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….