Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Douglass’

Her Children (Otra Vez)

Monday, December 25th, 2017

351tires

tires diptych by Max Greenstreet

Earlier this year, 2017, I brought out a collection of eighty-three of my essays and memories entitled Sources of Wonder. I had been meaning to make such a collection for some time in response to requests for such from several of my readers, but I kept not assembling these “greatest hits”, because…well, I’m not sure why I was hesitant, but I was.

Then one day Marcia got a letter from a friend who had been whiling away a little time in her neighbor’s living room and picked up a book that had for a place marker an old newspaper column. Marcia’s friend read that column from a 2011 Anderson Valley Advertiser, loved the story, and then discovered the piece was one of mine: Her Children.

When Marcia told me this story, I was finally convinced that a collection of my essays and memories would be a good thing to offer the world so copies might be stumbled upon years hence and read with pleasure by people I know and people I will never know. I’m happy to report that Sources of Wonder has garnered rave reviews from a handful of prescient souls who purchased copies in support of this author.

As a New Year offering, I present the piece that inspired the collection. Bien Venidos!

 

Her Children

“My mother is a poem 
I’ll never be able to write, 
though everything I write 
is a poem to my mother.
” Sharon Doubiago

I’m about to pull out of the Presbyterian parking lot and make a right turn, when I see a woman on the sidewalk across the street dragging a heavy suitcase. She has a baby girl on her back in a makeshift backpack, and this baby has a smile on her face as big as the world. The woman lets go of the suitcase and backtracks about twenty feet to where she’s left a bulging duffel bag and a blue plastic laundry basket piled high with clothes and toys and whatnot. She takes hold of the duffel bag and starts dragging it to where she left the suitcase, and as she drags the duffel she calls to two tiny children waiting for her some twenty feet further along the sidewalk beyond the suitcase.

“Wait for us at the corner,” she says, her voice clear and musical; and I am struck by how calm she sounds, how sure she is that the three-year-old girl and the four-year-old boy will obey her, which they do.

So I roll down the passenger side window of my little truck, make a left instead of a right, and pull up beside the woman. “Need a ride?” I ask, smiling out at her.

She assesses me in a twinkling and says, “That would be great. We’re just going to the bus stop down there.” She points in the direction of the new wooden bus cottage adjacent to the one and only public bathroom in the economically distressed village of Mendocino, about two city blocks away. “If you could take our stuff, we’ll meet you there.”

She is dressed as most women in America dressed two hundred years ago, with a floppy white bonnet covering her head and obscuring much of her face, a long-sleeved white blouse tucked into a floor-length gray skirt, and brown walking shoes. I assume she is young, but I can barely see her face, so I am not sure how old she is. In any case, she decides to entrust me with all her worldly possessions, save for her children and a black purse.

“You’re welcome to ride in back,” I say, trying not to sound too eager to help, though I’m desperate to lighten her formidable load. “I’ll drive slowly.”

“Okay,” she says, heaving the duffel bag into the bed of the truck. “Come on, Gino, Tina. He’s giving us a ride to the bus stop.”

“I can climb in all by myself,” says Gino, swaggering up to the back bumper. Gino is as cute as a button, his pants and sweater notably clean, his shoes new. “Don’t help me, Mom.”

“Don’t help me, too,” says Tina, who is as cute as two buttons and not much bigger than the baby on Mom’s back. “I climb myself, too.”

So everyone climbs in, Gino and Tina unassisted, and as they settle amidst their luggage, Mom laughs and says, “Isn’t this fun?”

Gino shouts, “I love this truck!”

Tina shouts, “Me, too!”

And the baby on Mom’s back gurgles and grins.

“Ready?” I ask.

“All set,” says Mom.

So off we go on our two-block ride to the bus stop, and I’m thinking, “Who is this woman and where is she going with her three little kids?”

When we come abreast of the bus stop cottage, I make a U-turn and park in the No Parking zone next to the cottage so Mom can unload. Mom climbs out with admirable grace, lifts Gino out and sets him on the ground, lifts Tina out and sets her down, and says to them, “Go on and play by the tree while I unload.”

“Can I climb it?” asks Gino, frowning at the big tree.

“Wait for me to come watch you,” says Mom, nodding to affirm her command.

Now she comes around to my window and takes off her bonnet. “Thank you,” she says, blessing me with a radiant smile. “Thank you so much.”

Her hair is black and cut very short, her eyes brown, her cheeks flushed from the exertion of lifting children and lugging heavy baggage. She reminds me of a woman I was crazy about long ago in my fabled youth, a woman who was forever falling in love with louts and never cared much for me.

“Where are you going?” I ask, and I mean that both literally and philosophically.

“South,” she says, with a quaver in her voice. “We just missed this bus yesterday so we had to stay over. Got a late night special at the Sweetwater Inn. Seventy dollars. We’re headed for Guerneville. I have a friend there who said we could camp on her lawn until I figure out what to do. The bus only goes as far as Point Arena, so we’ll stay over at the Surf Motel and get the bus to Guerneville tomorrow.”

I give her a twenty-dollar bill. She bows her head, a smile playing at her lips. “Have a grateful day,” she intones, which I take as a reference to the Grateful Dead marching bears the previous owner affixed to the back window of my pickup; and I also take it as a gentle reminder to be grateful for being able to help her.

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone

When I get home I tell Marcia about my encounter with Mom and her three little children, and I admit I was tempted to bring them home with me, though I doubt Mom would have accepted such an offer from an unshaven old coot in a rusty pickup. And where would we have put them while we went about our lives, Marcia and I self-employed and working at home in a two-bedroom house we do not own? I laugh as I imagine informing our landlord that her tenants are suddenly no longer two, but six.

I wheel the wheelbarrow to the woodshed, imagining Gino and Tina tagging along to help get wood for the evening fire. I love children, though I have never fathered any—a conscious choice made in deference to a world I judge to have too many humans on board.

“I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” Sparky Anderson

In 1970, a year after I dropped out of college, I was employed by a marine biologist as his assistant, translator, and tutor to his four children as we traveled for six months in a converted milk truck along the Pacific coast from California to Costa Rica and back again, exploring tide pools and estuaries. My pay for six months work was a few hundred dollars and a great adventure. Nearly every afternoon of our odyssey, I would hail someone and ask, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a donde podemos acampar? Is there a place near here where we can camp?” And not once did a person reply No. They always said, “Come to my house. Come to our village. Come to our farm. Yes, follow me. I will show you a good place.” I had never known until then, and have never known since, such endemic generosity.

When I wasn’t working, I explored our surroundings; and everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador I was followed by gangs of little boys—skinny, hungry boys with enormous eyes and solemn faces, solemn until I made them laugh with my clunky Spanish or until I gave them food, and then they would smile as big as the world. I had long talks with many of these boys, and I was constantly surprised to learn that boys I thought were six or seven-years-old were actually twelve and thirteen. Most of these children had never eaten meat, few had ever worn shoes, and many had never been to school.

One morning in Mexico, a few weeks before we returned to the United States, I walked into the nearby village to buy freshly baked bread at the panaderia. We had been camping near this village for two days, and each time I ventured away from our camp, hordes of little boys would follow me. On this morning a veritable army of boys accompanied me to the bakery, the growling of their stomachs loud in the morning quiet. And as I approached the bakery, something gave way inside me—some persistent idea of myself—and I was overcome by fear and desperation. I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but something inside me definitely broke.

I entered the bakery and bought a hundred small loaves of bread, five big shopping bags full, which cost the equivalent of ten dollars—a small fortune to me in those days. Then I came out into the sunlight and gave each boy a loaf until all the loaves were gone; and there were still many more boys hoping to be fed.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

When I was twenty-three I got a job as janitor and teacher’s assistant at a day care center in Palo Alto, California established by the city especially for working mothers. We had an enrollment of thirty children, ages two-and-a-half to five-years-old, with twenty-eight of the children from single-parent homes—all those single parents women. The center opened at 6:30 AM and officially closed at 5:30 PM, though I was often mopping the kitchen floor while simultaneously watching over a handful of children when the last moms arrived long after six.

Two of the thirty children came from two-parent homes, and when one or both of those fathers came to pick up their children, the stacking of blocks and finger painting and playing in the sandbox and swinging on the swings and teeter-tottering ceased as the miraculous fathers came into our midst and shone their radiance upon the children who did not have fathers. And verily, the fatherless children were in awe of these rare men.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Two weeks have passed since I gave Mom and her kids that slow ride to the bus stop, and I wonder if I will ever stop thinking about them. Sometimes I wake in the night worrying about Gino and Tina and Baby, worrying they might be cold or hungry or afraid. Sometimes I find myself worrying about Mom, wondering how she’s holding up. Sometimes I think I should have brought them home, at least for a day or two, and then driven them to Guerneville and given Mom enough money to make a new start. Sometimes I imagine Marcia and I buy a place with room for six, and we go on a quest to find Mom and Gino and Tina and Baby; and they come to live with us unpredictably ever after.

But most of the time when I think of Mom and her beautiful children, I remember their smiles as big as the world, and I am grateful.

 

Mowing

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Mowing Two

Mowed Down photo by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2015)

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Henry David Thoreau

A friend called last week to ask if I was aware of the recent carnage wreaked on the Mendocino headlands from Ford House down to the land above Portuguese Beach. She said giant bulldozer mowers had mowed everything, except the very largest shrubs, down to bare earth. I said I would take a look.

“All those lizards and bugs and flowers and grasses just gone,” she said. “The official word from the state park people is they did it to control non-native species, but we know they did it to make sure there’s no place for homeless people to lie down or take a pee. No more privacy, no more wildness. I’ve been crying about it for two days.”

I walked to town the next day to check out the mown headlands. On my way I passed a favorite field that had just been mowed, and my first thought was what a pity the lovely vetch and clover that had been on the rise would now not bloom to feed the bees and bugs and birds. My second thought was how spiffy everything looked—civilized. The house attached to the newly mown field has been empty and for sale for two years, the price steadily dropping from the absurd to the upper reaches of plausible. Did the realtor think mowing the field would make the place more saleable?

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” Albert Einstein.

I love the wildness of the unkempt headlands, as do birds, lizards, snakes, gophers, rabbits, bees, bugs, birds and people who like to pick blackberries in August and September. Seeing the south side of Main Street mowed down to the bare earth was a shock. I’ve written poems and scenes in novels set here among the wild grasses and poppies and renegade callas and wild roses that abound on this particular swath of headlands, or did abound until they were rendered unsequestered carbon by the whirring blades.

Now the place looks like a raggedy golf course or a field waiting to be plowed and planted with Brussels sprouts, kin to the coastal fields north of Santa Cruz. If not for the inconvenient water shortage hereabouts and the headlands being public property, condominiums could be built here with ample parking and lights blazing day and night. Damn that water shortage and the socialist conspiracy known as state parks. Hell, with a big desalinization plant, we could have a casino here. After all, Mendocino was once the site of a Pomo village, so…

 “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” William Shakespeare

Except we like that the only human construction rising on these slaughtered fields will be the music festival tent that comes and goes every July. We like the vetch and mustard and brassica, the poison oak and poppies, the seed birds, the bunnies, the lupine, the blackberries and rambling roses, some of which will come back eventually, now that the mowers are done and gone—assuming they don’t come back for another several years.

We doubt the mowing was done to eradicate non-native species. They mowed everything, native and non-native. I think they mowed to make the place inhospitable to homeless people and people who like to pee outside rather than suffer the slimy stench of the shameful public bathroom bunker, and because they, whoever ordered the mowing, are mean-spirited dummies.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Albert Einstein

On the bright side, we now have the opportunity to watch how Nature goes about re-wilding land that humans have trashed. Nature works fast around here, left to her own devices. True, she might reseed the new mown fields with Pampas Grass and Scotch Broom and eucalyptus, invasive non-natives all, but reseed the fields she will. I say lets help her by broadcasting a hundred pounds of wildflower seeds out there. Why not?

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” Frederick Douglass

A stone’s throw west of the scalped fields we come to a multi-acre expanse where all is grasses and mustard and lupine bushes and renegade brassica, with no large shrubs to hide behind—a place where homeless people rarely venture to rest and pee. No, this is acreage upon which valuable turísticos tread to reach the scenic shorelines whereupon photogenic waves crash, and from where whales may be espied spouting. Here in this fairly bland ecosystem (bland compared to the one that just got mowed) a tiny section of the headlands has been cordoned off with flabby orange plastic fencing for the purpose of (so says the sign) Native Habitat Restoration.

This privileged chunk of native habitat seems to be mostly mustard, a few native and non-native grasses, and vetch. What’s really going on is the footpath tracing the edge of a precipitous cliff is about to collapse into the sea, and the aforementioned dummies are hoping to delay a trail collapse resulting in the death of a tourist or two. To call this operation native habitat restoration is plain silly, especially considering the destruction of fifty times as much native habitat right over there.

Meanwhile, the myriad creatures displaced by the mowing, those that weren’t killed, are adjusting to the new reality. Earthworms continue doing their thing, snakes and lizards and rabbits have moved to safer ground and keep up their relentless search for sustenance. Ditto bees and butterflies. Gophers carry on as if nothing has happened. The homeless and the desperate pee elsewhere for now. Locals continue to walk their dogs here, and their dogs continue to sniff and pee and poop and bark.

Seeds, native and non-native, are already germinating in the scarified soil. Life, such as it is, goes on.

Her Children

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Photo by Ginger Malisos

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2011)

“My mother is a poem 
I’ll never be able to write, 
though everything I write 
is a poem to my mother.
” Sharon Doubiago

I’m about to pull out of the Presbyterian parking lot and make a right turn, when I see a woman on the sidewalk across the street dragging a heavy suitcase. She has a baby girl on her back in a makeshift backpack, and this baby has a smile on her face as big as the world. The woman lets go of the suitcase and backtracks about twenty feet to where she’s left a bulging duffel bag and a blue plastic laundry basket piled high with clothes and toys and whatnot. She takes hold of the duffel bag and starts dragging it to where she left the suitcase, and as she drags the duffel she calls to two tiny children waiting for her some twenty feet further along the sidewalk beyond the suitcase.

“Wait for us at the corner,” she says, her voice clear and musical; and I am struck by how calm she sounds, how sure she is that the three-year-old girl and the four-year-old boy will obey her, which they do.

So I roll down the passenger side window of my little truck, make a left instead of a right, and pull up beside the woman. “Need a ride?” I ask, smiling out at her.

She assesses me in a twinkling and says, “That would be great. We’re just going to the bus stop down there.” She points in the direction of the new wooden bus cottage adjacent to the one and only public bathroom in the economically distressed village of Mendocino, about two city blocks away. “If you could take our stuff, we’ll meet you there.”

She is dressed as most women in America dressed two hundred years ago, with a floppy white bonnet covering her head and obscuring much of her face, a long-sleeved white blouse tucked into a floor-length gray skirt, and brown walking shoes. I assume she is young, but I can barely see her face, so I am not sure how old she is. In any case, she decides to entrust me with all her worldly possessions, save for her children and a black purse.

“You’re welcome to ride in back,” I say, trying not to sound too eager to help, though I’m desperate to lighten her formidable load. “I’ll drive slowly.”

“Okay,” she says, heaving the duffel bag into the bed of the truck. “Come on, Gino, Tina. He’s giving us a ride to the bus stop.”

“I can climb in all by myself,” says Gino, swaggering up to the back bumper. Gino is as cute as a button, his pants and sweater notably clean, his shoes new. “Don’t help me, Mom.”

“Don’t help me, too,” says Tina, who is as cute as two buttons and not much bigger than the baby on Mom’s back. “I climb myself, too.”

So everyone climbs in, Gino and Tina unassisted, and as they settle amidst their luggage, Mom laughs and says, “Isn’t this fun?”

Gino shouts, “I love this truck!”

Tina shouts, “Me, too!”

And the baby on Mom’s back gurgles and grins.

“Ready?” I ask.

“All set,” says Mom.

So off we go on our two-block ride to the bus stop, and I’m thinking, “Who is this woman and where is she going with her three little kids?”

When we come abreast of the bus stop cottage, I make a U-turn and park in the No Parking zone next to the cottage so Mom can unload. Mom climbs out with admirable grace, lifts Gino out and sets him on the ground, lifts Tina out and sets her down, and says to them, “Go on and play by the tree while I unload.”

“Can I climb it?” asks Gino, frowning at the big tree.

“Wait for me to come watch you,” says Mom, nodding to affirm her command.

Now she comes around to my window and takes off her bonnet. “Thank you,” she says, blessing me with a radiant smile. “Thank you so much.”

Her hair is black and cut very short, her eyes brown, her cheeks flushed from the exertion of lifting children and lugging heavy baggage. She reminds me of a woman I was crazy about long ago in my fabled youth, a woman who was forever falling in love with louts and never cared much for me.

“Where are you going?” I ask, and I mean that both literally and philosophically.

“South,” she says, with a quaver in her voice. “We just missed this bus yesterday so we had to stay over. Got a late night special at the Sweetwater Inn. Seventy dollars. We’re headed for Guerneville. I have a friend there who said we could camp on her lawn until I figure out what to do. The bus only goes as far as Point Arena, so we’ll stay over at the Surf Motel and get the bus to Guerneville tomorrow.”

I give her a twenty-dollar bill. She bows her head, a smile playing at her lips. “Have a grateful day,” she intones, which I take as a reference to the Grateful Dead marching bears the previous owner affixed to the back window of my pickup; and I also take it as a gentle reminder to be grateful for being able to help her.

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone

When I get home I tell Marcia about my encounter with Mom and her three little children, and I admit I was tempted to bring them home with me, though I doubt Mom would have accepted such an offer from an unshaven old coot in a rusty pickup. And where would we have put them while we went about our lives, Marcia and I self-employed and working at home in a two-bedroom house we do not own? I laugh as I imagine informing our landlord that her tenants are suddenly no longer two, but six.

I wheel the wheelbarrow to the woodshed, imagining Gino and Tina tagging along to help get wood for the evening fire. I love children, though I have never fathered any—a conscious choice made in deference to a world I judge to have too many humans on board.

“I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” Sparky Anderson

In 1970, a year after I dropped out of college, I was employed by a marine biologist as his assistant, translator, and tutor to his four children as we traveled for six months in a converted milk truck along the Pacific coast from California to Costa Rica and back again, exploring tide pools and estuaries. My pay for six months work was a few hundred dollars and a great adventure. Nearly every afternoon of our odyssey, I would hail someone and ask, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a donde podemos acampar? Is there a place near here where we can camp?” And not once did a person reply No, but rather, “Come to my house. Come to our village. Come to our farm. Yes, follow me. I will show you a good place.” I had never known until then, and have never known since, such endemic generosity.

When I wasn’t working, I explored our surroundings; and everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador I was followed by gangs of little boys—skinny, hungry boys with enormous eyes and solemn faces, solemn until I made them laugh with my clunky Spanish or until I gave them food, and then they would smile as big as the world. I had long talks with many of these boys, and I was constantly surprised to learn that boys I thought were six or seven-years-old were actually twelve and thirteen. Most of these children had never eaten meat, few had ever worn shoes, and many had never been to school.

One morning in Mexico, a few weeks before we returned to the United States, I walked into the nearby village to buy freshly baked bread at the panaderia. We had been camping near this village for two days, and each time I ventured away from our camp, hordes of little boys would follow me. On this morning a veritable army of boys accompanied me to the bakery, the growling of their stomachs loud in the morning quiet. And as I approached the bakery, something gave way inside me—some persistent idea of myself—and I was overcome by fear and desperation. I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but something inside me definitely broke.

I entered the bakery and bought a hundred small loaves of bread, five big shopping bags full, which cost the equivalent of ten dollars—a small fortune to me in those days. Then I came out into the sunlight and gave each boy a loaf until all the loaves were gone; and there were still many more boys hoping to be fed.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

When I was twenty-three I got a job as janitor and teacher’s assistant at a day care center in Palo Alto, California established by the city especially for working mothers. We had an enrollment of thirty children, ages two-and-a-half to five-years-old, with twenty-eight of the children from single-parent homes—all those single parents women. The center opened at 6:30 AM and officially closed at 5:30 PM, though I was often mopping the kitchen floor while simultaneously watching over a handful of children when the last moms arrived long after six.

Two of the thirty children came from two-parent homes, and when one or both of those fathers came to pick up their children, the stacking of blocks and finger painting and playing in the sandbox and swinging on the swings and teeter-tottering ceased as the miraculous fathers came into our midst and shone their radiance upon the children who did not have fathers. And verily, the fatherless children were in awe of these rare men.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Two weeks have passed since I gave Mom and her kids that slow ride to the bus stop, and I wonder if I will ever stop thinking about them. Sometimes I wake in the night worrying about Gino and Tina and Baby, worrying they might be cold or hungry or afraid. Sometimes I find myself worrying about Mom, wondering how she’s holding up. Sometimes I think I should have brought them home, at least for a day or two, and then driven them to Guerneville and given Mom enough money to make a new start. Sometimes I imagine Marcia and I buy a place with room for six, and we go on a quest to find Mom and Gino and Tina and Baby; and they come to live with us unpredictably ever after.

But most of the time when I think of Mom and her beautiful children, I remember their smiles as big as the world, and I am grateful.