Entering the store is too difficult — I can only stand at the doorway and look. The Guatemalan weavings, spun on the looms of Mayan women, hang in rows like photos of orphans from an unknown country. One of them looks almost exactly like a shawl draped over a chair in my writing room. When I lived in Guatemala, I traded an old sweater for it in a stall in the large mercado in Guatemala City. At this small import store in Memphis, the price is $300.00.
What I really have trouble entering is the door into my memories. Have I betrayed my Guatemalan self by settling into my middle-class American life — one that contrasts sharply with the startling poverty I knew there? Have I lost touch with the warmth of friendships I felt in the homes of women where I drank their cafe-tal, a tea made from the leaves of the coffee plant because they could not afford to buy the coffee beans they picked? A bitter taste from my late morning cup of coffee fills my mouth. I take a deep breath of air and try to surface from a deep pool of memories.
I once had had the privelege to watch Maria, a descendant of the Kaqchikel Indian tribe, weave colorful threads on a backstrap loom into a shawl. Her son was strapped onto her back in a cargador and her five-year-old daughter practiced on a small clumsy loom beside her. I had been able to see just how swiftly deft fingers can create warmth and beauty.
My husband and I, along with our two small children, went to Guatemala in 1978 — aid workers in a relief organization called Plenty. Our group had been awarded a grant by a Canadian agency to build a medical clinic in central Guatemala after a major earthquake. We set up quarters near the town of San Andrés Itzapa, fifty miles from Guatemala City. We also planned to train local people to run and staff the clinic.
These days I am a writer and have a job as an art critic a small magazine while my husband works in city emergency room. We have a house, two cars and our children have bikes, attend school and love our border collie, Mopsey. I have made an old roomy closet into my office. It has a large window that looks over our vegetable garden. My desk is often littered with papers and invitations to art shows. I love my work.
Under my small wooden desk is a box of unassorted family photographs. I’ve never been a good organizer. Buried under the newer glossier pictures are a few old black and white photographs of our lives in Guatemala. They are ten years old and starting to crack and curl at the edges, but the faces have not lost their sharpness, nor have I lost my connection to Guatemala when I look at them. Today, I pull them out, searching for an image that can help me resolve the tug between my past and my present life.
In one, my husband and I, along with Lisa Dewhirst, stand surrounded by a group of women and children. On most mornings, we would wake and a group would be gathered at our tent door. Standing behind me is a silver-haired woman whose sputum I checked in our laboratory for tuberculosis the day before. Because my father died of tuberculosis, I was more susceptible and had to be careful handling the slides. Nevertheless, I repeated the tests over and over as if, through helping to cure her, I would somehow gain a sense of victory over the disease that took my father when I was a child of seven.
In a second photo I am sitting on the sunny deck of a tent platform. My one-year-old daughter, Kate, sits in my lap. We slept better under canvas in earthquake country. El Fuego, a live volcano, exhaled smoke and dust over the eastern horizon. Small tremors were part of our daily life. We felt better when the water in our glasses shook to the earth’s trembling. Then we would know there was no huge anger building up in the ground under our beds.
Our encampment was located near the highlands of central Guatemala — an area called the “Land of Eternal Spring” because of the moderate climate and lush vegetation. We were eighteen adults and ten children, most from the United States. In retrospect, that seems to be an inordinate number of children in a group of relief workers — but it often endeared us to the locals who were fascinated by our blonde, sometimes red-haired children. And our kids loved to show off their toys to the amazed eyes of theirs.
Our tents were erected in a semi-circle and faced the crumbling remains of a coffee plantation villa. The landlord lived in San Andrés Itzapa. The covered porch of the house was still standing and we made good use of it. We cleaned the tile floor and set up a cookstove and tables for meals. We had a generator for electricity for our ham radio, our main — actually only — communication system with our friends and family. The weather gave us no reason to erect any walls, it was always perfect — if you don’t count earthquakes.
Initially we did not have running water and so had to haul it from town. There was an old well in the courtyard that had also fallen into ruin and we decided to try to revive it and hired a man whose job it was to clean wells. He came bringing a small shovel, a bucket and a long rope. We lowered him slowly down into the well and stood around the well with high hopes. Whenever he filled the bucket, we would haul it up and empty it. He told us he would have to drink the air from the bucket after it came back to him in order to keep working. It took a full day before he found a spring but after that we had the water we desperately needed and it was delicious.
Settled as homesteaders, we watched the coffee beans grow around us. My family’s tent stood underneath an old avocado tree, the fruit of which fell, as it ripened, onto the canvas roof of our tent making a resounding plop. The beauty of living in a world I had only seen in books amazed me at each turn of the day.
The sunlight in yet another photo warms me even now. Verhinja the first woman who came to us to help deliver her baby is sitting under a clothesline full of diapers. She is holding a baby daughter while her son scratches in the dirt with a small, crooked stick. Legs crossed, I too hold my daughter in my lap. It is a happy memory.
The chicken that made it possible to deliver her baby is not in the picture, but I remember it well. Were it not for its presence in the Camp, we would never been able to help the native women through their pregnancies.
An experienced midwife. Mary Louise, was part of our team. She had come to deliver babies but to also to train the local midwives. Several of them came to meetings in which we tried to explain methods such as washing hands before reaching for the baby’s head. Our attempts were often too long of a reach across the century of science that lay between us and blank faces stared back at us. But we persisted and, eventually, saw few infections in mothers after childbirth.
For the first six months of our stay, no one came to our clinic except when a child was sick. For reasons unknown to us at the time, they only smiled and nodded when we offered our help, free of charge, in childbirth.
One day a chicken appeared in our camp — an escapee from someone’s dinner. It decided our encampment was home and we decided our site would be its refuge. Our neighbors could not understand why we did not eat this tasty strutting meal. When we told them we were vegetarians they only nodded their heads in disbelief. The chicken though was happily growing fatter each day.
It had been scratching amongst our tents for a few months when Verhinja arrived to our camp in labor. Lesley quickly set up her tent for the delivery and Mary Louise finally unpacked her bag. My job was to suction, clean, and wrap the newborn baby in a warm towel.
This was Verhinja’s third baby and, after walking three miles, her labor intensified when she lay down. We tried to convince her husband to stay in the room, but he said he could not bear to listen to her groans. After she pushed out a baby girl, I cut the umbilical cord and suctioned a slippery newborn as she breathed her first fresh air. The beauty of the birth filled me with the same wonder and joy I felt at the birth of my own children. I cradled a perfect child in my arms. Verhinja smiled at us and, for an instant, we shared a moment of mutual motherhood.
After I had swaddled the baby in a soft blanket, I held her out to her mother, but Verhinja turned her back to me, perhaps too tired to take yet another burden into her already harsh life. Juan came back in and smiled at his new daughter, looking pleased, almost as if he had won a bet. “You have taken good care of my wife and baby. It is good we came here. There was talk in the town that you had come here to eat Guatemalan babies — that was why you would deliver for no money. But I saw that you did not eat the chicken and so I did not believe this talk.” A local midwife, afraid of losing business, may have helped spread the rumor, but I understood a little more of how we looked to our kind hosts.
After delivering Verhinja’s baby, many of the women came for help through their pregnancy and labor. I know why I look so tired in the first photograph. It was a hard life to fall in love with the people I was coming to know — there was so much to give — knowing a few simple medical facts could save a life — though trust was hard to win.
Another photo slips through the pile. This one is of the clinic we built and brings back a different kind of memory. The wood we used had been shipped from Canada, and it looked out of place in a town of cane huts and adobe homes. It was made to last.
My husband and I had set up a laboratory in the clinic. After a month of working there, and seeing how much we could help, he became more determined to become a doctor. He was on a waiting list of applicants at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine in Memphis. Unsure of the status of his application, he enrolled in the University of Guatemala in Guatemala City and began his training.
This meant daily classes for him, and I took over all the lab work in the clinic.
Our two children, Jobe and Kate, were taken care of by friends at our encampment. My daughter cried constantly because she was not used to the longer hours, I needed in order to take care of what both my husband and I had done together before. Some mornings I had a hard time leaving her but I felt devoted to the work we had begun.
I tried to keep Katie out of my mind as I worked during the quiet lunch hour one memorable day. Slides had to be prepared and stains fixed as I tried to analyze which parasite was flourishing in a child I had seen that morning — the same size as Katie, but three years older. Too often I heard church bells toll for tiny coffins. Though the clinic was closed for lunch, there was a knock on the door. I pulled myself away from the microscope reluctantly, hoping it was not an emergency, and answered the door.
An unusual sight greeted me —a couple probably in their sixties — seemingly overweight turistas. They were the first Americans I had seen in the seven months I had been in the Guatemalan highlands other than fellow relief workers.
“Hello” I said, impatient to get back to my work. “We are closed right now, but what do you need? A look of relief and smiles flooded their faces. “Oh! You speak English. How wonderful. We are looking for a fountain we saw in our guidebook. Could you tell us where it is?”
They opened a tourist guidebook and showed me the name of a fountain they could not pronounce. It seemed to me that they had come to see only what was in their travel agency brochure and were missing the people, the reality of what was before them. I wanted to tell them enough of what we were doing in Guatemala to ask for a much-needed contribution, but my pride and self-righteousness overcame me.
“Your guidebook is old — there was an earthquake here last year and I know of no such fountain. You should stay in Guatemala City if you want to use guidebooks.” Angrily I thought of Theresa, whose malnourished twin baby, Elmar, I had seen in the clinic yesterday. Theresa worked in a large tourist hotel where she was paid a dollar for cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors.
Rudely, I closed the door in their faces, catching a look of astonishment on the woman’s face as I narrowly missed closing the door on her fingers.
With the solid wooden door shut, I was alone once in the clinic. In a vivid flash I saw my American parents’ faces superimposed on the faces of those tourists walking away from the clinic. I was in Guatemala because I had rejected their values. Yet adopting values that were opposite to theirs had not let me escape who I still was. And that, too recognizably, was not Guatemalan. Suddenly I knew, with a foreboding certainty, that we would be leaving Guatemala soon. I would soon have to find a way to live, a way to sleep at night, and a way to wake up in the morning in the United States of America.
That evening in a message from Tennessee that had to be relayed through California on our shortwave radio, we learned my husband had been accepted to medical school in Memphis. The radio band was dropping out as the sun set and we had to shout over and over, “We accept. We accept.”
That was late spring and he was to start in the fall. We left a month later toward an old but now, strange, reality.
Each week, on the way to my writing class, I pass the door of the Guatemala import store. Months have passed since I first stood in the doorway. Today I stop and enter. I walk over to a tapestry, run my hands over it. My fingers read its colors, its textures, as if it was Braille. A woman, a sister, a mother wove her daily life into this tapestry, but the language is mute to those that browse around me. I feel heavily the privilege of my literacy — and too rich in that privilege. I can read and write, and also hear the words of those who can only wish to do both. My fingers drum a farewell on the weaving, and I hurry to my writing class, my mouth full of words.