There were two women digging through the trash can parked at the end of the driveway – MY driveway. The youngest gal, was holding onto a stroller. The baby boy sitting inside the stroller was more interested in his shoes than my garbage.
“Can I help you?” I called out as I opened my car door. The startled women closed the lid on the green bin and backed away, embarrassed to have been caught.
“Wait!” I said. “Is there something you need?”
The youngest walked toward me.
“Bottles? Cans?” she asked. She spoke a sputtered English. I don’t speak any Spanish. I live in Oregon where bottle returns means cash. A whole sack of ‘em can fetch nearly $5.
“Yes, I have plenty in the garage,” I said, opening the garage door. We save all our cans for the inevitable school fund-raiser. This young gal didn’t know it yet but she’d just hit the Mother Lode of deposit returns.
“I’m Karen,” I said holding out my hand.
“Esmeralda,” she replied. “This my mother-in-law and my son.” The older woman had taken hold of the stroller and approached cautiously.
“We are looking for work,” Esmeralda said. “You need car washed? House cleaned? Anything?”
I glanced at my car. I’d just driven it across-country, from North Carolina, where I had been working, to Oregon, where my husband and hard-headed dog had been batching it for a year. My car certainly was in need of a good scrubbing but I wasn’t about to let other women do my dirty work.
As a journalist I’d heard stories first-hand from people old enough to have lived through what they always referred to as “hard times.” The Depression-era. They would speak of men showing up at the back door, begging for work or food. Or of seeing people rifling through trash bins, the way I’d just seen these two women do.
Nobody needed to tell me about hard times. I work in the newspaper industry. I’d left North Carolina after I was let go, cut from the budget, rift, whatever you want to call it. I am currently one of the millions in this nation unemployed.
But I am not in a bad way. I have other resources. My children, all grown and all employed, do not go to bed hungry at night. There’s plenty of food in my frig and health care should I fall ill in the middle of the night.
I offered Esmeralda all the bags of deposits in our garage. She and her mother-in-law were thrilled. It was enough that they would not need to dig through any more bins that day.
Two days later I called Esmeralda and hired her to do some domestic work. I don’t really need help cleaning but it was the only way I could figure out how to help her consistently.
I don’t care that she’s an “illegal.” What I care about is that she lives in a two-bedroom trailer with her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, husband and five children, the oldest, a 9-year-old girl who is autistic, and the youngest, nine-months old, is an obliviously happy chap. Only her husband has a full-time job. Last year, when she was very pregnant, Esmeralda and her sister-in-law worked the fields but right now, there is no field work for women, only for men.
I know all of this because once a week when Esmeralda comes to my home, I make her lunch. A healthy lunch, the kind she can’t afford to fix for herself. We eat and we talk, as best we can, exchanging Spanish words for English ones. There’s a lot of hand motions, puzzled looks and shrugging of the shoulders as we try to converse, but we manage. After all as mothers we’ve taught language skills to the unintelligible before.
In rural areas of this nation there are very few social services available to the needy. It falls to churches, and other charitable organizations to step in to fill the gap. For undocumented workers like Esmeralda that gap can be more dangerous to navigate than Columbia River currents.
I suppose there are plenty who would condemn me for giving aid to illegals. So be it. Sometimes a person has to ignore badly-crafted law in order to do the right thing. At the bend in the river where I live people look after one another. It’s what being a good neighbor is all about.