Crape Myrtle


The theater group is dwindling. Once we were couples who went to the musicals after dinner in the city. Then we changed to matinees and dinner afterwards. Now, we’re several widows and widowers and only two married couples, and we have lunch first and then go to the matinee. And we don’t go so often to the city; instead, we go to the series at the local community college. The theater is new, with comfortable seats and good acoustics. They put on old favorites – Show Boat and Porgy and Bess and Guys and Dolls. We are resolutely cheerful, laughing over our lunch, Cobb salad, breadsticks, and a glass of red wine.

 

We stroll to the theater along streets lined by crape myrtle trees, their heavy clusters of bright pink blossoms hanging low beside the walkways. How lovely! we say, and I remember the time in a town in Mexico, so far away and long ago, when we cut the branches, and heaped them on Carlota’s dining table, and sat watching as the flowers drooped and turned brown, and the flies came buzzing, buzzing, and the fans whirred over the tubs of ice.

The silver mine was in the mountain high above the town, which lay where the river curved and the canyon widened. The streets there had no special names; there was just the Calle Principal, the main street; Calle Arriba, the upper street; and Calle Abajo, the lower street. Still, it was a rather important town, with a presidencia– what we would call a county seat – and a private school as well as the public school. There were shops on the streets leading into the plaza: two drug stores, a few grocers, a fabric shop, a shop that sold and repaired shoes and huaraches. In the evening, one of the shops transformed to a cinema, where we sat on benches and drank bottled soda while the film played on a screen hung from the wall behind the counter. In the evening, music soared up from the cantinas on the lower street.

Light breezes came down then from the mountains, cooling the whitewashed houses at the end of the upper street, houses with tile roofs and floors and bougainvillea-shaded patios. This was La Colonia – for the upper-level employees of the mining company. Around the central garden and pool, the houses and guest cottages were shaded by towering mango trees with glossy dark green leaves and plump orange fruit, citrus trees with trunks painted white, a feathery canopy of jacarandas and flame trees that blazed bright purple and orange in their seasons, and crape myrtles flaring in the greenness, bordering the walkways. Hedges of hibiscus screened the colony from the town.

The men who lived in those houses –engineers, accountants, metallurgists, geologists – came from the United States, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Italy, Peru, and Mexico, with a common purpose: to take silver from the mountain above the town. The wives, too, came from many countries and they all spoke, to varying degrees, English and Spanish. They were content, with criadas to cook the meals, clean the houses, and care for the children. It was a good life.

 

In the morning, the wives gathered around the swimming pool, in the gardens by the office, and waited for the maids to bring the children from their lessons. We watched the children as they swam or played in the water, and the maids went to the homes to make the lunch. After lunch and the siesta, the wives played canasta in the “club,” a low, rambling building with a shaded patio, a bar, a dance floor, and a veranda overlooking the swimming pool.

There was always a party there on Saturday night – on any pretext – to celebrate a birthday or anniversary or a holiday in someone’s country, or to welcome or say farewell to a visitor. First we had drinks in the garden, then dinner and dancing in the club. Musicians, carrying guitars, a trumpet and an accordion, came from the town, and we all sang too, in Spanish and English and, as the evening went on, a drunken mixture of both. It was good to relax after the hard work of the week.

There was a road of sorts that bordered the river; it was only used by trucks, in the months when the river was low. For most of the year, the link with the outside was by airplane, at the single airstrip beyond the colony. A few of the wealthiest people in the town, and some neighboring ranchers, had single-engine planes, and flew themselves to the city on the coast, or to the mountains where they had summer homes. The company had a twin-engine plane, and contracted with a pilot; we called him “Captain.” As an independent contractor, his status was ambivalent, not exactly that of an employee. He had a room in the bachelors’ staff house in La Colonia, and ate at the staff dining room, but he had a different life, half in and half out of ours. Five days a week, he was at the airfield at sunup, ready to fly out and return from the coast before there was turbulence in the canyon as the sun warmed the air. He carried mail and a few passengers; he brought us fresh seafood. Every other Friday, he took out the silver bars with a guard. Sometimes he stayed overnight in the city after the flight out, and we wondered what he did there.

The Captain was the son of an English father and a Mexican mother. Born in northern Mexico, he went to high school and college in Arizona. He was young, handsome, bilingual and a superb singer and dancer. This Captain especially enlivened the Saturday parties. The manager’s teenage daughter had a crush on him, and we watched as he danced with her, politely, kindly. The superintendent’s wife also had her eye on him, and this put him in a more difficult spot. She was alcoholic and capable of pulling a Potiphar’s-wife caper, so he had to be careful. He danced with her, at arm’s length.

 

Then, he was gone for a few days, and returned to announce that he had married his high school sweetheart. He arranged for one of the guest cottages to be theirs. We speculated about what she would be like, and were both relieved and somewhat disappointed to find that she was plain, open and friendly, not at all glamorous or flirtatious. Like the Captain, Celia was Mexican, and had gone to school in Arizona. She played canasta with us, speaking in unaccented English as well as Spanish. The manager’s daughter got over her heartbreak, and she and Celia became friends. Within a year, Celia had a baby girl, and for a few months, she was too busy to join us as often at the swimming pool or the canasta games.

 

On the day that I remember, we were just leaving the swimming pool when our maids came running to tell us that Celia’s baby was dead. The doctor had been called, they said, and came quickly, but too late; the baby was already gone. We sent our children off with their nursemaids, and rushed to Celia’s house. When we arrived, she was huddled in the living room, holding her baby and moaning. The oldest of the Mexican wives, Carlota, took the baby in her arms, and said to Celia, “We will take care of her while you change into something black.”  Celia, numb, looked at her without comprehending.

Carlota was briskly taking charge. “Go,” she said, “you must have something black.”  Still carrying the baby, she went with Celia to the bedroom, but came back with her in a few minutes, and then told us all to go and bring flowers to her house.

Stunned and shaken, we went to our houses, cut what flowers we could find – roses, plumbago – and took them to Carlota’s house. She had laid the baby on her dining room table, now moved to the center of the living room, and Celia sat beside it, wearing a long black dress, one of Carlota’s. Already there was a tub with some ice cubes under the table, and an electric fan blowing across it. Soon a servant came from the town with blocks of ice. The few flowers were not nearly enough; Carlota ordered us to cut branches of crape myrtle, the only tree whose branches were low enough to reach. So we did that, bringing armloads of them to heap around the little body on the table. Then, not knowing what else to do, we sat there, in a circle, watching Celia, the baby, the flowers.

 

We heard the sound of the plane returning, and then Captain stood in the doorway, saw the table with the baby, and said, “Oh, my God. Oh no, no. Ay, dios mio.” Celia whimpered, and he knelt by her, weeping. We wept, too, and slipped away. That was when the Americans said among ourselves, “How ridiculous, to make her change into something black. That will only make her feel worse.”

We went back, later, and sat there, unsure what to say or do, watching Celia huddled in the black dress. Late in the afternoon, the carpenters came with a little coffin. The flowers had turned brown, the ice had melted, the flies buzzed over the table. Carlota laid a tablecloth in the coffin and placed the baby there. Captain came, the coffin was closed. Then the Mexicans left to go up the hill to the Panteon, the cemetery. The rest of us went back to our homes. It had been a mysterious affair, with more to follow.

The custom was strict – for ten days, Celia stayed in her house, wearing the black dress, no makeup, the radio turned off, receiving visitors. Then a progression of loosening of the bonds – first, putting on makeup, then relieving the black with touches of white, and finally when the period ends, depending on the closeness of the relationship, after a month or two or six or twelve, flinging off the black, bursting out in bright scarlet. The American wives agreed that it was ludicrous.

 

Now, years later, I have also known the death of a child, and now I know that Carlota was right. I wanted to wear black, to tear my hair, beat my breast, pour ashes over my head, anything to show the extent of my grief. I beg forgiveness for deriding those mourning customs. What a comfort it would be to have this firm protocol to turn to; how supportive it must be to know exactly what is required, to pay the price, and then emerge whole and carefree. Carlota was right to make Celia do all that was necessary.

Another lesson I have learned, this from Asians: how wise it is to commemorate the day when a loved one died. My mother was always very gloomy on the anniversary of the December day when her father had died. She seldom mentioned it outright, but it was there every year, casting its shadow over the day. How much better it is to speak of it, to hold a ceremony, bring the person back to mind for a few hours and pay respect, and then let the grief be buried again.

I agree, as we walk to the theater, that the crape myrtle trees are beautiful.

Author’s comment: I first wanted to write about Carlota and what her friendship and example meant to me. From my first days in Mexico, when I was 23 years old, nervous, bewildered, and not knowing Spanish, she was kind to me. The death of Celia’s baby was one time when she was wiser than I realized then. In time, I came to appreciate Carlota more and more. We stayed close for many decades, even after I left Mexico. Her children are still dear to me and I thought of them as I wrote this story, my tribute to their mother.

 

Eleanor Swent was born in 1924 in Lead, SD, attended high school there and Dana Hall, Wellesley, MA; graduated from Wellesley College, and was Assistant to the President of Elmira College, NY.  She came back West, received an M.A. from Denver University, and in 1947 married Langan Swent, a mining engineer; they had four children. They lived in Tayoltita, Durango, Mexico, for seven years; Grants, NM, for 10 years; then moved to Piedmont, CA. Swent taught English as Second Language, Oakland Adult School and Peralta/Vista Colleges, 1967-86. Her book, Asian Refugees in America, Narratives of Escape & Adaptation, was published by McFarland Press, 2011.  Swent was senior research Interviewer/editor, Oral History Center, UC-Berkeley, 1985-2005, directing a series on mining history, and was awarded an LLD. from SD School of Mines &Technology in 1998. Now widowed, she retired to “Vi at Palo Alto.” In 2005 and in 2007-2008 was President of the Mining History Association. Her next book is on California mining history.

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6 thoughts on “Crape Myrtle

  1. Mediha Saliba

    A beautiful story of tradition, and how important it is to understand or at least be open to the traditions of other cultures. As young adults we do not always comprehend an other person’s/ culture’s beliefs, but time brings clarity (if we allow it). The imagery of the flowers, and the baby lying on the table, with the circle of supporting women was so tragically beautiful. Wonderful story. Thank you.

  2. Elizabeth Griego

    Lee’s story makes us feel as though we were there, living the ex pat life, making our way in a life of privilege while learning from the customs that preceded our presence. This is story telling at its best; letting us enter in and imagining what we would do and how we would react when something profound happens. We have two beautiful Crepe Myrtle trees in bloom now. I will think of you, Lee– and the baby who died so suddenly– when I see them now.

  3. Emma Woo Louie

    Thank you, Lee, for your heart-warming story and how traditional mourning customs can help us cope with the death of a loved one. I could imagine walking down the calles from your vivid description of the village. The Crepe Myrtles are still in bloom where we live at the Vi. The trees could have been brought to Mexico since its geographic origin are China, Japan, and southeast Asia.
    The Chinese and Mexicans were doing trade during the 14th century, during the Ming dynasty (1300s-1600s) and =the Mexican dollar was the standard currency during the Qing (1644-1911). I have a 1926 Mexican dollar.
    Thank you again for sharing your memories of your life in Mexico.
    Emma

  4. Douglas Tedards

    I enjoyed Lee’s story immensely, having only recently met her through her Bay Area Book Club my wife and I recently joined. We have four Crepe Myrtles in our yard now, in full bloom. Her descriptions of its blooms and the small Mexican village she lived in are vivid, photogenic. The death of the child shocks us and what she learns about dealing with death then and later in life is a profound theme in the story.

    1. Martha

      Doug Tedards: I am Martha Rice, formerly of Stockton. I was an adjunct English instructor at UOP back in the 80’s—-under your jurisdiction. I now live in Kennebunk, Maine. What a surprising and pleasant treat to run across you in Persimmon. Splendid magazine.

      mmkrice@msn.com

  5. Dale Rogers Marshall

    So glad Lee is writing for Persimmon Tree as my dear friend Chana Bloch did. Lee is a wise reflective person who has lived a fascinating life with so many precious stores to tell!

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