someone and not something

The other day I stopped on the sidewalk and asked a man for directions. He turned, eager and enthusiastic to point me on my way. I wanted to step forward and hug this stranger for his humanness.
There is hardly anything I love more than the idea of knowing there are people who I do not even know exist right now, but in a few months or weeks or even days, I will know them. And undoubtedly I will love them and we will change each other, if even through a few words. There is a part of me that is changing, like when I wanted to hug the man that gave me directions, simply because he was someone. I’ve loved lots of people because they were good at things, knew things, possessed personality things, but recently I was talking to a friend, and he said something that made me think: we need to learn to love the someone’s and not the something’s.
One person who taught me this, without my realizing it at the time was an insignificant and unkempt man named Carlos. I had been away from home for 6 months when I arrived in a small, and unimportant farming town in the northern and hottest part of Uruguay. A place that has filtered through my memory to be a perfect pueblo full of green breathing hills, dirt roads and glass globe skies. I still have dreams, awake and asleep about Salto. A place where frogs are so fat they don't jump, but crawl slowly and wet on their skinny legs, a place where people have little to do but cook elaborate lunches with scant money, where there are 16 types of oranges at the market and the clerk always knows your name, a place where I met Blanca, and her husband Carlos.

As missionaries, we taught Blanca for a lot of months. She lived at the end of the highway that led to the orange orchards and strawberry fields. Her house was comprised of two small brick rooms, a make-shift tarp kitchen with heated bricks for cooking, an outhouse and a dirt patio which served as a living room. There were two green bus seat benches that we used as couches, one end was propped up with cinder blocks and our legs stuck to the vinyl with sweat. The house was always full, people came and went, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends of the sons and daughters, her husband Carlos, a few chickens and two shy and curious granddaughters, la Sole and Mika.
From the desolate living room there was a view that seemed to offer the whole world, like the sky was falling up and over me, in pink and orange tufts and streaks. Blanca and Carlos had a garden we helped till and plant. Carlos, who had been leery of us for so long finally came out the evening we worked in the garden. He sat in a sagging lawn chair at the edge of the dirt and pointed out weeds and beginnings of plants. He spoke gruffly, but nodded his head in approval every once in a while. Before we left that day, Carlos, who was so often unkind towards us, went inside and filled up plastic bags with fresh cilantro. He shoved them awkwardly towards us as we were washing our hands by the well. That was the first time I saw the someone of Carlos. I ate the small green leaves in handfuls on the warm walk home.
Carlos was tan as leather, with black dirt in every wrinkle and underneath every fingernail. He was tall and thin and sweaty. I remember him riding in from working in the fields across town on his rusty bicycle. He was like a wire puppet. He had a long and tired face. He didn't read or write. Most of the reason his family lived in a small brick house without enough to eat was because he had a drinking problem that was more than a drinking problem. He smelled like thick, sweet comforting tobacco, earth and cheap, sour alcohol.
We went and read to Blanca every night because she had bad eyesight and couldn't see words on a page. I remember crying the night she pulled a pair of eyeglasses out of her small weathered bag and read to us for the first time. Carlos hated the glasses, and the books, and at times us. He was an alcoholic, had never gone to school, was in and out of work. He hated feeling inferior. On numerous occasions he tried to burn the few books we’d given Blanca, he tried to crush the glasses she'd spent months secretly saving for. Sometimes when we came to visit, if Carlos had been drinking, he would go inside and turn the radio up as loud as it would go in hopes of driving us out. I remember she would grit her teeth then talk louder as if nothing had happened. There were times I hated Carlos.
Blanca had wiry black and grey hair that was always washed. She had thin, brown skin pulled tightly over her dainty bones. She had a determined manner and one pair of high heels she wore when she walked the dirt road to church. She and Carlos had lived together for nearly twenty years, but he had never wanted to get married because he hated the idea of obligated fidelity. I watched Blanca speak to him with patience, and at times exasperation. I watched her love the someone of Carlos, and disregard the something’s, even if it was only because she had no other choice.
Once Carlos took us across the fields to an utterly deserted street to a rickety house to a small, musty, dark room where his mother, who also never learned to read or write, talked to us for nearly two hours, without stopping. She didn't have a single tooth. I remember being absolutely impatient and frustrated by the time she had risen from the bed and given us a tour of the whole stinking and cruddy house, and I remember feeling badly that I had not listened with more kindness when she died two months later and I found Carlos sobbing in the chair just outside the garden.
A few days before I left Salto, Blanca threw me a goodbye party. The boyfriends, girlfriends, vagabond friends, nieces, sons and daughters that I had thought disliked me, came. There was a big cake with the whitest and fluffiest mounds of frosting I'd ever seen. We crowded in the small tarped living room and cut the cake. In the fields nearby the frogs were singing in the muck. We ate on cheap napkins ripped in half. Carlos was in good spirits, and sober, Blanca was quiet, but happy. Carlos said over and over how he loved me like a daughter. How I could bring my family back to stay at his house anytime. I remember looking at him then, and for a few briefs moments, crossing a great distance. I understood with a clarity that has rarely been granted since. It was perhaps in that moment that I learned to love the someone and not the something.

1 comment:

shelly said...

I don't want to sound trite at all, but I can only think of what a blessing it was for you to truly "connect" and grow to love this family, in a remote niche in Uraguay. There is no doubt in my mind that they think of Hermana Christensen at times, when they're sitting outside,looking at the freshly turned dirt in Blanca's garden and breathing in the scent of orange blossoms. I know she thinks of you every time she's alone and takes out her glasses and reads...thank you for sharing this, Ashley!