming. She had gone to the restroom while we were showing our papers. Now she was showing her papers and talking with the guard. We were only a few steps away from American customs and ‘freedom’, and here was my mom making friendly conversation with the border patrol! I expected at any time that someone in Mexican customs would get a phone call from Mexico City telling them to be on the look-out for two American women taking two children “illegally” out of the country. That would mean not only a return to Xalapa, but possible jail time for me, not to mention an extremely sticky situation with my husband and his family! I had butterflies in my stomach. I wouldn’t feel safe until our feet were all standing firmly on American ground amongst the U.S. agents. This was no time for Mom to be charming with the border guard.

I returned to see what was going on and was told that Mom’s Mexican resident papers were not in order. We could come across, but she couldn’t! I had made sure that all of my papers were in order to avoid just such an incident. And here was my mother, obviously an American citizen, unable to get into her own country because she had neglected to renew her Mexican residency papers. That was a “no-no”. Or so they said. Well, you don’t just leave your mother alone at the border in a foreign land with nowhere to go and no way to get there, and go on with “life as usual”. Unthinkable! I told the guard that she was an American citizen and had every right to enter her own country. He quietly told me to ‘follow him”. My heart was in my throat. I was certain by that time that we would never make it. Every time I heard a phone ring, I shrank a little more inside. Leaving my bewildered travel companions with the luggage, I followed the guard into a little private room, expecting the worst. He repeated the bad news. “Your mom can’t cross the border. She’ll have to go back.”

I said, “What can I do?” He replied, “You can either return or stay here at the border until we can call Mexico City and arrange for her papers to be updated here. You’ll have to stay in the holding room until then.” By this time, I was so exhausted both emotionally and physically that I was incapable of rising to the occasion. A call to Mexico City was the one thing I didn’t want. I did the only thing I could think of. I said: “My mom is elderly and she’s exhausted. She needs to get home. I should have stopped there. But I heard myself saying. “How much will you take to get us across now?” I knew that pay-offs were a common solution to many problems in Mexico and I still had the money I had saved to start over once we got to the States. You must believe that I was in dire straits by this time.

With a look on his face that we have learned to associate only with the “Gestapo”, the guard said: “You know I can put you in jail for bribing an official?” Out of the frying pan into the fire! I don’t remember a lot of the ensuing conversation. I know that I was scared. My knees and hands were trembling and I was feeling light-headed. Here was one big, mean-looking Indian guy in a uniform telling this “second-class woman creature”, who was feeling punier by the minute, that he was going to put her in jail. A woman alone doesn’t handle these things successfully in Mexico. This was a man’s territory. I remember him saying: “How much do you have?” My mouth was quicker than my brain and I blurted out – $2000. He smiled then, and said that he “was going to help us out”: he would take the money if I didn’t tell anyone – all that I had! I wonder if he had a mom. I managed to convince him that I needed enough to get to California, and Mom was shuttled across the border without further ado. We arrived in Brownsville with just enough to pay our bus fare and an overnight stay, and to buy some crackers and cheese for the three-day trip to California.

The trip home will continue…..