Since our church school closed at the end of 2010, I haven’t held any kind of job. I wasn’t paid for teaching and that was fine. When I returned to El Refugio in 2008 I was blissfully single and not thinking about a wife and certainly not a family. My pittance of a Social Security retirement stipend went into the bank and my expenses were so miniscule that I was saving money almost every month. Whether I was renting a room or a small house I had all the comforts I needed. I bought a TV, a refrigerator, a small propane gas stove, and a microwave. I had my computer, TV, and land line phone for less than $60 a month and that was $20 or $30 more than my rent. I could always find a woman or teenager who would hand-wash my clothes for $5. Food was cheap. The microbus ride to Chalchuapa to shop in the not-so-super-but-adequate market was a quarter each way. I had no car. Didn’t need gasoline, car insurance, or repairs and service. I enjoyed helping individuals and families who were in need and supporting my church with service beyond teaching English and rational thought to kindergarten through sixth grade kids and teaching theory to the docents. In my off hours from our half-day school I visited the sparse service and event attenders, the sick, and the dying. I attended their funerals once they passed. In the early morning I could still jog five kilometers before showering and making my breakfast. In the evenings I would visit with church members or make new friends in the community. I was very active and adapted easily to life in rural El Salvador.
During those years I spent some time learning the courtship procedure according to the culture. I passed more than a few evening at the homes of available women, mostly mothers, but not seriously thinking of starting a relationship in my seventies. I was Hermano (brother) Roger (joyfully mispronounced as “Royer”) and content to sleep alone at night. I was not in a position to be Roger Brown the Kountry King and womanizer par excellence. There was much I had to absorb by osmosis because few would lay out the rules or explain why so many females had children starting in their mid-teens and those children had multiple fathers. It was not for me to judge but certainly went against everything I’d been taught from childhood about family structure.
I was rather astonished at being, how shall I put it, accepted as a perspective beau at my age. The lesson was that although I was old but healthy I was a gringo. Gringo in these parts means “a guy who has more money than 99.9% of the men here in town”. I was keen enough not to let myself get involved with any woman whose concentration was on what my wallet could provide rather than my company and simple conversation.
As a teacher, I visited my students’ homes as a means of communicating who I was and what I wanted to do for their kids. I also got to know who was really into education and their children’s futures. Most of the homes were without an adult male. There were usually multiple children. Siblings, cousins, and sibling/cousins where a fellow had children by two sisters. All new to me. The mothers did what they could for money. Some cut, carried and sold firewood. Some washed clothes for women who had jobs outside the home. Some sold whatever in the markets of nearby towns. Some worked in the fields sowing, cultivating, and harvesting vegetables, coffee or sugar cane in their season. Others had “husbands” who were in and out of the family’s life and often shared with other “wives”.
Mothers and/or older siblings always accompany their children to school and pick them up afterwards. I rarely saw a father. I engaged the moms in whatever conversation my Spanish permitted to get to know them as people. I did the same when I taught special education and bilingual fourth grade classes in the U.S. I believe in the child-parent-teacher circular relationship in which we are all participants in the child’s development. But I soon found myself singling out women who from appearances and small talk were amiable and made me feel comfortable. I watched them relate to their children and how their children related to me during class hours and outside of class. I learned to see how subtly a woman or even a young child could con me into a dime for a snack (which might be breakfast for the child) or a dollar to take a child to the local clinic before it was all free. Mothers know that kids are cute and a hug will melt a gringo’s heart. This gringo had spent enough time in Mexico and Central America to know how that worked.
But at one house about a mile and a quarter from the church and school, down the highway and up a steep hillside dirt road, lived a woman who impressed me before I had the presence of mind to approach her. Every morning she brought a young boy and a tiny preschool girl to school. Every Noon she was their to take them home. Every afternoon she brought them back for our afternoon program for integral child development. And later she’d be back to pick them up.
She dressed as all the country women dressed. She wore no makeup. Her hair was obviously long and rolled into the traditional bun. Her arms and legs were well muscled and her shoulders were strong. She walked so gracefully, not like a runway model, but like a proud, positive woman. She had a beautiful smile that never seemed to leave her face. I knew nothing about her and it would have been unthinkable to expect someone else to answer my questions about who she was and what was her social status.
I noted she was always the first to volunteer for fiestas, meetings, and whatever the church, school, and afternoon program needed done. In a while I decided to visit her home and bring some toys for her kids. That was always my custom. She had a daughter in the public school and a son about to enter the high school. He was the “man of the house”. They all belonged to a little Pentecostal church nearby while our church was Baptist. At the house I’d be offered water. There was no refrigerator for milk or soda. There was no snack bowl. We talked and the kids played with the toys I’d bring. She knew all about me and the women I’d been seeing. She even knew I was engaged to one (who later broke up with me).
The two younger kids and I played while Margarita and I talked. She had some kind of knowing smile on her face that made me wonder what was up. When I needed someone to wash my clothes I asked her if she was interested. I pointed out that she wouldn’t have to walk all the way home and back on wash days. Before long she was visiting me and I was visiting her.
One day we were talking on the sofa and I teasingly asked her what she would do if a man asked her to marry him. She said she’d take good care of him. I had to think of what that might mean. Words in one culture don’t necessarily mean the same in another I’d learned. I hadn’t really thought about all the ramifications of marrying a woman with four kids. By then she’d told me about their four fathers and why they weren’t with her. She was honest and I appreciated that. She had told me about her conversion from her father’s Catholicism to becoming an evangelical.
I went to her church several times. There were rarely ten people including the pastor. Margarita always wore long skirts and a white kerchief on her head. I always felt welcome but it was very conservative for a liberal Baptist. Sometimes we’d go to my service in the morning and hers in the afternoon.
In all this time she never asked me for anything. That made a big impression on me. I never once thought that maybe she was just smarter than some of the other women and felt it was wiser to live as they had been living believing that would draw me closer to her and we’d eventually be married and she’d have all of me…and mine.
Women in Central America had approached me on my mission trips to ask me to take their child back to the U.S. when I left or to send clothing or cash when I got home. They were adept at using their kids to butter me up, show me affection, call me papi or tío. Never with Margarita. In fact it bothered me that four-year old Adrianita never seemed comfortable when I’d pick her up. She didn’t cling like other kids. She’d just look towards her mother as if to say, “Uh, how long do I have to do this?” Neither of us pushed her towards accepting me as other than her teacher.
We were married in a civil ceremony according to Salvadoran law in May of 2010. We had a church ceremony six months later. It took us a while to find a house big enough to accommodate six but we finally found one. We stayed there a while until the landlord wanted to sell the house. So we moved to another house but we weren’t really happy there. My dog Duke went to live with my brother-in-law and allegedly ran away. Older son Juan was made to find a job and support himself while daughter Maria moved in with her boyfriend and his family. She’s married now and we have a granddaughter almost a year old. Juan was murdered by gangs while on his job with the town. We’ve now found a perfect house for us with a big yard and both kids have their own room. Luís is now 14 and will enter 9th grade in January. He keeps to himself for the most part but recently has been invited to quinceañera parties and has even participated in some fútbol games. He really loves the sport. Adriana has been and is my princess. She’s taken dancing and ballet lessons and at 12 loves clothes and music videos. I enjoy spoiling her. She’s got a little fluffy dog named Buffy (pronounced “Boofy”) with whom she plays a lot and cares for. I’m trying to get her interested in a free English language program I downloaded for her yesterday.
Margarita works too hard. She takes care of me in ways I never imagined a woman could or would. I love her more each day God gives me. She’s up before I can even wake myself and is still going strong when I’m yawning and craving the solace of our bed and her liniment massages of my aching legs.
I don’t ride my bike as much as I used to before my hernia surgery. I just don’t have the energy nor desire to ride and work out. I spend my time between my laptop, our vegetable and flower gardens, our chickens, and playing with Adriana’s puppy. More often I find myself sitting on a plastic chair in the shade of the güisquil ramada talking to our two miniature chickens or Buffy while peering through the bushes at people passing by on the street. It is so peaceful. Everything growing is green except for the red, pink, purple, orange, and yellow flowers. The tomatoes are red. The sky is light blue. Despite my increasingly expensive battle with a government that doesn’t want educated foreigners as citizens, I am somewhat at peace. Micah was right. I may not have a grape-vine or a fig tree but I have what flourishes here in El Salvador. His prophecy works for me.