For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
This summer I will celebrate my fifty-fourth birthday, not old, not really, but feels like old at times. As I sit on this porch, rocking in this comfy chair that my wonderful wife gave to me for last year’s birthday, and listen to the roar of the rushing river below, I find myself in a reflective mood today, and feeling rather chatty. So yeah, maybe I’ll take advantage of this lazy Sunday afternoon and share with you a story. Maybe this would be a good time to tell you about how I got to there from here. Maybe this would be a good time to retrace the steps I took along life's narrow path to the happiness that I never knew existed, much less ever hoped to realize. So, let's see, where should I start?
The nineteen sixties was a decade when we were encouraged to believe anything was possible. When we were challenged as a nation to “ask NOT what your country can do for you, ask what YOU can do for your country,” when we were challenged to literally reach for the moon. It seemed like forward was the direction everyone and every group was moving in. At least the decade started that way. Then, one by one the leaders of most of the movements for change and social evolution disappeared. More accurately, we killed them, or jailed them, or ignored them. The Kennedy’s, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Cesar Chavez, Eugene McCarthy, and a dozen or so others. The sixties ended with the country at war on two fronts, overseas with the communists, and at home with each other. Young and old alike became jaded and escaped into self-pity and self-indulgence, and voila the seventies were born.
The nineteen seventies were the decade of discovery. The nation discovered that we were not invulnerable. We learned that in order to rebound we had to hit bottom. We lost a war, a President, scads of business and industry, and our innocence. The one thing that we didn’t lose was our stubborn need to preserve our dignity. No plan was too risky, no change too drastic, no leadership too corrupt, as long as we came out ahead.
And with that resolve we marched into the eighties, the decade of rebirth. With a strong new President and a tough as nails attitude, the nation gave notice to the world that we were out to kick ass and take names. But at what cost, true family values, basic ethics, or the soul of a nation?
These were the times in which I came of age. And although they were decades of amazing events and historic changes, it would be the heart of one young woman, a mere child, that would inspire so many of us, and restore hope to a shallow people. As I tell this story you may find yourself thinking, I know of this girl, I’ve heard this somewhere. Perhaps you did, after all, it is said that the God of all people is omnipresent. And if that is so and you happen to believe, even just a little bit, then maybe you did, maybe we all did…
Mendota, California, June 1960
Mendota, California, June 1960
The child played with a butterfly as she lay in the yellow green grass, next to the field where her parents were working. It was early summer and all the schools had just let out for the long vacation. Not that it mattered much to her; she was only five years old after all. The butterfly stood nearly motionless on her forearm, its green blue wings moving up and down slowly, as if steadying itself. She squinted in the bright sunlight as she looked up to catch a glimpse of her mother in the cantaloupe field a few yards away.
She smiled broadly revealing neat rows of perfect little baby teeth as she made eye contact with mama. Her mother shielded her eyes from the sun as she stood and straightened up, arching her sore back, her free arm behind her, low on her hip. She waved high and slowly to her daughter and called out to her husband a couple of rows over.
“Victor, mira la nina!” Her husband waved from over his shoulder without looking up from his work. Maria Lopez shook her head tiredly, and waved again to her daughter as she squatted back down to continue her labors.
“Panson,” she muttered.
“She’ll be grown and waving to her own children before he knows it!” she said to herself, settling onto her knees and leaning back onto her heels.
Maria chopped at another stem and placed a good-sized melon into her rucksack, inching forward to swipe at the next one. The little girl stood up and waved her arm, gently setting the butterfly free to sail away on the breeze. It was beginning to get hot out as the sun rose high in the sky. The warm wind felt good on her face and she twirled round and round in the open field. When she got too dizzy to stand, she fell to the ground squealing with laughter. Streaks of bright white sunlight ran across the clear blue sky as if they were chasing one another around the heavens, and she raised her hands to shade her eyes.
Then suddenly something broke her concentration, and she rose up to her elbows, tilted her head and listened intently. She could barely make out the faint cry over the chattering of the crows gathered on the power lines along Third Ave. Nevertheless, there it was again, getting a little louder with each passing moment. Then it was clear, a wailing infant. She listened to the shrill cries followed by brief seconds of silence as the baby caught its breath. The poor thing was probably hungry or wet and needed changing. It took a little while for the parents to notice the cries for attention. Soon the little girl could see a young woman running from the field in the direction of the urgent cries, the mother perhaps.
Some older children were trying to quiet the baby, singing songs, and making funny faces, it was all just game to them. The little girl stood up as the young mother passed her on a dead run, her long ponytail flying parallel to the ground behind her with the speed at which she was moving. Instinctively she started to chase after her, but stopped after only a few strides. Mama had warned her not to wander out of eyesight, and she knew better than to disobey. She did not want to receive a swat or two from her mother’s sandal.
She watched as the young mother disappeared past the irrigation ditch then walked back to where she had caught the butterfly. She looked around, searching again for her own mother working in the field yonder. When she spotted her, she sat back down and began to play with a roly-poly bug, poking at it with her finger making it curl up into a ball. She studied the bug intensely, marveling at its defensive mechanism. Suddenly, a shrill scream came from beyond the ditch.
“AYIEEEE, Madre Dios!”
Everyone within earshot had heard the panicked cry, and everyone understood it to mean the worst kind of trouble. Heads began to pop up from all over the cantaloupe field. Some of the men had already dropped their tools and started running toward the commotion. The little girl felt her eyes moisten as the drama and confusion of the moment overwhelmed her. She again looked quickly for her mother and wiped away a tear with the palm of her little hand when she saw her walking quickly toward her.
“Mija, bente akee!” her mother said to her calmly.
The little girl ran to her and lost herself in her mother’s embrace. It was warm there and she was safe, but she could still hear the wailing in the distance. She peeked out from behind her mother’s long black hair and saw that a small crowd had gathered atop the steep embankment of the irrigation ditch. The men held their hats in their hands, and the women crossed themselves, some of them crying softly. The crowd parted slowly, making room for a young woman to pass between them, a small bundle, a motionless child wrapped in a Navajo receiving blanket held close to her breast. The young woman was sobbing deeply and the little girl recognized her as the one who had raced past her towards the crying baby.
A small group of children followed behind her, and as they passed through the crowd, one by one, their own parents scooped each of them up. Maria held her daughter a little tighter as the young woman approached them. As she passed by them, the little girl could feel the intensity of the young woman's pain, something that was well beyond her years to understand. She felt compelled to go to her, to throw her little arms around her, as if she could stop the hurting. She squirmed in her mother’s arms trying to get down, but Maria would not release her.
“Quiet mija, be still, that woman has lost her child,” her mother said to her, her voice stern from fright and not anger.
The young woman reached the dirt access road and walked past the flatbed tractor-trailer that held the stacks of melon crates. A man stood waiting, his face wet with tears, his strong-callused hands in tight fists as he held his Stetson hat in front of him. He embraced his wife and child tightly when they reached him, the small bundle disappearing between the young couple. They cried together for a long time, the presence of death creating a deafening silence. Several people, family and friends, surrounded them in a close circle of love and support. The little girl squirmed again in her mother’s arms.
“Alright LaTina, hold my hand and we will go to your father,” her mother said tiredly.
The two of them walked slowly, side by side towards the small crowd of mourners. A large man, his shirt soaked with sweat had come up to the young couple, and joined in their silent vigil. He may have been a relative, a grandfather or an uncle. Maria seemed to remember him as the grandfather of the young woman. He held a rosary made of wood in his left hand and stroked the young mother’s long dark hair with his right hand, as her head rested on his barrel chest. Tina and her mother were now standing with her father. Victor knelt down beside his daughter and put his arm around her.
“Why is she crying Poppi?” little Tina asked, whispering in her father’s ear.
“Her baby has died mija,” Victor answered, pulling her closer to him.
“Why?” Tina asked.
“If you ask me why this thing has happened mija, I cannot say for sure,” her father whispered.
“The Lord, he works in his way, and we must not question his will,” he added.
“I don’t know mija. You’ll have to ask God that yourself, maybe he’ll answer you,” Victor replied, sighing deeply.
“Her child is with God now. It is better I think, better than sweating for nothing in these damn fields,” he added quickly, his tone bitter.
The words were beyond her understanding. Her father was really talking to himself of course. The bitterness in his voice masked his guilty conscience, ashamed of his joy and relief, grateful that his own child had been spared. This was likely a common sentiment at this moment. Victor looked up at his wife and stood to embrace her, to ease the sorrow, to take away the sad and helpless look on her face. As her parents comforted each other, Tina began to walk forward, towards the grieving couple and the big scary Grandfather. Oddly, the closer she came to them, the more joy she began to feel in her own heart. By the time she was close enough to hear them weeping their words of encouragement to each other, the little girl was feeling near elation herself.
Just as she had at her early birthday party, only a few days before, when she was taking her turn at swatting the piñata stuffed with candies and cakes. The big Uncle noticed her first and looked down on her smiling face. He sniffled loudly and wiped his tear stained face with his shirtsleeve. The young parents looked down on her now as well, and she looked up at each of them, smiling at them in turn, as they made eye contact individually. Tina stepped closer and touched the dirty apron hanging from the mother’s waist. She tugged at it lightly and the woman looked curiously at her husband. She looked back down at Tina, and knelt beside her, reached out and gently stroked the little girl’s hair. Although grief stricken, and in spite of the tremendous pain she was feeling, she could not keep herself from smiling back at the little girl.
“Que pa so mijita?” the young mother said gently. Tina did not reply she just continued to smile, her amber colored eyes sparkling in the bright sunlight.
The young mother looked back up at her husband and then at her Grandfather, a perplexed look on her face, embarrassed by her nervous laughter. Before anyone could think of something appropriate to say, the little girl reached over and turned down the blanket revealing the face of the dead child. The baby was cold and blue, his little eyes closed but still wet with tears. The mother looked back quickly, just in time to see the little girl lean in and kiss her baby’s face. Tina looked up at the baby’s mother, smiled at her, and then reached up and touched her cheek with her tiny hand. The young woman pulled away instinctively, startled by the girls sudden appearance, and then stared back at the child.
The sun shined brightly behind the small girl, her little body outlined in sunlight making her appear more like a shadow than a person. As she started to speak, the woman felt a stirring in her arms, then there was a sharp pain in her right breast as her teething child tried to nurse. Gasping, she fell back onto her bottom and wriggled backward a couple feet in the dirt, frightened out of her wits. Holding her baby like a basketball in outstretched arms, she looked to her husband for an explanation, for help. This simply could not be happening, it just could not, her baby was stone dead just a moment ago! The small circle of people that had surrounded them retreated a yard or two. Several of them, male and female, were now on their knees crossing themselves and ‘panic praying’ the rosary.
“Hail Mary full of grace, blessed are thou among women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God…”
A hot breeze gusted, blowing dirt from the road every which way, people covered their faces with multi colored bandanas and pulled their hats low over their eyes. The young couple sat together on the ground in awe of this happening, laughing and crying at the same time. Their child was wailing loudly know, a hungry cry, he wanted to eat and his mother offered her breast happily.
“Nina,” the young mother called to Tina, her face a flush with fear and confusion.
“Nina, gracias mija, muchas gracias la Senor, muchas gracias!” she said, as she began to sob uncontrollably.
The girl continued to smile broadly, a broad, beaming smile branded on her little face. She was almost trancelike in her posture, and it made her appear more like a doll than a real child. Several people began to gather around her, talking amongst themselves. They searched for signs of some kind, for anything that could explain what they had just witnessed. The Grandfather walked toward Tina, and she stood still and unafraid. He stopped in front of her, and then fell to his knees, his face buried in his large hands, weeping softly.
Tina came forward and took hold of a finger on each of his big hands, tugging on them gently. He looked up sheepishly, a large smile breaking across his tear stained face. He pulled the child close to him and hugged her gently; she disappeared behind his strong arms, only her tiny hands were visible, her little fingers patting his big shoulders while he wept. In the crowd of people, a small man with a handlebar moustache stumbled forward as a woman pushed her way into the center of all the commotion. It was Maria, frantically looking for her daughter.
“Tina!” she called out loudly. Maria stopped abruptly when she saw her daughter peek out from behind the big man kneeling on the ground. She ran towards them, sliding the last couple of feet on her knees in the dirt as she dropped to scoop up her daughter into her arms.
“I told you never to wander from me like that, didn’t I?”
“Do I have to get my shoe little one?”
“No mama, lo ciento, por favor, lo ciento,” said Tina, suddenly out of her trance and back to reality.
“You scared me mija, you scared me, yo mi vida, no?” Her mother said softly, hugging and kissing her child.
“Si mama, si.”
The big man, stood up finally, steadying himself, his left hand on his right knee as he rose. He walked over to Maria and Victor as they stood near the crowd of people, the two of them each held one of Tina’s little hands. The old gentleman stopped in front of them, and put a large hand on the shoulders of her parents. He turned slowly and pointed to the young couple sitting with their baby, family and friends surrounding them.
He turned back to face Tina and her parents, then he reached down and touched the little girl’s cheek with the back of his right index finger. Looking back up at her parents, he leaned in and whispered something into Victor’s ear. Then the old Grandfather kissed Maria lightly on her forehead, turned, and walked away slowly. He walked past the young couple without stopping, and returned to the cantaloupe field, back to work. Soon others followed his lead and walked slowly back into the field as well.
The commotion was officially over, and there was still a full day’s work to do. In a few minutes, only the young couple and their baby remained with Tina and her parents on the quiet dirt road. The young father stood and helped his wife and child up. He turned, looked over at Tina and tipped his hat. His wife waved and then crossed herself as they turned and walked toward the field to join everyone else. Maria turned her head toward her husband, wrinkled her nose and squinted in the sunlight shining from over his shoulder.
“What did the old man say to you anyways?” Victor did not answer; he looked down at his daughter instead. Maria socked him in the arm and asked again.
“What did the old man say to you, Panson?” Victor looked over at his wife.
“He said that he met the Lord today.”
“The old man said that the Lord spoke to him through the eyes of a child.”
Victor knelt down beside his little girl and turned her to face him. He looked deeply into her eyes searching for sign of what the old man had seen. Tina began to giggle at the queer look on her father’s face, and she reached out and pinched his nose. She squealed, ran back a couple of steps, turned and showed her dad her tiny left hand. She held her thumb between her index and middle finger, waving her hand back and forth.
“Got your nose,” she squealed, “Got your nose!”
Victor made a loud snarffling sound and chuckled himself. Maria looked at both of them like they were from Mars and began to giggle as well. The excitement over, the three of them followed the others back to the field, there was still much work to do after all. He shaded his eyes with the brim of his hat and looked high up into the clear blue, mid-morning sky.
“MAN, it’s going to be a hot one today,” he said aloud.
Victor and his wife went back to work, chopping stems and picking melons. Maria looked back over her shoulder to catch sight of her daughter as she played in the grass nearby. She smiled to herself, reciting a silent prayer as she freed another melon from its vine and placed it in her burlap sack. She watched her daughter sit idly in the field, concentrating intensely on something that Maria could not see from where she worked. The events of the morning already forgotten, LaTina had her eye on a grasshopper that needed catching...