|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…