IN 1951, MY sister Delfina eloped and that summer went with her husband’s family to work in Ohio.
“Se la robó,” we would say about our brother-in-law Pedro: he abducted her. That’s how the running away of a young couple was described, as if the woman had nothing to do with it, as if she was an innocent victim. Much later I was to find out that the phrase originated with the Moors during their conquest of Spain, but back then, no one felt any need to analyze the words; we knew what they meant.
Fina was the first one to leave our family, and it was as if she had flung open the floodgates: within a year, my oldest sister María Luisa would also elope and move away, and then my older brother Alejandro – Jando – would quit school and go off to the Air Force. (Each one who left meant one fewer hand to help out in the fields. My sisters’ departure was especially painful, for they had practically been supporting the family for years with their work at the Del Monte cannery.)
That June, Buelita Manuela, my father’s mother, died. She had been sick for a long time, after having suffered a stroke that incapacitated her. Tía Benita, her only daughter, my mother and the other daughters-in-law took care of her during her long illness, as did my grandfather.
We didn’t see much of Buelita after she became ill. The adults must have thought we would only get in the way. My grandparents lived in a small, two-room house behind Tío Adrián’s equally small house, which was next door to our house. Before my grandmother became sick, she would have us at her place often. Most of the time it was to feed us some of her warm, hot-off-the-comal corn tortillas that she rolled up in tight, moist burritos after having sprinkled salt on them. Often she would lure us with her tortillas and then ask us to kneel down to pray with her.
That year that Fina left us we were scheduled to return to North Dakota for the summer, but when it became apparent in late April that my grandmother was near death, we stayed in Texas. Not only would it have been disrespectful to have left when she was on her deathbed, but my mother was needed to help take care of her.
We kids suspected that she was dying, even if no one bothered to clue us in as to what was going on, so we stayed out of everybody’s way. On the evening that she died, they sent all of the children to Tía Benita’s house while the adults gathered around her bed, or – in the case of the men – stood outside around a fire, smoking and talking in low voices. Although we knew Buelita was dying, most of us didn’t know how to behave, what we were supposed to do. We had not witnessed death before. So we did the only thing we knew how – we played games.
At last, after many hours, one of the tías walked in and announced simply, “Ya murió.”
We buried my grandmother a few days afterwards, in a wooden coffin that my grandfather, a carpenter, had made. She was buried at the camposanto Benito Juárez, the Mexican cemetery at the edge of town whose main entrance was spanned by a crude metal-and-wood arch with a message, a plea, which could only be read as people exited: No se olviden de nosotros – aquí estamos y aquí los esperamos (Do not forget us – here we rest and here we will wait for you).
BY THE TIME my grandmother had died and been buried, it was too late to go to North Dakota; the sugar beet work had started weeks earlier and the farmers had all the crews they needed. There was no place for us to go. For a while we thought we would have to spend the summer in Texas but then we got word that Del Monte was looking for people to work at its tomato cannery in Ogden, Utah.
Utah? Hardly anybody had heard of that state. Where was it? What was it like? Nobody could tell us. One neighbor told my mother that the state had just been invented.
Apenas lo inventaron, she said confidently.
We kept hearing horror stories about the scary mountains and their steep cliffs over which our car would have to travel in order to get to Utah. We had visions of our car going over a voladero and hurling us down a mountainside to our deaths. I worried that the car would be unable to manage the steep grades on the mountain roads and we’d end up rolling uncontrollably down to the bottom.
None of that happened, of course. The mountains were there but none was as formidable as we had imagined. Nevertheless we breathed a sigh of relief when, at the end of the third day, we crossed the Wasatch Range and entered the valley in which Ogden lay. We had made it. We were safe.
Well, almost. About 30 miles from Ogden, a drunk driver crossed the median onto our lane and rammed our car head-on. We had conquered the mountains but we were stopped cold on a flat, straight highway a few miles from our destination. Nobody was hurt, but we must have been quite a sight. There had been nine of us stuffed into that old car – five adults, one teenager and three children – and every nook and cranny had been stuffed with people, clothes, blankets and pillow, pots and pans and other belongings that we would need that summer.
Although the car was not badly damaged, its radiator had to be replaced and it needed other minor work. It would not be able to move for a few days, so while my father and one of my brothers stayed behind to supervise the repairs, the rest of us boarded a bus for the final miles, lugging our blankets, pillows and duffel bags stuffed full with clothing. That was the first time most of us had ever ridden on a bus. We were still in a state of shock over the wreck and we were nervous in anticipation of the arrival at our new home. The excitement and tension was too much for Carmen, my youngest sister who, at six, was a year older than I. Standing meekly between my mother and Luisa, my oldest sister, Carmen peed in her panties. None of us said anything as we watched the stream make its way towards the front of the bus, but we prayed that the bus driver wouldn’t notice it. The last thing we needed at that point was to be abandoned on the side of a strange road by an irate bus driver.
When we got to the camp, a row of white barracks next to the giant plant outside Ogden, our official greeting party consisted of the Herrera triplets. The Herrera family, also from Crystal City, had arrived several weeks earlier so the seven-year-old triplets – Clotilde, Beatriz and José – apparently felt obligated to let us know from the very beginning that in this camp, they were in charge.
“Que bueno que se les murió su abuelita,” they would taunt us when the adults were not around. They also ridiculed us for having arrived on a bus, for having been in a wreck, and for whatever else they could think of. Eventually they became our friends and playmates, but those first few days, they forced us to stay inside because we could not bear their teasing.
MOST OF THE summer only the adults worked because the cannery would not employ teenagers or children, so Mariana, who was 14, took care of me, Carmen and 8-year-old Dora. It was an easy time for her because, in addition to the Herrera triplets, there were other children in the camp and we spent a lot of time playing with them outside. Unlike places where we’d worked in other states, this was a clean, well-kept camp. The apartments were large (ours had four rooms) and well-constructed, not drafty and dusty like the ones we were used to. They even had indoor plumbing – a first for us – and a regular kitchen with a gas stove and a refrigerator. There was even a small park with swings and other playground equipment.
By the end of the summer, though, the cannery was slowing down. Only my father and Jando were working there. After a while, my mother, Norberto and Mariana started joining others who would go out to pick cherries in the nearby orchards. For some reason, Luisa stayed behind to take care of us, allowing Mariana to go out. Each morning they got on the back of a truck owned by Ramón Montemayor – the crew leader, also from Crystal City – and rode to the orchards. The same truck would bring them back home in the evening.
One morning Dora insisted on going with the others to pick cherries and my mother, tired of listening to her nagging, said yes. That evening, on their way home, the driver of the truck was going a bit too fast and failed to make a curve near a softball field where a game was going on and the truck flipped over a couple of times before landing on its back. Most of the 30 or so people aboard the truck were pinned under it as its wheels spun silently above; a few were hurled into the ditch. The panicked softball players scurried to help pull people from the wreckage while they waited for the ambulances to arrive.
Back at the camp, we could hear the wailings of the ambulances as they moved back and forth between the site of the wreckage and the hospital. We all stopped what we were doing and stood at the edge of camp looking in the direction from which the sirens could be heard. They seemed to go on forever. I think we all knew by then what had happened, but, at five years of age, I don’t think I had sense enough to realize what the implications were.
I don’t remember anyone telling me that my mother and Mare (pronounced MAH-reh) and Beto had been injured and would not be coming home that night, but somebody must have. I don’t remember crying. I don’t remember complaining or even being scared, but I’m sure I must have done and been all that, and more. I was very close to my mother and I had never really been separated from her for more than a day or two – I can’t imagine remaining calm when faced with the knowledge that she would not be coming home anytime soon. Maybe I’ve chosen not to remember.
Montemayor quickly reassured everyone that the truck was insured, that all the hospital and medical bills would be taken care. We needn’t worry. We didn’t, but months later, after we’d return to Texas, we started getting bills from the hospital, and they continued to come for years. I think my mother made an effort to pay some of the debt but there was no way we could pay everything and the hospital eventually gave up trying to collect. Montemayor left the camp very soon after the accident and we never heard from his insurance company, if he had one.
Dora was the only one to come home that evening. She was unhurt. Mariana came home a few days later, missing her two front teeth. Beto was next. His broken nose was badly disfigured and his head was wrapped in bandages from the eyes up. His forehead was to remain a terribly sensitive area until he died in a Texas car accident fifteen years later. My mother, however, remained in the hospital for weeks. The impact had literally lifted most of her forehead from her skull. Some forty years later, it was the V-shaped scar stretching from one end of her forehead to the other, her recuerdo from that horrible day in 1951, that I stared at as the funeral director closed her casket.
ON THE DAY she finally came home, Luisa and Mare had bathed Dora, Carmen and me and made us put on clean clothes and our best shoes. They wanted her to find us presentable. It had been a long time – they had not allowed us kids to visit her in the hospital – and we were dying to see her. But when she walked through the door into our house, my eyes locked on the white bandage wrapped tightly around the top of her head and I went into virtual shock. Although I had the decency to stay there long enough for her to hug me and my sisters as she sobbed, “¡Mis hijos, mis hijos!” Somehow I managed to wiggle out of her embrace and quickly left the room.
I was scared of her. Of her bandages. Of this different woman. I was not sure she was the same mother who had left us that morning many weeks earlier. I did not want to be around her. I did not want to have to see her. Eventually the shock of her bandages wore off. Eventually I realized what a terrible transgression I had committed. And I often wondered what could have could have gone through her mind as she saw her own child rejecting her.
If she was hurt, I never heard about it. She was not the type of person who would keep past transgressions handy to hurl back at her children when convenient. No doubt she forgave me, even without my having to ask for forgiveness. She was very good at that.
It took me a long time to forgive myself for what I had done, however. And maybe I never did. Maybe that’s why I was staring at that scar on her lifeless forehead that final day.