“Tell me again, how old are your kids?”
She beamed. She has a delicious smile.
“Seven and five.”
“That’s right. I remember now. You showed me pictures before I went away. They’re so cute.”
“You remember, really?”
Oh that smile. It’s a killer!
We carried on talking and laughing while she waved other friends into the conversation.
“…of course those photos are my young children – I didn’t show you the ones that are older.”
“Older? You’ve never told me about any others. How old are they?”
She gave a shy giggle as she looked to her friend for encouragement – her face flushed red.
“Oh they are much older. They oldest is twenty-three, then twenty-one, and twenty.”
“Wait, what? Are you serious? You can’t have kids that old. What were you, twelve?”
She laughed and struggled to blink away tears. The tears won. They always do.
“Well, really, they are my sister’s kids. When I was fourteen she left them with me. She went to the United States, and she asked me to take care of them.”
Fourteen? That’s a thing? To move to a whole other country and leave your babies with a baby?
“So…they’re still with you, all these years later? Didn’t she ever come back?”
“No, she didn’t come back. She was murdered when she got to the border.”
It’s a stunning thing to be present at the simple revelation of devastating suffering. Are these holy moments, do you think? I don’t know. But there is something, some breath of the unseen, that make such glimpses of lives scared by loss too important to be shrugged off and drowned out by the clamor of daily monotony. It was time to say something vital, but, as ever, I had nothing useful to say.
“So…what about your parents? Are they alive? Couldn’t they help?”
Horrified, she shook her head.
“No, no, no! Not my parents – never them. They liked to beat us…me and my sister. They beat all of us. I would never give children to them. I would never allow a child to have the kind of life we had. No, too many rules. Too much beating for every little thing. My sister asked me to take care of them, so I kept them. They call me, Mama. I am their mother, but it’s been so hard to raise five kids alone.”
Hope you’re not waiting for me to offer some profound insight into this story because I’ve got nothing. Every time we see her she has something to say. I really like that about her. A lot of the ladies on La Linea take the coffee, smile, and shuffle to the back of their rooms, but M. always wants to chat, and always has something to say that’s worth hearing. She laughs a lot. And she has an actual twinkle in her beautiful eyes. Or maybe it’s a glint. I’m not sure I’ve ever really known the difference, but whatever she has follows me long after we head home.
Sometimes, when the mood takes them, and the ladies start talking, I have to fight the urge to ask them to slow down while I whip out a pen and paper in a desperate attempt to catch every word. I don’t of course. Silently, I do battle with my obnoxious, intrusive self, and wait for whatever words they want to share with me.
And it’s always, ALWAYS, worth the waiting.
Here’s the thing: stories are sacred. They are the parts of us that, for whatever complicated or confused reasons, matter enough to be remembered and retold. They are the wisps of memory we use to recreate the past, to define ourselves, and face the reality of stories we have lived. And when we take that dangerous, shaky step to share some of our stories with others, we offer part of ourselves for the hope acceptance and understanding, or the ugly risk of rejection. Stories are the points where we allow people to know us, to move beyond the superficial, and to join our lives with theirs.
It’s a beautiful thing.
Stories really matter and we want to hear all that the ladies would like to share with us.
So we’re looking for our very own story nook, right on La Linea – a place where the ladies can drop by, whenever the notion takes them, have a bit of rest, enjoy some coffee, and, most importantly, talk until words run dry and they have nothing left to say.
Right now we’re knocking on doors and asking anyone we meet if they know of a place we can rent and turn into a drop-in for the ladies. We’d like a place that we can make comfortable and welcoming for them, a place that is always open, and a place where they know they are loved and accepted, just as they are.
In this delicate, crazy dance, location really matters. The ladies’ work outfits don’t include a whole heck of a lot of actual fabric. Most of them go for a minimalist theme when it comes to business attire. Location for the center matters because we want them to feel that they can drop in and visit without having to change outfits. Why? Well, because if they have to change, it just makes everything a much bigger deal. They’ll do it, but they won’t do it when they just happen to have a free fifteen minutes and fancy a cup of coffee and a cookie. If they have to walk half a block away from La Linea, they’ll come, for sure, they just won’t come very often.
So we want to be right where they are – so that they can come just as they are -clothes or not, it will be up to them!
Ultimately, our aim is to offer these ladies, and many others suffering the effects of sexual exploitation, a way out. It’s fine to show up and tell them they matter, but we want to be able to help them towards a way of escape, if that’s what they want. But this whole issues is as complicated as it is sensitive, and we can’t start an exit program overnight. The drop-in center is the first step in what, we hope, will be a genuine opportunity for escape to a new life for many of these precious ladies.
For now, we’re still serving coffee, listening to stories, hugging fiercely, holding hands, and looking for a building.