Friday, August 24, 2012

Carpeting

I toured the empty rooms one last time. There were the drops of nail polish – in Barbie pink – that were never removed. Over there, the horrible dark oily stain of a lava lamp gone rogue. Foot prints, cleat prints, tap shoe prints… they were all there. The ugly faded beige carpeting in the upstairs bedrooms that held so many memories had arrived at its final day. Old and worn when we moved in 18 years ago, the carpet was washed and vacuumed insistently in a futile attempt to return to its once glamorous days. It never did. Rather, it served as the setting for innumerous doll plays and Lego buildings for one season, and later on for laying on to listen or play music, whisper with friends and do homework. The ugly carpet has held onto those memories as it did dog hair and dust. By a corner is a coffee stain left by a now deceased grandmother, next to the windowsills is oopsie paint blotches of an art project, and yet in another spot are the burn marks by a forgotten hair straightener. A young man gingerly pulls up a swath of the carpeting and rolls it up to one side, and the past unravels just a bit more and fades a little further. Soon, the floors will gleam with newly polished hardwood. No longer will I be able to stealthily tip toe into the rooms, the wood floors echoing our every steps. Goodbye, horrible carpet. I’ve dreamt of this day for so long! But first, let me take a moment to honor the memories, the secrets, the stories you witnessed and absorbed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Go Lakers!

I’ve never had fine china or crystal. My cupboards are filled with a mish mash of comfortably used and familiar crockery. There’s the chipped Peter Rabbit bowl in which I mixed my children their first baby cereal, a favorite coffee mug my sister gave me…well, you get the picture. I won’t be asked to entertain the folks from Downton Abbey any time soon.

Tucked in the glass cupboard though stands an odd piece, odd even for me. It’s a tall drinking glass with a gaudy Lakers logo – basketball and all. It was obviously a gas station giveaway when gas stations still did that sort of thing. But there it is. And I find it so comforting knowing it is there and will use it when I need an extra dose of grounding.

I’m not sure how this glass came to arrive in our home, but a few days after our eldest daughter was born, my grandmother came to visit. One of the first things she did was march into the kitchen, select the Lakers glass and announce to the world, “This is my glass. Nobody drink from it or you’ll get old”. Although a strange pronouncement to many, this was expected in my family. Wherever Abuelita (little Grandmother) went, she claimed items. Drinking glasses or cups, a towel, a comb. After observing her for a bit, I realized she would scope out whatever item seemed seldom used, old or odd, and set it aside.

Abuelita’s reasoning was that she was old and somehow or another, she didn’t want us catching it. Standing at about 4 and a half feet, she would greet us children with a kiss on the top of our heads. If you were taller that her, then she would kiss you wherever her face met your body. That meant getting kissed on the stomach, arm, chest, or the hand. If you made the mistake of leaning down to get a kiss on the cheek, she would protest and then scold, “What? You want an old lady kiss and get old like this?” And she was a master at squirming from getting your kiss on her cheek. She’d offer us her forearm, a sleeve even.
Abuelita also shrouded herself with Maja talcum powder, in an effort to cover up her “old lady smell”, convinced that somehow or another her aging would speed up ours.

For the longest time I couldn’t understand my Abuelita’s fear and shame of being old. And then one day as I watched her playing “house” with my then 3 year old, I stumbled onto a possible explanation.
Perhaps Abuelita was not so much disdainful of aging as she was enthralled and protective of youth.

By the time Abuelita was in her late teens, she’d run off with a much, much older man and begun a family. The seven children she had came quickly, one after another. Before she’d had a chance to notice her own growing up, her house became even fuller with the sound of grandchildren. Abuelita went from being a na├»ve 16 year old to a grandmother in a blink of an eye. Is it any wonder she marveled at our youth? She finally had a chance to see it up close and study it, and there was no way she wanted to mar it. Even if it meant drinking out of a tacky gas station gifted cup or drying her hands on the rattiest towel in the house.

I love my Lakers glass. It’s a little piece of Abuelita who has been gone many years now. She left her mark on us all – all seven of her children, her many grandchildren, scores of great-grandchildren and now great-great-grandchildren.
The way our family rallies around each other, dropping everything for the one who is faltering. She taught us that.
The way our women are stronger than strong, determined, feisty and resilient. She gave us that.
The way we lean on God, confident in a faith we do not pretend to understand. She lived that.

It dawns on me that I am now the age Abuelita was when I first remember her in my life.
And so I drink from her cup.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dreaming Bahamian

Today is Michael’s birthday. He must be 17 years old now. I see the reminder on my electronic calendar, put there by my better half. He also has made note of Natasha and Shelley’s birthdays as well. A simple reminder, a little detail, but it’s a dagger in my heart. A wound that although scarred over, still aches.

Six years ago our little family joined several other members of our church on a mission trip to the Bahamas. Before you begin picturing sandy beaches and palm trees swaying to the beat of calypso music, let me emphasize “mission” trip. We were on our way to a week at All Saints AIDS Camp, a once leper colony now converted to housing for Bahamian AIDS sufferers.

The place was located in a desolated area outside of Nassau, with a checkpoint at the entrance to ensure safety, I suppose. The camp itself was a collection of ramshackle wood shelters that housed one, sometimes two adults. The men were separated from the women, but all ages were mixed. These were the forgotten. Here was the hemorrhaging woman, the paralytic by the pool, the Samaritan woman by the well. People arrived at the camp not necessarily by choice, but usually dropped off by family members or friends once the diagnosis was given. AIDS is a cruel disease. In the Caribbean, it is hateful. Many people still believe you can catch the virus by breathing the same air or touching an infected person. So here, at All Saints Camp were the diseased, the ostracized and the reviled.

We arrived with children in tow, men and women ready to take on what we could. We scrubbed their kitchen, weeded their stony gardens, cooked meals, and repaired what structures we could – all in what seemed to be bazillion degrees. We sponge bathed some of the residents, and washed and braided hair. We took them for walks (those who were ambulatory), planned a party with cake and ice cream and spent time in their suffocating rooms listening to their stories.

We anticipated all this. We felt called to serve this community in this way at this time.

What we could not have imagined was that we would also fall in love while there.

You see, the camp housed children as well. Some were HIV positive, some were there with a parent, some abandoned. Michael, Natasha and Shelley were siblings ages 9, 7 and 5. They had different dads, but their mom had been a resident of the camp. HIV positive, she had a problem with drug addiction and prostitution, and so had been asked by the camp director to either clean up her act or leave. She chose to leave. And left her babies behind.
When we met the children, we played and talked and cuddled. Oh, how they loved to cuddle. At first shyly and then with increasing confidence, they would follow us around asking to help, asking for a hug, asking about our lives back home and yes, asking for yet another hug.
After a week, my better half and I knew what we needed to do. We didn’t really even have to talk about it, we arrived at the same conclusion and voiced it to one another almost simultaneously. We wanted to look into the possibility of adopting the children.
Although the time to go home cam quickly, we promised to keep in touch and so we did. And began the process of formal adoption. Another trip to see the children was made which included taking them for a full medical workup and beginning all the paperwork with a Bahamian attorney.
The children were excited, we were thrilled and our daughters began to make plans for welcoming their new little brother and sisters.

After three intense months of constant negotiations with embassies, physicians and lawyers, the children’s mother surfaced and claimed her children. Through a local attorney she made it known to us that she would be willing to “sell” us her children for specified amount.

And that was that.

Just as quickly, the door slammed shut. The conversation ended with her demands. The possibility evaporated when she suddenly picked the children up from the camp she had abandoned them as infants and disappeared.

Although we tried every way we could, we never were able to track Michael, Natasha and Shelley down. But we never forget. We never forget the three children who could have been raised in our home, children we love deep in our hearts and whose names we whisper in our prayers.

I try to imagine myself with a 17-year-old son and two little girls in the throes of adolescence. And I can’t. It’s almost as if God wiped that bit of my imagination away so as to soften the blow.

But that’s okay. I’ve learned to let go. And yet I’m still silently singing happy birthday to dear Michael, Natasha and Shelley. And always will.