Finding my gift in the process, not the product, and saying “gracias”…

Quito, Ecuador and my friend, Marta’s home town

Last night,  over a pizza with extra mushrooms and pepperoni, I carefully listened to the life stories told to me in Spanish by a woman from Ecuador, who at the tender age of 20, moved to Kansas City with her Ecuadorian, soon to be doctor, husband.  After having 7 children with him,  she divorced and raised the children as a single mom, remaining in Kansas City.   She’d only interject with English when she’d see my head tilt and brows knit in confusion over a word or a phrase, then seamlessly, would fall right back into her native tongue.  When the waitress came over to our table to see if we needed anything and I quickly responded in Spanish, my immediate reality hit me and I had to marvel at the beauty of sharing these moments, with this women, in Spanish, in Leawood,  KS and over a pizza.

I met this lovely women a few years ago as she was my teacher at an evening Spanish class I was taking. After the 3rd class, she called me at home and told me she thought I was too advanced for the class and would I rather come to her house and just converse once a week?  Of course I would! I’d much rather speak Spanish while sitting on someone’s couch than at a desk with a notebook in front of me! And that’s how I got to know Marta.  After a few months of weekly Spanish at her house, I ended up taking a trip to her native Ecuador with her and 3 other students.   It was interesting  getting to see the country through her native eyes and frustrating at the same time as they were 78 year-old eyes and we didn’t exactly share the same philosophies on travel and adventure and how many more museums to we have to, I mean get to go to today??  But that’s another story.

I didn’t hear from her after the trip until a month ago when she emailed me and asked for my help with a project she was working on.  Her children are throwing her an 80th birthday party in December and to thank them, she was in the process of putting together a  short story of her life told in paintings and brief text that she wanted to make into books and could I please offer up the tiniest bit of help with the project?  I hesitated, and with good cause, but hung onto the words tiny or “muy pequito” more specifically.  I really didn’t know Marta well as she was fiercely private so was both surprised and flattered with her request.  Flattery won.

I agreed to meet her at her house, a short 10 minutes from mine, where she would show me what she was working on and how I could help.  In my mind, I thought it would be a giving an opinion on fonts or text placement kind of thing,  which I was more than happy to help with.  I’ve got to add that when I returned from Ecuador, I made a book of photos from the trip with some text and gave a copy to Marta, so any hopes of saying I didn’t know how were lost on that piece of history.   When I got there, she took me to her spare bedroom/office where she had 20 8 1/2 by 11 sized paintings carefully laid out on the sofa bed, all of them with the similar theme of trees, birds and a lot of blue sky.  They were quite lovely and all hand painted by Marta, who told me she taught herself to paint on the heels of this project.  Inhale.  Exhale.  It was far more than an opinion she wanted and I was in too deep to walk away.  She begged, she pleaded, she insisted on paying me for the work, which at that point, seeing the size of the project, I already had a number in my mind to charge her.  I looked at her standing proudly in front of the 20 paintings that depicted her life, carefully placed on the bed as a display for me and wondered how in the world I could say anything but yes.  Yes, of course I will help you.

She was so excited that I said yes and  began to explain how she wanted the book by showing me her handwritten copies of stapled and stacked papers, far more confusing than it needed to be, then explained how she learned to paint, again, far more explanation that I needed, but I was committed at that point,  so let go of my need to grab the explanation and be on my way, and  allowed myself to be present in a moment that was not just about me making a book.  There was something else in the makings here, and although not quite sure what that something was, I was willing to stay the course and find out.

I knew I’d be there until next Tuesday if I didn’t tell her I had to be somewhere else, so with the paintings and the papers, all organized into two folders,  we said our goodbyes and I almost made my exit when Marta came running out the front door and stopped me and handed me a lucite in-box from her desk, insisting that I put the paintings, the paintings that were safely tucked into a folder, into the box for the drive to my house.  She said they’d be safer that way.

While driving home, I glanced over at the clear lucite box that contained a 79 year-old woman from Ecuador’s life story, told in paintings and brief text, that was riding shot gun in my car and knew I had made the right decision.  This gift, created for her children and to be given to them on her 80th birthday celebration,  no doubt was going to be a gift for me as well, and to that, both out loud and to myself, I said gracias.

My first task at hand was to photograph the paintings, which had given me the most angst about the project as I didn’t want to lose one brushstroke in the copying process, but they turned out beautifully and I began the process of digitally putting them into the book format, along with her pages of text.  The ease of the project ended quickly when I got an email from Marta saying she wanted all of the paintings back because she wanted to make the birds darker, which were in every painting and represented important pieces of her life.  I knew there was no arguing with her so told her I’d be over “around noon” on the following day.  I pulled into her driveway at 12:10 and noticed her standing at the front window waiting.  My irritation with her request that seemed unfounded, melted at the sight of her anxiously waiting for me.  It made me think of my grandparents who would drive an hour to see me dance in a 10 minute half-time performance in my high school gym.  They always looked little and vulnerable and more excited than anyone else in the room to see me.  I found myself more than willing to hear Marta’s explanations of the small changes she wanted to make and how she was going to make the birds darker in all 20 of the paintings.  I’m finding my Spanish again with each visit and she’s finding someone to use her Spanish with and I think in the process, we’re both unexpectedly finding a friendship. 

After about a week of working on the book,  and two more trips to her house with worries and suggestions, I brought over the final copy via my computer for her to look at before ordering.  She was thrilled!  Well… mostly.  There was one painting that she wanted to tweak just a little bit and then I could come back the next day and get it.  Or, I suggested, the tweaks could be done as I waited then I could carry the wet painting home in my car, oh so carefully.  She hesitated and said she’d do it now and I could take it home with me and in the meantime, would I like to go eat pizza with her tonite at a pizza place nearby that she liked?  My first thought was to say no, I have to go, but then thoughts of her sitting by herself at a trendy and likely busy pizza parlor came to mind and I graciously said yes, of course yes.  It was over pizza that I heard about Marta and her seven children and both her happiness with being here and the longing for her Ecuador.  I am both blessed and honored to be a very small part of the celebration of this dear woman’s 80th birthday.

The warmth of such an interesting and delightful evening quickly faded when Marta emailed me later that night and said she wanted all of the text size changed as larger text is just nicer to read.  She didn’t seem to understand that the actual book would be larger than my computer screen but that didn’t matter.  She wanted it changed and needed me to come by her house, at my convenience, of course, ASAP,  so she could explain.  She ended the email telling me that because she had shared her history and her family’s history with me, “we are now friends.”

Marta (on the right) with her childhood friend and me in Cuenca, Ecuador

 And so, with my new friend directing me, I continue to work on this project, that in reality was completed a while ago, while realizing that this is less about the book and far more about what is going on between Marta and I during the process of making this book.  These really are the moments,  wrapped up in a package so cleverly disguised that it hardly seemed like a gift, let alone one I’d want to unwrap.  It has been the unexpected treasure of friendship inside wrappings of frustration and annoyance,  that I never saw coming.  For that, I am grateful and say gracias,  muchas gracias mi amiga, Marta.

To be continued…

20/20 vision on remembering…


Now wouldn’t she have been a whole lot cuter with blue framed glasses on?  To maybe detract a little from the hair??

When I was in the 3rd grade, I wanted glasses, desperately, and to fulfill this plan, I did what any scheming 8 year-old would do and told my Mom that I was having a hard time seeing.

Seeing what?  The chalkboard?  Your books?

Yes.  All of it.  It’s all blurry.

And it was that easy.  My Mom took me to the nearest Ophthalmologist, which happened to be a few towns away, making the experience even more notable in my pretend to be weakening eyes.  I did my best to flunk the test, telling the Dr. that the blurriest lenses he tested on me were the clearest and vice versa.  I had no doubt that by the end of the day, I’d have glasses to add to my look, blue rims please.  I know this all teeters between down right strange and a bit pathetic with desperately seeking attention written all over it and I’ll confirm all three.  It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t have found the attention I craved from the corrective shoes I was sentenced to wear for a few rough years of my grade school career, but clunky black shoes trimmed in velvet in an attempt to make them attractive, simply were not cool.  At all.  And when the school dress code for girls was dresses and skirts only, they were also very hard to hide.  I dragged the toes of said shoes several blocks on the rough sidewalks on my way home from school one day, wearing holes in the toes of both of them so big you could see my socks.  It was my not so well thought out plan to get new shoes that were not of the corrective variety.  Instead of the new shoes I had hoped for, I was left with a pair of shoes with holes in the toes to wear until it was shoe buying time again, which was not any time soon.  Light blue cat-eyed framed glasses would have probably helped me get over my dumb shoes,  holes and all.

The Dr. and his machines were far wiser than my scheming 8 year-old self and miraculously I passed the test and even with extra credit as I was far sighted enough that had I needed to, my eyes could have made their way around the classroom come test time for a little help, which of course I never, ever did.  There were no glasses for me, but instead I received the consolation prize of a pair of temporary dark glasses to protect my dilated eyes in the light. They looked more like a big negative strip wrapped around my head than the glasses I had hoped for, but they were better than nothing.  I returned to school that afternoon, still wearing my pretend glasses,  and although the effects of the dilating had long since worn off, I continued to wrap that dark piece of film around my face for the next two days, looking more like Helen Keller than the 20/20 plus visioned 8 year-old that I was.  I insisted to my classmate that the eye Dr. told me I needed to wear goofy looking glasses for a few days because of the tests they had done on me. I don’t know, I might have even told them I had a rare eye disease for that matter.  It seemed to be the path I was on at the time.  I can’t help but think about my teacher looking at the girl in the classroom who with all seriousness was wearing a temporary pair of film glasses that are normally thrown away after a few hours.  She had to be rolling her eyes and shaking her head every time she looked at me, continually adjusting that ill-fitting piece of film around my ears, without even a shred of embarrassment amongst my peers.  No doubt the few kids in the class that legitimately wore glasses knew exactly what it was that I continued to  wrap around my face and tuck behind my ears, but they were kind enough to not say anything.

Last week, some 52 years later and still with good eyes and with my hopes of having to wear glasses long since faded,  I went to the eye Dr. and was told I need surgery.  My eyes are starting to catch up with my age…sigh… and although not necessary immediately, I was told that lens replacement will improve my vision immensely,  my vision that I didn’t realize was compromised.  Although I don’t have cataracts… yet… I will soon enough so the lens replacement surgery would be a proactive move.  I stopped giving the Dr. full attention upon hearing the word “cataract”.    I remember when I turned 50 and the AARP information started filling my mailbox.  AARP?  Seriously?  I felt like I had started getting some other persons mail… some old person, not me.  Cataracts make AARP sound like a subscription to Glamour magazine.

While at my recent eye exam,  my overachieving self stepped in and painstakingly tried to distinguish the letters in just one more row, feeling discouraged that I couldn’t read the bottom row at all.  I couldn’t help but think of the time I tried so hard to flunk the test to get the glasses, blue frames please, that I so desperately wanted.  Although I know this is a very common procedure, I’m still a bit uncomfortable with the idea of someone working on my eyes, making the idea of glasses sound not so bad.

I was offered  the disposable glasses when I was getting ready to leave, in case I  didn’t have “real” sunglasses with me,  and was surprised that they didn’t seem to have changed over the decades.  Thankfully, I had real sunglasses with me so turned them down.   Seriously?  I wore those in public for TWO days?  20/20 vision doesn’t necessarily mean an accurate or clear perspective when you go beyond the eye charts.  Thank goodness for maturity, even if aging eyes is part of the package.