Part 19: Of Old Women and Shoes
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.
- Unknown (first published in 1794)
Smiling, yet he wasn’t alone … it mitigated my alarm but it didn’t take it away completely. As Mateo once again raised his arm in greeting the sun escaped the clouds but an unusually chill breeze seemed to barrel up the street ahead of them. I sent the Nydia and Neeno into the house while I stepped out to the gate to meet the two people with him.
I knew it looked like I was playing troll-at-the-bridge and didn’t like the feeling it gave me so I tried to compose my face into something less forbidding than what it probably looked, and be reasonable but cautious in my attitude. See, to my surprise the two people that walked forward with Mateo were younger than I expected. They were sizing me up at the same time as I was trying to do the same to them. Mateo said, “Leah I’d like you to meet Annie Trespalacio and Roy Fuentes. They are brother and sister.”
Just looking at the two I knew there was a story in there somewhere but probably not one that could be told in a handful of words. I was trying to be cordial but I was unsure and I know my tone came out more guarded than I had meant as I said, “How do you do.”
The boy suddenly got a mulish look and blurted out, “See! She doesn’t want us around. She’s just standing there and she sent the little kids in the house like we were contagious or something. And …”
No way after dealing with teenagers at that inner city school was I going to let his emotions intimidate me. Besides, the teacher in me automatically kicked in without asking my opinion on the outcome. Calmly I said, “Excuse me but that is a lot of assumptions based on so little information. I asked a polite question and that’s it.” Turning to my husband I asked, “Mateo?” as a way to get a further explanation of what was going on and to figure out what on earth they meant by “wanting them.”
Mateo shook his head looking both exasperated and amused at the same time but it was the girl Annie that responded, first by pinching her brother’s too thin arm and then by saying, “Rojelio if you can’t control what falls out of your mouth, don’t open it.” Turning to me I got my first good look at her and I took in the face pinched and thin that was frail, vulnerable, and resolute all at the same time. “Mr. Jakob said that you and he might be able to help me and my family.”
I blinked, looked around, and asked, “Family?”
“They are sitting a ways back, watching after our Abuela … our grandmother. There is …” She gulped, obviously worried about something. She squared her shoulders against the worst and continued. “There’s me and Roy, Abuela, and then the four younger boys and two little girls. There was more of us but …” She simply shrugged to finish the sentence.
Roy glumly said, “Nine. Too many? Right?”
Annie looked like she was going to pinch him again so Mateo stepped between them. “Annie is seventeen and Roy is fifteen. The other brothers are fourteen years of age down to five and the two little girls are five and three. Then there is Mrs. Flores-Olancho. They are in need of a safe place to live where they can survive the winter.”
“We don’t want charity,” said Annie exhibiting a boatload of pride and defensive attitude. “We all know how to work, we just need a chance. And we aren’t illegals. We’re third generation. Our grandfathers immigrated.”
That let me know they’d faced the stigma of that problem in some way more than once and likely quite recently. I looked at Mateo, trying not to show how overwhelmed I was and then shrugged. “A little more information is necessary here.”
Mateo stepped over and pointed over my shoulder. “Gerald’s house. He’s not coming back and I doubt his family will get back around to it in time to avoid our assertion of ownership when the time comes. The house is smaller than some in the neighborhood but it has good windows except for the broken sliders in the back and those need to be changed to doors anyway. The fireplace isn’t huge but it is dual sided and isn’t just decorative. The sleeping arrangements will be tight but with four bedrooms plus a small office it can be made to work. For our help the boys can help me with the fence while Annie, Mrs. Flores-Olancho, and the younger children can help with the garden and other things.”
I was silent so long as I tried to digest the information I was receiving that even Mateo’s smile faltered. Finally I nodded and asked Annie, “What if you get tired of the work? Or …”
Roy interrupted again and said, “Work isn’t a problem. I’m pretty strong. But what happens to us if you get tired of us being around?”
Getting a little fed up with his brand of adolescent machismo I was tempted to tell him if they all had a mouth like his it was a real possibility but I didn’t. Instead I said, “Rojelio … or do you prefer Roy … very well Roy. I’m going to be as honest with you as I can given how fast you all are asking me to deal with this. I’m not looking for slaves, but I don’t need guests either.”
Roy crossed his arms defensively. I glanced at Mateo and his eyes held caring but at the same time caution. He wanted these two and their family. I was no fool; I had just been contemplating the fact that the work could very well be more than just the two of use could handle. But I could see he was giving me the right to form my own opinion and have a say and I suspect that it was in part due to the number of children involved.
I looked back at Roy and then at Annie and then sighed. “There’s going to be a lot of work.” Nodding my head in the direction of the house I added, “It needs work. Structurally it is OK or Mateo wouldn’t suggest it but the walls need to be wiped down, carpet pulled up, floors swept, bathrooms cleaned, and that doesn’t include finding adequate furniture and bedding for you and your family … and other things like household goods and probably winter clothes as well.”
I looked at Mateo and continued. “Food for an additional nine people, several of them growing boys, is almost more than I can contemplate. We don’t have enough … enough anything for that number of additional people. It will deplete everything we have stored right now so what we can raise, forage, and hunt is going to be absolutely even more critical.” Returning my gaze to the teens I told them, “Living is about more than a roof over your head and a full belly.” Then after a brief pause and a deep sigh I said, “But I suppose it is a place to start.”
Mateo’s shoulders relaxed. Roy’s mouth fell open and his arms uncrossed in surprise. Annie’s reaction however was telling. She said, “There’s a catch, right?”
Mateo looked at me closely but didn’t stop me. He later told me he knew that I’d have some rules that would need to be agreed to up front and he’d even come up with a few of his own. I looked at Annie and admitted, “Yes, there is a catch but hopefully nothing you can’t live with. Can we sit down and discuss things for a bit? Or do you need to get back to your grandmother right away?”
Biting the inside of her cheek she finally said, “Just give me a basic rundown. I can’t make any decision without Abuela being here but … but I’m pretty sure she’d be OK with anything reasonable.” She emphasized the word reasonable.
I cracked my first small grin. “Look, I have no idea what kind of life you are used to but we can’t make this work if all you kids are constantly at sixes and sevens with each other and with us. I’m not asking to be your parent, but I’m used to a certain … certain … look, it already feels like a zoo around here on some days I would just prefer it not to feel like that every day.”
She nodded, “Sure, I get it. Keep the noise down to a dull roar and watch the mouths.”
I nodded and said, “And with that … I’d prefer not to hear kids cursing.” She bowed up but I stopped her. “Annie, I was a teacher; a highschool teacher. I got laid off due to budget cuts but I taught in a pretty rough school. And I’m not deaf. I heard the music, saw the “art” or what passed for those two things and I know what passes for casual conversation with a lot of young people these days. Slips of the tongue happen, I’m not perfect myself, but just like with the issue of putting the effort into getting along I’d like some effort put into how we all talk to each other in general. To me cursing is a sign of disrespect to the person you are speaking to as well as a sign of disrespect of the speaker for themselves.”
“What else?” she asked. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking but I know in her place I would be wondering what kind of people I’d stumbled across.
“Probably nothing that you wouldn’t expect there to be but if you want it on the table we’ll put it there. I’m not saying this is a problem or will be a problem but no stealing, no lying, no cheating, yada, yada, yada. And you should know that you have the right to expect that same level of respect from us. We stick to our word and Mateo will likely talk to the boys about the work and what he expects. I don’t want this to feel like a prison or an orphanage or a place with a million rules … just some basic, respectful expectations on both sides.”
Annie’s lips were a bit tight but then she squinted at me and shrugged. “You sound like Abuela. I think she’ll like you … and not because you are both gringas. But … look, Abuela is pretty strict about some things. We don’t work on Sundays … regular chores sure but not work, work. And she expects us to sit and read the Bible after dinner every night. I might be able to talk her around about the Sunday thing but not the Bible. Her parents were missionaries to the Miskito in Honduras, that’s where she met our grandfather. It’s just … you know … it’s …”
I gave her and Roy a genuine smile. “That you don’t have to worry about at all. You’ve got a safe haven here, no one is going to take that away from you. But we’re all human. It won’t work if we don’t put work into it. Mateo?” I turned to look at him. It was totally unlike him to be silent for so long. “Shouldn’t you …?”
He shook his head. “It will wait. It is getting late and their grandmother will be worried. She wasn’t too happy to have them going off with me in the first place. We’ll go get them, bring them back, and give her time to be involved with any other discussion.”
I nodded and knew we had things to discuss tonight. “I’ll have something ready for everyone when you get back … in say an hour?”
“Add another thirty minutes to that. They have carts with their belongings. You’ll have to see this to believe it.” I knew I should have been curious with such a statement as my goodbye but I was much too busy to waste any time on it.
Nine more people to feed. Nine MORE people to feed. NINE more people to FEED. I shook my head realizing I was making myself worked up when it was the least constructive activity. I quickly walked back to the house and told Nydia that we’d be having guests for dinner.
“Did Miss Liz and Juliet come back?” she asked hopefully.
“No Darling, these are new people. And apparently there are several children your age with them.” That didn’t even seem to compute for Nydia and that added to my worries. Nydia had never had much opportunity to socialize with children her own age. We tried having park days and of course she saw and played with children her own age during church and church social activities but then when gas became so expensive and I became pregnant our world began to shrink. I couldn’t even remember for sure when her last exposure to children her age had been. She was socialized more towards adults and though she played at age-appropriate activities I was still concerned that this was going to be a shock for her.
Deciding that it was just another thing I would have to put on my can’t-think-about-it-right-now list I turned to creating a menu. Nine more people, all of them children no matter what Annie and Roy thought of themselves as. I had no idea what they had been eating or how much but I suspected they’d just been getting by given how then they both were. Everyone was thinner than they used to be but those two looked like they were struggling to barely maintain their health they were so thin; if I had to guess, what vigor they had was strictly a function of their age and hormones. That meant something that was both calorie and nutrient dense. I really wasn’t sure what the children were used to eating but I was praying they weren’t picky eaters or spoiled with lots of sugars and sweeteners. I was really hoping they weren’t thin simply because they had turned up their noses at food just because they weren’t familiar with the taste or texture.
Time was not my friend so I asked Nydia to scrub a large malanga root while I buckled Neeno into his chair. He hated being controlled like that but I figured it was better than putting him on a leash and tying him to a tree to keep him from toddling off on his own. I put the chair with him in it under a tree where Genty could come over and tickle his toes with a lick and gave him some things to play with that were too big for him to swallow. After Nydia was finished scrubbing the malanga she started to clean the plank table we had been using while Tag’s people were here. I was glad I had not gotten around to taking it apart earlier in the day as I had meant to.
I peeled and shredded the malanga and about a third as much raw pumpkin and mixed them together in a bowl. I tossed in an egg and a little flour to act as a binding agent and then covered the bowl until my pot of cooking oil came to temperature. Quickly I also made up some tortillas. They came out more like a fry bread but Neeno didn’t complain when I taste tested one on him and Nydia. A huge pot of wild and domesticated greens with garlic mixed in was another addition to the table. I made some rice balls as well and gravy to put over them using more flour, a little dried meat, and some of the broth off of the greens. The protein came from a pot of black beans well seasoned with more garlic and some onions that, due to time constraints, I was forced to prepare in my pressure cooker. I added a boil of seasoned olive oil to the table for good fat. I was just taking the beans off the stove and finishing the malanga fritters when I heard noise in the front yard.
I heard Mateo call and Nydia shot away from me before I could stop her. I’m going to have to have a talk with that child; first the cheekiness, then ignoring me when I asked her to stop running into an unknown-to-me situation. I know it is the age, she is no longer a baby and is starting to assert more independence, but her independence and my sanity do not occupy the same dimensional plain at the moment and she’ll have to wait a bit longer to grow up.
Mateo came around the corner guiding an older lady that was dignified but obviously frail and I was embarrassed at the messy sight I knew I presented. It got worse when the older woman promptly burst into tears. I looked at Mateo helplessly for a moment before rushing forward to lead her to a chair that Mateo was bringing for her to sit in. My mouth opened and closed a couple of times before Annie noticed. Annie sighed but then smiled. “I think she is just relieved Mrs. Jakob. She’s very tired and has been worrying about what we would do since we nearly had a run in with some guys on motorcycles a couple of weeks back.”
I looked at Mateo who nodded. He’d find out from the boys if it was possible they were the same ones that we had put to rest with the help of Tag’s group if I would deal with the females. I asked Annie, “Would your grandmother like something to drink? We don’t have coffee but tea or juice or water or … or there is a little goat’s milk but I was thinking to leave it for the youngest children.”
That got the older woman’s attention. “You … you have goats?”
As she tried to compose herself I explained how they were a very recent acquisition. She in turn smiled, albeit a watery one, and said, “I took care of goats until my husband and I got married and immigrated to the States. It seems every where I turn it is as if God was saying to me, ‘Didn’t I promise to take care of you? You are safe now.’ I cannot tell you … it … it is …” She wasn’t crying buckets but she was certainly emotionally overwhelmed.
I looked to Annie again and whispered, “I have dinner ready to be put on the table but if you think it would be better for your family to have some privacy we can …”
“No.” The older lady … Mrs. Flores-Olancho though she was soon to ask that I call her Lena … said with finality. “This is ridiculous. You must think me touched in the head … loca or something similar.”
I shook my head and smiled gently. “What I think is that you’ve been under a great deal of stress for who knows how long. If you really do not mind dining … Mateo calls it en familia ... with the whole family and casually … then if you will give me a moment I’ll get everything ready and we can eat before it gets dark. I hope you don’t mind but I set up a children’s table.”
Annie, after assuring herself that her grandmother was really OK, quickly rose to help me. We set the silverware and cups on the table but the plates we sat beside the food I had arranged buffet style on the outdoor bar. I told her, “Weather permitting we prefer to eat outside. It cuts down on the cleaning I have to do inside.” She nodded her understanding and then after we had finished I showed her the area set up for washing before meals and she quickly had the boys lined up though they look rather surprised and irritated at being asked to wash up when in the words of one of the younger ones “they were only going to get dirty again and then have to wash up for bed time.”
Dinner was served and I believe it was a success, or at least a success of sorts. The children at first were distrustful though polite about it and didn’t know whether to wolf down their food in fear that it would be taken away from them if they weren’t quick enough or to savor each bit as if it was their last. Either way by the end they were all overwhelmed and subdued, as if there was some high price to be paid. I wasn’t sure how to set them at rest when a sudden clank at the children’s table had me swiveling in that direction only to find that the five year old boy had fallen asleep and as a result fallen out of his chair. Annie was caught between being stunned and mortified and quickly jumped up to help her grandmother get him upright.
“Well that settles it,” I said with a smile to put them at ease. “I had wondered what to do next but I think that I should show you through the house before it gets darker. Mateo, perhaps you can show the boys where … to … I’m sorry. Did I just hear …?” I stopped because I had heard a strange sound.
Annie took charge. “Roy, you deal with Spot and get him settled. Robert, you take care of the pollos and Conejos … and don’t forget to change their water. Ricky, you keep everyone else out of trouble and help Mr. Jakob.” Ricky didn’t look pleased to be stuck babysitting but the only relief he got was when Annie added, “I’ll take Evie but you keep Ren and Sylvie on a leash.”
There was absolutely no refusing her command and apparently the boys knew and understood it. Evie apparently was the three-year old girl … she had white blonde ringlets that were in stark contrast to how the rest of the family looked but I didn’t feel I could express any curiosity about that yet. I led Lena and Annie over to Gerald’s old house and through it to give them an idea of what needed to be done.
“I’m sorry. I knew this place needed a good cleaning but I hadn’t realized just how bad it was. It’s been vacant for a long time. There’s no way you can stay here tonight. We’ll have to figure something out.”
“Nonsense,” Lena said stoutly. “This is a palace compared to some of the places we’ve been forced to stay. The room with the fireplace is large enough for all of us to stay tonight and since there is no carpeting in there will be easiest to clean up. Now stop worrying, just having four solid walls and a roof over our heads is a relief … add windows and good, solid doors and this is the lap of luxury.”
Unable to change their minds … and in truth in relief … I let it go and Nydia and I helped them get the room a very cursory cleaning. When the boys started carrying in bundles of belongings I went outside to find Mateo talking with Roy. “Leah?”
I walked over and saw two cows … I mean real live cows … being led into the shed to stay alongside the goats. “Oh my,” I breathed in near disbelief.
Roy smiled at the look on my face, “It was Abuela’s idea. It took Robert and I two days to figure out how to make them go the direction we wanted them to but after that it was a breeze. We’d been taking turns … Annie too … pulling the carts. We barely got anywhere before the cows came along. We’ve had them for nearly two months now.” I was still looking at the apparitions when Roy caught my attention and added, “Um, thank … thank you. I mean if you really mean for us to stay here. Abuela … well she just … she’s been real weak for a while and Annie was worried about her and the little kids.” He ended on a shrug that I interpreted to mean that the rest of it was just more than he knew how to convey.
Mateo said, “Roy, we mean for you to stay but it is important to get your abuela’s say so before we right it in stone.” At that Annie could be heard calling for Roy’s help to set up the beds and he scooted off, reassured but still obviously uncomfortable.
For the first time Mateo and I were alone; I had sent Nydia and Neeno to the house to get ready for bed and to wait for me there. “I know Leah, and we will talk. But let us get them settled for the night first.” Knowing I had no choice I nodded and we completed the task with as much speed as was seemly and then we retired for the night ourselves after I found Annie had sent the boys to clean up from dinner and Nydia had done her chore of stacking things on the counter after they had been cleaned.
Mateo wandered back into the kitchen after tucking the kids in with a story to find me sliding the last item into its space in the upper cabinets. “Are you angry with me?” he asked seriously.
Thinking about it but not because I was teasing him I said, “I … no … not really.”
“Then how do you feel about this?”
It was my turn to use the shrug. “What do you expect me to say? What’s done is done.”
He stepped over and took the dish towel from me and hung it to dry. “That’s no answer.”
“I’m not sure I have another one for you. I can’t turn all of those kids away. And Lena … she’s been giving all of the food to the kids and taking next to nothing for herself. And she’s been doing that for a while. Did you notice how she seemed to have to force herself to eat tonight?”
He shook his head. “No, but I will take your word for it. It doesn’t surprise me though. She seems the type that would rather martyr herself than take any risk that the children might experience want.”
I sighed and rubbed my temples. “I know you couldn’t turn them away Mateo but nine extra mouths to feed … nine. I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I can stretch things that far. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves, how am I supposed to …?”
“Easy mi Tesoro, mi Corazon, mi Vida. I know I’m asking a lot but it feels right. I know they are all children but it actually feels more right than if they had been a group of adults. We’ll be able to set the rules with the kids and things will run more smoothly than with adults with their own ideas on how things should work.”
At that I had to laugh ruefully. “You haven’t had much to do with teenagers have you?”
He stopped his thinking and looked at me, then grimaced. “Perhaps smoothly wasn’t the best word but I still think it was the right thing to do. You set the proper tone anyway … mutual respect. I think that will be very important for the boys, especially Roy who strikes me as a young man that only recently took over the place in the family that he is in.”
“Have they given away any of their history? Annie did mention there had been more of them.”
“They are a mixed family … a his, hers, and theirs type thing. Lena is Roy’s father’s mother but I got the idea that Roy’s father has been gone for a number of years because it is Annie’s father that helped them to escape when their refugee camp exploded in violence a few months back. They lived in Palm Beach County originally but I’m not sure where their camp was. The two little girls … I’m honestly not sure how they fit in, maybe you can find out.”
“That Annie … she’s too old for her age. She’s used to carrying a lot of the burden in the family but I can’t tell if it is something she has taken on recently or one that she’s always been forced to do.”
I nodded, “I’ll need to be careful with her, make sure she knows that if I tell the boys to do something it isn’t because I’m trying to take her place … or her mother’s place.” I shuddered, “Mateo I have a hard enough time managing our two, what on earth am I going to do with eight more children?!”