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!

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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….