Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Christmas Gift

Last Friday for a large part of the day I got to hang out in the Imaging Center of Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. I had come with a friend who was scheduled for two MRIs. Anticipating a long wait, I made sure to bring along plenty of snacks, some illustrator pens and a well-worn sketchbook.

The waiting area filled up quickly with mostly older couples who busied themselves reading, texting, watching tv and in one case knitting. Then a young Spanish family sitting in the corner caught my eye. A thirty something husband and wife with two children, I figured they were waiting on an older relative, perhaps their abuela.

I was surprised later when an assistant called the husband in for an MRI. And shortly after that my friend got called in for her own tests.

Faced with several hours of wait time, I settled in as best I could, took out my sketchbook and began to draw. It didn’t take long before the two children took notice. They stopped chattering, put down their I-pad and began staring at me. The longer I drew the more curious they became until presently, the brother, the bolder of the two, moved to a closer chair with his sister soon following.

As I continued drawing, their curiosity could not be contained. In order to get closer, they soon took seats directly across from me. I kept drawing for a while longer until growing hungry; I closed the sketchbook and decided to check out the Center cafĂ©. The children’s smiles changed my mind and on a whim I held out the sketchbook to them.

“Would you like to see my drawings?”

“Oh yes!” answered the brother and he and his surprised sister thus began a delightful journey of discovery through a year’s worth of my sketches. When one or the other came upon a drawing they especially liked, the sketchbook was held up for their mother to see.

And with that unusual introduction all of our imposed reservations soon evaporated. The boy asked if I was an artist. Did I go to university? He told me that his mother’s brother painted pictures and he and his sister once took an art course back home in Puerto Rico.

By then I had become encouraged and started asking my own questions. What were their names? Were they visiting Florida on holiday? Had they gone to Disney World? The sister, Malaria, spoke little English so younger brother Gariel became translator for both of us.

They were refugees from Hurricane Maria and had come to Moffitt from the little town of Trenton west of Gainesville. Before that they stayed for a while in Ocala and before that Orlando. They liked Florida but were eager to go back home.

At that point, Malaria retrieved her I-pad and with new found courage began using the pad to ask questions.

“Do you draw the colors?” “Do also you paint the pictures?”

Through the genius of technology I showed this inquisitive girl my web site and videos. As image after image scrolled across the screen, Malaria and Gariel became more excited, pointing at their favorites and holding up the I-pad again for their mother to see. Now she too seemed more relaxed and after a while joined in the conversation. Finally I felt comfortable enough to ask a question that had been on my mind.

“Is your husband ok?”

She spoke at length to Gariel who then turned to me and repeated one word, “Tumor.” His mother pointed at her head and nodded when I asked, “Brain tumor?” In the most convincing voice I could muster, I told her that her husband was in the very best medical facility and not to worry, he would be fine.

The conversation trailed off after that and all of us sat in silence. When their father finished his MRI and returned, Malaria and Gariel were quick to show him my sketchbook, occasionally stopping to point at me.

As they turned the pages together, I marveled at how, for a short time, art had been able to bring strangers together. That refugee family had been through so much sadness yet I could see what a strong bond of love they had for each other. Would Malaria and Gariel still have their father’s guidance as they faced the difficult task of growing up? Would his wife have the privilege of growing old with her loved one by her side?

Their long ordeal over, the family gathered their belongings and prepared to leave. A sadness swept over me and I searched for comforting words to say before they drove back home. No words came.

As they filed past, Gariel handed me a candy cane and smiling, wished me a Merry Christmas. Malaria and their mother and father smiled and also wished me a Merry Christmas. And then they were gone.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Russell County Memories

In 1950 my grandfather passed away and for the first time in her long life, my grandmother found herself alone and needed our help in getting over the awful emptiness. So, my dad, looking for an excuse to escape summer’s heat, fired up the old Chevy and drove my mom, sister and I up to Virginia to stay with Grandmother Alice for what we thought would be a couple of months. My sister and I were sure we had been dropped down in a magical land of mist shrouded mountains, hollers and for five months of the year, snow. For us Florida flatlanders it proved to be a vacation wonderland.

‘A couple of months’ turned into a year, way too long for two young kids to lay about. Some adults decided we ought to continue our formal education and the schooling would take place at Finney School, the local seat of learning, just down the road from Grandmother’s place. Our vacation was officially over.

The faded old school was fascinating to us in its stark simplicity. Grades 1-6 were in one room and 7-12 in another one. The cavernous class rooms were heated by small fuel-oil stoves but the warmth never seemed to make it back to where I sat. With no running water or plumbing, trips to the water pump or outhouse were, especially in winter, acts of shivering courage.

With time on her hands and tired of staring at chickens, my mom signed up to be a substitute teacher in some of Russell County’s underserved areas. No teaching experience needed, just show up and manage to stay until 2 o’clock. Then one day someone didn’t show up and they asked Mom to sub at one of the most remote schools in the County, Possum Hollow School. She kept me out of school that day to go with her and I believe it was to teach me another kind of lesson.

Up a winding gravel road and wedged into a cleft sliced out of the mountain, Possum Hollow School made Finney School seem like a palace. Small, dark and cold, the school had seen much better days and I marveled that it somehow managed to stay upright. Mom and I sat alone for the longest time and she wondered out loud if students would show up at all.

But slowly children began to wander in one after the other until finally all eight desks were occupied and drawn close to the wood-burning stove. I saw no school bus or heard any cars delivering students and it dawned on me that these kids had walked all the way.

I don’t remember any of the schooling that took place but the lunchtime has stayed with me all these years later. I eagerly opened my brown paper bagged lunch and surveyed what my mother had prepared- a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple and a carton of milk. Just before laying into the sandwich, I glanced around to see what other students were eating.

Gathered around me were three of the saddest looking children I had ever seen. Two boys and a girl, perhaps brothers and sister, they were dressed in torn and faded clothes and in obvious need of basic hygiene. They stood staring at me, saying nothing and occasionally wiping their runny noses on tattered sleeves.

What in the world was wrong with those kids? Then I realized they were not staring at me but at my lunch. They did not have their own lunch boxes or brown paper bags and it hit me that the reason was because those three children had no lunches. Not one apple or piece of cornbread, nothing. At my young age, I had no clue why, but knew for certain I could not eat lunch while they ate nothing. I motioned for the three to come over and then divided the sandwich and apple into equal parts and gave it to them. With big smiles they wolfed down the offered food and finishing, turned and returned to their desks. I drank a carton of milk for lunch that day.

My visit to Possum Hollow School was the first time I ever witnessed poverty or even knew about poor folks. I never once thought about my grandmother or people in the valley being poor. I believed it was simply the way they lived. The gut-wrenching poverty of families like those in the hollers taught me a lesson I never forgot. Whenever possible, help a neighbor out.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Target of Life

Before computer and electronic games took over, boys of a certain age wanted only three things; a bicycle, a baseball glove or a BB gun. I was that kid and when I turned nine my father gave me the gift for which I had long pestered him- a Daisy pump-action 50 shot BB gun. His simple hand- written card read, “Aim high at the target of life.”

For the first week I practiced on tin cans and bottles until one day I was drawn across the road to the abandoned orange grove. Maybe there would be some leftover oranges I could shoot.

About thirty yards from the nearest tree I noticed a rustling in the tall weeds and soon a covey of quail emerged. I doubted I could even shoot that far and without thinking raised the gun, sighted on the first quail and fired.

To my horror I hit it. The injured bird leapt into the air but fell heavily back to earth.  In a fit of pain, it ran in circles dragging its broken wing. Frightened and unsure what to do, I ran home and told my father.

I expected to be punished and perhaps have the gun taken away. Instead my father stopped work and sat down beside me on the couch. He told me the quail would never be the same again. Unable to fly, it would be easy prey for a hawk or a cat. “You need to go back and put that bird out of its misery.”

I ran from the house filled with anger and dismay. How could he say such a thing. Pacing back and forth in the yard, it finally dawned on me, I had no other choice. My anger now replaced by a gnawing dread, I picked up the gun and walked back to the orange grove.

I prayed the quail was only dazed and had flown away. Or maybe it was already dead. Either event would have let me off the hook. But no such luck. Nearing the orange tree, I saw that it was still there, sitting quietly in the green shadows.

At my approach, the quail roused itself, ran a short distance and stopped. It could not fly, that much was clear, but it was also very much alive. If I were to get a good shot, I would have to chase the bird down. And so I did, running through the orange grove after the quail, pumping the BB gun and firing away. In any other situation, it would have been a comical sight. But there in that moment, I felt like a bumbling shameful boy.

After a half-dozen or so wild shots, I saw that some had hit home. The quail slowed considerably and once more began running in circles. This time I was able to come quite close to the injured bird. I pumped and fired again and again, now hitting it with every shot.

But the quail would not die and could only flop about on the ground. I felt utterly alone and helpless. In such an agitated state, I remembered the big game hunter’s advice, “Always aim for the head." But with the bird’s flopping around, I knew that would be impossible.

I had to find a way to hold the quail still. The poor creature, now oblivious to me, came quite close. In a rush, I knew what had to be done. Quickly I placed my foot on its quivering body, took aim and fired. And with tears streaming down my face, I fired again and again until the quail no longer moved.

Then I turned, walked out of the grove and back to the house where my father waited. Without a word, I crossed the living room to the hall closet and placed the BB gun there. I never picked it up again.