By Louise Ure
“Throw forty or fifty loose tampons into the box. That way, they won’t go through it.”
I first met Maya eighteen years ago, when she was seven. She was crying. She and her nine-year old brother, Brian, had been unceremoniously dumped at my house for the weekend. Their grandmother had taken ill in Louisiana, and their single mother had to return home to take care of her. They didn’t know anyone in San Francisco. And my husband had just hired their mother as a receptionist.
Maya hated everything that weekend. The chilly temperature of my house. The lack of a cartoon channel on TV. The way I made hot chocolate. I thought we’d never make it to Sunday night.
“There’s no running water or electricity where I’m staying, but I do have a pump out in the yard, so I’m one of the lucky ones. Others have to walk two miles to the river to get water.”
Her world was alien to me. Wiry black hair while mine was straight, dishwater brown. Chocolate skin versus my winter-in-San Francisco vanilla. She had never seen a horse except on television. She lived in a basement apartment and could tell the weather by the shoes that filed past.
“They don’t believe I’m an American.They’ve never seen a black American before.”
After that first meeting, stayovers became routine. Their mother needed time to herself, and Bruce and I thought it was the perfect way to have kids: borrow them for the weekend. We spent our Saturdays and Sundays together for the next ten years.
I taught Maya French and her brother Spanish. When we played Scrabble, I was only allowed to use words in English.
She usually slept until after noon, rising only when something on the stove smelled good or her brother sounded like he was having fun. She had the attention span of a flea, and was guaranteed to lose something on every visit.
“I had some kind of allergic reaction to the napia grass while we were planting trees today. A couple of Benedryls did the trick.”
I taught her to ride a horse – Western style, of course. We’d gallop right into the flocks of seagulls on the beach, her stick-legs flapping like stunted wings.
No one was more surprised than I when she said she wanted to be a lawyer. Studied debate had never been the way Maya won arguments. She was a pouter, a thrower of chess pieces, a disengager.
“I’ve got the pedal powered generator set up now. With any luck I’ll be able to power up my cell phone and laptop for at least a few minutes at a time.”
She gave one of the keynote addresses at her college graduation. And there, at the podium, she introduced me as “my other mother.”
“Today, for the first time, I know why I’m here. And I’m making a difference.”
Last year she decided that The Law could wait, and she signed up for the Peace Corps. She’s been in a small village in Kenya for a month now, tasked with educating woman barely younger than herself about AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.
And we just got her first letters home.
“If you send me anything, be sure to draw crosses everywhere and write ‘Jesus Is Watching You’ all over the box. It’s no guarantee, but it’s less likely to be stolen that way.”
Travel well, Sweet Girl.
I’m no longer a religious person, but I’ll write “Jesus is Watching You” all over those boxes.
And I’ll mean every word of it.