The Songbirds (a Fourth Grade Adventure)

“Time for SongBirds.” Miss Kelly said.

“Oh no!” Joe looked up at her bright red hair and freckled face. He quickly lowered his eyes hoping she would take no notice of him. He hated singing. The last time she called on him to sing he croaked like a frog. The class laughed, but Miss Kelly was mad. Her freckled face became almost as red as her hair. She made him sit on the bench during recess.

Then there was the time he sang the song his father taught him, called Little Bo Peep. “Little Bo Peep washed her feet and then nobody knew how to find her.” He had to sit on the bench for recess for that one.

So Joe kept his eyes down and looked at the top of his desk. He did not even want to play with Mary Lee’s hair. It was very long and always hung over the back of her seat and on to his desk. When Miss Kelly was not looking, he would tie knots in Mary Lee’s hair or put he would put little pieces paper in her hair.   It was fun to watch Mary Lee go home with her hair looking like a trash heap.

“But not today. I’m not doing anything to make Miss Kelly notice me now.”

“Who wants to be first?” Miss Kelly asked. She waited for someone to raise their hand.

“I will.”   Gail said.   She shyly stood up then moved to the front of the class. Her hair was cut short for a girl, but Joe liked her any way.

“She’d make a nice girl friend,” he thought. “Wait a minute. I can’t even have a bicycle. How am I going to have a girl friend?” He let out a sigh. “I guess I’ll settle for just walking her to school and back.” Sometimes he even carried her books for her.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound . . .” She sang her song softly and sweetly and then sat down.

“That’s cheating.” Joe thought. “She learned that in her church.”

Miss Kelly walked to wall chart and next to Gail’s name and colored in a little blue song bird. She now had seven.

“Joseph, would you like to try sing a song this time?” Miss Kelly asked him. He felt a nervous knot grow in his stomach.

“What do you think?” The voice inside him answered.

“O.K.” He said, wisely. The voice inside him said a lot of bad things, but he seldom said them out loud.

“That voice inside me is going to get me in a lot trouble someday.” He got up and nervously walked to the front of the class. “I don’t want Gail to know I’m scared.”

Joe coughed and cleared his throat. A couple of students giggled. They must have thought he was going to be silly again. He tried to be serious this time.

He looked at Miss Kelly. She gave him an encouraging smile, so he began.

“Buy a Ford. Buy a Ford. Buy a Ford today. If you can’t afford a Ford, buy a Chevrolet. Hey!”

Joe sat down quickly. Miss Kelly had a funny look on her face, but at least she did not get mad.

“Very nice, Joseph. Where did you hear that song?”

“My Cousin George.” He said meekly.

“I bet your cousin George teaches you a lot of things, doesn’t he?”

Joe just shook his head up and down. Miss Kelly walked to the wall chart and colored in a blue song bird next to his name. Joe was not sure what to think.

“Well, at least I didn’t get yelled at.” His inner voice told him.

 

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Doña Christina

mom

(1910 to 1981)

Christina Ledesma child of Odilón and Margarita Ledesma. She had three brothers, Faustino, Melesio, and Eduardo. She had three sisters, Manuela, Katherine, and Emily. Christina was born in Lake Elsinore, near Riverside California.

Her family moved to Ventura County. Her grandfather bought some land outside of Camarillo. They farmed the land there. Her father and family, lived in Ventura. He had a horse-drawn wagon and use it to haul manure from the dairy farms to the produce farmers. On one of his runs his horse got spooked and turned his wagon over, on top of him.

I’m not sure how my parents met. They might have run into each other at school. They were two years apart in age. My other guess is that they ran into each other at church. Oxnard was a small town. They had a small choice of which Catholic Church to go to. Santa Clara church on E St. was mainly for the English speaking residents of town. The Guadalupe church had Spanish-speaking priests for the Mexicans. That one was located across the tracks in La Colonia. My last guess involves my mama and her three pretty sisters. I am sure they were hard to miss in that small town.

My parents were married in 1936. My sister Christina came first, then my brother Carlos. My sister Teresa was next, and I am the youngest. Below me are my parents in 1980, after 40 plus years of marriage.

mom and dad

I remember this moment well.   This was taken in my parents’ house in Cupertino. It is also known as Silicon Valley. Jackie and I made our home in King City. That is about a two hour drive from there. We drove down there every weekend.

We usually entered the house through the back into the kitchen. My parents’ house was a triplex, meaning, they had two rental apartments in the back. One of the ladies came up to me and offered her condolences then she asked me how long my mom had to live. We stood there looking at her. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what she was talking about.

“Oh dear! You don’t know!” I could tell she was upset and she hurried back into her apartment. She must’ve been embarrassed as well, I never saw her again.

That is how I found out that my mama had the cancer. It started in her kidneys and was spreading throughout her body like wild fire. The doctors said that there was no way to stop it or even slow it down.

We didn’t really talk about it at the time. We were all there, my brother, my two sisters, other relatives that live nearby. I had my camera with me, and I stole this moment from them. I wasn’t ready to let my mama go. She went through so much keep our family together. She tried hard to make up for the time that we lost.

After that, each weekend we would come back and take care of her, taking turns with my sister and other relatives who dropped by. I could see the difference in her from one week to the next. Towards the end she was confined to a bed. She had an oxygen tank and she could no longer get up.

Nine months after this photo she was gone. Even as she knew she was fading away she still worried about me, my well-being, my future. She worried about me becoming the person that she and the Great One intended me to be.

I am now her age when she left the world and I am certain I have fallen short on both accounts.

 

 

 

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Entreat Me Not

img20190829_20283496                                                           March 22, 1975

We were both students at San Jose State same time. There’s a table in the Student Union cafeteria. It is a large round table, room enough for six to eight chairs. It was the table where many Hispanic students congregated. Sometimes the table was empty other times different students came and went. I sat there often with a friend of mine. We called him Big Al. He liked lifting weights and his huge muscular frame showed that. I sat there often reading or writing, different shifts of people came in and sat down. Jackie was one of those, and I was one of those that came and went throughout the day. Eventually we spent more time together and grew closer together. Then came that moment when both of us decided that we didn’t want to be anyplace else but near each other. This was our wedding vow to each other:

Ruth 1:16 And Ruth said, entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.

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Who Cares

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Sometimes there’s not much to do on a warm Texas evening. I watched a lot of sunsets from our front porch steps. I would sit and watch the sky transform through many colors and shades, and finally the sun disappears, leaving nothing but a red glow.

Sometimes I enjoyed the silence. Other nights I needed my audio companion, that is to say the tape deck I had and a few tapes of Tom T Hall. The 1960’s, 1970s and 80s were his peak years. He was known as The Storyteller. Most of his songs were stories that he lived or heard about. They were not all pleasant. Some of his songs broke my heart and put a lump in my throat whenever I would hear them. He eventually made it to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
I was listening to him so much that sometimes on that front porch he was like and imaginary friend sitting next to me. Jackie and I had the honor of meeting him a couple of occasions. He was really nice about it. We walked up to his bus and he came out and took some pictures with us. He signed autographs and took pictures with people in a real nice way. Somewhere in my garage I have his guitar pick. If you ever get a chance, look up some of his songs on YouTube. The sign on his tour bus said, “Who Cares.” 

I wrote this poem while watching the stars it the warm Texas night. Thank you very much.

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Tom T Hall on the Radio

Crystal City is a town without a map.
in Southwest Texas near the border,
near the cowboys, near the fields of spinach,
near the river,
near the hunting,
away from everything else.

“Welcome to Texas.” I heard a lot of people say.
“Welcome to God’s country.”
“Great to have you here.”

I noticed a lot of boots and Stetsons,
and a lot of gun racks,
slow setting suns,
blood red in the dancing dust,
and lots of silence,
especially after I said I was from California.

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Larry’s Steakhouse

By now we were finishing up the school year. For such a small town, living in Crystal City, Texas was never  dull. The population there was about 1400. The town was small but it had everything we needed. We could have settled down there, however Jackie and I had made up our minds to go back to California. It turned out to be a good thing even though we did not know it at the time. It was just a feeling that we had. Jackie was worried about her father. He had a serious heart attack a few years earlier that left him weak. He was still young and he had a large family to take care of. Maybe that was on her mind.

One of our favorite places for dinner in Crystal City was a place called Larry’s. It was a steakhouse. It was good enough to keep us returning there. The parking lot was unpaved. Each car or truck that pulled into the place stirred up a cloud of fine dust and it took a while for the dust to settle. I was watching the light streaming through the clouds while we were waiting for our dinner and thinking about our last few days there before returning to California.

I wrote these words later on that night.

 

EATS

 

A mud coated pickup truck raised

a cloud of dust as it drove into the parking lot

and stopped outside our window.

The setting sun gave the cloud

shades of orange and red.

We watched the dust cloud float

then slowly settle like goose down

to the places it had been

before it was aroused.

“More coffee?” Caroline asked

with the pot in her friendly hand

and stains on her apron.

The steak was delicious.

The coffee was perfect

as it always was

at Larry’s on Highway 83.

Crystal City, Texas

May 11, 1977

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Our Corner of Texas

We were young, just married a few months now. Everything was an adventure. We were in a small town that made the front pages across the nation. The Hispanic people there at the time called themselves Chicanos. I never used that word myself. I remember Groucho Marx saying that he would never be part of a group that would have him as a member.

The people there started a movement. They organized, registered voters, and took over the school board and other city positions. The bolillos, another word for Anglos, were kicked out of office. A bolillo is a small loaf of bread. It is not an X-rated word but it was commonly used.

I was excited to be in Crystal City, Texas, a town I heard about all the way California. There wasn’t much out there, lots of mesquite. The Rio Grande was about 45 miles away. The border town of Eagle Pass was there. Negras Piedras, which means black rocks was on the Mexican side. That is where my father was born. It felt like I was having a Circle of Life moment.

El Rio was another border town east of us. Several hours north of there was the town of Langtry. There’s not much there. I don’t know why anyone would want to live out there. It is hours away from the nearest city. It was the home of Judge Roy Bean. Several motion pictures have been made about this man and his infatuation with Miss Lily Langtry.

North of Crystal City is an old Western town of Uvalde. In a few miles west of there is a place called Brackettville. John Wayne build the set for his movie the Alamo in that location. I met several people who were extras in that movie. One of the events we went to see was armadillo races and the annual rattlesnake roundups. I know how to show my wife a good time.

San Antonio was about a two hour drive away and we went there often on the weekends. It is a great place to visit and to get to know. If you have never been there, put that on your list of places to go.

Once we were settled there for a few months, I wrote about these things as I was watching the sunset from our porch on Holland Avenue.

 

Holland Avenue

It was Alamo country,

Big sky country,

Lily Langtry country,

John Wayne

country,

rattlesnake country, border country,

Mesquite country,

flat country,

hot country,

dry country,

tornado warning country,

flash flood and cloudburst country,

deer country,

Northwind country,

buzzard sky and owl night country,

empty.

friendly by necessity,

cruel by nature.

Dangerous by instinct.

Death without warning country.

Good to be alive country.

It was a place to come home to,

it was a place to come home to,

a place to leave behind.

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Mi Tía

It was one of our family gatherings.   “Visiting” is not quite the right word since we spent so much of our time there anyways. It was probably a funeral, since that is what usually brought the family together. I was too young to remember. We had just arrived in Oxnard.

The drive from El Centro took five to six hours, and we were still shaking the stiffness out of our joints and limbs. The first thing I felt when I stepped out of the car was the coolness. The air felt clean as it tingled all over my body. El Centro is in the desert, where the air is hot and dry. In Oxnard, the mild coastal air was not refreshing, it felt cold.

“Oye ‘Yo’. Ven aqui.” A large and cheerful lady called to me. I had become accustomed to being called “Yo” by my Spanish speaking relatives, which was most of them.

My mother and father were saying their hellos to a throng of relatives. My grandmother’s living room was filled mostly with people I did not know, but they seemed happy to see me. I was happy to please them by my presence.

I walked to that large and cheerful lady sheepishly as she opened her arms and beckoned me to sit on her expansive lap.

“?No me conoces?”   (Don’t you remember me?) She asked, with a bright sparkle in her eyes. She seemed so old yet her hair was cut short and shiny black. She laughed again and planted a strong juicy kiss on my cheek. I smiled up at her and wiped it off the way Gary Cooper would have done. The roomful of relatives laughed at that. They must have seen the movie too.

“Jody, this is your your tía Prajedes.” My mother came up to introduce me.

“Oh.” I said, still sitting in my tía’s lap.

“Hi.” I said up to her. I had no idea who she was, but she sure seemed happy to see me.

“?No hablas espanol?” She asked me with a warm smile. She smelled funny like the food that she must have been cooking. I just looked back up at her. I did not know that she was asking me a question.

“No, Tia.” My mother told her regretfully.   “El nunca hablaba espanol. Siempre andaba con ingles.” And they both shared laughter. I could tell my Mama was embarrassed.

“Why don’t you speak Spanish?” A distant cousin named “Junie”, asked accusingly. I looked up at him, admiring his Air Force uniform. Junie’s real name was Bonnifacio Govea, Junior. He grew up next to my grandmother’s house, but I was not even born yet when that was happening.

“I don’t know.”   I answered him, feeling safe in my new found lap. It was my customary response to most of the questions I was ever asked. I always knew the answer though, even back then, but it has always been too painful to share with others.

“How did you learn?” I asked him. I was curious at age eight. I wanted to know, but my question to him sounded rude.

Junie just shook his head and walked away from me, and he started talking to some other relatives he had not seen for a long old time.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked, not realizing I would never speak to him again.

I was bored. There were no cousins to play with as I wandered the house from relative to relative. Their names I will long remember. There was Uncle Toribio, although my father called him ‘Uncle Fudd’. He made everybody laugh as he acted out the stories he would tell. He married his cousin. I guess she still would have been my aunt anyways. There was Uncle Ralph, I liked him. He was tall and dark and bald. He looked just like my Uncle Rosario, but they were just cousins to each other. Uncle Ralph drove a big truck. I thought it would be fun to drive all over the state hauling produce like he did. My two tias, Katherine and Emily were always there. They still lived at home and took care of my grandmother. Maybe it was still the other way around. Cousin Mary lived next door. She was always nice to me, even after I grew up. There were more there. Uncle Faustino, he took care of the family when my grandfather died. (A horse spooked and tipped over the wagon he was driving, but that was many years before I was born.)   The grown-ups seemed all so old and they were deeply involved in their grown-up conversations. I could not find a knee to rest on.

“Entonces se fue . . ∙ blah blah blah.” The conversation went. I lost interest. I could not understand what they were saying. Then they burst into riotous laughter and I did not know why.

I walked into the back room and drifted into sleep among the sounds of unknown words, the sounds of relatives whom I loved dearly and some I still miss. I fell asleep to familial words I did not understand but loved to hear. It was a world I was not a part of. I wanted my sisters, I wanted my brother, but they were grown-ups now and sitting with the adults. I wanted Cousin George, someone to play with, but his family was not there.

What I had was the lonely feeling of not being part of the family. I knew even then it wasn’t true for real, but the feeling was there as I lay on my tia’s bed and watched the streaks of light sneak in through the Venetian blinds. I listened to the sounds of their language and watched the shadows of the tree outside dance against the wall. I stared at the huge picture of the Virgin Mary’s loving face looking down upon me.

“She must know.” I thought. “How I feel.”

I always spoke English. I knew a few Spanish words, the phrases my mother and father used most often: eat, go away, come here, take a bath, go to bed.

I only heard my brother and sisters speak English, never Spanish. And still it was my mother tongue, my mother’s tongue. The house was always filled with music of Mexico, with the sounds of my parents conversing in their Spanish language. Calling on me, correcting me, teaching me. All in the Spanish language.   I was comfortable there.

It was all to clear to me. I was born here, north of the border. Citizen. American. Just barely, but enough. Mexico was within sight of where I was born, in El Centro, California. The Imperial Valley.  It was all clear to me. I went to English speaking schools. I had no need to know anything else. I talked to my mother in English. She understood. She answered back in Spanish. I understood. It was the same with my father, except when he got mad at me. But I still understood.

I have not seen my tía Prajedes, nor Junie, since that time, back in 1958, and I will never forget the way Junie shook his head in disappointment, and walked away.

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