From the Relief Society Magazine, 1955 –
By Fay Tarlock
It has been said that the first person in secular history to dream of the brotherhood of man was Alexander the Great. I am no historian. I only know of the time in my life when I shed childish prejudices and could call all men brothers. And call them that from the heart.
Not so long ago I sat with my sisters (hermanas) and watched the gentle sunlight sift through the church windows and lighten their faces. I joined with them in the familiar hymns and bowed my head with them in prayer, but my thoughts were in another land and in a time some years past. In this land the sunlight, more golden and intense, fell upon women with darker faces. Yet I loved them, and each was my sister.
Perhaps it was not so in the beginning. I was a stranger in their land and had first to love before I could be loved in return. Yet, each day the melodious language became more familiar, the customs piqued me less. Almost without my recognition, false presumptions slipped away, leaving eagerness and understanding. I recall an April morning in my garden.
* * *
The rains that year began with a March and April prelude. Late in the night it had rained, leaving puffy white clouds scudding towards the south. The sky above the garden was an incredible blue. Heliotrope, pink geraniums, red and purple bougainvillea, blue plumbago, and gossamer ferns cascaded down my garden walls weighted with jewels that trembled and sparkled in the sunlight. Above the far wall the first blossoms of the jacaranda waved in lacy clusters of blue.
I pulled the folds of my robe closer about me and lifted my sandaled feet high to avoid the shimmering pools of water. It was sheer joy to pluck a rose or smell a red carnation.
Through the open kitchen door I could hear the laughter of my twin girls as they raced in the front corridor. Within my walled garden there was no warring world, no strife. I had only to enjoy the day. Contentedly, like one of the tiny lizards on the wall, I sat on a bench of blue and yellow tile and stretched lazily in the sun.
Through half-closed eyes I saw Amporo. She came through the open door, her huaraches flapping busily on the red tile walk, her black eyes bright with the importance of her message. Let it be of no more concern than a message from the Senora’s cook that she would send me a dish of pepper and cheese. I did not stir on my cool seat.
“Senora.” Amporo dropped her black eyes decorously, her bent head showing the thick coils of hair on her slender brown neck. “Celestina of the Senora de Vargas house would like permission to speak to you.” Her small hands were folded under her favorite apron of coral.
“Of course,” I answered, too lazy to be impatient of all this ceremony. Celestina knew she could speak to me at any time; yet she followed the custom and sent word through an intermediary. “Tell her I am in the rear patio.”
Celestina was a lady. No huaraches for her. She wore the stiff, cheap shoes of the mercado and no pink apron, but a plain, dark dress that shadowed her calm beauty. She came gliding down the tiled walk, eyes meekly lowered, hands clasped in anticipation of the favor she would ask.
“Senora?” Her voice was quiet music. “Will you be gracious enough to give a moment of your time to Lolita, who is presently the cook?”
“You have no need to ask.”
Celestina had done much to improve my manners. I rose, if reluctantly, from the cool tile bench to accept her parting bow. Lolita, who was presently the cook, was a stranger to me, though these last few days my twins had been often in the de Vargas gardens with Lolita’s daughter. At this moment her gay laughter was mingled with the hilarious shouts of my offspring playing in the corridor. It was, I knew, vacation time for Esperanza, the regular cook. Lolita, from the house of an old friend, had come for the three weeks. What she wanted of me I could not even imagine.
She must have waited by the corridor door that separated our two houses, for Celestina had no more than bowed out than she was with me. So small she was, so beautiful and regular her features, save for her graying hair, she might have stepped down from the tile picture that guarded our entrance – the little brown Virgin of Guadalupe. She came towards me, hesitant and timid. It was no small favor she had to ask.
“Senora,” she said, lifting her reluctant eyes to mine, “I have long been known to the Senora de Vargas. For many years, since my daughter was an infant, I have lived in the house of her friend. This friend … the husband of the friend, has long been in diplomatic service.” She said it with pardonable pride. “For several years we have resided in Buenos Aires, but early this year, Senora, the friend, who was also my friend and mistress, died.”
Her sad brown eyes filled with tears and I took advantage of the break to sit down again, motioning her to sit beside me.
Sorrowfully she shook her head, making it plain that it was not her place to sit beside me.
“The diplomat’s wife died?” I asked, encouraging her.
“Yes, la Senora Urbina died.” Lolita sighed, lost in her memories of her mistress.
I waited. After all, I had nothing pressing to do, and the peaceful promise of the morning was already gone.
Lolita wiped away the last of her tears. “At the same time, Senora, I, too, was ill from an illness of long standing.” She spoke as one under a compulsion. “I do not want to burden you with my troubles, only to explain that it was best for me to return to Mexico … for my health, and because it was no longer agreeable for me to remain in that house.” She lowered her voice. “It was, you understand, the Senora who was my friend, not the Senor.”
“Since my return I have had an operation and am improved in health, so much so that I no longer need to be separated from regular work.” She was looking hopefully at me, and again I waited.
“I have wondered, Senora, if you would care to have me and my daughter?” She ventured it bravely. “As you have noticed, your own small ones are much attached to her. She is not, you understand, uneducated as are so many of the nursemaids of Mexico.” A superior smile lighted her face. “It will sound incredible to you, but she has been educated in private schools and in different lands, even in Paris, Senora.”
Before I could take in all this astounding news, she hurried on, “My former mistress had no children and Graciela was treated almost as if she were her own.”
The pleading in Lolita’s soft brown eyes was more than I could bear. “I am so sorry,” I said, trying to cut short her plea, “I should like to have Graciela and you in my house, but it is not possible.”
The brown eyes still refused to believe.
“I am quite content with my present arrangements,” I said firmly, “indeed, I could not change. Amporo depends on us, is one of the family, and Alicia, who comes twice a week for the laundry, is also contented with us, as we are with her.”
I thought of the succession of maids before Amporo: the lazy one who would not dust and who left the dishes sticky; the one who did not like us; the one who took the twins on the street and fed them until they became ill. I recalled the laundress who had returned the clothes gray and musty smelling. No, I would not part with Amporo who loved us and needed our home. Neither would I dismiss Alicia whose washings were white and clean smelling, and who was a poet by nature and made her two days with us a time of delight.
“I am sorry,” I said again. “I cannot change.”
Lolita’s eyes still pleaded with me. “Could you not enlarge your household, Senora?” she lowered her eyes. “I … I have heard that you often cook. I could please you with my cooking, I am sure.”
“I am sure you could,” I said gravely polite, “but in my own country I was cook and maid and laundress in one. It is a great luxury for me to have Amporo, and I am afraid that, even if we could afford a cook, my husband would not be pleased. He wishes me to cook his meals.”
She made one last effort. “The twins, Senora. Graciela and I could care for them and assist you in many ways I could mention. We would give you absolute freedom.”
“I know you would be most helpful. Graciela charms my children, and they would learn much from her, but I like to be with my children. One of the treasures Mexico has given me is leisure to spend with them. At home there was so much work, now I can enjoy them. and you must know,” I said gently to end the interview, “that we are not wealthy people. Amporo and Alicia are all that we can afford.”
She was dismissed, but I sensed her business was unfinished and I tried to end it. “Even in Mexico good servants are hard to get. You will easily find another home.”
If I had thought to end our discussion, I was mistaken. Words poured from her in a torrent of bitterness, so unexpected after her gentle manners.
“You have exposed my trouble, Senora. I cannot go into every home with my daughter. Your home is a good one. Your husband is good and kind. I have seen, with my own eyes as I have made the tortillas in the garden.” She gestured towards the open fireplace in the de Vargas garden across the low hedge of ivy and geraniums. “Also, the maids in the other household tell me of his goodness. Graciela would be safe in your house.”
“But you have no need to worry. Graciela is still a child.”
Her dark eyes flashed. “If that were only so. You have not noticed, Senora. Graciela is no longer a child. She will be eighteen her next birthday, a woman and a beautiful one.”
My eyes widened in astonishment. At that moment my twins chose to catapult themselves into the garden by way of the kitchen door, their laughter wild with excitement. Fast behind them came Graciela, her black hair streaming behind her in two long braids. She looked no more than twelve or thirteen.
“Oh, Mother,” Marita cried, her blue eyes dancing, “Graciela is so funny. Look at the burrito she drew for us.”
She held up a crayon drawing of a pathetic little donkey. Then the three of them threw themselves, laughing, on the red tiles in front of my bench.
I laughed with them as they broke into an excited conversation in Spanish, deciding that the donkey should carry bano wood, not baskets.
“Stand,” Lolita prompted her daughter, and the girl rose swiftly to her feet, smoothing the folds of her faded blue cotton dress with its childish bodice and white collar.
In a flash Lolita wound the two long braids of hair into a coronet on Graciela’s small head, and I saw what I had not seen before. Graciela was a young lady and a lovely one. Petite like her mother, her features as perfectly formed and her hair blue black, she was fairer of skin. Her eyes under the beautifully arched brows were a liquid brown.
I hesitated, not liking to ask the next question. “Her father, is he alive?”
With a practiced hand, Lolita dismissed the trio, her eyes dwelling sadly on Graciela. “Carlos, her father,” she answered, turning to me, “was a man of my village. He was killed in a fight in the village over water rights. Two men were killed with him and Graciela was not yet born.”
By now the sun was climbing high overhead and shone hot on my uncovered head. To avoid the steaming heat, I sat on the bench again, shaded by the pomegranate tree. This time Lolita accepted my invitation, but she remained on the far end, erect, with hands clasped in front.
“I will not tire you with the story, Senora. It was a long time ago. All I will say is that it was necessary for me to live with his family. It was a house with milk and bread for all, but I had known my own house and could not live with another woman who considered herself superior to me and took my baby as if it had been born to her. I ran away and came to Mexico with a cousin who worked here. She found me a place in the diplomat’s home.”
I learned that Lolita had a place to stay. It was the old Urbina house, the home of her former mistress, and was in San Angel. It had been built by the Senora Urbina’s family in colonial times, and in the late Senora’s will she had stipulated that as long as old Ramon, the caretaker, lived, or as long as Lolita willed to live there, it was not to be sold. Ramon had broken his arm pruning a tree. While it healed, he was having a hard time to till the garden, which gave them sustenance. If she could not live in my house, she would try to find day work so that she could live in the house and care for Ramon.
“You see, Senora, I cannot take my child into any home. She is too attractive.” She sat on the bench listless and sad, as only a Mexican can be sad.
I stirred uneasily in the shade. For some reason unknown to me I had been selected to help, and I resented it. In the still heat of the garden I could hear my husband’s warning voice, “Remember, you can’t change the world … you don’t have to get in the middle of every injustice you hear about … Remember what happened the last time you tried to help the people across the street … remember … remember …”
Determined to have nothing more to do with Lolita’s trouble, I could not help wondering what would be the future of her child. Lolita answered my thoughts, her eyes dark with passion.
“My child, senora, she must have a better future.” She spoke with vehemence, as if something long smoldering in her had burst into flame. “She has goodness, intelligence, beauty, and, as I told you, she has been educated. She speaks, senora, three languages besides her native Spanish – English, French, and German.” Proudly she rolled the words on her tongue.
“She is indeed accomplished.” I thought of my struggles to be proficient in one language not native to me. As I sat there, seemingly idle, my brain flashed frantic messages. The girl must be helped. She must be kept in school until she could find suitable work. Where could she work – in an embassy, in an American’s office? A little warning bell sounded.
“Something should be done to help her.” I said it lamely.
By now the flame of passion in Lolita had burned itself out. She drooped on the bench, her face older, her eyes despondent.
I ignored the warning bell. “You must let me think a bit, let me talk with Graciela.”
“If only you will, Senora.” There was a straw of hope in her.
Now, I thought, the woman will go. I must myself get about the day. I was in my robe, and it would soon be time to start dinner.
“Is there something else you wanted to say?”
Lolita’s face resumed its calm beauty. She smiled at me in gratitude. “If you will be good enough to give me another moment. Yesterday, when your little ones were hunting a book for Graciela, she saw two books on your shelf.”
“Yes,” I nodded encouragingly.
“They were two books of religion, one a Book of Mormon, one a history of the Mormon Church.”
My whole face opened in astonishment. “Do you know them?”
Her smile was warm as the sun. “In Buenos Aires, Senora, we heard of your Church. We attended some meetings and met with your missionaries.”
The unknown reason why she had persisted! It was almost incredible.
“Did you like what you saw and heard?”
“Oh, yes, Senora, we did,” she said, her shoulders straight. “How shall I say it, your religion gave me a hope I had never had before.”
“What was that hope?”
“It is hard for an unlearned person like myself to tell you.”
You do very well, I thought.
“It made me feel that someday I could be free – to make my own choices … and that sometime if I tried hard enough I could live in dignity. that I, too, had the divine spark.”
“You put it very well, Lolita. that is the promise of our religion.”
“It meant even more,” she went on eagerly. “It made me believe my daughter would have a better chance. It is a simple religion, verdad, simple enough to live by each day, and yet so deep it might change my very soul.”
I thought of the poor of many countries who had had that same dream, way back in the nineteenth century. Among them had been my own people, and the promise was just as bright today.
“Are you a member of the Church?”
“It is not that easy, senora. I have been reared in another faith, one that has been part of my people for a time so long I cannot say.”
Yes, you have lived your life in a blend of pagan and religious mysteries. Will you be able to grow enough to absorb this religion with its new and hard-won freedom? Are you strong enough for it?
As if she read my thoughts, she said, “We have not had a chance to know ourselves in this new religion. Just as we began to learn, we came away. Here in Mexico has been a time of illness. I do not know if there is a Church here or missionaries who will help us.”
I told her that El Presidente and his wife lived in Mexico City, that in a remote Colonia was a new chapel. The first Sunday morning my husband was free we would take her.
I made no further promise to Lolita, but when she left, my head swirled with plans. I called to Graciela to leave the children in the front corridor. I had to know what dreams, what plans she had.