For what it is

As the school year approached, and summer wound down, I found myself avoiding calls from a particular family. I was wracked with guilt about this. I avoided the calls because I knew what they were about, and I was frustrated, even angry, in the anticipation. My feelings were futile, and I was cowardly. The caller would ring several times but never left a message, and this would only sharpen my negative outlook.

“If you want something from me, leave a message!” I would mutter to the neutral phone. Then the calls changed. An English-speaking woman actually did leave a message. She announced that she was calling on behalf of the family, and to please call her back. Assuaged only a little bit, I didn’t return her call. She tried a couple of times, and then gave up.

School started. On the first day, the girl in the family showed up at my front door. It was 7:30 in the morning. I was in the shower, so my husband, who was about to leave for work, came to the bathroom and announced her presence. “She wants to know if you will take her to school,” he told me.

“Tell her ‘No,'” I said. It was much easier to do this through somebody else.

“Okay,” he said, and I was relieved not to have to see the girl’s expression upon this news, which always tugged at my heart during the two years I spent walking her to and from school. She had a way of looking so utterly vulnerable if her feelings were slightly hurt, or if she felt frustrated by her day, and had trouble expressing herself with her words.

When I first started escorting the girl to school, she was five years old, and spoke only Spanish. She seemed to be a very recent arrival in the States, her family having come from very, very far southern Mexico—they were practically Guatemalans. They left several of their own children back home, including a son younger than the girl I know. Why they came I never was able to learn, as communication was always a challenge, and I was only able to find out what I did through bilingual friends, when their presence at my house intersected briefly with the Mexican family’s.

Thus on that first day of school, our transportation relationship ended, and while I felt guilt, I knew it would pass, and the wisdom of my choice would remain. Most important for me was a sense of sanity, and the need to draw a line about my own abilities to serve someone else.

Taking the girl to school while she was an immediate neighbor worked out well enough. But the family moved across the neighborhood in the spring, before the school year ended. We never spoke about it; they simply were gone one day. To cope at the end of the school year, however, they would drive her very early in the morning to where they used to live, leaving her with their neighbor for an hour or two until it was time to leave for school.

The girl was often very tired in those weeks from getting up before dawn, when her parents rose to go to work, but my routine with her was unchanged. After watching that happen, though, and seeing new glitches from not knowing where they had moved to, and having even fewer means to communicate easily with them, I felt this relationship was strained. The family appeared to be leaning heavily on what had formerly worked, perhaps reluctant to adapt and try something new that might work better.

Even though we had communication problems for two years, we were able to get by with the help of a neighbor or two in translating when we needed it. I would write notes in English occasionally and they would find a way to learn what it said—like when we were going to be out of town, and I could tell them in advance. But I also found that there were so many times that I couldn’t tell them what was happening in my house—like when we had a religious holiday, and we were keeping the kids out of school. Or when one of my children was sick, or even all of them, and it was a major inconvenience to take someone else to school, or expose her to my kids’ illness. Little things like these could not easily be communicated to the family, especially on short notice, so I would often just suck it up, and take the girl to school and then come back at 3:00 to get her, because it was easier than the hurdles of translation.

At first I felt positive about creating this relationship of trust, and doing what I could to make my street a friendly one, especially across cultures, and languages. But eventually this wore on me, and whittled away into mere arrogance. My noble act of service was a pencil with which I wrote my daily actions, at first sharp and clearly-directed, and over time so worn-down that I could do no more writing with it. I began to realize that with no sharpening—and sharpening comes in many forms, and includes a need for relevance and humility—my actions were, well, pointless.

A Peruvian friend of mine, in advising me on this situation, once warned me about the culture the family comes from, with an understanding that every culture brings its great assets right along with its mired challenges. “These people will very easily take advantage of you,” he told me. “It is important that you let them know very clearly what you will not do. If you give a sign that you will do more, they will take it.”

This information sounded a little bit harsh at the time, but it guided some of my actions in the months I spent adjusting to the relationship with the girl. On many occasions the family had no one at home after school, and I would take the girl in, exasperated and confused. I wanted to be relaxed about it, but I felt offended. Why was no one home? Did they expect me to offer free babysitting? An hour or two later, someone would show up at my door and smilingly take the girl back, sometimes with no explanation—how could there be an explanation if we don’t speak the same language? How could I let them know that this inconvenienced me, and was not really acceptable in the culture I come from? I did not want to come across as the uptight American—the family called me La Americana—but I had to face reality; this is perhaps exactly what I was. And I had a values issue, too: we need to take better care of our children, and not just leave them places. But then, after I meditated on this, that is exactly what I did with her.

The next time this happened, when the girl pleaded to come to my house because no one was home at her apartment, I told her she couldn’t come over. Instead, I told her, she would have to wait on her front porch. This she did. And I watched and waited from inside my windows the entire time, wringing my hands, feeling sick, and wanting desperately for someone to come home for that girl. No child, I felt, should have to sit there waiting for an adult like that. But I have my cultural baggage.

Finally, a while later, when I glanced back through the window to see if she was still there, I saw that she was gone. And I hadn’t been watching when she left. Anything could have happened, and it was—or was it?—on my watch. Curses! But the next day, she showed up again at my door, so I knew she had not been abducted.

I took a risk in doing what I did, but it was an effective way to let the family know that I couldn’t take the girl in after school like that, at a moment’s notice, just because no one happened to be home. Let the girl be the one to feel uncomfortable with the way the family is handling her, and let them figure out their needs, I told myself. Later, the girl’s uncle visited and, in rough English, asked if the girl could stay after school some other day when no one would be home. This was progress—adults communicating about it—and a few times, I complied with their needs. But this, too, I realized was becoming an uncomfortable pattern. One day I turned them down because I had to be somewhere else after school. (While I am a parent, I don’t run an after-school program; I work from home on un-child-related matters.) Curiously, they stopped asking after being turned down just the once.

Before I began taking the girl to school, she had gone some days without being picked up after school, and had dissolved into tears sometimes. Once I started picking her up regularly, a teacher told me she seemed happier and more relaxed. On days when I was a bit late, I would show up to see furrows in her brow, echoes of the sense that she had been left to fend for herself, until she spotted me, and her face would transform into a huge grin.

Not so on the days I passed her on the sidewalk in the first few weeks of school this year. After my refusal to take her—and no follow-up took place, no more questions were asked—their old house-mate took on the job instead, along with her small gaggle of children. She would greet me with a friendly hello, but the girl would refuse to look at me, and had on her face a decidedly nonchalant, I’m-going-to-choose-not-to-see-you-or-hear-you-greeting-me expression. Rejection, or hurt. Either way it made an impression on me.

A few weeks went by and the neighbor no longer appeared to be taking care of the girl, either before or after school, as had both been the case for a while. Now they seem to have a new routine. An elderly man picks her up, along with one or two other young students, and he drives a car. He looks like an older relative, but he could be a neighbor. The girl has a very friendly relationship with him, but I’ve seen her express a lot of love toward any adult who is her caregiver. For a while, that included me, but we’ve all moved on.

There are always new challenges. A classmate of one of my children showed up next door the other day, hanging around near the front porch. We greeted her and she told us that she was visiting because her dad was there, fixing someone’s car. I went inside and a moment later, my child came to me saying that the girl had asked her father if she could play in our yard, and he had said yes; was that okay with me? Ordinarily the rule is homework first, but I made an exception and agreed to this, since the girl was there under unusual circumstances.

They played for a while, and I went outside to check on them. The visiting girl’s father pulled up in his van and spoke to her in Spanish. She went over to him and then came back to me, and he drove off. “What’s happening?” I asked, startled that he would leave without her like that.

“Oh, he’s going to go try and pick up my mother,” she said. “He’ll be back later. He asked me if I wanted to come with him or stay with you, and I said I’d stay. Do you have a phone?”

Having been in a situation like this before, with some neighbors who preferred to leave their children in my yard while they went out and did errands, without communicating their needs and actions with me, I tried really hard to take this in stride. I flipped open my cell phone. “Who do you want to call?” I asked.

“My mom,” she said. I had her recite the number, and I dialed for her and gave her the phone. No answer. She left a message. “She’s probably asleep,” she told me, handing the phone back and grinning. I did not grin back.

“Okay,” I said, behaving as though permission had been asked of me, “you can stay here and play in the back yard for a while longer.” She did, and more time passed, and it was time for my child to give some attention to homework. The girl tried to come in and wander through the house, which I discouraged, having experienced theft in the past as a result of my clueless generosity with very young classmates of my children.

I gathered up my courage. “My kids have to do their homework,” I offered, “so I can’t invite you to come in and play. Do you have somewhere you can go?”

“Oh, yeah, my dad’s back next door,” the girl said. I had not realized this. We said our goodbyes and she was gone.

Maybe 20 minutes later my cell phone started ringing. It was the girl’s mother. As I was not in charge of the girl, and she was with her father, I did not answer my phone. I did not in any way wish to appear responsible for answering any questions of any sort about this girl, whom I barely know. If the family was having difficulty knowing each other’s whereabouts and activities, it was not my problem, and I was not going to insert myself into the middle of it by answering the call and possibly having to mediate between husband and wife. My cell phone was not a public pay phone, and my house was not a node of public information.

This all may have worked out differently if the father had chosen to say something to me personally, or to thank me for keeping his daughter for a while after he returned from wherever he went without explanation. I may have been inclined to be friendly. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that an extension of friendliness, where I live, can instantly turn into a scenario where people feel that you are a tool they can pick up, use, and discard at their leisure. Thus, walls are built, and I’m constructing and deconstructing them every day in my own heart, constantly questioning their usefulness.

The mother tried to call me about seven times in succession. I finally abandoned my cell phone on a table to vibrate its little heart out. I looked out my window at the girl and her father, talking and laughing with the neighbors on the sidewalk. All was well.

Fast-forwarding to last night’s open house at our neighborhood school, I had a chance to become acquainted with another long-time parent of students there. She took one look at me and said, “I saw your article in the Advocate.” I nodded, thinking to myself, this is a bold way to start a conversation with someone, because it’s disarming: people who have read that article know much more about me than I typically do about them, and they’re using that knowledge right upfront, as a greeting. She immediately followed that with, “Do you really like this neighborhood?” Wow, a one-two.

I hesitated ever so slightly, and then came back with, “For what it is, yes, I do.”

She nodded, first slowly, then deeply. “For what it is, okay, I can see that,” she responded. She went on to tell me how miserable they are in the neighborhood. Her family bought their house about seven years ago, and they’ve watched the surrounding street “go to hell” since then. She sounded shocked and dismayed, deeply disappointed. They’re moving south in nine months, she told me, and can’t wait to get out of Massachusetts.

“The school is good,” I suggested.

“Yeah, yeah, we like the school,” she echoed. And they were happy to move so close to the school too, back when they purchased. “But if I had known what would happen to the neighborhood back when I bought the house… and how much I paid for it…” She looked tired just thinking about it. I briefly reflected on the power of expectations.

“Virginia’s a good place,” I responded. “You’ll be happy there.”

This morning, doing my rounds, I had my usual 90-second interchange with the crossing guard at Dickinson and Oakland Streets. No longer perpetually complaining about how bad the corner is—I hear it from her maybe twice a week now instead of every day—she has taken to telling me little stories about the people she sees walking around and the stuff they’re doing, from the early-morning antics of the prostitute who lives in the apartment building there; to the middle-school kids getting into a huge fight, one breaking a bottle over another’s head, and how the cops respond; to the school-bus driver who chooses to ignore the crossing guard standing in the middle of the street, shooing kids across, with a large stop sign in hand, and instead goes ahead and makes the turn, then denies doing it against the traffic light.

“I could write a book,” the crossing guard told me today.

“You should,” I said.

Author: Heather Brandon

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