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.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Set of One

You have to understand; I wasn't like the other girls. Growing up in the forties, I was expected to play with dolls, keep my clothes clean, and scream at the sight of a snake. Instead, I worked on my brother's Meccano set and ripped my dresses climbing trees. I went frog-catching with my brothers and filled my pockets with snakes.

My curiosity was unfeminine. I wanted to know things. I took clocks apart. I read about engines and dissected sea cucumbers. I came home smelling of fish. Not a proper girl, at all.

When I was in grade six, we moved to WhiteRock. We bought a house on Thrift Street, close to the centre of town; a house on a regular street, with neighbours on both sides and cars going by. Except for Christmas visits to the family in Toronto, I had never lived in town before.

It was hard to make friends in school that year. At recess and lunch hour, the boys played rough-and-tumble games; I often saw my brother Dave in the scrum, racing after a ball, muddy and scruffy-looking, with his jacket askew and his hair tousled. We girls stood around on the edges of the schoolyard, talking, sometimes taking turns skipping while the others chanted skipping rhymes. ""One, Two, Three, Out goes You." I was no good at skipping; my feet wouldn't behave. I was always "out".

Girls and boys in town generally ignored each other. Outside the classroom, we had no activities in common. Boys wouldn't skip, and girls couldn't kick a ball. I watched the boys at play; the other girls turned their backs.

One lunch hour early in the school year, a football rolled into the tall grass near our skipping place. The boy that came after it found a garter snake, besides. He held it up, yelling, "Look what I caught!" The snake curled around his arm, and he shook it off, holding it away from his body. Even writhing in its attempts to escape, it reached almost to the ground. I wished I had found it.

The girls in the skipping line-up saw the snake next. They screamed and scattered. The snake catcher turned in our direction. "Hey, girls!" he taunted, "Look at my nice snake!" The girls ran, squealing, leaving the skipping rope abandoned in the dust like a second, longer snake. I stood my ground, but the boy ignored me and chased the other girls, waving the snake.

He couldn't run as fast as the girls because the snake kept getting tangled around his legs, so finally he stopped, wound up his arm like a baseball pitcher, and tossed the snake high into the air. The girls zigged and zagged, pushing each other out of the way, still shrieking. The snake fell short.

I saw my opportunity. I ran and grabbbed the snake before it slithered under the fence. It was the fattest one I had ever caught; it was a pity to lose it, but I spun it around my head and threw it back at the boys.

A snake on the ground or in the hand is a different matter than a flying snake. The boys ran out from under it. Some of them even yelled.

"Sissies!" I shouted. "Babies!" I turned to join the rest of the girls.

Daydreams develop fast. I was already relishing my rôle as brave heroine, recipient of the other girls' admiration and gratitude. Now they would be friends with me. I admit that I swaggered a bit as I walked towards them. They all spoke at once.

"You touched the snake!"


"Go away!"

"Don't touch us!"


So it was that the students were divided into three sets: girls, boys, and me, a set of one. For a long time, I wandered alone, collecting chestnuts under the trees, enticing squirrels with crumbs from my lunch, listening for seagulls. Oh, to be at home -- my old home -- watching the gulls squabble on the beach, the empty beach!

The football season ended, and the boys turned to other pursuits. One noon hour, I found Dave and a few other boys kneeling in the dirt, shooting marbles. I stood and watched. No-one noticed me until, when a fresh circle was drawn for a new game, I said, "Can I play?"

Most of the boys looked at me strangely, but Dave just moved over to let me kneel beside him. He didn't think of me as an outsider nor, probably, even as a girl. One of the others started to protest, then thought better of it. Dave lent me a handful of marbles from his bag, to start with. "The cats-eye is a good shooter," he told me.

It was, and so was I. I won, over and over. "Beginner's luck," the boys called it that day, but after that I played every day and won a fair share of the games. It probably helped that I practiced obsessively at home, playing against Dave with the agreement that any marbles I won, I would give back. Any he won, he kept. Still, my bag was always full.

So I won a grudging respect from those few boys. On our knees in the mud, we were equals. Otherwise, they ignored me, like everyone else did.

The one other positive thing about that school year was my teacher. A man, young, brown-eyed, casual. He laughed easily and often. He sat on his desk. Once, wandering about the classroom, he got talking to the kid next to me and sat on my desk. He was wearing a brown tweed jacket, unbuttoned, and smelled of wool and tobacco. I pictured him at home with a pipe and a mournful hound, relaxing by the fireplace, reading Sherlock Holmes. I don't know if he was a good teacher; I do know I did my best work to earn his approval.

One afternoon, Mr. Donaldson assigned us an exercise in our spelling books, then said, "I have to be out of the classroom for a few minutes. You are to stay in your seats and work. No talking. Understood?"

"Yes, sir!" In unison.

"And anyone I find out of their seat when I come back, will stay after school for half an hour. Understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

He left, and I set to work on my spelling, writing sentences out in my best handwriting, careful to keep my lines straight and my hands off the page until the ink dried. I could hear smothered giggles behind me. A desk scraped on the floor. I didn't turn around.

Then a hand clamped on my ankle, and someone yanked at my shoe. I kicked, but the shoe was gone. I turned around in my seat. The shoe was skittering down the aisle. One of the boys in back fielded it and waved it over his head.

"Susie, come get your shoe!"

"Give it back!"

"Come get it!"

"We're not allowed; give it back!"

Of course he wouldn't send the shoe back. I argued and pleaded. All the boys laughed. The girls looked uncomfortable, but kept quiet. I begged. Big joke.

I finally had to go down the aisle to get my shoe, but then the kids started to play catch with it, with me in the middle trying to snag it as it flew past. When Mr. Donaldson walked in, the last catcher kicked the shoe my way, leaving me standing there with no excuse.

The teacher was nice about it; I had to stay after school, since that was what he had said, but he didn't scold. At three thirty, he let me go. It didn't seem that long. I had spent the time looking at the map behind the desk, wondering how they had picked those colours for those countries. Why were the commonwealth countries pink?

The walk home was peaceful. No brothers to watch out for, no other kids to avoid. I had the streets to myself. I stopped on the way to look at flowers and to pet a cat. There was a dog in one house behind a sturdy fence. He always barked at the kids. Today, since no-one was watching, I stood and barked back at him until he was so mad there was white froth around the edges of his mouth. I detoured a block out of my route to look at a big house half-hidden behind ragged broom hedges. I wondered, again, who lived there; I never saw any movement around the house. Maybe it was haunted.

When I got home, Mom was waiting in the kitchen. "Why did you have to stay after school?" she asked.

"I don't know." I was still thinking about that haunted house; school wasn't important any more.

"You don't know? You don't know? What are you hiding?" Oops.

"I mean, nothing, I got in trouble for nothing."

Too late. Mom didn't believe me, even when I tried to explain. She accused me of lying and gave me three good whacks on the hand with the kindling. When I still insisted that all I had done was try to get my shoe back, she increased the punishment. I was sent to my room until suppertime. No reading, not even school books. No cat for company.

I lay on my bed under the eaves. I permitted myself to cry a little; it wasn't fair! Outside, the boys were shouting in the maple trees. I had to stay here, looking at the boring white ceiling and the plain white walls and my empty bookshelf. A tiny window, too high to see more than grey sky. Cracked and worn linoleum over warped floorboards  -- hmm. It would be a challenge to try and shoot a marble straight over that surface. Good practice. I dug the bag out of my jacket pocket and chose a shooter and a target. I had a whole hour before suppertime.

Stories of Childhood
Susannah Anderson, 2008

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Legend of San Pascual Bailón

Way back, in the 17th century, in a monastery in the colonial city, Puebla de Los Angeles (City of the Angels), young brother Pascual worked in the kitchen. Being the youngest, he was assigned the lowliest duties, washing and chopping and fetching. And they kept him hopping!

Not that he minded; he was a cheerful, bouncy boy, and hopping was to his taste. So much so that they called him El Bailón, the Dancer.

One day the whole monastery was in an uproar; the Archbishop was coming to the city and would be visiting the monastery. The brothers were cleaning and polishing, airing rooms and practicing their music. In the kitchen, all hands were busy, peeling, chopping, grinding, tasting, stuffing, frying. Pascual was appointed the task of seeing to the wide cazuela, as wide as his arm was long, where a couple of turkeys simmered in a delicately-flavoured broth. His job was to fan the charcoal flames under the pot and occasionally to give the broth a stir. He felt deeply honoured by this; elated, too. He sang as he worked, and danced with the rhythm of his fanning.

Alas! He was too excited; in one of his triumphant waves of the long wooden spoon over the pot, he hit a rickety shelf on the wall above the stove. It tipped and shook.

And all the spices, the ground chiles, the chocolate for the archbishop's evening drink, the chopped nuts and seeds, the stale bread cubes and the sugar pilones that were kept on that shelf, slipped, slid, and tumbled into the pot. Disaster!

He did his best to fish the biggest pieces out, but the pot was so big, so wide, the broth so hot, the portions of turkey so much in the way, that all he could find were bits of chile stem and a few nuts. When the head cook looked his way, he was lost. He was banned from the kitchen, sent to scrub tiles in the back patio while the cooks tried to rescue the meat.

Impossible. The archbishop was at the gates. They did the next best thing, strained the new sauce and presented it with a flourish and desperate hopes.

And the archbishop was enchanted; he pronounced this "mole"* the best dish he had ever tasted!

So Pascual, all these years hence, is now called upon by every Mexican cook as she starts her grinding and toasting for the Christmas meal; "San Pascual Bailón, fan my fire!**"

* Mole Poblano. Recipe.
** "Atiza mi fogón!"

Stories of Mexico
© Susannah Anderson, 2007

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


The bleeding hearts grew thick beside the hill road. Somehow they clung to the dripping gravel, resisted being swept down, down to the oily ditch, down, down to the stench and rumble of the logging trucks.

It was quiet up on the hill; the Douglas firs whispered into their cloudy pillows, dams of cushiony moss held back the downhill surge of the streams, muffled their chatter.

In the house, Susie held the silence with gentle hands. Raindrops slithered down her windowpane; condensation inside, rain outside. She caught a wandering droplet with a fingertip, tasted it.

A crunch of footsteps on the gravel, a bustle in the mud room, meant Daddy was home. The rain came in with him, hissing on the stove. In the kitchen, the baby crowed, Mom announced, "Supper's ready. Oooh, you're wet!" Miscellaneous thuds and creaks, pots scraping on the stove top, bubbling, clanking, splashing. Daddy stood at the living room door in a cloud of potato-scented steam.

"And where's my little girl tonight?" he shouted. He pretended to search, behind the sofa, under the desk, down the hallway, finally coming back to Susie's chair, feigning surprise. "Well, here she is! Hiding on me, were you?" He tweaked a brown braid playfully, then lifted her, blanket and all, and carried her into the kitchen to install her in her seat at the end of the table. Mom was putting out bowls of vegetables, carrots and creamed corn. The baby banged on his highchair with a spoon. Daddy sang "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," getting all the words wrong.

Later, with supper over, and Susie safely ensconced in her chair again, Daddy helped Mom with the dishes. She could hear them rattling plates, the water running. The baby snored on the rug, sprawled over his toy trucks.

"Cliff asked if we could come down for coffee tonight," Daddy said.

"Nice of him. You go." answered Mom.

"Mary would like to see you. And you haven't been out since Susie...."

"But the doctor said....her heart...." Mom had lowered her voice, but Susie could still make out the words. Her parents didn't imagine how well voices traveled, how thin the walls were. She had heard the doctor, too, even though he had pulled the kitchen door shut behind him.

"...keep her quiet.... hope for the best....possibly...." Afterwards, Mom had gone into the bedroom and Daddy made supper.

"No excitement," said Daddy. "I know. We'll just have coffee, talk, boring grown-up talk. She'll be fine. We'll come home early."

"But the rain......"

"We'll wrap her up. I'll carry her; she's light as a bird."


In the end, they went. Mom bundled Susie up until only her eyes were showing, and Daddy made a chair of his hands for her. She sat with one arm around his neck, and Mom put Daddy's overcoat over them both, buttoned it around them with the empty sleeves dangling down.

"You look like a two-headed sasquatch," Mom said.

From the back porch, the world was grey. The downpour hid the trees, the hill behind, even the corner of the house. Daddy pulled his collar up around Susie's head. His footsteps and Mom's gritted on the stones; all else was silent save for the whispered rustle of raindrops on leaves and branches. Under the overcoat, Susie held tight to Daddy's lapel, heard the thud of his heart, the wheezing intake of his breath.

At the bottom of the hill, the rain drummed on pavement, then on a roof. Daddy's shoes called up hollow echoes from wooden steps. Cliff's voice boomed out, "Here they are, Mary! Come in, come in out of the wet!"

Mom and Daddy sat drinking coffee in Mary's kitchen. The baby woke, and Cliff dandled him on his knee. Susie sat in the living room, watching the flames leap in the fireplace. She held a book Mary had given her, but kept it closed, for later. The burning wood smelled like a summer beach, with the waves crashing and the seagulls crying. Her blanket steamed gently on her knees.

When the coffeepot was empty, Cliff stood by the window with his back to the rain, and played his trombone. With the slide out, it was longer than Susie. He played "Shall We Gather at the River", "When the Saints Go Marching In", "Amazing Grace." He put dozens of extra notes into "Amazing Grace", the trombone slide going in and out, in and out, but he always got back to the tune in time for the next word. The shiny brass made little dancing lights on the window behind him.

"More, please," said Susie.

"I'm all out of breath," said Cliff. "Ok, one more." He played "Onward, Christian Soldiers" twice, once the way they sang it in church, once so fast and fancy that the slide vibrated like the guy wires on the bridge in a storm. His face was red and damp when he finished. "Whew!" he said.

"We better get on home," said Daddy.

At the door, open to the black wet night, Mary touched the baby's cheek, pulled his blanket firmly over his head, back over Mom's shoulder. "G'night all, thanks for coming down," she said. She bent suddenly and kissed Susie's forehead. "G'night." She turned quickly and ran back into the house.

Susie pulled down the collar of Daddy's overcoat so she could peer out at the dark. Rain ran down her neck. The flashlight made a bouncing pool of light, now glancing off rivulets eating away the path, now off dripping rocks, now to the side to find the stream, the cut above it, the ferns and bleeding hearts nodding in the drizzle. Daddy smelled of wet wool.

Stories of Childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 1998

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sleeping with Tarantulas

In response to a question by Bev Wigney: "How many of you are nervous of spiders? ... If you’re bothered by the sight of spiders, do you think it is tied to a particular incident ...?"

I grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island. There were plenty of spiders, but none were poisonous. Running through the bush, sometimes we would crash through a web and brush the remains off our faces without slowing. No fuss. I even kept a big wolf spider as a pet for a while, feeding him house flies and mosquitoes.

When I was 17, we moved to Mexico. Things were different there; we had to be careful. Once, out camping, Mom picked up a piece of firewood, her hand an inch away from a big black widow. And old-timers told us about tarantulas the size of a plate. Worrisome.

We travelled, those first years, quite a bit. Mom and Dad had "stuff" to do in every town we visited; we kids hung around, keeping out of trouble. It was never boring, although some places were more interesting than others. Several times we visited people living on Lake Tequesquitengo. I loved that; my two brothers and I swam while our parents talked.

The water level of the lake had risen some time not so far past and many lake-shore houses were flooded and abandoned. We went exploring, swimming from one house to another. At one house, the overhang of an old covered patio just barely touched the lake surface. The boys ducked under, and swam in. I could hear them in there, exclaiming excitedly. Dave yelled, "Sue, come here! Come see!" So, of course, I ducked, swam a yard or two, and surfaced.

It was green and dim; all the light was coming up through the water. And in that dimness, I saw that the entire ceiling was covered in enormous black tarantulas. Some, too many, the size of a saucer; the stories were true. Supporting beams came inches from the water, with tarantulas on the bottom. Luckily I had come up under the (slightly) higher ceiling between. I screamed; I couldn't stop myself. Spiders shifted position, reacting to the movement on the water. I froze, treading water, trying to be invisible.

My brothers were a couple of beams over, laughing. Until they saw my face, at least.

The worst of it was that I couldn't swim out. If I ducked and swam, as I had done to enter, what would happen if I misjudged the distance and came up under one of those beams? What would happen if I hit one of those hairy monsters with my head?

But I couldn't just stay there! How long would it be before a spider decided to see if I was edible? The boys swam out, and called to me encouragingly from outside, but I couldn't move. Impossible! I tried to answer them, but my voice cracked, became another scream.

To this day, I have no recollection of the rest. I must have risked it; here I am, not eaten by tarantulas. But the rest of that swim is a complete blank.

And for the next decade, if a spider touched me (even a toy spider), I screeched and jumped away. A black spider on my floor would keep me out of the house until someone had killed it.

Another story, some 10 years later:

We were travelling with my younger brother and his family, down south, near Veracruz, the two families crammed together in his van. We arrived late one evening on a beach; it was too late to find a hotel in the village, so we would sleep in the van. Fine. But it was steamy and crowded in there, with 4 sweaty adults and 7 squirming kids. I couldn't breathe.

I dragged my sleeping bag outside and laid it out on the sand. The breeze from the water was cool; moonlight twinkled on the wavelets. I lay awake, listening to the rustle of palm fronds.

And then, another sound. Scritch-scritch-scritch-scritch... The sound of something scaly and dry, something like a crab. Or an insect, the large variety. I sat up and saw them; spiders, walking on the sand. Big ones.

The same old dilemma; what to do? Run back to the van, barefoot? Stepping on spiders all the way? No!

I pulled the sleeping bag over my head, zipping it up, tucking it tightly under me, holding it close, with only the merest crack for breathing. I lay as still as I could, so as not to merit investigation. Somehow, eventually, I slept.

I woke; I could hear voices and see light through the fabric of the sleeping bag. I unzipped it and looked around. The sun was up, the beach was clean. No spiders. I got up and joined the family.

Later on, preparing to leave, I picked up the sleeping bag to shake it out and roll it. Underneath, a big tarantula had taken refuge from the sun. He scuttled off.

I had been sleeping on him ... how long?

And that was the beginning of the end of that 10-year arachnophobia. I like spiders again, even make pets of them. At the moment, there are two in a bouquet of wild flowers on my kitchen table.

No tarantulas, though.

Stories of Mexico
Susannah Anderson, 2007

Monday, July 2, 2012

vagrant thoughts while you sleep

even asleep, you sit upright,
old soldier; hardy, durable,
leaning on no-one

we should have a fire
twin rocking chairs, drowsy dog
afghans for our knees

but those were olden days

we had rockers once
in the slow summer evening
watched sparrows nesting

when the summer comes
we will sit outside
listening to the chickadees

i might read now while you sleep
page through my bird book
making no sound to wake you

earlier, you were shovelling snow
or riding your bike
moving like a youngster

now you sleep

tomorrow in the sunshine …
… we'll go … was i asleep?
you are smiling … peace

© Susannah Anderson, 2008

Thursday, June 28, 2012


Each boat has her own voice. Waiting at dockside, the Bruce purrs; the two exhaust pipes are just at water level and emit a gentle steam sparkling with tiny bubbles, like the upside-down rain we make with baking soda and Kool Aid. Coming across the bay, she talks to herself and to the waves, the words always just beyond the edge of comprehensibility.

Old Mr. Hungerford's putt-putt does just that. Putt-putt-putt-putt: a steady beat underway, slowing to a near-stall as she coasts in to tie up. Putt-pause-putt-pause, then when you think she's stopped, putt-putt.

The Lizzie roars.  Inside the cabin, talking is impossible. Sometimes we shout;  "Where's Georgina?" "What?" "Home!" "Okay!" This last to the pilot, forward beyond the engine block. He pushes on the throttle and the engine bellows. We sit immersed in our own thoughts, tolerating the noise, the stink of hot oil and bilgewater, the steamy damp.

There are no lights aboard the Lizzie, except for the one headlight. Inside, morning and evening, it is pitch dark, except for the occasional beam from a flashlight. The night a rat bites me, I pull the flash from my pocket and turn it on, but it's too late; I don't see the rat, just the two tiny holes in my hand, almost half an inch apart. I don't tell the adults because I know what they will do: give me a series of injections, one a day for twelve days, all of them in my belly. I'd rather get rabies. I am relieved, though, when a month has gone by and I can still drink a glass of water without choking.

When it's not raining, I like to sit outside in the stern. It's always cold, but if I huddle close to the cabin wall, out of the wind, and cram my hands up into my jacket sleeves, I am fine. At least it's quiet. Quieter, anyhow. And the spray smells of salt and seaweed and silver-grey mist.

In the daytimes, going to Tahsis, we cut in close to the land, out of the choppiness at mid-channel. The rocks and trees slip by, half a stone's throw away, silent except for the slap of the waves at their feet. I like to imagine myself scrambling over the shore, picking huckleberries in season -- so big and red they are, hanging there over the banks, unharvested, unseen by anyone but me. Sometimes the sun shines on the cliffs, making the moss look dry and warm, a place to climb to, to sit in a cushiony hollow -- there! that one! -- and examine the tiny moss-flowers and the yellow lichens.

Behind and over it all, the Douglas firs and the cedars make an impenetrable wall. Never has man set foot under those branches; no voices have disturbed their silence. We don't belong there, we are too young; we couldn't bear the heaviness of the slow centuries, of the secret musings and long watchings. And yet I wish: if the boat would only stop, I would go ashore and dare the hidden paths. Maybe.

Most of the year it's too cold and wet to sit outside at night. But in the summer, when the wash glows green with fluorescence, and tiny sparkling stars break away from the prow and rush off into the blackness, when the Big Dipper hangs overhead and the lights of the houses behind us make dancing dotted lines on the crests of the waves, I lean on the side of the boat and sing. No-one inside the Lizzie will hear me over the racket of the engine; I can shout to the stars. Stormy weather songs; "Jesus, Saviour, Pilot Me", "Throw out the Lifeline," "Peace, Be Still". Or my night-time favourite: "Could we with ink the ocean fill,.." The sea and the sky and the mountains are already inky.


In the winter storms, a derelict fishing boat washes ashore, half sunken, and comes to ground between the pier and my bedroom window.  I watch her through the early spring, as the waves nudge her one way and another until she is tightly wedged on some unseen gap in the rocks.  At low tide the cabin and the front deck are exposed, slanting towards me, beckoning. As soon as the weather is warm enough, I swim out and clamber aboard.

The cabin is tiny and dark, more from ancient grease than from paint.  My hands stick to the doorjamb. I pick my way to the wheel, sloshing through knee-deep water across broken floorboards, and stand there, pretending to steer. Straight ahead, a forest of tarry pilings underneath the old cannery bars the way. I imagine backing, turning to miss the pier, and heading out to open water. I would go north, just to see what's there; hills and trees I have never seen, islets with no name, lonely cliffs.

There is a smear of pitch on my right arm; my hands, when I turn them palms up, are black. I back gingerly out of the cabin, careful not to touch anything more. The prow deck is clean enough; for the rest of the summer, I use it as my private sun-bathing place.

In October, my little harbour is empty again. Whether the tide broke the wreck up, or she just floated out to sea, I don't know. I never saw her go.


Occasionally we take a trip down the island on the Messenger III, the Shantyman's Mission boat. Down the outside; a stop in Friendly Cove or Ahousat, and a rolling and nose-diving haul  around Estevan Point, where all the adults take to their bunks and I go to join the pilot in his cabin. He makes himself onion sandwiches for lunch; "Settles the stomach," he says. My stomach is fine, but I don't try his sandwiches.

Aboard the Messenger, I mostly stay inside. She is faster than the Lizzie, or even the Bruce; the wind in the stern catches your breath away. But she is bigger, and cleaner, and quieter than any of the other boats I know. Even in the cabin below decks, the bunks are dry. And we can talk, even play games; the engine thrums along in the next room, sounding like someone practicing his bass part for the church choir.

The wall must be well insulated, because when I go through the engine room to the head, the pounding and howling and squealing of the big machine deafens me. Close beside the monster is a narrow walkway, just a metal grid over open bilge and a rail made of lead pipes, too hot to hold onto comfortably. A sizzling water pipe juts out overhead, close enough for me to feel its heat as I pass. Over the rail, massive wheels spin, pistons leap and slam back down, belts whine. A finger in one of those, a stray shoelace; I shy away from the rest of the thought. It is a relief to hide away in the tiny head, to lock down the handle. "Occupied", the label will say on the outside. I stay longer than I need to, putting off the trip back over that trembling bridge.


The Messenger. The Lizzie. My wreck. The Bruce. And I shouldn't forget our school boat, the Donna Dene. Except that she is so forgettable; serviceable and boring. White paint, a boxy cabin, engine, benches, wheel. That's it. A boat to get to school in, to forget your homework in, to sit inside through the rainy months in.

Even the name is a plodder. Donna. No romance. The Messenger, now; the name means something, tells you its mission, to carry the Gospel. The Bruce is named after the Doctor's son, the one that drowned when his boat went down in a storm.

And the Lizzie: an ugly-sounding name, but it speaks of so many things! Elizabeth, like the queen in her blue dress and fat ankles on the front wall of our classroom. Elizabeth II Regina; very elegant. Or the Tin Lizzie, the Model T Ford, probably about as old as our Lizzie, but black instead of streaky white. Or just plain Elizabeth, with a whole list of nicknames to choose from. Betty. Lisa. Beth, like Jo's sister that died in "Little Women". Eliza. Ella. Lisbeth. When I grow up, if I do, if I have a daughter, I will name her Elizabeth. But I won't call her Lizzie, ever.

Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Heat waves and other Illusions

We were driving through Arizona in the summertime. It was hot. You couldn’t sit back on your seat in the car; you would get stuck to it. Where the sunshine fell on the upholstery, it burned your skin. Dad was driving in his underwear, the red shorts with the fire-engines on them. Dave and Mark, in the back seat with me, wore shorts, too, but Mom and I were properly dressed. I lifted my skirt occasionally and fanned my legs, but it didn’t help much. It was hot, hot, hot.

Ahead of us, the highway looked as if it were underwater, cool, clear water rippling and splashing. As we raced towards it, it disappeared, leaving empty grey highway. Mom explained about optical illusions and mirages. I began looking out the side window, hoping to see a real mirage; an oasis, perhaps, with a palm tree or two, a pool, maybe a donkey resting in the shade. But I saw nothing out there but desert. Parched brown dust, rocks, half-dead shrubs, a few cacti. Nothing green, not even the leaves. Not a real green, anyway, not a live green; just a greyish, dusty, dreary pretense.

At noon, Dad pulled over on the side of the road. We unstuck ourselves from the seats and piled out of the car.

“Out of the frying pan…” Mom said.

She handed out sandwiches and we sat on the running board in the shadow of the car and ate. Dad wandered around, stretching. A little way off, he stopped, then waved and shouted, “Hey, look! Water!”

We caught up to Dad and passed him, running. Ahead, sunlight glinted off a smooth surface; no waves, no heat ripples here! I didn’t notice until later that there was no green fringe around this pond, just the everlasting grey shrubs. We slowed as we came near. Something was wrong; the water was too dark, too still. Deep and muddy, maybe. No good for wading.

And we came to the edge and stood staring.

“What is it, Dad?” Dave asked.

“Tar. Melted tar. It’s a tar pit.”

“Where did it come from?”

“Out of the rocks. Don’t fall in!” This last sharply, to Mark, who was poking at the surface with a dead stick.
It was Dave that found the second pool, just beyond a clump of shrubs. It was a smaller pit, but with an interesting addition. Shoulder-deep in the tar, struggling, was a skunk, furry black in the smooth black of the entrapping tar. We stood and watched as the tar crept up its back. The more it fought, the faster it sank.

“How did he get there, Dad?”

“Fell in. Probably thought it was water and tried to get a drink.”

“He’s going to drown. We’ve got to help him!”

Dad found a sturdy pole and poked at the tar. It was up to the skunk’s muzzle now, lapping at the white stripe in the centre of its back. With the pole, Dad managed to pry up the chin – just a bit. “I’ll try under its belly,” he said. Sweat ran down his face; he brushed it away with the back of his hand and buried the end of his stick deep in the tar. He grunted, then; “It’s coming!” he said. The stick brought something black and sticky out of the tar; the skunk’s tail. Progress!

And then the skunk sprayed.

We were lucky, Mom said later, that the rest of us were standing on the opposite side of the pit. Dad used up all our drinking water trying to wash the skunk smell off. Behind the car, he changed into a clean shirt and his old stripy underwear. Mom threw his shoes and the fire-engine shorts into the ditch.

We drove away from there. It was hot and the car smelled, even with all the windows down, and the desert was dry and dusty. I didn’t look for mirages any more.

“I’m sorry, little skunk,” I thought. “We tried. That was all we could do. I’m sorry.”

Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Trophy

To begin with, the Martins were old. Not fortyish, like my parents; really old, older even than my grandma.

She -- Mrs. Martin -- was shaped like an engine block; almost as wide as she was long, and giving the impression of squareness, even though there were no right angles about her. A small engine; she was no taller than I, a mere five feet. Her steel-grey hair was always pinned firmly into a bun at the nape of her neck, her sober skirts fell almost to her ankles, her shoes were black and sturdy. No nonsense about Mrs. Martin.

The mister was larger and rounder and softer. Just barely, though. He always wore a workman's shirt and baggy wool trousers, held up by suspenders. Sometimes a hat; a city hat, but much oil-stained and sat upon.

I have a picture of them, standing side by side in the hospital gardens, holding hands and smiling identical smiles. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, without the battle.

I first saw them in the staff dining room. We kids came down to lunch early that day and found the room empty, except for the Martins. He was already sitting at the table, she was on his lap, and they were kissing. Energetically. This was nothing like the hello-goodbye peck Mom and Dad indulged in, twice a day; they were kissing like people in the romantic stories from the magazines my grandma hid in her basement. Long, breathless, face-crushing kisses, both his arms around her ample waist, her hand on the back of his head, fingers parting his grey hair. They didn't seem to notice us in spite of the racket we had made, pounding down the stairs, the boys shouting.

We kids were struck dumb; we slid into our places on the long bench under the window silently, without any of our usual jostling. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to look.

The grown-ups, when they arrived, were less circumspect. There was a slight pause as each of them came through the door at the bottom of the stairs, a quick grin, and then a jocular comment.

"Making up for lost time, Walter?"

"What's this, dessert first?"

Chairs scraped, silverware clattered. Doc MacLean came in through the back door from his office. "Okay, that's enough, you two love-birds," he called out. "Behave!"

I was embarrassed for them. For Mrs. Martin, especially. Caught like that, between pleasing her husband and maintaining proper decorum! How she must feel!

Or not. She stood up, laughing, and deposited a kiss on Mr. Martin's bald spot. And he, playing to his audience, pulled her back down again for an encore. One final, slobbery, noisy buss. "Mmmm--wah!" he said.

Doc MacLean said grace, and the cook brought in the meal. Mrs. Martin had to cut up her husband's meat for him. He had no teeth. From the jokes people made, I gathered that he had lost them in a honeymoon mishap.

 Mom told us the rest of the story after work that evening.

Mr. Martin was a recent widower. In the last months of his wife's illness, they had sold the farm and moved into Vancouver. He found a good church there, and attended as regularly as he could, given his wife's condition.

After she died, he cast about for something to do, something useful. He heard about the mission hospital and sent in an application.

If he were to go out to the wilds to serve God, he decided, he would need a wife. He started examining the women in the church. Most were married, some of the single ones were too flighty. Some came only Sunday morning, dressed in their showiest hats, carrying Bibles that looked as if they were rarely opened.

He concentrated on the few women who came to the Wednesday evening prayer meetings, the very few. One, a Miss Peters, was there regularly. Her Bible was worn and stuffed with notes, her dress was modest. She looked a sensible woman.

He asked around. "Miss Peters? Oh, yes. A good woman. A willing worker," he was told.

He had never spoken to her, but he wrote a note and handed it to her at the door, after prayer meeting. "Miss Peters," it said, "Please excuse my writing to you like this. I have been accepted by the Nootka Mission Association to work in their hospital on Vancouver Island. However, I feel the Lord wants me to go accompanied by a wife. Will you marry me?"

He saw her Sunday morning and evening, but apart from a cautious smile in his direction, she gave no response. It did seem, also, as if the pastor's wife were looking at him strangely. And the organist. He refused to worry, though; Miss Peters was a good woman. God would tell her what to do.

Wednesday evening she passed him a folded slip of paper. "Yes," it said. Nothing more.

So here they were, wed less than a week, smooching in our dining room. Miss Peters -- now Mrs. Martin -- would be working in the hospital laundry; her husband was our new handyman.

Mom would have ended the story there. It was an instructive little tale, a good example for a daughter just beginning to think about womanhood: be good, go to church, read your Bible, be patient, and you'll be assured of a nice husband. But Dad was prodding her to go on.

"Tell the kids about his teeth," he said.

At dawn on the morning after the wedding, the Martins boarded the Princess Maquinna for the trip north. It would be a beautiful honeymoon cruise; the weather was balmy, the cabin comfortable, the scenery postcard-perfect. They ate a hearty breakfast in the dining room and went out to the deck to watch the tip of Vancouver Island glide by.

On the "outside", the water open to the wide Pacific, the boat began to roll, just a little. And it soon became apparent that Mr. Martin was not a sailor. Before lunch, the couple had retired to the cabin; she went up to the dining room alone. He wasn't interested in food.

Further north, the swell increased; there was a slight breeze. The Maquinna plowed through the water, climbing and diving, rising and falling, always twisting on a slight angle from the direction of travel. They rounded Estevan Point; West-Coast seamen call it "The Graveyard of the Pacific". Up, down, roll, climb, drop. Roll, and up again. Mr. Martin's breakfast left its moorings. Mrs. Martin held the basin.

When it was over, Mr. Martin lay back on the bunk, groaning. Mrs. Martin opened the porthole. She reached out and dumped the contents of the basin into the salt chuck.

"My teeth!" her new husband shouted. Too late. They rest, still, just off Estevan Point.

Dad loved this part of the story. He kept supplying the details Mom wanted to leave out. And he ruined her lesson. "Be patient, dress modestly, go to church" and all the rest, and what do you get? A lousy sailor, in suspenders, with no teeth.

There had to be a better plan.

Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Recipe for a poem, Latin American style

Disclaimer: I love Spanish-language poetry, but cannot write it. Another frustrating attempt led to this spoof.

These words are of the essence:
heaven, wind, stars, heart
Delight and anguish, infinite
green forgetfulness and purple night.

Mix well, fold in a well of sleep,
a grave, abandoned by the sea.
The purple sea, under the aching stars;
forgotten hearts' delight: forgotten, false!

Green heart, green heaven, abandoned night.
A sleeping grave,
the purple sea, under the anguished stars.

For seasoning: it was mid-summer, the wind
high in the heavens, false promises of rain.
Do you remember? The weeping rose scenting the breeze,
the purple night, the anguished sea.

Pour into hearts and bake under the summer
moon - do you remember? What grave
abandon! What delights! Such stars were never seen!
The aching night beside the purple sea.

Poems, Humour
©Susannah Anderson, 2001

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."


"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."


"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