Friday, December 23, 2011

Beneath the Dancing Tree

Image Credit: Chance of Sunshine: Cinderella On Her Tea Break

     It was a beautiful summer’s day and for a change it was a wonderful 72 degrees and the humidity was nil. I didn’t usually have time to enjoy summer, but this forced retirement was finally going to give me the chance to relax and enjoy my life and I was planning to relish every minute of this gorgeous day.
     I’d spent most of the day, out in the back pulling the weeds out of my vegetable garden and I was ready for a break. My Saul had built me a beautiful backyard. He’d put in a patio with a waterfall in the corner and a fireplace right in the middle of my patio with nice seating all around. I now had a wonderfully, quiet sanctuary when I wanted to spend time alone or with family. I’d always dreamed of a backyard like the one I had now, with enough room to have a large vegetable and herb garden and grow my pumpkins and my Saul had made my dream come true. He’d also planted a maple tree and when the tree was big enough for the branches to spread over my pumpkin patch, he’d bought dancing shoes and hung them from the lowest branch.

     I had just finished preparing Saul’s lunch; cheddar cheese and steak enchiladas with a nice Spanish rice and frijoles charros, to which I just needed to add chopped cilantro, diced bacon, ½ a medium chopped onion and one diced jalapeño with the seeds intact. I set the beans on simmer, brought in the sun tea and fresh lemonade and removed the big chocolate chip cookie cake from the refrigerator. I looked over my shoulder at the iron clock my mama had given me and thought to myself, “Haha, I made it!”
     I could hear the banging of my mailbox and the cheerful whistling of Esteban Mendoza, our mailman. I walked out onto the porch to collect the mail with an ice-cold glass of lemonade. You could tell he was ready for it; he already had his hand out for the lemonade.
     I couldn't believe it had already been eight years ago today on my 42nd birthday, that Esteban had become our new mailman. It felt like just yesterday that I’d heard a hesitant knocking on my front door and had opened it to a fresh-faced new postal worker who in spite of his training hadn't been quite sure what to do. He’d asked me where he should put the mail and his trainer and father had said with a snort, “Dork, what the heck you think the mail box is for?”
     I’d laughed and then realizing I’d hurt his feelings, I’d invited both of them to sit down and have a nice cold glass of lemonade. You probably couldn’t do that in bigger towns, but in Chula Madre everything was really laid back. I didn’t find out until afterward that I’d had the honor of having been his first mail delivery; after that every year, on that date I’d make cupcakes or a cookie cake and we’d celebrate.

     Esteban laughed when I presented him with a chocolate chip cookie cake. He was a chocolate fanatic so it hit the spot. He called over the kids from across the street, my next-door neighbors Miki and Chitose, and the Penson kids who seemed to live outside. I cut the cookie into 10 pieces and served ice-cold lemonade to everyone. We sat around for a few minutes and remembered his first days as our postal worker and we congratulated him again on being the best postman we’d ever had.
     I stood on the porch for a while after everyone had gone and ignored the letters I’d dropped and just breathed in the scent of flowers hanging from their pots on the porch and listened to the sound of my stereo playing Nicole C. Mullen’s My Redeemer Lives. I was momentarily distracted by the sound of children running past as they laughed and tagged each other, and round and round they ran and jumped. I bent over to pick up the letters and saw how the breeze danced amongst the planters full of flowers and herbs and felt it playfully twirl around the hair at the nape of my neck. As a gift for playing along, my nose was allowed to briefly catch the aroma of the wonderful flowers and the peach pies that my next-door neighbor Miki had set on her windowsill to cool. She was very lucky I wasn’t a thief or her pies would have been long gone.
     I turned as I heard a scream of laughter from little Julian and his brothers. They were so young and full of life and with a deep sigh I remembered that I’d turned 50 today. The birthday calls had started early and my younger brother, Jaime had let himself into my house and made me breakfast and with his beautiful tenor had sung Las Mañanitas outside my bedroom door until my husband Saul had threatened to punch his lights out. He’d laughingly dodged my Saul’s halfhearted punch and said he was only going to sing louder until we came down for breakfast. He’d looked at me, with my hair all over the place, sleep in my eyes and my frumpy old lady nightgown and said, “You know what manita? You look more beautiful the older you get.” Then he grinned and ruined it all by adding, “So what do you want to use to get downstairs? Your walker or the wheelchair?” I thought he was going to split a gut as I started pelting him with anything within reach. As I sat down to breakfast he said he wasn’t supposed to tell me, but they were giving me a surprise party later and because I was so old he thought it best to tell me so that I wouldn’t have a heart attack. I’d tried to hit him, really I had, but I was laughing too hard to do much damage. We had enjoyed a wonderful breakfast together and he’d actually hugged me before he left.

     I turned as Saul drove in honking, the entire car filled with flowers and balloons. He stepped out of the car and came over and got on his knee in front of me and started to sing. His beautiful bass still brought shivers to my body when he sang. He sat down on the porch and sat me on his lap and whispered softly into my ear, “You are the most precious woman in the world and every year, you just get more beautiful my Cinderella.” I sat blushing on his lap and buried my face in his throat. Here I was 50 years old and still acting like a teenager. I looked up into his face and remembered how our love had first begun.

     Chula Madre, population 960, had no theater or drive-in so the town had set up a makeshift theater on the west side of town. The high school sewing class had sewn several white sheets together into one big one and with his permission it had been set on the side of Farmer Brook’s barn. Mr. Johnson, the president of our only bank had generously donated the use of his film projector and Mayor Tiby Danforth had officially made every Friday and Saturday movie nights. Everyone would bring chairs and blankets and picnic baskets as we enjoyed the movie. Every weekend my friends, family and myself would either walk the two miles to the Westside of town or we’d all be crammed into the back of my papa's old Ford pickup truck. We’d be so excited as we wondered what movie we’d be watching that night. While we really enjoyed the movie, we really looked forward to the last weekend of the month. On the last Saturday of every month Farmer Brooks would open up his barn and the town’s 6-piece band would play. For $6.00 we’d get to dance for hours and Molly, the owner of Molly’s Eatery and Bar would supply a mouth-watering assortment of snacks and drinks.

     The first time I properly met Saul, I’d been 14 years old, he’d been 19; he’d been messing with his mama calling her viejíta (old lady), kissing her cheeks or forehead and jumping out of the way when she tried to swat him. I’d rolled my eyes at remembering that this was the same boy whose mama had been calling him bebíto (baby) the weekend before. She’d been distraught, crying and wringing her hands and from her description I had assumed the child she said had gotten lost was between 2 to 4 years old. Much later from across the room I’d turned to see her 19 year old, hulking bebito rush to her side to be hugged and kissed. I didn’t realize this was the bebito she was talking about until my father had introduced me to them the following weekend. She wouldn’t let him out of her sight and after a few minutes I realized he was just spoiled rotten.

     My coming of age party (Quinceañera) was almost on me. I would be considered a full-fledged woman and wondered if I’d be able to find a man like my father. My parents had a wonderful marriage and my friends always commented on that. My papa was such a romantic and used every opportunity, no matter where they were, to compliment or serenade my mama. My papa’s voice was so rich and velvety and every time he sang to her, mama would practically swoon like a teenager in the first throes of love. I’d always dreamed of finding someone like my papa, but I really never thought it would be possible. I mean come on! Could there be another such romantic as my papa?

     The Friday before my Quinceañera, I had gone outside to mama’s pumpkin patch to pick one for the pie she wanted to make and became enchanted with the moon’s glow on the ripe burnt orange fruit. As I moved around the pumpkins, they seemed to change from orange, to dark red, to a royal purple. A glimmer to my right drew my eyes to a puddle of crystalline water that the recent rain had deposited near the pumpkin patch. I bent and stared into the water and saw my face and the moon reflected behind me and started to dance as I imagined myself Cinderella dancing among her pumpkins. I lost myself in the music of God’s creation and danced underneath the maple trees until suddenly my fairytale came to a thudding stop at the snorting laughter of one very amused Saul, who was sitting on the lowest branch underneath Old Gnarly, the oldest maple tree in our garden. He’d apparently taken advantage of the darkness to hide himself among the leaves.
     I turned to pick the pumpkin I’d chosen and decided that ignoring that idiot would be my best bet. I stomped off into the house and ignored him as he called out my name.

     I dressed eagerly for the dance the following Friday. I was so excited because I’d had my Quinceañera on Saturday evening, the week before and this would be my first dance as a woman. Mama had made me a beautiful shimmery royal blue strapless gown and together we had saved enough to buy matching pumps. My black hair (another pain in the butt of my existence, the first were my little eyes), the crazy curls springing everywhere, had been brought into some semblance of order. Mama had piled my hair on top of my head and had used her pearl hair combs to somehow make it look elegant with curls falling down my back. She’d outlined my small black; almond shaped eyes with black pencil and had applied a light blush to my cheeks and a shimmery gloss to my lips. Mama’s finishing touch had been her pearl necklace that she’d placed around my throat. I looked into the large round mirror and for just a minute it looked like I was glowing and I felt like Cinderella.
     For the first time my papa refused to let me ride in the back of his Ford pickup. He said that a proper young lady should sit in front. He was so proud and his eyes filled with tears, “My bebita is all grown up. I wanted you to stay mi princesa chiquita (my little princess) forever.”

     I entered the dancehall on my big brother Ramon’s arm and my friends came forward to admire my grown up appearance. Out of the blue Sali asked me, “Is it true that you’re dating Saul?”
     “What!?!? Where did you hear that? He’s a spoiled mami’s boy and I’d never date anyone like that!”
     “Well that’s what he’s telling everyone!” Sali said excitedly. I tried to ignore Saul all evening, but every time I turned around there he was watching me. I was still angry that he’d seen me dancing in the garden and had laughed at me.
     Several times during the first half of the evening, different boys had come forward and asked my papa’s permission to dance with me, but I’d noticed that after a few twirls on the floor, they would start looking over my shoulder and would suddenly remember that they had something else to do (for a while there I thought my deodorant cream had failed me!). My little brother Jaime came up to me, his mouth full of pie, “Hey manita, my friend Ruy wants to dance with you, but he said Saul told him he’d kick his butt if he got near you.”
     I was seething! My first dance as a grown woman and Saul was ruining the entire evening for me. I thought of storming out the door, but before I could act Saul had grabbed my arm and was dragging me on to the dance floor.
     “If you can dance with pumpkins, you can dance with me,” a red faced Saul said gruffly, “and I wasn’t making fun of you.” He hesitated briefly, “I thought you looked like a princess in the moonlight.” He left after our dance and the look he sent me had my heart racing. No one else asked me to dance that night and my brother Ramon finally told me why. He thought it was quite amusing that Saul had warned off would be suitors and while I was upset, I must admit that I was also kind of flattered.

     I spent the next few weeks pretending I wasn’t looking for him everywhere I went and when he was over at my house, I pretended I was ignoring him. My parents walked around smiling and my hermanos (brothers) really liked him, but I think they were kind of conflicted about this Tyrone Power look-alike following their hermanita (little sister) around.

     Several weeks later, as my friends and I sat waiting for the movie to start, Sali started giggling and elbowed me, hard! Saul came and stood in front of me and offered his hand and without thinking I took it and was led a little bit away from prying eyes. He looked solemnly into my eyes and informed me that he and his parents would be leaving to work the migrant farms in Moorhead, Minnesota and he wasn’t quite sure when they’d be back. He’d tried to get them to leave him behind, but his mother had refused. “Wait for me, okay?” I was speechless, as he pulled me into his arms to hug me gently and kiss my forehead, before walking quickly away. My face felt hot, my throat tight and my face was suddenly wet with tears. I don’t when it happened, but somehow I’d fallen in love with a spoiled brat.
     I hadn’t realized that it was possible to miss someone so badly, but I did. I woke up with him on my mind and went to sleep with him on my mind. At the end of the first week just as I was sure my heart was about to break, I received two letters from him. He’d never been very talkative, but apparently he had no problem on paper. The first one he’d written as they were leaving Chula Madre; the next had been written the day they’d arrived in Moorhead and he’d tried to put in everything that he’d seen and heard up to that point…and everything he was feeling.
     He described the scenery as they drove past fields of cotton and beans, farms, animals and small towns. I began to look forward to his letters and to the personal little note he would add at the end of each one.
     One week became two, two became four and soon six months had passed. The last two weeks I hadn’t received any letters, so I was sure that he’d forgotten all about me. My parents had tried to console me and of my four brothers, the three youngest had even encouraged me to go out with a couple of their friends.
     I’d been moping for two days and I hadn’t felt any interest in going out with my friends or to the movies, because I had been feeling so down and depressed and feeling sorry for myself I had gone to bed early. In the early hours of the morning, I was awakened by singing outside my window. It was a song I loved and the voice singing it was so strong and beautiful and rich like my father’s, but much deeper. I walked to my window a little unsteadily and pulled up the blinds and thought I must have died and gone to heaven. Saul stood outside, under my window dressed like a mariachi in front of a group of five other men playing guitars, a trumpet and a violin, all dressed the same. The words made me cry and although it was cool outside, I just couldn’t close my window. I stood with tears running down my face as I listened to his beautiful voice:

            Parece que fue ayer cuando te vi aquella tarde en primavera.
(It feels like yesterday when I saw you that afternoon in the springtime.)

            Parece que fue ayer cuando las manos te tomé por vez primera
(It feels like yesterday when I held your hands in mine for the first time)

            Soy tan feliz de haber vivido junto a tí por tantos años
(I am so happy to have lived next to you all these years)

            Soy tan feliz de disfrutar algunas veces tus regaños
(I am so happy that I even enjoy the times you scold me)

            Parece que fue ayer eras mi novia y te llevaba de mi brazo
(It feels like yesterday, you were my girlfriend and I walked with you on my arm)

            Parece que fue ayer cuando dormido yo soñaba en tu regazo
(It feels like yesterday that I dreamed as I slept with my head on your lap)

            Soy tan feliz pues sigues siendo de mi vida la fragancia
(You’ve brought me such happiness, you continue being the sweet fragrance of my life)

En nuestro amor nunca ha existido la distancia. Que Dios te guarde por hacerme tan feliz
(Please know our love will never feel a distance. May God keep you for making me so happy) Author ~Armando Manzanero

     I wiped at my face with my gown as the song ended and blushed when I heard my brothers, parents and the next-door neighbors clapping and whooping in the early morning hours.
     Saul’s parents had decided to remain in Moorhead, but Saul had spoken to his father and had asked for his blessing to return to Chula Madre. He’d driven right through the night to surprise me.
     By early afternoon everyone in Chula Madre knew that Saul had come back for me. I guess my blush pretty much gave me away as well, but from that moment on everywhere I went, Saul went and vice versa.
     We married the year I turned 18 and as I walked down the aisle to my Saul, he sang our song to me. I forced myself to walk patiently down the aisle towards him, when I actually wanted to run to him. It had been a tumultuous two and half years; I’d discovered Saul had quite a jealous streak in him and I’d broken off our engagement twice and cancelled the wedding once. On my wedding day my eldest brother Ramon told me that Saul had called him the night of my dance among the pumpkins and had told him that he’d met the woman he was going to marry, underneath the dancing tree.
     Thirty-two years, four children and 6 grandchildren later and every day feels like I’m still on my honeymoon. I‘d wanted a man like my father and God had sent me a man like my husband. He serenades me every chance he gets; he doesn’t care where we are. Just last week we were in JC Penney in the jewelry section when he decided to serenade me. I stood there blushing with my hands over my heart, my heart pounding and then he’d whispered in my ear, “Let’s visit the dancing tree tonight Cinderella.” I cried.
     Yes, I look forward to our dances underneath our dancing tree of maple leaves. It never fails to make me feel fourteen again and Saul as always, is my Prince Charming.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Other Side of the Street

Cintia always loved playing out in the rain and today was no different. As soon as she heard the rain softly hitting her office window she jumped up, put on her shoes and grabbed the multicolored umbrella. She knew she wouldn’t be using it, but she’d probably do her imitation of Gene Kelly in ‘Singing in the Rain.’ From the reception desk, Blanca Reynosa’s soft voice reminded her daughter, “Cintia, don’t forget to put on your rain pancho! What’s wrong with you? You want to catch your death of cold?” Cintia’s response as usual was, “Ay mami I’m a big girl now and you know I’ll just take it off once I get outside,” she grinned.
“Bueno, fine! But I’ll make you a nice hot cup of tea for when you’re done playing and you will drink it niña!” She muttered to herself as she walked away, “Mi hija el pato!” (My daughter, the duck).
Blanca Reynosa smiled as she prepared tea for her daughter and remembered the ducks and the rainy summer day fourteen years ago when her daughter had been eleven and her life had changed forever.
The Reynosa family was a rowdy bunch, except for Cintia who at eleven was very small for her age and very seldom spoke, if at all. Anyone attempting to speak to her was treated to a blank stare and then she would quietly move and hide behind her mami or papi. Her parents despaired of her ever coming out of her shell. Mami would say that she was a very quiet caterpillar and that one day she’d turn into a beautiful butterfly.

The Reynosa’s loved their big neighborhood church and every Sunday morning the entire family would walk to church together. They’d leave extra early so that Papi and Mami could use that time to ask each of them how their week had been, what they were grateful for and who had made them angry that week and give them advice on how they should handle it. Every week, as they would walk along the river’s edge towards church, Papi would point out something different in God’s wonderful creation and ask them what they thought God was thinking when He’d created it. The two Reynosa brothers always had deep answers and Tita, the eldest sister, well…let’s just say that poor Papi was always doubled up laughing by the time they got to church. He would look at his four children and with a sigh of pride and satisfaction he’d say, “You’ll do, you’ll do.”
That Sunday they’d left the house as usual and had answered Papi’s questions to his satisfaction and amusement, but just as they were about to enter Iglesia Casa de Oración (House of Prayer Church), Tita suddenly discovered she’d left her Bible at home. Actually, she’d just begun to date and knew that this week, Sunday morning would be the only time she could talk to her boyfriend on the phone. Mami must have realized that, because she decided to send someone else. She knew it was time that her youngest blessing began to grow up and do more for herself and even though her protective instincts told her not to do it, she decided to send Cintia. With an uncertain glance backward, Cintia started home back the way they’d come.
Cintia made it home in record time, grabbed Tita’s Bible and started out the door just as it began to rain. She took the multi-colored umbrella from the stand beside the door and started walking back very slowly. She loved walking in the rain.
She walked along Bay River and watched leaves as they floated down the river like little boats, some sinking when they filled with rain and others twirling madly as if controlled by magic. It took longer than usual to get to the corner of Alcott St. and cross to the other side. It was a very wide street with lots of traffic especially on the weekends. Cintia looked at the watch mami had given her and knew she’d still make it back to church in time. She knew that her mami and papi would be so proud of her. Mr. Landry, the owner of Gary’s Grocers waved to her and she hesitantly lifted her hand to wave back and turned to continue her walk, when she heard angry quacking behind her.
A mama duck with five little ducklings was attempting to cross the street to get to the other side, but the cars refused to stop. She would spread her wings and quack at them furiously, and then she’d turn her neck and quack at her babies, as if warning them not to move. Cintia knew she needed to get to church, but she was so afraid that something would happen to that little family. One of the little ducklings decided not to listen to its mama and started across the street and was hit by a small car and came to rest on its side in the middle of the street. Cintia screamed and would have run into the street, but before she could Mr. Landry had thrown one of the store’s grocery carts into the street causing traffic to come to a screeching halt. Cars on both sides began honking loudly.
Cintia ran to the injured duckling and kneeling on the ground picked it up and cradled it in her arms.
A big man in a blue Ford truck had tired of honking and was now lumbering toward Cintia and the ducks. “Get out of the way you stupid little girl,” he yelled, “they’re just ducks and now you’ve made me late!” He’d expected her to move quickly, but she sat there with her shoulders shaking and tears streaming down her face as she cradled the injured duckling in her arms.
Her parents and siblings, who’d come to look for her when she hadn’t returned to church, were furious! How dare that man scream at their little Cintia. Just as they started across to help her, Cintia took a deep breath, drew her shoulders back and looking straight into the big man’s eyes said, “No, I won’t move! I’m going to help the ducks cross the street.” She was still shaking a little bit, but she knew she had to be strong and just the way God protected her, she had to protect the ducks.
The big man opened his mouth to yell again, but all the anger drained out of him at the look of determination on her little face. She sat right where she was, looked up at him and refused to budge an inch. She was attempting to put the most ferocious scowl on her face possible, the one Papi wore when he was upset with her brothers, but she was failing miserably.
The big man lifted a beefy hand into the air and she tensed expecting a swat, but instead his hand came to rest gently on her head. He let out a great big sigh and got down on one knee to look into her eyes, “I’m sorry; you’re not a stupid little girl and I can always watch that movie another day with my kids. Maybe I can help you?” She looked up at him and her big brown eyes got bigger and all of a sudden she smiled so big, so that in spite of the rain coming down, the big man felt like the sun had come out to shine brightly on everyone.
Blanca Reynosa smiled and watched her little girl climb out of her cocoon. She walked across to her daughter, “Mijita (little daughter), what do you want us to do?”
“Can you stand and look at the cars on that side and put both your arms up to the sides like this,” Cintia put her free arm up to the side demonstrating, “until the ducks are on the other side?”
They split up into two groups one on each side of the duck family, the big man right in the middle of one group keeping the cars at bay; employees of Gary’s Grocers and Mr. Landry himself joined them.
Cintia picked up her umbrella and walked to the mama duck and just looked at her. She wasn’t quite sure what she was supposed to do next. The mama duck looked around and seemed to realize that everything had stopped for her; she put her head straight up in the air, quacked at the remaining four ducklings and up at Cintia as if to say, ‘follow me,’ and began to waddle across the street. Every once in a while she’d hiss at the backs of her live blockade and would look at Cintia as if to make sure she was still with them. With her open umbrella in one hand and the duckling in the other she followed the little family across the street. 
Safely across the mama duck gathered her ducklings to her and quacked at Cintia, who began to cry again as she got down on her knees and placed the duckling on the ground. “I’m sorry mama duck, I think he went to heaven.” She covered her eyes with fisted hands and began to cry quietly, her heart broken.
Traffic had begun to move slowly and those who’d helped the ducks cross stood around her. Her Papi kept saying, “Ay mijita, lo siento. Daughter, I’m so sorry.” The big man stood there with a helpless look on his face and kept swallowing to try and get past the lump in his throat. Blanca and Tita got down on their knees to hug and console the youngest Reynosa.
A sudden pecking at Blanca’s knee had her looking around, “Mijita mira! Look!” The little duckling had begun to move, a little slowly at first, then more energetically and was pecking at anything in range. The mama duck moved to it, rubbed the back of the feathery head with her bill, then as discipline nipped it’s tail feathers sharply.
Mama duck quacked her approval at Cintia then with a few quacks and hisses lined up all five of her babies and led them into the water. The sun broke through the clouds, just as the last duckling waded into the water and Cintia’s eyes sparkled like chocolate diamonds with the last of her tears. With the biggest smile on her face she told her mami and papi, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up!”
“What mija? Swim?” Mami couldn’t stop smiling and papi was amazed that his Chiquita was finally talking.
“No! I want to take care of animals. I want to make them better and help them when they’re in trouble!”
Several months later after the duck incident, as it came to be known, Blanca watched with pride as her littlest blessing came into her own. The family had place of honor as Cintia cut the ribbon attached to the Duck Crossing signs that Mayor Morgan had placed on both sides of Alcott St. thanks to the urging of many citizens.
Cintia had expected to get in trouble for not getting back to church, but instead Mami and Papi proudly told everyone the story of the ducks on that rainy Sunday and how their little Cintia had finally turned into a butterfly.
Cintia looked around her at Reynosa’s Animal Hospital and Kennel; the barking dogs, the newly born kittens and the small lamb and smiled; to think this had all begun one rainy Sunday with a little family of ducks. She drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She grabbed her rainbow colored umbrella and ran out into the rain. Maybe if she were lucky she’d come across some ducks.