‘Tending Hands’ on Public Radio International

Me and my dad about 1970.

I’m thankful to Public Radio International’s Anglilee Shah who read my original post and reached out to me to feature it on PRI’s website.

“When I was 10 years old, I began working regularly with my family as a migrant farmworker. I’d done it previously, but only on Saturdays, to help them catch up when tornado warnings ended work early or when the patches of weeds were particularly thick. The summer of my fourth grade year, it became my full-time job. ..”

Read the entire essay

Read about this blog’s singular focus.

My other blog, The Latino Writer, features some of my work and essays outside this area of focus.

Tending Hands

READ: How the produce aisle looks to a migrant farmworker | Public Radio International

Credit: Mike Blake - Reuters

Vegetables at a Whole Foods Market in La Jolla, California. Much of its produce comes from the state’s Central Valley, where it’s picked by migrant farmworkers. Credit: Mike Blake – Reuters

The fields my family worked required weeding with machetes and garden hoes. I still remember the taste of the pesticides and coughing my throat raw after a crop duster would fly over us and spray. Sometimes I didn’t know if it was sweat or pesticide residue that caused the burned in my 10-year-old eyes. I’m thankful we never picked fruit or vegetables, though my best friend did and he still has problems with his hands to this day. He doesn’t think it’s related to his farmwork as a teenager, but I know better.

There are many life-threatening dangers for children and adults in these fields. This PRI story notes one — that sometimes the people who work the fields cannot even afford the food they tend.

I’m not going to say that I whisper a prayer with each apple I put in my grocery cart, but I often I think about the hands that weeded, picked, and packed the fruit and veggies. I look at the colorful shapes and I calculate the difficulty of tending and picking certain fruits over others. Sometimes the stickers will note from which state the fruits came. My mind forecasts the temperature there. Do they have to bundle up to keep the hot sun off their backs or do they have to wear extra socks to keep their toes from the cold?

At the meat cases I routinely think about the men and women who work in cold meatpacking plants and that they surely cannot afford the meat they process because I certainly can’t. I imagine the assembly line as it moves carcasses through the plant with each worker slicing, cutting, chopping, packaging until the marbled meat reaches my store.

Sometimes I have to push those thoughts and images from my mind because people aren’t supposed to contemplate how their food came to the grocery store and, honestly, sometimes I just need to get out of there.

It’s when I’m at home cooking that I allow my mind to consider the food before me. As I slice onions, cilantro, red and green peppers, as I smash and chop garlic cloves, I thank the hands that brought me this food and I hope they are well.

Of course there are times when food sits in my refrigerator too long and I have to throw out wilting spinach or rubbery carrots. It’s frustrating not just because it’s wasted money but because instead of eating a salad, I ordered a pizza. It’s also disrespectful to those who put their bodies and their beings at risk in order to bring that food to market. I’m literally throwing their efforts in the trash.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have deep thoughts about my food each and every time I walk into the store. It’s only been since I’ve started leading a writers workshop for migrant youth. They make me think, they make me remember. I want to be more mindful about my food, the food they and their families help put on my table.

I try to say hello to the produce workers sorting and stacking the fruit in the store because usually they’re Latinos. Sometimes it’s just a head nod, sometimes they help me pick out the best veggies. Most of the time it’s just me wanting to acknowledge them as fellow farmworkers because … well … they are.

Brown hands tend fruit in the fields, brown hands tend them in the store, and my brown hands tend them at home.

#TheNewLastYear

So I was able to visit my mom’s grave and it was wonderful … you know what I mean.

I was surprised to see some artificial flowers at her grave. There were yellow and pink chrysanthemums that my dad and I left when he came to visit. There was also a small bouquet slipped inside the headstone’s metal vase. I don’t know who left them there. As a matter of fact, there have been a few times when I’ve gone to visit and there were flowers at her grave that I didn’t place,

Thank you to the soul who has visited my mom.

I also noticed that the grave site had some of the errant grass trimmed away. No doubt it was the secret visitor’s handiwork. I took out the small broom to sweep away old leaves and grass. From my canvas bag I pulled out some scissors to cut away more wisps of grass that had regrown. As I clipped the dry grass around her grave marker, it reminded me of the times I’d help mom pull weeds from the various gardens from various houses where we lived. I hated doing it because we’d spend all day working in the fields only to come home and work in the garden.

“Look,” I remember saying to her, “pickles.”

“No, those are cucumbers.”

“They look like baby pickles.”

“They are,” she said. “Cucumbers are pickles.”

What? Huh? Cucumbers? I thought about the big pickles from the movie theater that cost fifty cents. I thought about the pickles on the hamburgers that were cut all wavy. I thought of the little pickles my Tia Noche would cut into the tuna.

“See, look, I’ll show you.” she said pinching a few small cucumbers free from their vines. “We’ll take these inside and make pickles.”

After we finished weeding and watering the garden, mom took the almost empty jar of dill pickles out  of the refrigerator. We washed the cucumbers and she slicked them into small circles. She placed them back in the refrigerator and said we would have to wait for them to turn into pickles.

Everyday when we came home from the fields, I’d check the jar. No pickles. Just sliced cucumbers floating in pickle juice. After a while I forgot about the jar until mom called me from whatever I was doing — probably laying on my bed staring at the popcorn ceiling playing a mental game of connect the dots. I did that a lot.

When I got to the kitchen, she held the pickle jar in her hands. The cucumber slices weren’t floating anymore and they weren’t white with dark green borders. They were … pickle colored. I took the jar and opened it. I slid my hand inside grabbing the first slice I could reach. It looked strange. Not floppy like a pickle but not firm like the cucumber slices we’d place in the jar. It smelled like a pickle. I bit into it. It crunched. A vinegary taste spread in my mouth. It was a crunchy pickle. I mean it still kinda had the cucumber taste and look but it was definitely some sort of pickle.

Wow. A food had just turned into another food. How many other foods had I eaten that were other things first?

I took a kitchen sponge from the canvas bag and poured some bottled water over it. I gently began wiping dirt from between the raised lettering on mom’s headstone. I poured some water on the marker and felt a rush of emotion. It’s probably the first time anyone has cleaned her marker. There was also something about cleaning it that made me feel like I was cleaning her when she had mobility problems getting in and out of the bath. I was wiping her face and arms. I was rinsing her feet. I was cleaning her neck and back.

Up until this point I hadn’t said a word aloud or otherwise. Cleaning her marker made me want to talk. I told her about my year. I told her about the blog and how it was good and bad. I told her about how this year I felt both depressed and confident. I told her about my illnesses and down time. I reminded her of the promise I made last year of not wanting to come back to her grave and cry out of desperation and longing.

I removed the plastic flowers placing them in my canvas bag. I filled the vase with fresh red roses. I took all my supplies and put them back in the car which was only a few feet away. I came back to her grave with two dozen roses that I bought for her wedding anniversary in March. I arranged them in a bouquet and let them dry. One by one I gently pulled off the dried rosebud letting the petals float down to her grave. A cold wind was moving in and gently carried the petals in whimsical patterns before letting them settle.

“I should take a picture,” I thought but decided to just let the wind encircle me with petals, let them dance.

It was beautiful to be there in the moment, not recalling the pain of losing her, not anticipating future pain of her absence, and not feeling alone. I don’t know if my mom ever had that sort of moment when it came to her mother. Grandma died young of an aneurysm.

I started to think of how when the end was coming, mom wanted to live. She’d stopped treatment for her cancer because it was painful and, probably because of her pharmacist, it was killing her.

I though about how she wanted to do so much but her body failed her. I thought about the garden. I thought about all the beautiful food she cooked. I thought about how she used food to show us love. I though about how she used food to manage other emotions. I thought about how she taught us the same. There were times we didn’t have any food and it was up to my sisters to make sure we were fed because mom was in such a depression that she couldn’t handle the responsibility and dad … well, he wasn’t around.

I thought about how I want to make the coming year a good one. For that to happen, I need to be able to get around and maneuver comfortably in my skin. I need to be able to wear my clothes instead of pulling on them and fighting them. I need to be more active and less sedentary. I mean, I’m a fat guy and I will probably always be a fat guy. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be healthy. The last year, I haven’t been healthy.

The last year I haven’t been healthy.

#TheLastYear. Healthy.

Standing at my mom’s grave, this blog came back to me.

I started this blog because I was turning 46 and my mom died when she was 47. I wanted to try to experience some of her life in her final year. A year had passed so it was done, right? Well, maybe not.

Maybe the garden, the food, her illness, my desire to move forward maybe mom was trying to tell me that this is the last year to be unhealthy.

So like last year, I knelt at her grave and made a promise. This is the last year I will be unhealthy. Certainly, I’ll get sick. I may even have a trip or two to the doctor in my future but I need to get this under control before it’s too late.

Who knows, if I can begin to manage this par of my life, maybe I can also bring order to the other parts of it.

The Last Day

Today I’m 47 years old.

I’m now as old as my mom when she died.

I’m conflicted about this day. This blog didn’t turn out the way I’d hope it would when started it a year ago. I let it falter. However, it did have an internal effect on me.

I thought a lot more about my mom than I have in previous years. You see, I’d sorta relegated her to holidays and birthdays. In the past, it’s proven dangerous for me to think of her on a daily basis. I slip too easily into a depression. So, I only allowed myself to think about her, on those days I went to visit her grave. Sometimes she’d find her way into my writing but that was different from thinking about her. When I write about her, I find new memories and somehow in the creative act, I can integrate those experience more easily than I could if I allowed myself to sit in the living room crying and staring at her pictures, trying to recall the sound of her voice.

When I came across the information about mom’s pharmacist possibly cutting her medication, it floored me. It still does. It opened a door to “what if.” I’d walked a maze of “what ifs” in the first ten years after she died. I held tight to my grief and to those “what ifs” as if they could somehow keep her alive enough for me to … to want to get up the next day … to want to take the next breath. I led myself out of that maze by focusing on social justice and honing my craft as a writer.

Don’t get me wrong, I still needed that grief. And there were times I’d still find myself missing school and work. Though the duration of those absences was shorter. I soon began to anticipate these episodes and could use saved vacation days or work ahead on school work. As I became more adept at managing my depression, I learned to stay away from triggers. I learned to hold in my grief for graveside visits on holidays and birthdays.

When I took on this project, I wanted to find a way to explore a way to recall those times without fear of finding myself in that claustrophobic maze. I wanted to be able to visit my mom’s grave without completely losing it. Truthfully that’s why my visits were starting to become fewer and fewer.

While I failed to use this blog to document my experiences, I did have some wonderful things happen that I wouldn’t have been open to if not for taking these steps.

I became a Macondista. I applied for and was accepted into the Macondo Writers Workshop. There I met supportive and nurturing Latino/a writers. Since so many of the Latinas at Macondo where mothers, that energy was comforting and filling. I submitted work for publication, some was published some wasn’t. I’ve started new writing projects and collaborations. I accepted a leadership position in two writing organizations: the Latino Writers Collective and the Fabulous Queer Writers. I’ve been honored to meet, and call friends, writers whose work I’ve admired for years. I’ve also been fortunate to know new and emerging writers.

I thought my year would be filled with experiences that paralleled my mom’s journey but when that didn’t happen, I was disappointed. However, looking back, I did have some of those. This  year I was terribly and annoyingly sick. Nothing serious like cancer but just a series of colds, flu strains, stomach viruses, aches and pains of the body, in addition to the still lingering foot issues I’ve had since I broke my foot in 2013 and had to use crutches for almost five months and a walking boot for eight months — well into 2014. For the first time in my life my body prohibited me from doing the things I wanted. I thought about mom and how she was always in pain and had to surrender to her failing body.

I slipped into depression because of this inability to control my physical body. I also gained weight which further added to my depression. I missed a lot of writing deadlines for some REALLY good projects. I thought about how mom loved to go visit churches and prayer groups and how she missed some really good fellowship opportunities.

I don’t mean to compare my aches and pains to that of a cancer patient in her final stages, I was just open to new information. In all my years of grieving for mom, I never really thought about her daily struggles. I never thought of how difficult it was for her to bathe until I couldn’t. I never thought about her pain and ability to self hear until I literally had to crawl up the stairs to bed and do the same.  I never thought about her loneliness until I cursed my walking boot and threw it across the room because one of its straps had broken. I wasn’t able to use it and therefore couldn’t go to a reading where I’d be with friends, which I desperately needed.

This year when good things happened it was terrific and brought ecstatic smiles and laughter. When bad stuff happened it was tragic and it brought me to tears. This year I was quick to anger and felt my soul shift to a negative default when I opened my mouth. Being nice, being happy, being civil was an effort. I’m certain my mom experienced a similar temperament shift but I didn’t see it. Maybe my sisters did because they were around a lot more in her final days.

Last year at her grave I cried and told her that I couldn’t keep coming there every year and having a meltdown. It was killing me. So I woke this morning knowing — really knowing — that it wouldn’t happen today.

Well, I was right. It didn’t  happen today because the cemetery was closed.

I wanted to be pissed off about it. I wanted to feel bad. I wanted to cry. I wanted to have some drama. I wanted to demonstrate somehow that I was in pain because that would mean I cared, right? But I didn’t do any of that. Sure, I was upset that the cemetery was closed — on a Sunday. That’s just weird.

Yes, today was significant but this unexpected change doesn’t diminish my love for her.

I’ll go tomorrow. I won’t just pull stray grass and brushing dirt off her marker with my fingers. I’ll pack grass clippers, a container of soapy water, and sponges into one of those canvas bags I get from all those writers conferences. I need her site to be clean, bright, and well maintained. Then I shall offer her fresh roses and read the poetry she inspired.

March 13, 1960

 

Wedding Day

I wonder what Grandpa thought
as you smiled for the camera
on this your wedding day.
Did he object to you marrying so young?
Did he have other dreams for you?

Did Grandma wish for more time
with you as her daughter
instead of as dad’s wife?
Did her hands help sew your wedding dress?
Did you “borrow” her white hat and gloves?

Did they fear losing you to the chaotic world
into which you decisively stepped?
Did reports from the kitchen radio of sit-ins
at Woolworth’s lunch counters concern them?

Who were the people at your side
standing as witnesses before God
listening to your sacred vows?

Where was your younger sister, my Tia Noche?
Where stood dad’s many siblings?
Did they try to talk you out of it?

Did they support your desire
for a family of your own
or did they voice concerns
of a lifetime of struggle?

Did they forewarn that brown skin,
bilingual tongues, and a limited education
would condemn dad to work years
in a congested meatpacking plant
and us to labor in the fields?

Perhaps like other young people of the time,
you found hope for your generation
in John F. Kennedy
in Martin Luther King
in yourselves.

Happily you breezed into a new life.
You were having your cake and eating it too.
After all, 1960 was a leap year
and that you did.

Toxic

So I got a bit of a bombshell dropped on me. I haven’t had the courage to write about it and that’s why this blog abruptly stopped.

I was talking to my sister in early February. She asked me how my manuscript on the migrant kid was coming a long. I told her it was slow but I’m allowing myself the distraction of attending both the AWP and Split This Rock conferences before I jump back in it.

She said she had an idea for my next project. Now, when people say stuff like that I usually take a deep breath. I mean, I can barely get my own ideas on the page, what am I gonna do with someone else’s ideas? But for the record, I’ve gotten some really good ideas from family members. I guess they just get me. Unfortunately, their ideas (and others) sit in a folder called “Stuff I need to write.”

Anyway, my sister suggested I work on a project based on the effects of  Kansas City pharmacist Robert Courtney’s drug diluting crimes. Uhm. Okay. That’s kinda weird.

“Two months before his arrest in August 2001, the pharmacist who in 1990 listed his gross income as $48,000 had amassed $18.7 million in total assets. During approximately the same time frame, Robert Courtney would, by law enforcement estimates, dilute 98,000 prescriptions for 4,200 patients.” 

via The Toxic Pharmacist – New York Times.

My sister suggested the story unfold from the point of view of a Latino family dealing with cancer. She explained how I could use our experience with our mom as a guide.

Wait. What?

“You know, because he probably diluted mom’s cancer medication.”

I’d forgotten mom was on an experimental treatment but I remember watching news reports and wondering if he’d been mom’s pharmacist. I buried those thoughts along with most of my memories of that last year.

Now my sister brought it all back by saying mom’s medication came from Courtney’s pharmacy.

Researching and reading about that devil of a man would probably consume the rest of this year not to mention conducting interviews and court records. It could be well into next year before I even begin to tell the story. I’m not intimidated by the work. My journalism background would help me organize and tell the story but — I’m afraid.

I’m afraid to know that all those times she cried in pain were deliberate. I’m afraid to accept that instead of advocating for her, instead of helping her through it, I dismissed her pain as part of the disease. I’m afraid to accept that I purposely kept myself ignorant of her disease and that I averted my eyes as cancer slowly and painfully consumed her.

I’m afraid that while his actions may have been toxic to her body, mine were toxic to her spirit.

Watch full episode about Courtney on “American Greed: Deadly Rx for Greed”

Cracks

cracked heart

OK so I started this project with great eagerness. It filled me with promise and more importantly, it made think that I could somehow recapture the last year of my mom’s life.

Well it’s been two weeks now and I’m already feeling stuck. I don’t know what to write. I don’t know if I should break out the Flipcam and talk (people still use those, right?). I don’t know if I should fall back on my journalism training and conduct interviews. Maybe I could try to reconstruct the timeline of that last year. I just don’t know.

I have been thinking a lot about my mom. My mind summons those familiar memories that make me remember her but it doesn’t seem to want to go beyond those specific memories. Also, I don’t ruminate much about that last year. It took me a longtime to get past it. The thought of jumping back into it has me feeling a bit panicked. Undoubtedly, that emotional and fractured experience overtook every aspect of my life.

Let me be clear, this project isn’t about a poor little Mexican boy who lost his mom. I need to face some truths. One of them is that in her final months, I abandoned my mother.

I left and didn’t tell anyone where I was going. There was a boy involved but I can’t blame it on him or on being young and in love. I was just selfish.

I don’t think I want to get into this right now. So much to uncover. Layers.

When I think about this project, I’m overwhelmed. I have books to read and review, stories and poems to write and submit, conference presentations to coordinate, but I don’t do any of them.

Instead, I just sit and try not to think. Yet, I’m finding even that it takes much more effort. The usual distractions aren’t as effective as they once were. Cracks open.

step on a crack, break your mother’s back.

break your mother’s back. break your mother’s back.
break your mother. break your mother.
crack your mother back.

mother’s on your back, stepping on your back.
mamma’s stepping on you, breaking on you,
cracking on your back.

break a step. back you step.

break your mother’s back
break. your mother’s back break.
break your mother’s heart
break. your mother’s heart break.

break a step, up you step.

your mother steps back. your mother’s step’s back.
your mother’s back. you’re mother’s back.
you are your mother’s back.

© 2014 Miguel M. Morales

#LatinaWomen

My sister, Mylinda, posted this on her Facebook page last October. She’s the owner of Altamonte Springs Yoga in Florida. On my mom’s birthday, she usually does a special yoga class to honor moms and other women with breast cancer.

I missed this post but it showed up today in my newsfeed. I guess mom wants me share this with you. I should let you know, she does stuff like this a lotPerhaps in order to understand #TheLastYear I need to reflect on moments like this that filled previous years … 

tumblr_myl4yk98KC1qehznmo1_1280

Yes this is how we #Latina women roll!
Carrying and calming a crying baby on one side and sewing on the other side and at the same time still looking good and embodying the heart and soul of la familia.

We can also reach down, slide our shoe off, and throw the “chankla” at anyone who steps out of line!

This is a picture of my mom holding my niece Ali while sewing Ali’s baptism dress. I miss you soooo much mom!
Happy Heaven Birthday to you October 13, 2013.

Come celebrate the life of an amazing woman, my mom, Delia Rodriguez Morales, tomorrow at Altamonte Springs Yoga – Sunday, 4p Detox Hot Flow!

Don’t make me get my chankla out! I didn’t have enough room on this pic to list many of the other things #latinawomen do like: create a home for us, nurse us and take care of us, share their knowledge and wisdom, cook like no one else in this world, show us how to love deeply, have a career, become educated … I can go on and on! Love my latina sisters, mothers and daughters!

The Last Year project

Delia R. Morales

Today is my birthday. I’m 46 years old.

I did what I do every birthday since my mom died, I went to her site and talked to her. I usually take her a rose for every year I’ve been alive. This year I could only afford two dozen roses. I felt really shitty about not being able to buy all the roses because just last week I bought a new laptop after my old one gave out on me.

As I cleared her site, clipped overgrown grass, brushed away leaves, and cleaned her remembrance marker, I noticed her date of birth — 1945.

Wait. 1945?

That means she was 47.  

She was 47 when she died? How did I forget that? She was 47 and I’m 46. In one year, I’ll be the same age as her when she died.

It occurred to me that in some weird way it’s like I’m living her last year. That’s when it all hit me.

I broke down.

The firs few years after her death, I’d break down for no reason at all. I’d be in the grocery store or in my car reading a chemistry textbook for class and I’d just break down and cry. So you can imagine the break downs I’d have driving to her site. After a few years, I could hold it off until I saw her marker at the cemetery. It’s taken another few years to be able to do simple things like clear the snow or the leaves from her site before my grief overpowers me.

Today’s breakdown was bad. It was like those first few years bad.

I kneeled on the cold wet ground looking at her marker. I started to think about what it would be like next year when I turned 47.  That’s when I started sobbing.

“I want this year to be the last year I come here and cry like this on my birthday,” I wept. “I can”t do it anymore. It’s killing me.”

“I want to come back next year and celebrate the best year of my life,” I said  wiping my eyes with cuff of my jacket. “I want to come back next year knowing that you lived it with me. 

“This is the last year,” I whispered. “I need you to help me.”

So my friends, this is the beginning of #TheLastYear. I don’t know what direction this project will take or what will happen. But I do know that I can’t do this alone. I need your help, too.

miguel