Dad didn’t actually go to Guatemala that summer in 1994. It just seemed that way. Although it’s somewhat of a stretch, I could say that Guatemala came to him.
When the Mennonite Central Committee told him about Hugo, a 36 year old man who worked on a hog farm and lived in his car, Dad knew someone had to do something. “Why not me?” he said. “The evenings are long when I’m here by myself. I have a 3 bedroom home, and I’m happy to share it with Hugo.”
Hugo walked in the first evening carrying everything he owned –
which was pretty much just the clothes he was wearing. Dad had supper waiting and over the meal, they began to talk – only to discover they didn’t understand each other well. Hugo’s English sounded more like a Guatemalan version of Spanish.
During the first couple of weeks they collaborated in developing a simple system of signs and words that enabled them to somewhat communicate. Neither seemed troubled if they weren’t understood. They were like 2 kids who haven’t yet learned they can’t communicate unless they speak the same language.
“Jake, you want?” Hugo would say, holding up his offering.
Sign language was unnecessary when Dad said, “Hugo, you want coffee?” Hugo was well acquainted with that word.
On work days, Hugo got up at 5 a.m. and prepared breakfast for himself and Dad. Often this was a fried egg, unbuttered toast, a spicy green pepper and black coffee. Since Dad had no reason to rise until whenever he awoke, his egg, unbuttered toast and black coffee retained not even the slightest hint of warmth. Only the green pepper was hot. Dad ate all but the pepper and did not complain. “I lived through the Dirty Thirties,” he told us. “My parents taught me to be grateful for whatever was placed on the table”.
At supper time it was Dad’s turn to cook. His specialty was vegetarian soups and pies. Except for his Guatemalan foods, Hugo had a teenager’s palette. He loved greasy foods, especially hamburgers and fries. He always praised Dad lavishly, smiling broadly and saying something like, “good food Jake. I like.” Dad did notice that Hugo didn’t eat much. “I don’t think he cares much for my cooking,” he told us. “He probably stops at McDonald’s on his way home”.
At the beginning of summer, Hugo said one day, “Jake, my mother, my sister. They want come visit Canada 2 weeks. Is alright they stay here?”
Dad knew Hugo’s ties to his family were tenuous. This might be an opportunity for him to mend fences. Two weeks would pass quickly and it would be interesting.
“Yes, Hugo,” he said, “they are welcome in my home.”
The mother and sister soon arrived. They spoke only Spanish, so Hugo needed to interpret everything in his improving, but still very basic English.
The two women considered it their duty to feed the men folk and immediately commandeered the kitchen. Very quickly, the fridge had a stock of food – some of which Dad had never seen before. Tortillas, tacos, burritos, enchiladas and more. He was surprised and pleased to find a meal, always ready on time.
Reflecting back now, I don’t think Dad ever learned what the mother’s name was. Although we guessed she was very close to his age, when he spoke of her, he referred to her as “the old mother”.
Dad was mystified by the ladies shopping activities. Virtually everyday, while Hugo was at work, the old mother and her daughter visited the local thrift shops. Often they returned with bulging shopping bags.
Because Hugo left early in the morning and usually returned late, Dad was at home alone with the two Spanish speaking ladies during the day. With limited success, they also learned to communicate by signs and gestures.
We remembered that Hugo had told Dad the ladies wanted to visit in Canada for two weeks. The time passed rapidly and when we expected they’d be leaving imminently, Linda & I invited Dad and his “Guatemalan family” for dinner. Over coffee and dessert, Linda innocently asked what day they were planning to leave.
The Old Mother’s response gave us an insight concerning Guatemalan time and culture.
“When someone goes on a holiday in our country,” she explained, speaking through Hugo, “it is necessary to bring a small gift for everyone. Now I have a room full of presents but it is too much to take on the plane. I will have to buy a truck and my other son will drive it back. We will go with him.”