What We Were Thinking, Part II
As the rainy autumn chilled quickly into winter, our weekend house-hunting explorations paused. We tucked into the tipi more cozily, having mastered the art of fire-making, and upgraded the floor coverings from blankets to canvas. It gave us time to reflect. And our backsides were drier.
We had that list of what we wanted from a piece of land, where folks could come to pray: meadow, woods, creek, a few outbuildings, a house, and...privacy. It became almost a mantra to us as we sized up each new property we visited. Nothing we'd seen so far had all of these elements, and to us, they were essential.
During his time working at the nursery the previous spring and summer, Patrick and I got to know his co-workers from Sonora, Mexico quite well. They were patient with his evolving attempts at Spanish, and he gently coached their English as they potted pine saplings, loaded box trucks, and ate their lunches together in the small break room. 12, sometimes 14-hour days were the norm, and Patrick would often linger at the end of a shift, thanking them for whatever new vocabulary he had learned. But what touched Patrick--both of us, really, as I heard the stories second-hand--was how these men had made the hard decision to be away from their wives, their children, their families back in Hermosillo, to find better-paying jobs (better by Mexican economic standards) here in the States, so they could send money back home to keep food on the table, rents paid, and little ones clothed. They were often away for nine months of the year. I imagined, wincing, what milestones they had missed (first steps, older family and neighbors passing away). More than once, I'd give Patrick's hand an extra squeeze when we were together, grateful for the privilege of simply having him within arms' reach on a daily basis.
As Cinco de Mayo approached that year, Patrick wanted to do something special for his work-friends, to perhaps close even an inch of the gap between them and their homeland with food, the centerpiece of all cultures, second only to language. In any kitchen, Patrick is fearless and talented; I weighed 98 lbs when we were married (haven't seen that number in years, and don't expect to anytime soon), and will happily clean up after him, no matter how many utensils and pans he's used.
So he pulled out all his best cookbooks, researched online, and created a menu that respected the Sonoran region of specialties, and also stretched his culinary skills in the process. We loaded up the car with posole, hand-made tortillas, menudo, an avocado side dish that wasn't guacamole, and every anticipated Mexican condiment we could find on that morning in early May. We set up the buffet in the break room, and posted a sign on the wall above the table, asking the other staff to allow their Mexican co-workers to fill their plates first, as a courtesy.
When I arrived around 5:30 that evening to collect Patrick, I found him in the gravel-and-dirt parking lot, a line of his Mexican co-workers grasping his hand in thanks, hugging him. Some were wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs or the backs of their hands. Not at all what we had expected, this response. We were humbled all the way down to our socks.
The line dwindled down to five of the men, who, in their combination of Spanish and English, invited us to dinner at their shared quarters on the nursery grounds. We negotiated a date and time, confirmed it in English and Spanish, and went home to wash the Tupperware that was piled in the back seat of the car.
The rest of that summer was filled with visits and dinners and more Spanish-English conversation lessons. We learned more about their families, their beloved state of Sonora, and cooked them a huge Thanksgiving dinner before they took Greyhounds back to Hermosillo for the winter. We dropped them off at the bus station, and confirmed plans to visit them in January.
Patrick left the nursery before Christmas and accepted a position in fundraising at the local office of a national nonprofit organization. One of his new co-workers took an interest in our search for land, and happened to live in the area where we were looking. She mentioned a farm that was on the market near her house, and offered to check with the realtor, since she knew him from the sale of her home. After checking, she reported sadly that the farm was in contract. We thanked her for the update, and left for Hermosillo, Sonora the next day.
Our friends lived humbly in Mexico, and close to each other. We saw them cuddle their children, dance with their wives on the patios of their simple homes. The joy in their faces was unmistakable--we'd not seen it at all when they were at work on the nursery grounds. But here, their feet on more beloved and familiar soil, they settled into the routines and relationships that nourished their souls. As we chatted around tables of food and extended family that week, each of these men in turn stated clearly, passionately, that they were done with the migrant gig. Hermosillo was where they belonged, and they'd find ways to make it work. "No more away from our loves". What they really wanted was what they had in that moment--wives, children, aunts and brothers-in-law, close at hand and more precious than the paychecks they'd sent from Ohio the previous year.
On the flight home, our suitcases laden with pastries and "armpit tortillas" (now, now...it's just a reference to the size of the tortilla--from armpit to fingertip--these things were HUGE, and delicious), we unfolded our impressions of the time we spent with them. Their lists of "wants" were anchored in relationships, not things. It silenced us when we approached the topic of resuming our house and land-hunting. We knew the land we hoped for was out there somewhere, but some key element was missing in each of our searches. The plane landed, we arrived at our little apartment, and started a load of laundry. "Maybe we've been asking the wrong question", I suggested. "Maybe it's not what we want from a piece of land; it's what the land needs from us.". He took the now-battered list from his shirt pocket and read it aloud: "meadow, woods, creek, a few outbuildings, a house, and...privacy".
30 minutes later, the phone rang. It was the realtor for the farm that was in contract, the one Patrick's co-worker had mentioned. The agreement had fallen through, the farm was back on the market, and would we like to take a look?
We met him at his house, and accepted his offer to drive us in his car to see the place.
The driveway was long and the bridge over the creek was beyond rickety. As we crossed it (my eyes were closed) and came around a slight curve, past a long white barn and a square outbuilding with peeling white paint, the scene opened up to reveal a house sitting atop a hill, and a rusty chest freezer in the lawn just off the front porch. Three cats sat hunched on the porch, and a series of misplaced t-posts were stuck in the ground at odd angles on either side of some dead-looking bushes that framed the spot where the driveway ended and the path to the house began. We got out of the realtor's car, and noticed mounds of plastic milk jugs and 2-litre pop bottles in an old red barn at bottom of the hill. Patrick spotted the shiny silver curves of two beer kegs nestled into the slope on the north side of the house, and a shed surrounded by what appeared to be the leave-behinds of a recent estate auction.
A shrieking sound, much like a child in pain, came from the barn, and we turned quickly, startled and ready for action. "Oh, that's the peacock, Sparky", the realtor said. "The owners moved to the city, and couldn't take him along". We squinted in the sunlight toward the sound, but couldn't see anything.
A large L-shaped field lay to the east, all 17 acres of it, and edged in woods filled with black walnut, maple, ironwood and oak. "About eight acres total, those woods, black swamp", the realtor beamed, "and in April, you should be able to hear the spring peepers clear as a bell". I smiled, wondering what a spring peeper was, and if the noise would keep me up at night.
We drove the realtor's SUV to the farthest northwest corner of the property, where the "L" part of the field met the woods, and peered through the tree trunks. The house was no longer visible; I felt apprehensively detached from civilization, and let a fleeting doubt zip through my brain. Did we really want this kind of life? Where were the grocery stores and the hospital? I kept my thoughts inside, silent as we drove back to the realtor's house where our car was parked. We shook hands, and told him we'd be in touch.
Back at the apartment, our first words tumbled over one another. "Did you see all the trash?" "A chest freezer? What were those kegs?" "I've never heard a peacock's call, have you?"
And then, it dawned on us. Meadow. Woods. Creek. A few outbuildings. A house.
We saw on that land all that we had originally wanted, hidden only by the wrong question. It wasn't about what we wanted. It was about what that piece of land needed. From us.
Every empty milk jug, the two kegs and the chest freezer, whispered a faint "help" as we had surveyed the landscape of what was about to become our new home, our dream.
A place for folks to come and pray.
We rolled up our sleeves, wrote Sparky into the contract, and started cleaning up.