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>Back to the Border & Mother’s Day

May 30, 2010


I don’t remember how I passed the time on these semi-annual car trips to the border and back, probably reading. None of us looked forward to them and for me, the only benefits were missing school and the promise of bringing back a bunch of 45 rpm rock ‘n roll records, which would create a mini-surge in popularity with both my Mexican and American friends.

Back to the Border
          The Mexican government required all Americans with a car living in Mexico to return to the border every six months and renew their visas before re-entering the country. The purpose was to make sure we still had the car we entered with. This was to prevent Americans selling their cars in Mexico, something forbidden by Mexican law. So, twice a year we took off and headed north to the border, about 600 miles as the crow flies, closer to 750 miles as the Ford rolls.
SNAPSHOT: Mom glides the Ford through the deep dark blue of early morning. Val’s asleep in the back seat. I sit in the passenger seat, staring out at formless shapes slipping by.
            We packed the car the night before leaving and got up at the ungodly hour of 4:30 the next morning. Irene was already up making coffee, tortillas and eggs for us. She knew all that needed to be taken care of while we were gone, including making sure Felice had food and water. It was a blessing to have Irene working for us. Many Americans making the semi-annual border trip fretted over what their servants would be doing while they were gone. Would the dog get fed? Would the house be taken care of? Would she have a party? Would there be anything there when they returned? We trusted Irene implicitly and she never failed us.
We left an hour later. Mom guided the Ford through Guadalajara’s mostly empty streets and headed northeast, wending our way through a succession of towns along the two-lane blacktop highway: Tonala, Zapotlanejo, Tepattitlan de Morelos. We watched the sky lighten and the day begin to come to life.
SNAPSHOT: This is the main square of a town, deserted in these awakening early hours. The square is partly paved, partly dirt with a small bandstand in the center, some scattered benches and a few planted shrubs struggling to stay green. A small three-legged dog hobbles around the bandstand, looking for scraps of food. Across the street is the principal church, its ornate façade crumbling in places, exposing the adobe bricks underneath. The town could be Tonala, Zapotlanejo, Acatic or any of a dozen others.
In towns the blacktop was replaced by cobblestones and our route invariably took us by the town square and the principal church. We had to look carefully for the route markers. They could be attached to a building, hanging overhead or posted on a sidewalk sign. They were often hard to find even in the daytime; dawn’s darkness made it doubly difficult.
Early mornings were pretty much the same in these small towns – stray dogs wandering in search of food; weary buses with their jaded bus drivers and a schedule to keep to (or not); men in straw hats and huaraches trekking to local jobs carrying their lunch of tortillas, rice and beans in small containers; women in dark dresses with faded serapes draped over their head and shoulders sweeping the sidewalk in front of their adobe-walled homes and then rinsing it off with buckets of water.
 Aguascalientes, two-hundred miles northeast of Guadalajara, was the only city of importance on our way to Matehuala, the midway point and our overnight stop. Matehuala boasted only one motel, just off the highway, and on each trip, coming and going, we spent the night trying to block out the constant roar of the big semis passing by a few feet from our room. From there it was another day’s drive through Monterrey and on up to the border, usually Brownsville or McAllen, Texas. There, we’d spend a day or two in a cheap motel before re-crossing the border and making the two-day trip south, back to Guadalajara.
For Mom, these semi-annual trips were a hassle. She didn’t like the driving and she didn’t like the heat (in June, anyway). I’m sure there was also the thought in the back of her mind that something could go horribly wrong on any of these trips, although the worst thing that happened to us was boredom. In the many trips we made over the years, nothing untoward ever occurred. The Mexicans we came in contact with at the Pemex gas stations, the motels and the restaurants were friendly, helpful and courteous.
SNAPSHOT: It’s ten in the morning. Three scruffy-looking men sit drinking beer at an outdoor table at a small, nondescript restaurant next to the Pemex station where we’ve stopped to fill up. Mom stands in front of them, gesturing. They’re staring at the money in her hand.
            Well, there was one exception. On one trip, Mom bought me a new jacket which I promptly left in our motel room in McAllen. I heard no end of it all the way into Monterrey, where we stopped for gas. She could have simply sent a letter to the motel, along with money for postage, and asked them to send us the jacket but no, she had another plan.
“See those men over there? Here. Take this fifty pesos and offer it to one of them to go to McAllen, get your jacket and mail it to us.”
Even I realized there was the same chance as a toad under a steamroller of ever getting the jacket this way but apparently Mom didn’t. “Here!” She thrust the bill at me. “What are you waiting for?”
“C’mon, Mom, I don’t want to go talk to those guys.”
“Dammit, I’ll do it myself, then.”
The men watched as Mom approached. In her halting Spanish she explained the situation and asked if one of them would retrieve the jacket. One of the men quickly agreed and she gave him fifty pesos ($4.00) plus some extra for mailing it back to us. The toad was flattened; we never got the jacket.
* * * * * 
SNAPSHOT: A Pemex station stands nearby, along with a tienda and a couple of talleres where cars and trucks are in various stages of repair. A number of tired-looking bars gather their strength for the coming evening’s trade. A handful of small, largely unpainted one-story cinder block homes with corrugated tin roofs, many of them spiked with rusty and crooked rebar that’s never been trimmed, stare out at the street.
            In May of 1957 we headed back to the border on our second trip. Like Mom, my sister and I didn’t look forward to a long, hot, boring trip. What it did hold for me, though, was the promise of buying more records, both for me and for my Mexican and American friends who had given me lists and money.
It was the second day of our trip. After a breakfast of tortillas and eggs, we left the motel in Matehuala at seven, the roar of diesel engines and the blast of air horns still ringing in our ears. We had some four-hundred miles to cover today, starting with the two-hundred miles to Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city.
It was about noon as we crested a hill on the outskirts of Monterrey and saw the ubiquitous Coca-Cola sign hanging from a pole outside some establishment.
“I’m hungry. This might be a good place to stop and get a bite to eat.” Mom had seen the sign. “I’d rather stop here, before we get into Monterrey proper.”
She pulled into a drive leading to a rough, dirt parking area some fifty yards off the highway. None of the roads branching off from the highway were paved. Clearly, we were not in one of the better parts of town, certainly not in a part where we were likely to find other Americans. Mom never let that bother her, though. She was never apprehensive about going to places that most Americans would consider too dirty, too dangerous, too . . . different. This place was no exception.
SNAPSHOT: Val, Mom and I enjoy tacos and Cokes at our lunch stop. The ceiling fans and cool dark tile provide a welcome relief to the heat outside. There are a couple of dozen tables scattered around the large interior. It’s lunchtime and we’re the only customers.
It was a treat to walk inside and leave the heat behind us. The interior was cool and surprisingly large, with maybe two dozen tables and a bar along the far wall. A jukebox flashed its colors silently at the end of the bar. It was also surprisingly empty of customers, considering that it was the normal time for la comida, the main meal of the day in Mexico. Also strange was the number of girls and women present. Some were talking quietly at the bar, others were coming and going.
We seated ourselves at one of the tables and almost instantly one of the girls came up to us, smiling. As others became aware of us we noticed some of them smiling also, as well as a few repressed giggles.
“Buenas tardes,” the young woman said, still smiling.
Buenas tardes, como esta?” responded my sister and I.
Her smile lingered. “What would you like?”
 “Comida! Mom sang out.
“Yes, we’d like something to eat and some Cokes,” added Valerie, in her perfect Spanish.
“And a Carta Blanca beer for me.” added Mom
“Well,” the girl said, “we don’t normally have food this early, but I’ll see what I can do. I’ll be right back with your Cokes and the beer.”
Mom, after Valerie has translated for her, was mystified. “This is a restaurant for Christ’s sake, with twenty tables and at least that many waitresses. It’s lunchtime! What the hell does she mean they don’t normally have food this early?” Looking around her she added, “And why isn’t anybody else here?” About then the girl returned, still smiling.
“We can fix you up a few tacos, will that be OK?”
“Muy bien,” said Mom. She left and we sipped our Cokes.
The tacos arrived shortly and after finishing mine I went outside to look around while Val and Mom finished theirs. I headed out a side door and walked down a path toward the back of the building. Turning a corner I saw about a dozen little cabins in two rows, facing each other. There were girls and women out here, also, sweeping, hanging clothes, singing along to a rollicking ranchera selection blaring from a radio in the nearest cabin. Some of the girls laughed and waved at me or beckoned me to come closer. I stood there, disconcerted, both wanting to and not wanting to but I was saved from making a decision by the insistent sound of our car horn. Mom and Val were ready to go. I waved back at the girls, grinned weakly, turned and left.
Once back in the car I announced, “I know what this place is, Mom. It’s a motel.”
“Why do you think so? There’s no sign out front that says ‘motel’.”
“Well, out back there’s a whole bunch of rooms. They have a lot of maids, too. They were out there cleaning. The rooms looked awfully small, though. I wouldn’t want to spend a night there.”
The blood drained from Mom’s face. “Oh, my God!” she muttered under her breath. Then she started to laugh. “I can’t believe we did that!” she exclaims.
“Did what?” Valerie wants to know.
“That we stopped at a whorehouse for lunch, a good, old-fashioned whorehouse.” Mom was still giggling. “The place was empty because all their business is at night. All the “waitresses” and “maids”, David, were working girls, all right, but in a nighttime trade. And the “motel’ rooms you thought too small were, indeed, for nighttime use, but not for travelers. No wonder they were smiling and laughing at us! How often do you think an American woman with two children drops in looking for food?”
Mom continued chuckling for several miles as we resumed our trip. I was simply sorry I hadn’t recognized it for it was while we were there. I’d never seen a prostitute before.
Mother’s Day
SNAPSHOT: PLEASE SEAT YOURSELF announces the sign just inside the cafe door. To the right is a counter with stools as evenly spaced as pickets in a fence. The stool seats are covered in fake red leather, padding peeking out from rips in a few of them. To the left, a row of tables, each with the usual line-up: salt and pepper; dispensers that grudgingly surrender small, flimsy pieces of paper that pass for napkins; a sugar dispenser, the tall, round kind you don’t see much anymore; small, plastic-covered menus, dotted with crusty food remains, are wedged between the wall and the small jukebox at each table.
            Two incidents on that trip added fuel to the always-smoldering fire of Mom’s criticisms. The first happened in a small diner in McAllen, Texas, where we had gone for dinner one evening. We had been making small talk, mostly about our trip, when Mom asked me, “David, do you think I’m attractive?”
The question was unexpected but even at fourteen I sensed my answer was important to her. At thirty-eight, maybe she was feeling life was beginning to pass her by. She needed reassurance, even if it was only from me. I should have gone with the obvious response: “Sure, Mom, you look great!”. But I felt I needed to come up with something more thoughtful, a more compelling combination of words that would sound mature and sophisticated. “I’ve seen worse,” I said.
I felt confident I’d said, just what was needed to lift Mom’s spirits. It’s probably for the best that I don’t remember anything else after that, other than the look of stunned amazement on Mom’s face.
To make matters worse, I forgot Mother’s Day. We had spent two days in McAllen, leaving on a Sunday. Mother’s Day Sunday. We were traveling through the desert a couple of hundred miles south of the border when Mom reminded me of this.
“Today is Mother’s Day. I hope you remembered.”
 I hadn’t, of course, and now it was my turn for the blood to drain from my face. I knew what was coming and there was no escape for the next two-hundred miles. I’d had money to spend in McAllen and I’d bought records for me and my friends, but nothing for Mom. Guilt and fear both gripped me, although guilt easily had the upper hand.
“Happy Mother’s Day, Mom,” I managed, weakly, sinking down into the front seat alongside her, trying to make myself as small as possible.
“That’s it, that’s all? You didn’t pick up some little gift, some hankies or candy? Not even a card? Nothing?” With each question a new wave of hot guilt swept over me and I continued shrinking into the seat.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I forgot.” One thing I’ll say for Mom: she was never at a loss for a lecture and all the way to Matehuala, alternating between tears and anger, I heard it. Years later, I still feel guilty.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2010 5:44 pm

    >Been out of country for a few weeks, and am just catching up on this continuing history. Your mother was an amazing person on many levels, with a personality that could change gears in a hurry. I heard pieces of thes episodes from her, your sister and you, and now a much fuller picture is emerging – sometimes differently than I'd imagined before. Enlighting stuff, keep it up. By the way, as a fellow acne sufferer, I'd always assumed your beard was a cover for that – I never have noticed a prominent (or, perhaps, unprominent) "weak chin" on you. At least you've always maintained a strong mouth…El Capitan

  2. June 1, 2010 1:56 pm

    >If you have versions from my Mom and sister, I'd love to hear them. Feel free to post them here. As for my "strong" mouth, being a teacher, I do get to exercise it more than most people.

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