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By Sylvia Castañeda

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n the 1920’s, Luz Solís was living in San Diego with her husband and their two young children.

Luz was raised in Tijuana and had crossed the U.S. – Mexico border daily to attend grade school in San Ysidro.
Her husband, Lupe Tirado, was from Sinaloa; a man with limited education and a strong temperament who worked as a cement finisher. Luz was 16 years old when she married him in Tijuana and, as crossing the border was much easier then, they went to live in San Diego. They lived in a rented modest house downtown on Columbia Street near West Market Street.

She and her sister, Antonia, were born to Ygnacio Solís & María Cañez, a customs agent at the Tijuana checkpoint and his wife. After she married, Luz frequently visited her parents and sister in Tijuana. When her father died, Luz’s mother and sister moved to Santa Paula, California, north of Los Angeles, where relatives lived. Not long after that, Luz’s mother passed away. Antonia remained in Santa Paula under the care of relatives, the GutiTia Luz 1942_Snapseedérrez family, until she married. Luz came up often.

One day, Luz returned from a trip to Santa Paula to find her home on Columbia Street empty. Her family had vanished. Her husband was gone. Their children – their son Leocadio and daughter Ascención – were nowhere to be found.

Frantic, Luz went door to door, inquiring with neighbors. She spent days searching. A neighbor informed her that Lupe had fled to his native Mazatlán, Sinaloa. She went there. Back then, it was a trip that took many days. But in Mazatlán she found nothing.

Luz returned to San Diego, destroyed. She continued searching. Yet, unable to afford the rent on her own, she had no other alternative but to find shelter with the Gutiérrez family in Santa Paula. When she gathered enough strength to make it on her own, she moved to Tijuana. For years, she frequently crossed the border into San Diego to search for her children Leocadio and Ascención without success.

By 1930, Luz was living in Tijuana, and remarried to Carlos Savín, a commercial fisherman who followed the fishing routes along Baja California. They divided their time between homes in La Paz and Tijuana, depending on the fishing season. Often, over the years, they crossed into San Diego to visit Luz’s family. When they did, Luz always returned to the house on Columbia Street where she last held her children.

In time, neighbors moved away and the neighborhood was one she no longer recognized. She carried her children’s disappearance like a cross, longing more than anything to find her children. But with every passing year, the longing formed a deep abyss of sorrow.

Luz and Carlos never had children of their own. But the children of Carlos’ brother came to live with them and Luz raised her nieces – Dora and Margarita – and they loved her as their mother.

Every month for as long as she lived, Luz wrote letters to her sister, Antonia, who was by then living in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. In those letters she wrote of the daily events in her life as well as the agony caused by the absence of her children.

In 1986, Luz’s letters became sparse; months went by without any news from her. One day, the letters ceased. Concerned about Luz, Antonia sent a letter to the corner house on Calle Revolución and Sonora, in La Paz, inquiring about her sister. She received no response. Antonia never again heard from her sister.

The memory of Leocadio and Ascención vanished with Luz.

Antonia was my grandmother. I heard the story of my Grand Aunt Luz when I was 9 years old.

It was 1978. I was at my Tía Lupe’s house on Atlas Street in El Sereno, in the living room, cross-sitting on the patterned burgundy carpet. Outside, leaves fell on the low stone wall that surrounded the front porch. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass played in the background. My mother sat at the dining-room table while Tía Lupe sewed a flowered skirt for me, to be used during Folklorico Dance practice and they laughed as they told what they remembered of the letters their mother, Antonia, received from her sister Luz in Baja California.

Every time a letter arrived, they said, Antonia would sit them around the small coal-burning stove, which simultaneously heated the cast- iron clothes iron and cooked the beans in the earthenware pot as she read the news from the family that lived so far away. Every detail of the letters were animated by Antonia’s tone and pitch, except when the news was sad; then her voice became somber and sometimes she didn’t read aloud what was written.

As the memories of the letters unfolded, the boisterous laughs of my mother and her sister grew quiet and still, Herb Alpert became faint and they told the story of Luz and her children. I never forgot that story.

Years later, when I was in my twenties – seventy years after the disappearance of Leocadio and Ascención – I began to search for them.

My quest began with a leather-bound photo album, carefully arranged throughout the years by my Abuelita Antonia. This collection of photographs captured moments in time described in the letters. Every year, in the winter recess, when I visited my Abuelita in Zacatecas, I immersed myself in the stories the pictures conveyed. I linked the people in the photos to the names and the events in the letters. I connected myself to these memories left behind in the photographs. Two photos were absent from the collection and deserved a place alongside the others.

My father and sister humored my persistence in searching for documents that would serve as clues to the whereabouts of Luz’s missing children. But they could not understand why. My mother, in her heart, longed to locate them but didn’t think the pursuit would be fruitful. My cousins thought I was mad. Let the past be, they would say. Why disturb what was to be? Why does it matter, it happened so long ago? Who is Luz? Let the story that faded into the walls remain there, to protect those who lived and suffered.

I obtained Leocadio and Ascención’s birth certificates registered in San Diego, then, I located a 1920 Census record. It listed a Guadalupe Tirado as a head of household; it listed Lucy as his wife and Oscar as their one year old son. They were renting a house on Market Street in San Diego. However, I was perplexed by the recorded name for their son: Oscar. His age was accurate. Could this be Luz’s family?

I came across several border-crossing records for Luz Solís and Guadalupe Tirado and a U.S. World War I Draft Registration Card for Guadalupe. The border crossing records and the draft registration document identified Luz Solís as Guadalupe Tirado’s wife. I revisited the 1920 Census record to check the address and matched a border crossing recorded about the same year. The Tirado family in the 1920 Census had to be Luz’s family. But was Luz’s son named Leocadio? Was “Oscar” his first name and Leocadio his middle name? I grew more obsessed with the search.

In the 1930 Census, I found a Guadalupe Tirado, who was married to another woman named Felicitas. They lived on 13th Street in San Diego. Their two oldest children were the same age as Leocadio and Ascención would have been, but their names were Eugenio and Maria. In the 1940 Census, Guadalupe and Felicitas Tirado lived on Pickwick Street in San Diego. The two oldest children’s names were now Eugene & Mary.

I searched the name Eugene Tirado on the internet and was linked to the Korean War Casualties website. My heart immediately sank. I clicked on the link. “Eugene L. Tirado, born on 1918, killed in Action 26 Mar 1951, Sergeant First Class, Army” appeared on the computer screen. My eyes focused on his middle initial. This had to be Leocadio.

I sought his military records. The Report of Internment for Eugene L. Tirado identified his birthdate. It matched Leocadio’s: Dec 9, 1918. The typed record also had a bonus; in blue lead, the letters “e” and “o” were added by hand to the “L.” I thought of Luz and my eyes flooded with tears.

Through it all, for 20 years, I kept on, convinced I could find these children. I searched census indexes at the local Family Search Library, requested mail-ordered photocopies of birth records from the San Diego County Registrar and census records from the National Archives, visited the Los Angeles Public Library Genealogy Department, maneuvered through microfiche, microfilm, record books, and scoured the sources of data brought on by the dawning of the internet. It led, in the end, to the realization that one of her children was killed at war years before I was born.

In August 2010, I posted a snippet of Luz’s story on Ancestry.com and I also left a note on a message board of a person who had Eugene Leo Tirado on a family tree. Six months later, I received an email from a woman named Frances.

Frances was 68 and she was the daughter, she said, of Eugene Tirado.

She was living in Connecticut, where she raised her family and had resided for over 20 years. Frances said she was born in San Diego and had grown up there, too, until she left for college. After graduating, she married and cared for her two children. Her former husband’s job promotions moved her family to the East Coast, where she found work as an administrative clerk. Frances also had an interest in family history – particularly the family of her birth mother, who had died when Frances was so young and whom she therefore knew little about. She had been researching and developing her family tree for two years by then.

Frances had never heard of Luz Solis.

Her father Eugene and Aunt Mary had grown up in San Diego, she said. The homes their father rented before he purchased a lot on Pickwick Street were just blocks from the one where they last lived with their mother, Luz.

Eugene married a woman who gave birth to Frances and two siblings. The woman died giving birth to their third child, who also died. Frances was only 11 months old at the time of her mother and sister’s deaths. Eight months after, Eugene enlisted in the army; left his two children in the care of his parents, Lupe and Felicitas.

Felicitas was a gentle, pious soul and loved them as if they were her own. Lupe isolated himself in his room after work to escape the noise the grandchildren would create. In 1946, Eugene re-married in Alabama, where he was stationed, and a son was born the following year. He re-enlisted in the Army in 1950 and was a member of the 187th Airborne Infantry Regimental Combat Team when he was killed in action in Korea.

His sister Mary, meanwhile, married a career Air Force officer. They had two children. Lupe sent Frances to live under Mary’s guardianship about the time Eugene re-enlisted.

Soon Frances and I were e-mailing each other daily. She told me about her father, Eugene; he was the life of every party and always wore a smile. He loved Frances and her brother and was always good to them. We exchanged pictures. Eugene did have a beautiful smile just like my mom and her sisters. Mary was the spitting image of Luz.

Frances scarcely knew her Aunt Mary when she was sent to live with her. Mary doted on her two children, as any mother would, but resented having to look after a third child – a child not her own.

Frances had always been told that Luz, her grandmother, had abandoned the family for another man. Frances was shocked to learn this was not true, and upset that her grandfather had put Luz through such misery. But she said it explained a lot.

Throughout her life, Mary always felt cast aside, abandoned by her mother. Before she married, as the only daughter, Mary was given the charge of her four younger step-brothers along with household chores. Once married, she seldom visited her family, though they lived in the same city.

Mary passed away on January 18, 2010 in Escondido, having lived her entire life twisted by a lie her father told. She and her brother, Eugene, are buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Lupe Tirado was a handsome and responsible man. He worked hard all of his life to provide food and shelter for his family; but he was violent. Everyone feared him. His grandchildren had to be careful not to touch anything when they visited his home. Lupe was short-tempered with his sons if they did not respond to his first call. He was proud of whisking Felicitas away on a horse, in Tijuana, to care for his two little children.

Lupe never mentioned Luz’s name, nor spoke of his past. I suppose we will never know why he abandoned Luz. Years later, Felicitas and Lupe divorced. Lupe married a third woman – a marriage that also ended in divorce.

Frances and I continue to communicate through e-mail, Facebook and an occasional call. She is my mother’s age – now 73; born the same month. My mother and Frances resemble each other at this age: straight, short dark hair with whisks of grey and smiles that light up a room.

The day I received the first e-mail from Frances, I phoned my mother. There was a moment of silence on her end.

My mother grew up without any cousins. She only speaks Spanish and Frances speaks English only. Frances’ daughter and I serve as their interpreters while on phone calls and translators of letters. Google Translate has also played a part, though the translations are imprecise and puzzle my mother.

I now have photographs of Leocadio and Ascención.

“Sylvia,” Frances said, “you have come into my life bringing Luz.”

About a month after our first email encounter, I had a dream that Luz was a fairy trapped in a glass jar. She was screaming asking for her release but she was inaudible. Frances and I worked in unison to release her and when we did, she flew away.

___

IMG_5371Sylvia Castañeda  is a Chicana from Boyle Heights. She is an elementary school teacher. Her interests include genealogy, family history, photography, social justice issues and dancing to cumbias and sones jarochos. She lives in the San Gabriel Valley with her husband, two children and three dogs.  Contact her at sylviacastaneda35@gmail.com.

 

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By Eric Franco

[dropcap1]A[/dropcap1]long crackled road runs through a small collection of houses, a village far from any city. The sky above this village is light gray during winter and the fields of green crops are now dry and faded yellow.

On one quiet street sits an orange adobe, home to an elderly couple. He sits at the kitchen table drinking coffee with a crinkled newspaper by his side; she spends her day lying in a bed in the next room.

Margarita has been resting in this frigid room for weeks now. The glow from an unwatched television is the only illumination. She has lived in this house for most of her life, in this farming town two hours from the state’s capital. Opportunities are scarce, and most of the people she knows have left in hopes of a better future elsewhere. Relatives occasionally visit, but Margarita finds herself mostly alone, in the company of memories common to a woman her age.

By closing her eyes she transports herself to another time. It helps distract her from more recent events.

Life has always been difficult here alongside her husband, Sergio, and he’s not making these last days any easier. Excruciating stomach pain, that’s what led to the hospital visit. She learned of her illness from him that day. Beginning to feel ill, she was resting in this very bed when she heard him bickering with one of their daughters.

“You’ve got to come quick, my mother is still feeling really sick!” their daughter said.

“Shut up, woman!” Sergio replied. “The doctor already said that it’s cancer; there isn’t any hope for her!”

His words bruised more than any of his blows, hurt more than his adultery, said more than any of his drunken confessions.

She has been in this room ever since. At the mercy of time.

“It was never part of my plan to come back,” she thinks.

Years before, she had traveled to East Los Angeles. StoryArtA time in her life that shines brighter than any other. She spent an entire year in the United States, and there she was reunited with seven of her nine children. She worked, made her own money, and found a safe haven from the abuse of the man she married at sixteen.

She was not driven there by the promise of money or a better life. She wanted only to attend the wedding of a son, so she spent three days on a cramped bus to Baja California. The journey up north was made easy by the human smugglers who were then abundant in her town. Laura, a woman from her hometown, met her at the bus station. Small in stature, large in confidence, the young Laura was an experienced human smuggler, and that day she was Margarita’s guide.

“Don’t worry about a thing, Ms. Mago. We’ll cross today, stay the night in a house nearby and we’ll leave for L.A. first thing in the morning.”

Margarita ceased trembling. She could already see her children’s faces.

Laura and her group of smugglers had a routine that earned them an admirable reputation in the business. Back then the U.S./Mexico border was easier to cross. Other migrants struggled through hills and deserts; Laura’s expensive services required less physical strain.

At dawn they gathered the small group of migrants at a truck parking lot in Tijuana. Margarita could see Laura’s breath as she gave instructions. They were taken to a less secured part of the border. All it took was a leap over a wall, and they were on U.S. soil. A few minutes’ walk away Laura’s men were waiting in a van. They drove to a safe house in San Ysidro where they spent the night. The checkpoints were the only concern now. But the smugglers had learned what time of day the highways were less patrolled. A few hours later, Margarita was in Los Angeles.

She arrived with days to spare before the wedding. A great number of people attended. She found herself surrounded by relatives she hadn’t seen in years. The grin on her son’s face was unerasable that day. Margarita was awed by her daughter-in-law’s elegant white dress and stared at it with some envy.

“What a difference,” she thought, remembering her marriage to Sergio. They were kids and had been seeing each other for some time, when one day they decided Margarita would move in with Sergio without her parents’ consent. It was a rebellious method of matrimony practiced frequently in Mexican small towns. “Stealing a wife,” people called it.

Sergio waited outside of her school on her last day. She left with him still wearing her school uniform, trading in the life of a student for that of a wife. There was no graceful white dress; no adoring relatives. Together they walked on the dirt path that led to their new life.

“It wasn’t anything like a real wedding, not like this” she murmured. This was heavenly.

She now wanted to stay in Los Angeles. It didn’t matter that she didn’t understand the country’s language, or that her obligations at home would be ignored. All she wanted to do was pursue a more comfortable life here, near her children.

She still prides herself in the job she found: Babysitting children and getting paid quite well for it; much more money than she had seen back home. With the money earned, she’d take the bus down Whittier Boulevard and get off on Ferris Avenue to visit her sister-in-law – Sergio’s sister – one of her closest friends. Together they would go to shopping centers, grab a bite to eat, and spend hours talking.

In East L.A., she was again surrounded by her children who had left Mexico young to find work. She could never hide her pride in them. They worked tirelessly, starting families, and none possessing a single vice. Margarita prepared their meals before they headed out to work, as she had when they were kids. They always appreciated her labor, especially her first born, Daniel. Her connection with Daniel was different than the one she had with the rest of her sons. He was the oldest, and thus the authority figure among his brothers and sisters.

Margarita lived in his house in East L.A. and spent more time with him than with the others.

With her children and grandchildren, she would attend church every Sunday, and go out for a day in the city afterwards. Daniel and the rest of her children were her strength and support, and they continued to be so even after she had returned to Mexico.

She remembers when their existence had kept her alive back in the village. She had heard rumors of Sergio having an affair with another women, so she followed him one day and furiously confronted him at the home of his mistress. Sergio was not ashamed. Instead, in a fit of rage he forced Margarita into his truck and drove off. He shouted obscenities at her as he drove, telling her she had no right to offend his mistress, that she was just jealous of not being a real woman like his girlfriend. Margarita shouted in return. Sergio threatened to kill her. He drove to the isolated hills far outside the town.

“I’m going to end you right here!” Sergio yelled.

“Well, wait until your kids find out, just wait until Daniel finds out what you did to me. Let’s see how you deal with them!”

Sergio stopped the car, froze for a few seconds, forced Margarita out of the car, and drove off, leaving her miles from home.

Years later, in this room in her house in the village, she still thinks of her children, still misses her life with them, far from here.

It wasn’t her idea to come back. Sergio’s phone calls became insistent.

“What are you thinking? You’ve been over there way too long. I need you back.”

Her children asked her to stay, but she gave in to Sergio’s demands. She boarded a plane and headed back.

Now she’s lost track of the years that have passed since she last saw her children.

Her movements on this bed are limited. Each time she shifts, the creaking of the bed echoes through the empty room; but otherwise, it’s silent.

She has taken all the doctor’s medication, but that burning pain that started in her stomach has now spread through her body, and she hasn’t been able to empty her bladder since last night. All she does now is remember.

Then she is roused from her reverie. Footsteps draw near. She opens her eyes. She is no longer remembering but alive in the moment. Shoes scrape the dirt floor. Her door opens and she hears Daniel’s voice.

“Mom, I’m here.”

____

Eric E. Franco Aguilar is a photographer residing in East Los Angeles. His photographic projects have been featured in several literary journals, and explore themes of identity and transnational relations. He is in the process of obtaining his B.A in Latin American Studies.
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By Fabiola Manriquez

She took her time walking across the room, scanning the computer lab as though preparing for battle. When she finally reached my desk, she handed me a referral from a government program she was forced to enroll in and said, in a low voice, “Hey Miss. I’m here to get help with my Math and English, so what do I do”?

I was recruited into the tutoring program by my trigonometry professor at East Los Angeles College since I often enjoyed assisting classmates. I remember Flaca sitting in front of the computer simply staring at the screen. I thought she was struggling with the operation of the computer. I learned later that she would come to class intoxicated and brought her happy juice. It was a thirty- two ounce soda mug with alcohol but because it had no aroma of alcohol I didn’t know. It was also a little strange that she preferred wearing her slick shades in class. I thought the computer screen was too bright for her. In reality, she was loaded and she hid behind them.

I had a feeling that she wanted to improve her life since she was attending this class. As she behaved, I continued to assist her and in time we became friends. We talked. I asked what her favorite drink was? With a naughty smile she looked straight into my eyes and confessed that she enjoyed her alcoholic beverage while she worked on her lessons. This situation was new to me, so I said nothing. Over the weeks, we talked a little about college studies and concerns about the weather as I tried to figure out what to do.

When I felt more comfortable with her, I finally addressed the issue of coming to class loaded and bringing her happy juice. I could have lost my job if my boss found out that she was drinking in class, but my heart told me to stay quiet. I told her that I needed her help. We would work as a team in order for her to stay in the class since it was mandated by her program. I asked her to pretend as though she was doing her work by hitting the computer keys every few minutes. I also asked her to stay awake because her snoring might disturb other students and attract attention. I suggested she refrain from bringing her favorite drink to class, which was better enjoyed outside class.

With time she stopped bringing her mug and, eventually, began to complete her lessons. But she kept her shades on.

Flaca was raised by both her parents as an only child for a decade, followed by a brother ten years younger and by a sister four years after that. Before the arrival of her siblings, she and her parents had money and time enough to take camping trips, go bowling and to the movies. Her father worked in the roofing industry and she was his assistant for a while. However, he always wanted a son and he taught her to work and play sports as if she were so.

But she reached her teenage years as her parents were occupied changing diapers, and working harder than ever. “I felt as though my brother and sister stole my father from me,” she told me.

At fifteen, she was searching for attention and began to hang out with the neighborhood gang. After school, she and her comrades would put their lunch money together and would pay a local wino to buy them a six pack, which led to a twelve pack, and eventually to cases of beer. They began breaking into newspaper vending machines. From there, she began using drugs. She even smoked Angel Dust on the lawn outside the East Los Angeles Sheriff station.

Her parents talked with her about her mischief, beat her, threw her out of the house, but gave her chances to return home. Her troubles kept growing. She would behave for a while but it didn’t last long, and her defiance would intensify.

She was expelled from Schurr High School, attended Vail Continuation High School and was expelled for fighting. She was in and out of juvenile detention and jail. Eventually, she was sent to the Mira Loma detention facility in Lancaster which gave her much needed structure. There she completed her G.E.D.

Once on the outside, she worked at the Sears Warehouse, then as a mail clerk at Wells Fargo Bank, followed by a printing shop. Then

in her mid-twenties, she began using heroin. She met Sheila at a party and grew as addicted to her as she was to the drug. They became lovers and sold heroin together. Addicts, called Sheila with their orders; Flaca made the deliveries. “It was just like delivering pizza- like a franchise, in a way,” she said. Sheila was her immediate boss, but there were other distributors above her.

Flaca and Sheila shared the upkeep of the house and expenses for about a year. Then one night, Flaca stayed out all night. Sheila and she argued. The next time Flaca stayed out all night, Sheila kicked her out. That proved lucky, as a few days later cops raided the house and arrested Sheila.

Flaca moved back with her parents. At this point, longing for children, she decided to take a break from women. Her next door neighbor, Smokey, was a longtime friend and they kind of messed around when she was younger. He was eleven years her senior, had a good heart, was handsome, masculine and was right on the other side of the fence. He had also served in the Vietnam War. The proposition was simple, she told him: I need your help to have my children. He would not have any responsibility or claim to them, but he could see them from next door. With time, he fathered her two sons. He also was in and out of jail and survived working odd jobs, then died from a bleeding ulcer soon after the birth of her second child. He was found on the lawn of what is now the East Los Angeles Library.

Meanwhile, Flaca continued making poor choices. She was stabbed twice, took part in drive-by shootings, kept drinking and using drugs, and was in and out of jail. She was respected in the gangster community since she did bad things in a big way.

Years of abuse wore her down so that she lost her eye sight for a year. Consequently she was unable to work and went on government aid known as SSI in 1991 at the age of 31. Her parents didn’t condone her behavior, but they loved her and cared for her two sons.

After a year of therapy she regained her eyesight. One morning while visiting a friend, she realized that she had not drunk or used drugs the night before. For the first time in decades she was able to think with a clear mind. Because she qualified for a free bus pass, she got on the bus after visiting with this friend to be alone and think. For a week, she left her parents’ home early and rode the bus all day. Those bus rides were a turning point.

She began to attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and tried to stay clean and sober. She relapsed several times, but eventually held to it.

As years passed, she learned a more structured lifestyle. She began by taking her sons to school regularly and picking them up afterwards. As time went on, she befriended the principal of the same school as he later invited her to enroll in parenting classes. Flaca learned how to kneel down and look her children in the eyes when she spoke to them. She became skilled in establishing parameters when giving her boys a choice when selecting things. She was taught the value of punctuality, whether it was to arrive at school on time regularly or returning library materials by the due date.

When her sons were toddlers, she entered them in baby contests and won several times. Later, she enrolled her boys in baseball, soccer, karate, and taught them to bowl. The year that her sons played peewee baseball was the first time in the league’s history that both the coach and the assistant coach were women. Flaca was the head coach as the team made it to the playoffs.

She learned to use the libraries, and showed her boys how to do the same. In the annual school fundraiser she sold candy for her sons and was the top seller for three consecutive years. The first year as the top seller they won tickets to Knott’s Berry Farm and the second year, tickets to Disneyland. Flaca already had experience selling things. Candy sales came easy to her and it was legal. “No one was shot. No one got killed,” she said. “It made me feel like I was a real mother.”

I remember the year she first came in for tutoring telling me about selling enough candy to win bicycles for her sons.

Two weeks before her father died, he told her to go back to school and become a rehabilitation drug counselor. She’s doing that now, working on her degree at East Los Angeles College.

It’s been 21 years since she first showed up in my class. I have watched her all that time.

I see her on campus now, an adult finally, and no longer in her sunglasses and khaki shorts that meet her tube socks at the knees. She is usually with one of her sons, who is also a student. I see them after class, walking together slowly toward the parking lot.

___

Fabiola Manriquez grew up in East L.A., where she still resides. She loves to teach Math and English, and hopes to complete a Master’s this year. Through the TYTT workshop, she discovered a deeper joy and beauty in the formation of storytelling.
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By Rachel Kimbrough

For four years, I could not remember what my son looked like alive.

If I shut my eyes and focused, I had one vague memory of him laughing–the second and last time he ever laughed, immediately before the nap from which he would never wake. But I couldn’t remember his face. My one vivid memory of him was what he looked like when I found him dead, SIDS having somehow drained the life out of him–his blue cheeks, purple lips, spiderweb-like something spreading on his tongue. Thoroughly limp, all the infantile will to remain fetal completely gone.

I have a chest of all his belongings. Clean and unwashed spit-up cloths and onesies and sleepers and pacifiers and blankets, a small wooden box, courtesy of Amos Family Funeral Home, containing clay imprints of his hands and feet and a lock of hair.

I thought, for these four years, that if I opened that chest, I would die. And I don’t mean a piece of me would die, or whatever–I mean I thought I would physically perish. There is such a thing as too much to handle.

A couple weeks ago, though, my therapist urged me to dig in anyway.

So I did.

I went in my room, shut the door, paced around for a while, occasionally glancing over my shoulder at the chest pushed up against a wall. Eventually I sat on the ground in front of it and lifted the lid.

Everything inside smelled like wood, not babies. There on top was the item he died in–a full-length sleeper, cut through from top to bottom with medical shears. The Amos box with his hair in it. Same color as mine. Further digging yielded his favorite blanket, birth confirmation, gag-gifted t-shirts like the one featuring Chewbacca with the phrase, “Change me, I smell like a Wookie!”

I found the one photo album we’d gotten around to making. The day he first smiled, when I took about a hundred pictures in half an hour, doing all sorts of ridiculous things to earn the toothless grin again. The week his eyelashes started to grow, when I took the whole week off work to watch those insanely long, luxurious lashes unfurl. Our family Christmas photo–”Kill the houselights, it’s Christmastime.” I reached in and dug a little deeper.

I felt a CD or DVD case, and couldn’t think what it may be. I pulled out the case and discovered the DVD we’d played at his funeral, Sigur Ros’ “Glosoli” playing over bits edited together. I’d thought we left that at the funeral home.

I figured, what the hell, I was already in this far. I put the DVD in my laptop and watched.

And Jesus Christ, did I lose ten pounds in tears. He was just right there, video revealing nuances in his expressions pictures can never quite convey. There he was, only four weeks old and already bopping around in a Johnny Jumper. Six days old and already holding his head up independently. Three months old and already trying to crawl. I’d forgotten he was some superbaby. There was my favorite of all his smiles, the slow-builder, when he’d catch your eye and hold it, and then slowly, so slowly, the corners of his mouth would lift until he was fully grinning. Him almost but not quite sneezing. Trying to sit up but rolling forward onto his dad’s chest instead.

I could remember all of these things. Not just what they looked like in video–I could remember being there with him, the sound of his voice, the feel of his skin. The video ended. I put it back in its case, put that back in the chest and closed the lid.

And then, I didn’t die. I felt close to him again. I sat on my bed and allowed myself to remember him, calling forth every memory I could from pregnancy to death. I couldn’t tell if it felt good or hurt, like getting blood drawn or extracting a splinter. And after a while, it occurred to me that his death isn’t a thing I’ll ever get over, like an ex-boyfriend or daily offense. It’s something I can only hope to eventually accept. But I am so lucky he lived at all, and I can still hold on to that.

I opened the chest again and removed a picture from the photo album. I pinned it on my wall.

____

Rachel Kimbrough is a writer living in Kansas. This is her third story for Tell Your True Tale. Contact her at rkimbrou@stumail.jccc.edu.

 

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