Tag: celebration

The Launching


The Launching


First of all, let me say, Welcome Home.  There’s something inviting about wind- and sun-grayed shingles and wild roses and small pane windows and wrap around porches. You see how the sand stretches out in low tide ripples beyond the dune grass toward the sea.  This is what Utah Beach looks like now, but gray and menacing then when we landed there so many years ago. This not a place just anyone can come to.  We are privileged to have this old house, which will belong to all of you when I am gone.


I first came here as a boy—that’s a long time ago.  My mother cooked apples—not apple pie, the way you might be thinking right now because of the smell in the air. She baked apples whole with walnuts, nutmeg, cinnamon and brown sugar in the place where the core had been.  My father smoked his pipe and sat in a white wicker chair on this same porch with the same Delft blue two-inch boards newly painted every year.  He sat at a little round wicker table and dipped his pen in black ink and wrote poems that made people’s eyes water when he read them aloud. Which is what he did at funerals, weddings, births or when his friends launched boats they had built.

Once his younger brother—my uncle Flori—built a Seabright skiff.  For beaches like this you needed a skiff with a flat bottom that would keep the boat upright when the tide went out and not tip over and let seaweed, flotsam, and crabs wash in. This was before the time of big highways and plastic boats. Uncle Flori built his skiff out of yellow pumpkin pine planking that seemed to glow in the gloom of the old barn, where he worked and where his chickens watched and commented. He used a special plane to make the bevels for the lapstrakes so they would overlap each other to form the hull. He steamed the strakes in his steam box and ran them hot through the scattering chickens to clamp them to the skiff’s backbone of already placed ribs, supports, stem and stern, all in white oak. Next, he drove the copper rivets through the overlapping laps to hold them all together. Months passed. This is what you did in the winter. There was no television to watch. The cow’s gave off just enough body heat to keep Flori and his chickens from freezing to death.

Eventually, when everything was ready— thwarts, gunnels, weighted rudder, tiller, gudgeons, pintles and cheekpieces, and thole holes sealed with a hot tapered iron, everyone gathered in the marsh grass beside the creek, the same creek you kids swim in out in back. The place where in earlier times many a New England schooner slid sideways down greased skids into a bobbing high tide.

On this occasion, with Uncle Flori’s Seabright Skiff, my father took his pipe out of his mouth, and gave a speech that made most of us see the South Seas, Arctic lights, rare stones, white birds filling the sky and God herself. They were words that made my GreatAunt Bessy Kingman cry and my eyes water. I think for a moment I was thinking, as I always had, of a beautiful Indian girl who was lost in the swamps of the forest primeval whom only I could rescue, although my father’s poem never mentioned anything like that.

“Hold on! I will answer questions in just a moment!”

And then Uncle Flori took a sledge hammer–he didn’t really need something that big–and popped out a wedge, and the skiff slid down its skids and bobbed in a clear high tide, bucking a little like a foal, and my father said, “Congratulations, Flori, you’ve given birth!”  And everyone thought that was funny, and just when they were laughing and had their mouths open and their faces lit up with life, I noticed the face of a girl I hadn’t seen before, with the edge of her big straw hat bent up and letting the sun down on her teeth and lips and the hint of circles under her eyes, and her amber skin.  And she’d been watering her eyes just the way I had, so we were really closer to each other than we might have been at some other moment.  And later we all went walking along the side of the creek all the way to the river to watch Uncle Flori row with his new self-made counter-weighted birch oars. There was a spray of roses on the stern seat and a bunch of sunflowers tied to the bow, and Aunt Laura sat on the bow thwart, showing her white stockings because she had pulled up her skirt so it wouldn’t touch the water that was entering because the pumpkin pine strakes had not yet swelled enough to make the skiff watertight. And then we went back up the creek, through the marsh grass, crossing the muskrat trails, and I ended up walking beside the girl with the amber skin, a little back from the others, and she seemed wonderful to me, smart and more than my match in everything, and two months later we were married, and a year after that you Jonah, were born, then you Roger were next, then finally you, Mark. For a long time, I had worried that all of this was little more than just another ritual of a white privilege, this house and the beach and everything. I told you boys about a few things I had learned. Like be on the lookout for someone where you laughed and could be yourself.  Where love is like the water you swim in like a fish.  You listened and have chosen well. And now I have a delightful brood of beautiful grandchildren, who are half Japanese, half Nigerian, part Mexican and part Native American. I know you’ve heard this all before, but on a day like this when we gather to remember your mother and grandmother, here at this old house with the gray shingles and the rock roses and the beach stretching away, I just wanted to tell the story again. How I met her, what it was like, and why this is a special place, so all of you, your wives and children, so all of you won’t forget.  But as Proust or somebody like that said: “Reality is a state approached only through memory.”

Something like that.  I don’t remember, and you’re not supposed to at my age.  Anyway, I think it smells like the apples are ready, and I say why don’t we go in and eat them, the walnuts, the cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar, all cooked together like this family­–How very lucky we are! And how very lucky I am to still be here with all of you. Some of you little ones had questions and I will answer them when we are eating our apples.

A Fiesta Without Violence

Two of the neighbors, both women, were afraid. They wanted the police to be invited to our neighborhood Iluminación festival for the Virgin of Guanajuato, an event that was to occur just outside our front door. They were not the only ones who thought our local pre-cartel paint thinner sniffers might disrupt the gathering—I was another one. But the barrio steering committee persuaded the two women that police presence would destroy the whole purpose of neighbors coming together to honor The Virgin of Guanajuato, eat together, and build Solidarity. Plus, the event would occur between 4 and 6 pm, before it got dark, and the usual suspects did not start winding up their anti-social engines (on vapors) until darkness gave them cover.

Still, proceeding with the event took some courage on everyone’s part. No one could tell to what extent community organizing might draw a response from people at a somewhat higher pre-cartel level. We knew from previous experience that our locals could, and had before, called in other gangbangers from outside our barrio to signal their control over our public space.

D. and I had come up behind two of the principal local gangbangers that morning. They were climbing the stairs in front of us toward the upper ring road. They said, yes, yes, they would come to the celebration. As they walked ahead of us they kept looking back. I asked D. why they kept looking back; what was the psychological explanation? It is hard to know anymore when the glue and paint thinner sniffing has done its damage. Already, their motor coordination was disturbed; already they staggered and had trouble lifting their legs for each new step. Their looking back was the automatic behavior of disturbed, deeply frightened animals.

At the same time, community organizing had been under way for the last six weeks, with D. and C. talking to all the mothers and some of the men in the neighborhood, for hours at a time. D. read books on Conflict Resolution in Spanish, drew graphs, and condensed her reading into summarizing handouts. The principal graph took the form of a triangle. The lower levels described the foundation for the tip of the triangle: action. That is to say, the community could not correct matters regarding trash, graffiti, drinking and drugs in the alleys, social respect, and safety if action was not first based in conflict resolution and trust building—and simple agreements like not calling the police before talking to one’s neighbor or to the steering committee.

At first, we weren’t sure if anyone would come. A couple from the organizing committee hung a sheet over an ugly graffitied wall, then hung a framed picture of the Virgin of Guanajuato from a nail. They placed two plastic pails with flowers just below her. People stretched strings of small triangular yellow flags across the intersection of two alleys. Then, the neighborhood’s families began to trickle in. In the end, there were more than fifty people—including two of the drug-dealing families (i.e. mothers or aunts), but not the drug dealers themselves.

In what appears to Mexican style, family groups sat with their own; the most alienated—the drinking and drug dealing families—sat at the fringes but were still present and observing. K., a very experienced young friend, conducted a drawing workshop for the children at a table a little uphill from the food tables. She asked the kids to draw their own house, then people the picture with anyone they wanted. I stretched a clothesline between two concrete nails hammered into the front of our house, over the little table with the CD player and speakers—a spot I thought would attract the most attention, and we hung the kids’ drawings on the clothesline as–I like to think–an indication of what was most important to all of us: guiding the next generation of youth in a different kind of direction.

Some eight women spread food out on the tables where they filled chalupas, sopes and other kinds of baked or deep-fried formed tortillas with bits of ham and rice. Women who have feuded for years stood next to each other, smiling, serving the food. The president of the steering committee handed out plates of food. I brought cups of hot ponche – non-alcohol punch made from cinnamon, guava, tamarindo and carmelized sugar – to the outliers, the shy, the most alienated, to emphasize that they too were included.

Most of these people—the most alienated—sat around a corner from the main scene but were still able to see the CD player and the art wall. Three of these men had come to drink beer—one of the few ways for them to be present in a social setting. One of them was very drunk already. I brought him a chair; I brought him punch; others brought him food. He was shy and inarticulate; still, he wanted to be near the party.

One of the other two drinkers – a cargador – a man who carries heavy things (bricks, sand, bags of cement) up and down the canyon’s sides – approached R., a small woman, who was seated on the front steps of the entrance to her tienda – store – situated twelve strides from our front door. Just above her and to one side of the door she had opened the hinged glass window to her niche, in which was enclosed another Virgin of Guanajuato, illuminated by two votive candles and framed by flowers. R. was ladling out her own version of the Iluminación ponche. I was sitting right in front of her, so I heard what happened.

The beer drinker cargador, a man of essentially no education whatsoever, huge, rough and unwashed, asked R. to sell him a caguama – a liter bottle of beer. And R. said, very sweetly, “Ah no, Sir, I am not able to sell you one because we want it to be tranquilo here.”

He repeated the request.

She repeated her gentle refusal. The cargador lost a little face and retreated. Soon after a man came looking for him for a carrying task, and he left the gathering with a flash of recovered pride in his eyes.

R. the other beer drinker–a former glue sniffer who has somehow escaped from that circle of hell–held a caguama in his hands for at least a half an hour, but I never saw him drink from it. Perhaps he realized he didn’t have to drink to have a good time and probably because I and others had fussed over him, trying to show him we considered him one of us.

At one point, the very drunk man ghosted through the crowd, pushed open the door to the walled off vacant lot behind the food women and went in to pee. It took him a long time to reemerge and shuffle back around the corner to the margins of the festival.

People ate chapulas and drank ponche and looked at each other, even at other family groups, and smiled. I played CD’s of Cuban music and rustic music from Veracruz that included a harp. The first plucked notes of harp in the first song brought a small hoop from the abstaining beer drinker R; and I was delighted that there was still a place inside him that resonated with this simple, exuberant folk music.

People continuously passed through the crossroads of the two intersecting allies, on their way up from or down to the city. A few semi–recovered glue–sniffing adolescents bounced through, glad, I thought, to be making an appearance. I tried to detain two of them–boys I had known for years, beckoning them to come drink a ponche, eat a sope or chalupa. They smiled broadly but did not stay. But almost.

The steering committee stood on a high spot and thanked everyone for coming. D. announced that each child that had drawn a picture was to receive a bag of candies (there were twenty-five bags in all, supplied by a woman who could not attend); then the requirement was just being a child; or the mother of a child. The cooks protested that they too were deserving. I lobbied for R., the non-drinking beer drinker, but he was beaten out by another baby and her mother. He took it well, I thought.

Then it was getting dark, and we began to pack up. There had been no disruption from enraged gangbangers, no bouncing hand grenades, no attacks, no violence—no reason for fear. Just by being there, I thought we had shown that we cared about our barrio and were united in making it better—better for the young artists whose drawings hung on the clothesline, and for everyone one else—even for those not present. Word gets around. The report will be that something good happened. And in Mexico, that is always wonderful news.