Stelton to El Refugio: A Seventy Year Odyssey

I was born in 1936 and grew up in the Ferrer Colony which occupied about half of what was the North Stelton section of Piscataway Township, New Jersey. In 2008 I moved permanently to El Refugio, Department of Ahuachapán in El Salvador. You’ve probably never heard of either of these communities which are so far apart yet have so much in common.

My primary toddler and childhood caretakers were my parents and older sister. As my world expanded so did the number of my caretakers. In those days, most women stayed at home except to shop. They cleaned house, washed clothes, cooked and baked, cared for their own children and any chickens or cows they might own. The men went out commuting to work to finance the family’s needs. The women also kept their eyes open through living room windows or from front lawns. If a child came into view on the street or playing in a driveway, there were always a woman’s eyes alert for any danger or mischief. So it was that I had many mothers. Often they’d invite me in for milk or a snack. We’d talk and close emotional bonds were established. 

Stelton women loved babies and children. I remember being jealous if we encountered a mother pushing a baby carriage or stroller and she’d pick up the little one to goo-goo at, tickle or hug. But it made an impression on me that kids are special. Just as I needed adults to love me, so did these usurpers of my mother’s attention.

Stelton men were mostly tradesmen and blue-collar workers. While many were also intellectuals they worked with their hands and had much experience to share with a young boy. If curiosity led me to watch Shapiro and his adult sons making dental plates, someone would show me how it was done and even allow me to participate in the process. A carpenter would encourage me in the use of his tools and teach me why such-and-such was done this way rather than that. Adults treated us children with respect and helped us to grow with knowledge, skills, and a capacity to reason intelligently.

My own upbringing helped me to relate in perhaps a big brotherly way to younger boys who didn’t have a similar developmental experience. I always seemed to be a leader among my peers on the playing field or in Boy Scouts. It was in the Master’s plan that after a variety of work experiences I should become a teacher.

As an educator I tried not to model myself after my own school teachers but after the older boys, men and women who had shaped me. I was an encourager, a motivator, an acceptor rather than a grade-giver and critic. My payoff came from watching my students truly grow emotionally as well as educationally. There was always a lot of love in my classes and in the years after my kids had moved on. Just as my childhood provided me with multiple parents, my adulthood provided me with many, many children. Just as Roger the boy felt he could open any door on School Street and find sanctuary, kind words, and a treat, Roger the man’s door was always open to provide safety, encouragement, and  love.

Many of my students were migrants from Mexico or were born in the U.S. to Mexican parents. Their culture in growing up was similar to mine. Large extended families in small agricultural communities were the norm. Many adults were present to teach and protect the children. It was natural for them to be able to relate to me and I to them than perhaps to other teachers. I literally became part of some of their families and they of mine.

In the years after I left teaching, I came to feel an emptiness that came from relationships that lacked the warmth and mutual caring I experienced with my students and their families who were also my neighbors. The void was often unbearable. I really felt that my life had lost purpose and was now meaningless. But then I came to Central America on a ten-day short-term mission trip to help repair the damage done by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. That trip was followed by another. Then several more until I realized that I had found my “Stelton” in El Refugio, which translates to “the refuge”.

Among my many projects was teaching English and children’s songs to the students at our church’s school. I met the families, mostly led by mothers, and relationships grew. I witnessed with joy the many “parents” my kids had. I observed boys working on an equal basis with fathers, uncles, or older brothers at cutting firewood, hoeing in cornfields, mixing mortar and laying brick. Girls followed their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers caring for babies and doing the same difficult chores that their elders performed. It was like being home again after some sixty-five years.

When I met Margarita, two of her children were my students. Two older children attended other schools. Among all the families that I visited with toys or food for gifts, this family stood out for a number of reasons. Adriana was the most adorable four-year old when I first met her. She was the baby of her class and all the five and six-year olds mothered her. It was impossible not to pick her up when her class was over and snuggle her like a teddy bear. Her mother and I became good friends and then we fell in love. I missed having a family and here was the possibility of having one. But these children had never known a father or a father’s love and had a hard time relating to me. I never pushed. I knew that Margarita had no experience with having a real husband around to love his own children so it was difficult for her to understand how I longed for hugs that she didn’t tell the child to give me or for Adriana to sit on any other lap but Margarita’s.

We’ve been married almost four years. The school closed and I’m at home most of the time. I adopted Adriana and she has my name. As she’s matured so has her understanding of what it is to have a dad. I walk her to school. I attend teacher conferences. I encouraged her to participate in the Miss Chiquitita contest, to participate in school parades, and to be a leader in her class. It’s been hard for her to not always go to her mother for help with homework or school projects. She’s learning that I dearly want to be as close to being her mother’s equal as possible. She spends more time talking to me now. She’s figured out a lot about operating the computer but I still enjoy sitting with her and listening to her tell me what she’s doing. Still, she’s mommy’s little girl in a lot of ways.

She follows Margarita like a shadow and Margarita shows her how to do all the things girls need to know in this society. Just like in old Stelton! She and Margarita shower together and she brushes and combs her long hair just like her mother does. Even our pastor called her “little Margarita”. I like that because big Margarita is a very special and wonderful person.

Last night we had a magical breakthrough. About 1:00 a.m. I heard Adriana call “Mommy.” Margarita sleeps like a log and I hear everything unusual so I asked her what she needed and started to get up. Margarita awoke and beat me to the floor. She went into Adriana’s room to question the child. A couple of moments later she came back preceded by our daughter who jumped into our bed and snuggled up to me. As I squeezed her little body in my arms Margarita said she’d been scared. I couldn’t imagine what might have frightened her but I knew she had come to me for safety. This was a first. She soon fell asleep and I laid there thanking God for this little angel’s trust and love. Margarita reached across the pillows and rubbed the top of my head. I told her how happy I was and she seemed to understand.

As I write I think of all the times that little Roger woke up with pain in my legs or frightened by thunder and lightning. I would cry until my mother came into my room. If she’d take me to the rocking chair and hold me on her lap the pain or the fear would soon go away and I’d be able to sleep. Adriana gets scared during thunder storms and when the neighborhood cats are making out on our metal roof. When I’m gone from this earth I want Adriana to have the same kind of soothing memories that I have of my mother. Memories of a father’s love.

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