Part 21: Bindings that Save
We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies. ~Shirley Abbott
It was obvious that Annie didn’t quite know where to start so I told her, “Relax. Start your story where you think it starts. Tell the truth, not just what you think I want to hear.”
She gave me a “you’re really strange” look but took a breath and began. “We call my dad Poppy and his dad we called Poppa. Poppa died when I was younger but he was pretty cool even though he was old. He was Columbian and came to the US for political asylum. His wife and older two sons were killed in the fighting that was always going on down there. Poppy wasn’t even a year old when he and his father immigrated. Poppa married a woman when he got to the US to help take care of Poppy and because he was lonely but it didn’t stick and she left to go back to her family so it was just Poppy and his dad. You probably think that’s pathetic.”
“If you want to know what I think then ask, but don’t assume. I don’t think it is pathetic. I think some of it is tragic but based on what you’ve said your grandfather was just doing the best he knew how to do,” I told her reminding her not to automatically think the worst.
She shrugged, still not sure she could trust I meant that. “Poppa worked really hard all the time but he and Poppy got along. Poppy said it was because his father knew what was most important and that is what they focused on and let God take care of the rest. All I know is Poppa was a bear about work … work and school seemed to be what he thought most important; oh and mass on Saturday nights. Poppa was an architect in Columbia but the rules are different here in the US and Poppa didn’t have the money to go back to college and get the degree and stuff that he needed to be an architect here; there wasn’t money for much of anything. So he went to work in a grocery store but he also worked at a restaurant at night that let him bring Poppy with him. He also did landscaping work when it was available. Poppy is really smart; he graduated highschool near the top of his class and the only reason he didn’t make valedictorian was because he had to work and sometimes didn’t get enough sleep and would miss a quiz or something. His SAT scores were real high and it got him a scholarship to a state college but he still had to come up with money for books and a car and gas and insurance and …”
Nodding in empathy I told her, “Been there, it isn’t easy. I worked my way through college too. Even with scholarships there are still things you have to pay for and my parents couldn’t help except to give me a place to stay and to help with the smaller stuff. But really, and I’m sure your dad probably said something similar, sometimes you only appreciate what you have when you have to really work for it.”
She nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, that’s what Poppy always said. Thing is Poppy earned his AA but couldn’t afford anymore after that because Poppa had an accident on the job – a kid backed into him with a forklift and broke his hip and a place in his back that took a long time to heal.” Suddenly she checked her enthusiasm. “Poppy took on a couple of more part time jobs to help pay the rent and put food on the table because they were giving Poppa a hard time about workmen’s comp. They kept trying to say he was an illegal but that wasn’t true. He’d get them copies of the paperwork that said he was in the US legally and it would get lost … sometimes on purpose.”
I noticed a righteous indignation just beneath the surface of her assumed stoic outlook. Poor kid, it didn’t seem her family could catch a break.
“Anyway, on one of these jobs Poppy met Mommy. She was a nice girl from a nice family and even though Poppa asked them to wait her parents were all for it thinking that Poppy was a citizenship ticket for their daughter. Poppy didn’t know it at the time, he was just in love. Mommy was … well, she was easily led by her family and got pregnant right away even though Poppy and Mommy had an agreement that they would wait. That was Raphael, my big brother.” I wanted to ask where her brother was but she went on too quickly. “Poppy had wanted to go back to school but now all that was changed. Mommy also did some other stuff that Poppy wasn’t happy about … she signed up for government benefits, would take us to the free clinic even though Poppy told her to use the walk in clinic. Then I came along right after Raphael and that wasn’t planned and Mommy was already regretting getting pregnant so soon and so young … she went a little crazy after that.”
Hesitantly I asked, “Post partum depression?”
“No,” she said barely concealing a sneer. “The I’m-too-young-and-pretty-to-be-a-mother syndrome.”
“How young was she?” I asked.
“Not that young. Twenty, just like Poppy. And Poppy was working three jobs and she had Poppa around to help but that only gave her the excuse to run out to the store only she’d be gone for hours and hours. She’d leave Poppy and then come back when her family got tired of her or she couldn’t find some man to take care of her. Poppy would take her back but she’d only leave again. Eventually Poppy smartened up and wouldn’t let her come back anymore and he got a divorce and she did something stupid and she ran across the border to live with some relatives. Poppa convinced Poppy to move to Florida so that Mommy couldn’t keep disrupting our lives anymore and things started going really good.”
I could see that she was looking back and trying to put everything in order. From the look on her face she was trying to decide just how much personal information she needed to give me to tell the story. I let her do the deciding without trying to influence her; what she would tell me would be just as important as what she didn’t; I would figure out the rest eventually.
“By that time Raphael had started school and I was in kindergarten and then Poppy met Rosa.” She stopped again but before I needed to say something to start her back up she said, “She was pretty but sad too. Poppa liked her a lot; he said that even though she was sad and had rich relatives she still worked. That was a big deal to Poppa. And Rosa did work, her pretty looks and just the way she was made you want to buy whatever she was selling. You wouldn’t think she would be good at it but she was and she sold a lot of houses to the well-to-do people who liked her because she looked so classy. And right when Poppy decided that it wasn’t a good idea to see her anymore for some reason Abuelo came to talk to him and Poppa and everything was all right again. They got married and we went to live in Rosa’s house because it was bigger and paid for and so that Josef wouldn’t make such a big stink. He was the same age as Raphael but even back them he acted like he was older and the boss of us all. The only time he wasn’t like that was when Poppy or Abuelo was around. Poppa just ignored him, but Abuela would get after him too if she caught him at it; but Rosa just would throw up her hands and let him do whatever he wanted rather than have a confrontation. That was the unwritten rule around our house, no confrontations.”
Sighing I said, “Then I suppose it irritated you when I asked that we not …”
She interrupted before I could finish. “The fighting? Naw, that’s no big deal. I hate it too, it gives me a headache when the boys go off on each other all the time. I mean Rosa couldn’t stand having any kind of confrontation at all. I mean she would take to her bed saying she was sick or would act like she was going to faint … stuff like that.”
“How on earth did she make it in real estate then?”
Annie shrugged. “She had a good broker and a good secretary that handled all of that. Or if the clients got to be difficult she simply gave them to another realtor to deal with. She would rather give up the commission than deal with difficult people. She was just that way, there was nothing you could do to change it. I guess you can be that way when you are a grown up but that’s no way to make things work with kids. The only time I ever saw her disagree with Poppy was … look … oh crud.”
Startled I looked at her and waited for an explanation. “Look, it doesn’t matter to any of us … well, not now that Josef is … anyway …” She huffed to a stop and then rushed on. “Right after Poppy and Rosa got married they had Raymundo … we call him Ray.”
“But isn’t he … the eleven year old?” I asked slightly confused.
“Yeah, the real quiet one that is Robert’s shadow.”
Even more confused now I was trying to reconcile the ages of the boys. “You’re seventeen, Roy is fifteen, Robert is fourteen, Ray is eleven then Ricky is … nine?” At her nod I added, “Ren in five and then there are the two girls who are five and three.”
“Now you see it,” she said nodding. “Robert is … well … you know how I said we moved to Florida so that my mother couldn’t find us? Well, somehow she found us anyway. She showed up only long enough to drop Robert into Poppy’s lap. Poppy was really, really angry and refused to believe that Robert was his … she’d never said anything and had hidden him. He was going to get a paternity test but Mommy ran off and if it had been shown that Robert wasn’t his there wasn’t anyone to take him. Poppy … it is the only time I had ever seen him so … so … forbidding. And it was also the only time I ever saw Rosa fight with Poppy. She wouldn’t let him take Robert away. She said it didn’t matter, that Robert was ours now and we needed to fix it so that Rosa couldn’t change her mind and take him away. She was almost hysterical and it took Abuelo pulling some strings but the papers all got signed. Abuela talked with Poppy and nothing more was said. Poppy treated him the same way he treated the rest of us from then on. My mother did came back one more time after that even though she’d been warned off, it was late at night and Poppy wasn’t home. She wanted to see Robert. Rosa … Rosa told her to leave or she would call the cops. That my mother had run out on all of us kids and we weren’t hers anymore and that she … Rosa … was our mother and wouldn’t let trash like my mother be in the same room with us. Rosa wouldn’t even let us out of the house for weeks after that. I think she was afraid my mother would try and steal one or all of us and take us across the border with her.”
“It isn’t unheard of,” I told her.
“Yeah, I know. But it was just weird. I hadn’t decided yet whether I liked Rosa or not. Sometimes I loved her but sometimes she would make me really angry. I mean she was OK and all that and seemed to make Poppy happy but she never did anything but look pretty. Every time she tried to cook she would burn something and stink up the house. Clothes … everyone’s underwear was always pink or blue because she would forget and put the whites in with the colors or the blue jeans. Her idea of cleaning … Abuela would come over and clean and Abuelo paid for someone to come over once a week and clean. The worse thing was sometimes I think she did it on purpose. Rosa … Poppa told me I could love her without always having to like the way she did things and that’s pretty much the way it turned out to be. Even though she wasn’t my bio mom she … she fought for me. I didn’t have to like how she did everything but I could honor the good things that she did do for our family.”
Already knowing the answer but trying to give her a direction after she had fallen silent I asked, “So Ren and Sylvie are fraternal twins?”
“Huh?! No … uh … no … er ... they … well … they were Poppy’s boss’ kids and I used to babysit them.” At my still confused look she said, “Look, it’s complicated. See right after Ricky was born Poppa died and then right after Ren was born Abuelo died. That left Poppy with a lot of responsibility and Rosa was a mess. If it hadn’t been for Abuela the mess would have been even bigger. If we had lived in another country I probably would have quit school and stayed home to take care of things but Abuela and Poppy said no way no how so we all just kind of pitched in to make things work. Then the economy got bad and Poppy lost his job as a contractor and Momma Rosa … that’s what Raphael and I eventually started calling her … couldn’t earn any more commissions. Then Rosa got sick only she wasn’t faking like she used to and doctors cost money even if your grandfather used to be one. Raphael and Josef worked as much as they could but there wasn’t a whole lotta work for teenagers when old people needed the jobs; you couldn’t even get a job as McDonalds or Walmart anymore without being a retiree. I was like a part time Nanny for Sylvie and Evie when their parents had to let their full-time Nanny go. A lot of Abuela’s investments tanked and she moved in with us to save the cost of that retirement community she was living in. Things were tight but we were getting by, lot’s better than some of the kids we were going to school with. Then Josef started bringing home groceries and stuff and shoes for the boys and other stuff when we needed it. He said he was doing some work for some guys up in the rich part of town that paid him in stuff instead of money and I think Poppy and Rosa wanted to believe him because they didn’t want to believe it could be anything else.”
I winced knowing what was coming. “Yeah,” she said seeing my wince. “Turns out he was working for some black market dudes. I mean it could have been worse, they could have been drug dealers, but Poppy was still pretty bent when he found out.”
“Did Josef get arrested?”
“No … worse. He got promoted. One of those UN groups that came in hired him and since he already knew the ropes and where people were likely to hide their valuables … who had what and who only acted like they had something … he scored lots of brownie points. But …”
“But?” I nudged.
“He couldn’t score enough to get a doctor for his Momma and … and … and he got in a fight and then we all got thrown into this refugee camp even though Josef didn’t even live at home anymore. He was really broke up over it. Then some kind of sickness went around the camp and Rosa … she …”
Unsure whether the gesture would be appreciated or not I nevertheless went over and sat by the girl and put my arm around her. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah,” she whispered. “Me too.” She didn’t cry and it made me wonder when was the last time she had let herself cry. “Poppy and Abuela, they were messed up but it was Josef that really … he … he changed. He got involved in some bad stuff … underground anarchist stuff that was going on in the camp. Stupid stuff like if not everyone can be free then no one should be free. Really weird and demented kind of stuff that made even less sense than the bad stuff we were already dealing with. Poppy’s boss’ brother was into that stuff too and it made everything so hard. We were all just trying to stay alive as they fed us less and less and asked more and more work out of us. That’s when some of the adults realized the people running the camp weren’t US soldiers but something else and that kind of lit a flame. Then the camp just … just blew up. People went crazy and guns started going off and buildings and tents caught fire. It was … I don’t know if I’ve got the words to describe what it was like. Josef was one of the first people to die; he ran into the gun fire like a crazy person and … and … I mean like right in front of us. The boys had nightmares for a long time. Raphael ran out to help before Poppy could stop him and he got shot but it took him … took him two days to die and we didn’t have doctors or any medicine to help him. Poppy and Mr. Wayne … that’s Poppy’s boss … they got whatever they could grab and our families took off. We ran out where the fence had been knocked down by the people trying to get out ahead of us. The fighting seemed to follow us and Poppy, Mr. Wayne and some of the other adults tried to hold them off and then Mr. Wayne asked me to look after his daughters – Mr. Wayne’s wife died not too long after Rosa did – and we just ran. We were supposed to meet back up at Mr. Wayne’s old house but no one ever came and eventually the other families drifted away looking for some place to go to be safe. We waited and waited … for two weeks thinking Poppy was just … you know … late … but then these men came and ran us off saying that it was their territory. Besides we were starting to run low on food and we’d heard that there was some further on down the road.”
She hunched her shoulders. “No matter who tells it, the rumor is that it is always somewhere further down the road. Sometimes there was but most of the time it was just more hard times and people telling us we had to move along.”
“Didn’t you ever hear about the good refugee camps?” I asked wanting to know.
“You hear lots of things but you learn not to believe anything that you haven’t seen with your own eyes.” Her face said it was more like she had started to give up that there was ever going to be any place better no matter how far down the road she travelled.
I nodded. “My father used to say ‘believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.’ “
“Yeah, pretty much. We learned to avoid people after a while. There … there were some that wanted … nasty things from me … or the boys. They would always push Abuela around, tell her she should just go ahead and die – she’d had her chance - so the younger generation could survive. Nearly everyone wanted the cows so we learned to travel at night and be real quiet.”
Feeling pretty bad I said, “I must not have made a very good first impression.”
“Eh, not so bad. Don’t mind Roy, he’s just … he’s too young to be the man but he tries anyway and sometimes it makes him run his mouth.”
“I wasn’t talking about him, I was talking about to you,” I told her with as much honesty in my face as I could put there. “Even knowing your story I’m not sure I would have acted any different but I am sorry that you’ve been through such hard times.” I patted her back and got out of her space. “But I will say that I’m willing to put the effort into it if you are. I can’t promise I won’t act like a mom on occasion … it has turned into a habit I’m afraid … but it won’t be because I don’t think you aren’t a capable young woman.”
She gave me a rather strange look and then said, “You sure do say strange things. But if you mean that we don’t need to call a truce because we aren’t at war with each other to begin with then I’m cool with that.”
I nodded and then she made her escape having had just about all of the full-disclosure as she could handle for a while. As I turned I was startled to see Roy leaning against the corner of the house in the shadow of the loquat tree.
“You need something Roy?” I asked trying to act nonchalant.
“She still thinks that Jorge is alive and is going to come rescue us. She leaves him signs and stuff like that. But he’s dead. I know he is. No way would he have left us this long if he wasn’t.” His face was like granite … not angry, not sad, just set.
“Very few girls would be able to give up on the idea that their father is going to come rescue them. I know when my parents died I was pretty shattered. It took a while to go through the grieving process and there were times I still expected my daddy to stride in and tell me everything would be ok.”
He sighed, “Yeah. But if he was dead then he didn’t and Jorge isn’t either. I know that and if Annie doesn’t figure it out … I’m … I mean …” He sighed. “Please just don’t go filling her head with stuff. Jorge isn’t going to come walking up the road like Mr. Jakob did for you. We’ve only got each other to count on and the sooner she figures that out the better.”
He moved to leave and I said, “Roy, you’re here now. My husband can’t replace your father and I can’t replace your mother. But we would like to be … something to you if you let us. What that is I’m not sure yet but we aren’t the enemy and we aren’t out to … to imprison you or enslave in any way. We aren’t out to break your family up. Frankly I don’t want to see any of us hurt. Until we figure out things why don’t we just say we are on the same side of trying to survive … friendship will come I hope and with that … who knows … maybe more. Can we just start with that? A little bit of trust to get us through the day?”
He looked at me then shrugged and said, “I guess.” He turned to walk away and I couldn’t help but smile.
“Maybe I made a bad decision after all.” Mateo nearly scared me out of a year’s growth by coming out from behind one of the covered beds behind me after Roy had gotten out of earshot.
Looking at him I asked, “What makes you say that?”
“All that you offered that boy and he still shambles off like that,” he said indignantly.
I had to smile again and I gave him a hug. “Mateo, you were either a very strange teenage boy or you just don’t remember how you were. Two words and a shrug is practically War and Peace for most fifteen year olds. Getting anything at all out of him under the circumstances surprises me. It couldn’t have been easy to come upon his sister basically airing the family’s laundry in public.”
“Still,” Mateo huffed.
“No ‘still.’ He’ll come around, he just needs time. He’s been thrown to the wolves and never had to be the oldest brother until the worst possible time to be forced to do it in. And Annie … bless her but she is a bit of a control freak which reminds me of how someone else I know used to be. Can you imagine trying to grow into a man under those circumstances? Poor boy probably doesn’t know whether he is coming or going what with all the raging hormones and responsibilities and little to no outlet to get away from them.”
“Ah, that I do understand … quite, quite well.”
From the look on his face I realized pretty quickly we were not talking about the children any longer but about Mateo’s own raging hormones. He was expressing himself quite well on the subject when there was a chorus of “Ew’s!!!” that made us jump apart.
Robert and Ray were just coming around the corner of the house and were running over to Ricky and the other little kids all lined up watching us. Ricky though didn’t want to be dragged away from the spectacle we had been making and asked Nydia, “They do that all the time?”
The little devil said, “Uh huh, that’s how we got Neeno.”
I don’t know who was blushing harder Robert and Ray or Mateo and I. Finally the hilarity got to me and I laughed, “All right, shows over … for now. All of you scoot so that I can fix dinner.”
That was enough to get them all scooting and even Mateo left though he still looked a little shell-shocked. Poor man, his life was going to change a bit more and in different ways than he expected. Privacy had already started to become an issue with Nydia getting older but adding eight more pups to the litter was certainly going to complicate that even more.
Somewhere along the last two days I’d lost my original concern and resentment about bringing the Fuentes-Trespalacio family on board our little lifeboat. It wasn’t that I felt sorry for them exactly though I did feel a lot of empathy and compassion for their plight. No it was more that I recognized that their family met a need in me that was part of my personality. I needed to be needed in a very real and concrete way in order to be happy. It is what had brought Mateo and I together, and some small voice inside me told me that while it wouldn’t be easy these children had been led to us for a reason as well. Maybe they would never be “our” children – and I could live with that – but something told me that the potential for a relationship was there. They needed us and we needed them, perhaps for Mateo and I it was for different reasons but the need was just as real all the same.
Where this would lead us however was something that only time would tell.