From the broad plains of Texas, through years of joy and loss, she finally finds a home in Cuenca
Margaret hails from Texas. The earliest memory she has is of her father holding her in his arms and singing; he was a boisterous but unsteady man, self-shamed simply for being diminutive.
He spent long months away from home, traveling the world to supervise the planting of row upon row of rigs destined to break the landscape with spouting fountains of foul-smelling sludge suffocating the last remnants of pristine prairie. When he was home, he would charge about his castle wearing three-inch high-heeled Tony Lamas’ and Wal-Mart boxers, cracking jokes and retelling roughneck adventures while clasping an ice-cold long-neck Lone Star like it was the talisman of his tribe.
The extravagant lifestyle he was able to provide for his wife and daughter in exchange for his labor seemed a fair enough exchange to him. He was comfortable with the anonymous life of being in the company of other over-compensated hardhat wearing men like himself– living out of suitcases in a featureless hotel with a large bar, plastic baskets of burgers or pre-frozen fried chicken wings, and NFL Game Pass on a large screen TV – all while being only a continent, or two, away from your wife and kids.
Home was a place to go between jobs. He was overlooked and out of place there.
Now it may be that “overlooked” is a rather strong a word to use, but it is true that on many an occasion, the remains of the clan would celebrate a holiday or a school recital or birthday, knowing that it was up to them to carry on as if they were fully intact. They became accustomed to his absence and filled the void with fond memories of aunts and uncles, cousins, and neighborhood friends until the old scabs of loss fully healed and fluffed away. There was barely a scar remaining and it was as if he had barely happened.
When Margret was 18, she left home in Midland to attend Daddy’s alma mater, the University of Texas, Austin. Her mother sent the housekeeper, Belva, along to help her settle into her dorm room and instruct her on how to change the sheets on a bed. Margret had always relied on others for such menial tasks, so her education began the moment she arrived on campus; she was expected to be responsible for herself now, an inconvenient and irritating situation she neither appreciated nor cared for in the slightest.
However, the sheer enjoyment of learning soon inspired her to view life through a wider lens. She was awestruck by the intellectual agility she encountered every day by students asking questions she had never considered. She was entering a much larger world; she knew it and embraced it. Margret felt she was a fully fledged adult, a college student, a Longhorn. She was proud of her new status in life.
She confirmed this new status as an adult in what she considered the most elemental and sensible way; her first order of business was seeing to it that her laundry was carefully bundled and sent home via Greyhound bus every Saturday afternoon, where it would receive proper attention and be promptly returned.
As the years passed, there were auditions for suitors, and after careful consideration, one was chosen. At first, her parents were mystified by her preference but eventually recognized that the couple loved each other dearly and that they would be married.
Tim was erudite, humorous, and kind. He had a guitar close at hand since he was a kid; it had become an extension of his sense of place. He would often engage in a conversation while softly picking a twelve-bar blues riff that warmed the room like the aroma of strong Loja coffee or good San Antonio “Helicopter” weed; his music mingled with remnants of recently read books, local news of note, tales of musicians behaving badly, and whether farmers should consider getting the crops in early. As expected, there was far too much blather about politics. But, from this wellspring Tom orchestrated his imagination and composed his stories.
It was a magical period brimming with music, friendship, and belief that even better times awaited them just beyond the horizon or atop the grand ridgeline in the distance. They both seemed close enough to touch.
Margret and Tim loved living in Austin and decided to make it their home. Tim parlayed a part-time job he began as a student into a respectable gig in the school library system after earning his MLS. Margret served on the management team of a non-profit corporation chartered to provide community-centered work experience for the previously incarcerated. They never had children but kept busy taking long road trips, dining out often, and hiking the hill country around Austin.
Margret and Tim were known for hosting lively gatherings at home, attended just about every non-profit fundraiser and civic event in town — sometimes two in one night — and would join friends to whoop it up at the local watering hole whenever possible…and prudent. It was as if they were co-stars in a grand novella of never-ending dreams. And then it did.
It was sudden and at work. Tim rose from his desk, laid down on the carpet, and never got up. He was 53.
There really isn’t much more to say about it; the funeral was a blur of tears. After a number of days, those who gathered said their goodbyes and were gone — each to their own homes and families. In their wake followed late but persistent acquaintances skittishly descending on Margret like a murder of crows. It overwhelmed her to exhaustion. It seemed she couldn’t read a full chapter of even the simplest story without someone dropping by, unannounced, or calling on the phone and leaving a way-too-long message detailing how awful it all must be.
“I know, I know,” she would say. One by one, she held their hand and chatted with them so they might feel reassured that the close proximity to death was not contagious.
Margret believed her life had ended – just a pulse through an obedient heart. Everywhere she looked, she remembered a moment when Tim was beside her, singing songs of wives gone missing, blue-tick hounds, and waiting for eternity. She still spent time with friends, but it always seemed that a chair or seat on a bench was empty when, by all rights, it really shouldn’t be.
Well, it took nearly two decades of listening to the world, but the lessons she learned through Tim’s songwriting finally materialized. She realized that the best way to honor the memory of Tim was by embracing life to the fullest, just as he had done.
It was time to start anew.
And so, as you might have guessed, on a cool March morning, after Margret had sold her house and dispersed all of her belongings (save three suitcases of clothing and essential items), she boarded a plane and flew to Ecuador.
That was twenty-one years ago.
When I asked her why she chose Cuenca, she was dreamily vague. “Well, I read a little bit about it, so I came down to visit. I liked what I saw, and it rained a little bit nearly every day, so that was nice. I also loved the architecture and how cloud shadows cling to the mountains.” She decided to stay.
We chatted on the deck of her home, a canopy of finely textured leaves bent over us, casting shadows much like those clinging to the mountains. The conversation drifted from favorite old haunts to large and small changes she noticed over the years, not all of them to her liking. She loves the tranvía because she lives close to the line and likes the convenience it offers for shopping or meeting friends for lunch downtown. However, she is less than enthusiastic that the tranvía also carries flocks of gawking tourists and screaming babies interrupting an otherwise pleasant afternoon.
The conversation turned measured as she recalled the throes of the 82 years long flood washing over her, carving out eddies, crags, and contours of memories, dreams, and reflections.
“I think it is ludicrous to have cosmetic surgery,” she insisted. “We earned (or deserve) looking the way we do; we are our autobiography,”
She spoke of how losing Tim was like passing through the end of time. She said the loss of friends in Cuenca is vaguely similar. She said she misses the many fantastic people she knew who came this way and then vanished too quickly. She mentioned the importance of embracing relationships to the fullest, knowing they are as fluttery as hummingbirds on the wing, an iridescent joy that transcends all others, and then it is gone in a flash, trailing a murmur of farewell.
I chatted with Margret for hours longer than I intended and can report that she is doing well. On Tuesdays, she cooks breakfast for her housekeeper; they linger over coffee and telenovelas well into the afternoon. She bakes bread for the doorman on Saturdays and attends mass on Sunday mornings.
As we brought our glasses to the kitchen and said our goodbyes, I asked her a last question; actually, it was two. I asked if she was planning on staying and, if so, why. She answered both at once.
“I like it here,” she said.
I thanked her for her time and walked home, comforted and secure that I, too will live out my days in Ecuador.
Margret and I share a common understanding.
I like it here, too.