Elizabeth Terese Newman
I'm heading north to the wild blueberry fields of Washington County, Maine to start a new research project. I want to understand what it means to make a home. I want to understand what happens when the lines between work and home blur. How do you create a home for a family in temporary company housing?
I've been studying these things in Mexico for more than a decade now. My book and other writing have been about how people find their way in the world while working--especially when work and home become the same place. Now I'm off to Maine to work with migrant families from Mexico. I want to understand how, when constantly moving from place to place, do you build a sense of identity for yourself and your family. How do you create a community? What does who you work for and where you work have to do with all of that? And, most important to an archaeologist, what can I glean from the material world that would allow me to interpret that in the past.
So, this summer, I'm off to explore a bit. I have no idea what I'll find, and I don't know how I'll structure the project moving forward. I'll update this site when I can with notes and photos from my adventures.
If you want to learn, discover, and explore along with me, check back in. If you know me and want to know what I'm up to, this is the spot. If you are curious about what it takes to get a brand new anthropological research project off the ground, stop by. I promise to share the successes AND the failures. Just don't expect me to have all the answers. Yet....
Have specific questions or comments? Email me! I'm happy to talk further, and if I can, I'll incorporate your questions into my future posts.
July 10, 2017
I look ruefully at the little cast iron skillet in my hand. What was I thinking? Couldn’t I have lived without this until fall?
I’m spending the next six weeks in a small, one-room cabin on a blueberry farm in the northern part of Washington County, Maine. The cabin has two windows and a door. The floor is linoleum. The walls are rough planks, and, as I couldn’t help but note when the temperatures dropped down into the forties after dark, uninsulated. The room is big enough to hold two double beds, one arm chair, a bureau, and a lamp. There is a “dining area” of sorts made from a low counter against one wall. The kitchen consists of a mini-fridge, a small camp stove, a sink, and a bit of wooden counter. There is a bathroom, and it is adequate.
It has all the comforts of home. And now it has a cast iron skillet.
As annoyed at myself as I am, I realize I ought to think more carefully about my stuff and my choices. After all, I’m here to study the material culture of home. I want to understand how people who are constantly on the move construct a sense of home and then build a community around it. Aren’t I doing that now? (The home part, at least. It is a bit soon to tell about the community.)
Part of me is reluctant to venture into this territory. After all, this is just for six weeks. I live an incredibly privileged life compared to the migrant workers I am here to study. And yet I, too, had to make decisions about what to pack into my limited car space so that I could feel at home when I reached the end of my 460-mile drive.
The what-I-packed is less interesting to me than the why-I-packed. The backpack full of clothes, toiletries and books is obvious—it is exactly what I take along when I hop on a plane and head to a more difficult to get to field location.
The insight I find is buried in all the other stuff I crammed into and on top of my car. I realize that the things I brought were chosen not so that this little cabin would look like my home, but so that my other senses would be satisfied, so that the cabin, quite literally, would feel like home. The cast iron skillet was packed so I could recreate the tastes of home; my own pillows and blankets,* even though both are provided, so that the bed feels and smells like home; a box fan that I often put on at night back home, even though I would have done better to bring a heater, so that the cabin sounds like home when I tuck in for the night.
Archaeologist that I am, I tend to think of material culture in visual terms. But as I unpack, I realize that I gave priority to every sense EXCEPT the visual. I know I can never make this spot look like home, and I wouldn’t want to. With this epiphany comes the understanding that I need to rethink how I observe and what sort of questions I ask in the coming weeks and years.
What senses do people prioritize when recreating home? Is one universally more important than the others? Can you disentangle them? Do you prioritize things that give you more than one sense of home at once? Food, for example, tastes and smells like home at the same time. Perhaps, whether because of the burn of a chili pepper on your tongue or the warm feeling of homemade chicken soup in your stomach, it even feels like home. Is food’s ability to check more than one sensory box at a time the reason it features so prominently for the immigrant and traveler alike?
How do you carry home with you?
*The dog is particularly grateful I packed these….
July 17, 2017
I’ve come to Maine to study the blueberry harvest. I have just one problem. This year, there may not be a blueberry harvest.
The price of wild blueberries has dropped precipitously. The farmer I am renting my little cabin from tells me that she will get just 10 cents a pound for her berries this year. Ten years ago, those same berries went for a historical high of $1.10 a pound.
My landlady lays out the labor costs. Blueberries are harvested in 22 pound bins. Rakers earn $2.50-$3.00 per 22 pound bin. This year, that 22 pound bin will only fetch $2.20.
She shrugs. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to hire help this year.”
I look out at the acres of blueberries stretching as far as the eye can see. How is she going to get her crops in? The three generations of farmers living together in the old red farmhouse are due to become four generations just as the blueberries ripen. They are in for a busy few weeks.
This expanding family is far from alone. I'm told that the Passamaquoddy tribe has decided not to harvest their berries at all this year. My landlady estimates their annual harvest at sixty million pounds. In a county where one in five people live below the poverty line, that is sixty million pounds of food that is just too expensive to pick.
Rumor has it that rather than harvest, the local big fruit company is mowing down 1500 acres, destroying the fruit rather than harvesting it. It will be two years before those fields are productive again.
This summer, it seems, man can live neither on nor by blueberries alone.
Why the crisis? Three reasons.
First, the fruit has been, perhaps, too successful. Record quantities of wild blueberries have been harvested the last three years. Many of those berries were frozen and remain on the market.
Second, farming cultivated blueberries (or high-bush) is increasing and out-competing the harder to farm, harder to harvest, and thus more expensive wild variety indigenous to Maine.
Third, the one other place that produces wild blueberries in numbers that compete with Washington County are the eastern provinces of Canada. The weak Canadian dollar gives growers to our north a significant price advantage.
Recognizing the impending economic disaster, the USDA stepped in a couple of weeks ago and paid $10 million to buy some of last year’s frozen berries. The hope is getting some of the oversupply off the market will cause prices to rise.
I wonder how this is going to impact the migrant workers I am here to study. Only forty percent of the people who usually migrate in to pick berries are expected to arrive this year. Where will the rest of them go? How will they, the most invisible of all victims of this downturn, survive?
And what of the local landowners like my landlady?
I asked her the other evening.
She leaned on my porch railing and looked out at the fog rolling in across her fields.
“You know, some people are blueberry farmers. Some people are just plain farmers. The blueberry farmers will go out of business. We’re just plain farmers. We’ll make it work. We’ll survive and keep going somehow.”
I don’t doubt it.
She is hustling. Every time we chat, I discover another way she is diversifying her business to protect the farm. The other day, she stopped by, fresh back from a 170-mile round trip to Bangor. “I had to go and buy a carboy,” she said.
I looked confused.
“For making blueberry wine.”
I raised an eyebrow.
She explains that last year she started making and selling blueberry wine jelly. Evidently it is particularly delicious with cheese. But it was also very expensive to make, as Maine blueberry wine is not an inexpensive ingredient. She was struggling to sell her product not because of the quality but because of the cost she had to charge due to the cost of the wine.
So, she is taking up wine-making. Instead of selling those berries for 10 cents a pound, she’ll turn some of them into wine, and then into jelly.
And somehow, she and the other three generations on this little coastal farm will survive.
August 3, 2017
She’d been looking at the box for a long time. She didn’t trust it. It was covered in images of cartoon princesses and frozen treats. What did she know of princesses?
It was unusually hot and dry for Maine. Even I was thinking about how good a popsicle would taste.
Her elder sister, aged 12, wasn’t impressed.
The little one made her decision. She climbed up, grabbed the brightly colored box, and sat cross-legged in the middle of the picnic table with a serious determination rarely seen in a 4-year-old. The sun, setting behind me, glinted off the glitter on her shirt and almost blinded me.
“Wild Child,” it read.
She tore into the box while Charlotte and I chatted with her sister who was embroiled in the kind of middle school angst that every 12-year-old is embroiled in.
Charlotte, who knew the sisters from the year before, was deeply engaged in teasing out the threads of this drama.
I felt like I had picked up a book and started reading from the middle.
“They are melted.”
It was a flat statement of fact.
We looked over. The younger sister was holding up a plastic popsicle bag. It dangled from thumb and forefinger, shifting in what little breeze there was. Through the plastic, we could see a popsicle stick and a very small bit of bright blue sugar-water.
Her sister shrugged. “The box said “mini.” There isn’t even enough there to save.” She turned back to us. She was too wise in the ways of the world to bother.
I looked back at the little girl sitting cross-legged in the middle of the picnic table. She didn’t get upset. She didn’t fight back. There was no tantrum. There was no demand to make it right.
The look in her face suggested she regretted her gullibility. Her world wasn’t full of princesses and frozen treats—and she knew better.
It broke my heart.
The box had come from one of the other camp inhabitants. A local church group had set up a much-needed food pantry. They had laid out the goods in the sun—it was a beautiful spread. Lots of staples and beautiful fresh produce, along with some treats for the kids.
Someone grabbed a box of popsicles and bestowed them on the girls. Nobody thought about the fact that those “mini princess popsicles” had been sitting in the sun for more than two hours.
So many good intentions added up to yet another life lesson for this tiny girl.
I wanted to give her a hug, but she didn’t need it. I did.
For the last two weeks, my days have been full of little stories like this. Half of the stories break my heart, the other half are moments of potentially life-changing victory.
It feels like there is no room for the middle ground in the blueberry camps.
The stories are far from all bad. This morning, I watched a 12-year-old boy, here for his first season working in the fields, walk out of the resource center with an armload of beautiful new books. The books were stacked so high in his arms, he could barely see over the top.
“You have some great reading there!”
He turned and grinned at me, trying not to drop any of the books. “Yep!”
The look of happy anticipation on his face made my entire month.
I wish I could tie all the stories up into a neat little package for you, but fieldwork is messy. The tidy stories and meaning behind them comes later. I’m too busy living the stories to understand them right now. And too tired.
When I arrived a month ago, I had expected to be working in the Blueberry Harvest School, a three-week program that serves children of migrant workers. Because of the crisis in blueberry prices and the number of farmers who won’t harvest, many workers have not shown up at all this year, and enrollment at the school is lower than usual.
So, I was shifted out of the school. Education for children in a school setting is only one piece of the federal migrant education program. Because children as young as 12 are legally employable in agriculture, the program provides a variety of educational services in the camps when the young people are not working or sleeping.
I’m spending my afternoons and evenings with some incredible women and men who are giving up their summers to search out these kids and cram a few hours of education and fun in between sleeping and 12 hour shifts in field or factory. They do their work with kindness, generosity, humor, and love.
It isn’t easy. Schedules are often irregular, for both student and tutor. The blueberry harvest is a 24-hour-a-day project. Everybody is on 12 hours and off 12 hours. It seems many of the younger workers, those we are working with, end up on the night shift. They go to work at 6 or 7 at night and work through until 6 or 7 the next morning. The luckier ones get the day shift. The least lucky get shuttled back and forth between the two.
We wander the camps in the late afternoons and evenings, hoping to find students who are not working and awake. We don’t want to get anybody up earlier than necessary, and those coming off work are exhausted. Still, the kids make time to have classes with us to prepare for taking the GED, to keep up with their high school work so when they return to wherever they came from, they aren’t too behind, or, to just take basic lessons in English.
In between, we take clothes and books to mothers living in the camp with babies and toddlers and talk to them about child development. We connect people with healthcare providers, and we make sure they all get what food, clothing, and resources we have at our disposal.
And my project? What am I learning? I guess I’m learning that my project is feasible. There is a home and a community to study. I’m learning that the good cheer and generosity I loved in Mexico is portable. At the moment, I’m feeling like each of the camps has a very different feel to it. Some feel utilitarian, some feel desperate, and some feel joyful.
It isn’t that there isn’t joy in the most utilitarian of camps and there isn’t desperation in the joyful camps, but there is a different feel. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but I hope, in the coming years, I can tease that out.
Yesterday, Charlotte told me that the season goes so fast that, her first year, she just felt like she had a handle on things when it ended. I hope I learn as quickly as she does.
August 8, 2017
“There is one more kid we need to get service to…” Amelia says.
Six pairs of eyes, mine included, look up from already overwhelming lists in notebooks and wait.
She says, “There is this little girl in Waltham… Melissa…” (no, that isn’t her real name…) “She’s four.”
Five pairs of more-knowing eyes drop back to notebooks.
“Where’s Waltham?” I ask.
Finally, Becca sighs, “It’s really, really far.”
Charlotte looks up. “It is west of Ellsworth, maybe an hour and a half each way.”
My eyes drop back to my notebook. 90 minutes each way. For one kid… Ouch.
Nobody wants to go, you can feel it in the room. But this isn’t about laziness or a reluctance to get in the car and drive.
During orientation week, the director of the program made a joke that the Camp Services people just do what they do because they really like to drive.
I didn’t get the joke at the time.
I do now.
I’ve been here four weeks, and, as a member of the Camp Services team, in those four weeks, I’ve driven more than 3,000 miles. I could be in California by now.
The camps we work in are as much as 30 miles apart, not 30 highway miles, 30 dirt road out in the blueberry barrens miles.
And here is the thing. Every task comes with a trade off. Time to work with people is short. Microscopically short when you add in transportation time. It can easily take an hour to get from one camp to the next. In essence, the time we have to work with people is from 5:30-8:30 each evening. And if we have to travel from one camp to another, we lose an hour.
So, if you are going to drive 90 minutes each way for one girl, what do you lose?
English language lessons for half a dozen teenagers at two camps? Half a dozen teenagers who voluntarily show up for classes after 12 hours of heavy labor out in the fields? How do you tell them, “No, not tonight, I’m too busy?”
Check-ins for maybe a dozen families sending their kids to the school—check-ins to communicate educational or health information to worried parents? How do you tell them, “I know you are worried, but tonight, your kid isn’t my priority?”
The silence is heavy. Everybody is looking down at their notebooks, at their to-do lists, seeing the faces of their already-made commitments in their mind’s eye.
Everybody but me.
I am looking down, too, but for other reasons. For everybody else, that three-hour drive is going to cost students or families something. For me, it is going to cost a day off.
I feel like a horrible person, but I really want that day off.
The field season has been a whirlwind of activity. I am exhausted. One week from tonight is my last night in the field. I feel like I haven’t had time to think, to breath, since this all began.
During the week, I’ve been in the camps, or planning to be in the camps. On the weekend, I’ve been pitching in at the farm I’m living on, gathering oral histories from local farming families while working the “fresh pack line” in the processing shed. I’m the youngest on the line by more than four decades, and I’m sore from trying to keep up with the ladies who have been doing it most of their 84-plus years.
After it all, I rarely get home before 10 pm, and then I sit down to write the day’s field notes.
All these justifications run through my head. I had decided to take tomorrow off to sit down and think through where my project is and what I need to accomplish in the next week. Also to sleep.
If I’m honest, sleep is not an inconsiderable motivating factor.
But out in the woods somewhere west of here, there is a four-year-old girl. She is, much to her mother’s disappointment, too far away to get to the school on a daily basis. As weak compensation, she has been promised a bag with a couple of books in it, and someone to go and read with her for one hour.
And I’m thinking about sleep.
One hour. One hour of reading… Three of driving and one of reading. Four hours.
I take a deep breath.
“O.K., I can go tomorrow. We didn’t have anything planned for me anyway.”
Maybe I can think on that 3-hour drive.
The relief is palpable. We wrap up our meeting.
I stay behind so Amelia can give me the particulars about how to find this student, and to provide me with her parent’s phone number so I can call and arrange my visit.
“Given her distance and the fact that this is likely to be a one-off visit, can I take her extra stuff?”
Amelia grins, “Load her up!”
We start going through the resources we have available; if we have it, this kid is getting it. Amelia gives me a bit of background on the student.
Evidently, she falls into the category of “hard core” migrants.
The migrant experience is far from homogeneous. Everybody’s story is different. Where you come from, how far you travel, how often you move, where and how you live when you get where you are going, your embeddedness in a social network of other workers, the sort of work you are doing when you stop, this all varies from family to family.
The blueberry harvest appeals to a diverse crowd. It is famous for being both physically taxing and, potentially, extremely lucrative. Because of this, it attracts workers who are not constantly on the move.
Probably 80 percent of one camp, for example, is populated by people from one good-sized town in Texas just north of the Mexican border. These people came as a group, organized by one man who had arranged their housing and employment ahead of time. They would all work for the same company raking on the same schedule. Many, though not all, were related. They formed a solid community in the camp. When one child was sick, others would help with the family’s other kids.
People like this are just here for the blueberry harvest. Most of them will return to Texas when it is over, though some will stay on to make Christmas wreaths—the other big business in this part of the world—before going home. But they have a home. They come here because the money they can make is significant.
Melissa doesn’t belong to one of these groups.
When Amelia first met Melissa in the Raker’s Center, she noticed Melissa looking at a map.
“Do you know where you are?”
“Yes,” said Melissa. “I’m here, in Maine,” she pointed to Maine.
“Before that,” she continued, “I was here,” pointing to New Jersey, “In New Jersey.”
Before that, I was in South Carolina,” she said pointing to the right state on the map.
“We started here,” pointing further south, “In Florida.”
“Next,” she explained, “We’ll be here, in New York. For apples.”
Melissa is four.
As we finished packing up the books, Amelia put her hand on my arm. “I should probably warn you,” she said.
“I think Melissa and her family are living out of a tent.”
It might seem like a small thing, but migrant workers who are living away from the big camps and out of tents, families who are constantly on the move, tend to be the poorest and most disadvantaged. Amelia hadn’t seen where they were living, but she wanted to prepare me. Neither of us knew what I’d find when I got out to Waltham, but it might be pretty rough.
I picked up the bag full of books, and I headed out for the evening. I was glad I had put aside my own petty plans for the next day. The little girl living in a tent with a knowledge of geography that far exceeds that of most adult Americans needs these books.
August 9, 2017
She dances along the wooded path. She is dressed in hot pink from head to toe, right down to the little pink elastics holding her complicated French braids in place. I marvel that any four-year-old could make it to 5:00 pm in such a perfectly-coiffed state. She has.
Her name is Melissa. I’m here to bring her books. All I know about her is that she lives in a tent and she knows her geography.
I had set out earlier that afternoon with no direction but her name and her mother and father’s names, their cell phone number, and an address that didn’t register on my GPS unit.
The night before, I called the number. The phone rings for longer than it should. Finally, a cautious male voice answers.
I’d been told that Melissa’s father seemed very reserved, but that her mom was eager to get her some educational services. I ask for her mother, using the name I scribbled on a piece of paper torn out of my notebook.
There is a pause. An equally cautious-sounding woman says hello. I introduce myself, explaining that I work with Amelia and the migrant education program.
The responses convey fear, distrust, and confusion. She doesn’t remember who Amelia is, she doesn’t know what the program is, maybe I am trying to trick her into something?
I stumble around verbally, my Spanish breaking down as I try to reassure her, to give this woman a clear explanation for my call. I search for a context she is comfortable with.
Finally, I say, “I have books, I want to bring them to your daughter.”
“Books.” That does it. If I have books, I must be a friend.
The woman, the mother, becomes animated. She invites me, almost pleads with me, to come anytime. Amelia has told me that the family works until 4:30, so I ask if coming around 4:30 would be convenient. She eagerly agrees. I feel like I could have suggested any time. She just wants me to come. I have books.
Thursday, today, rolls around. I head to the school to pick up the bag that the federal government has decided this child ought to have. It has one book appropriate to her age and an educational game. Evidently, someone somewhere decided that migrant children should get a book in a bag. I guess the idea is that they are traveling, so we might as well pack that all important book for them.
I pick up the bag. It is a pure white canvas. I shake my head, a white bag for a four-year-old? But hell, the kid gets a book.
And actually, THIS kid gets more than a book.
Amelia and I had spent a good bit of time gathering books for her the previous evening. Anything we had in the classroom that was up for grabs and could be interpreted in the most generous terms as being age appropriate got packed into that totally impractical white canvas tote. Afterwards, Amelia had gone back to the resource center and packed a backpack full of other donations to take to Melissa. I find the backpack sitting next to the tote.
I don’t have the time to inspect the offerings, but it feels really good to head to my car loaded down with these bags of stuff.
I pull out my torn bit of notebook paper, and I punch the address into the GPS unit in my car. Nothing. I try again. The signal isn’t very good in this part of Maine. Still nothing. I pull out of the school parking lot and drive to the nearest gas station. I fill my tank and then find a parking spot to the side. I punch the address in again. Still nothing. I shrug and just put in the town. Luckily, that does register. I figure when I get there, I’ll find someone to ask.
I set out on the drive. Signs tell me the drive will be scenic. I interpret this as “the drive will be a pain in the butt.” My interpretation is correct. I’m sure that if you were on vacation and had all the time in the world, the route would have been exquisite.
I am not on vacation.
As I close in on the town, I keep my eyes open. Following the instructions offered by my GPS, I make a right turn at a T-junction, but as I do, I note a hand-lettered sign just to my left. I pull over, grab my piece of paper, and check the rear view mirror. Looks like the same “street” name.
I make a U-turn and head back.
The “street” is really a driveway, an unpaved driveway. There are cows in a field to my right, woods on my left. I bump down the track, hoping my car doesn’t bottom out. I’m looking for any signs of life. I drive on and on with nothing but cows and trees for company.
As I navigate a particularly complicated patch of mud, my subconscious processes the outlines of a tent in the woods to my left. I am so focused on keeping my little Hyundai out of an irreversible situation, I don’t think to stop and investigate. I continue on to a ramshackle barn and a number of sheds.
I get out of the car. “Hello?”
The only answer to my shout is a distant “moo.”
As I look at the classic Maine farm scene spread out before me, my subconscious finally spits out that image of the tent it had collected a few hundred feet back.
I get back in the car, carefully turn it around, and I head back in the direction of the little tent.
I pull off next to a stand of trees and walk into the woods up a meandering path.
It smells like Christmas.
I inhale deeply as I come around a curve in the path. A small wooden lean-to sits in front of me in the middle of a bit of a clearing. As I approach, a neat little woman appears in the doorway with a broom. She pauses mid-sweep and looks at me. She is not hostile, but she is cautious.
I hold up the bag of books by way of introduction. “I’m looking for Melissa?”
The woman smiles, welcoming me, but she looks anxious.
She is Melissa’s mother.
She invites me into the lean to which proves to be a small, neat camp kitchen. There is a sink on the right-hand wall, an enormous six burner stove on the left. The stove looks ancient. There is a makeshift counter-height table in the middle of the room, and one plastic lawn chair next to it. There is no fridge, but outside the window over the sink, I hear a washing machine running.
Melissa’s mother invites me to sit.
She explains that the farmer’s wife had gone to buy milk and eggs, and that she took Melissa with her. She doesn’t know how long they will be gone. She is clearly worried that Melissa is going to miss her chance at some books and the hour or so I am there to work with her.
To reassure her, I begin to unpack the bags and show her what I brought. I show her the books and game, explaining what they are. I pull a little pink winter coat out of the backpack. Melissa will travel next to upstate New York for the apple harvest. Amelia must have been worried that she would be cold. Below the coat are matching mittens and a little sweater. Melissa’s mother looks thrilled.
I show her some of the books Amelia and I packed up. There is a big stack in both English and Spanish. Among the books is an English Spanish picture dictionary. I show Melissa’s mother how it works. It is a bit old for the four-year-old, but I thought it might be useful for the whole family. Melissa’s mother agrees.
Still no sign of Melissa. Her mother and I are both glancing worriedly towards the door. I’m trying to think of excuses to keep hanging out waiting for her, so I turn to the game provided by the U.S. Department of Education.
This is the first time I’ve looked at the game. It is an educational game about the four seasons. I realize the game is entirely monolingual. Everything is in English only, not one word of Spanish. I ask Melissa’s mother if she would like to open the game so we can look at the instructions together. I don’t want to be the one to unwrap the shiny new toy, but I’m worried about leaving her with a game nobody understands how to play.
She nods happily and unwraps the box. We look, and indeed the instructions are only in English. This seems like awfully poor planning on someone’s part.
I skim the instructions. The game is straightforward. It comes with four boxes, each with four compartments labeled “Spring,” “Summer,” “Fall,” and “Winter.” The boxes are red, yellow, blue, and green. There are stacks of “chips” also red, blue, yellow, and green. Each chip has an illustration of an item that supposedly belongs to one of the seasons. The goal is to sort the objects into the appropriate boxes.
I wonder what a child from Florida who moves with the seasons will make of this game.
I review the instructions again, this time out loud in Spanish.
The final step instructs the players to pull out some paper and crayons and draw their favorite season. I gloss over this step. There are no crayons and no paper in the bag. I don’t want to remind Melissa’s mother that her daughter lives without these “normal” accessories of childhood.
With the game explained, I move on to the book. It, too, is in English, but it occurs to me that if I explain the story to Melissa’s mother, she’ll be able to tell the story with the pictures to her daughter. It is a beautiful illustrated Native American folk tale about snow. I wonder if Melissa has ever seen snow.
We are halfway through the book when a car pulls up in the clearing next to mine. Melissa’s mother’s face lights up. “She is back!” she says.
She rushes out to collect her daughter. I watch from the door of the lean-to as she and the farmer’s wife get Melissa out of a child’s seat in the back of the car.
The tiny vision in pink with perfect braids comes dancing up the path.
She reaches the door of the lean-to and looks up at me. There is no fear in her gaze. There is so much fear in this little child’s world. I marvel that it hasn’t infected her. I hope it never does.
“Are you Melissa?” I ask.
“Yes.” She cocks her head to one side inquisitively.
“I brought you some books, would you like to see them?”
“Books!” Her eyes widen. “YES!”
She rushes into the small room towards the table, eager to see the books.
This place smells like Christmas, and all of a sudden, I feel like Santa.
I show her the “official” offerings from the U.S. Department of Education.
“A game? For me!” Her eyes are wide with disbelief.
“Yes, do you want to play it?”
She nods eagerly. We open the box. The pieces are still wrapped in plastic. She enjoys the unwrapping thoroughly.
As we are working on getting all the little pieces out of shrink wrap, her mother holds out the backpack full of clothes. “Look what else she brought you, Melissa!” She fishes out the pink jacket, “See!”
Melissa puts down the game pieces she is trying to unwrap and looks wide-eyed at the jacket. “That’s for me?”
Her mother and I nod. Her mother hands her the bag and she starts digging through it. Somewhere at the bottom of the bag, she finds a treasure. With wide-eyes, she pulls out a package of brand new socks in a rainbow of colors.
“Who are these for?” Her tone conveys the kind of awe that only a four-year-old could feel for a package of socks.
“They are for you,” I say.
“And who else?” she asks.
She is already plotting her negotiation for her favorite colors—I’m guessing the pink socks are top on that list, maybe purple, too.
I try not to laugh. “Nobody else. They are all for you.” I explain.
“They are?!?!” She can’t believe it.
She hugs the socks to her chest and does a dance of pure joy around the little room.
Yep, I am definitely Santa Claus. I’m so glad I put aside my selfish plans for a day off.
We turn back to the game. We finish unwrapping, and I explain how it works. Rather than competing, we opt to work together, and we spend 45 minutes sorting all four sets of boxes.
I can’t believe how culturally oblivious the game is. The symbols that we have to sort are so specific to the Northeastern part of the country. I wonder what a child in LA, for example, would make of this game.
Some of the pieces are easy to sort. Sunglasses. Melissa pops them into the “summer” compartment without a second thought.
Other pieces pose a bit more of a challenge. Melissa looks at a picture of an old-time wooden sled. Her brow furrows. She thinks for a moment. She puts it decisively in the “Fall” compartment.
I ask her why she put it there. She says, “Well, it is a table, and thanksgiving is in the fall, so I guess it must be for thanksgiving.”
I can’t fault her logic.
We make our way through the first set, the second, the third, and finally the fourth. It takes only 45 minutes, in spite of the number of things that require concerted discussion.
At one point, she picks up an image of an overflowing cornucopia.
“Uh, well, it is lots of fruits and vegetables that have just been picked. It is called a cornucopia. It is for the season when you harvest all the fruits and vegetables.”
Melissa looks at me like I’m an idiot. I suddenly feel like an idiot. In her world, it is always harvest season.
I briefly contemplate explaining how thanksgiving and harvest are associated in this part of the world, but a part of me rebels against the official narrative. The U.S. Department of Education probably intended me to have exactly that conversation. I refuse to play into their hands. How do I explain this abundance of food to someone who has no access to such abundance?
“Well,” I said, “Where do you think something like that belongs and why?”
She thinks for a long time before carefully placing it in the spring box. She says, oh-so-sure of herself, “That’s when we begin moving, so that is when there must be the most to pick.”
I can’t fault her logic, so I just nod and smile. She giggles. We move on to the next piece.
The game comes to an end, and I ask her if she’d like to read a book with me. She nods eagerly and without a second thought, climbs into my lap. Her mother smiles and hands us the beautiful picture book, the Native American tale about snow.
Up until now, we have been speaking just Spanish. The book is in English, and so I ask her, “Do you want me to read it in English or in Spanish?”
“Oh, English please!” she says in perfect English.
I feel badly because I’m worried that her mother will feel excluded, but I am underestimating her mother. Her mother continues her work cleaning the kitchen and doing laundry while Melissa and I read. Melissa thoroughly enjoys the story, and every time she giggles and jokes about something, her mother casts a look of pure joy in her daughter’s direction. Her mother isn’t excluded, she is proud.
We finish that book, and Melissa begs for another.
I agree. “ONE more.”
How can I say no to this child?
She shuffles through the stack, picks another book, and she climbs back into my lap. We read it, with just as much giggling.
Her mother knows it is time for me to go.
I break the news to Melissa.
“Why do you have to leave?” she asks, suddenly sad.
I don’t want to, but I know I have to. I’ve come and done what I was supposed to do and then some. I was supposed to go for an hour. It’s been nearly three.
But I need to explain in a way that makes sense to her.
“Well, I have to go see my mom and have dinner, and it is a very long drive home.”
Melissa slides off my lap, turns and looks at me with wide, amazed eyes.
“YOU have a mother TOO?!?!!”
Melissa’s mother stifles a giggle.
“Uh, well, yes, I have a mom.”
Melissa looks at me with understanding. “She probably worries about you when you are far away from her, doesn’t she?”
I nod. This four-year-old is wise for her years.
“Then you should go. But what are you going to say to her when you see her?”
I think for a moment, and then I say, “I am going to tell her that I got to spend the afternoon with a very beautiful and very smart girl named Melissa, and that we played games and read books.”
Melissa cocks her head to one side, mulling this over.
“Yes, you can tell her that.” She pauses briefly, “And then what will you do?”
I said, “Well, we’ll probably take the dogs for a walk.”
She puts her hands on her hips and stares at me hard.
“YOU have a DOG?!?!?!”
The mother news was one thing, the dog news, well, clearly, I’d been holding out on her.
I laugh and admit that yes, I have dog.
“Do you want to see a picture?”
I pull out my cell phone and start looking for pictures of my dog. I show him off. She is in love. Next year, clearly, I have to bring the dog.
I’m already planning on next year. Three hours and this kid owns me.
She and her mother walk me to the car. They wave me off as I pull out, and then Melissa's mother starts to unbraid her hair. The love, joy, and pride I see on the woman's face make it even harder to drive away.
I struggle with feeling simultaneously grateful for the afternoon, for all that Melissa and her mother have taught me, and guilty for leaving this child.
I push the guilt aside. It is the job. Instead, I focus on my gratitude. I feel so privileged that Melissa and her mother shared their world with me for an afternoon. I hope I’ve made half as much of an impact on their lives as they’ve made on mine.
The drive home is scenic, not a pain in the butt.
I pull into the driveway, pull myself stiffly out of the car, and climb the stairs to my mother’s kitchen. The dogs greet me with the joy that dogs always greet you with. Today, I actually feel like the returning hero they think I am every day.
My mother walks into the kitchen. “What did you do today?” she asks.
“I got to spend the afternoon with a very beautiful and very smart girl named Melissa, and we played games and read books.”
Elizabeth Terese Newman