Friday, December 21, 2007

The Story Unfolds

When I first read T.C. Boyle’s “The Tortilla Curtain,” I didn’t know anyone who had experienced the heart-rending problems he depicted. But now I do. Glenda has her own story of what it’s like to get into this country and then to try to survive.

Until our sewing lesson on Monday, her only exchanges with me had been “Yes, Miss” and “No, Miss” as I helped them with their activity book project. She didn’t smile a lot and seemed most in control when she was powering a sewing machine. Her large brown eyes totally masked her thoughts.

We had only a half hour on Monday to go over the basics of using the new machine. We learned together with me looking things up in the manual as necessary because it was a new machine for me, too. She quickly mastered threading the machine, winding a bobbin, sewing with a straight or zigzag stitch, changing the stitch length, and sewing in reverse. With those basics, you can do most anything on a sewing machine.

I came back at the end of the school day to take her and the sewing machine to the apartment in Rosslyn where she lives with her mother, her stepfather, and their two small children. This is when she started to tell me her story in a mixture of Spanish and English.

She is 19 years old, although she doesn’t look a day over 14 because she is so tiny. She spent most of her life in a small town near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Undoubtedly her name was not Glenda then. It is likely that her native language was actually an Indian language and not Spanish.

She has been in this country for just 2 years, leaving behind two siblings living with her grandmother. She described coming with a group of people, but finding her cousin and herself separated from the rest of the group as they crossed the desert on foot in Arizona. She said, “It was so hard and I was so scared.”

Her mother had already been here for 4 years when she came. Glenda remembers her first day of school, when she spoke no English. As her mother told her Adios, she felt the full impact of not knowing a word of English. She said no one spoke to her and no one tried to help her. She said, “I was so scared. I cried and cried.” Her mother told her, “Life is not easy.” I agreed with her mother and added that her baby’s life would probably be easier than hers.

Until this past week she worked making salad in an Italian restaurant in Georgetown. She would go directly there from school and stay until late at night, having to travel everywhere by bus or on foot. She said it was very hard to get up the next day to go to school. She will go back to work there in a couple of months.

I avoided the difficult questions like, Are you in this country legally? Did you want to get pregnant? Who is the father of your baby? How will you cope after she is born?

Instead I asked what hospital she would go to for the delivery next month. Arlington Hospital, but she had never been there. She mentioned that she has an appointment there at 7:00 a.m. on January 8. She was worried because she didn’t know how she was going to get there. I volunteered to give her a ride. I can make sure she understands what they tell her at the hospital.

We talked about the ages of women in her family. She is 19, her mother is 34, her grandmother is 50, making her 8 years younger than I am. No wonder she seemed very concerned about my ability to carry the sewing machine into the apartment!

I’m starting to understand that this sewing machine is probably the first thing a gringo has given her without demanding something in return. Until I took it into the apartment and said, “It’s yours. I hope you enjoy sewing with it,” she probably thought I too wanted something.

I came away that day with a renewed determination to make her life not so difficult. I want to organize a baby shower to give her at least a few things for her baby. I want to make sure she knows she can call on me for rides when she needs to. I want to find a way to really teach her to sew things like clothes for her little girl.

There are undoubtedly thousands of young girls like Glenda out there, but I will feel I’ve accomplished something if I can help just one of them.

This picture includes one of her classmates who asked, "Will you take my picture, too?"


Blogger Pauline said...

Barbara - what you are doing to help Glenda is s encouraging. Let me know what she needs - I'd like to contribute some small something to her child's arrival.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- I'm still working on finding out what she needs. I will let you know. In the meantime if you see something frivolous, then get it. This child will probably not know a lot of frivolity! Maybe a book?

8:22 AM  
Blogger Kristin said...

You are just so amazing. Your "retirement" is filled with so much good work. It's inspiring.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Jamy said...

I happen to be knitting a baby sweater right now, as practice. It's for "a baby to be named later." Do you think it might be something Glenda would want for her baby?

9:42 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- I'm happy to have things to do in my retirement! The days still never seem to have enough hours.

Jamy -- But of course she would like to have the sweater. For a baby born in the middle of the winter, what better piece of clothing. My guess is she currently has no layette for this baby, but I will find out more. If the baby is anything like Glenda, she will be TINY, so opt for the small size if you have a choice. And remember she will never notice a dropped stitch!

9:56 AM  
Blogger Kellyann Brown said...

I love your posts about your random act of kindness. It seems now that Glenda is becoming a real person. How exciting that you and her have connected. We are enriched by the connections that we make in our journey through the world. Is Glenda hoping for a girl or a boy?

12:56 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kelly -- Her baby is "una nina" -- a girl!

1:17 PM  
Blogger GEWELS said...

What a touching post. It does make your heart break knowing what others have to go through- when many of us take it all for granted.

Glenda's lucky to have you in her life now.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Gewels -- Sometimes I think it would be good to just even out the distribution of material things. I know I could do with a lot less and obviously others are lacking.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

You are so amazing and inspirational! What a real difference you ae making in this girl's life.That's what this season and every season is all about.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

MOI -- In the end, I am sure I will learn a lot from her too.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

What struck me in the photo of the two young women is how beautiful Glenda is!

I already know how beautiful you are but am so happy it shines out to others through your posts.

3:21 AM  

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