13 April 2009

My Summer Friends (2 of 2)

We lived on the south edge of Fowler, the first house that was really out of town but not yet in the country, and the Migrant Camp was right next to the grain elevator, maybe four minutes by foot and two by bike. Mrs. Cantu, the only adult I remember being truly bilingual, would come by maybe once a week and talk with my mom while us kids would run arond in the yard, or in the garden, or run back and forth to the Camp, or play on the hot blacktop of the county road in between. A rare car or passing truck would impel us into the cattails in the ditch on the west side in early summer, or after it got hot and dry into the Johnson Grass on the east side. The driver would always wave to us, but none with as much gusto as the UPS guy who would come down our road maybe three times a summer.

Once every couple of weeks a group of us kids would get to have "haircut day." Seven or eight of us - always me and Jesus, and sometimes Carlos, or Javier - would come into the house and line up in no particular order, and take our shirts off, and first get a very short buzz cut from Mrs. Cantu while we stood barefoot in our shorts on a sheet in the kitchen, and then we would run laughing into the bathroom and get water and soap all over as we got our hair washed by Mrs. Rodriguez, who kept up a non-stop patter of Spanish as she laughed and chided us for making a mess, and then we'd go back out to the kitchen and step up on the stool by the sink to get our heads combed through with a small, fine-toothed metal comb by my ma, one by one, in the bright sunlight streaming through the south-facing kitchen window.

I know now that she was checking us all for lice; what I knew then was that it was a game for us - it was fun to be fussed over and it was something different than our routine. I remember, vividly, how dark my friends' skin was compared to mine, and how my shorn blond hair looked when it fell onto the black clippings already on the sheet under me. Boys first and fastest, and freshly shorn we'd run back outside, shirts off, wet, shoeless, to play tag or catch or hunt for snakes in the fields while it was the girls' turn.

I can't imagine how hard my summer friends' parents worked in those fields or in the insufferable heat of that canning factory - and I had older siblings who worked there too, so I knew it was hot - the long hours and the heat and the low pay. The Migrants were mostly Catholic and yet none of them went to Mass at Sacred Heart; I remember asking why and not getting an answer. My mom persuaded a priest at St. Joseph's College, 30 miles away up a two lane blacktop road, to come and say Mass for them in Spanish on Saturday evening, and sometimes I could go. (That priest was one of the celebrants at my ma's funeral mass, and he recalled her efforts on their behalf.) The Migrants were far from home and largely isolated, they worked impossibly long hours at physically demanding jobs and had only one day off a week - it must have been a lonely, difficult life for them and for their families. And yet us kids were insulated from that. I was, certainly, and while I hesitate to speak for my summer friends I think they were, too. My memories from then are of joy at their arrival and the long, never ending days of summer and sunshine and laughter that we shared.

When I was six or seven, they quit coming. We didn't know why, or perhaps I should say that no one told me a particular reason why. My ma suggested that they found better work closer to home and that we should be happy for them, but that we could ask god to look after them, just in case.

One night that first summer without my summer friends, as I was getting ready to go to bed, I told ma that I wanted to be Mexican. When she asked me why, I told her that they laughed and sang a lot, and they talked more than we did, and I liked hearing Spanish, and I liked their brown skin and black hair and smiles, and I missed them. She told me I had good reasons but that wasn't something I could change; I was who I was and I'd have to make the best of it.

I remember asking in my prayers that night three times, just to be sure. I was disappointed to wake up Anglo.

1 comment:

Celeste said...

Thanks for sharing these memories. Very poignant.