Friday, September 2, 2011

The Yard Cleaner


There's a number of food pantries around the Elmira area.  It's understandable, times are hard and it's nice that churches and such are able to distribute food that would otherwise go to waste.  But there are problems.  From what I understand, they're being inundated with people who move from one location to another packing as much food as they can into their containers, taking more than they really need, putting heavy demands on those who are simply trying to help their neighbors.  Therefore, several of the food pantries have decided to close as they are simply unable to deal with the sheer quantity of these scavengers.  I can't help but wonder how many of these people are actually motivated by hunger or if it's just the idea of getting something for nothing.  I tend to think it's the latter.

I can't say that I've known real hunger.  Let's face it,  we as Americans are pretty pampered.  No nation on the face of the earth takes care of its people as we do, and I for one am very grateful for the privileges I have because of the stamp on my birth certificate. I'm certainly not saying that we don't have hungry people inside our borders, I'm sure we do.  But for the most part, we really don't have a clue as to what it means to struggle to get something to eat everyday.

During our years in Honduras we lived directly across the road from the Caribbean where the ocean breeze was constantly blowing stuff off the street and into our yard.  When our co-worker Lydia Hines lived there, she'd hired an old woman by the name of Maria to sweep around the mission house and rake the yard.   After our family moved in, she asked if I'd mind keeping Maria on as it was the only way she could support herself and her daughter.  "Just give her a few lempiras and some beans and rice," I was told.  "She'll be quite satisfied with that."  That's how Maria came to work for me, and she showed up faithfully almost every Saturday.

As time went by, I found out a few things about the old woman who usually wore the same faded dress and a plain white kerchief over her head.  "I wish I knew how old she was." I once wrote. "She seems so old, but I think it's her broken teeth and skin that has been exposed to the tropic sun for so long that makes her seem so.  I asked her one time. She told me that she was 80.  I laughed and told her that was impossible as she claims to have a daughter that is barely over 20.  I explained that women don't have children when they're 60 years old.  She looked at me genuinely confused.  "Well, then I don't know how old I am," she said.  Over time I would learn that her husband and son were both dead and that her daughter was crippled, unable to care for herself.  Maria was the sole provider, there was no other family.

As the months went by I could see her becoming more frail.  I wrote this is my journal shortly before we moved away:  "Old Maria thanked me profusely after I paid her today and gave her some rice and beans.  She asked if possible would I let the next people who live in this house know about her and ask them if she might continue to work here.  I assured her I would do what I could.   There is a quietness about her that wasn't there when she first started working for me.  I could say that it's because she's now a Christian.  But I believe that primarily it's because she's old, wearing out, and just doesn't feel well.  She shouldn't have to do this kind of work at her age.  She should be collecting Social Security and watching soaps, doting over grandchildren, baking cookies and working crossword puzzles like my grandmother did when she was her age.  But old age for Maria and those like her is a curse here.  There is no rest for them."

I don't remember how I first met Antonia.  She had most likely come to our gate looking for food, a daily ritual for her.  This is how I described her back then:  "Antonia is a woman without hope, without dreams.  Her children are dirty, their clothes are seldom washed.  They never wear shoes.  Once a week someone will be at the gate.  There is no more to eat.  And though they never ask for money, I know why they have come.

There is a father.  There is talk that he drinks the money he earns chopping fields with his machete.  Antonia denies it, defending her "marido" vehemently.  She claims that he has an ulcer, at times debilitating him for days.  Whatever, they seldom have food.

There are six children.  David is the oldest at 12.  The youngest is an infant.  At one time there were four others.  They all died of common ailments.  Lack of medical attention killed each of them. One day David came to the gate, and I told him that if in a couple of days he would return, we would like him to show us where he lived.  Antonia had a baby girl several days before, and I had not seen her since.  I was concerned about how the baby was doing. 

Two days later he came and Larry, Autumn and I headed several miles out of town towards the pineapple fields.  Eventually he told us to turn off into one of the fields, and for several kilometers we drove along the dirt road used by tractors to collect the ripe fruit for export. Eventually the road ended.  We stopped the car and followed David down a dirt path which led towards the river.  There on a bank overlooking the water we were led into a tiny wooden hut covered with a thatched roof.  We were in the home of Antonia, her "marido" and six children.

Antonia greeted us with a welcome smile and invited us to sit down on the beds.  Larry insisted on standing, but I sat down beside the tiny form of a sleeping newborn.  I was amazed at the size of her! She was so tiny.  She had weighed four pounds at birth Antonia informed us, and she was but nine days old.  Autumn started at her, not quite believing she was real.  Feelings of pity for this child overwhelmed me.  And there was regret, regret that we could not take her and give her promises of good things to come.

Since that day, we have had continued contact with Antonia.  Someone from the family still comes to our gate once a week "to visit" and we know that they're hungry again.  We simply do what we can which isn't very much.  And we know that this is how they will live until they die."

When Maria would finish her job, she'd call me and have me look at what she had done, beaming with pride and satisfaction. There was dignity there in spite of her station.  But Antonia and her family on the other hand were scavengers, often seen going through trashcans in the city and begging on the streets.  There was certainly no dignity there.  One day she happened to stop for a visit as Maria was finishing up for the day.  I saw the old lady look at the young mother with pity and heard her softly say in Spanish, "That poor thing."   It was obvious she saw her life as being preferable over Antonia's.  I believe it was.

Antonia with her children outside her home

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