About me and this blog

I was born on a native reserve in Ontario, grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island (as far west as you can go without running out of Canada), came of age in Mexico City. Between times, I lived in the Fraser Valley, Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma, Bella Coola, on the BC north coast, and the Fraser River Delta, just south of Vancouver. For now, I'm "settled" in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.

I have a boatload of stories to tell. These are some of them.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Days 11 to 13


Days 11 to 13: The road back.

(Day 1, here)

The dogs' barking woke me long before dawn. They echoed all around us in the dark, and I was frightened at first, until I was able to distinguish between them and estimate distances. Over on the hillside, a pack kept up a shrill yammering. Closer in, below us in the ruined city, the voices were more isolated. One howled, and the others picked up the chorus. A burro brayed, close by.

Raquel and I were sleeping side by side at one end of our campsite, for propriety's sake. The men were out of sight, beyond the car. I could hear them talking, and after a few minutes George came over.

"Get up," he said. We're leaving. Now."

We were well out of the Managua basin when the sun rose. We stopped for breakfast by the side of the road. Just the perfect place, Carlos said. Far enough out of the city for fugitives to feel safe, close enough for them to have walked here. They must be all around us, sleeping in the fields. A perfect place for us to distribute the rest of our food; there wasn't much left, but it made no sense to carry it home.

"But there's nobody around," I said. "How will anybody know we're here?"

"We'll just sit here. They'll show up."

While we waited, Carlos opened the tailgate and arranged the foodstuffs on it, with a couple of cups to scoop out powdered milk and rice. Then he crawled back to delve into his duffel bag, and brought out a handful of multi-coloured plastic gloves.

"What are those for?" Raquel asked.

"For explaining the gospel. I'll show you." He put a glove on his left hand, held it up. Each finger was a different colour, and on the palm was written, "God loves you." Carlos pointed to the thumb. "It's black," he said. "That helps you to explain that our hearts are black with sin. Next is red, for the blood of Christ. You keep pointing to it, while you tell about the crucifixion, and how Jesus' blood washes us clean. That's the next finger; white. And the fourth is yellow, for gold. The streets of gold, you know?"

"And the little finger, why is it green?"

"Green is for growth. That's for after you have prayed with the person, and they have accepted Jesus. Then you can teach them that they are babies in Christ, and need to read their Bible and pray every day so that they can grow.

"What we'll do, one of us will dole out food, and the others will talk to the people that show up." He handed each one of us a glove.

I gave mine back. "I'll work on the food," I said. I went to the back of the station wagon and read the label on a powdered milk can. Half a cup would make one litre; we had enough for 50 to 60 litres. I decided I would give every person that came one cupful. If anyone showed up, that was.

When I looked up, the others had decided on stations; Paco and George at the front and rear on the driver's side of the car, Raquel and Carlos on the right. They would be able to speak to four people at once, without interference. Carlos had his Bible open on the engine hood, and was drilling Raquel in the use of the glove. A woman was walking across the field, heading our way.

We got busy soon after that; the first woman was joined by a couple of children, then a trickle of families. Soon we were surrounded. I counted out oranges, ladled powdered milk into cups and recycled cans. Someone had passed on the news, with the instruction; "Bring your own container." The last pair of kids got only an almost-empty milk can. The little girl hugged it tightly with both arms as she walked back across the field.

As soon as the food was gone, people stopped coming. I left the empty orange crate by the side of the road and closed the tailgate. Carlos finished his last recounting of the glove -- with the yellow finger, I noticed -- and the man he had been talking to took the crate and escaped. We got into the car and drove away from there.

Carlos was bubbling over. "We must have talked to 40 people!" he said. "Maybe 50! They all heard the gospel, maybe for the first time!"

"Did anybody pray with you?" Paco asked.

"No. You?"

Paco shook his head. In the front seat, Raquel turned to face us. "Nobody." George was driving; he gave no sign that he had heard the question.

Carlos' enthusiasm wasn't easily dampened. "It doesn't matter," he said. "God's word is never preached in vain. He's promised that.

Besides, we are not responsible for the results of what we do; we did what God told us and that's what counts."

He leafed through his Bible. "Look what Paul says about it," he said. He started to read. I stopped listening. I was thinking of the girl with the milk can and wondering what she would do for milk tomorrow.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The rest of the trip back to Mexico was uneventful. Our empty station wagon breezed through customs. We crossed the worst of the war zone in daylight, so we drove through the night, Carlos and George rotating every four hours or so. We picked up the boys in Guatemala City and drove on immediately. No shopping, no side-trips.

In the evening of the first day we heard on the radio that there had been a small after-shock that morning in Managua. "I knew it!" Carlos said. Once again, God had led us, getting us out of the city on time.

The radio announcer said that there were no fatalities, no new damage. Still, there could have been.

I was glad we were making good time. George had abandoned all pretense of politeness towards Carlos, refusing to speak to him, and occasionally fixing him with an angry glare. While he drove, he talked only to Raquel. The rest of the time, he slept, or pretended to be asleep. I was embarrassed for him; as a minister, he was supposed to be the spiritual leader.

I tried to cover up by keeping a conversation going in the back seat, but we were always falling into awkward silences. It was easier once we'd picked up my boys; Marcos and James maintained a constant chatter.

Something he ate had disagreed with Paco. By the time we got to the Mexican border, we were having to stop every little while for him to be sick. Raquel fussed over him, helping him to wash up, asking every few minutes, "Are you feeling better yet, Paco?"

The answer was always, "No." As soon as we reached a decent-sized town in Mexico, Raquel insisted that we take Paco to the doctor.

We found a clinic just off the town plaza. The waiting room was a long hallway with a few wooden benches along one wall. Every seat was taken, but a woman shooed her kid off, to let Paco sit down. Raquel knelt beside him on the floor. "Hold on, Paco. We'll have you fixed up soon," she said. Carlos went to talk to the receptionist.

It was too hot to wait in the car, so George and I stood just outside the doorway, where the overhang made a few inches of shade. The boys played in the cobblestoned street. A man leaning against the wall a few metres away pushed himself upright and came to meet us.

"Buenas tardes," he said, extending a hand. "Pablo Jimenez, at your service. Are you new in town, or just passing through?"

"On our way to Mexico City, coming from Nicaragua." George answered. Which led into a discussion of what we had been doing there, and why. Within minutes, Sr. Jimenez had identified himself an a Jehovah's Witness, and we had embarked on a heated discussion of the Trinity. Jimenez proved to be well-trained, and I was relieved to see George revert to his normal self, eyes bright, hands waving, voice persuasive, as he launched himself into an explanation of the intricacies of Greek articles in the Gospel of John.

I hardly noticed when Carlos joined us. He listened for a while, then went to the car and came back carrying his Bible. When George paused for breath, Carlos stepped forward. "Look," he said to Sr. Jimenez, "I have it right here, in my Bible. The Spanish, and a Greek dictionary in back. See?" He held the Bible out, pages flapping.

George let Carlos take over the conversation, and after a few minutes went over to the car himself. He rummaged through the back, then waved me over. "Where's my Bible?" he called.

It was just an excuse. As soon as I was close enough, he said, "What's gotten into you? I've been watching you; you're flirting with Carlos."

"No!"

"Yes! And I won't have it, you hear?" He grabbed my arm, dug his fingers into the muscle. "Be careful! I'm watching you." He shook me once, released me, and picked up his Bible -- it was there on the seat all the time.

We went back to the shade, but George made no effort to reclaim the conversation. I was careful not to smile, not to look in Carlos' direction. When Paco and Raquel came out of the clinic and we went back to the car, George said to me, "You're sitting up front. Raquel can sit in back with Paco."

It was a long, miserable afternoon. Marcos and James sat in the back, and every time I spoke to them, I had to make sure I turned my head to the right, so as to avoid any appearance of looking at Carlos. We stopped for supper somewhere. George joked with the waitress, and with our boys. He refused to speak to anyone else. We drove on, in silence. The boys went to sleep.

"Talk to me, Susana. Keep me awake," George said. He had been driving all afternoon and evening; Carlos hadn't offered to take his turn.

I talked. About what, I don't know. Anything that sounded cheerful and harmless. George barely answered. I fiddled with the radio, and once we had crossed the mountains, I picked up George's favourite station. The music gave me an excuse to stop talking.

In Mexico City, we dropped Carlos and Paco off, wordlessly. I shook hands with Paco, and pretended not to see Carlos. We drove on. 40 miles left to go. Raquel dozed in the back seat.

The radio station went off the air, and I found another, playing American music. I remember a woman singing, "Fever." Later there was a new song, one I hadn't heard before. I didn't get all the words, but the chorus was repeated over and over. "Strumming my pain with his fingers, Singing my life with his words, Killing me softly with his song, Killing me softly..." The highway stretched in front of us, four empty lanes, the dotted line coming up smoothly to meet our headlights, the mountains black on either side.

We drove down into Toluca, along the sleepy streets. Raquel woke and got out at her house. Her parents bundled our girls into the back seat. We took them home.

The next Sunday George preached about the Christmas Eve earthquake, about the need to be ready at any moment to meet God.

I never saw Raquel again. She stopped coming to church, and dropped out of Bible Study. In Guatemala City, the next earthquake toppled the house where we had left my boys into the ravine.


Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001


Monday, May 21, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Day 10


Day 10: Somoza's "Palace"

(Day 1, here)

We still had a fair amount of food left, and someone at the hospital suggested that we take it to an orphanage. They were always in need of help, and now their sources had dried up. We went to the address they gave us first thing in the morning.

The building had suffered very little damage, and the children were still sleeping inside. They had no choice, the director said; they had no other place to go. They were glad of our supplies. We gave them most of what we had left.

"People are getting desperate, now," we had been told. "There is no food anywhere. Yesterday someone shot a farmer from the country who brought in some milk. Shot him and stole the milk. Be careful."

So it was a relief to unload the station wagon. We covered the remaining food, mostly powdered milk and oranges, with our blankets and bags. Carlos had replaced the signs, as well.

The director of the orphanage showed us around. It was an ordinary house, crowded with beds and cots, even in the hallways. A few of the cribs contained two babies each. "We are expecting more children soon," she said. "So many have lost their families. I don't know how we're going to manage." She stood by a crib, smoothing the hair of a toddler who clung to the rails, a repetitive motion that looked habitual. She wasn't watching the child, but rather staring blindly at the curtained window. "I don't know..." she repeated.

It was Carlos who came up with the idea. "We could adopt some," he said. "We could take them home to Mexico with us, we have space in the car. For four, at least. I can take one home to my mother, so can Paco, and George and Susana here would take one, wouldn't you, George? And Raquel has a big house and a big heart; she would take one home, too."

George glared at Carlos, then thought better of it and said, "Sure, we'd love to take an orphaned baby home." I nodded.

"That is so kind of you," the director said. "So kind. To know that four of our children, at least, will have a safe home... But to take them out of the country, you'd have to have permission. You'll have to go to the Presidential Palace to get an order from Somoza himself."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The road to Somoza's walled compound was lined with soldiers, standing, lounging, watching, leaning on rifles and engine hoods, waiting. Baked red dust covered everything, even the uniforms. When we halted at the guard station, the heat flooded the car; a dry, choking heat that seemed all the worse for the vision of green lawns just beyond the gate.

There were the usual questions; Who are you? Where are you from? What do you want?, the answers taken truculently, as if we were expected to lie. Finally the guard stepped back, and motioned with his rifle. "Go on. Over there."

"There" was a semi-circle of large canvas tents. American Army tents; stencils on the sides labelled them clearly. We parked and walked over. Inside the central tent, American soldiers sat at a long table. There were papers strewn over the table, but no-one seemed to be doing anything. A man at the end looked up and, in passable Spanish, asked our business. We explained. The others ignored us, and when we were passed on to the next soldier, he asked the same questions over again, as if he had not heard us the first time.

The next man, and the next. Same story, same feigned ignorance, same response: "Talk to him." Up the chain of command, until we were sent to a second tent, where one decorated official sat alone, guarded by two stiff soldiers at the tent flaps. He heard our story, steepled his fingers, and leaned back, considering. We stood humbly before him, five sweating, dusty foreigners asking for an audience with the supreme commander. Four Mexicans and one Canadian. The official looked us over one by one, always coming back to me. George, me, Carlos, me, Paco, me, Raquel, and me again. I was the one who didn't fit, who was raising suspicions. I should have stayed back at the hospital.

I was feeling light-headed, with the heat and the tension; I was probably very pale, except for the sunburn on my nose and forehead. I knew I didn't look dangerous. But it seemed to take hours before the official in front of us came to the same conclusion. At last, he put his hands back on the desk, and looked at one of the guards. "Take them out," he said in English.

He looked back at us. "Someone will see if General Somoza will talk to you. Wait."

Another soldier escorted us to a lawn in front of the Residence. "Esperen aqui," he said. (Wait here.) He went to lounge in the shade. We sat on the grass; it was cool under us, although the sun still beat down unmercifully on my head.

After a while Raquel went back to the car and brought out some lunch; more eggs and oranges, the last of our bread. Later a soldier brought us a pitcher of water to drink. I remember the ice cubes floating in it; they looked like heaven.

In mid-afternoon, Carlos said, "I know what's wrong here."

"What?"

"Why we're not getting in; we're trying to do this on our own. We haven't asked for God's blessing on our plans."

"But we prayed this morning, asking God to lead us," Raquel objected. "So we're doing what He wants."

"Sure, but we have to be in constant dependence on Him; ask for His help all along the way. And we haven't done that; we're just sitting here waiting for army officials to make the decisions."

So we formed a circle, there in the centre of the lawn, all five of us on our knees, heads bowed reverently. Carlos prayed, a brief, fervent prayer, asking God to move on the hearts of the soldiers and the President himself. George followed with more flowery language, but the same request. There was a brief silence; were we expected to pray around the circle? If so, Raquel was next. But she said nothing, and soon George said, "Amen," again, and stood up.

When a soldier came to get us a few minutes later, Carlos smiled at us all meaningfully.

The soldier led around the building to a small gate. He knocked, and we were admitted into a walled area around a large swimming pool. At the far end, a woman lay on a lounge chair, with a tall glass of something amber at her side. "Esperen aqui," the soldier said. Mercifully, this was the shady end. There were chairs and tables, but without an invitation we didn't dare use them; we stood.

The soldier went to speak to the woman, then went through another door, at her end of the pool. The woman showed no awareness of our presence. A maid came and refreshed her drink, went away again. We waited.

Our soldier came back, and spoke to the woman again, then came over to us. "Mrs. Somoza will speak to you now," he said. "One of you."

George stepped forward immediately, but the soldier pointed at Carlos. "You," he said.

It didn't take long; three minutes, four maybe. Carlos came back, and the soldier led us out, around the building, across the lawns and parking lots, back to the car. He stood watching alertly as we turned the car around and drove to the gate.

"Well?" George said, as soon as we were out of hearing.

"No. She said that it wouldn't be fair to the Nicaraguan people; their children are their only heritage. They can't allow them to be taken out of the country."

"But they'll starve here!" I blurted out. "And they're orphans! There's no-one to watch out for them!"

"I told her that," Carlos said. "She says that we have no guarantee that they're really orphans. When all this is over, maybe their parents will show up alive; then how would she answer them?"


To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Day 9


Day 9: Managua

(Day 1, here)

We discussed strategy in the morning, over stale rolls and instant coffee. Once we distributed our remaining food, we would have finished the task we had set out to do. We could go home.

But it seemed silly to make such an effort to get to Managua, and then just turn around and leave. There must be something useful we could do! While Raquel and I tidied away the breakfast things, the guys went to the hospital administration area for pointers, and came back with an address and a map of the city.

Gustavo Parejon, the leader of the Baptist relief effort, lived in a modern, airy house on the outskirts of Managua, well away from the devastated area. Sitting in his living room, sipping real coffee, I surreptitiously inspected the walls and ceiling for cracks. They looked solid. The tiled floor was smooth; no missing grout, no buckled areas.

Parejon must have noticed my scrutiny. "There's nothing to worry about," he said. "This house is properly built. Brickwork and rebar. It's earthquake-proof."

The problem in the centre of Managua, he explained, was that people insisted on building in the old way, with adobe and lath. Foolish, they were; this was the second time that the city had been leveled by a major quake. They should have known better. But no: he had already heard plans for rebuilding -- on the same site.

He and other Christian leaders were setting up an agency for recovery and change, Parejon said. CEPAD, they were calling it: The Evangelical Committee for Help and Development. They would work to channel funds to stimulate sensible re-construction, and to make bricks and mortar available even to the poor.*
CEPAD would be an interdenominational effort; he hoped all the Christian churches would get involved. "This will be a great testimony to the nation. After the miraculous events of the past week, people are more open to the gospel than ever before."

What miraculous events, we asked?

"You haven't heard?"

"Just what's on the radio."

"Ah, but the radio is owned by Catholics, they won't tell you this."

The earthquake struck late on the night of the 23rd, Parejon told us. It was the height of the pre-Christmas party season, and as usual, it was an occasion for sinning, instead of for remembering the birth of the Saviour. In the centre of the city, party-goers thronged the ballrooms and nightclubs, dancing and drinking. The hotels were full.

"And then," Parejon said, "without warning, they were swept into eternity. 70,000 people found themselves facing God, and they weren't ready."

The Christians, he said, were spared. Most of them were in their homes when the quake came, away from the dangerous centre of town. They scattered, fleeing to safer areas, and were initially counted as lost. But in the week since, the church leaders had been inquiring after their flocks, and almost all of them had been accounted for. Not one single death of an Evangelical church member had been confirmed. Even when the buildings around them collapsed, they escaped.

Parejon had heard of one man, a Christian on a business trip, who was sleeping in his hotel room when the roof caved in over his head. He woke up in the dark, and reached for the lamp on his night stand. There was no lamp, or night stand, either. A block of cement had flattened them. The man himself was untouched.

"The Bible says, 'A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come near thee,'" George quoted. "God takes care of His own!**

Carlos brought us back to the reason for our visit. What could Parejon tell us about relief work, he asked. We had a certain amount of food to distribute; did CEPAD have an outlet for it?

"No, we are not set up for that; our concern is with the rebuilding."

The interview was over. Parejon put his empty coffee cup on the end table and rose to his feet. "I'm sure you'll find something. God will lead you."

"Oh, one thing I should tell you," he added. "Don't take your food to the government authorities; they will just keep it for themselves. The Americans sent down a large shipment of food and tents and other supplies. Somoza3 gave it all to his friends, rich people who live in strong houses in the hills. You ought to drive around the area; you'll see.***

"If you want anything to get to the victims of the quake, you'll have to give it to them personally."

We drove back down into the ruined city. Partway, Carlos stopped the car and went back to delve into his duffel bag once more. He brought out a pair of signs, which he propped in the back windows; red crosses on a white background. "Just to keep the soldiers from stopping us," he said.

"But that's a Red Cross sign!" said George.

"Not quite; the proportions aren't the same."

"We'll get in trouble if they ask us for identification!"

"They won't. They never bother Red Cross workers. Besides, we're not saying we're Red Cross, are we?"

We went on. We parked in an area where most of the houses were still standing, and filled shopping bags with foodstuffs. Carlos gave us a handful of tracts each, to be given with the food. "Don't forget to tell people what we've just heard," he said. "God has given them a warning, and another chance."

I walked down a side street littered with shards of roofing tiles until I found a doorway standing open. A woman was sweeping the courtyard with a twig broom; a couple of ragged children stared at me another ran to hide behind her mother. I smiled at them. "Hello."

"Come in," the woman said.

There had been two rooms bordering on the courtyard, now there was one and a pile of rubble. A torn cloth, maybe an old sheet, was propped up on sticks to make a roof over a cot and a table. As I came across the courtyard, a man rose from the cot and came to meet me.

"What do you want?" he asked. His tone was polite, but cautious.

"I brought some food. To give you. If you want it. Oranges for the girls."

"Yes. Please." The caution was gone; the man and his wife were smiling broadly now. She came forward, and I filled her hands with oranges. I piled boiled eggs, three days old now, onto the table. A plastic bag full of powdered dry milk. Another one of oatmeal.

"Do you have a can opener?" I asked.

"A knife."

"That'll do." I put a couple of cans of Spam on the table.

The husband walked with me to the street door, thanking me over and over. Behind me, the children clustered around their mother and the oranges. She was peeling the first one; I could smell the sharp tang of it over the dust.

The tracts! I was supposed to hand out a tract. I turned back to the man at the door. "I have something else for you; some literature about God." I dug one out of the bag and gave it to him. "Read this. God protected you and your family last week. Now He wants you to know about Him."

He was looking at the tract dubiously. Large red letters on the front said, "Four Things God Wants You to Know." I wondered if anyone would read it. Then the man smiled again. "Thank you for the food," he said.

Much later, when I got back to the car with my empty bag, Raquel, George and Paco were waiting. Carlos had loaded up his backpack and gone out again. George was worried, remembering the curfew. It was almost 5 o'clock. Raquel thought maybe we would be safe with the Red Cross sign, even after dark; George was sharp with her, accusing her of being as foolish as Carlos. We were all relieved when Carlos finally came out of an alley way; George honked for him to hurry, and had the car in gear even before the door closed.

Once we were away from the stench and rubble of the city, George relaxed. It turned out that we had plenty of time, after all. He turned off the road to the Baptist hospital, and drove around the better residential district, as Parejon had suggested.

It was cooler up on the hills. Quieter. There were no cries of vultures. No bumping and creaking of car springs; the streets were well paved and undamaged. Behind high stone walls draped with greenery, we could hear music and laughter. In one house, where the wall was lower than usual, a large canvas tent stood in the garden. These were Somoza's friends, then.

At 6 o'clock, George headed back to the main road. Before we entered the hospital grounds, Carlos crawled back and took down our Red Cross signs.

*CEPAD was still in operation at the time of this writing, in 2001. Parejon was the President.
**Of the 70,000 reported missing, 90% were eventually found alive. Present estimates give between 7 and 10,000 dead.
***General Anastasio Somoza, President of Nicaragua


To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Day 8


Day 8: Managua, Nicaragua. New Year's Day, 1973

(Day 1, here)

Our host was fortunate to have taken us in; the next morning he was probably the only man in miles who didn't have a hangover. The roads were empty, the soldiers out of sight. We made it to the border early, and were waved on through after the most cursory of glances. We would be in Managua, if all went well, by noon.

Our mood had changed. Perhaps it was partly because we were approaching the site of the disaster. We had heard some news on the car radio; they were saying that some 50,000 people were missing, that the entire downtown core of Managua was flattened. It was hard to imagine how that could be. It was possible that the others were dreading the sights we were driving towards.

George was speaking to Carlos only as much as was required for strict politeness. He was driving, and Raquel was in the front seat next to him. He kept up a conversation with her, but quietly, so that the three of us in the back seat could not join in.

I had my own reason for misery. Today Philip would be admitted to hospital to be prepped for surgery in the morning. I kept my face turned to the window but I saw nothing except Philip's bewildered face. He was three years old and couldn't understand; all he would know was that he was in a strange place, and his Mommy wasn't there. And tomorrow he would wake up and his hand would be sore, worse than when he slammed his finger in the car door. And Mommy wouldn't be there. We should have canceled the surgery; it wouldn't have hurt to wait a few months more. He would be so afraid! I wondered if he could ever forgive me.

Beside me, Carlos was speaking; "What's wrong, Susana? You're so quiet."

"Nothing. I'm fine." I kept my head turned away from him.

"Are you sure? Are you feeling sick again?"

George spoke up, from the front. "She's just fretting because Raquel's parents are taking our youngest son into hospital today. No," in response to a question from Paco, "it's no big deal. Just a webbed finger being corrected. He'll be fine." He said nothing to me, and there was silence in the car for a while.

I felt guilty now, for worrying the others with my petty concerns. I should make an effort, I thought, try to smile and make conversation. When Carlos spoke to me again, I turned to listen.

He was talking about his mother, about how he respected her for her strength. He went on to praise all mothers, everywhere. Such courage! Such a wealth of love! Such a privilege! To be a mother must be the greatest earthly blessing God could give! The stuff of Mothers' Day sermons; hackneyed ones. Still, I appreciated the effort he was making. I smiled for him and changed the subject.

Managua. All other concerns faded away once we drove into the capital city. On the outskirts, adobe houses had crumbled, walls lay flat on the ground. Ahead of us, a cloud of vultures marked the centre of the city. Army trucks were everywhere. When soldiers stopped us, we asked for directions to the Baptist hospital; we had medicines to deliver, we said.

"It's on the other side of town; follow the highway. But drive carefully; watch for holes and glass on the road. Stay on the main road!"

That was simple enough, but there were more instructions. Entering a building that was still standing, for any reason at all, was absolutely prohibited. There was a curfew, to prevent looting; anyone on the street after 6:30 would be shot on sight. Above all, be careful!

Farther on, towards the centre of town, I began to understand the numbers we had heard on the news. 50,000 missing didn't seem outrageous any more; I was amazed that anyone at all had survived. The downtown core of the city was flat. Most of the buildings had collapsed straight downwards. They had been constructed, we could see, of heavy cement slab floors separated by brick and lath walls. The walls had disintegrated, and the floors had dropped, entire, one on top of the other. I counted seven grey slabs in one building, each one separated from the one above by a few inches of brown paste; a cement sandwich. I thought of the bodies flattened inside; impossible to reach, impossible to identify once reached.

The main road had been cleared. Along the edges, twisted signs, shattered glass and blocks of concrete covered the parking lane. One building had skewed sideways as it fell; a slab of cement had cracked off from the main floor and fallen on a car the same colour as ours. Not much else could be seen of the car; it was pancaked as effectively as if it had been to the crusher.

Our station wagon jolted and creaked over the cracked pavement. When we stopped, the only other sound was the flapping of vulture wings, and their occasional cries. The city had the sickly sweet odour of rotten meat; it caught at the back of our throats. It was a relief to get further out of town and smell dust and smoke again.

On the edges of the city, the buildings were smaller, made of a variety of materials; adobe, lath, brickwork. They had crumbled, but in the haphazard way typical of earthquake damage. Poles and roofs and walls leaned crazily every which way. Carlos was driving now. Suddenly he stopped the car, jumped out, and ran down a narrow, impassable side street. A small boy came out to meet him; a kid about 8 or 10 years old, carrying a pigeon in his two hands. Carlos talked to him for a minute, then came back to the car.

"Hand me some of those eggs," he said. "And an orange." He took them to the kid, and stuffed them into his pockets, since the kid's hands were full. He got back into the car, and we drove on down the road.

"Kid came back to find his family," he explained. "Can't find anyone, just his pet pigeon."

The Baptist hospital was outside the city; here the earthquake had been milder. The building was still standing. From a distance it looked fine, but it was barricaded off. Beds and supply stations had been set up on the lawns, partly surrounded by makeshift screens. Tents served as operating rooms.

It took only a short while to unload our cases of medicines and stacks of blankets. They looked very small, sitting there on the ground separate from all our own supplies. We could have left our food at the hospital, as well, but Carlos thought we should find a way to distribute it ourselves. "There must be lots of people out there, like that kid," he said. "They need help, too." So we kept the food.

We were assigned a corner of the grounds, away from the "hospital" area, where we could set up camp and sleep on the ground. No-one, the coordinator told us, not even anyone whose house looked safe, was sleeping inside. There was always the danger of aftershocks that could bring down an already-weakened structure.

We found a flat space with a shrub or two to give us some privacy and parked. Raquel and I directed the placement of bedding rolls and a cooking area. Paco collected rocks to contain a small fire. I went back to the station wagon for the coffee, and found Carlos setting out a communion set on the tailgate.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"I think we should celebrate communion just to thank God for getting us here safely."

Raquel had come over. "Are you allowed to do that? Outside of a church?" she said.

"Sure. Where in the Bible does it say we need to be in a church? Nowhere." Carlos dug into his duffel bag and produced a small bottle of grape juice, which he proceeded to pour into five of the communion cups. "Raquel, can you bring me a slice of bread?" he said.

George came back with her. "You're not supposed to be giving communion;" he said, "you're not ordained, are you?"

"I've done this lots of times. There is no Biblical rule against it."

"The denomination doesn't allow it."

"I'm not a member of your denomination."

"But my wife and I are. And Raquel. We can't take part if you officiate."

Carlos straightened up and faced George. I looked anxiously from one to the other. I knew that George would never back down; I wasn't sure about Carlos. For a long moment they stood still, then Carlos turned back to the car. He unfolded a white lace cloth and draped it over the communion set. "Okay. You're ordained. You officiate. It's all ready for you."

Carlos called Paco over, and we all sat on the ground around the back of the station wagon. George led in prayer, and read the familiar Scriptures. Carlos handed around the cups and the tray of bread chunks. George prayed again, then recited; "...as oft as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you do show the Lord's death, till He come." We sipped, chewed, swallowed in silence. A dog barked on the hillside.

George hesitated. In the church at this stage, the organist would start playing, and George would announce the final hymn. But there was no supporting program here.

Raquel provided the solution. "If we don't start supper now, we'll be cooking in the dark," she said. "Come on, Susana."

We scrambled to our feet. "Where did you guys pack the coffee?" I said.


To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Day 7


Day 7: Honduras

(Day 1, here)

As soon as we had put a few miles between us and the checkpoint, Carlos pulled over and stopped. "It's not safe to drive in the dark," he announced. "We'll sleep here." Which we did, shifting uncomfortably from time to time. At least it was cool.

In the morning we realized we were low on gas, and lost time trying to find a station in the villages we passed. It was New Year's Eve, and everything was closed. "Come back tomorrow," someone told us at the third gas pump we found.

We found a café that was still open; they served us coffee, fish and rice, and the owner let us use the washroom in his family's living quarters. While we ate, he went to find a friend who might have some gas. Afterwards, he led us down a mud road to a back yard and a rusty barrel half-full of gasoline, which his friend ladled into our tank using an empty oil can and a dented tin funnel. I hoped the gas was clean, although it didn't seem possible.

In spite of the delays we were all in good spirits. Raquel and Paco were good traveling companions, relaxed and cheerful, never complaining. Carlos talked constantly. George was quiet; unusually so, I realized. On the first leg of the trip, from Toluca to Mexico City, he had talked with Raquel the way he always did with young women, joking and telling outrageous stories, but since then he had let Carlos lead the conversation. Now I kept stealing sidelong glances at him, wondering. He seemed content enough; he still smiled at Raquel when she spoke to him. He would be all right, I decided; it was just the crowded conditions. I wouldn't worry.

It was mid-day before we got to the border of Honduras, mid-afternoon when we finally pulled away from the customs shed. Once again, the army helmet attracted notice and sharp questions; when we re-arranged our belongings after the inspection, Carlos buried it deep in the blankets. As we turned onto the highway, I saw two guns pointing at us from a stand of shrubby trees, camouflaged except for the last foot or so of barrel and the black saucer-sized mouth. George was driving, now. I think he saw the guns, too; he drove away very slowly, as if to show that we were not escaping.

The section of highway that crosses Honduras is short, just a thumb's breadth on the map, but when night fell we had not reached the Nicaraguan border. There had been a couple more checkpoints and the road in places was crowded with army trucks. We were still afraid to drive in the dark, so in a village that was little more than a gas station and a couple of houses, we stopped. A building wore a sign; "Restaurant", but there were no lights, and when we went over, we found the door locked. Across the way, a few soldiers lounged in a porch. Someone shouted drunkenly. Carlos went the other way, and knocked at the door of the remaining house.

The door opened a bare crack, letting a ray of light spill across the swept-dirt yard. Carlos spoke quietly for a minute, and the door swung wide. A man stepped out, gesturing towards us.

"Come in, come in!" he called. "Come in, all of you!"

Inside, our host introduced himself. He was the mayor of the town, he said. There would be nothing open tonight, no place to sell us food; it was New Year's Eve. But he would be honoured to count us as his guests for the night; would we stay?

And we would be honoured, too. The appropriate polite phrases were repeated, the women complimented, the host praised for his hospitality, our men for their generosity in taking succour to the earthquake victims, all with the required disclaimers; "No, no, no, you flatter us."

We were shown to rooms where we could change, mud-walled bedrooms with sagging beds; we would be sleeping there later, but first there was supper waiting. Once again it was rice, boiled green bananas and cheese, the worst cheese I had ever eaten; sour, salty and with an after-taste of dust. Our host's wife served us silently and retreated into the back of the house. The mayor ate with us. When we had cleaned our plates, he shouted, "Coffee!" and his wife reappeared with steaming cups. She collected the plates and left.

It was New Year's Eve, which meant that we had to stay up until midnight to see the year in. We sat on straight-backed wooden chairs around the table for three or four hours. Raquel and I, taking our cue from the woman of the house, pushed our chairs ever so slightly backwards so that we were out of the cone of light from the single bulb. The men formed a close circle, elbows on the table, and talked.

In a situation like this, George usually monopolized the conversation. He made an effort now, talking about the situation in Nicaragua, and our car-load of supplies. But Carlos had a better topic: our host himself. He knew someone in Costa Rica with the same name, a very important man; was our host related to him in any way? And with a little stretching of the rules, and a transformation of possibilities into certainties, it turned out that yes, the mayor was a kind of a cousin of Carlos' acquaintance, by now become a close friend, almost, you would say, a brother. Which made Carlos, then, the mayor's newest and best buddy.

Once this business was settled, George attempted again to turn the talk his way. But the mayor smiled politely at him, and turned back to Carlos, who had just said something about tracing their kinship back to Columbus. George subsided into a sulky silence.

In 1492, Carlos told us, the Jews in Spain had been ordered to convert to Catholicism or suffer the consequences. Many of them did; many others fled the country. Most of the sailors on Columbus' ships were Jews, Carlos said.

Of course, they had to take a "Christian" name to avert suspicion. But the names they chose were a secret code. By changing a letter or two, you could find the original family name. Carlos' own name was one of these; Benavides. If you changed the letters back, you would get Ben David, a good Jewish name.
In fact, Carlos informed the mayor, his name, Andrade, was another of these code names. He, Carlos, hoped the mayor was not offended by this, but he was a descendant of these brave Jewish sailors who had first discovered the new world!

No, the mayor was not offended. He threw his arms around Carlos, pounding him affectionately on the back; they were brothers!

All this took much longer to tell, that night; the story was corroborated with a great number of details, occasionally confirmed with an "Isn't that true, Paco?" to which Paco always nodded.

Finally, there were gunshots outside. Our host looked at his watch: "Midnight," he said. "Happy New Year, all!"

"Happy New Year!" we answered. The mayor pushed back his chair and we all rose. He shook the women's hands, embraced the men, pummeled Carlos' back again. The evening was done; we went to bed.


To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001

  

Monday, May 14, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Days 3 to 6


Days 3 to 5: Guatemala City

(Day 1, here.)

We didn't make much better time in the daylight. There were trucks and buses to watch for, donkeys and wagons, and the inevitable walkers. At least we could see them. And the scenery was beautiful. But it was late and we were exhausted when we finally reached Raquel's friends' place in Guatemala City.

I remember sitting in the big kitchen, waiting for a bed to be assigned to my boys. James was eating Corn Flakes with the men; he never missed a chance for a meal. Marcos had fallen asleep in his chair. I was concentrating on staying awake, and smiling vaguely in the direction of anyone that spoke to me.

In the morning we discussed strategy over breakfast. Back home, there hadn't been time to collect the full car-load of disaster relief necessities, so the church had donated money instead. Paco had a shopping list: canned goods, powdered milk, rice, water purification tablets, beans and citrus fruit. We needed a case of Bibles or Scripture portions as well, Carlos said, and Paco wrote that in. I said that we should be carrying all our own food once we were in the devastated zone; we would be there to give, not to take. Raquel started a new list.

Someone remarked how well things had worked out; now that we would be leaving the children and their stuff behind, there would be room in the station wagon for the new supplies. "God had it all planned," he said. "If you had bought the stuff in Mexico, you wouldn't have been able to bring it." We all nodded solemnly.

It took two days to find everything on the lists. For me, it was a pleasant interlude; the others did the shopping, I waited at home with my boys. The house was built around two courtyards, each room open to the grassy centre. In the rear courtyard huge mango trees dropped ripe fruit, a luxury in cool central Mexico. Here they rotted on the ground. The boys and I collected the freshest and ate until we lost appetite for our meals.

We walked around the neighbourhood with Leti, our hostess' daughter. The house stood on a steep hillside, overlooking the city. Just across the road, a small earthquake had recently set off a landslide that carried away several houses; Leti pointed and I looked down onto fresh rubble far below. "Is it safe to live here. then?" I asked. "How solid is your land?"

"Oh, we're ok," Leti said. "God protects us."

Yes, of course. I didn't say it, but I knew I would be relieved when we came back to pick up the kids. Not that they were in any great danger here; it was only for a week. What could happen in a week?

The 30th of December we were finally ready to leave. A week after the earthquake, five days after our rushed departure from Toluca. I knew now that I would not be home to be with Philip when he had his surgery, that it had never been a possibility. I tried not to dwell on it. It would be wrong to begrudge any sacrifices made at a time like this, when so many were homeless and starving.

I smiled for my boys when we left. "Have fun with Leti!" I said.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Day 6: El Salvador

From Guatemala City, the Pan-American heads south through El Salvador, then crosses a corner of Honduras before entering Nicaragua. El Salvador and Honduras were at war, of sorts, over a disputed border line. We couldn't be sure where the checkpoints were, or what other difficulties might arise. The family in Guatemala gave us an address in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador; they might be able to steer us correctly.

We crossed into El Salvador with no difficulty, either with visas or the loaded car. The road was better, straighter and less busy, and we made it to San Salvador by noon. We found our address in the city quickly; a large building, half furniture store, half living quarters. The owners welcomed us and insisted on feeding us lunch. Boiled rice, boiled green banana, dry salty cheese. The banana was like wet cotton batting with a slightly astringent quality to it; I couldn't finish mine.

In the car, Carlos and Raquel had been discussing powdered milk. Raquel didn't think we had enough; what about all the babies in Nicaragua who had lost their mothers? We had space, still, for a few of those big cans. And there was still money we hadn't spent. So after lunch, they went shopping again, while George and I rested under a big slow fan. It was late afternoon before we were underway, this time with a big bag of several dozen boiled eggs, still warm, to add to our food supply.

It was long gone dark, and most of us were sleeping when we came to the first checkpoint. Carlos was driving, Raquel curled up beside him. In the back seat, I leaned against the window, trying to stay asleep in spite of the door handle sticking into my ribs, George slumped beside me. On his right, Paco stretched out, taking up more than his share of the space. It was cold again, and I had a blanket up around my head.

The car had come to a stop. Voices with strange accents barked out questions; "De donde vienen?" (Where are you coming from?")

"Mexico." That was Carlos.

A border point. I would have to get out my passport. I was too sleepy. Maybe if I pretended to be still asleep...? I pulled the blanket tighter around my ears.

"Everybody out of the car." Not me. I was asleep. Paco was stirring, slowly. Through my eyelashes, I could see somebody's khaki midriff, and two hairy hands holding a machine gun. I shut my eyes tighter.

Crack! I knew that sound from the movies; the magazine on the gun. "Out!" the soldier shouted.

I was awake. We were all awake, and out of the car, stumbling over blankets, scattering pillows and shoes. We stood there, shivering in a circle of weapons, answering questions humbly, handing over our papers. Then it was over. The guns dropped. "You can go. Have a good trip," someone said. "Be careful, though."

We climbed back into the car gratefully, assuming our previous positions. But I didn't sleep for a long time.


To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Day 2

Day 2: Tapachula, Chiapas

(Day 1 ends, "... We were at Tapachula, on the Guatemalan border, before noon.")

And there we waited. At the crossing, we were told that the boys and I needed a visa to enter Guatemala. There was an office in town where I could get one; we found the address easily. It was a private house, with a desk and a couple of chairs in an otherwise bare room beside the entrance. A maid told us that the "consulada" would be there in a moment. "Un momentito", which stretched the way momentitos do, to an hour, then two.

In mid-afternoon the consul bustled in. She looked like a house-wife in her Sunday dress, more at home wielding a broom than a visa stamp. She sat behind the desk, shaking her shoulders as if to settle the cape of authority on them.

"Your passports?" she said. I handed them over.

"But you're Canadian!"

"Yes," I said. I fostered a faint hope; maybe she would send me back to the embassy in Mexico City. I could go home to my kids!

"Canadians don't need visas for Guatemala," the consul said. "You go back and tell those idiots I said so!"

Back at the border, the "idiots" took our word for it and waved us through. I got the impression that they didn't much care. They had done their duty; whether this was to pass the buck or to earn the consul a tip, I couldn't tell.

The customs officers were not so lenient. They routed us into a bay, and ordered us to empty the car. All of it, down to the last sandwich. Then they proceeded to strip off the door panels and the hubcaps, remove the seats and the spare tire. They unpacked our bags, spreading the contents out on the cement floor, each item displayed separately to be examined at leisure. The shady area in front of the building filled slowly with onlookers, border guards and soldiers carrying rifles.

I had long ago adopted the trick of packing underwear and personal necessities on top of the rest of my clothing; when the polite Mexican border guards opened my suitcase, they always closed it quickly with an apologetic shrug; "Sorry, lady, it's just the rules." It didn't work here. My bras and panties were the first things laid out on the ground, one by one, for the idling soldiers to gawk at. They stayed there until the inspection was over.

It was hot and muggy. The boys stripped down to their underwear. George, Carlos and Paco took off their shirts. Raquel and the guards and I sweltered. At least the Guatemalans were used to it; Raquel and I suffered. We were both dressed in the long-sleeved blouses appropriate for a summer in Toluca, at 11,000 feet. I complained that I felt faint and nauseated, and Carlos selected a bag of saline solution from the ranks of medical supplies gathering dust on the floor. A soldier came over, gun at the ready. "Get away from there!"

"This lady is sick. I need some medicine for her," Carlos explained. The soldier looked at me, then gestured with the gun.

"Go ahead."

Carlos brought me the bag. "Drink this," he said. "It'll help."

It tasted warm and salty, like half-cooked soup, like tears. It was almost beyond me to swallow each mouthful, but with Carlos and the soldier looking on, I felt that I had to finish the whole bag. It did work; the nausea passed.

Finally the customs inspectors were satisfied that we had nothing hidden in the car itself. All our belongings were displayed, from my underwear at the left, to the medical supplies at the centre, ending with the contents of Carlos' duffel bag. At the far right, the army helmet sat alone. One of the soldiers went into the building to report. After another wait, the Comandante came out, swaggered out, I should say. His uniform was flawlessly ironed, his shirt fresh. He kept one hand on the holster of his pistol.

He started his inspection at my left, with my clothes. He stood looking down at the items at his feet, then stared at Raquel and me, as if deciding which one of us the clothes fit. He didn't hurry.

The next section; the children's clothes. Then Raquel's. George's. Nothing was passed over lightly, not our food, not the folded blankets, not the bottles of vitamin pills and aspirin. It took a long time.

When he reached the end, he stood staring, as if in horror, at the army helmet. He snapped out an order and one of the soldiers came over to us. "Who owns this helmet?" he asked. He escorted Carlos, as carefully guarded as if he were attempting to escape, over to where the Comandante waited.

"Is this helmet yours?"

"Yes, sir."

"Are you an American?"

"No, I'm Mexican. You have my identification."

"Are you in the army? Are you CIA? Why do you have an American army helmet? Are you planning to fight? Are you a mercenary? Who are you working for?"

The best explanation Carlos could muster was that the helmet was a souvenir, and that he thought, since we were going into an earthquake zone, that there might be falling objects to protect himself from. It wouldn't have convinced a child.

At last the Comandante tired of his game. He turned away. "You can go now," he said over his shoulder.

Of course we couldn't. It took over an hour to re-assemble the car, pack our bags, and cram them all in, any old way this time. It was dusk before we pulled out onto the highway.

"You should have left that helmet at home," Paco said as soon as we were out of hearing.

"No, we're going to need it; you'll see," was Carlos' answer. "God told me to bring it. He has a purpose for it."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Pan-American highway here was narrow; two lanes following a twisting cow-path through the mountains. In the sudden night of the tropics, the forests on either side were black. There were no house lights. But the area was populated enough, and it seemed that most of the residents were on the shoulder of the road. Most were whole families, on their way home from the fields, maybe, or just out for a breath of fresh air now that it was cool. They walked single file, the father in front, the mother carrying the baby, then the children in order of size, with the tiniest toddler at the very end. Other groups, mostly young men, were lying on the banks with their heads on the pavement. George drove slowly, keeping to the centre line, even in the face of oncoming traffic. Finally he stopped, and we curled up to sleep in the car until dawn.


To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001


Friday, May 11, 2012

Pocket Full of Posies: Day 1

A report of a trip to Nicaragua, carrying supplies after the Christmas earthquake, in 8 parts.


Day 1: Christmas, 1972, Toluca, Mexico

The program was over and the parishioners were bundling their sleepy children against the cold, the women wrapping rebozos around the babies and then over their own heads, until they looked like so many monochrome versions of the Madonna. The auditorium was almost empty, and I sent my brood out to wait in the station wagon while I went backstage to collect scattered shepherd costumes and remnants of halos. When I came out to the entrance again, no-one was left but my husband George and Raquel, one of the young women from our Wednesday Bible study group.

"There you are! Hurry," George said. "They're waiting for us!"

"Who?"

"In the car! We can talk while I drive."

There had been an earthquake in Nicaragua, Raquel explained on our way home. A big one; thousands dead in the capital city, thousands more homeless. Some of Raquel's friends in Mexico City were collecting blankets and medical supplies to send. They needed our car. And us, of course; George to drive, me because the car was registered in my name. We would be leaving immediately; the others would be ready to go before midnight.

I was willing, of course; who could refuse to help? But still, "What about the children?"

"They can stay at my house," Raquel said. "I've already asked my parents."

"They don't mind?" Five kids under eight years old?"

"They'll be delighted!" Raquel was polite, if not truthful.

"How far is it? When will we be back? Philip is scheduled for surgery the second of January."

"It's only a few days. We can make it. Besides, Raquel's parents can take him in if we're not back, can't they, Raquel?" George didn't seem worried.

I remembered another problem; Marcos and James were on my passport. They would have to leave the country when I did. But yes, I agreed that we could leave them with some people Raquel knew in Guatemala. As long as they wouldn't have to go into the earthquake zone with us.

*****************

And so it was that at midnight we sat shivering in a stony courtyard in Mexico City, warming our hands on mugs of chocolate while the men loaded, unloaded, and re-loaded the station wagon. Even with the most careful packing, we would be crowded. There were seven of us: George and I, Marcos and James, Raquel, Carlos and Paco.

Paco was a quiet, skinny young man in his early twenties. Carlos was a bit older, a bit bigger, a lot noisier. A hand-pumper, an arm-waver; he seemed to be preaching even when he was discussing placement of boxes. He carried a big floppy Bible stuffed with notes and tracts, which he called his machine-gun. "Have to keep my machine-gun handy," he said, wedging it onto the dashboard.

He insisted on bringing one other notable piece of equipment; an American army helmet. It didn't fit in easily. Paco wanted to leave it behind, but Carlos over-rode his objections, and we finally pulled out of the driveway with the helmet perched in back on top of James' pillow.

Carlos had a driver's license. He and George took turns, driving through the night. The rest of us slept fitfully. We had breakfast at dawn in a roadside cafe, coffee and a roll for the kids and me, eggs for the others. We were in the tropics by now, and the car felt sticky, even with the windows open. But we were making good time. We were at Tapachula, on the Guatemalan border, before noon.

To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cozy-Toes

That's what we kids called her. To her back, of course. Her real name was Miss Cosey. Miss. If she had a first name, I never heard it mentioned; all the adults called her Miss Cosey.

From our perspective, she was old; grey-haired, not white-haired like Miss Carlisle, but older than her nevertheless. Tiny and neat and fussy. Prim. An old-fashioned word, not much used nowadays, but it describes Miss Cosey perfectly.

On Wednesday nights after prayer meeting, the doctor's wife served tea and cookies. Miss Cosey held her tea cup and saucer dead centre in front of her, well above her knees, with the thumb and three fingers supporting the cup. The little finger stuck straight ahead, separate from the rest. We children imitated her; I suppose she took this as a compliment.

Mr. Lambert always poured some of his tea into the saucer and blew on it to cool it. He timed this action for a moment when Miss Cosey was looking in his direction. "Oh, Mr. Lambert!" Miss Cosey said every time, sighing. Mr. Lambert was most uncouth.

Miss Cosey lived in the nurses' residence, but I'm sure she wasn't a nurse. I have no memory of her in white, or walking the halls in rubber-soled shoes. Her shoes were black and sensible, with sturdy one-inch heels. I never saw her in the hospital offices, or in the kitchen. She didn't do lowly work like washing floors or scrubbing toilets; that was left for Mrs. Plummer. But she was always present. She even went to camp with us every summer, although she never went on a hike or down to the beach or joined in any sports.

She did teach the morning Bible Study at camp, though. And Sunday School at home the rest of the year. And here was the first of her two crimes. She talked down to us. We were innocent babies, she clearly believed; we could understand only short words and simple sentences. We needed to be shielded from the more unpleasant parts of the Bible stories she told; it would be most improper to mention pain and loss and danger. We, whose mothers were nurses, who listened to talk about surgeries and deaths over the supper table! We, whose fathers were preachers and missionaries, who made space at that same table for loggers and native fishermen, some of whom arrived at our dock on the beer boat!

Cosy-Toes told us about David the Psalmist, about his kingly glory and his love of God. She skipped all the good stories; the story of Absalom being caught in a tree by his hair and being speared there, or the one about David dancing so wildly that his private parts were exposed. I'm sure she thought we hadn't read them ourselves. We were just children.

She would never discover how wrong she was; she didn't allow questions or comments. She expected us to listen to her, recite the memory verses, and not to giggle or squirm. Nothing else.

One summer, Miss Cosey took it upon herself to improve our health, as well as our manners and morals. Every morning that summer, all the mission children lined up according to our ages on the boardwalk outside the nurses' residence. Miss Cosey stood on the porch with a spoon and a large brown bottle of cod liver oil. I was second to the last in the line, that year, and the dosing of the little ones took a long time, not least because of Miss Cosey's preliminary speech about how good cod liver oil was for us, and how it didn't taste too bad, "in fact, not bad at all!" Surprisingly, to her, the youngest children didn't believe this and had to be persuaded individually.

While we waited one day, my brothers saw a big garter snake under the rose bushes, and we three left the line and caught it. When my turn came, I had the snake wrapped around my forearm. "Oh, Susan!" Miss Cosey sighed.

And this was her second crime, and the unforgiveable one. She called me Susan. Everyone else called me Susie. And if she thought that was too informal, not proper enough, my real name was Susannah. Not Susan. Never Susan; I hated the heavy, dead sound of it. It was a stiff name, proper and controlled. Prim, like Miss Cosey.

I was kinder than she; to her face, I never called her Cozy-Toes.

Stories of Childhood


Birthday Girl


Today is Mother's Day, in Mexico. My mother's no longer with us, but I wrote this for her on her birthday, too many years ago. She was in the middle stages of Alzheimer's, and she read this and said, "That's just how it is."

It was the last time I ever saw her read.



It's my birthday today
They say.
I'm eighty-three today
They say.
I don't remember

This is my favorite restaurant
They say.
All my friends have come
They say.
I don't know their names

This gift is just what I wanted
They say.
The cake has pink icing.

I remember turning seven at sea.
We had four o'clock tea under the awning
on the starboard deck. The ocean slept silvery grey,
the seagulls wheeling and pleading like naughty puppies.

All my friends were there: Jennifer and Meg,
Lucie showing off her new white shoes,
Rosalyn, Patricia and Marie.
Baby Timmy awake and shouting in the sunshine,
with Miss Alice to keep him from going through the rails.

I was wearing my flowery pinafore,
crackly with starch and smocking, ivory-buttoned
over my Sunday cotton. Silky ribbons
-Mamma did my pigtails- shimmery pink
to match the icing on the chocolate cupcakes.
I remember nibbling -like a lady-
cucumber sandwiches cut in tiny wedges,
salmon pinwheels, scones with peach preserves.
I poured the tea; I was the hostess, gracious
queen of Mamma's lily-of-the-valley china.

My birthday cupcake wore a candied violet
t'were a pity to eat. It graced my ship trunk
until Miss Alice, unpacking, threw it away
because she said
it smelled of mothballs.

It's my birthday today.
I'm eighty-three.

They say.


Poems
©Susannah Anderson 1998