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.”
Although 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!