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Sunday, June 30, 2013

(“The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all…”) Proverbs 21:2

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspirtion

"The Migrant"

Chapter Four

Firebaugh, California, December 1966

Maria Lopez stood at the counter in her small kitchen, transforming little balls of dough into thin tortillas. As she finished rolling and stretching each one, she flipped them onto the hot iron griddle radiating on top of the brand new ‘Kitchenaire’ stove to her right. The appliance had been an early Christmas gift from her husband Victor. It was something she had been secretly hoping for, ever since they arrived here two years ago. That was when Victor had taken a new job as the harvest foreman on Senor Donnelly’s citrus ranch. Arthur Donnelly II was a bearish, gruff old man, but generous and fair to a fault if you asked anyone who had spent more than five minutes around him. And in 1964 while Maria was pregnant with her second child, he changed their lives with the offer of this job.

It provided them a new start in life, one with luxuries she never dreamed she would have. Things like a yard for the children to play in, a room for them to share, and running water in the house, praise God no more carrying water from a smelly old well! So in the light of their windfall, getting up early to start a fire in the wood-burning stove was a small burden, not worthy of audible complaint, especially for a good Christian woman. But still, to have heat at the turn of a knob, now that would be living! And so, since she believed in her heart that all prayers are answered sooner or later, here it was! Right after the spring harvest ended and work became scarce, Victor received a phone call from his brother Raymond in Fresno offering him a spot on his loading team for the summer. Of course they jumped at the chance to earn some extra money for the kids and themselves.

And earn he did, making a tidy sum ‘boosting’ on the lettuce and melon circuit from Fresno to Yuma. Keeping in character, he saved every dime for his family, sleeping in his truck and spending only what he needed for gas and food. ‘Boosting’ was a term for a day laborer who substituted for actual employees who might be sick or who wanted some time off without losing their jobs. The “boosting” laborers would then receive daily payouts in cash, no questions asked. In these situations, the Feds tended to look the other way to keep commerce moving. This hard working band of nomads would follow the freight trains as they stopped at each of the packinghouses on all the major farms from Central California to the Arizona border.

Sure, it was harder work than cutting, raking, and bailing hay or Sudan grass, which is what he would normally do between harvests, but the pay was much better, and their family was still growing. The days were long and hard, usually sixteen hours of back breaking lifting and stacking; all of it in and around an endless procession of superheated railroad cars. These were the kind of conditions that quickly weeded out the arrogant and unprepared. You know the types, the guys that dressed as if they were cutting Daddy’s lawn on the weekend. The mensas would show up wearing shorts and tank tops, and you just knew that these guys wouldn’t last a week. Hell, most wouldn’t finish the day.

Only the experienced and motivated lasted the whole summer, but the work could make a young man old way before his time. On top of all that, this kind of work took him away from home for three months at a time. And that was hard on the children, and on her as well, she missed keeping her cold feet warm next to him at night. But this was their world, and these opportunities were a Godsend. There were no eight to five, shirt and tie type jobs for those lacking a SSN or the right colored papers. Victor would say, “The Lord does his part and we do ours,” removing his hat and folding his hands in prayer fashion, just a hint of sarcasm in his voice, rolling his big brown eyes to the heavens.

“He provides the work, we bring the sweat,” he would finish, winking at whoever was nearby, taking a long drink from an ever-present can of beer. And, while he would have loved to give his wife something extravagant and sparkly, he knew how hard she labored, so he brought to her something that would make life a little easier. Now, every time she looked at the beautiful white stove and oven she would smile to herself. Her husband may be a man of few words, but his actions could fill a library, she thought to herself, smiling and humming ‘Monday, Monday’ by the ‘Mamma’s and the Papa’s’

“AIYE!” she yelped, burning her finger while turning a tortilla.

“That man had better eat a dozen of these before he rushes off to work,” she muttered while she sucked on her reddening thumb.

“Tina, breakfast is ready, go get your father, he’s outside by the truck,” Maria said to her daughter who had just walked into the kitchen.

“Si Mama,” she answered sleepily, going out the screen door, still rushing the tangles out of her hair.

She hopped down the wooden steps to the soft dirt and turned toward the garage. She could see her Father’s legs jutting out from under the pick-up where he was busy giving the truck a quick lube job with a grease gun. Caring for the equipment was just one of the endless lists of chores on a working ranch or farm. Tina walked over to where he was working and sat down on his boots.

“What the...OUCH!” Victor hollered, bumping his head on the driveshaft, startled by the sudden appearance of his daughter.

“Hora de comer papá, OK,” Tina said, cheerfully telling him it was time to eat, totally nonplussed by his little accident.

She stood up, her head down, her long hair hanging in her face while she combed out the tangles from underneath.

“PAPA, come ON!”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be right there mija,” he replied still rubbing the sting off his forehead. She swatted his boot with her brush, stamped her foot for effect then placed both hands on her tiny hips, and shot him the ‘look’ as she ran back towards the house.

It was shaping up to be the usual California Christmas weather wise, not a cloud in the sky, seventy-two degrees and just a whisper of a breeze. Tina could hear her little brother fussing as she got to the backdoor. Her mother was sitting at the kitchen table trying to feed Gilbert some scrambled egg and frijoles, but he wasn’t exactly cooperating. He kept turning his head as the spoon came close and had more food in his hair and his ears than he did in his mouth.

“Hold still gordito, do you want Papa to see you fussing and crying?” Maria said with a sigh, puffing her cheeks and blowing her hair away from her face.

Gilbert just squirmed all the more in his highchair, and started to put some real feeling into his wailing. The door swung open forcefully, slamming into the side of the house with a loud BANG!

“WHO IS MURDERING MY SON?” Victor said with a gasp, clutching his chest and winking at his wife.

“Madre Dios, my son, your mother has scared the beans right out of you!”

“And what is this yellow stuff, brains maybe?” Victor picked a clump of scrambled egg off Gilbert’s head and popped it into his mouth.

“Hey, these brains are good, maybe I should try some chicken too, no?” He quickly dropped to his knees grabbing his son’s chubby little arm and started gnawing on it, grunting like a feeding sow. Gilbert started to squeal with laughter, as he was familiar with this little game that his Father liked to play. Maria walked over to the two of them and snapped a wet dishtowel at her husband.

“Honey please! This child’s a mess, and all my hard work is getting cold!”

“Eat your breakfast while I clean him up,” Maria said giggling, wiping the beans from her son’s face.

“OK, OK, we surrender General,” her husband said, bowing deeply, waiving his hat in a mock salute.

He playfully slapped his wife on her bottom as he passed her, making his way to the kitchen table. Maria yelped, “Behave, there was time for that this morning, remember?” she smiled and then blushed when she noticed her daughter was watching them. Tina just grinned at her, showing off her missing front teeth, waiving at her Father as he came near her chair. He sat beside her and helped himself to some eggs, beans, and a couple of the warm tortillas from under the covered plate. The steam rose from under the towel and the aroma of fresh tortillas filled the room. Victor tore off a section of a folded tortilla and scooped up a healthy bit of the tasty dish, eating sumptuously.

“Victor, slow down, and use your fork!” she pleaded.

“Por favor, can you at least try to help me teach these children some manners!”

Her husband picked up a napkin, wiped his fingers clean and capitulated. Picking up his fork, he held it daintily in his right-hand, pinky finger extended, and continued feeding himself. Maria shook her head in frustration and returned to cleaning up her son. Just another everyday at the Lopez casa, she was happy, the children were happy, and he was loco!

By 9am, the morning rush had ended and a rare silence hung over the household. Victor had driven off to start the ‘wets’ on opening the turnouts in the orange groves. They would be getting water from the County share wells later this morning for irrigation, so the family would not be seeing him again until late in the day. Maria was busy bathing and dressing Gilbert, looking forward to a little time to herself, once she handed him off to his sister to baby-sit of course. And, Tina was taking advantage of the lull in the daily routine, lying quietly on her bed watching the sunlight streak through the window curtains. The patterns on the white lace produced beams of light in various shapes, going every which way. You could see the dust particles hang on each beam, giving the illusion that they were in motion. She lay on her side, her knees pulled to her waist, dangling a foot over the edge of the bed. She twirled her foot around and around until her sandal dropped, making her smile for some reason. A game she must have been playing perhaps, who knows what a child is really thinking anyway?

Tina’s peace and quiet was abruptly interrupted when her mother walked into the room carrying her brother. It’s funny how all women have that natural instinct about toting children around. Men just don’t get it, they all look like they are carrying a football or taking out the trash. But women, all women, even little girls, pick up children the same way. In one smooth motion they scoop them up swinging out their hip and settling the child in that “sweet spot” where the kids weight is totally supported and the stress on the woman’s back is minimal. And the kids love it, sorta like riding a hobbyhorse really.

“Mija, look after your brother while I start the laundry. You can help me hang the clothes on the line later, and then we can make a nice lunch together.

“OK Mama, OK”

Her mother set Gilbert on the floor and then left the room. Tina watched him sit there for a minute, looking around the room for something to pounce on. Fixing his eyes on her bookcase, he tipped himself over in the general direction of his target, and started crawling to beat all get out. He was really able to walk now, but he was a lazy child and preferred to crawl than to exert the extra effort to stand. Tina jumped up from her bed to head him off before he reached her books. A six-year-old typically doesn’t have too many treasures, but her books, especially the Dr. Seuss books, were her gems. She loved when her father read to her whenever he had some free time. ‘Hop on Pop’ was her favorite, Papa’s too. He sometimes asked to borrow it after he finished the story.

“I think your mother needs to hear this story again,” he would say as he turned out the light. Then Tina would hear her mother laughing heartily in the kitchen.

“Aiye Victor, you’re impossible!”

“If you want to please me so much pick up a towel and start drying,” she would say just before the giggling started. Frustrated but not angry, her brother diverted his attention to the stuffed tiger in the corner, and settled on wrestling with that for the moment. Tina picked up an old deck of cards and sat on the floor next to him. She flashed the cards to him one at a time trying to coax him into repeating her words.

“Jack, say Jack gordito”

Gilbert just sat there, the tiger’s tail in his mouth. The most she could get him to do was grunt, it would do for now, he was smiling at least. The telephone rang loudly in the hall. It was mounted high on the wall to keep it out of the reach of curious rug racers. Maria picked it up on the third ring, running in from the service porch off the kitchen.

“Bueno” she said into the handset.

Curious, Tina walked towards the hall stopping to lean against the doorjamb. She reached up and fiddled with the long black cord, swinging it back and forth between the wall and her mother’s leg. Gilbert appeared at her feet and pulled himself up by her pant leg, standing next to her. She leaned over to pick him up, but he was too heavy to hold for very long. So she sat down on the floor with him in her lap. She listened as he mumbled something unrecognizable into her right ear while trying to hear her mother’s conversation with the left one.

“Si, I know, I know” Her mother’s tone was sympathetic and she was nodding her head in agreement with whatever the caller was saying. Tina wondered what they were talking about, but she knew it wasn’t good by the look on Mama’s face.

“Si, bueno, we will be here, see you when you get here, I’ll make coffee,” she said and then replaced the handset to the phone cradle. Maria chewed on her thumbnail, a habit from childhood, one she exercised every time she was uneasy about something. She looked down at her children and then knelt beside her daughter.

“Little one, you know your friend Hector from school?” Tina nodded and smiled, “yes,” she said cheerfully.

“That was his sister Rosa on the telephone, you remember her don’t you?”

“Yes,” she said still smiling.

“Honey, Hector’s sister is going to have a baby soon,” Maria said, searching her daughter’s face for a sign that she understood.

“Si mama, I know” she replied, watching their tabby, El Guapo jump onto the windowsill.

“Mija can you help her, the way you helped the others?” she asked, pausing for a reply.

Maria was not comfortable dealing with these things. She prayed to God each day to take back this gift he had given to her little girl. She did not want this for her, for any of them. In her heart, she knew it was a call to serve, but in the same heart, she knew that it was too much to ask of one so small. It seemed too much to ask of anyone, and she was terrified of the potential consequences. Given their illegal residence status, Maria always worried about deportation, forced to leave behind what they had worked so hard for. To be sent back into abject poverty, to the country she was born to. Those in their situation knew better than to call too much attention to themselves lest the wrong people took notice.

Ever since that day in the field, when Tina laid her hands on the dead baby, their lives ceased to be normal. Each day someone new appeared at the door, searching for a miracle. They came at all hours, each with a need more pitiful or heartbreaking than the one before. After a couple of months of constant appeals, the strain on her family became too much to bear. Victor quit his job and moved them all to Fresno to stay with his brother and his family. They all shared a home in town, eleven people in four rooms and no bath. What work he could find was hard and seasonal, and he earned what he could as a laborer at various construction sites. Living in the city brought new hazards. In particular, the constant threat of INS raids and the stigma of being necessary but unaccepted, unwanted. But, even with the hardships, at least there was peace again in their lives.

They were far enough away from the past that they could live freely, without intrusion, left blissfully alone. Now the new job, the newfound success had brought them back into contact with the past. She had hoped that enough time had passed, that people would have forgotten about them, and that they could return to hide in plain sight. However, it was not to be, and days after they arrived in their new home, the pilgrims came with their sad stories. Unable to deny her daughter’s destiny any longer, Maria made a pact with God. If he would protect Tina from the wolves, she would turn no one away, they would give of themselves, joyfully and completely.

“Nina, did you hear me?”

“LaTina, answer your mother” she said sternly, lifting Tina’s chin with her index finger.

“Yes Mama, I heard you. Can I have some Kool-Aid?” she asked, moving her brother from her lap to the floor, he was falling asleep anyway.

“If your father left any you can, go into the kitchen while I put your brother in his bed”

They got up simultaneously and went in opposite directions. Tina went right to the fridge and pulled out the plastic container of ‘Goofy’ Grape’ Kool-Aid. Setting it on the kitchen table, she dragged a chair over to the counter and climbed up to reach the cabinet where the glasses were stored. She picked out her favorite jelly jar glass, the one with Barney and Betty Rubble on it. While she was carefully pouring her drink, there was a loud knock at the screen door. Startled she spilled a little on the Formica tabletop.

“OOPSY,” she said, looking over her shoulder to see if anyone had seen. Tina grabbed a handful of napkins from the holder on the table and mopped up the spill while she leaned forward and slurped her drink reducing the volume to a manageable level. She heard the screen door rattle again with another loud rap.

“Maria, ola Maria,” a woman said from the back porch.

“Una momento por favor, I’ll be right there Rosa,” Tina’s mother called from the back bedroom. The door opened and Hector’s sister walked into the kitchen.

“Ola nina, you are my brother’s little friend, no?” Rosa asked as she approached the table cautiously.

“Yes,” Tina replied her Kool-Aid in one hand and holding onto the back of a chair with the other.

She was standing on one foot while she kicked the other back and forth nervously like she needed to tinkle or something. She watched the woman waddle slowly to the table and pull out a chair. Rosa looked at the chair with a sad face and sighed, “Oh my goodness, these things seem lower and lower the fatter I get,” she said to herself. Taking in and letting out a deep breath, she tugged on the chair again to allow herself maximum clearance. She steadied herself, one hand on the table, one hand on the chair as she sat down. It was more of a controlled crash really, but by the look of relief on her face, you could tell she was pleased with the landing.

“So little one, you’re the angel everyone whispers about,” she said reaching behind her and rubbing her sore back.

Tina did not reply she just stood there swinging her foot and holding her glass up to her mouth, not really drinking, just standing by. The woman made her uneasy, and she could see that she was anxious about something. Likewise, Rosa did not like the way the little girl stared at her, but she was afraid to say anything, to upset her in any way. If what they said about her was true, she needed her more than anything right now. Rosa Hernandez very was young, but she instinctively knew something was wrong, her baby had not moved in days, and then there was the spotting during the past few days as well. But there was no money for visits to the doctor, or time to visit the clinic, not that she wanted to go there again anyway.

It was an earlier visit to that place that put her in this condition after all. That baby-faced, gringo doctor, pretending to be so helpful, so pious, she thought. He was just helping himself to what he really wanted from all the pretty young women and girls. His victims were the most vulnerable. Those who could not hope for protection from the authorities, or from a community that refused to recognize or even acknowledge their existence. She wished she had the courage to tell her mother and father the truth, but she needed to protect her family. Who would the police believe anyway, a couple of ‘wetback’ pickers or a respected member of the Anglo community, there could be no justice, not for them. It was just as easy to make up a story about a pretend boyfriend to appease her angry family, than to risk their very livelihood on the truth. Now this, what could she do, she was more frightened of disappointing her parents than she was of meeting this little girl, angel or devil, she wasn’t sure which it would be yet.

“Rosa, Rosa, are you comfortable mija?” asked Maria as she jogged into the room carrying Gilbert on her hip. She glanced quickly in Tina’s direction and then set her son down on the kitchen floor, handing him a cookie from the jar on the counter and then taking a seat between her daughter and her visitor.

“I am OK Senora Lopez, I mean I think I’m OK?” she replied not very convincingly. She fidgeted in her seat a little trying to get comfortable. That was when Maria noticed the small dark stain on the young woman’s sweatpants. She had been hoping that this would just be a false alarm. The poor girl was only upset and wanted to talk to someone older. to say things to her that perhaps she was unable to say to her own mother. That wasn’t going to be the case, she realized that now, as the bloodstain darkened and grew larger. She wished Victor were here right now, to take charge, he was so much better under pressure, especially when it would involve their child and the power.

“OH MY GOD!” Rosa shrieked as she became aware of her worsening situation.

She tried to stand but she was sitting awkwardly, and there was blood on the linoleum floor now. Each time she tried to stand her sneakers would squeak as she lost traction in the warm sticky spill spreading on the floor. Maria ran behind her and lifted Rosa from under her arms, kicking the chair across the room as she did so. Together they got to the floor and Maria laid the terrified girl onto her back.

“Quiet Rosa, be quiet and very still mijita!” she snapped at her out of fright, not anger.

She went to the sink and splashed her face with cold water then soaked a washcloth. She dabbed her face dry and then went to Rosa and placed the cool towel on her forehead. The frightened girl was instinctively taking small quick breaths trying to calm herself. Her eyes showed that she was responding to Maria’s calm handling of the situation. This was good news because Maria was really on the brink of hysteria herself, but when she saw the weak smile on Rosa’s face silently saying to her ‘I trust you,’ she found herself back in control.

“Be still little mother, I think that your baby wants to be born now, one way or the other,” (meaning live or dead). Rosa was sweating even with the cold washcloth on her head. She continued to smile weakly and to breathe in quick little gasps.

“Please Senora, please, this kid feels like a stone, my belly is cold like a tomb, feel it, TOUCH IT!”

Maria placed her hand under the young girl’s blouse and felt her stretched skin. She pressed slightly and thought she could feel a foot or something, but the girl was right, her skin was cold to the touch, even with all of that warm blood running through her, she was freezing. Uncharacteristically, she formulated a plan quickly. The baby needed to be delivered soon, or the young mother might die as well. She got up, quickly, rummaging through the utensil drawer and found the sharpest knife she owned. Running back to Rosa she dropped to her knees and lifted the front of her sweatpants, then swung the sharp knife in a short downward arc, and sliced them open to the crotch, exposing her. She was surprised that Rosa’s water had not broken yet, and that her vagina was not the slightest bit swollen or discolored in preparation for giving birth. She wasn't a practicing mid-wife, but she'd delivered two children of her own and felt as though she knew what was normal, and what to expect. At that exact moment there was a loud scream and the sound of breaking glass just behind her.

“WHAT ON GOD’S GREEN EARTH IS GOING ON HERE!” screeched the woman who had just entered the house. Senora Donnelly was standing just inside the kitchen having come in through the open front door. She must have witnessed Maria hacking open the bleeding young woman’s pants and then dropped the cake she had brought over for the family. Lord knows what was running through her mind just then, but Alma Donnelly was no shrinking violet, and it didn’t take Maria many words to explain the situation.

“All right dear, it’s all right, I’ll call for help, you stay with the girl,” she said calmly. Alma knelt beside Rosa and pushed her wet hair away from her face. She smiled at her reassuringly.

“You’re going to be fine baby girl, you’re going to be just fine, I promise.”

She was so convincing, that Maria even believed it herself for a second, but she couldn’t wait for help, the nearest hospital was twenty miles away. She leaned forward and whispered to Rosa that she was going to have to touch her and see if she was close to delivering. Rosa nodded and continued breathing in short quick breaths. Maria went to the sink and washed her hands as clean as she could and then returned to Rosa, her hands still dripping from the scrubbing. She smiled weakly at Rosa and then reached down to inspect her body to see if her cervix was dilating. Maria was trying to remember everything that the doctors had done to her when she was giving birth, so that she could repeat the process as best she could. Rosa’s voice squeaked slightly as Maria entered her, and she stared at the ceiling wincing occasionally until Maria finished her amateur exam.

“Oh my goodness Rosa, I don’t know, I don’t know, you don’t feel ready, you’re still too tight, the opening is too small," Maria said quietly, a worried look on her face.

Where was all this blood coming from if not the placenta in the preamble to birth? Suddenly she got it, the baby, the baby was bleeding out somehow, it was why Rosa’s body was so cold, there wasn't any need for her heart to pump blood to a dead child. She looked to Rosa, her eyes glistening, a weak smile turning to a trembling chin. Before she could get the words out, a hand appeared suddenly on her shoulder startling her. It was Tina, Maria had forgotten that she was there. She had been standing by watching the whole thing, never saying a word, never making a sound. Maria reached for her and Tina eased into her mother’s arms. Her daughter whispered into her ear, “I can help now mama.” Tina's rested her head on her mother’s shoulder, twirling her hair with her tiny fingers.

“How is our patient?” asked Alma walking back into the room.

“There's an ambulance is on the way, it won’t be long now,” she added.

Maria didn’t answer right away. She just hugged her daughter tightly and then let her go to do what only she could. It would all be out in the open now she thought to herself. Senora Donnelly was about to witness something that she would not believe much less understand. Nobody outside of this close-knit community would be able to keep this a secret, not for long anyway. Many more pilgrims would come, then the curious, and finally the police, they always came in the end. But now was not the time to be selfish, she had made her pact with God, she had done her part, she would have faith, and she would trust that He would to do his part as well.

“It’s dead,” Rosa said sobbing quietly. “My baby’s dead,” she recited to herself over and over. Maria reached down and stroked the girl’s hair wiping the tears from her cheek.

“Please little one, por favor, bring her back, bring my baby back,” Rosa said weakly to Tina who was peering at her from her mother’s side.

“What is she talking about Maria?” Alma asked as Tina knelt beside Rosa, taking her hand.

“Maria, what's going on?” Alma demanded. Maria rose to her feet and walked over to Senora Donnelly. She cupped her face in her hands and looked deeply into her eyes. Alma Donnelly raised her hands and placed them over Maria’s, holding her gaze and then asked again, in a hushed voice, “What’s happening?”

“God’s work Senora, God’s work,” Maria answered without looking back at Tina and Rosa.

Alma Donnelly leaned to her right, her face still in Maria’s hands, and watched as the little girl lay down beside Rosa, her knees bent and her body still exposed stretched out on the cold kitchen floor. Tina put her arm onto Rosa’s swollen stomach and scootched as close to her as she could. Her little face was near Rosa’s breast and she began to hum to herself a tune that she had made up, nothing that anyone would recognize really. She rubbed her little hand back and forth across Rosa’s belly as if she was scratching an itch. Senora Donnelly watched intently, unable to speak, not even trying to pull away from Maria’s grasp. Tina rubbed and rubbed, still humming her tune, when all of a sudden she began to tremble as if chilled to the bone. She clutched at Rosa’s blouse and buried her face in the space between Rosa’s arm and chest. The young mother gasped as a ripple of movement made its way across her belly. THE BABY had rolled, and she felt a familiar kicking. She had convinced herself only moments ago, that she never feel that again. Mrs. Donnelly pushed away from Maria’s hold and shrieked.

“Jesus H. Christ, this girl is giving birth, RIGHT NOW!”

She ran to Rosa and knelt between her legs, arriving just as her water broke. The warm liquid spread quickly across the floor, mixing with the blood, making an eerie pink mosaic on the speckled linoleum. Rosa began to scream as the contractions came, one after the other, she was already in transition. Maria snapped out of her trance and rushed to help with the birth, grabbing a towel from the laundry basket near the back door. A moment after she knelt beside Senora Donnelly the baby came, cold and blue. Alma, held the tiny girl in her hands, she was so small and definitely not breathing. The women looked at one another and then yelped as the afterbirth immediately followed the baby.

Maria picked up the knife she had used to cut open Rosa’s sweatpants and cut the umbilical cord. Alma reached her pinky finger into the newborn’s mouth and fished out a wad of mucus. Then placing her mouth over the baby’s mouth she blew in a quick, hard puff of air causing the baby's cheeks to swell and mucus to shoot out of its nostrils. A split second later Rosa’s newborn daughter let out a loud cry, wailing long and hard. Maria wrapped the child tightly in the warm towel as the two women began to laugh uncontrollably, hugging one another while the baby cried and cried between them. Looking over to Rosa, they were alarmed to see that she was unconscious, but then were relieved when they saw that she was still breathing, her chest rising and falling rhythmically. She was OK, just exhausted, too weak to enjoy the moment.

Outside the long singsong siren of an approaching ambulance could be heard, growing louder as it drew nearer to the house. Alma Donnelly got up, ran to the bedroom, and fetched a blanket off of Maria’s bed. She modestly covered Rosa’s exposed little body and stared down at Tina sleeping peacefully at her side. Senora Donnelly tucked the blanket under the chin of Rosa, making sure Tina was covered as well. She leaned down and kissed each of them and then joined Maria at the sink where she was cleaning the newborn with a warm washcloth. Alma put her arm around Maria and lay her head on her shoulder.

“So, it's true, all the stories that they tell around the valley, are true,” she said in a whisper.

“Yes Alma, si Senora, its all true, all of it.”

Mrs. Donnelly turned and looked back at the pair of girls sleeping peacefully on the floor, the one not all that much older than the other. She wiped a tear as it fell from her eye and turned back to see Maria leaning against the counter, the newborn quiet in her arms, the two women smiled at one another from across the room. Tina's little brother, Gilbert, interrupted the brief moment of silence as he toddled into the kitchen, a binky in one hand and a jelly stained teddy bear in the other. Senora Donnelly scooped him up, and swung him into that ‘sweet spot’ on her hip and flashed a smile at Maria.

“Everyone else seems to have a child to hold, I don’t want to feel left out,” she said smiling.

Maria laughed and nodded her head approvingly.

“We did OK, didn’t we Alma,” she said with a sigh. Alma nodded back and set Gilbert on the counter handing him a cookie from the jar. She looked out the kitchen window, the ambulance had just pulled up to the house, a cloud of dirt swirling all around it as it came to a stop.

“Maria, this stays between us, you can count on me,” she said still looking out the window.

“Gracias Senora, thank you.”

The ambulance attendants rushed in through the back door and went straight to work. Maria thought about what she might say to Victor when he asked how her day was. She smiled to herself and kissed the newborn. I hope your mother names you Elena, I’ve always liked that name, beautiful and strong, it suits you little one, it suits you. She handed the baby to one attendant and took her own daughter from the other. Tina was fast asleep, her long hair hanging over Maria’s arm as she held her.

“Do you know how special you are?” she whispered, kissing her daughter softly.

“But what will become of you mija, what’s to become of you now?”

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

(“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God…”)...Matthew 5, the beatitudes

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration

"The Migrant"

Chapter Three

Albany, New York, December 1966

My father died quietly early on Saturday morning while we were sleeping. It was only a couple of weeks before Christmas, old man winter had just brought us a good snowfall, and Shannon was beside herself with anticipation. My little sister awakened me on that day. She was standing next to my bed brushing out the tangles from her long auburn hair.

“Are you awake now?” she asked sternly. I managed to mumble something inaudible, and she swatted me with her brush.

“ETHAN, you have to get up, something’s the matter with Daddy!” she said, stamping her feet for effect. That was all the push that I needed, and I jumped up out of bed.

Shannon jumped up into my bed to take my place, after retrieving Buster from underneath it. I made a mental note that maybe it was time to give that teddy bear to her anyway. This was a drill I had become accustomed to, especially these last few months. It had been a little more than three years since we found out about Da’s cancer. To be honest, the first year did not bring all of the ghastly changes I had prepared myself for. In fact, we were beginning to believe that maybe we had dodged a bullet, but the luck of the Irish caught up with us, and what had been brewing inside my father began to boil over. In no time at all, the man that had always been larger than life to me wilted like a cut flower, right before my eyes. And, like cut flowers, no matter how carefully that you tended to them, their days were numbered.

I walked into my parent’s room through the open door. Mother was sitting at her dressing table brushing her hair (which was beginning to show streaks of gray), slowly and methodically. I stopped just inside the doorway and looked over to their bed. Dad was laying on his back, his head and shoulders elevated slightly by two pillows. I glanced back over at my Mother and saw that she was watching me in the mirror. She had had put her brush down and was fidgeting with her crucifix while she looked at my face. In her eyes, I could see a question hanging on the moment. As strong and stoic as my Mother always tried to be, in truth she was just a softie, a small town girl who had been transplanted to this country by her ambitious beau. I could sense her uneasiness and knew that she was holding back her urge to cry, trying to retain some semblance of strength for me and for Shannon. I looked back at my Father and moved the last few steps to his bedside. His features were familiar, but I knew immediately that he was gone.

“Ah, Da,” I said softly, a weak smile breaking across my face.

I knelt beside their bed and took his hand from atop his chest. It wasn't too cold, but it wasn’t warm either. I pulled it up to my face and rubbed my cheek back and forth, letting the hair on the back of his hand tickle me slightly. The sensation made me think for a second that he might still be here after all. A tear dropped from my eye onto my forearm, and I returned my father’s hand to his still chest. Composing myself, I got up on my feet and went over to Mother. She watched me approach her in the mirror. When I reached her, I put my hands on her shoulders and she placed her hands on mine.

“It was only a couple of hours ago Ethan” she said softly.

“I woke around 3am when I didn’t feel him next to me.”

“I never have been able to sleep well without his arm around me. He always said he was my dream sentry, imagine that, my dream sentry,” she sighed.

My mother had already shared more in these last moments than she ever had before about their personal life. I couldn’t think of any words to say to her, even though I desperately wanted to comfort her somehow, I just felt helpless. She turned in her chair and took my hands in hers. She looked directly into my eyes, so deeply that I could not look away. She pulled my hands to her lips and kissed them tenderly.

“Ethan, son, your Da loved you so very much” she said in a broken whisper.

“I know that at times he was cross sounding, and that maybe he pushed you harder then was necessary. But he always loved his babies” she said with a stronger voice, emphasizing her point by squeezing my hands tightly. There was a minute of silence, and then she spoke again.

“This will be hardest on Shannon, she’ll be needing us both to be strong, to be there for her. To be as normal as possible in all the chaos that will be surrounding this house in the coming days. I’ll be needing your help Ethan, can you do this for me boy?” she asked, her eyes glistening again.

“Yeah Mom, you know that I will, I swear,” I said with conviction. She smiled now, and wiped her tears away with my hands.

“OK then son, for your Da, remember we’re Kelly’s, no tears, no fears,” she said, smiling through her contradicting tone. My mother got up, and retied her gown. She hugged me and tussled my hair.

“Ugh, what a frightful mess you have on top your head boy! You better be fixing that pretty soon,” she said wrinkling her nose and sounding like herself again.

“You go make some breakfast for you and your sister, I’ll be along soon.”

“We’ll tell her together Ethan, OK,” she said as she walked past me to her bed.

“All right maam, OK,” I replied, wiping my own eyes dry. I walked towards the door and then looked back. Mom had crawled back into bed and pulled Da’s arm around her like a blanket. She allowed herself to let go and as I closed the door behind me I swear I could hear her whistling softly to herself, ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’.

The next few days were busy, busy beyond belief. All of the arrangements, the telegrams, the phone calls, and the visitors (all bearing food), produced the chaos that Mom had spoke of on that morning. Uncle Liam and Aunt Jo (Josephine) had come in on Sunday to help Mother with everything that needed doing. Together they handled nearly everything without major incident. Although, there had been a slight commotion when Uncle Liam took on the Great State of New York. It was over the planning of my Father’s viewing/wake in our living room versus the funeral home. In the end, my Uncle capitulated but not before he accused the Governor of the State of planning to steal the pennies from his dead brother’s eyes! To say the least my family was colorful, to say the most we were certifiable!

I had to take Shannon into town for ice cream and new shoes so she would not be there when the mortuary came by to pick up Dad’s body. Mother was settling into her “take charge” personality, keeping everything and everyone at bay. However, whenever we caught each other’s eye she gave me the look that reminded me how fragile the ground was beneath her feet. I did my best to keep the mood light by telling as many of Da’s silliest stories as I could remember.

By Monday, the oldest of my Father’s brothers arrived to lend a hand. Uncle Chuck (Edward Charles really) and Aunt Debbie (Deborah Ann) had come all the way from California. He was Da’s favorite, because he could make us all laugh until our stomachs hurt. And, on occasion, he would unleash his comedic timing on an unsuspecting Uncle Liam and cause him to spew beer from his nose, always a crowd pleaser! Uncles Glenn, Richard and Robert came in on Tuesday from the city. These were the three youngest, still out trying to make their fortune, and still unattached as far as we knew. Each day more and more family arrived, some squeezing into our house, but most billeted at the Holiday Inn near the expressway.

The Mass had been scheduled for Friday morning at St. Kate’s (Katherine), with a viewing and a reading set for the night before at the funeral home. The wake, minus the guest of honor thanks to the Governor of New York State, would be here at the house after the burial service at the Church’s cemetery. My Mother had planned the entire event herself, every detail, and had chosen the most moving music for the march from the Church to the grave. Since I was too small to help carry the casket, Mother had decided that I would walk ahead, leading the way. Mother and Shannon would follow behind Dad and his pallbearers, and everyone else would trail behind them. My Uncles and a close friend of Dad’s would have the honor of carrying him to his rest. My Dad’s friend looked a little surprised when he learned the details of the processional, discovering that he would be required to wear the traditional Irish kilt and frock coat as a pallbearer. Mother whispered to him discretely as he listened, warning him not to refer to the kilt as dress lest there be a need to carry two bodies that day!

By Wednesday, I was quite tired of the smell of ham, cabbage and boiled potatoes. I longed for a plate of spaghetti and meatballs or some macaroni and cheese, or better still a chilidog from Nathan’s in Atlantic City! Just when I thought that the only answer would be a hunger strike, Uncle Chuck came to the rescue. He showed up at the door with bags and bags of cheeseburgers and fries, and a box full of chocolate milkshakes from some new hamburger place called McDonald’s. And, just before bedtime, Uncle Chuck came through again when the house erupted in laughter during the retelling of my Father’s flatulent episode during his christening back in Ireland. Uncle Liam lost control and spewed beer from his nose when Uncle Chuck did his impression of the bubbles surfacing from the Holy Water in the presence of His Eminence. I could hear my Mother laughing loudest of all, and I took this smile to my room with me and had the first restful sleep in days.

We spent most of Thursday preparing for the viewing and reading scheduled for later in the day at the funeral home. Uncle Liam was planning to recite, ‘Johnny we hardly knew ye,’ and Mom had a poem by Emily Dickinson that she wanted to share. I had struggled all week with what to share myself and finally settled on my Father’s favorite Psalm (23), the one that began, "…The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want..." I knew it was short, but I wasn’t certain I could get up in front of God and family without breaking down, so short was good, very good. As it turned out however, it was at the viewing and the reading service where most of the tears are shed at a typical Irish ceremony. So nobody really noticed me blathering through half of King David’s beautiful Psalm. The Mass and burial are usually where everyone wears a stone face and walks through the ceremony with the dignity of royalty. The wake afterward is where all the emotions come out, but then that’s because most of the people are good and pissed by the time all of the toasting, remembering, and story telling is done.

I woke up early before everyone else on Friday morning. Today we would lay my Father to rest. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and swung my legs out from under the covers. Uncle Robert was sleeping soundly and snoring softly on the rollaway bed in the corner of my room. I almost yelled out when my bare feet touched the icy cold wood floor. My Uncle liked to sleep with the window open and December in Albany can get pretty darn frigid! I threw on some clothes and warm socks, grabbed my sneakers and tipped toed out the door. The house was full of sleeping relatives, and I was glad because they kept Mom busy and her mind occupied. Passing through the living room and into the kitchen, I opened the fridge and took a long drink from the milk bottle. I looked around guiltily; wiping my mouth on my sleeve, making sure my Mother was standing behind me, SAFE! Feeling pretty sure of myself, I took another long drink and replaced the cap on the bottle, putting it back into the refrigerator and closing the door silently.

I took a peek out into the back yard and gazed at the spot where Dad used to lay in the grass. This morning it was covered with fresh snow, and I smiled to myself, suddenly having a great idea. Making my way around the sleeping bags and cots, I went into the dining room and opened the sliding glass door. It was freezing outside, and I was instantly chilled to the bone. I closed the door quickly after I went out into the yard, my breath creating a cloud around me as it met the cold air. I stamped my feet hard on the ground a couple of time to jump-start my circulation and then ran over to Da’s spot in the lawn. Hoping I could do this thing without getting frostbite, I looked up into the clear morning sky, and I could see all the way to heaven I thought. Then smiling broadly I shouted at the top of my lungs, “Can you hear me Da?”

“Look, tis for you sir,” I hollered, dropping flat on my back and waiving my arms and legs in jumping jack like movements, making the grandest snow angel ever. This was brilliant I thought to myself! Sure as there is a God in Heaven, my Father and Jesus himself must be dancing a jig right now, arm in arm right, marveling at this grand sight. And my Father would be saying to him.

“Will you look at that Jesus, didn’t I tell you my son was a pistol”

“ETHAN, are you daft boy, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Uncle Liam hollered from the open sliding glass door, standing there in his boxers and undershirt.

“Get your tail in here before you catch your death!” he shouted again, motioning me over to him with his skinny accountant’s arm. Winking at the sky, I waived to my Uncle and said I would be right along. I jumped up to do what I was told, shaking off the cold snow and jogging toward the door. On the way I thought it just may be possible to freeze one’s butt off! It sure felt that way at the moment.

After a truly grand breakfast of eggs and sausages, fried potatoes, and some juice and cocoa, I found myself back in my room trying to figure out how to wear this stupid kilt. I had seen my Da wear them on occasion, but never really thought much about them beyond how nerdy they seemed, and hoping that I would never have the occasion to wear such a thing. I was mostly worried that my knickers would be hanging out for all to see, I mean we would be out in public after all. Uncle Robert was already dressed and fixing the wool cap on his head, studying his look in the mirror. He saw me holding the kilt in front of me with one hand and my clean underpants in the other.

“Don’t worry Ethan, you’ll not be turning cartwheels at Mass, no one will see son, no one will see” I must have had a funny look on my face because he laughed out loud. He walked by me and messed up my hair.

“You’ll figure it out boy!” he laughed as he went by me towards the kitchen for some coffee.

I stood there a minute longer before the light came on. I blushed a little and then smiled to myself, it all made perfect sense if you thought about it in a practical way. So, I went about getting dressed in the heavy woolen kilt, the white dress shirt and the short black frock coat. I sat on the bed and pulled on the long, heavy and colorful wool stockings, and adjusted the orange tassels that fell from the spats. I finished lacing my shoes and then went out into the hall looking for someone to help me with my tie. Mother caught sight of me as she came out of her room, and she quickly put her hand to her mouth, stifling a gasp. Her eyes became wet with tears and she stamped her foot.

“Darn it Ethan Andrew, you look just like your Father!” She walked over to me and smudged my forehead with a kiss. Then she wet a face towel that she was holding with saliva and wiped away the mark. I gave her the tie and she fixed it for me just as she had for Dad so many times in the past.

“Well now, that should do it, are you ready?” she asked, taking the same towel and dabbing her eyes.

“Yes maam, I am maam” I answered.

We walked into the living room and everyone was either standing or sitting, all of them waiting for the word to start off to the Church. My sister Shannon was sitting on Uncle Glenn’s lap, uncharacteristically silent with so many available people to pester. She was dressed in her Sunday school clothes, complete with a black scarf and little black handbag. She also had Buster with her, and I looked back at Mother and she nodded approvingly. I was glad, I would be busy at the service and would not be able to sit with her and keep her quiet.

“Shall we all make our way now?” Mother said to one and all, as she pulled the black veil across her face. With that being said everyone started for the door and out to the waiting cars.

The Mass was long as usual and hard on the knees with all the praying and genuflecting. I was sitting with the pallbearers, my Uncles and Dad’s friend, in the first row on the left side of the Church. The knee rest on our row squeaked every time we knelt and rose, and I was certain that Father McKenzie would be frowning at me whenever I looked up, he was. I looked across the aisle and made eye contact with Shannon who was sitting with Mother and all of my Aunts and cousins. She stuck out her tongue and wrinkled her nose, so all was well with her anyway. I knew we were nearing the end when the good Father walked around Dad’s casket sprinkling it with Holy Water.

When he finished his laps, Father McKenzie walked back up the steps to the altar, and turned to face the congregation. He raised his outstretched hands slowly, palms up and invited us all to stand. From the balcony high above the altar, a ‘bodhran’ sort of a tiny kettledrum began a slow steady beat, soft and light. Then a lone violin began to play a slow, soft, melodic tune, the drummer keeping time softly in the background. Uncle Liam tapped me on the shoulder lightly and pointed to the aisle way, indicating that I was to take my place at the foot of Da’s casket. Butterflies began to fly around in my stomach, and I fought the urge to retch. I walked calmly into the aisle, catching my Mother’s eyes as I did so. She smiled at me and all of my strength returned.

The violin continued with its beautiful melody and now a lone fife, whistling the same melodic tune in unison, the drummer still keeping time but just a little louder now, joined it. The pallbearers filed out behind me and took their places on either side of the bier. They all looked so grand in their kilts and frocks, standing around the coffin draped by the flag of Dad’s homeland. Everyone was watching us, and I suddenly realized just how many people were here today, I could feel those darn butterflies again. The music became louder still, as a few more instruments joined the others playing the same sweet melody. The fifes, penny whistles, and piccolos were haunting as they enhanced the sweetness of the strings, there were two drummers now and the music was becoming a march.

I looked back in time to see Da’s brothers and his good friend lift up his casket, and place it onto their shoulders. Each of them then folded their white-gloved hands in front of their bodies and Uncle Liam nodded at me to begin the slow march up the aisle leading the way to the waiting hearse. I turned and looked at all of the people, swallowed the lump in my throat and started the one step, pause, next step, pause march, keeping in time with the music that was filling the Church. With every step the music seemed to get louder, fuller, and richer. I was there and I was not there, it felt more like a dream than real life. I looked ahead at the stained glass in the front of the Church, and the sunlight made all of the colored figures come to life. As we passed row after row, I felt everyone’s stare, and I thought I might pass out right then and there. When out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of my mates, all them dressed in their Sunday best, and none of them laughing at me, or pointing and making faces. Kenny reached out and touched me on the arm reassuringly as I passed, and that steadied me enough to finish.

The pallbearers loaded Da into the hearse, and we all followed in a slow walk to the cemetery. Shannon and I stood on either side of our Mother, each holding a hand. She wore black gloves and I remember thinking, well, it’s cold out today. The snowplows had cleared a path from the drive to the gravesite, and mercifully, the weather was supportive. After the pallbearers set the casket next to the hole in the earth, Father McKenzie continued with the graveside service.

It was short and sweet, and my Mother accepted the folded Irish flag as well as the American flag for Da’s service in Korea. Shannon touched his casket with her little gloved hand and then blew him a kiss skyward. Each of my Uncles took their turn saying their goodbyes, and then all five of them knelt beside the grave, held hands and prayed the rosary together, my Uncle Richard’s voice cracking slightly. Finally, it was my turn to say farewell, and I walked over to him and placed both hands on the coffin. I leaned forward, kissed the shiny lacquered wood, and could not resist the temptation to knock lightly on the top, just in case. Then from the inside pocket of my frock coat I pulled out three cards. I held them close to me and then whispered something that only my Father could hear. When I finished whispering my secret message, I placed them all on top of the coffin in this order, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Berra. I could let go now; I knew he wouldn’t be alone. I walked back towards my family, whistling softly to myself, I knew I would not be alone either.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

(“time is on my side, yes it is...”…Rolling Stones)

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration

 Chapter Two

Albany, New York, September 1964

The country was just climbing out of its blue funk since the death of President Kennedy. The British had invaded the airwaves and the race to space was on! But like most teenagers, I was only thinking of myself for now. Nervous about the coming semester, Ethan Kelly’s first year in High School, I worried about all the little things. About not fitting in, about my ears being too big, about my hair being too short, about gym and the communal showers, YIKES! The summer seemed to drag on endlessly even though my folks had done their best to fill it up with the usual family activities and outings.

There was the “Flag Day” barbecue in June at Uncle Liam’s farm in Lancaster County. This was always a big gathering, but hard to fit in among the Amish and the Mennonites and their odd customs and traditions. It was awkward enough being Irish Catholic in the land of the plain peoples, but those frocks they wore, oh my gosh, surely they knew that it was the sixties now, had they never heard of the Beatles? Then of course, there was the big Fourth of July gala that Mother organized each year. Everyone always managed to have a great time at that soirée! It was my favorite of the annual shindigs.

This year’s bash was a particularly memorable event, as it would go into my journal as the year I kissed my first girl. Truth be told, kissing wasn’t the only first experience I had that day. As it turned out, on this particular afternoon of carnal exploration, my neighbor Sandy Pulchoski, an early bloomer, would prove to be quite an enthusiastic tour guide, well beyond my wildest imaginings. Ahh, there are advantages of having a college age sister who still lived at home. Suffice to say that I learned some new terminology with regard to female undergarments, specifically the subtle difference of hooks versus snaps. By the way, for you curious nubies out there, if you can snap your fingers, you have a running start at ‘second base’. I also learned that caressing is good and inspires enthusiastic participation, while pinching is bad and results in a loud ‘HEY’ followed by a sock in the beezer! Another interesting discovery and surprise bonus was that Sandy’s retainer could be removed for certain shall we say emergencies, my, my, my.

Finally, the annual trip to summer camp in early August up at Lake George came and went without much fanfare. Not that I didn’t enjoy the swimming and hiking and baseball (always loved the baseball), as well as the horsing around with all my pals, Mikey, Kenny, Paul, Sparky, and of course J. Cullen Wainwright Hollenbeck IV (nerd), that stuff was always cool. And although this should have been Nirvana for any normal fourteen-year old boy, for me, well, somehow I just knew that I was about to enter a scary new and world. I had no idea how prophetic that feeling would turn out to be.

Fate happened to be riding along with me as we made our way back home, traveling Rt. 9 and then Interstate 87 through the beautiful blue Adirondack Mountains in that old white jalopy of a school bus from O’Sullivan’s camp. Life up and slapped me good and hard the minute I waved off the driver and started up the walkway to the house. My kid sister Shannon ran up to me crying, dragging my teddy bear ‘Buster’ by his ragged little arm. She always slept with it whenever I was away from home. With mother and Dad both working at the dry cleaners they owned 14 hours a day, I was responsible for taking care of her needs. Shannon was a doll, pretty and precocious, only 5 years old and so excited about starting Kindergarten this year.

“Peepers,” she cried as she leaped into my arms, nearly knocking me over and making me drop my duffel bag. My family has always called me peepers because of my blue eyes. The rest of the family being dark haired and brown eyed. Dad liked to tease Mom about me looking more like the milkman then himself.

“Peepers, mommy is crying and daddy is berry thick.”

Shannon had a slight lisp and even though the mood was dark I could not help smiling, she was just too cute. We went inside together and mother met us in the foyer, and five minutes later, I was up to date with all the bad news. This would be a pivotal time in my life, it would be the year my father, Edward Lee Kelly, would be diagnosed with the cancer. This would be the year that I would learn about great loss, and sacrifice, about love and hate, and about the path, my life would follow. These lessons, that usually take years to manifest themselves, would unfortunately hit me one after the other with a machine gun like cadence. The long summer spent anticipating the shiny start of a new chapter in my life, in a new school, in a new era, suddenly dimmed with the realization that it was no longer all about me.

My mother kissed me on the forehead, then wet her thumb and removed the smudge that her lipstick left behind. She picked up my sister and started walking towards the kitchen. I knew that she would get her a glass of milk and an oatmeal cookie or two to help soften the blow as she explained what all of this really meant to us.

“Come on Peepers, Mommy wait for Ethan!” Shannon pleaded.

“I’ll be there in a minute Squirt,” I said to her.

Mom waived and smiled weakly then continued on to the kitchen with Shannon. I stood alone in the foyer for a moment longer. The house seemed quieter than usual, and I was feeling kind of silly standing there all by myself. I wondered if Dad was home, but thought not, because I didn’t hear the TV or his whistling. Dad always whistled to himself whenever he was working or puttering around the house. Usually it was “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” or ‘With a little Bit of Luck’ from ‘My Fair Lady‘. No matter what he chose mother would wince and wrinkle her nose shouting “Darn it Eddy, must you torture everyone with that confounded noise!”

And, given the time of year, nine times out of ten there would be a Yankee game playing in the background. Dad loved the Yanks, loved the ‘Yankee Clipper’ and ‘Mantle’ and laughed out loud at ‘Yogi’. Truth be told, he loved the ‘Splendid Splinter’ (Ted Williams) as well. However, because he was a Red Sock, my Father had to hate him officially! Today there was none of the normal, comforting sounds that made this house a home.

I walked through the living room past the Colonial furniture rich with all the deep polished maple wood color, reflecting the sunlight as it shone through the bay window. The television was not on and the room was empty except for an open book, upside down resting on Dad’s big armchair. His reading glasses were on the table next to the chair, along with his pipe rack. The odd thing about these items was that Dad would always remove his glasses whenever anyone entered the room, still suffering from the sin of pride. And, as for the pipes, well, he didn't smoke. He just liked the way they looked in the fancy sculpted rack.

“I can look grand without actually taking up the nasty habit,” he would say.

“Besides Sonny, this way your Mother will kiss me more often,” he would tease.

“That’s good advise boy, you’ll thank me for that one later in life” he’d chuckle to himself.

He always poked me in the stomach with his finger whenever he told me that, and I would blush and squeal “Ahhh, Da!” I loved my Father, and although he was stern and proper, and shy about showing too much affection for fear of appearing weak and easy, in these little exchanges he always showed me that he loved me back. At least that's how I always looked at it.

I walked into the hall and went towards my parent’s room. The door was ajar and I could hear no noise as I placed my ear near it. I tapped lightly on the door and called out.

“Are you in there Da?” No answer, I knocked a little harder.

“Da, are you in there sir?” Still no sound, so I went inside to take a look around, and see what I could see. The room was empty. The four-poster bed was made up neatly, hospital corners and all, with nary a wrinkle on the pastel colored comforter. My mother was a stickler for neatness, so I was accustomed to the museum like appearance of the room. Everything in its place, not even a stray hair in the brush on her dressing bureau. Dad’s suit was already laid out on the dressing rack for Monday morning. His Oxford wingtips neatly placed underneath with a fresh pair of argyle socks across the shoes. Even the laces had been tucked neatly under the tongue, and not left to hang sloppily over the side like some commoner’s. As I said, my mother was a stickler. Years later I would discover in school that there was a term for this behavior, but I could never use that word in her presence lest I treasured the taste of Lifebouy!

Satisfying myself that he was not anywhere nearby, I headed for my room to unpack my duffel bag. Then it occurred to me, whenever my father was struggling with something, he always went into the backyard and lay down in the grass. He claimed that sunlight could cure anything mental or physical. I had tried this myself on several occasions, and darned if he wasn’t right. Tossing my duffel onto my bed, I raced for the sliding glass door in the dining room making for the yard.

ETHAN ANDREW KELLY, you get back here this instant and close this door. Is it millionaires you think we are?” my mother hollered.

I quickly peeked past the hedges to see if my hunch was right, and it was, there was my father lying smack in the middle of the lawn, flat on his back, his hands folded behind his head. Wearing his usual weekend uniform of blue jeans, white tee shirt and “smiley” sneakers, the one’s with the blue smile swooshed across the toe like a big grin, Dad looked peaceful enough. I mean, he didn’t look any different, but my intuition was telling me that things were not as right as they seemed. I ran back to the house, peeked inside and winked at Shannon, who was coloring at the table, eating an oatmeal cookie. Then I carefully closed the sliding glass door and returned to my hunt for Dad.

Walking slowly towards where my father was resting I stopped for a minute at the edge of the lawn next to the driveway. I looked over at the garage and noticed that the car hadn't been parked all the way inside. If I were playing basketball, I would not be able to finish a lay-up as the rear bumper was directly under the hoop. I made a mental note to ask Dad if I could finish parking the car, I was a teenager after all! Turning my attention back to my father, I noticed that he was sitting up now, his arms hugging his knees, and he was looking my way. He squinted in the bright sunlight and motioned for me to come over to him. All of the sudden there was a lump in my throat and I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. SHOOT, I didn’t want him to see acting like a baby. I pretended to sneeze and used the opportunity to rub my eyes dry and wipe my face with my shirtsleeve. Dad was smiling as I walked up to him, and he held up his left hand toward me.

“Help your old man up Sonny,” he said.

I took hold of his hand and he pulled himself up, making that sound that all Dads make when they get up from so far down.

“Ah, you’re a good boy Ethan, a good boy son” he said rubbing his lower back with both hands.

“How was camp, did you have a grand time?”

“It was fine sir, I did sir.”

“Well, that’s good, a boy your age should have all kinds of fun in the summertime” he said smiling.

“Yes sir, thank you sir,” I said uneasily.

“That’s enough of the sirs’ son. Let’s just be Dad and Ethan the rest of the day, OK?” he asked mussing my hair.

“Sure Da, that’ll be swell,” I said smiling back for real.

“Your mother, she talk to you did she?”

“Yes Da, she did,” I replied, feeling the lump coming back in my throat, I swallowed hard.

“Yeah, I guess she would at that,” he said frowning slightly.

“Ethan! Why run over to the garage and fetch the mitts and a baseball. Let’s have us a catch, just you and me,” he said gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb.

“Sure Da, I’ll be back in a jiffy!” I said, and started jogging toward the garage.

“We can chat while we toss the baseball son, there are things I need to share with you,” Dad said as I ran past him. The words hit me like arrows in the back, and I tripped over my own feet, falling down clumsily. I skidded along the concrete on my knees, tearing a small hole in my jeans, and leaving a decent sized strawberry on my right leg.

“I’m OK Da, didn’t hurt,” I yelled back at my father as I jumped up and ran into the garage.

While I composed myself, I searched for the gloves and the baseball, finding them finally at the bottom of an old, rusty wheel barrel, under a bag of grass seed. I stuffed the gloves under my arm and palmed the ball, then trotted back out to stand with my Dad. He took his glove, and put it on while I ran across the yard and stood near the back fence. Dad tossed the ball to me, high and outside, but still with the usual zip on it. At least he seemed like his old self. I could see my mother in the kitchen window, she was watching us, and I noticed that she crying. Dad looked back over his shoulder at the house, and Mother quickly looked down at the sink, so he didn’t notice her tears. It was at this moment when I realized just how tough all of this was going to be, on everyone.

We tossed the baseball back and forth while Dad retold the story of the day he was at Yankee Stadium and Mickey Mantle hit one out of the park! After a few other such stories he laid out to me the whole situation of his illness, at least as he understood it. The words were kind but the message was harsh and uncomfortably certain. As he talked to me, he kept reassuring me that it was still his belief that God was just. With the sound of conviction in his voice, and true passion in his eyes, he tried to pass on his deep faith. With each passing moment the distance between us closed, until we no longer needed to toss the ball, we just kept handing it back and forth. When he was through, when the words were all out, he set his glove on the grass in front of him. He spread his arms wide and invited me in for a hug.

That opened the flood gates, I could hold it in no longer. I wasn’t ready to be a man just yet. I ran to my father and he picked me up like I was a six-year-old, hugging the stuffing right out of me with his powerful arms. I wrapped my skinny legs around him like I did when I was a small boy, and cried on his shoulder quietly, trying not to sob. He held me for a long time and when he set me down he said, “Well, we’ve got that out our system now. And we’ve a man’s job ahead of us Ethan. Let’s see if we can tackle this like Kelly’s, are you game son?” I looked up at him, his eyes were dry, but they were still red. He was smiling at me again and he held out his hand for me to take as a grown-up would.

“Yeah Da, like Kelly’s, I can do that” and I took his hand and squeezed it as hard as I could, a real man’s handshake, like I had seen he and his brothers exchange at every family gathering.

“OK, OK, enough dawdling you two, are you going to lollygag out there all day?” my mother yelled from the house.

“Shake a leg now, my supper’s turning to ice before my very eyes!”

“We'll be in straight away Maggie, don’t get your knickers in a twist my sweet,” Dad said laughing. He picked up his glove and tossed it to me.

“Put this back where you found it and then come in and wash up boy” he said running towards the house, chasing after my mother as she giggled like a schoolgirl. I smiled big through my tears, watching my father scoop up Shannon and then chase my mother around the table. I already missed him, but there wasn’t any time for that, it was time for me to grow up.

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