Market Children

Two days, two plane rides away from home. Tomorrow, we’ll be in Antigua, the Guatemalan capital. Tomorrow, I’ll sort through reams of brilliantly colored fabric, piece together a traditional outfit for each of my sisters. I’ll sort through a bowl of bracelets, choosing one with blue beads, another with one lone brown bead. I’ll bargain, weigh my options, smile, chuckle, nod, at the vendor’s animated exclamations.

But that’s tomorrow.

Today, it’s the middle of July and this is our last day in Santa Domingo de Xenacoj.

It’s a little town, safe. We walked, this morning, from the school up the hill. I thought it would be far, braced for a long hike down that winding half-paved road. But then we were passing a familiar tiendita, and I recognized a corner, an intersection, a face, and it was not so very far after all.

There’s an indoor market, down along the square. We visited last week, on the afternoon of our arrival into this green, thriving, aching country. Then, it was late and the stalls were closed, mostly. Then, we wandered up the wide, white-washed ramp to the second floor, leaned over the railing, overlooking the dusty, bustling square.

Then, two little boys, four, five years old maybe, followed us curiously. I caught their eye, or maybe they caught mine. I grinned at them, waving from around the corner. They shrieked, retreating down the ramp, behind overturned vegetable crates, grinning all the while. On the balcony, their dark faces, black, shining eyes bob together, quick, behind us.

I grin, nod in their direction, wave. They yell, laugh, scramble away.

Repeat.

That was last week.

Today, it’s earlier in the day, and the market is still swinging, vending, purchasing; busy. We step past heaps of huge, bright orange carrots, heads of luscious green lettuce, bushels of strawberries, rows of hand-made Guatemalan treats. Women sit by their wares, skirts made of intricate fabric, wrapped, tied, high on their waists. Shirts with delicate red, orange, yellow, blue flowers embroidered around the neck, the cropped sleeved. Their shoes are old; dusty, broken leather, slip ons, sometimes changlas– flip flips.

There are some men, sitting by stalls, hawking vegetables, meat, clothing. There are children, too.

The children run amongst the stalls, chasing one another and the birds that settle from the rafters, sometimes even a stray dog, wandered in from the street. The littlest ones are strapped to their mothers’ backs, round baby faces swinging rhythmically to the beat of their mother’s steps, movement.

Toddlers just a little bigger stand, awkward, baby legs wide-set, at odd distances from where their mothers sit behind stalls; vending, watching simultaneously. Learning to take steps, to move themselves in the world, they hesitate, sway, walk. Faces concerned, creased forehead exaggerations of the cares of the world.

The older children play. It’s a small town, not a packed one, and the children have an unsupervised freedom that contrasts sharply with the lives of many American little ones. They run and play and scheme and shout, threading in and out of market stalls, market customers. They are smart, wise, curious, observant children and on the second floor, between a stall devoted to pirated DVDs and one replete with traditional trinkets, I come face to face with three of them.

Little girls, all of them. Seven years old, eight, they have t-shirts, worn pants. Dark hair pulled back in thick ponytails down their backs. I kneel, there next to the overpriced authentic dresses and beaded belts, and we’re eye-level. They smile, they laugh. We talk, a little. They’re shy, giggling, holding small hands, dirty nails, to their mouths, eyes dancing, glancing at each other for support, shared amusement.

Many of the same people who traveled, lived, ministered in Guatemala with me in July are returned in March. I cannot join them, this time, but my heart races to be back in those green Guatemalan mountains. We talk, here in the States, and trips are mentioned and far away ideas are proposed, and I hope, hope, hope my return to Guatemala is soon.

And then I think about, all those memories of that medical mission week, what I remember most, what draws me back strongest, is those market children. The faces and the laughs and the names and the joys of the children running, watching, pacing, exploring, in and out of those market tables, piles of produce. That is- they are- what’s calling me back to Guatemala.

~Natalia

Safe Families for Children: A Life of Visits

The social worker visited first.

The social worker who walked up and down our long apartment hallway, stepped into bedrooms, checked bathroom safety. The social worker who asked me, my brother, the little ones, if we were okay with extra children living in our home. The social worker who sipped the water the mother had poured her, listened to the parents tell their stories, playing verbal volley ball as they passed ideas and memories and convictions back and forth.

The social worker who approved our home, our family, as a Safe one.

The J-man came in April; the first, maybe the second. Monday afternoon, freshly home from Spring Break, the mother collected him first, then, short downtown drive, I was waiting for her in the parking lot when she drove past Moody. Excited, nervous, I turned around in my seat every three minutes to look at the sleeping child. Full lips in perpetual half-pucker revealed white teeth in sharp contrast to his dark, dark face. His hair was braided back in two cornrows, tracing his scalp in wavy lines, tapering into matching braids at his neck.

J was intense, loud, and uncontrollably active. J’s two months as a Shull were exhausting, stretching and wildly unpredictable. J took a cup of milk at bed and slept wrapped in the Superman blanket the girls helped me make for him and talked about his little sister, his mommy, frequently.

I cried when a wooden train track left his hand and connected with my knee, but I cried more in the days before we packed his backpack again, kissed his butter-soft cheeks good bye. J loved bike rides with Papi and called the girls collectively”Grendy-rissa” and one night while still at school, the mother sent me a video of him after his nightly bath, warm water still moist on his brow.

“Good night, Na-dee-dee.” He says. I still watch that video.

J left at the end of May. Miss B came and went in July. J once again brought life and energy and a swirl of action in September. Monkey giggled her way into our hearts in November. And now, Lala sleeps in pink footie pajamas that she’s zipped “my-by-self” on the toddler bed in the room I share with the girls.

Nine months. Four three-year-old visitors. Always an adventure.

Safe Families for Children is about caring for children, of course. But more than that, it’s about families. Because J’s mom is a wonderful, sweet, thoughtful woman working hard to raise her children. Because Lala’s mother, sister, uncles came over today, and that tiny girl was at the top of the stairs when they came in, and her little face was first confused, then ecstatic as she shouted, jumped, for her sister, to see her family.

The father and I visited the J-man on Monday. Drove into the city. Knocked on a wrong door, asked directions, before finding the right one. Always the owner of a part of my heart, J is calmer now, gentle as he played with my hair, pretended to braid it. He talked about his bike in the basement, how Papi took him for rides, and kneeling there on the floor, I called the mother, put her on speakerphone, while J shouted greetings, excited, to the girls, to his Aunty.

I left that visit grinning; I couldn’t stop smiling. Because I hugged and I kissed and I high-fived my boy, of course. And because there is a home and there is safety and there is joy and there is restoration, wholeness, family, community.

Which is exactly what Safe Families is about.

~Natalia

Back Then When: They Shone

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Throwing it back to those babies all Christmased up in December, 2010.

~Natalia

Salvation Came

I had a sort of epiphany last night, climbing late past three sleeping little ones and into my top bunk nest.

Christmas is, of course, a celebration- a commemoration- of the birth of Jesus Christ, who was God himself in human form, into the world.

We sing about that Silent Night and how the baby Jesus slept Away in a Manger, and that with Him came Joy to the World.

We know the Christmas story back and front, and there are just about a million child-re-enacted versions of the Nativity story on Youtube.

But I last night, as I settled into the space between the wall and the mountain of clothes that I can never quite deal with when I’m home, I realized it was not always like that.

We say now, easily, that the Savior has come. And that’s right, because He has. He did. At Christmas. That’s exactly what we celebrate.

I have never lived a day of my life that the Savior had not already come, that a way had not already been for me to know God personally, to be saved.

But before His birth, before that night in a stable, Salvation had not come. God existed, of course. God saved, surely. But salvation in God among us, God become man, God so very tangible that people actually touched Him?

That had not yet come.

And as I fought the ball of blankets that had knotted itself at the bottom of my bed, I had a sudden taste of the shocked, marveling, speechless joy that contemporaries of Christ experienced when they encountered the significance of His birth.

Salvation had finally come.

And with that realization, the thrill of excitement that I felt thinking about it, I understood just a little more the earth-shattering, earth-redeeming, earth-saving significance of Christmas.

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

– Simeon, upon seeing the infant Jesus. Simeon longed for the salvation of Israel, and he recognized God’s Son when he laid eyes on Him (Luke 2).

~Natalia

We’re Missing That

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There were Christmases spent in California, when I was younger.

More recently, in 2006- the year the mother, Stevy, myself, paused right there in the security line for a cross-state phone call about a brand new baby sister now hours old, waiting in Guatemala.

Again, in 2010, when the Mother and I created Vacation Ticket Books for the aunts, uncle, cousins, grands, and we went ice skating- the little ones in matching heart vests, pushing huge buckets around the skating rink in choppy, slipping, swoops.

And we went bowling and to Monterey Bay and church. And we watched movies and played games and had sleep overs on the couches in the living room at the cousins’ house. And on Christmas Day we piled into Grammy’s, Papa’s living room, opening presents and modeling gifts, tossing balled up paper across the room, smiling all.

We’ve been in California since then. Days in March, hiking Yosemite, jumping the waves at Monterey Bay, more games, movies, meals around a long table, a couple tables.

I was there in October, praying, wondering, if these will be the steps, the plans, that get me back to California again, maybe this time for longer than a week, two weeks.

We talk and we call and we text and we snapchat.

But we’re not there. Not now.

And we’re missing those grands and the cousins and the aunts and the uncles and the hugs and the conversation and the food and the laughs and all the many, many pictures.

We’ll be back, we hope, soon. But right now, we’re missing all that.

~Natalia

Laugh With

What do you think the train will look like? She asks the girls, standing there on the train platform. We’ve been waiting thirty minutes now, there on the cement strip between tracks. There are heaters, overhead. In the cold evenings, wind biting, I pull my shoulders up, shove my arms deep into my pockets, feel the heat on my head, hunched back. Now, in the afternoon balmy, it’s almost too hot under the heater; we step in and out, hopscotching between heat and chill, back and forth.

The girls, the pair of them, are standing under the heater when she asks. Next to each other, one black coat, one white. White coat is older, lost nine teeth now. They’ve all grown back, wide adult teeth that fill her quizzical smile. Black coat is younger, taller though. Her hair is braided back, twisted intricate into a ponytail. I had been holding her- lanky skinny jean legs wrapped around my waist- but now she stands in the heat, yellow warmth reflected off of her pastel-framed glasses.

There will be lights, white coat postulates. Black coat stamps, hopping from one foot to the other. She’s thinking, imaging the Christmas Train we’re waiting for, but then someone’s said it’s coming and she’s in my arms again, I’m leaning almost too far over the tracks, craning to see.

There are light. Windows, each train car outlined in white, red, green bulbs. And in the middle of the train, reindeer figures stand on green tuft, Santa Clause sits on a red sleigh, smiling, waving, as he rolls into the train station. Next to me, she’s using her phone to click blurry pictures of the brilliant train, and we’re all exclaiming over the sheer festivity of it all.

Minutes later, we’re on the train. Inside, the bars are wrapped in red and white; candy canes. Tinsel lines the insides of the windows, and the deep blue square of upholstery on every seat has been replaced with fabric depicting candy canes, reindeer, snowmen and Santa. There are elves in green, red vest with buckets of miniature candy canes. Next to me on a seat decorated with Gingerbread Man fabric, Black coat clasps three of the minty candies in her hand, sucks on a fourth.

Overhead, the space usually occupied by advertisements, phone numbers, train service announcements, is instead filled with Christmas wishes, movie posters for fake Christmas movies, and holiday-themed jokes. In the seat behind me, White coat pulls her candy cane out of her mouth long enough to read one of the jokes. It’s a knock-knock joke and we all chuckle, in the silly way that you laugh when the joke isn’t as funny as the person who has shared it.

She can see, can read, all the written material in our section of the train car, but past the elf standing by the door, past the people and the faces and the smiles, I can see a joke she can’t. I read it quickly, as if it’s a race and White coat might see it, might read it, might beat me to the punchline. Quickly again, I turn behind me, to red-coated father, one arm draped over the back of White coat’s seat.

What do you call a bunch of chess champions bragging about their accomplishments in a hotel lobby? I ask, grinning. I know he’ll be amused.

He thinks for a moment, and I barely allow him time to shrug uncertainty before I’m telling him the answer; chess nuts boasting in an open foyer!

And he laughs with me, of course; eyes crinkled, white teeth peering through under his mustachioed grin. Across the aisle, Mother rolls her eyes, shakes her head. We laugh more at this. It’s our ritual; us, amused, her, understanding, markedly unamused. It makes everything funnier, this parallel, and I repeat the punch line again, because I know she’ll shake her head, smile playing her soft lips again, even as his shoulders shake again, laughing.

~Natalia

Her Day

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Some things we plan, like a downtown train ride to the American Girl Store.

New doll; happy, shy, sweet, thankful girl.

Crunching Ghirardelli chocolate in the rain on the way back.

Watching Little Mermaid with family, neighbors. Chocolate cake around a birthday table.

Some things we don’t plan.

Like newly seven-years-old, up late the night before, Larissa falls asleep in my arms, curled, breathing even into her coat, on the train coming home.

Like Christmas Train on the Purple Line, the holiday elves sang Happy Birthday to Larissa in the glow of red and green lights, tinsel.

Some things we hope for, like a wonderful day, celebrating the gift of our little Larissa.

And that it was.

~Natalia

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