Vision-Filled Eyes

Holy Mission

I remember a specific morning. Lilly’s face glistened as she told me, “I got baptized in the creek when I was fourteen. God came down in a cloud and said, ‘Lilly, visit the sick and the afflicted. It’s your holy mission.’” Six decades later, Lilly was losing her memory but had not forgotten her charge. Lilly Baker, a tiny and slightly stooped, seventy-six-year-old, had an oval face, dark brown eyes, fair skin, and heavy black and white eyebrows. I stayed with her when I interviewed other women in Appalachia in 1980.

Black Lung

Lilly came from a Eastern Kentucky coal working family of thirteen and only went through the fourth grade, but as a child, she helped her mother care for others. At fifteen, she began working with a mountain nurse, and from then on, she walked throughout the mountains and hollows where people lived. She stayed with and nursed the sick, cared for their families, and comforted their kin, serving as a midwife when necessary.
She married a coal miner and gave birth three times and cradled her “blue baby” with a heart defect in her arms until the baby died. She also cared for her husband throughout his life and death from black lung. Now her memory was going, and her surviving daughters, living in Indianapolis, were glad to have me stay with her for the week I was there.

The Visit

One morning, when I was not busy, she told me she would take me to one of the afflicted. She carried a small bag of food, and we climbed up the hollow. We smelled the house before we reached it, a terrible stench of human waste and illness. The green, eight foot square house stood on titled brick stilts. Rotten debris was piled under the base, and a thin, limping gray kitten crawled among some trash.

Confused and Wary

The elderly woman Lilly took me to see leaned against the decaying doorway, holding herself against the frame with her hands. She looked like she was starving. Her skin was almost as white as her hair, and large, orange-brown freckles lay across her nose and under her eyes. She smiled at us, but her eyes looked confused and wary. A wide-eyed skinny blond boy of about nine watched us just outside the door. Lilly looked at the boy, “It’s OK. We’ve brought food and have just come visiting.”

Company Boy

The woman in the doorway still seemed confused to have us there, so we stood outside her house talking with the boy. He spoke brokenly about a road being built up their hollow, grabbed the kitten, which tried to crawl under the house, then held the animal awkwardly by one leg and smiled and lifted it up to us. As he did it, the emaciated woman muttered, “You got to watch the kid. He’s a little off. He don’t get things straight. Hard on cats.” She then turned slowly toward him and continued, “It’s good to have him though. He’s my company boy.

Empty Can of Peaches                           

It seemed as if speaking made her more at ease, and she sank away from the door, holding onto a walker, and eased down into a hard chair in the corner of her shelter. We took it as an invitation and stepped up and inside the door. I looked around and saw the old chair she was sitting on, a single bed with soiled blankets, a small wood heater, and a table with an empty can of peaches. There was no toilet inside the house, and a pan of dirty water sat against the wall. Lilly put her food on the table. “There’s enough for the boy too.” She turned to me.
Suddenly the other woman spoke. “My Lewis was a corn popper. We popped corn for carnivals. He’s gone now, I’m all alone, except for the boy.” Then she sat silently, smiling at us and nodding to our questions as she and the boy ate.

Smell of Honeysuckle

Eventually Lilly said, “We’ll say goodbye now. I’ll bring food again soon.” We left the old woman sitting quietly in the corner of the room, but the boy waved at us from the doorway. As we walked away from the door, the smell of honeysuckle replaced the scent of decay. I contacted a nun in public health and told her about the starving woman and child. She assured me that they would try to get them services. I could not do much because I was leaving town the next day, but I left some money with Lilly for food. It was before the internet, and I did not have a method to keep in close touch with the nurse. If public health did get food and care to the woman and child it would be because Lilly, even when losing her memory, acted out the basic values of her life.

Government Programs

Several government programs have been designed to help the vulnerable, such as Mrs. Lewis and the child. SNAP (food stamps), Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, and what was called Aid to Dependent Children and is now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families all have problems and are given begrudgingly, but, theoretically, they could have helped Mrs. Lewis and the boy.

Inequality

I’ve thought of Lilly over the 40 years since our time together. Undoubtedly, the dynamics of her community are different. I certainly hope a woman and boy would not nearly starve so close to town. But inequality in the U.S. is even worse since that time. The top 1% share of market income rose from 9.6% in 1979 to 17.5% by 2016. In the meantime, in 2016 poverty rates in nine Eastern Kentucky counties were among the 30 highest in the nation, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Partly this is based on the sharp downturn in the coal industry, which has wiped out more than 2/3 of the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky in 2011. While it was profitable for Northeastern owners to extract Appalachian resources, it did so. Then times, profits, and policies changed, and the families and communities that had given coal their lives were left in poverty. Partly in consequence, Lilly’s community was been hit hard by the opiod epidemic.

The Calling

All these decades later, I still hear Lilly’s voice and see her shining, vision-filled eyes. I am older now than she was then. I never was close before to someone who spoke quite like Lilly when she talked about her “holy mission to visit the sick and the afflicted.” But I too have felt I have a calling. Mine was to tell the stories of the women like Lilly and the Mrs. Lewis.
A year ago I had emergency surgery, nearly died, then fought for my life for 28 days. During my time in the ICU, I kept murmuring to my doctors, “You’ve got to save my life. I’m just two weeks from finishing the book I’m writing.” I too had my mission. In a way, it was like Lily was with me. It was months before I was well enough to finish my book, but, like Lily, I was dedicated to my calling, and it gave me stamina and energy. I think that during times as hard as these are now, we need to remember our basic purpose. Until we got overwhelmed, what was it we needed to do? What will give us the strength to go on?

Roles to Play

When I came back to visit a year after my time with Lilly, Mrs. Lewis’ house was gone, and Lilly had left to live with her daughters in Indiana. I still feel guilty about not doing more for Mrs. Lewis, but she and I had different roles to play in our culture’s hierarchy. At that time, one of mine was to go back to my children. I hope Lilly had a good life in Indianapolis, and I fervently hope someone helped Mrs. Lewis and the boy.

Posted in Appalachia, Health care, hunger, Inequality, Injustice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ten-Gallon Crock

Electric Chair

Helen D., an old woman with the booming voice, clasped her hands under her heavy breasts. “Geez, I was just a girl. I had four babies of my own at home, a sick husband, and all my brothers and sisters to take care of.

A girlfriend of mine drove me down to Duluth. An old woman met me there and put me in a taxicab, and we rode out to the middle of a woods. She put a blindfold on me so I couldn’t see where I was going. Gee whiz, it was just like going to the electric chair.”

Tucked in her Bra

Decades later, Helen and I sat together at her kitchen table in Hibbings, Minnesota where she told me her story. As Helen spoke she wiped tears out of her eyes with a handkerchief she kept tucked in her bra.

Skinny Piece of Wood

“Finally, we came to an old house and the old woman took me out. The lady that went there with me had to stay in the cab. The old woman was there alone in the house, and she said, ‘You got the $300?’

“‘Yes.’

“‘Lay on this.’

She had a ironing board on the bed. So I laid on the ironing board, and the old woman put a long, skinny, smooth piece of wood all the way up my vagina. I had no pain; I must be made of wood. . . But I was terrified. I didn’t abort right away, then after a week I hemorrhaged.”

Cookie Jar

As Helen and I talked, and she told me the story of her illegal abortion decades before, light came in from the side window, outlining her expressive face. Behind her a cookie jar in the shape of a monk looked like her. I interviewed Helen for my book, Dignity: Lower Income Women Tell of Their Lives and Struggles, 1985.

Marriage at Age 15

Helen, the daughter of Yugoslavian immigrants to the iron mining range in Northern Minnesota, was the oldest of eight surviving children. Her mother died from overwork when the mother was 29, having given birth to nine children and running a boarding house for unmarried miners. The children were put in an orphanage after the mother’s death.

Helen cried as she described the abuses of the Depression-era orphanage. Then she told me of her marriage at age of 15 to a miner of 51 because he promised her he would take her siblings out of the children’s home. The man kept his promise but came down with miners’ lung and could no longer work. Right after the wedding, Helen became pregnant. She had to work as well as take care of her brothers and sisters. She also gave birth to four boys in rapid succession.

Ten-Gallon Crock

After the births, she went to her doctor to beg for birth control. “So then I said, ‘Dr. Keating, could you advise me what to do not to have any more babies?’

“He said, ‘Put your feet in a ten-gallon crock.’

“‘My God, is that all the advice I can get from you?’

“He said, ‘I would never advise any woman to use any preventative. Because if that preventative is strong enough to kill a live germ, it’s strong enough to kill your insides.’”

My Husband is Dying

Shortly before her husband’s death, Helen became pregnant again. She explained, “So I went to the doctor and said, ‘Doctor, you know that I cannot have a baby. Who’s going to take care of it? My husband is dying, we have no money coming in except this money that I work for and make.’

“‘Well,’ he says, ‘I can’t advise you where to go or what to do, and I cannot abort you.’”

Hemorrhaged

Desperate, Helen heard of the old woman in Duluth. After the woman stuck the wood up Helen’s vagina, Helen went home, then hemorrhaged while working behind the counter in a restaurant. She nearly died. She took a few days off, then worked like a bull moose the rest of her life. She cared for her sons and siblings, ran restaurants where she fed iron miners, and boot legged when all else failed.

She eventually sent her four sons to college and took in intellectually disabled adults to care for until she was no longer able to work. Through it all, she did grass-roots work in the democratic party and with the powerful labor union. Politicians came to her restaurant to argue with Helen and her patrons and to learn of the concerns of miners and their wives. 

U.S. Supreme Court

I never forgot her abortion or what it almost did to a desperate 24 year-old-woman. Her story lingers with me and has fueled my support of abortion rights. When I see opposite sides clamoring on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, Helen’s spirit seems to hover over the crowd. I remember clearly what it was like before Roe v. Wade in 1973. Women died.

In the next months, June Medical Services v. Russo presents the Supreme Court with the power to green-light extremely restrictive abortion laws. For Helen, and millions of others, we must fight to continue to keep the procedure safe.

Posted in abortion, birth control, Health care, Inequality, Injustice, miners, poverty, Uncategorized, white Americans, widows | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lucia and the Farm Workers’ Flag

The Crate

Lucia came north to Chicago from Mexico, nailed in a crate in back of a trunk in the winter. An old woman packed above her prayed for hours, then gasped for air, trembled, and lay still. A fifteen year old boy cried to her side, “My boots! My too tight boots. I can’t move my feet.”

At one point, the coyotes transporting the people without documents pounded on the outside of the truck, “La Migra! Lay still.” They stopped once to give them food and water. Three days after the trip began, the truck came to a final stop. “Out, out,” the men shouted in Spanish.

Hungry, thirsty, cold, sick and soiled, the passengers stumbled out into the snow. Lucia was greeted by her husband and oldest child. They were already working in the nurseries of Onarga, Illinois.

Lucia slowly recovered, worked in the fields, kept her face down low, and gave birth to two more children. She often had nightmares about the trip north and was too frightened to speak up to white Onarga residents when they abused her. Then she met Maria Elena Lucas.

Meeting Maria Elena

An exuberant, near mystic, Maria Elena believed deeply in the Mexican American Catholicism of her mother and her Yaqui grandmother’s spiritual beliefs. A single mother of seven, Maria Elena also worked in the fields, although she was a citizen and was not in hiding like Lucia and the rest of the Mexican workers. They were the ones who kept the nurseries going in the small, segregated and prejudiced town.

Revelation

One day, Maria Elena was working in the fields with the other farm worker laborers. Lucia, her husband, and children were among them. Several years later, Maria Elena told me what happened,

“It was not until my early years in Onarga, when I started going through all those terrible things together with the other migrant people that I knew God was calling me in some very special way.

“When we went through the wintertime and hunger and discrimination, and everything all together, I began to see people, not like I would see my kids, but different, and I would see myself not just as their friend, but I began to see myself as if God was telling me something.

Like Their Sister

“I don’t know how to even describe it. I began to see it not like my obligation, my duty, but like I was their sister, like I had to do something on behalf of God.

“. . .We were working out there together in the fields in the snow, and I was looking at the women and the men, and, somehow I began to change. It was like God was there, it was God I was seeing, and something was terribly wrong.

Not What God Wants

“I was very moved that I had to do something about it. I still do it. If I see something wrong, I say, ‘‘This is not what God wants. This is not the way it has to be.’ I get in a lot of trouble for feeling that way, but, oh, I loved those people.”

Something Holy

“It was like there was something holy between us. Sometimes we’d be out in the field working on a beautiful day, and I’d look up and the sun’d be shining, and the bees are flying and the children are crying and some are laughing. I’d be with Gloria Chiquita and Comadre Lencha and Lucia and people’d be picking tomatoes and putting them on their shoulders.

“I’d stop and look at them and say, ‘Don’t you feel something? Don’t you feel like it is something beautiful, like God is here?’ And sometimes Gloria Chiquita would look up and say, ‘Ah, yes, Maria Elena. It’s beautiful!’”

Organizing the Community

Maria Elena began to have dreams that the community should work together to create better conditions for all of their lives. First, they started a church, but it was not very helpful. Then they decided to teach the young people Mexican folk dances so they would believe in themselves and their culture. They received opposition from the white community but kept on with their work.

Finally, they came in contact with the Illinois Migrant Farm Ministry and Olgha Sierra Sandman, who taught Maria Elena about how the economic system was structured against the workers.

César Chávez

Olgha also taught how César Chávez and the United Farm Workers might help them. The UFW is a farm labor organizing union who fought for better working conditions for farm laborers in California. They were just beginning to work in the Midwest. Olgha taught Maria Elena organizing techniques, then Maria Elena taught the shy and scared, undocumented women of Onarga, including Lucia.

Lucia, who had been so frightened by her suffering for so many years, was an ardent student. They learned how to protest outside of grocery stores that were selling lettuce raised under conditions that oppressed farm workers.

Statue of Liberty

Maria Elena went on with her story. “One time we went to Kankakee (a nearby town), to demonstrate in front of a grocery store to get the people to boycott Red Coach Lettuce. . . Gloria Chiquita and Lucia and other women and children came with me, and we started picketing outside the grocery store. We did everything we knew so we wouldn’t break the law, but, still, policemen came to harass us.

“They kept saying we were breaking the law, and they were going to arrest us and put us in jail. And I was so worried about all the women without papers. Some of the younger women started to walk away, and the children began to cry.

Then Lucia did something very brave. I’ll never forget that day. The policeman was right in front of her face, and they were all around us, and suddenly, Lucia grabbed the United Farm Worker’s flag and stuck out her arms, holding it high in the air. She lifted her head up and looked up high like, so what. I dare you. Like the Statue of Liberty!

‘We Shall Overcome’

“Then Lucia started singing, ‘We Shall Overcome’ in Spanish.
Nosotros venceremos, nosotros venceremos,
Nosotros venceremous ahora.
O en mi corazōn, Yo creo,
Nosotros venceremos.

“And the other women started singing with her, and I started to function. I said to this guy, ‘I want to talk to my lawyer!’ I lied. I didn’t have a lawyer, but I went and talked to one of our organizers on a nearby telephone. He told me to stay calm and not give the police any information.”

The Rookie

“By the time I got back to the women, the sheriff was already there, and I was very calm. A crowd had developed. The sheriff said, ‘I want to tell you that we have a union too, and I know of your struggle. We know what’s happening. It was just a mistake. This is a rookie here.’ He looked at the policeman like the policeman was in big trouble. ‘You go on home or keep on your picket line as long as it’s peaceful and everything’s alright.’

De Colores

“Sometimes there was something very special between us farm workers. When we sang, De Colores,’ we all looked in each other’s eyes and touched each other in a very special way. When we’d hold meetings we’d hold hands, and when we’d sing, we’d become like one.

It was like you’d hug and say, ‘I love you and I care for you and God is with us and be strong.’ Sometimes we’d sing ‘De Colores’ or ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the fields while we were working, and it was something very moving.”

Community of Love

Thus, Lucia, who was nearly broken when she was nailed in the crates as she traveled to the U.S., stayed strong enough to survive. She met Maria Elena, whose consciousness had been raised by her friend Olgha, who had contact with the union organizer, Cesar Chavez. In the meantime, the women of Onarga formed a community of love.

Finally, that community was able to give each of them enough courage so they could fight with law enforcement, then hold up a farm worker flag, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” Lucia became an activist and with others fought to resist oppression for the rest of her life. I’ll never forget her story.

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Prisoners and Peas

The Values of Her Mother

Mary Robinson, an African American woman from Alabama, was 57 years-old when we talked in 2000. I was an oral historian, and my tape recorder ran on a nearby chair. Mary described a terrifying experience as a child that nevertheless taught her the values of her mother.

Tracking Dogs Following the Women’s Smell

Mary began to speak, “It was dark now. We was all in our little home, and we heard tracking dogs, sheriff’s dogs, in the distance. They was following the women’s smell. Lester Holley, the sheriff, was chasing them. Young as I was, I already knowed about Lester Holley’s violence.”

“Yes, he be vicious,” Mary’s ninety-year-old aunt, Mrs. Freeman, added.

“The sheriff had a little truck with a cage on the back of it where they’d haul the tracking dogs and where’d they throw prisoners when they finally got them. Whenever you saw this truck, you knowed some prisoners was out somewhere, running.

“Now the dogs ran in front of the truck, barking, and they run up our doorstep snarling and baring their teeth, and scaring me to death. Out past the dogs, this little old truck pulled over, and these white mens got out. The sheriff be tall and skinny, with a wide-brimmed hat.”

Coming Rain

Mary Robinson and I sat on a stuffed couch, while her aunt, Rebecca Freeman, rested in a nearby rocking chair. We had gathered on the country porch of Mary’s sister, Ann Lois. Ann Lois, still lovely despite being disabled by arthritis, rocked back and forth in rhythm to Mary’s speech. A fan barely moved the air that felt dense with coming rain, while an aged brown dog panted on the cement floor. In a corner, an old pop machine groaned.
Mary talked while Mrs. Freeman and Ann Lois listened, nodding their heads,

“Oh yes, yes she did. Lord have mercy.”

Swooped Off Our Past

“I go back now,” Mary said, “and I look at the land–Aunt Becky’s place, the sixty-three acres Daddy used to farm, the hills, the trees. New owners came, then swooped our past off the earth. They tore down our house, wiped up our poor little childhood, and threw it away. Now they got two three-hundred-thousand-dollar houses sitting where we loved and worked and bled.”

“Yes, that’s happened,” the others echoed.

“The new owners say, ‘Anytime y’all ever want to come and look around, you’re welcome, but nothing looks familiar no more. The barn, the smokehouse, our place has vanished. Even the dust has gone from beneath our feet. But I remember way, way back. I remember the dirt of our yard, our little house, and Mama.”

Mary Robinson and granddaughter

Ann Lois rocked and listened.

White Womens with Gray Prison-like Clothes

“One time when I was real little,” Mary continued, “we heard that five women prisoners broke out from a women’s prison about thirty miles from where we was living. The sun was almost down that night, but we could still discern things, and when I looked outside the house, Daddy wasn’t home, but I saw the women prisoners walking up our road. They was white womens, wearing gray-looking, prison dresses.”

“Yes, they was. They was coming.”

“Back then, all black folkses kept their yard as smooth dirt, with no grass. The womens swept it with a broom once a week. Mama was sweeping when she looked up and saw the prisoners. The women walked on up to our yard and over to Mama. Mama nodded her head at them. Us six kids stood in the doorway of our little house on stilts and stared.

“One of the womens said, ‘We need some food and some clothes. Do y’all have any? We’ve traveled a long way.’

Welcome To Peas

“Mama answered, ‘I ain’t got no clothes, the only thing I got is some peas, but you’re welcome to them. Let me finish sweeping this spot, then come on in.’ That’s what happened.” Mary paused and swatted at a fly with her hand. The wind with the smell of rain blew in the trees surrounding the porch.

“So Mama finished sweeping, set the broom against the house, and led them prisoners inside. ‘Y’all sit down now, and I’ll have the peas warm in just a minute’ Then she fed them, just as good as we had.

Daddy’s Shadow

“All at once my daddy’s shadow stood in the door, and he stepped inside. He knowed exactly who they was. They was sitting there, eating. Them prisoners looked at Daddy.

“‘Sarah!’ Daddy said.

“‘What?’

“‘What you doing?’

“‘What do it look like I’m doing?’

“‘Do you know who they is?’

“‘Yeah, I know who they is. They them prisoners that broke loose.’ She said it just like it was an everyday thing. My daddy was short and bald-headed, and he just stood in the doorway staring at them like he didn’t know what to do.”

Ann Lois and Mrs. Freeman chuckled. “Yes, he stood there.”

Shadows Outside the Doorway

“It was getting dark,” Mary continued, “and we didn’t have nothing but a lamp light, so the lamp was making shadows outside the doorway.

“One of the womens spoke to Daddy. ‘We not gonna hurt y’all. We’re not gonna do nothing. We just want something to eat.’

“So Daddy said,’Ain’t they looking for y’all?’

“‘Yeah.’ So they finished eating, and Mama gave them what was left. ‘We sure thank you,’ they said and hurried up the road.

Wide Brimmed Hat

“About an hour later, we heard the tracking dogs, the sheriff’s dogs, tracking dogs, and out past the dogs, this little old truck pulled over, and these white mens got out. The sheriff be tall and skinny, with a wide-brimmed hat.

“He asked Daddy and Mama, ‘You see white womens pass by here?’

“Daddy said, ‘Yeah.’ You couldn’t lie to Lester Holley. Black folkses believed he might beat you to death.‘Yeah, we seen them.’

“‘Where’d they go?’

“‘On up the road.’

“‘What they want?’

“Mama answered. ‘They was hungry, so I fed them.’

“The sheriff looked around our cabin, nodded, and left. Afterwards, Daddy said to Mama, ‘You shouldn’t have given them food.’

“Mama answered real firm, ‘They was hungry.’

God Let Me Grow Them Peas

“Sheriff Holley caught the womens, but what happened shows the type of person my mama was. And Aunt Rebecca too. She was just like Mama. I used to watch them all the time. Mama was constantly trying to give somebody something else, as if she was a maid of Howard Hughes. If you gave her opposition to it, she’d just say, “If God blessed you, then you ought to try to bless somebody else. God let me grow them peas.’

“See, that earth out there held Mama and her peas; the boards of our house had her hand prints all about them; and her feet left imprints in front of the stove. None of it, none, was no strangers to take.”

Bulldozed from the Earth

Mary’s family sharecropped the farm they lived on for a white owner/ farmer. After the owner died, he gave them a parcel of the land, but Mary’s father was cheated out of it.

Mary loved her small house and her parents passionately and bitterly resented that all trace of them had been bulldozed from the earth. Still, her mother’s spirit always stayed with her. Mary told me her mother’s story and that story with it’s innate goodness has stayed with me.

Posted in African American, Distrust, Inequality, Injustice, love. mother, Poverty, poverty, Prisons, Racism, Social Justice, Uncategorized, white Americans | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Vow

The Wound

The nearly grown corn glistened in the sun and seemed to speak to me. Its whispers may have saved my life. Blood still flowed from the wound between my legs. However, that wound was private. I could barely conceive of it myself, much less identify what happened to anyone else or ask for help.

For years I barely spoke of it to anyone. Nevertheless, the wound eventually became public because I took a vow in reaction to it, and that vow framed my public life.

I was a young divorced mother of three on welfare when it happened. We had moved shortly before my divorce, and I had no extended family to turn to. I worked four jobs trying to support my three small children, and when we had almost no food, I turned to welfare. On welfare, I saw the struggles other poor women endured.

Undesirables

It was 1971. It happened at the end of the eugenics movement in Colorado. The eugenics movement was a crusade that taught that “for the sake of the (white) ‘race,’” poor, unfit people should not reproduce, especially if they were people of color.

Beginning in the late 19th century, 63.000 poor Americans had been forcefully sterilized as part of the movement. The attitude that supported such a crime was still in the air when I was a poor woman in Colorado.

The Lie

I’d been having irregular menstrual periods, and I went to the only gynecologist who would take welfare mothers. I did not know he would be arrested within ten days. He lied and told me I would die without a hysterectomy. I would have to have it immediately because I was about to lose my welfare medical benefits.

For decades I could not forgive myself for being so naive. I believed him and sold much of my remaining furniture to pay for my small children’s babysitter for when I’d be gone. I kissed my three little ones goodbye and promised I’d be home.

Lost Children

It turned out the doctor was on drugs, and he cut me up. Simultaneously, my ex-husband came and took my three children across the country without my permission. Ages 6, 4, and 3, the children had never been away from me before.

I had no money to retrieve them. I cried for three days in the hospital, but no nurse, no social worker would look me in the eye. Before I left the hospital, my doctor was arrested and pulled a gun. No one would talk to me directly about what had happened.

Pain Pills

Finally, I was released. I wore a catheter that hung down from my urethra, which was so swelled I could not pee. The pharmacist handed me a bottle of pain pills. An acquaintance drove me out to my tiny house in the country, made sure I had food, and helped me get into bed. Then she left. Everywhere I looked I saw my lost children. I felt their little bodies against mine.

I began to shake from withdrawal from the heavy medicine I had been on in the hospital. I stumbled out to the living room, stared out the window, and held the bottle of pills in my hand. The bottle felt warm. I had lost my beloved children; I would never have any again; I couldn’t even urinate. My body was so mutilated I certainly wouldn’t make love again. Maybe I was going to die. I saw my children’s faces. Smelled their hair.

Knee High

I looked out the window at the corn field across the road. The sun was low in the sky. Suddenly, the sun began to glow and gold suffused the shoulder-high corn. I stared at the corn; it seemed to murmur to me. I’d grown up in Iowa where each summer I measured my barefoot, skinny legs against the height of the growing corn. “Knee high by the 4th of July,” we children chanted to each other. We believed if you stood quietly in the corn, you could hear it grow.

Now I whispered to myself. “The corn will not die before it’s time. It will grow tall, sprout out its ears, wait until it’s time is up before it would cease thrusting itself upward.” Tears came to my eyes. “I’ll do as the corn. I won’t die. I’ll work until I can move out near my children. I’ll not give up. I’ll see them again. I’ll cup their faces in my hands.”

Finally, the Vow

The tears flowed heavier, and my face grew warm. “And somehow what’s happened to me is wrong. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been poor. I wouldn’t have gone to that doctor. I would have had a babysitter who could somehow have stopped my ex-husband from taking the kids. I’d have some money to get a lawyer. I could fly east to get them.”

Help

I took the bottle of pills to the bathroom and shut them in the medicine cabinet. Then I went to the phone and called a social worker I knew slightly. “Please help me,” I said. “I’m sick, and I’ve lost my kids and don’t know what to do.”

She heard the desperation in my voice and told me she’d call someone to come get me. Stay calm right now, she told me. I struggled back to the living room and wrapped a blanket around me and stared at the corn. It continued to glow with life. “I’m making a vow,” I said. “Somehow I’ll get the kids back. I’ll try to make sure this never happens to somebody else. I’ll fight for us all.”

Recovery

Fran after retrieving children

Four months later I had enough money to fly to retrieve the children. They threw themselves into my arms when I saw them. I made new, wonderful friends and eventually founded a Women’s Crisis and Information Center, which became one of the first such programs in the country.

I’ve had six subsequent surgeries through the years. They have saved me life, but I’m quite disabled because of the damage left from the drug-addicted doctor. Still, I have fought for a better world for poor people throughout my life. Eventually, I met my second husband, and we’ve had a supportive, long life together. Most importantly, my children grew to be loving productive adults.

Web

I think of the afternoon the corn may have saved me. We all belong to a complicated web of life and help comes from unexpected places. Now I talk about what happened so long ago. Other versions of injustice have happened to other poor people. As part of my work for justice, I’ve made wonderful, deep friendships. Together, no matter the circumstances, we must save each other.

Posted in Distrust, Health care, Inequality, Injustice, Poverty, Racism, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Welfare, Women's Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Crack in the Sky

Behind a Tree

“When I was a little girl, and we were working as farm workers in Portage, Ohio, I remember that they had found workers stealing food from the comisario,” Maria Elena Lucas began. “We were hungry too, but my father was always against that. Still, Daddy was very upset because they were in trouble, and he knew that it was not their fault. For some reason the grower didn’t pay the people.

“It was raining real hard. I was outside at the water pump getting water when I saw Daddy go into the woods. I followed him and hid behind a tree.”

Spirit-filled World

Maria Elena stopped speaking for a moment and stared into the dark. She had been a magical child. The oldest of what would be a seventeen child family, she joined her parents working in the shrimp basins and doing farm labor when she was five. She only had three years of schooling before she was pulled out to begin working to support her large family, but she made up songs, poems, and small figures out of mud to express her reactions to her confusing and spirit-filled world.

I am an oral historian, someone who interviews people to collect the person’s story, and Maria Elena and I were working on a book about her life. That night she told me her story, we sat outside the small, travel trailer by the sea in which she lived near Brownsville, Texas. A soft, warm wind touched our faces as we talked. The tape recorder ran between us.

The Centella

Maria Elena took a deep breath. “Then Daddy was crying and he was cursing God,” Maria Elena choked out the words. “‘Dammit, why? If we go and do our work, why do we always have crumbs?’ he cried.

And Daddy shook his fist at the sky. When he did it, there was lightning and thunder, a centella, lightning that goes around in a circle.

“And I went, ‘Oh, my God!’ I didn’t know what was happening. I was so frightened, I ran back home before he discovered me because I would be in a lot of trouble.

God is Dead

“Every night my father would read part of the Bible to us. It was a very special thing to be all together. That night he came home, and we all sat as usual, and I asked him, ‘Well, are you going to read to us?’

“‘No,’ he said. ‘God is dead.’ And he closed the Bible.

“I went to my bunk bed. It was real stormy, and I didn’t sleep. Finally, the storm went away, then everything was pitch dark.

Anguish

“I kept wondering whether everything was going to be there in the morning since God was dead, since Daddy had made God die. Because, you see, all the plants and the flowers and the vegetation outside represented God. That’s the way my father and grandma thought, that God represented all of Mother Nature.

My grandmother had taught me that when I had blisters in my hand, all I had to do before I started work was to let the rays of the sunshine touch the palm of my hands, and God would heal them.”

Maria Elena held her hands upward to the night sky, then continued. “And I kept thinking, everything’s going to be gone, how awful! Now we’ve had it. Now what are we going to do? I was in anguish and so afraid all night.

Poem

Migrant Child

“But in the morning, when I saw the rays of the sunshine and the plants and tomatoes, I rejoiced.

I said, ‘No, God’s still here. God just died for my daddy.’ And he did, I guess, because Dad never again believed.

“And I wrote that into a poem. The poem was something like, ‘Daddy got mad.’ Like a small child would write. ‘Daddy got mad. God died. Daddy caused the Crack in the Sky.’”

Stunned

I sat still after she talked, stunned by her telling and trying not to break the magic of the story. The story was like a metaphor for Maria Elena’s entire life, I thought. It was a symbol weaving between abject despair and a hope and beauty I seldom hear expressed.

Time of Struggle, Pain, and Fear

I decided to begin this blog with Maria Elena’s story because it was an example of the hope I want to express during this time of struggle, pain, and fear. I have lived doing oral histories for nearly 50 years now. I am 78, and I’ve interviewed in-depth 110 poor and working-class women from around the country. I asked these women what gave them strength and meaning during their often harsh lives, thinking they would be a source of inspiration for all of us. Some of the stories took place decades ago, but they still can give hope.

Strength and Visions

I came from a poor and working-class background like many of the women I interviewed, and I dedicated my life to telling such women’s stories. I will explain more about my narrative in the second blog.

I feel that to make it through this terrible time that we are undergoing now, we need to face the darkness we experience, like the child, Maria Elena, faced hers. Then we can turn to those strengths and visions deep within us that give us life.

Joy in the Morning

Maria Elena could not as powerfully expressed her feelings in her childhood poem if at first she had not entered into the sense of having lost everything. Then, with the approach of joy in the morning, she was able to touch her creativity and leave with us a child’s poem of great meaning.

She made it through a difficult life and became an important labor leader, working with the United Farm Workers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Today she lives in a tiny, tattered house on the Texas-Mexico border where she writes poems and organizes other poor, largely undocumented women in any way she can. She’s done so with a beauty, spirit, and joy that have touched all who know her.

Fran Leeper Buss

Plans for the Blog

I plan to write this blog every week. My goal is to share insights that will help us continue to try to make this a better world despite the terror that is going on. I will tell stories about the women activists I have interviewed, give ideas I got from studying for my doctorate in history, and explain compelling concepts from my continued research. I will especially deal with the resources we must draw upon to keep on fighting when change seems so difficult right now.

I will also include contemporary stories about the struggle for justice and how to keep our souls functioning as we do so. I hope to hear your insights, examples of how you keep going, and your ideas to share. I believe that to make it through this period with all it’s physical, social, and political challenges, we must join together to make a force for justice. If you feel like you need companions as we do so, please join us in the process.

Posted in farm workers, Injustice, Latino, Mexican Americans, Poverty, religion, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments